Candour, Clute and Forgetting

Science fiction’s most famous critic John Clute reviews Theodora Goss’s first short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, in the latest instalment of Excessive Candour, his column at SciFi.com. Clute rightly praises Goss’s fine collection, placing it in the same group as Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, Glen Hirshberg’s The Two Sams and Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners as “one the finest collections of short fiction from a member of that class of authors of the 21st century who are comfortable here.” You can read the stories Pip and the Fairies, Sleeping With Bears, and The Rapid Advance of Sorrow online. Do so, then go buy a copy.

There are many interesting things Clute says in the review (go read it), but I particularly found myself nodding my head when it came to the idea that many collections could do with tighter selection criteria. For all the quality of many of the books coming out, I find that more and more to be true. Reading many of these books, I find myself asking ‘would Jim Turner have done that’? It’s a worthwhile question.

9 thoughts on “Candour, Clute and Forgetting”

  1. Many people would say that the various year’s best anthologies could use tighter selection criteria, too. I haven’t seen a year’s best anthology in over a decade where I didn’t have the reaction “what on earth was the editor thinking?” to one or more stories.

  2. I don’t necessarily disagree, though I would say that most year’s best editors are deliberately aiming for a real spread of material, hopefully ensuring that there’s something for everyone. Much less the case with short story collections, which have a simpler mission.

  3. But is it really that different a mission? Presumably the author of a collection thinks “I like this story, and I think someone else will like it too” when making a selection, just as an anthologist does. Neither assumes that every story will appeal to every reader.

  4. I think it is, actually. There’s much more of a risk of either really needing to fill up a book, or perhaps having a complete blind spot. An anthologist tends to be more removed from the work, and to have a much larger selection to work from.

  5. Sorry if I sound contentious, but doesn’t that mean an anthologist has less of an excuse for including weak stories? Yet most readers still find something disappointing in every year’s best anthology.

    Editors never issue an unusually slender year’s best anthology if it’s been a weak year; they fill up their entire allotment of wordage. And as far as I know, readers don’t generally feel that the smaller year’s best anthologies are better than the big ones, which you’d expect they would, if stricter selection criteria actually tended to produce a better volume.

    We’d all pick a slightly different selection of stories if it were up to us. Bottom line is, there’s more fiction getting published all the time, and the burden of selection falls more on the individual reader now than in the past.

  6. Hmm. An anthologist has little excuse when it comes to including weaker stories in year’s bests, but there are other considerations that come into play. And there is taste. You probably wouldn’t get a consistent view on what the weaker stories are.

    And you basic point: that selecting stories to go into a book, whether collection or anthology, is essentially similar is a valid one. There is a point, though, where they diverge. The two different types of book have different goals, different purposes. And, Clute’s point – that authors are including stuff just to fill out a book, or at the least could omit stuff and make the book better – is a valid one.

  7. In the nineteen years I’ve co-edited the YBFH I’ve never had trouble filling my 125,000 words and have never considered any story I take as “filler.” I take the stories that I love, that stay with me, and that when I reread them still chill me and thrill me.

  8. Unfortunately, I think the trend now is that an author thinks: Hey! I have ten (or a dozen) stories — it’s another year, must be time for another new collection. And as long as we have print-on-demand publishers (and some small presses) who will pretty much publish anything with very little editing (on the contents contained therein) or copyediting (on the quality of the text) — well, then, we will continue to see colletions that contain great stories, yet are far from being great collections.
    What authors need to realize is a) not every single story they’ve ever written should be collected (unless they are old and gray and are doing a vuluminous career retrospective that’s being published by, say, NESFA Press); b) ten or twelve consecutively published stories a collection does not make; c) a story may not fit in with the current ten stories, but possibly it will fit with a collection of stories a year or two (or more) later; d) for a truly fine collection, an author needs around 135,000+ words from which a *great* collection can be assembled. (Ref: Jeffrey Ford’s THE EMPIRE OF ICE CREAM)
    I receive numerous collection queries wherein an author has 75,000 words of sf, fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, mainstream — essentially a mish-mash of everything s/he has written — and wants to know if I’m interested in seeing this collection. I write them back and tell them that when they have double that number of words available, then possibly I’ll talk with them. However, as the small press and POD publishing stands today, I’ll never see that collection because said author will simply go to another publisher and they will accept the collection as is. Thus we get another mediocre collection with maybe a couple or three great stories. Eventually that author will realize (read: age and experience) that s/he has flooded the market with his/her own mediocre material, but by that point in time, it’s too late. The books are out there. And I’m certainly not going to want to add yet another collection of the author’s work to the flood.

    – Marty Halpern
    Golden Gryphon Press

  9. I agree with you Marty. I think there are far too many less than excellent collections being published by writers just beginning their careers–there isn’t enough to choose from (usually) to create a great collection. Exceptions are Ted Chiang who has written very few stories since his first.

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