A good short story stands on its own as a complete and satisfying narrative that can be devoured in, according to the legendary short story writer Edgar Allan Poe, one sitting (Poe has some interesting ideas about short fiction in his critical writings).
There are some excellent theme driven anthologies out there. A quick browse around Amazon will provide everything from the mundane, to the absurd and erotic. However, collecting together stories previous published in a variety of other locations, rather than written for the anthology shows the importance of reading short stories independently.
Where is all this coming from? I just read J.Robert Lennon’s anthology See You in Paradise. It is a collection of stories that were more promising than successful. I was enticed by the fact that the stories were initially published in a variety of monthly publications from Weird Tales to the New Yorker, Harpers, Granta and Playboy.
Collected together, I ended up questioning why they would have been published in the first place. ‘No Life’ a weak little story about a couple wanting to adopt and meeting another couple who want to adopt the same child. After finishing it seemed an unlikely story for the New Yorker.
The best of the collection was the first story ‘Portal’ a science fiction/fantasy re imagining that sets a fantastic phenomenon in the context of an ordinary family (at least they are ordinary to begin). From there the Playboy published ‘See You in Paradise’ was an enjoyable jaunt full of unlikable characters illustrating the negative consequences of greed and self-delusional desire. ‘The Wraith’ was an effectively creepy story. However, apart from ‘Portal’ my only other required reading was ‘Weber’s Head.’
I wonder if independently these stories may have had more impact. Collected together there was either a lack of a sense a continuing narrative or from, my perspective as reader, an expectation that when disappointment led me into the next story, I wanted a different perspective. Take, for example, my favourite story ‘Portal.’ Unfortunately, this was the first story and science fiction in nature. Having read and enjoyed ‘Portal’ when I went onto ‘No Life’ the story seemed lacking in an engaging premise and generally without the same impact.
What is interesting about the anthology is you begin to see some potentially unintentionally links between the stories. There are 14 stories in the collection and I assume Lennon has picked his best, but given that these were all published in major publications, he would not have had a limitless selection to draw from. Most of the stories feature an under achieving male character who is suffering emotional problems and feels content in his lack of success. While the anthology does not make me want to read any more Lennon for the sake of his stories, I would be interested to see whether the trend of the male character is a calculated focus for the anthology or an accidental insight into Lennon.