Anthologies and Collections: Putting Stories Together to Tell Bigger Stories

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Reading

I have long been on a quest for the perfect short story anthology, some book I can point my students to and say: “this is the only short story book you’ll ever need.”  I’ve even tossed around the idea of someday putting an anthology together myself (a project which comes with its own host of problems, since I have a hard time narrowing down my list stories to something that could actually fit in a book.)  I may never find that “perfect” short story collection, but in the meantime it’s given me an excuse to sit in the anthology section of Barnes & Noble and page through many of them.So far this week, we’ve heard why reading and writing short stories is important, and we’ve looked at the short story as a stand-alone piece of literature.  But what happens when we start putting different stories together?  Reading short stories as part of a whole can lend a new light on the individual stories themselves.

As I see it, there are two ways you can compile short stories: in anthologies or collections with stories by multiple authors, or in collections of stories by one individual author.  Within each of these categories, though, there is a lot of room for play, and that’s what I’d like to look at today.

Anthologies with Multiple Authors

In anthologies with multiple authors, you can have everything from a straight-forward compilation from the short story masters, to something based around a theme.  A classic example of the former, of course, would be the Best American series where each year a guest editor selects his or her favorite stories from publications across the country.

Personally, I happen to think the collections based around a theme are a lot more fun.  You see a lot of this in short story collections for the teen audience.  Zombies vs. Unicorns, for instance, addresses that all important question “Which is cooler, zombies or unicorns?”  Geektastic is filled with stories from some big name authors in the teen literature world and celebrates all facets of geekdom, from trekkies to band camp nerds.

The straight-forward-style anthology tends to consist of stories reprinted from another source, so the person compiling the anthology culls through existing pieces of writing that have already been published.  In the latter type–the anthology centered around a theme–it’s much more likely that these authors wrote their stories specifically for the anthology.  After all, who has random zombie or unicorn stories just lying around?  (Actually…)

In both types of anthologies, though, the strength lies in variety of the voices represented.  The beauty of these collections is that we can hear from authors with very different writing styles, and it’s the contrast and complementary relationship between the stories that lend the collection its artfulness.

Collections by One Author

Sooner or later, authors who write a lot of short stories will have enough to fill a book.  The question, of course, is how to choose which stories go in the book and how these stories relate to each other.  Of course, you can do a “Complete Works” type of collection, which is lovely if only for its completeness, but some writers like to get more creative than that.  Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino is a fabulous collection of stories, all tied together under this theme of a “comedy in the cosmic realm.”  In his collection Past Perfect, Present Tense Richard Peck groups his stories according to theme, lending structure to the collection that ties it all together.

Why Collections are Important

I’ve heard it said by people in the book business that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels.  I wonder, though, if there isn’t a way to turn this bias against short story collections on its head.  In some ways, short story collections can be far more versatile and valuable to a reader than a novel.  In the novel, there’s only one way to read the story: you start on page 1 and read to the end (OK, maybe if you’re reading Pale Fire by Nabokov, that might not be the case, but in most novels you read from start to finish).  In a short story collection, however, the order you read the stories can affect your view of the other stories around it, making it a different reading experience every time.

Maybe someday I will make that anthology and when I do, I know exactly how I’ll put it together: with multiple tracks where readers can choose different ways of reading the collected stories so that they can experience the stories in a new way each time.  Because it’s not just about the individual stories, it’s about how the stories relate to one another.

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