Thursday, May 6, 2010

Short story anthologies

I checked out the recent (7th) edition of Ann Charters' text The Story and Its Writer because she had added a section on graphic storytelling. It's a fairly timid start: a page of McCloud, three of Eisner showing how Hamlet could be done in the form, Crumb's Kafka adaptation and excerpts from Satrapi, Spiegelman, G. Hernandez, Taniguchi and Barry. Not bad really but an entire Spirit story and a more typical Crumb would really have done a better job.

What interested me looking at the rest of the anthology is that even in 2007 it's so predictably mainstream. Is Charters really that narrow-minded or is she just afraid professors won't use this in class if it's not following the canon. Out of all the writers included only Bradbury and LeGuin could be considered out of the literary mainstream and that's only in a pinch since the lit.main. long ago adopted them (and as far as I'm concerned they can keep LeGuin). Just think of all the fine and important writers who are missing due to Charters' enormous blindness - Chandler, Sturgeon, Gene Wolfe, Ballard, Lafferty, Ellison, Aldiss, Bloch, Roald Dahl, Moorcock, Frederic Brown and so on and so on. The "genre" world has produced many of the best short story writes over the past century if for no other reason than because this has stayed mostly an actual renumerative market. (Though another reason would be that that the SFF world has been remarkably open to unconventional approaches, despite the Dangerous Visions/New World growing pains.)

Maybe not that important but I read a few of the stories here that were new to me (despite the current trend towards enormous anthologies making the book almost too unwieldly to read) and they weren't the kind of thing that makes me think "Oh well it's OK because this is so good." A Chinua Achebe story is so pointless that I think it was included only through some kind of misguided affirmitive action and there are a few others just like it.

I recently stumbled across another story anthology that was also intended for classroom use - Milton Crane's 50 Great Short Stories. First published in 1952 it's still in print and is a much more fertile selection. Alongside the usual suspects (Chekhov, Hemingway, Joyce, etc) you'll find O. Henry, Saroyan, Lardner, Mencken (!), Huxley, Thurber, John O'Hara - folk now mostly but unjustly out of fashion. There's also a selection from a recent discovery John Collier who wrote tight, imaginative comic and fantasy pieces though he was about as mainstream as you could get, just not literary mainstream. His "De Mortuis" is a gem-bright masterpiece of construction and character creation through tiny strokes, all with an amazing double-twist ending. Crane isn't any bigger on the "genre" crowd than Charters (unless Lord Dunsany counts) but the book feels more like actual storytelling rather than the world of creative writing workshops.

Perhaps even better is Randall Jarrell's Book of Stories, reissued a few years back by NYRB Classics, but I'm planning to do a full post about it.