When is a group of short stories a collection? I have the honour of being on the shortlisting panel for the Edge Hill University Short Story Collection Prize which is given annually for a published single author short story collection. After several years I still haven’t come to terms with the question of whether a book of short stories should be bound together by something more than the cover: should there be some kind of joining thread or theme, other than the fact that they have all been written by the same person?
Collections by established writers often consist of a gathering up of various stories which have been published in magazines and anthologies, or which have won prizes. In some cases this leads to stories, which work perfectly well as stand alone pieces, becoming tediously repetitive when put together in a collection due to the author’s conscious or unconscious frequent use of similar settings or motifs.
I’m not talking here about the recurrent themes that run through every writer’s work. Such themes and devices are expected and pleasurable factors which enable the reader to identify the writer’s voice but what pokes you in the eye with some collections is the overuse of settings and situations. For example, in one collection I read, 7 out of 10 stories were about lesbian couples with a dog, living in virtually identical domestic settings. Published singly, this would not be noticed, perhaps even by the author him/herself but put them all together and by the time you get halfway through the book, you are becoming bored with the lack of freshness, no matter how good the individual stories.
On the other hand, maybe themed collections too can be repetitive. It’s difficult to find fresh angles on a specific theme to give surprise and delight to the reader. Having to write a dozen stories on a single theme such as the sea, can also constrain the writer, with the result that such ‘commissioned’ stories may not be as good as their best work which comes from their own creative direction.
Sometimes short story collections are so tightly themed and interlinked that they might be read as novels so that further questions arise as to whether they should be considered collections at all.
Personally I used to feel that lumping together a lot of discrete stories doesn’t constitute a collection but I’m beginning to change my mind. It’s a different matter when the works of a dead author are collected together and I can see that it is helpful to the reader who admires a specific writer (dead or alive) to be able to access their work in one or two volumes rather than having to do extensive research to track single texts down. But I still have a love affair with theme; still feel that handled well, a themed collection makes so much more of a satisfying whole.