Light Bulb Moment

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 …)

4 thoughts on “Light Bulb Moment

  1. Agreed.

    I’ve always felt that if I read a short story collection where I actually like every book, I’m almost disappointed…because I know not everyone has the same tastes I do. As odd as it sounds, I think anthologies should be, as you say, patchy…because that one story I didn’t quite like was probably the one story that someone else adored. Wider audiences and all that…

  2. Thanks – I thought it was just me for a moment 🙂 And I should also add that I didn’t really mean to damn any of the collections that I’ve mentioned with faint praise, either. The hit rate is pretty high for all of them.

  3. I would be lost without my RSS feedreader. It’s a standalone application but that’s neither here nor there, it saves me having to remember to check sites like your own.

    I’m with you, I’ve never understood why short stories have fallen out of favour, they’re still clearly being written. In fact that last book I bought – coincidentally to support Salt Books – was a collection of stories, Elizabeth Baines’ ‘Balancing on the Edge of the World’ and you’re quite right, it was a mixed bag, not something you could sit and read in one sitting. Well, you could, but you wouldn’t appreciate it. And that’s the point I make in my review of the book, that even though it took be four days to read it, despite it only being 95 pages in length, I still felt that I’s rushed it.

  4. That’s another good point, Jim, and I’m now wondering if I really ought to go back and have another go at some of the stories out of those collections that I didn’t get first time. And that’s another good thing about a collection of stories, isn’t it?

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