Notes on Literature: Brief Thoughts on Short Story Collections

“At some point, I realized that I had grown more interested in collections, that is, volumes of stories gathering the work of a single author. Rather than read just one of Lord Dunsany’s tall tales about Joseph Jorkens, or one of Robert Aickman’s “strange stories,” or one of P. G. Wodehouse’s misadventures of Jeeves and Wooster, I found that I wanted to read them all. Or at least a lot of them. What attracts me these days aren’t short fiction’s high-spots so much as an individual writer’s overall voice and style, the atmosphere he or she creates on the page. I want to immerse myself in an entire oeuvre rather than flit from one short masterpiece to another.”

— Michael Dirda, Anthologies and Collections

I like the concept of short story collections. The idea of revisiting themes, motifs, situations, characters, concepts, ideas, and ideologies over and over again over a period of many years, perhaps a lifetime, soaking up thoughts and life experiences along the way, seems fascinating. It’s as if you mutate a detail here and a situation there; you choose slightly different initial conditions or boundary conditions and restart the universe all over again, let it evolve and explore the consequences; you iterate through characters, situations, and themes; you create an entire world by permuting, combining, and accruing little details.

You could argue that novels like Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or John Crowley’s Little, Big, or long works of fiction like Murasaki’s Genji or Cervantes’s Quixote do the same. And yes they do: they permute and combine characters, situations, and tales; they iterate through long periods of fictitious time. However, in spite of their cosmic vastness, they are mostly long but single stretches of sustained imagination. Collections of short stories, on the other hand, are rarely carved out of a single seamless crystal of thought. They are written over a lifetime for a variety of publications; are the consequences of a medley of accidental moods and circumstances of the authors; and bear the stamp (brunt?) of the patient accumulation of the years. And yet, they form bodies of work that are cohesive in the same way that a life driven by serendipities and accidents ultimately attains a semblance of cohesion. So be it Borges obsessing over labyrinths, tigers, and encyclopaedias in his Collected Fiction, John Updike “giving the mundane its beautiful due” and chasing the Maples through their caustic and crumbling marriage in his The Early Stories, Dorothy Parker iterating through various instances of the flawed marriages, families, men, women, and blondes in her Complete Stories, collections of short stories written over a life time are infinitely more fascinating than novels, long or short, dealing with the very same themes and situations.

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