Sep 8 2010 11:30am

Anthologies: A Few Thoughts

I had a surreal moment at my bookstore day-job recently: a regular customer whom I am accustomed to recommending urban fantasy books and various and sundry SF came in to shop. She was looking for Carrie Vaughn things, and I suggested to her a few anthologies with Vaughn short stories, because the customer already had all of her books.

She said to me, “Oh, I don’t buy those. I don’t like short stuff.”

I was baffled. Visibly, I imagine, because she gave me an odd look. I couldn’t help but argue back that no, really, she was missing out on so much! She did not agree. I probably shouldn’t argue with customers about their reading preferences, but… really? I had finally met one of those people that writers and publishers bemoan—the ones who won’t buy short fiction. How many more of them are there, I wonder? I always hear that the short story is dying and the anthology is an unsalable format, but I can’t quite believe it.

Certainly, our store in the past year has seen a huge uptick in sales of anthologies in the SFF section. I know for a fact that we’ve been sent more of them from our suppliers: in the first year I worked at this bookstore, I had to special-order every single anthology I wanted. We didn’t receive more than one or two. (I work for a Waldenbooks, and so our stock is pre-decided by the Borders buyers.)

This year, on the other hand, we’ve received one or two new anthologies every couple of weeks. Of course, we’re only being sent one or two copies of these new anthologies—one of which generally goes to me, sorry customers—but we’re getting them. And we’re selling them out, generally. This must be true company-wide, or else they wouldn’t send us any more; after all, one tiny Kentucky store hardly affects the overall sales trends enough to skew what they decide to buy. Ergo, Borders must be selling more anthologies, and more anthologies seem to be coming out.

The overall quality seems to be higher, too. Out of the eleven or so anthologies I’ve read cover-to-cover so far this year, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of them. (I’m still working my way slowly and with pleasure through a few, like The Year’s Best Science Fiction—I prefer to read both a novel and an anthology at the same time, so the anthologies take longer.) The increase of attention to inclusiveness, diversity and exploration of more than just “my angst, let me show you it” has definitely pleased me; maybe my selections have skewed my opinion, but most of the things I’ve read have been fairly representative of the variety of people in SFF.

I think there are definitive, traceable reasons for that, one of them being the internet and interactive fandom. When an anthology does things like include no women or people of color, etc.—people notice, and people say something. The availability of easier online publishing with a huge readership and cheaper production costs has introduced so many new writers to audiences who wouldn’t have seen them otherwise. Our own, for example, has been responsible for publishing some great stories in the past two years that have gone on to win awards, show up in best-of anthologies, you name it.

The rise of smaller publishers to prominence in chain bookstores contributes, too. Night Shade and Prime Books both publish a large amount of anthologies, themed and not. I’ve been impressed consistently with the quality of Night Shade’s work—John Joseph Adams is a talented editor and he has a way of grouping stories that really works for me. They’ve also picked up a Datlow-edited Year’s Best Horror to make up for her discontinued series, Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Prime has picked up some of the slack in publishing Best-of anthologies: they offer both a Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction and a Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror now. Not to mention, Prime is as of this year publishing a Hugo Award Showcase (of the 2009 Hugos, I have hopes that next year there’ll be a second edition), and that seriously gains my appreciation. While most of the stories are available every year online, being able to buy an actual showcase is fantastic. (They also published The Bone Key by Sarah Monette, an absolute all-time favorite of mine, reviewed here.)

While they’ve both had, shall we say, a bit of public misbehavior in recent years regarding their contributors, they’re also providing an outlet for short fiction that’s been extremely useful for many readers. As far as quality of production, Night Shade outstrips Prime, who are prone to typographical errors and formatting mistakes that lose them brownie points with me. (I do love the fact that they’re publishing these anthologies and I absolutely think they’re worth buying and supporting, but I’d also like a bit more attention to the simple polishing aspects of the job—page break errors and typos aren’t cool.)

Outside of Best-ofs, I’ve read some excellent themed anthologies this year. Far and above a favorite of mine is Ekaterina Sedia’s Running with the Pack, which is one of the most subject-diverse anthologies about werewolves I’ve ever seen. Queer werewolves, young and middle-aged and old werewolves, werewolves with varying economic situations, bad werewolves and good werewolves, werewolves of color—it was quite the experience. The Sedia anthology makes a point of the fact that an editor doesn’t have to “force” diversity as some people have badly, badly attempted to argue in the past. It’s not about forcing, and diversity only made the anthology better, more rich and awesome. (End soapbox.) Not to mention, it ended on one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read and left me dejected for hours. That’s actually a good thing, if you were wondering.

Not to stop there, either: it’s been a good few years for single-author collections, as this year’s World Fantasy nominees can attest. Peter S. Beagle and Gene Wolfe both recently had collections come out, and I’m so torn about which to vote for. They’re both great. The Best of Gene Wolfe is a gorgeous hardcover (also available in trade paperback now, but mine is hardcover) from Tor. So, don’t let me steal the attention from the big presses when it comes to anthologies. They’ve been doing the work, too.

(A side-note: I special-order stocked the trade of the Gene Wolfe collection at my store, expecting only the other employees to buy it, and a very excited man brought it up to the counter thanking us profusely for carrying it. Apparently, he’d been trying to find a copy in a store for months. I still get a pleased glow thinking about that, really. There are many perks to working in a bookstore, namely the shared joy of uniting someone with their perfect book, which you can’t get anywhere else.)

And that’s just a few of the anthologies I’ve read and loved this year.

The short story really is a careful, twisty, wonderful art-form entirely different from the novel. I hope the first customer I told you about in this post eventually changes her mind—she really is missing out on all this bounty. In the meantime, I just thought I’d share with you a little bit of my love-affair with anthologies.

So, here’s the call to arms that one obligatorily has to include in any post about great books: go buy an anthology sometime soon. Support the editors collecting them, the writers contributing to them, and the publishers who are taking the leap and putting them out. Support your local bookstores, even the chains, if you see them carrying anthologies.

If we buy them, more will come.

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

Alida Saxon
1. alida
I particularly like anthologies for trying out new (to me) authors, but also to get a fix from favorite authors who may not have their next book out yet.

The only time I get peeved with the things is when the story proves vital to an ongoing series. There's been a couple times where felt I was missing something, only to find there was a short story I missed between book two and three.
Natalie Luhrs
2. eilatan
For my personal reading, I generally don't read anthologies--I don't have the necessary mental--I don't know what to call it? flexibility, perhaps?--to appreciate short fiction. I never have and it is definitely a source of frustration for me because I know there's a lot of great short fiction out there. I find anthologies almost overwhelming--I have similar problems with books that change POVs frequently or are extremely episodic. For me, there's something about being able to immerse myself in the text that I just can't get from short fiction.
Christopher Key
3. Artanian
Eh, I'm one of the folks who, in general, doesn't buy anthologies. Given the choice between snacking on
hors d'oeuvre or sitting down for a full meal, I'll most of the time choose the meal.

It's not a hundred percent thing, but take a single-author anthology of an author I really like. I probably have already read the vast majority of the stories. And themed anthologies far, far too often have too much filler in them, especially now that editors feel like they have to cover a whole lot of checkboxes or be flamed interminably on the internet.

But really I just prefer the fully fleshed out storylines present in novels, as opposed to the snippets of such you get in short fiction.
Justin Levitt
4. TyranAmiros
I have a handful of anthologies, mostly things set in universes with a main story like Star Wars, David Weber's Honorverse or Eric Flint's Ring of Fire. Most of them have a crack in the spine to the one or two stories in the anthology I like and most of the rest of the stories sit having been read once or twice. For me, it comes down to the same choice as a movie versus a tv show. I'll take TV over movies any day--I prefer the chance to spend 22 or 13 weeks getting to know the characters and seeing the story develop. It's what attracts me to series like the Wheel of Time or 1632.

Of course, this is all probably due to buying the Tales from Jabba's Palace anthology at 15, only enjoying the Timothy Zahn story, and feeling like I wasted a week's allowance.
Clay Cox
5. Clay Cox
I love the idea of anthologies. And I have bought quite a few of them over the years, but I'm always left feeling a little disapointed with them. Here's how my thought process goes. I think to myself wow this is going to be awesome. A collection of short stories that will utterly blow my mind. I like to expand my mind. New ideas, perspectives, and worlds from different authors. However, for whatever reason I have never made it through a whole anthology book. I seem to always read about 4 or 5 of the stories (1 to 2 of which I will really like) and then never pick the book up again.

For me personally, I think it's the jarring change from story to story. I realize I just contradicted myself, but that's the thing. I'll read a really great short story that really excited me and then proceed to read 3 or 4 really bland stories that turn me off to the rest of th book. It's hard when you really like a short story and it's over and you want more. That's what I think makes novels and especially series so appealing.
Hopefully that made some sense. As you can tell my feelings are a little conflicted when it comes to Anthologies. Mind you I haven't read any in recent years.

Also I agree with everything you said TyranAmiros, all the way down to Tales from Jabba's Palace. lol I had almost forgotten about all of those Star Wars Anthologies. I remember some of the others being good. Maybe the Bounty Hunters one?
Brit Mandelo
6. BritMandelo

Oh, that can be so irritating. (I'm only cool with it when the pivotal short story somehow ends up in the books--included at the end of a paperback release, etc.)

Finding new authors is definitely a benefit of anthologies, I can't tell you how many I've discovered that way.


That's one of the reasons I read anthologies at the same time as a novel. I take them one story at a time and give each story time to settle before reading the next. It helps with the overwhelming-ness, especially of the huge anthologies like Dozois's "Year's Best Science Fiction." Even I can't read that thing all at once.


Huh, that's an interesting way of looking at it. For me, a finely crafted short story/novella can be more immersive and fully-fleshed than most novels. That's what makes a short story good, actually, in my estimation--it feels full and complete as itself and doesn't need anything else. If a story feels like a snippet, it's not a good story; it needed more space than it got.


Hm--that's an interesting analogy. I see what you mean, TV versus movies, but I think each can do things the other can't. Long series, TV or book, focus much less on the word-by-word construction and lyricism and more on over-arching story. Short stories and movies not only can afford to focus tightly on construction but almost have to. (Then again, I'm not much on TV or long-running book series, so maybe that says something about my reading habits?)

@Clay Cox

I'll refer back to @eilatan: it helps to read an anthology one story at a time with pauses in between while you're reading another book. It gives each story time to be good or bad individually, then you can move on to the next with a fresh head. (I break up anthologies when I read them to reduce that "aaaargh too many stories" thing.)
Alex Brown
7. AlexBrown
I'm not a huge fan of collections unless it's a subject matter I really dig (like "Living Dead 2"), or if they have enough variety of authors I dig (like the "Stories: All-New Tales" edited by Gaiman), or if it's one author putting out a collection (like Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghosts").

For the first two, I tend to reach each story with a break in between so the transition doesn't feel as strange, but for the last I just think of them all happening in the same world but just different scenes, like "Paris j'taime" or "Coffee and Cigarettes") so I can read it in one burst.

But, in terms of buying things, I do tend to buy more anthologies/collections for my library's SFF section (I'd buy more in Romance as well if they published them) because I'd rather give people the option to taste, so to speak, new authors than to thrust a whole big book at them and make them try to sift through "American Gods". It's less daunting, I've found, to give a patron a collection and point out the few to read. And it's easier to transition them into the full works later on once they've found someone they like.
Clay Cox
8. iamrazorwing
I've only started buying anthologies within the past two years, and I'm extremely glad I did. For one, the various themed anthologies have given me a better understanding of the various spec fic strains, as both a reader and--more importantly, for me--as a writer. In a short time I can see a wide variety of tropes, themes, and techniques at work, as opposed to the narrower scope (in craft terms) of a novel.

Also, I've found a number of great writers through their short fiction; they write novels too and some, like Kelly Link or Margo Lanagan, write novels rarely if at all.

Besides Night Shade and Prime, Tachyon's also been delivering some great anthologies. The Very Best of Charles de Lint, The Secret History of SF, Steampunk, to name a few. And Small Beer does some great work too, even if they aren't as prolific as other presses.

So yes, anthologies deserve support. Thanks for writing this.
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
I tend to argue that movies are short stories rather than novels. I enjoy reading short fiction as well as long, but agree that a steady diet of short fiction can make you a little crazy. (I carefully spaced my Hugo voting packet reading out for just that reason) A well-written short story is more likely to give me that sensawunda kick- something about it being a perfectly crafted thing.
Clay Cox
10. Jazzlet
I too find short stories are good for finding new authors.

They are also good for giving me a proper break from reality if I need one, but don't have much time.

@Artanian, I am a bit boggled as to how you manage to read the short stories of authors you like if you don't buy anthologies. Do you find them on the web? In magazines? I am curious as new sources of short story are always useful.
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
11. ceitfianna
I've always really enjoyed anthologies and I keep using all the coupons Borders sends me to buy them. That's because they tend to be slightly more expensive and the coupon make them about the price of a good paperback. I tend to read them before bed and they work well for that, since I can read a story or two and then sleep.

I like the chance to read new authors and stories by authors that I already like. I tend to pick themed anthologies such as Fantastic Sherlock or The Faery Reel so that I know I'll enjoy the topic.

One of my favorites recently was an anthology of stories inspired by Gaiman's The Sandman series. Also I love authors who write wonderful collections of short stories; Charles De Lint and Diana Wynne Jones in particular. Though the whole genre of short mystery stories is one of my favorites too, I just finished a collection of all of Dorothy Sayers' short fiction.
Clay Cox
12. R. Emrys
I like anthologies but am extraordinarily picky. I'll usually only pick one up new if it has 3 or more stories by authors I've heard of and like. That's usually a good sign that A) the editor's taste matches mine, and B) the editor had their pick of awesome stories, and the ones by people I haven't heard of will probably be awesome too.

It takes a lot for me to buy an anthology on the strength of the theme alone, or the editor alone, since neither seems to be a really good predictor for me. I adored the Vandermeers' pirate anthology, though I normally hate pirate stories. However, their steampunk anthology--a theme I love--left me entirely cold except for the Ted Chiang.
Other Alias
13. ghostcrab311
I love short fiction, when it is done well. The artistry involved in telling a complete story in a limited space can be magnificent.

Some of my favorite authors I like mainly for their short fiction. For example, Asimov's robot short stories - I love them, but the novels not so much. Chad Oliver is another favorite of mine for short stories.
Kate Shaw
14. KateShaw
I prefer novels and I rarely go out of my way to read short stories. I do like anthologies with themes. The best anthologies (to my mind) have a general theme such as "dragons" but each of the stories has a radically different take on dragons.

I hate the "best of" type of anthologies since they always seem to have the same names in the table of contents and draw from the same handful of sources. I don't subscribe to the big SF/F magazines because I rarely find stories I like in them; why should I read an anthology where most of the stories come from those magazines?
rob mcCathy
15. roblewmac
I read Alfred Hitchock every month, Asmov when I can and subcribe to Werid tales So I READ shorts by the ton.
Ursula L
16. Ursula
I like short stories, but I don't tend to buy anthologies.

When I'm buying books, I tend to read a fairly large chunk in the bookstore, before deciding to buy.  With an anthology, that tends to be several complete stories.  But because the individual stories have been read completely, there is no suspense, no urgency to bring the book home and finish it, to find out what happens.  

So the anthology goes back on the shelf.  

I like short stories.  Whenever I visit my folks, I catch up on th issues of Analog that my dad has accumulated since my last visit.  I read short fiction online, such as here, or some fanfiction.  

But it tends not to be what I buy at the bookstore. 
Clay Cox
17. clm
I also like short stories; some authors/stories work better at short length and a short story is less of a time commitment. However, I don't buy anthologies very often. I think part of this is not knowing what to look out for. I'm not even sure how multiple author anthologies are usually shelved, but I guess they must be at one end, which I'm more likely to miss when skimming the shelves for inspiration. Also, I already have so many books on the to read list, without branching out into short stories as well...

One anthology series I highly recommend is Firebirds and the two follow ups - YA fantasy storys from a bunch of great authors.
Marcus W
18. toryx
At the risk of causing trouble, my first thought on finishing this post was, "There are still Waldenbooks out there? Neat!" My partner and I were just talking about them a couple of weeks ago, remembering those long ago days in our youth before Barnes & Noble and Borders when Waldenbooks was heaven.


I love short stories and I love anthologies. Unfortunately, it's been years since I've enjoyed an anthology of modern works. There's just something about modern short stories that I find rather unsatisfying. I'm sure it's just me. All my short story pleasures come from books that are 30, 40, or even 50 years old.

I'm afraid I'm turning into the literary equivalent of those old men who are constantly turning to their children/ grandchildren and saying, "Do you have to play that so loud? Back in the day we had music, not noise!"

Sven Hesse
19. DrMcCoy
I for one love anthologies. They're actually how I started reading SF, because my father took lots of anthologies with him on holidays ("Science Fiction Story Reader" et al. published by Wolfgang Jeschke in the Heyne Verlag).
Got a huge amount of memories of my father and me reading them all through the holidays. :)
Clay Cox
20. winterking
I really like short stories, but what I don't like is spending money on a big anthology that ends up containing one or two stories that I like, and a dozen or more that bore me, or that aren't interesting. So I'm happy to purchase anthologies of a single author's short stories, when it is an author I like (Neil Gaiman's collections are some of my favorites); but I avoid the general anthologies.
21. Beardmonger
I like short stories, but I always end up feeling a bit ripped off when it comes to multi-author anthologies since I rarely like more than a couple of them. Only anthologies I buy now are Peter S. Beagle's as it's rare for me to not like one of his stories.
Clay Cox
22. Nate Stokes
I buy or at least read every anthology I can, The Dozois and Hartwell/Kramer Best of's, anything with Greenberg, Ellen Datlow, JJ Adams or Lou Anders Involved, author collections, originals and retrospectives! Not only is short form stuff dynamic and exciting, it's also the source of new novelists and universes to explore. So basically, if it's sf f or h I'm either gonna buy it or borrow it. I've never understood how people can 'dislike' short fiction! It blows my mine and saddens me that, for example, you'd miss out on all of the Asher polity short stuff, or Stephen Kings shorts.

Without short stories, I don't think reading would be quite so fun for me. The recent resurgence is fantastic as far as I am concerned.
Brit Mandelo
23. BritMandelo

No offense taken. There aren't a lot of us left, but we're very intense about keeping our store profitable enough and awesome enough, with the best stock we can get, so that we stay open. (I've been shopping at the Waldenbooks I now work at since I was a baby, actually. It's been a constant in my life.)

@Nate Stokes

You're like my short-fiction-buying twin. *g* That's exectly what I do. (Datlow, in particular, has never really disappointed me. She's a golden editor.)
Ian Gazzotti
25. Atrus
I'm a fan of the short story but not much of anthologies. When I do buy them, they're either from authors I already like, or all set in the same universe, or both (like the old Darkover anthologies, or Asimov's Black Widowers).

I have a few "all his short stories" books, but those tend to be read at random times between novels, as I can't really stand that much short prose in a row. It feels like dipping your toe in a thousand different lakes without ever actually diving in.

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