Critic Matthew Cheney reviews Gregory Frost’s collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, for SF Site this week. The review, of which Cheney says “I am curmudgeonly about short story collections in general and this one in particular’, was of interest to me not for what it said about Frost’s book, but for what it said about short story collections as a form.
In the review, Cheney says:
Short story collections suffer when they are padded with ancillary materials (forewords, afterwords, story notes) and not-entirely-effective tales, because the energy of the better material gets sapped away and the reader’s attention lags. What matters is the fiction, and a collection should be an opportunity for a writer to present, in more permanent form than a magazine offers, his or her best work, not just everything they happen to have gotten published, plus some cheerful hyperbole from pals.
I certainly agree that a short story collection is weakened by the inclusion of ‘not-entirely-effective tales’. This is something that I feel has become more common over the past five years or so, especially in the small press. It could be argued whether this is the case or not, and what the cause might be, but my own feeling is that it’s a byproduct of both competitiveness amongst small presses and lower production costs making it cheaper to publish books. Lower cost makes publishers less wary of risk, and increased competitiveness drives them to produce books that simply aren’t ready.
I also agree with Cheney that ‘What matters is the fiction, and a collection should be an opportunity for a writer to present … his or her best work, not just everything they happen to have gotten published’. A collection, especially a debut short story collection, should be something of an event. It should contain the very best work the author has available, deliberately omitting less-accomplished work. You need only look back to debut collections like Bradbury’s Dark Carnival, Leiber’s Night’s Black Agents, Waldrop’s Howard Who?, or Shepard’s The Jaguar Hunter, to see what a short story collection can be.
The point where I diverge from Cheney, though is his statement that ‘Short story collections suffer when they are padded with ancillary materials (forewords, afterwords, story notes)’. While I have little time for guest introductions by big name writers (which, however well-intentioned, seldom add much to a book), I think that ancillary or interstitial materials are far more than padding and can be a vital part of a story collection, deepening the experience of reading the fiction, and adding context and meaning to the stories gathered in the book. They become a kind of frame for the stories. In fact, some collections I’ve encountered seem very incomplete without them.
This certainly isn’t true for every book, but it is definitely true for some. Ray Bradbury, one of the finest practitioners of the short story collection as a form in its own right, seldom added story notes and such to his collections. Rather he created what Ursula Le Guin dubbed story suites, cycles of stories that mesh neatly together, creating resonances from story to story. Arguably, though, in a collection from a writer like Howard Waldrop the interstitial material is almost as important as the fiction. In his collection Going Home Again Waldrop adds lengthy story afterwords, some as long as 3,000 words, to each story which are a critical part of the book as a whole, adding layers of meaning and experience for most stories. Harlan Ellison is also a master of the form, as can be seen in collections like Deathbird Stories, Shatterday, and Love Ain’t Nothin But Sex Mispelled.
I think Cheney is correct to be critical of lazy or poorly executed materials in short story collections. It’s much easier to detract from the reading experience than to enhance it, but I think it’s a mistake to suggest that they should be avoided. There are different types of short story collection which have slightly different conventions and on occasion require different elements to be successful. I’d put it that the test for a collection shouldn’t be whether it contains a particular element or not, but rather how well those elements are executed. You can have introductions, story notes, afterwords etc, as long as they’re done well, and as long as you never compromise on the quality of the fiction