What we talk about when we talk about collections and anthologies.Part 1: The Reviewers
I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.
It’s not often that I find myself thinking the same way as Sly, but when The First Tuesday Book Club recently turned down my suggestion to discuss our anthology, Escape, on their TV program, that’s exactly how I reacted.
‘Short stories are really tricky to talk about on the show, because it is hard to direct the conversation to a single narrative’. It was a disheartening response from the biggest, most influential bookclub in the country – and all the more so given that one of its regulars, Jason Steger, has championed the form through his annual Age Newspaper Short Story competition.
What’s more, the rejection didn’t just apply to this one title. It was a rejection of the short story per se, whether in a single author collection or an anthology, whether the author was Australian or otherwise and whether the short stories were published by a newcomer like Spineless Wonders or by a larger, more established publishing house.
The first thing I did was send off some emails. I wanted to know of some of our top literary reviewers agreed that critiquing short fiction was ‘tricky’. Patrick West, Kerryn Goldsworthy and James Bradley are all experienced reviewers for the national press and their responses appear below.
I also started searching for instances of book clubs which read short story collections and anthologies. There are some useful resources, mostly from outside of Australia, which I’ll share, along with some tips and examples in What we talk about when we talk about short stories Part 2 – Book Clubs.
In one of those happy coincidences, there was a review of Escape in the latest Weekend Australian. Karen Lee Thompson’s review, Anthological adventures across the home front, is a very positive one; singing the praises of our anthology, Escape, as well as Sleepers Almanac No.7. The reviewer declares herself a ‘literary groupie when it comes to Australian short fiction’ and she commends both Spineless Wonders and Sleepers for ‘keeping Australian writing relevant and offering our writers a bigger stage with their digital crossover approach.’ If we need to set up a social media campaign to get short Australian stories on to The First Tuesday Book Club, Karen Lee Thompson will be one of the first to Like.
Please feel free to contribute to this discussion by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
What reviewers talk about when they talk about short stories.
Patrick West wrote:
Short story collections, even more so anthologies, invite trouble!
Their stop-start nature almost guarantees that the reviewer will object, probably violently object, to at least one of the stories. Sometimes falling in love with one piece can, in and of itself, sign the death warrant of the next. We all hate being dragged away from something we love.
What can a reviewer hope to achieve? It’s hopeless and pointless, I think, to try to sum up an anthology, or even a single-author collection. If you can there’s probably something wrong with that book. Collections should not read like a cut-up novel. To me, a good single-author collection should have the aura of a multi-author anthology. One of the skills of writing short stories lies in constantly making it new, in expressing the many different people that each of us are.
So yes, it is tricky to review such publications, but we need to get away from the notion that we can, or should, be summing them up. In the days when I used to write advertising copy for real estate agencies, I worked on the premise that it was not necessary to give a picture of the whole house to prospective buyers. Rather, I just needed to get them through the door, to then experience the house for themselves. I usually concentrated on picking out some scintillating feature.
Similarly with reviewing collections and anthologies. What I look for in a book is something, anything, that will last me a lifetime. No matter if it’s the smallest scintillating feature, if it endures it is worthwhile. For me, the ethics of reviewing lies in identifying such nuggets of writing, if they are there to be found, and then hoping that the reader of the review shares enough with me, of what it means to be human, that they too are touched by something which endures. In short, if I’ve been touched then it’s likely, though far from absolutely certain, that others will be too.
So this is how I try to get people through the door of the publication I am reviewing, hoping all along that if I happen to come across a book where all the rooms are plain and drab, and nothing whatsoever inspires, that I will be brave enough to say, ‘stop, don’t enter.’
Patrick West is Senior Lecturer in Professional & Creative Writing at Deakin University. Patrick’s first short-story collection, The World Swimmers, is published by the International Centre for Landscape and Language (ICLL), Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia. He frequently reviews books for The Australian.
James Bradley wrote:
I have to confess I also find collections of stories tricky to review. The problem is about trying to find something coherent to say about them as *collections* while still attending to the stories themselves. It’s certainly not impossible, but you’re always fighting with the tendency to end up sounding like you’re just listing stories (it’s even more difficult when you’re dealing with anthologies). There are ways around it, especially if the writer already has a body of work you can bounce off, but it’s a challenge nonetheless. From my point of view what I usually want to find is some sense of unity – shared themes or ideas or techniques – which I can then use to guide a discussion of several individual stories. It’s a problem that’s made even more pronounced by the relative brevity of most newspaper reviews – trying to say something coherent about a novel in 700 words is difficult, trying to say something coherent about a book and then several stories is an order of magnitude more so. But all that said, a good review of a book of stories should be able to find some common shape and unity and then unpack a couple of the stories in ways that illuminate both them and the whole.
James Bradley is a novelist, writer and reviewer. He has published three novels, Wrack, The Deep Field and the international bestseller The Resurrectionist and he has edited two anthologies: Blur, a collection of stories by young Australian writers and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. In 2012, he was awarded the Pascall Prize for Criticism. He blogs at cityoftongues.com
Kerryn Goldsworthy wrote:
No, I don’t find it tricky at all — but over the years I’ve edited four anthologies of Australian writing and have been part of the editorial team of a fifth, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature that was published in 2009. So I’ve got lots of ideas about anthologising in general, and they come in very handy when reviewing.
To me the most important thing as an anthologist is always the gestalt of the collection — the idea that the whole should be more than the sum of its parts and that the collection should make sense as a book and contain a lot of internal resonances. So that’s one way to approach it.
Another is to focus on the theme of the anthology, or on its catchment area if it doesn’t have a theme — for example, two of my books are Australian Love Stories and Australian Women’s Stories, both published by Oxford University Press, and so if as a reviewer or panelist I wanted a ‘single narrative’, I would focus on the criteria for inclusion. Examples: does ‘love stories’ just mean romantic love? Does ‘women’s stories’ mean stories by women, or stories about women, or both? What does ‘Australian’ mean — does it mean that the authors were born here, or that the stories are physically set here, or what?
That kind of thing.
When it comes to collections by individual authors, it can be a bit trickier, but it still wouldn’t be all that hard to pull out some common themes or subjects or genres or stylistic approaches or whatever and talk about them. I think when it comes to TV, the ABC has always been a bit timid about talking heads, particularly when it comes to book shows, and worries that complex conversations on TV will be ‘boring’ (ie won’t appeal to a large enough number of viewers), so I think Jennifer Byrne et al tend to concentrate on the subject matter of books, and that does make a focused discussion difficult since most individual collections tend to vary in their subject matter from story to story.