James Van Pelt closes his article on short story collections over at The Fix with a call for people to read them. Its a call I would have to second, even knowing that it won’t be heard. Like poetry collections, or photographic monographs, or independent cinema, the short story is a specialised realm that will never have the same exposure as its mainstream cousin, the commercial fiction novel.
I’m more optimistic than Van Pelt however. There have been bestselling single author short fiction collections. Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman leaps to mind. I’m sure Burning Chrome and The State of the Art have both sold well for William Gibson and Iain M Banks over the years. And then there are ‘fix-up’ novels like David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten that pass off short stories as a novel. And new authors do also get in on the act with Joe Hill and Margo Lanagan both reaching wide audiences with collections.
But I’m not going to disagree with the obvious fact that the vast, vast majority of collections are lucky to sell a few hundred copies. Thats not to say that sales are the only measure of success, some of those collections contain great stories that deserve to be rpeserved, but in commercial terms short story collections are pretty much guranteed to fall flat.
So if fame and fortune are not the reason to publish a collection, what is? Truth be told, I’m happy to see authors publish a collection whenever they like if they find it rewarding, but in terms of building a career as a writer, the best reasons to publish a collection is because you have a collection of stories that is truly great.
A great short story collection is a rarity. It takes at least some inate talent and years of dedication to learn the craft of short story writing, and most writers with both talent and dedication move into novel writing at the first opportunity. And great short stories take a great deal of time to create, so that a great collection can easily represent many more years of work than the wordcount would suggest. But when they do appear, great collections can truly galvanise the writing community. In recet years Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link and City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer have made their authors central figures in the speculative fiction community, despite managing only limited sales. Most casual readers will be largely unaware of them, but for for aspiring and established writers, editors and agents, critics and publishers in the field they are almost compulsory reading, representing the best that genre fiction has to offer.
Short stories are where writers talk to each other. Before publishing a short story collection its worth considering whilst only a few people may see it, those people will be other writers and they will look at it with both great sympathy and a razor sharp critical awareness. They will see every flaw and every shortcut, and every missed opportunity. But they will also grasp the nuances that the casual reader will never appreciate. If you are going to have any impact on them, you’re going to need to be not just competent or even good, but great. That might sound like a terribly high hurdle to cross, but think of it the other way. ALL you need to do is write great stories. You don’t need to fight for a publisher, or scramble after an agent. If you make great writing, those things will happen in their own time. And if you write great stories, then thats the best reason to collect them all together and let people see them.