More On The Trouble With Anthologies

Reading & Writing

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.


9 comments on “More On The Trouble With Anthologies”

  1. Roger says:

    “d anthologies from Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Bowen or Angela Carter …”
    You’ve forgotten your own distinction: ” 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”!

    My own taste in literature was formed by anthologies – The Oxford Book of English Verse and Palgrave Walter de la Mare’s anthologies and Dorothy Sayers’ Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror in three volumes (when you’re first learning about something, the bigger the book the better) and paperback SF anthologies, all bought second-hand. I worked my way out from them, either to author’s other books or to books like them. Also SF magazines and old copies of “Lilliput” and “Penguin New Writing” and “Galaxy” and…
    One problem with anthologies – unless you commission entirely new material and hope the authors are all at their peak – is the balance between familiar and unfamiliar stories and writers. Nearly every horror anthology includes “The Monkey’s Paw”, because it is so frightening, but there doesn’t seem to be any other story by Jacobs which reaches anywhere near that peak – the equivalent of “The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna”, except that everyone once learned that by heart, so you could leave it out.

  2. snowy says:

    Anthology is a ‘slippery’ word.

    The Greek root is something like ‘gathered flowers’. Which implies that it is a selected subset of a larger set. If we take that as our definintion.

    Then the ‘Complete Short Stories of Christopher Fowler’ would be a collection.

    But ‘The Best Christopher Fowler Short Stories’ would be an anthology.

    And thus we demonstrate that a distinction based on multiple authorship is false.

    [But you can prove anything if you pick your words extremely carefully.]

  3. Ian Mason says:

    Personally I have always enjoyed both anthologies and collections. Anthologies allow you to read a genre you enjoy, with the hope that you’ll collect a new favoured author along the way. Collections let you access works from authors that you first discovered in full blown novel form that were initially published in serials. There’s a whole industry devoted to making films from Phillip K Dick short stories that were initially published in pulp and science fiction magazines. Stories that you never might get to read in their original form but for the existence of collections.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    With these anthology vs collection problems, I may have to settle for an omnibus. For me, many short stories are a little too short to be a satisfying read. There are exceptions: Conan Doyle and C. Fowler. Even then, I tend to prefer the longer works.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I have been enjoying the recent classic crime anthologies published by the British Library. Well presented and fun. If there’s something you find you don’t like, then just move on to the next one. There’s lovely.

  6. admin says:

    Omnibus, compendium, anthology, collection…
    A good point about authors not always being at their pinnacle of ‘Best’.
    I’m still planning a complete collected volume of my short stories – but I just wrote a new one. I have to stop doing that. Stop me before I kill again.

  7. Jay Mackie says:

    If you’re planning a new complete collection of all your short stories Chris, you have to thrown in a newie to entice us. So even though you said you wouldn’t write another short story – we forgive you. And are secretly delighted and watching this space!!!

  8. Jo W says:

    Ian Luck, I too have been reading the British Library crime classics anthologies and as you said,if there is a story you don’t care for-just turn the pages. I have discovered some interesting authors this way and have followed them up with searches for their books. (Oh no,not more books! to quote ‘im indoors.)
    The same thing happened when I read Invisible Ink and Forgotten Authors,so trouble at home could be partly due to the influence of our Admin. 😉

  9. Helen Martin says:

    There’s one thing to say for not getting to this blog on time – someone else is sure to have already said anything that might occur to you. I actually looked up concision and wondered about the anthology, etc. definitions. I was pleased to discover that concision does exist because I have wanted to use it a number of times but felt it was just a case of wishful thinking.

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