the Little Red Reviewer

Short stories – anthologies, collections, magazines. Yay or Nay?

Posted on: July 19, 2017

I used to struggle with short stories. I had no idea how to read anthologies.  How hard could a themed anthology be, right?  I’d overthink the entire thing, and make myself miserable.  I’d finish stories I didn’t enjoy because some part of my brain was telling me that these stories were chapters in a larger universe, and if I missed the end of the story, I’d have missed some important plot point. No wonder I didn’t get it! For the life of me, I could not understand why anyone thought short stories were worth a damn.

 

Luckily, I finally my hands on some anthologies that weren’t crap, and I came across some fantastic single author short story collection, and I found some fantastic short story podcasts (if you’ve not listened to Kate Baker tell you a story, you are in for a treat!).

 

Also? that table of contents? I completely ignore it.   The editor spent days or maybe weeks putting that table of contents together for goodness sakes, they are telling me something with that table of contents, I should respect their message, right?

 

The first time I realized I could read an anthology in any order I pleased was a revelation.  Since then, I’ve been reading the shortest stories first, and working my way up to the longest stories. Or, I’ll read the interesting sounding titles first. Or I’ll read my favorite authors first.  If I read two or three short stories and I’m still “meh” on the whole deal, I’ll probably put the book down and never pick it back up again. What I’m getting at is that when I started allowing myself to have control over how I read an anthology and read it however I damn pleased, I started enjoying them a lot more.   Sorry editor,  all your work on your perfect table of contents was wasted on me.  Can I buy you a drink or dinner when I see you at a convention, to make it up to you?

 

How about you?   Are you into short stories?  How do you imbibe them? Anthologies? single author collections? short story magazines and/or podcasts?   If you’re like me, and you used to struggle with short stories, how did you get past the struggle?

 

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37 Responses to "Short stories – anthologies, collections, magazines. Yay or Nay?"

I don’t tend to read collections of short stories anymore because half the stories are written “in universe” and I’ve not read “Universe X” books.
If all short stories were actually self-contained, then that would make a huge difference to me. My favorite collections of short stories are Alan Dean Foster’s 2 books “Who Needs Enemies…” and “…with Friends like These?” and Asimov’s collected short stories.
I also like Clarke’s “More than one universe”.

But sadly, I don’t see collections like that anymore. and since I don’t read ezines, I’ve pretty much given up on the short story…

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I’ve run into that too!! where the whole collection is “in the world of”, or a handful of stories are “in the world” of and it’s something I’m not familiar with. But, I did get into Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series because I’d run into some “in the world of!” short stories.

If you liked those Alan Dean Foster books, you might keep your eye out for the anthology “Worst Contact”, it came out a few years ago. They are all first contact stories gone horribly wrong. I’ve dipped in and out of it, and what I’ve read so far as been entertaining and often funny.

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Worst contact. Adding it to my tbr now. Thanks!

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I always *want* to read short stories, especially as it would let me sample more authors easier. But when it comes down to it, I just about never choose to read them, always prioritizing novel length stories instead. Honestly, I can’t even quite explain why other than maybe the more complicated plot lines and characters that can be achieved with more words is appealing? Or maybe its because I always feel “behind” and don’t want to use my reading time on something that won’t get me to the end of a novel? Honestly, I can think of so many rational arguments to read more short stories, they are quicker, easier to fit in to my schedule, I could try more authors, etc, etc. But still, I always seem to pass them over anyway.

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Limited reading time, of course you have to prioritize! And I totally get what you’re saying about feeling behind, be it in a novel or a series.

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I usually have better luck with single author collections, especially if it’s an author I’m already familiar with. And I tend to have bad luck with bigger tomes that have a gazillion stories in them. I feel like I’ll never get through it! But I like your attitude, I’ll have to try it sometime.

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Same! I love finding short-ish volumes of short stories by an author I know I like – I’m thinking of the one Peter Watts did a while ago. He’s an author I like, the collection didn’t have a whole ton in it, I had a ball zipping through the collection (in whatever order I wanted!) over the course of a week or so. LOL, if the book is too big to fit in my purse, it’s too intimidating as a short story collection!

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Some of my favourite books are single-author short story anthologies: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Karen Russell’s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Yoon Ha Lee’s The Conservation of Shadows, and James Joyce’s Dubliners. My main problem has always been with multi-author ones. I usually find that the quality is all over the place, with most stories being good but not great. At the same time, I realise this is a bit neurotic but I really dislike it when there’s huge variation in story length. Novellas should be published separately! It messes up the whole rhythm of reading, I guess, as you get used to reading a short piece here and there, and then suddenly you’re confronted with a 70-page behemoth and you don’t know whether to break it up into chunks or read it all in one go. Still, again, I can think of two really great multi-author anthologies: The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, and Ken Liu’s Invisible Cities book collecting his translations of Chinese sci fi.

Thanks for the Kate Baker tip! I’m always looking for new podcasts. There are loads of episodes though–would you recommend any in particular?

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“The Things” by Peter Watts is a great one. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/audio_01_10/

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Yes! micheleframe has a great suggestion for The Things by Peter Watts. I also recommend Two Ways of Living by Robert Reed and Left of Bang by Vajra Chandrasekara, both from Clarkesworld and read by Baker.

That’s what used to really turn me off to anthologies, was exactly as you say – the quality is all over the place and the story length. The Clockwork Phoenix anthologies edited by Mike Allen have the highest overall quality of stories I’ve come across. Thanks for the rec’s for the Murad/Shurin edited antho and the Liu translations!

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Yes, yes, and yes! I read a TON of short stories. I’ve read at least one a day since August of 1995. I started with mysteries, and it is still my go-to genre, but moved on to other genres (yes, SF and fantasy – Silverberg, Clarke) as well as straight fiction (John O’Hara, Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, etc.).

Personally, I’ve always preferred single author collections, but I do (of course) read anthologies too. Sometimes I plow through start to finish, sometimes I start with the authors I know and like, and if I’m pressed for time I’ll look for something short! And yes, if I’m reading an anthology, I feel much freer about skipping a story that doesn’t grab me from the beginning.

My library has been buying a lot more ebooks, and I’ve been borrowing collections (HARDER GROUND by Joseph Heywood is the latest) to read in between everything else, and take with me to Starbucks.

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one a day since 1995? I am in awe!!

Short is golden here. I know I can enjoy a super short story while drinking coffee in the morning, and a longer one of my lunch break. I’m looking for super short that I can read in 10 minutes, or a 40 minute read, you know?

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I love short stories. When they’re done well, they’re like gems, small and perfect. If they’re not done well…at least you haven’t lost too much time!
As for modern SF and F, I have found most of the ones that I really like in anthologies put together by David Hartwell. I go into magazines and anthologies with the expectation that I won’t be thrilled by most of the stories; it’s normal. But when I find a good one, I may go back to it time and time again. “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang is one that I never tire of.

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I’m not a big short fiction reader.

Part of the problem is that the speculative short fiction today just isn’t that good. It doesn’t compare to either the “literary” or vintage SF short fiction I read.

Even the stuff I like, I would prefer longer stories. I will pass up a collection of Ron Rash short stories in favor of a novel (or I would if he had any left I hadn’t read). I scour used bookshops for actual novels instead of the scores of short story collections by the old greats.

I like your idea of how to approach an anthology, but I couldn’t possibly keep track of what I’ve read without going in order. I have gotten pretty good at skipping past stories that don’t appeal to me, or that I think wouldn’t, especially the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I find very hit or miss.

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I admit, I do have trouble keeping track of what I’ve read when I skip around. For the last 5 years I’ve been skipping around the Vandermeer edited Weird Compendium. Of course, I gravitate to the shorter stories first. Only to find I’ve already read them.

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It always kind of baffles me when people say they don’t have time to read short stories (the excuse I seem to hear most). They’re…short. I think they’re really saying that they don’t have time to keep up with magazines, which is valid I guess. But I love short stories. I can read them in a doctor’s waiting room, on my lunch break, at the Laundromat…anywhere I need something quick and easily digestible. I think a lot of times they can be more innovative than novels. I’ve discovered a lot of brilliant authors through their short work. And yeah, there are some themes or plots or styles that don’t work for me but I’ve learned to identify them pretty quickly and just not finish them if they’re not jiving with me.

Where I have problems is when it comes to reviewing anthologies. Because there will always be some standout stories, and some lackluster ones, and it’s difficult to determine how to grade such things.

I don’t read a ton of single author collections. Every once in a while. Mostly I stick to online magazines that are easy to access and that I can pick and choose from, depending on my mood. I started kind of cultivating a habit of reading short stories when I discovered a couple of flash magazines that email them to you every day. It’s fun to have microbursts of fiction to look forward to in my inbox every morning.

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Yes to easily digestible pieces of fiction! I’ve been lucky enough to come across some really innovative short stories, neat things done with dialog and worldbuilding that just wouldn’t work in a novel. It’s like, because you have a word limit, you have all these limitations. But it actually frees the author to do all sorts of other cool weird stuff.

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I read both collections and anthologies, but rarely digests or emags. I often have an anthology going while reading novels, and use it to take a break between them, or to read while waiting. I don’t skip around in shot story books – heavens! too confusing! – but readily skip any story that’s not interesting me and go on to the next one.

Sometimes I get burned out on novels (of whichever genre) and then short stories refresh my palate and give me a nice break.

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I’ll add that the editor makes a difference. Good editors make good choices of authors and stories, add prefacing materials, set context where necessary and are a indicator of overall quality. I’m especially impressed by the anthologies Gardner Dozios edits. Also Jonathan Strahan.

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Perfect example: I just finished LINESMAN by S. K. Dunstall (which was very good), and I’m waiting for the second in the series to arrive tomorrow. So I’ve started another story in the Very Fat anthology ROGUES, edited by Dozois and Martin. I’ll continue read stories from it until I have the next book, ALLIANCE in hand.

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you are so right, that the editor makes the anthology! There are plenty of authors out there who want to try their hand at editing (and really shouldn’t), and vice versa. There are authors whose books I love but I’ve learned not to touch the anthologies they’ve edited, and editors who anthologies were amazing, but the books they authored were just so-so.

How are you enjoing ROGUES?

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Quite good so far, no duds, but keep in mind it’s multi-genre, and I read Mystery-detective fiction as well as SF and Fantasy. I think there will be some adventure and even western stories somewhere ahead, but if Dozios says it’s worth reading, I’ll give it a shot. It is a Very Thick Book (about 900 pages, I think).

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I asked a few friends and it seems like there are lots of us who read collections starting with the shortest stories (me included). Maybe editors should just arrange anthologies that way, LOL.

I credit Ted Chiang for getting me into short stories. I adored all of his, and once I started reading shorts I couldn’t stop.

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YES, the editor needs to just put the stories in order, shortest to longest!

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I theoretically like short stories. I grew up on Isaac Asimov, and I’ve happily plowed through a dozen almost-entire-not-very-good anthologies of D&D short stories.

The problem is… well, the biggest problem is… I’m not good at starting things. When I’m reading a book, at least once I’ve passed a certain pagecount, I’ll virtually always finish, and often quite quickly. But actually committing to picking up a new thing to read – rather than checking my e-mails again, or watching some easy TV show or whatever – is hard for me.

That’s bad enough with books. But with short stories? Unless they’re very short (so that I go from one to the next without pause), reading an anthology is like having to pick up a dozen new books in a row. It tends not to happen, unfortunately. Particularly, I think, because I know the rewards from reading the story are likely to be limited (compared to the rewards of a novel).

There’s the additional problem that most anthologies aren’t very good. For three reasons:

a) particularly in the case of the constant stream of new anthologies, the number of actually good stories by actually good authors to go around is limited, and so an anthology might at best have a couple of good stories in it, and then a lot of filler;

b) it’s really difficult to “balance” an anthology, tonally. Either (particularly with multiple authors) you have a splattering of stories that don’t seem to go together, hung together theoretically by the vaguest of themes but in practice by whatever the editors could wheedle out of their friends before the deadline; or (particularly with single authors) you have a string of stories that seem to repeat themselves, which makes even the best story seem jaded. In principle, an editor could cunningly craft a delicately-arranged assortment of contrasting and complementing stories that summed to more than its parts; I don’t think this happens often;

c) with modern short stories, I tend to find there’s a very, very strong sense of familiarity, due to the mutual influence of what I guess is a subculture of speculative fiction short story writers (and a general “MFA”-ish tone more widely). Of course, you could say the same about a lot of long fiction subgenres too. But with, say, an epic fantasy novel, I can accept the clunkiness of the genre assumptions because I hope that over the course of the long page count the author can do something new and innovative with it. With a short story, unfortunately, by the time you’ve recognised what story it’s retelling, it’s already over, with no time to do anything novel.
I remember being quite disappointed a while ago when I picked up a highly-recommended anthology by… I guess you’d say respected B-listers (people I’d mostly heard of but not mega-names). I went down the list of titles, and read the first line or two of each… and every single story, just from that, felt immediately familiar to me. I don’t think I bothered reading any of them. I get the same feeling whenever I look at an e-zine.
[I’m not saying there aren’t Surprise Twists, of course. On the contrary – it’s the fact that you know there’s a Surprise Twist and what it’s going to be that’s the real killer, I find].

So… at present, not getting on so well with short stories, or at least not contemporary ones.

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You might have some luck with flash fiction – stories that are under 1000 words. You can get through them in about 5 minutes, and these stories are so short they aren’t trying to do anything complicated – you won’t feel like you’ve picked up a novel. the flash fiction is like reading a photograph.

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One thing I like about short stories is they give me the chance to “sample” an author. Instead of investing the time into a novel or novella, I can see if I like the writing style, etc of an author in a short sample size and then pick out those where I want to read more.

And like you, I struggle at times with feeling like I have to go through a short story collection from page one to page 100. I think it’s the part of me that wants to assign context to things even if that context doesn’t exist.

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The only problem with the ‘sampling’ idea (which I agree is attractive) is that it seems increasingly as though the short story writers are becoming a different group of people from the novel writers. But maybe that’s an unfair impression?

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Yes to sampling authors! I’ve discovered a lot of fantastic authors just because I happened to come across one of their short stories. That experience didn’t get me to read more short stories, but it did get me to read more stuff from that particular author.

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I tend to read a short story here and there rather than the whole anthology in one go. I like to have a bit of breathing space between one story ending and another beginning. Otherwise they all run together in my mind and become a giant mush.

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that happens to me all the time!! If I “binge read” a collection, everything gets mixed up in my brain and I forget which characters and scenes were from which story.

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I read anthologies and collections. In fact, I subscribe to Fiction River which publishes a themed short story collection every couple of months. Many of them are multi-genre.

I agree with some commenters that there are a lot short stories today which are part of some specific worlds, especially in fantasy, and they can be hard to read without prior knowledge of the world. But of course when I know and like the world, I’m happy to read them.

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I’m not a huge fan of short stories either. I prefer novels because one of my favorite things in storytelling is a full character arc and I don’t feel like short stories have the time to develop characters in their few amount of pages. That said one of my favorite stories ever is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

I’ve read 2 short story collections in full: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the Best American Short Stories of 2016. BASS I had to read for class so I couldn’t choose to read the stories in the order I wanted and I had to finish the ones I didn’t like. It was okay. There were a few stories I enjoyed and many I wouldn’t have finished if I had the choice.

I liked The Bloody Chamber quite a bit. I read it last summer after reading and loving her novel, The Magic Toyshop.

I’m also slowly working my way through Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning which is not as good as I’d hoped it to be.

That podcast sounds interesting though. I’ll have to check it out.

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I can see how BASS would be a challenge to enjoy, since someone else was dictating what you read and when, and that you had to finish stories that weren’t enjoyable. That’s never fun!

For what it’s worth, one of my favorite recent collections was The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez. The stories were easy to get into, I felt like I could relate to the characters, it was just darn fun to read.

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I’ll check that out when I have more free time. Thank you for the rec! 😀

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I think I’m able to read short stories because of my short attention span and/or limited time throughout the day. I think it’s also a way for me to warm up when I have to read longer story and novels.

Also thanks for the recommendation on the podcast! Got to check her stuff out!

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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