Friday, May 18, 2007

What Makes A Good Story Collection?

Story collections are funny things. Unlike novels, they don't really benefit from any established structural or thematic models on which the writer can rely. They are generally whatever short stories the writer has written since the last collection. Sometimes this makes for a lovely, unified whole, as in the case of some Alice Munro collections (they're all terrific, IMHO, but a few seem more of a piece than others), or perhaps Salinger's Nine Stories, which I still love, perhaps for sentimental reasons.

Some collections are really disguised novels, like Munro's Lives of Girls and Women--which come to think of it used to be officially designated a collection, and is now designated a novel. Her collection The Beggar Maid is just as unified, though, with a recurring character, and that one's still called a collection. Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is another collection with a recurring character, known only as "Fuckhead." I love that one--it still seems fresh and new to me, after fifteen years.

Anyway, I'm trying to put one together--or rather, I've been putting one together stealthily for ages. Since my novel-in-progress needs a break before I launch into the third draft (Rhian and our neighbor Bob had lots of suggestions), it seems like a good time to take the endeavor more seriously, and see if my agent can drum up come interest in these stories. I like the bunch, and think it reads pretty well, but what do I know? It's what I spent the last five years thinking about, in easily digestible chunks. It's kind of interesting to see what ideas keep occurring to me, after I've forgotten I already wrote about them--shlumpy men married to crazy women who are smarter than they are, is one of them; another is secret rooms. There are a lot of long drives to distant places undertaken on a whim, and the supernatural pops up in one story out of three.

Time will tell if there's even a market for collections anymore--that is, non-first-book collections. It seems like a story collection by an established, and not terribly great-selling, novelist is pretty low on the hipness scale these days. That's a shame, and not just because I've got a collection to sell--I love to see what crazy stuff has been on my favorite writers' minds, stuff they didn't deem worthy of an entire novel. Sometimes these are the best ideas of all.


5 Red Pandas said...

I would write at length about this, but I don't want to go over the reasonable length of a blog comment.

I'm currently doing a sometimes difficult revision of a collection that is a novel-in-stories. The reason it's in stories is because that's how it came out, and it was the only way I could write it, (I'm very unseasoned) but I think it is also because it's not strictly plot driven, but very heavily character driven because it's from the point of view of one character. I've always thought of traditional novels as being plot driven, while stories could be more character driven, so that's what I ended up with. It feels right, but then again I could be wrong.

Maybe it also says something that I love Jesus' Son as well.

I think one reason I still read Salinger's Nine Stories is because even if I'm not moved by the content of the stories any longer, I always learn something, or am reminded of a lesson I thought I'd learned about writing. At least for me, it had nothing to do with nostalgia, and more to do with how good the writing is. I particularly pay attention to how Salinger characterizes his characters with their actions and dialogue. The stories never over-explain, but you get a good picture of the characters.

jrlennon said...

I've always been particularly impressed with "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut"'s not one of the stronger stories but is has a really interesting point of view, an omniscience that never goes into anyone's head. It's like a camera. I keep wanting to try that, but I can never resist the lure of consciousness.....still, it would be a good limiting exercise....

wing said...

Hmmm... regarding the hipness scale, it seems short stories are where it's at right now. Every creative writing major I know only reads short stories, only writes stories no longer than 15 pages, and do not even desire to write novels. I have many friends who actually tell me they don't read novels, that story collections are where it's at. I think it has to do with our MTV generation; we're too distracted to invest ourselves in a novel.

jrlennon said...

Hmm...perhaps what I meant was "pay scale." ;-)

Andrew Gelman said...

I'll buy your book for sure!

Also, on a related topic, one of my favorite story collections is called Bedside Tales--it's from the 1940s and has a ridiculous Peter Arno cover and a goofy, endearingly-retro-sexist introduction, something about how sometimes a man just wants to curl up with a good book. It's an anthology with stories from the 1920s-1940s by various authors--I think the F. Scott Fitzgerald story is my favorite--and is lots of fun.

And, speaking of Salinger, my favorite Updike story collection is his first, from the 1950s. But maybe just because it's the first book of his that I read.

jrlennon said...

"my favorite Updike story collection is his first, from the 1950s."

Mine too! His first few collections are all pretty good in fact.

Andrew, your blog is really interesting.