Monday, 8 March 2010

The Short Story Format

Today I was chatting via Twitter with Gav from Next Read and Lee Harris of Angry Robot Books fame - the subject in question was the Short Story format.

It came up because of two related comments. First off Sam Eades from Headline Books announced a short story collection from Neil Gaiman - untitled at present, but with some truly stellar names included (Joe Hill, Peter Straub and Michael Moorcock amongst them). Secondly, Gav quoted from a source: "People treat short stories like decorative tea towels - nice to have but never used."

I realised that my education in the field of short stories is woefully slight, and so I am interested to hear from those with more experience: which short story collections are worth picking up?

My only experience in the short story format is 'What You Make It' by Michael Marshall Smith - and I've picked up but not read yet 'A Touch of Dead' by Charlaine Harris (mostly because I adore the Sookie books and want to complete my collection) , but that is the lot.

Other than these, please provide your personal favourites!


  1. For me, short story collections are a hit-or-miss kind of thing. A collection of short stories written by an author I like? No problem! I know I like what the author does, and even if it may be sometimes annoying to continually jump between new plot and new plot, I can at least be mostly assured that I'll enjoy the way the author writes. A collection of short stories written by a bunch of different people involving a world or genre I like? It gets a little trickier. It's a good way to find some previously unknown talent, but the constant switching of styles as well as plot can make the collection seem like it's dragging on forever sometimes.

    The above example happens nearly every time I read one of the short story anthologies surrounding Mercedes Lackey's "Heralds of Valdemar" series. I find some great new authors whose books I want to track down, but I'll nearly always find one dud, a story that just doesn't seem to go anywhere and is a chore to read. The upside to short story collections, though, is that you can skip a story if you find you're really not into it, and you're not losing out on much. Being the completionist that I am, though, I make myself sit through it just so I can say I read the whole book and gave everything a chance.

    I'm not opposed to short story collections. I tend to prefer full-length novels, but if somebody handed me a book of short stories and said, "Here, I think you'll like this," I wouldn't avoid reading it just because it isn't a full-length novel. But really, unless it's a genre or world or author that I really love, I'm most likely going to avoid the short stories when and where I can.

  2. Mary Robinette Kowal's Scenting the Dark Short Collection is my favorite read of the year to date. I do read it but not much of it. The problem with short fiction is it's hard to read. Frequently character driven there is a lot of work required on the part of the reader to pay close attention to every word and read not just what the author says but what he doesn't say.

    For me I always struggle through the first third of a book, at least compared to the 2nd two thirds. It doesn't mean a book is bad, it just takes a while to reset my mind to the tone and prose style of the author. You read an epic fantasy novel different that a cyberpunk and a Butcher novel different than a Gaiman book.

    Short stories are like reading the first third of a novel over and over again. You have to repeatedly get in tune with the characters and the author's style which a lot of the time is more surreal or experimental than the average novel.

    Compounding the effect is that short fiction is also difficult to keep reading. When you reach the end of a chapter in a novel, its fairly easy to just read one more. Short fiction on the other hand is meant to be enjoyed in one sitting so you don't always feel like starting a new 30 page story at 1am. There isn't any cliffhanger pushing you to the next page. So when you set down a collection or anthology there isnt always that driving force to pick it back up again. I've got about 5 or 6 unfinished anthologies lying around but no unfinished novels.

    Short Fiction when done right is excellent. When its done poorly, its painful.

  3. Thanks for your great comments, both of you!

    I find myself agreeing with both of you actually. When I sat down to read MMS' short story collection, there was a sense of knowing what to expect from his writing - and yet I didn't feel the same compulsion to complete the book as with his novels, simply because I felt as though I had to immerse myself anew at the start of each short story.

    Cliffhangers are an important factor in encouraging me to continue reading novels, and the lack of these has made it hard on the few occasions I've tried a collection of short stories.

    If people have difficulties with short story collections, why are so very many produced? They seem to be released on an extremely regular basis.

  4. I really like short stories. I'm currently reading The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, which has contributions form Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Sarah Pinborough, Christopher Fowler and many others. It's great I love it.

    I read one story before I go to bed and I know I can finish it in good time. I also enjoy reading short stories and flash fiction in magazines and online, and I like to write them too.

  5. Possibly due in part to the general lack of attention span that runs through the populace these days. It's easy and quick to read a short story, and you can read one, but the book down for weeks, then read the next. Little committment overall. No worries about forgetting half the plot because it's been so long since you last picked the book up.

    I don't mean to come off like I'm badmouthing them for that reason (though I do sometimes cringe at the low attention span and desire for instant gratification that seems to be such a big part of so many lives these days). Honestly, if it gets more people reading, and that's the way they have to do it, then more power to them. It's not my preferred way, but at least it might help cut down on the amount of people who say proudly that they haven't read a book since high school. Low committment short story anthologies might actually be a decent fix for that.

  6. The only collection of short story that held my attention for the duration was Stephen King's Skeleton Crew. I agree with you that it can be difficult to ramp up enthusiasm every time you have to reinvest yourself in a new story.
    I've been working on writing short fiction as a way to better understand the form. My hope is that I'll be able to approach it from a different perspective and enjoy the short story more.
    Thanks for the post!

  7. Some short story collections are certainly great, and they help you discover new authors.

    Robert Silverberg has edited three collections perfect for trying out a new series before you buy it:
    Legends and Legends II (Fantasy) and Far Horizons (Science Fiction). These are perfect if you're wondering about starting reading a series. And since they contain stories by some of the best writers in the field they're great as stand alone stories too.

    I also have to mention Neil Gaiman, his short story collections are excellent. They're pretty varied, and I recommend everyone read them.

  8. While it's tempting to blame diminished attention spans, it doesn't make much sense. If it was true, it would be novels that would be unpopular and the short stories that would be selling.

    I think it comes down to attention span but the reasons people read. Most people don't read for literary merit and of itself and short stories are typically much more literary than novels. People read for immersive experiences and only rarely is a short work able to immerse the reader in the few words alotted to it. Call it immersion, call it empathizing with the characters, call it investment in the story, there is something intrinsic that draws you into the story as it goes on.

    Without that immersion, short stories can't offer the same impact as novels and fall to the wayside. It's the reason why connected short stories, Dresden Files or Sookie Stackhouse, can sell but original shorts don't. That immersion already exists.

    And this is all just the reader perspective. It may be possible for short stories to offer the immersion factor but its harder and requires a superior author who can still produce similar emotions but with a economy of words. Those authors are writing novels because that is where the money is.

    Similarly, the amount of work an author has to put into a 20 page short story is disproportionate to 20 pages of a novel. You continually need new settings, new characters, and new plots.

    So page for page, short fiction is harder to read and harder to write. That's why short fiction isn't popular.

  9. @WeirdMage - Neil Gaiman isn't your typical writer.

  10. I don't really enjoy short fiction very much. Too often I find myself invested in the characters and the situation just in time for the short story to end and often short stories don't feel resolved to me.

    That being said when I have enjoyed short stories it is usually when they are written in connection to an existing book series to fill in missing scenes or to add back story, history or just to follow a minor character that someone that was doing something interesting.

    My favorite short story collections are the ones connected to David Weber's Honorverse, though I have been meaning to pick up and read 'A Touch of Dead' as well.

  11. Thanks to you for visiting my blog and making comments on this. From what people have said there is a definite split between those who enjoy short form fiction and those who don't!

    I like the idea of being able to just dip and out of a book - in fact, I tackled Bill Bryson's Notes From a Big Country for this very reason while travelling - but I have so many novels to read that I almost see short stories as a waste of my reading time. Anyone else feel the same as this?

  12. @Patrick No, Gaiman is definately not a typical writer, he's one of the best. And he has certainly written some of the best short stories I've ever read.

    @Magemanda Short stories are certainly not a waste of time. You should try reading some. M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman is a collection that's not to thick to start out with. And you don't have to read all the stories at once. I'm sure you'll find time for a short story after each novel you read.

    -And I'm a Neil Gaiman fan, if anybody hadn't noticed that yet.

  13. @Weirdmage - Gaiman is one of the single greatest storytellers writing today. It's not so much what he is writing but the way he writes it. There is no science to it, it just works and unbelievably so.

  14. Lovely to stumble upon a discussion about short stories! I run a site called The Short Review, we review only short story collections and anthologies, new and old, across all genres and forms. I think if you have a wander around you'll see that short stories are most certainly not all "literary" and harder to read, there's comedy, erotica, horror, SF, fantasy, steampunk, chicklit, ladlit etc...We've reviewed Chris Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Chris Beckett, as well as Flannery O'Connor, etc... I invite you all to come along and have a wander. We do giveaways of free books each month, this month there are 5 copies of Dan Rhodes' Anthropology: 101 Stories, and a copy of Janice Galloway's Collected Stories, both wonderful books.

    I also recommend multi-author anthologies, a great way to find new favourite authors.

  15. I am more attracted by longer fiction, it appeals more to me. Maybe because matches more the things I am looking in a reading and that make me enjoy the experience. However, I do not neglect short fiction, I have a few authors I love that I discovered through their short fiction. It is a very pleasant way to find little treasures. I tend to read multi-author anthologies, because that way I can have access to many names. Recently the anthologies I read come mostly from the horror genre, with the latest I enjoy a lot being "Dead Souls" and a series that I always look for when it comes out "The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror". I wish I could find more fantasy anthologies, but maybe I wan't looking to closely. There are two of such anthologies I am looking forward to read, this time because there are many authors I love on their line-up, "Warriors" edited by George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois and "Swords and Dark Magic" edited by Lou Anders & Jonathan Strahan. There are two others that make me curious, "Running with the Pack" and "The Phantom Queen Awakes".
    All in all I do prefer longer fiction, but from time to time I enjoy reading short fiction, especially when I find a new author :)

  16. Thank you for the additional responses, especially the last two where a real case for reading short form fiction is put forward. I promise I shall visit The Short Review and have a browse! And I think you should all look out for some reviews of short stories in the future - I will take the plunge with some of the suggestions I have received :-)

  17. Just discovered your blog and reading back through it, really enjoying it. Personally I love short stories. I just finished reading 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill and really enjoyed it. Highly recommended. Also recently read the Sookie Stackhouse short story collection and whilst enjoyable they were not as good (in my opinion) as the novels (very much looking forward to book 10). Any of Stephen Kings short story collections are worth reading. Most Recently Just After Sunset which I loved. Twisted and More Twisted by Jeffery Deaver were very good. I like a good zombie story so an currently working my way through The Living Dead. And on my wish list is Wastelands as post apocalyptic books are my favourite.

  18. Hi Lucie,

    Thanks so much for your lovely comment - it's nice to know that discussion posts such as this one are still attracting interest. Also, thanks for the recommendations! One of my friend blogs is planning a short story month in May, which you might find interesting and that I am planning to contribute to :-)