Short story anthologies: Part 1 – how do you read yours?

A friend recently asked me to review a short story anthology. Never having done this before, I didn’t know how to start. So I got pen and paper ready, took notes.

The indulgence of reading. Ahhh...

Having now read four anthologies back-to-back, I’ve discovered something about the way I read and enjoy them… For some reason, I add up the number of stories in the anthology I enjoyed, then calculate what percentage that is of the whole. If I enjoyed the majority, it’s a good anthology. The higher that majority, the more I enjoyed that collection.

Here are my marks for those four anthologies:

All were in the majority – yay! I love short stories!! Just think of the combined imagination that goes into just one collection… *sigh*

However, discovering this reading habit has left me with a quandary – why do I judge anthologies so methodically? I don’t read novels like that. I don’t add up how many chapters I enjoyed before deciding whether or not I liked it. So long as I enjoy a novel overall, I recommend it. Why then the mathematical approach for anthologies?

At first I thought it was because a novel is (generally) written by one author – giving the work a single voice you either like or dislike. Whereas in multiple-author anthologies there are as many voices as there are stories. Then again, one of the anthologies I just read was a single-author anthology and I still applied the same methodology. Plus, the stories in multiple-author anthologies are usually guided into place by editors with preferences and dislikes for certain voices, themes, etc. So those editors would give their anthologies a distinctive feel, if not voice…

Editors.

Hmm, I wondered, how do editors read and enjoy anthologies?

Editors have to read a lot!

With all the fiction they have to read, surely they must value those anthologies that offer the most variety, surely that’s how they rate their favourite stories? Or perhaps they savour quality of writing, or being transported into a different world? What is it they enjoy best?

Perhaps if I asked them, their answers might help me resolve my quandary?

So I did, and I’ll tell you what eight extraordinary accomplished editors and judges of anthologies said next week in ‘Part 2 – how do they read theirs?’.

Until then, have a guess – what is most important to editors when they’re reading an anthology:

(a) quality of writing

(b) variety, or

(c) being transported into a different world

While you’re at it, what’s most important to you – (a), (b) or (c)? Vote using the comments section below. And do any of you add up the number of stories you enjoy in anthologies, like I do? How do you read yours?

Meanwhile, I’m going to start reading my next anthology, Anywhere But Earth (Coeur de Lion Publishing, 2011), which I saw launched last month at the NSW Writers’ Centre Speculative Fiction Festival. If the anthology is anything like the day I had that day, it’s bound to score high 😀

Zena Shapter

I write from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. #Ditmar Award-winning author. Short fiction for now. Novels to come. Movie buff. Traveller. Wine lover. Story nerd. Book Creator & Mentor. Founder & leader of the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers' Group / ZF Kingbolt

11 Comments:

  1. Definitely, C. Transported to another world. If I remember the characters and their emotional journey, the story worked.

    I’ve never considered adding up the number of stories I loved to rate an antho. As long as one story really worked for me, I’m pretty happy. But, and this was a hard lesson to learn, I no longer make myself read every story in an antho “to get my money’s worth”. Ha.

    • Good point, Jenny. Being transported to another world is priceless, so as long as one story gives you that creative trip, the antho has done its duty!

      Have you ever read an antho and not liked even one story?

  2. I think I would like to have a, b and c. I’m greedy. But I do like and agree with your mathematical way of looking at things. I do something similar, but in my case, I don’t bother finishing stories which don’t appeal to me. So having just read a majority of the stories in any anthology makes it worthwhile, and something I would recommend.

    • Hi Saul! I’m glad someone else does as I do. And yes, it’s very hard to finish a short story that doesn’t appeal. If I’m not interesting after the first page, I’ll skim over the next few pages, just in case I was too fast to form an opinion, but then I’ll give up and mark it down as a ‘not enjoyed’. What did you read on your flight home?

      • What did I read on the flight back to the US? I had planned on finishing John Brunner’s, The Sheep Look Up. However, I was a bit anxious about the flight home and ended up watching Tron Legacy more times that I should admit.

        • LOL Saul! There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Tron Legacy 😀

          • But there’s something wrong with the movie!! What was it now…oh yeah: The story! Don’t get me started…. My smallest gripe is that a movie with the name “Tron” in it, doesn’t even focus on the character with that name. Tron just shows up at the end to save the day. A fatal case of Deus ex machina if I every saw one. I watched it three times now, and I still don’t know why Tron turned sides, perhaps he just changed his mind that day. Or maybe it was a bad case of bio-digital indigestion? That said, the movie looks great, has awesome costumes, and has nice music. Great if you have nothing better to do. Thus, the perfect thing to watch on an 14 hour flight home 🙂

  3. Love being transported to another world… that gets me every time. Interesting take on how you approach anthologies.. wonder if it has anything to do with knowing how long the story is in comparison to others in the same anthology. I have a bad habit of seeing how long each story in an anthology is before I read them. Don’t know why!!

    • Hi Tania 🙂 I’ve been guilty of doing that too, especially if I don’t have much time and want to seek out the shortest story for a fast fiction fix! As a reader, do you prefer the longer short stories, or the shorter ones?

  4. D. Yes, it looks like I’m the James T. Kirk of this bunch by creating a fourth option. I take each individual story on its own merits most of the time and see an anthology for what it usually turns out to be—merely a collection put together in some form of fashion or theme because you make more money from a collection then you would through individual stories. You could call Melissa Bank’s ‘The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing’ an anthology. It’s the only collection of short stories I’ve read that works. It would be a tragedy to separate them into individual stories. So getting back to it, I say D. a true collection of stories that are connected in some way that would be weakened if separated. In your options A, B and C, quality of writing should already be there and variety is a given and unless you’ve worked in a myriad of jobs, the chances are you are going to be transported into a world unlike your own. An anthology should be like a bouquet of flowers. If you put the wrong flowers together … the bouquet doesn’t work.

    • You know, looking at the four anthologies I just read, the ones that scored the highest / that I enjoyed the most, had strong cementing themes. Good point, Justin 😀

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