More On The Trouble With Anthologies
To be clear, a written anthology is a set of stories by different authors, often on a common theme. A collection is a set of stories by one author. Some publishers still get the distinction wrong on their covers.
The advantage of producing a collection is obvious; the reader gets a kaleidoscopic view of the author’s mind – see ‘Not the End of the World’ by Kate Atkinson*, a set of 12 stories that link to reveal a state of mind, like jigsaw pieces revealing a picture. The collected stories of Evelyn Waugh might as well be a novel in fragments. You quickly see what interests the author. If you read anthologies from Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Bowen or Angela Carter it’s impossible not to know where there author’s passions lie.
Short stories are always tricky to balance together, and only a great editor (Alberto Manguel and Kirby McAuley spring to mind) can find the equilibrium. The anthology on the left is a cheat; the state of modern air travel is a rich and potentially harrowing subject, but this is a collection of reprints only vaguely connected to the theme. In any set of stories, one needs a balance of the hidden or unfinished, together with the perfectly formed, but it’s also good to make sure there’s some relevance to our world. I love a rounded-out short story like, say, Roald Dahl’s tale ‘Parson’s Pleasure’, a perfect example of the ‘comeuppance’ tale, but I also like disturbing, open-ended stories like ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
The heyday of the anthology was probably from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, but of course they’ve been around through the 20th century. For me, whether it’s open-ended or perfectly finished, a story needs to satisfy the reader at some level. HH Monroe ‘Saki’, John Collier, HG Wells and Conan Doyle all wrote beautifully polished tales that fit together like fine marquetry, but sometimes you read messier, more chaotic stories that still leave you with a great single image.
In one anthology I own, a commuter joins the rush-hour drive every day and finds himself competing in a terrifying road race. The image of this sweating man behind a wheel, terrified at the effort of just getting to work, stayed through childhood, along with a story in which a man took refuge inside a library, living within the bookshelves.
Anthologies have fallen from fashion, but for a while there were whole volumes on every imaginable subject. These days, veteran crime editor Otto Penzler can always be relied upon to put together a great anthology for Mysterious Press, and I like some of Jeff Vandemeer’s voluminous tomes, if only because he throws the kitchen sink into his vast compendia and you’ll always find something you like.
But finding the perfect anthology (‘Black Water’ is one) takes work and time none of us have anymore. Aware that I now own a library that will last me far beyond the grave, I’m becoming fussier about what I read and watch. The temptation with anthology editors is to make them too large and unwieldy when smaller and more carefully chosen would be better.
*I have to ask myself if Atkinson read my tale ‘Dale and Wayne Go Shopping’ before she wrote the eerily similar ‘Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping’. It often happens that two writers come up with the same idea.