I had a light bulb moment today.
I’m finding that my new computer has had some unexpected effects on my on-line life. One of these is that I’ve found that Safari has a way of managing RSS feeds that is just that bit neater than Internet Explorer, with the result that I’ve been collecting RSS feeds with wild abandon over the last couple of weeks. I’m now following far more blogs than I used to, and as a consequence I’ve come across loads of interesting new stuff. I came across the one that I want to share with you today via Tania Hershman’s blog, and it’s a fascinating piece about the state of short story publishing, and a lot of excellent points may be found therein, along with the associated comment stream.
But it set me thinking: why are short story collections the cinderellas of the industry? I’ve often thought (and I’m clearly not the only one) that in the era of MTV attention spans, short stories really ought to be aggressively marketed as the saviours of the publishing world. I’ve been reading a whole load of short story collections lately (mainly as a result of trying to support Salt Publishing’s extraordinarily successful Just One Book campaign), and it is quite cool to be able to absorb an entire story (or two) in the duration of a commute into London.
One thing did strike me, though. Short story collections are – of necessity – patchy. If they were entirely consistent, they would be dull. A good collection should show a writer trying out all sorts of different things. Some of them will work, and some of them won’t. A case in point: some time ago at If Shakespeare …, my mate Ian Cundell recommended a collection by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) entitled “Running from Legs and other stories”. In particular, he raved about a story entitled “Terminal Misunderstanding”. As it happened, I liked it, but I didn’t think there was anything special about it. However, I thought that the story that came next in the book, “The Sharers”, in which a black man is aggressively patronised by a white man who insists on sharing his ride to work, was absolutely wonderful.
I found that this was happening with pretty much every collection that I’ve read recently, and I was beginning to feel a bit disappointed. But then it occurred to me that I had it completely the wrong way around. Instead of concentrating on the disappointments in a collection of stories, I should be celebrating the ones that completely blew me away. Looking at it that way round, the hit rate of the average book of short stories against the average novel is far higher. I mean, come on, when was the last time that a novel really blew you away?
Take “Running from Legs” as an example. Ian and I have both taken away at least one “Wow!” moment from the same book, even if it was a different moment in each case. And if you want some more “Wow!” moments, here are a few to tempt you further:
“Irrigation” by Vanessa Gebbie (from “Words from a Glass Bubble”)
“The White Road” by Tania Hershman (from “The White Road”)
“Rose Red” by Carys Davies (from “Some New Ambush”)
“Condensed Metaphysics” by Elizabeth Baines (from “Balancing on the Edge of the World”)
And the really cool thing is that I can almost guarantee that the ones that you like from every single one of these collections will be different. But I can also pretty much guarantee that there will be one that will make you go “Wow!” as well.
(This post also appears – in a slightly edited form – at If Shakespeare …)