The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith (2007) 287 p.
There’s a common consensus amongst booksellers, publishers and authors that short story anthologies don’t sell nearly as well as novels. J.G. Ballard called them the “loose change in the treasury of fiction;” George Orwell thought that most modern short stories were “utterly lifeless and worthless, far more so than most novels.” I’ve quoted Michael Chabon’s perfect description on contemporary short stories so often on this blog I can’t do it anymore in good consciensce.
I used to disagree with prevailing opinion, but I’ve read quite a few anthologies this year and I’m starting to realise I was wrong. Whether it’s Stories, The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, or The Best Australian Stories 2010… none of these books grabbed me. They all suffered from the weak links in the chain. I can count the number of short stories I have read in my entire life that I really, really enjoyed on the fingers of one hand.
I suspect I even suffer from the common bother of disliking short stories simply because, as Orwell pointed out, they’re so truncated; you don’t get a chance to unwind and stretch out, to really get to know the characters. The Book of Other People opens with a story by David Mitchell, my absolute favourite author of all time, yet it didn’t really do anything for me. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the collection, which mostly featured writers I’d never heard of.
I started reading short story anthologies in order to practice my own (a short story being a much quicker way for a young writer to achieve the validation of publication), but I think I’m getting fatigued from the constant disappointment. This is not to say that short story collections are usually bad – indeed, The Book of Other People isn’t bad – but they are almost universally average and forgettable. I suppose an anthology actually subverts the purpose of a short story, which is supposed to be a quick dose of fiction, standing by itself and read in a single sitting. An anthology is an attempt to collate short stories into something more like a novel, and the stories suffer for the comparison.