04 April 2006

On Short Story Collections

At the new group blog Talking Squid, Jonathan Strahan posts a thoughtful response to my review of Gregory Frost's Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, picking up on the final, intentionally provocative, paragraph, wherein I fulminated:
Short story collections suffer when they are padded with ancillary materials (forewords, afterwords, story notes) and not-entirely-effective tales, because the energy of the better material gets sapped away and the reader's attention lags. What matters is the fiction, and a collection should be an opportunity for a writer to present, in more permanent form than a magazine offers, his or her best work, not just everything they happen to have gotten published, plus some cheerful hyperbole from pals.
Being incapable of sticking to any strong opinion for long, the day after this review was published I received a copy of Jeffrey Ford's new collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, and proceeded to read nothing but the story notes. And to enjoy them immensely (I've read most of the stories from their original publications).

Now, Jeff Ford story notes are better than 96.8% of the story notes out there (yes, I've done a study), so I don't think the fact that I devoured them so joyfully undermines my entire argument, but it does at least undermine it a little bit. A foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds and all, I'm not afraid to be inconsistent. I'd rather qualify my original point, though, inspired by Jonathan's diversion from complete agreement with me (how dare he!)--
In his collection Going Home Again Waldrop adds lengthy story afterwords, some as long as 3,000 words, to each story which are a critical part of the book as a whole, adding layers of meaning and experience for most stories. Harlan Ellison is also a master of the form, as can be seen in collections like Deathbird Stories, Shatterday, and Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Misspelled.
Jonathan is absolutely correct here, and shows the Achilles' heel of my generalization, because there are writers who do a good job of mixing stories with notes about them into a coherent, cohesive whole. Some writers also benefit from the force of their voice and personality -- Ellison's story notes are often more interesting than his stories, and turn his books into autobiographies with stories included, and the fiction and nonfiction echo each other and make the book far richer than it would be were it merely either fiction or nonfiction. Because Waldrop's stories are so often built from esoteric historical backgrounds, the notes help the general reader understand the context. It also helps that both Ellison and Waldrop often collect material by theme and subject matter, and so the notes add to the whole reading experience rather than distract from it. The best of these books are unified, coherent, and thoughtfully constructed.

Where I disagree with Jonathan is something he says in a comment in response to another comment on the post:
Giving the reader some context, some background for a new writer is a worthwhile thing. And, if a reader doesn’t like them, they can always skip the notes. You can’t skip something that isn’t there.
Yes, context can be useful, but I'm wary of encouraging people to include more and more and more just because if readers don't like it, they can skip it. Jonathan himself states some basic criteria well at the end of his post:
I’d put it that the test for a collection shouldn’t be whether it contains a particular element or not, but rather how well those elements are executed. You can have introductions, story notes, afterwords etc, as long as they’re done well, and as long as you never compromise on the quality of the fiction.
Exactly. The best collections aren't merely collections, they are books, and as books their elements work together to create a unified whole. What those elements are is irrelevant if they work together well.

Most writers are not Ellison, Waldrop, or Jeffrey Ford, though, and their fiction doesn't benefit from ancillary materials. It's interesting to note that the inclusion of so much nonfiction in fiction collections (and I'm speaking of collections not put together for historical or scholarly purposes, which are entirely different) is a tendency more common in genre collections than collections marketed as general fiction. I expect this comes from the reliance of genre fiction on fans -- introductions and story notes add a personal sense of the author and give anecdotes about the hows and whys of the writing, creating a sense of the writer not just as a byline but as somebody who might be fun to talk to at a convention, or somebody who has pearls of wisdom to offer aspiring writers, which is what many fans are. Notes and such in collections seem to be a legacy of the time when the path to becoming a professional SF writer was to start as a fan and work your way up the ladder; it was a way for the people at the top of the ladder to offer some crumbs of encouragement and insight to the people down below, and it was a very effective way for everyone involved in the SF community to create a sense of that community as a real and vital thing. (For me, it was the notes in Asimov's Hugo Winners books that did this. I tried rereading some of them recently and found them cloying, but when I was 13 they created a sense of a utopian world of fans and writers, a world I wanted to be a part of.)

I don't expect to win anybody's love by saying this, but the story notes and introductions in most books, the ones that are not integral to the book's conception and construction, add nothing but a sense of amateurism to the whole. Maybe amateurism is something we need more of, maybe it undercuts pomposity and reminds us that writers are ordinary human beings, but I'd rather see more books that were put together with care and selectivity rather than made to fit some template or obligation. Let's have fewer books with material that can be skipped and more where every word on every page is essential to the whole.

29 comments:

  1. Matt, I can remember a time when my whole concept of the sf-writer-&-fandom community was composed of Asimov's notes in the Hugo winner books, Ellison's notes in the Dangerous Visions anthologies, and the occasional essay or editorial in IASFM or F&SF. There are times when I regret having allowed reality to shove that concept off its pedestal. ;-)

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  2. What do you think of the story notes in the annual Best American Short Stories?

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  3. Don't you think that in the best of all possible worlds, people who like bad introductions can have the chance of reading them and people who don't like bad introductions can have the chance of skipping them, instead of some people telling others what they should or shouldn't read?

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  4. No, in the best of all possible worlds books are intentional things, works of perfectly balanced art, not conglomerations of what-you-will. It has nothing to do with telling anybody what they should or shouldn't read -- art is about shaping material and creating effects.

    As for the Best Americans, anthologies seem somehow different to me, particularly yearbook or awards-style anthologies such as any best-of-the-year, where there's no real expectation of unity other than that everything happened to be published between certain dates. (That said, I don't tend to bother to read the story notes there, because most of the ones I have read seem embarrassingly self-important.)

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  5. Geez Louise, I withdraw from the SF/F community for a few months, stick my head under a few rocks and suddenly the entire SF/F world goes crazy. :-)

    Interesting observations. Just recently, I was reading a colllection of short stories by a writer whose work I admire enormously. Although I very much enjoyed most of the stories, there were a few that seemed as though they didn't fit and I found myself automatically skimming through the manuscript to see the author's notes on the story, to see if there was something I was missing. And, to my surprise, there *were* no notes, which I thought was very odd. I'm so used to seeing intros or end notes in short story collections that itjust surprised me not to find any.

    And now I am left to wonder if perhaps it wasn't the lack of the notes but the selection of the stories themselves that was the real problem.

    As always, Mr. Cheney, you make me think!

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  6. I feel cheated if there isn't some kind of commentary or other ancillary material about the stories --or the author in an author's collection. Sometimes the notes don't add anything to the overall effect of the collection, but I've found that more often they do.
    I think it's a matter of taste.
    Ellen Datlow

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  7. I guess this is where I get myself in trouble. I think you and I are pretty much on the same page, but... When I think of short story collections I often think back to my one conversation with the late Jim Turner. This was early 1997, and he was of the very definite view that editors of short story collections set the bar too low, that one of the critical things, when editing such a book, was being firm about what to leave out. That was why, he said, that he'd only published one Bruce Sterling collection (the best one, btw) and wasn't doing a third Shepard collection (the two he edited won World Fantasy Awards). I would argue that, over the past eight or so years since that conversation things have gotten worse, editorial standards have fallen, and the *average* quality of collections has dropped. I think you can see this when you have Hugo nominated authors opting to drop collections from their bibliographies. Or in cases like Kage Baker. I think she's a good writer who is getting better as she matures as a writer. By early 2007 she'll have had four collections published in just four and a half years. That collects pretty much every story she's written during the period, including a handful written especially for those collections. Are they all excellent? No. Some are. Some are pretty ordinary. That's just normal. No writer hits the ball out of the park every time. These books collect Baker's stories as though she was hitting a winner every time. I think there's probably one great debut collection in amongst those four books, or maybe two collections at most, but we'll never see those books. Instead we have three very competent books, and most likely the fourth next year will be the same. They're not bad, but they're not as good as they should be.

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  8. I personally enjoy the notes most of the time. I want to know what was going through the writer's mind when they wrote the story, and if - upon - later reflection, those thoughts have changed. I agree with Ellen, I guess. It's a matter of personal taste.

    (Hi Ellen!)

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  9. Jonathan,
    I agree with you that there are far too many collection being published--and sometimes too early in a career.

    The situation is so much worse in horror. Many of the collections coming out from the horror presses are terrible--not even mediocre. In sf and fantasy I've rarely come across an abominable collection.


    (Hi Gwenda!)
    Ellen

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  10. Ellen - From what I've seen of the horror scene, I have to agree. When it comes to SF and fantasy, I think the situation is better, but still problematical. I could make a list of books that were published too early in the author's careers, and some that I'm sure did the author no good at all.

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  11. "No, in the best of all possible worlds books are intentional things, works of perfectly balanced art, not conglomerations of what-you-will."

    I never expect a work of art when I read a collection; I expect several work of arts collected in one volume. You don't have to read the story notes if you don't like them; they are skippable by their very design. This is a feature and not a bug, since it means that the collection can be a perfectly balanced work of art for several groups of readers at the same time, even though they can't agree on what the perfectly balance is.

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  12. Wouldn't a perfectly balanced work of art allow for both experiences? Top notch stories, arranged in such a way that they could be read optimally without interstitial materials, but fully open to being read with them and giving the reader a somewhat different reading experience. And, it also depends whether you see the short story collection as an artform in itself. I tend to.

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  13. Well, yes. Optimally. I'm not saying that all interstitial material is of equal value; there definitely are bad and uninteresting forewords etc. that probably noone likes, but if these things are common and you generally find them pointless, shouldn't you at least consider the posibility that you aren't the target audience for them? And when you can easily skip them (as the editor of the collection was well aware when he put them in there), isn't rather silly to complain about them?

    I agree with you that there is such a thing as an artful collection, but I generally just don't expect a collection to work as a whole esthetical entity (I feel the same way about music albums really). I mean, if I'm reading an excellent story, then I won't let the fact that I read three crappy ones first effect my enjoyment of it.
    I guess what I'm saying is that the stories comes first. If the collection works as a whole and the story notes are interesting then that's an extra bonus; it's just not essential.

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  14. I found myself taken to task for writing honest story notes. Reviewers in some cases changed their opinions of stories based on the notes! Which were an attempt to make the collection of more interest to beginning and intermediate writers. I have no further interest in writing notes for future collections. I also have no interest in publishing a collection of 300 plus pages in future. I'm not even sure about introductions. If the reader cannot bear down on the stories themselves without the personality of the writer intervening or acting as some kind of bridge, then...

    JeffV

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  15. Quoth La Gringa:

    ...suddenly the entire SF/F world goes crazy. :-)

    ...suddenly?

    *g*

    More seriously. I sincerely enjoy reading introductions and author's notes when they add something to my understanding of the stories themselves.

    I liked the notes in Bloodchild, frex, because I'm interested in writers' thought processes and how they end up with the stories that they write. But I loathed those in From the Borderlands in part because insisting that a story is teh awesome will best-case scenario tell me nothing I don't already know and worst-case, make me seriously doubt the editorial taste.

    (The notes in The Dark were among my favorites, though. Favorite ghost stories! Thematically appropriate and offering a little insight into the writers/stories without being obnoxious about it. Huzzah.)

    - Hannah

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  16. I'm gratified to learn that others were as imprinted as I was by Asimov's introductions to the _Hugo Winners_ books and Ellison's introductions to the _Dangerous Visions_ books, not to mention their intros to their own collections. I had the same reactions to them that Courtney Love reported in an interview to her first glimpse of the cover of Bob Dylan's _Bringing It All Back Home_, the one with the carefully-framed photo of Dylan and a woman in a my-study-fire kind of setting: "I wanted to go live with those people." (Which is why to this day I probably have a higher tolerance for Ms. Love than most of my contemporaries.) I do wonder if a young reader encountering any of the contemporary collections that have been mentioned in this thread could possibly have the same sort of response.

    As for art or not, I'd agree with the person who said the story collection is an assembly of separate pieces of art. For one thing, who reads stories in the order in which they appear in a collection? I seldom do.

    Perhaps one solution is to have the comments as an afterward, so that those who want the fiction without interruption can have it so, and those who may want to live somewhere else can check out the neighborhood.

    Brett Cox

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  17. I'm surprised that anyone would take a writer to task for writing story notes, and even more so that they would complain because of their honesty. I'm even more surprised that a reviewer would change his or her opinion of a story because of a story note. I think it says more about the review and the reviewer, than about the story note or notes.

    In terms of being able to bear down on stories without the personality of the writer intervening or acting, I can only speak for myself when I say that's not especially what I get from story notes. I'm not particularly looking for more from the writer, in that sense. Stories must stand alone, and a collection can stand without any interstitial material.

    I am the kind of reader, though, who likes to know more about what they're getting. In the case of SECRET LIFE, I thought the story notes added a lot to the book. The stories would have been no different without them, but I had more context, which I appreciated.

    I think, if forced to choose, what I most want is either an introduction from the author, or an introduction about the author, at the beginning of the book. I want context and background, I want information. What I don't want, and I suspect Matt and I agree completely on this, is a special super guest intro from superstar who adds nothing to the process other than to get in the way. I could point to innumerable intros that are sold by small presses as bona fide good things which were the worst thing in the book.

    There is, actually, one thing I hate about guest intros particularly. I hate seeing the name of the introducer printed on the cover of the book, like they've contributed something important, or like the author couldn't sell their own book. It's just tacky.

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  18. Hey, Matt, congrats to us (& Alan & Dora) on winning the Strange Horizons articles poll!

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  19. Shhhhhh! Mike! It's not public knowledge yet!

    Nothing to see here, folks. Keep talking about anthologies, please.... ;-)

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  20. It might have something to do with how much you like the stories. I recently finished Frost's collection and agree with your review. The notes did little for me.

    However, I was disappointed when I read John Kessel's "The Pure Product" which has no story notes and only a brief afterword. I think it's because I adored so many of the stories and (like Jeff said) as a writer, I wanted to know more about where they came from.

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  21. You're nuts, Mr Cheney, barking mad! Notes aren't for the readers---they're for the historians. I read many crappy collections for Battle of the Sexes and the notes were always invaluable and I was always ropeable when there weren't any.

    Stop thinking of texts aestheticallly and think like an historian. Any text---no matter how crappy---will wind up useful to some historian some day (Battle's an excellent example: there's hardly a well-written story discussed). The more info it contains about its origins the more useful it is.

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  22. Actually, I'll back justine up on that. I've been studying, doing homework on year's bests as a form, and the introductions etc are invaluable research tools. When you go back to an old anthology or collection it seems useless without a good intro and other materials.

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  23. "Let's have fewer books with material that can be skipped and more where every word on every page is essential to the whole."

    Why?

    You say this as if the aesthetic virtue of having "every word on every page" be "essential to the whole" were self-evident.

    It's not self-evident to me. Indeed, the history of successful literature seems to me to argue the contrary view. Works where "every word on every page" are actually "essential to the whole" tend, in fact, to be airless, cryptic, unnecessarily-difficult puzzle pieces. Good literature tends to entail a fair amount of redundancy and slack, for the simple reason that most of us aren't fucking geniuses every goddamn minute of every day. We miss stuff and need to have it told to us more than once. This is not an aesthetic sin. It's good storytelling, from one reasonable human being to another.

    I think you need to argue a little harder here.

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  24. Patrick:

    You seem to be arguing against editing...and editors. I know you don't mean to, but I think that's what Matt was, in part, getting at.

    JeffV

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  25. I've always enjoyed the author's notes in short story collections, personally.

    Ironically, the only forewords and notes that got on my nerves were in certain Ellison collections (especially in Dangerous Visions).

    - Eric

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  26. And how likely is it that Patrick would be arguing against editors and editing?

    tnh

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  27. It may be that I'm just living up to the blog's title.

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  28. Right, TNH--but what I'm saying is, his argument isn't clear enough to me.

    JeffV

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  29. I think Matt has a point about "extra" meterials in story collections. I won't say anything about my afterword to Frost's collection other that to say that I see part of my job to say something about the quality of the writer's work that the reader might not otherwise notice, or to otherwise provide some context. I usually will do at least one analysis of a specific story in service of this.

    With regard to Trent's comment on the lack of notes in "The Pure Product" and Jonathan's on Jim Turner: on my first collection for Arkham House, Jim Turner did indeed weigh in very heavily on the contents of the collection. For instance, he did not want my story "Buffalo" in the collection because he did not think it was up to the standard; he only relented after it was nominated for the Nebula and Hugo, and won the Sturgeon and Locus Awards.

    Plus, I had written story notes for each story in that collection but Jim did not want them, so we left them out. Then I decided not to do them in "The Pure Product."

    I always like to read author's notes myself, but only after I have read the stories and made up my own mind about them.

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