Anthologies: How They Work and Why Some Don’t

An anthology is a simple concept, at heart. Grab a bunch of short stories, put them all in one collection and BAM! Done. The execution, though, is a different thing altogether. An anthology is more than just the sum of its constituent parts and, in fact, I intend to argue that a good anthology is as cogent, coherent and carefully executed as any novel. To do this, I shall be using a trio of anthologies from my own collection; the reasons for the selection of the particular collections in question will become apparent as the post goes on.

Murder Most Foul – Ed. unlisted.
The Giant Book of Best New Horror – Ed. by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell.
Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke – Ed. by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin.

I Shall be examining each one in turn and illustrating what works, what doesn’t and, hopefully, why that’s the case. It should be noted that this does not constitute a review of the anthologies as collections of literature, but from the technical standpoint of the anthologist’s art; all three contain stories I adore, am ambivalent towards or outright dislike and no indication shall be given about which stories from which anthologies fall into what bracket.

That's some bad lighting, isn't it?

Pictured: The books examined

First principles:

Before going any further, I think it necessary to explain what I believe constitutes a good anthology and a bad one. The most important thing to note is that a ‘good’ anthology doesn’t contain a high ratio of ‘good’ stories by default. In fact, from a technical standpoint so long as the stories aren’t downright horrible to read, then an anthology filled with mediocre fiction can be classified as ‘good’, or at least ‘technically successful’, while a bad one can be filled with great stories. An anthology exists separately from the literature it contains, being both a vehicle for and passenger of the stories within, which forces it to become an entity in its own right.

A good anthology should contain two of the following three qualities (at a bare minimum): careful pacing, narrative structure and, when at all possible, an anthology should be thematically consistent. While this is difficult to achieve in collections which aren’t tied by any given theme beyond ‘best of year’ or ‘best of [given sub-genre]’ and so on, it can still be achieved by means of ensuring that stories are presented in an order which groups certain themes together while maintaining overall pace and structure.

A bad anthology contains a bunch of stories thrown together with reckless abandon. A bad anthology does not exhibit its contents, it merely allows you a convenient place to see them. It really is as marked as the difference between visiting an exhibit in an art gallery and a shop which happens to sell art.

The good, the bad and the almost good:

Murder Most Foul:

Couldn't find a cover illustration online, so you get my crap photography. Cover art is uncredited in the book.

No anthology of the ones being examined contains so many works by big hitters and names for the ages, and yet, the overall impression it leaves on the reader is one of ambivalence. While it does have a theme of sorts, Murder! The foul kind!, the stories aren’t really placed so much as deposited. While someone involved in the process obviously thought ‘Open strongly so the reader doesn’t lose interest’, and any anthology which opens with a story by Ray Bradbury is opening strongly, beyond that obvious piece of structural thought little attention was given to the pace and structure of the anthology as a whole. The stories fluctuate between the gruesome, the clever, the too clever by half and the light and frothy at a rapid enough pace to cause emotional whiplash (if that was an actual thing, which it isn’t).

While most of the stories are very good indeed, even a minor work by someone like Dorothy L. Sayers or Ray Bradbury is something to write home about, Murder Most Foul flounders because of a lack of thematic direction. Another editor could have turned this into a definitive collection of great crime writing in the short format, but as it stands it fails spectacularly due to its inability to carry the reader along from one story into the next with any kind of smoothness. The lack of thematic imperative or narrative structure afforded by the haphazard construction leaves the book as little more than a brief lived in the memory and lumpen collection of stories, of interest only, perhaps, to completist fans of a given author it might contain.

The Giant Book of Best New Horror:

Cover image taken from vaultofevil.wordpress.com, artwork by Luis Rey

The very title of this book tells you it’s a collection, more than a true anthology; a snapshot of the state of the horror genre at its time of publication in 1993. This overreaching and unwieldy premise is, however, elevated by the skill of its editors. Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Jones know horror – they know it inside out, upside down and back to front. Furthermore, any brief reading of the many articles, author’s notes, forewords, introductions and internet postings of Jones and Campbell tells you that these gentlemen are steeped in the anthology tradition, as is any horror fan old enough to remember when the release of a new Pan Book of Horror was a thing to look forward to rather than a distant memory from their youth.

The above being said, the skill shown by Messrs Jones and Campbell cannot outdo the scattergun approach necessary in such an undertaking. While every attention has obviously been given to ensuring a smooth flow from one story into another, a subtle gathering of the stories into particular sub-types (bad thing happens to undeserving person, rotter gets comeuppance, transformational, the other and so on) and carefully ensuring the closing tone of one story is either echoed or counterpointed by the opening tone of the one following, the sheer volume of inclusions means the anthology groans under its own weight.

Viewing  The Giant Book of Best New Horror as a time capsule, a collection of what horror was about and intended to do at the tail end of the 1980s[1], it’s a roaring success and of great interest to those with a serious interest in horror fiction and it can, and should, be argued that this was the intention. Viewed as an anthology, however, it’s a only a mild success, one qualified by the unavoidable sense of interminable length such a tome brings to bear and which no editor, no matter how highly skilled and knowledgeable, could avoid.

Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke:

Picture taken from pandemonium-fiction.com, artwork by Gary Northfield

Honesty compels me to disclaim the following by admitting that this anthology has a dual advantage over the two previous examples; those of tighter thematic requirements and a smaller collection of stories than those mentioned above. I stress again, this isn’t a comparison of the relative quality of stories contained, but of success in the building of an anthology.

Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke succeeds on multiple fronts. As well as the obvious advantage of thematic consistency imparted by having a restrictive requirement for submissions/commissions, it stands up to examination from a structural standpoint. Stories flow into each other, with no notably jarring examples of mood change. It also bears reading in sequence in order to appreciate the subtlety with which the overall theme, that of Dickensian fiction for the modern era, marries with a specifically Dickensian tone, namely one of warning about current social/cultural trends tempered by optimism for the future, not to mention an inherent fascination with the city of London and its potential to both elevate and corrupt those who choose or are trapped by its environs.

Further to the above, the stories are placed in the anthology in such a way as to draw the reader in. Despite the wildly differing approaches undertaken in the individual stories, the careful construction still evokes the feeling of an overall narrative, from a thematic perspective at the very least, and the sense that the anthology has, when taken as a whole, something to say, as well as something to show you. This almost novel-like pace ensures that the anthology can be read in one sitting as a complete work, as well as dipped into at random.

While the publishers obviously hope to make a profit from the release of this anthology, it’s very clear that first and foremost it was a labour of love and an artistic, rather than commercial, endeavour.

Conclusion:

Of the three books examined, we have one failure, one minor success hamstrung slightly by over-ambition and one major success when each is viewed as examples of the mechanics of an anthology. What is readily apparent is that for any anthologist, established or budding, an understanding of narrative structure and the emotional reaction of the reader are essential. While it’s undoubtedly true that an anthology brilliantly assembled from sub-standard parts[2] can be damned by the faint praise of ‘technical accomplishment’, it’s also true that an anthology which is clumsily assembled from brilliant parts can be condemned as a technical failure.

Equally important, is a genuine connection with the subject matter of a given anthology. Someone not interested in a particular style or genre will miss nuances of classification that a true lover of said style/genre will spot at 100 paces and instinctively know how best to exhibit. Locked Room mysteries are not best followed by spiteful revenge yarns, splatter doesn’t follow easily behind slow burning stories of the Bad Place and so on.

Finally, an anthology should always be, before anything else that may be hoped for it, an artistic endeavour. Once a story has been selected for inclusion, as much thought – if not more – should go into placing it within the collection in such a manner that it is shown in its best light. While a technical understanding of anthologising can take you so far, the final push into excellence comes from an aesthetic sensibility. Knowing that B should follow A is all well and good, but there’s no substitute for knowing that both B and A make for excellent counterpoints to each other so should in fact bookend another story altogether. There’s craftiness in anthologising, but also artistry.

When an anthology succeeds, even slightly, it’s because someone loved it; not just loved the subject matter, although that’s important, but loved the act of anthologising in its own right. The urge to classify, reclassify, tweak and tinker with story placement, analyse and discuss at inordinate length.

When an anthology fails, it’s due to a lack of care at some level. Not caring about the reader, or the subject matter, or the construction or whatever else it may be doesn’t matter. An anthology becomes unlovely when no love was shown to it.

If you’ve made it this far, and congratulations if you did, the next time you find yourself reading an anthology and having a love or loathe reaction, ask yourself if it really is the stories that have you feeling that way, or if something about the construction is making it greater or lesser than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, the answer might surprise you.

[1] Thanks to the slow pace of publishing, any snapshot of a particular genre or movement is slightly out of date when it appears. There’s an entire blog post of its own about this; I might even write it sometime.

[2] Again, I must emphasise that I’m not offering reviews of content, but analysis (clumsily, I admit) of construction. No anthology chosen contains more than its fair share of duffers and all contain moments of brilliance.

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