Friday, October 2, 2009

How do you read short story collections?

There are two basic ways to read a short story collection:

1. In order from first to last
2. Out of order

There's only one way of doing option 1 and many different ways of doing option 2 (if my high school maths is correct, the number of different orders in which you could read a collection would be equal to the number of stories squared, so an 18 story collection has 324 different order combinations - - correct me if I'm wrong). And then there's those collections you don't ever finish, regardless of which order you read them.

I used to read collections out of order, jumping ahead to titles that took my attention or stories whose length matched the reading time I had available. Over the last few years, however, I've taken to reading them through in order. I'm not sure if this is because my reading has become more targeted (I have to read x number of books this month), or because I was beginning to compile my own short story collection and was forced to think about order (one day I might discuss my own ordering…). It may just be that I'm reading faster and more often these days, so picking a story to fit my reading time doesn't seem an important consideration any more.

One argument for reading short story collections in order, which only just occurred to me (so I can't claim it really factored into my shift away from reading on shuffle), is that there's a higher chance you're reading the book in the same order as someone else. That is, for all the 324 different orders in which an 18-story collection can be read, the order presented in the book is likely to be the most predominant. If you're going to review a book, discuss a book with someone, or even read someone else's review, you might want to do everything in your power to assure as much common ground as possible. Or not.

For this argument to have any sway, one must concede that the order in which stories are read influences your reading, understanding and enjoyment of said stories and the collection as a whole. I doubt there's any empirical evidence either way (when was the last time the book industry approached anything scientifically?), and even if there was, it would probably conclude: in some cases.

OpportunityThe obvious case where reading in the order specified by the author (and/or their editor/publisher) is a linked collection. I read Charlotte Grimshaw's Opportunity (2007) in order, and I got the feeling that the payoff of some of the connections (e.g. marginal character X from story 2 returns as narrator in story 7) was down to the order. It may well have been the same payoff if things were reversed (narrator of story 2 appeared as a marginal character in story 7), but what about the spacing between the stories? If the character returned in the very next story, that might be too soon. Part of the payoff with those sort of connections is the reader feels a flush of pride in recognising a returning character and being able to bring a little extra information to the table. If the stories are back to back, it doesn't exactly flatter the reader's abilities. And conversely, if the stories are too far apart, it may be too much work to recall who character X was way back at the beginning of the collection.

I won't spoil it for those who haven't read Opportunity, but the final story in the book only really works as the final story. It places a frame around all the preceding stories that gets you questioning what actually happened.

SingularitySo there are definite incentives to reading a linked connection in order. One may look upon these books however as not quite short story collections. Grimshaw herself referred to Opportunity (and even more so it's follow up, Singularity which is in my to-be-read pile) as more of a novel with a huge cast of characters than a short story collection, or what the kids these days are calling a novel-in-stories. Perhaps linking short stories is an attempt by novelists and novel-mad publishers to enforce order on the reader's experience? Perhaps they're missing the point of short story collections? Should every piece be able to exist on its own. Cadbury does not specify the order we must eat Roses chocolates in, though they may well have a theory about which order maximises utility.

But to argue that all orders are created equal ignores the fact that even un-linked story collections have an order imposed upon them by the author (&editor/publisher). Decisions were made. Books were printed and there was no going back.

I now believe, having worked through the process of ordering a short story collection (and seeing two other short story fiends mould their collections during my MA year) that there is something more to be gained by reading a collection in the author's chosen order. It's one of those' the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' ideas. Looking at the order, you could guess that the author thinks certain stories work well together. Or the author thinks the reader should start of with a happy story, or a brief story, or a violent one. The author may not have got the order bang-on for your tastes, but by reading it their way, you might glimpse a bit more of them as a writer.

I was once told by an agent (in the middle of a rejection letter), "I like your brain". This still rates as the best praise I have received in the book world (followed closely by "You're a freak"; my editor at Random House upon learning the year of my birth). While I'm down with the show-don't-tell mantra and would hate for anyone to think I am a chauvinist just because I wrote a story about one, I do think one of the joys of reading short story collections in getting a multi-faceted view of a writer. I feel like I can step back after reading a short story collection and say, "I like this writer's brain."

I felt as if I could say, "I like Owen Marshall's brain," after reading whichever of his collections I read first, and find particular joy in discovering new facets, or old facets expressed better, to this brain in subsequent collections.  Some of this is obviously to do with the stories themselves, the genres they broach, the voices they project.  But some of it comes from from the pairings of like or unlike stories, and the placement of the more memorable (like the brutal 'Coming Home In The Dark' to end the collection of the same name).

In the coming years technology will also factor into how we read short story collections. While the uptake of e-readers is unlikely to be universal, just as not everyone today owns an mp3 player, there'll be a swathe of readers out there who won't have to worry about front and back covers and physical bookmarks. Novels may be better served by a glorified pdf format, but short story collections may suit a web-format where each story is linked from the contents, and at its conclusion you return to the contents page and choose another story. You could even have a shuffle function so that you read stories from different collections and different authors in an order determined by fate (or an Apple algorithm).

I suspect that the further away one steps from reading a collection in its entirety, the greater risk one runs of losing a sense of what makes that book special or worthwhile. Then again, musicians everywhere probably think the same thing about albums, and when was the last time I listened to an album in sequence and uninterrupted? (Actually I'm listening to one now - Jarvis Cocker, Further Complications… trying to decide if I go to his show in December...).

For the time being, most of us will settle for a nice paperback (and paper-inner), but the question remains: what order will you read it in?
For collected editions or anthologies containing more than one author, they often take the easy way out, using chronological or alphabetical orders. Chronological order can be useful in charting the development of a writer (Lorrie Moore's Collected Stories goes backwards, but the intention is similar) or a particular literature (like Essential NZ Short Stories or The Penguin Book of Contemporary NZ Short Stories). Alphabetical works well for reference material which you'll dip in and out of, but in terms of creating a reading experience, it's no better than a random order, so why stick to it? (I think alphabetical order in journals like Sport and anthologies like Best NZ Fiction is just a way of not stepping on people's toes, but I digress.)

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