In Defence of Short Story Collections

Category: Writing

Last week one of my closest friends, Ryan Van Winkle, had his first poetry book published by Salt after winning the Crashaw prize, and we found out Morrissey was wrong about hating your friends when they become successful. Actually, we were all stupidly excited to stand around in Blackwells, scarfing free wine next to a big stack of Our Friend's Book. 

It did, however, make us all want books of our own; books with shiny soft covers with our names printed, pristine pages all full up with our own words. I said this to Nick Holdstock who, like me, writes short stories – poised, perfectly crafted, delicious ones at that – and he snorted. “You're going to have to write a novel then.  Nobody publishes short story collections.”

Of course, this wasn't the first time I'd heard this. I had a similar conversation with Linda Cracknell a couple of weeks ago. She introduced me to the concept of the “shovel” – a series of short stories tied together with common characters and setting, a kind of short-story-cum-novel – which is being touted by publishers as an exciting new direction for short story collections. The reasoning being, I suppose, that a reader could be cajoled into reading something that no one really wants to read normally, by cloaking it in the guise of the friendly novel. The implication being that publishers are forced to take this route, because although they would publish and promote collections, no one actually wants to read them.

Except of course, it's not true. I know people want to read short stories because I want to read short stories, I want to read them every day. Of all the ways you can put words together, I happen to think they're the best. I want to read one straphanging on the New York metro between Prospect Park and Delancy Street. I want to read a couple in the time it takes for the bath water to go cold and toe-topping-up to become futile. I even want to read them online on a glaring computer screen, where they lurk in the breaks between work and Facebook. In fact, though I tend to almost never buy new books, the last three I have bought have all been short story collections.

It's not just me, either. My friends read them, I know because they send me links to McSweeney's Internet Tendency and elimae and because they borrow my favourite books and don't give them back. I've also noticed a lot of people who don't read much like short stories. I know this because at Forest Publications we've published them and taken them on the Golden Hour Tours, we've read them out to audiences who were really just there to see Billy Liar play punk songs, and those people have loved them. They've bought whole anthologies to take home with them and they've whispered in our ears afterwards that that was amazing.

There are perhaps statistics which show I'm wrong about all this, percentage points of sales which demonstrate that people really do only want to buy novels and there's no profit nor point in publishing short stories. Maybe I'm wrong, but it also can't help when publishers approach the short story in such a cowardly, apologetic fashion.  In truth, I don't want my collection published by someone who will stand behind it murmuring that it's almost like a novel, actually, you don't need to be afraid.  Publishers should be holding their short story collections unequivocally aloft and pronouncing that they are what they are, and what they are is wonderful.

Anyway, this rant came to you courtesy of National Short Story Week. Let's all go read short stories. My favourite collections of the moment:

Barbara Gowdy – We So Seldom Look On Love. Female necrophilia, Siamese twins, exhibitionism, circus creatures and pathetic lonely people you can't help falling a little in bit love with.

Miranda July – No One Belongs Here More Than You. This is one of the books I spend my whole life wishing I had written.

Mary Gaitskill – Bad Behaviour. This is the other. Slightly less perfect, but a lot dirtier.

Alan DeNiro – Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead. Especially the one about the girl who falls in love with the fuzzy yellow chicken boy in the jumpsuit who keeps jumping off high buildings.

How about you?