In Praise of Uneven Story Collections
Over at BookFox, John Fox discusses the all-to-common criticism of story collections being “uneven.” He brings up a few points about why this line of commentary is unhelpful, but this point in particular is one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:
I think the “uneven” critique is particularly prejudiced against short story collections that embrace a wide variety of forms, such as pairing postmodern meta-fiction along with Carver-type realism and throwing in some genre-inspired work.
Almost inevitably, the reviewers tastes will lean towards one style or another, and they’ll laud half the collection and slam the other half. So the critical matrix of short story reviewers (where “uneven” or “even” is used to judge collections) encourages a form-based, limited type of “unity” to collections, and discourage a thematic or innovative type of unity.
I would extend this to a general bias against diverse story collections of any kind, whether of form, voice, structure or levels of “realism.” Wells Tower had one of the best and most talked about story collections last year, yet one of the few recurring complaints was that the titular Viking story was a misstep. I saw several reviewers say it was a weak story or else too out of place to fit with the rest of the collection. This seemed odd to me as myself and so many others had been pining for Tower’s collection precisely because of that story, which had been anthologized in the fantastic The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. Another great and well-reviewed recent collection that still got hit with this criticism was Rebecca Curtis’s Twenty Grand.
The bias against diverse collections is something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I finish up my own story collection. I have a fair range of stories and am trying to decide which ones to include and which to cut. One the one hand, I like the idea of a complete jumble of styles. On the other, I know many readers and presumably publishers don’t. I have not yet sent my collection to any agents, so I can’t say for sure what they will think, but my impression is that a narrow range is preferable.
Although I see the appeal of an author really honing a signature style, I’ve always been attracted to writers like Calvino or Nabokov who constantly experiment and try new forms, styles and voices. Similarly, many of my favorite collections have featured a broad range of work. Barry Hannah’s Airships, which mixes more realist stories with comically absurd war tales and semi-apocalyptic stories about cannibals. David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which tries a whole slew of story structures. Brian Evenson, Lydia Davis, and George Saunders are all examples of great contemporary story writers who play around within their collections.
Some level of coherence is good for a collection, but I’m not totally sure why readers react negatively to variety in a collection. The argument I normally hear is that it is too jarring to go from reading one type of story to reading another. But does that really make sense? The majority of readers, I would imagine, do not read a collection straight through. They read a few stories at a time and likely switch between a few collections and novels. If it is not unsettling to finish a Flannery O’Connor story and then open up a Donald Barthelme collection, why would it be jarring to read a Southern Gothic story followed by a post-modern collage story in the same book?
Or perhaps readers don’t really dislike story variety. After all, don’t readers enjoy anthologies and literary magazines where you get a wide breadth of style and forms? Maybe this bias is mostly a book reviewer and publisher bias. Perhaps a more limited or unified collection is simply easier to market for publishers. Perhaps for reviewers searching for something to say, it is an easy—if not especially insightful or helpful—criticism to fall back on.
Artists should be constantly pushing against new walls and trying new things. I like to see that in collections. We don’t complain when Bob Dylan or The Beatles put different styles of songs on the same album, so why should we worry about different styles of stories next to each other? If you have a handful of different ragged jewels some might shine brighter than others, but it is probably more interesting than a pile of identical smooth stones.
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