A Word on Anthologies

As much as I love the power and length and impact of a full fledged novel,  I have an unrepentant fondness for short stories.   Yes,  those little bite-sized, read-in-a-half-hour stories that number only a handful of pages.   Particularly, I love short story anthologies.

How can you read this? It’s just a bunch of itty-bitty stories!

I grew up in the days when anthologies were plentiful.  Gifted author/editors like Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenberg delivered volumes of delicious stories from an entire range of authors.  I could scan the shelves in the  early 800’s of nonfiction and find a whole shelf of books to choose from.   It was like having sample platter with bite sized creations by the finest chefs around, and if you didn’t happen to like raspberry filling the next one might just be chocolate cream.

There simply aren’t nearly as many anthologies produced today, especially for kids.  Part of this likely has to do with the slow death of the magazines market where so many short story writers get their start.  Part of it may have to do with the fact that more authors are plunging straight into full-fledged books rather than getting footholds with short stories.  Part of it may be that good short story writing is becoming a bit of a lost art, at least where children’s anthologies are concerned. (I’m open to being convinced otherwise, of course–so please voice your opinions if you feel I’m incorrect.)

I’m well aware that writing a good short story isn’t all that easy.  But finding and curating those stories into a single volume to present to readers can be a huge challenge as well.   I’ve read several hundred anthologies over the years, and I think  it’s given me some perspective on the nature of what makes a really good anthology.

These are my main criteria:

A Clearly labelled Theme

I don’t care whether the theme is  “American fiction”,  “Outer space stories”, or “snack foods that have magic powers”, making that theme clear is key.  Even “Best of 2012” or  a collection of one author’s works is a theme of sorts.   Think of it this way, if you had a restaurant  called “Food” and then  just threw together what ever was in the fridge onto each patron’s plate without any concern for how they went together, you’d quickly lose business.  Narrowing the field gives the reader an anchor point. It pulls in the readers who want what you have to deliver, and gives them a small clue of what to expect when they open the anthology.

My metaphor works pretty well, unless you’re referring to Scooby and Shaggy. I’m pretty sure they’ll eat anything.

Stories that  Stick to the Theme

There’s nothing more aggravating in an anthology that’s created a particular theme than to discover that the story selection has disregarded the theme entirely.  An anthology about dragons should not have a story about ghosts without a dragon in sight.  I recently read an anthology devoted to “boy” stories about science fiction and fantasy.  It was a little disconcerting to find a girl sword and sorcery story in the mix.  Not because it wasn’t a good story, but because it really did not fit the theme.  An inconsistent theme can make a reader unhappy with an anthology no matter how good the stories are.  Don’t announce it’s “urban fantasy” and then give me aliens and stories set in the wild west.

But what about a story about aliens AND the wild west? Nope. Not even that.

Varying the Menu

The best anthology editors know the benefit of not only sticking to a theme, but creating variety within that theme.  This is where the talent of a good editor shines.  Because, let’s face it, with a little work, anyone can curate a group of short stories on a theme.  But selecting the right stories, at the right time is entirely different.

Yes, I’d like to order an appetizer of magic swords, followed by a quest adventure story, a nice rescue the princess twist tale finished up by a dragon and zombie battle. Oh, and throw in a sparkling unicorn for dessert.

Balancing  the Anthology

First and foremost is your kickoff story.  Whatever story an anthology opens with should be a good, strong story dead smack on the theme of the anthology.  It’s the meet & greet story of the book, telling readers what they’re in for.

Hi! I’m SrInthalaerxer. But you can call me Serx. I’ll be your kickoff story this evening. Please keep your eyes on the page at all times and make sure all virgins are properly chained and all gold dropped off in the hoard before you enter. Enjoy the ride!

Then there’s the anchor story.  A solid anthology should go out with a bang, providing a last story that will keep readers feeling as positive about the experience as the first.

The stuff in the middle–well that’s where all the mixing goes on.  The chemistry of making sure two stories with similar plotlines don’t fall next to each other,  of bringing in more unusual authors at the perfect counterpoint to  traditional tale tellers.  The awareness of when one story naturally pairs next to another and when it’ll be too jarring.  There’s a lot that goes into it.  Some of the editors I’ve known have had it down pat.  Others . . .well, I can be disappointed.

But, but, it’s called the Neverending Story! How could it end? How could it????

The Little Things . . .

I always appreciate the editor who goes the extra step.  Who adds a thoughtful introduction about the theme and the process.  Who puts in information about the authors, little tidbits about their lives and books and the stories they’ve shared for the anthology.  One of the best things about anthologies is its ability to showcase authors and I appreciate when it is done well.

Short stories may not be every reader’s cup of tea, but I hope even those who don’t care for them can appreciate the writing ability that allows a writer to tell a story in a scant number of pages and the power of the stories such a format can encompass.  I’ll put up a an anthology list fairly soon, so I can share a few of my favorites!

Got an opinion on anthologies? Please share it in the comments!

About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on July 3, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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