This is the first letter that I sent out, on 1st September 2017, to inaugurate the Personal Anthology project.
This is the first of a what I hope to be a long series of letters on the subject of short stories. The idea is that each letter comes from a different correspondent, who is given the job of dream-editing a personal anthology of their favourite short stories. Choose twelve stories, will be the task, then introduce them to the reader, with publication details, and where to find them online, if appropriate, and a short paragraph for each explaining why they love them, how they came across them, what they mean to them.
My hope is that this will build into an anthology of anthologies, the entries speaking to and echoing each other in the same way that the individual entries will within each selection. It will serve as an evolving source of recommendations, but equally as a series of self-portraits, each letter pointing inwards to its writer as well as outwards to the stories themselves. Next week’s letter will be my selection, but I wanted to kick things off with a letter about the idea itself of an anthology – an introduction to the greater, Borgesian library of stories that I envisage.
I love short stories, but I find the reading of them problematic. By which I mean: how you find them and approach them as a reader, how you contextualise them as you’re reading them, and how you move on from them when you’re done. To my mind, short stories and novels are fundamentally different – not in their prose, or even really in their narrative form, but in their status as artefacts, as texts in the world.
Novels present themselves as independent, self-sufficient cultural artefacts. (A good, old word: autarkic.) They carry their own weather with them. You pick up a novel, you are going to be reading that novel for a while; you will to a certain extent adapt your life to it, weave its narrative into your own. Of course, a novel is not an island. It has individual relationships with many other books that came before it and informed it, and for most of its life it will sit alongside other books on your shelves – but while you are reading it, it is the only thing in your hands, and it is a world unto itself, the world entire.
Short stories are different. In most cases, short stories necessarily exist in relation to other texts in a way that novels don’t – I mean in a physical way. You might be reading a story in a collection, in an anthology, in a literary journal, in a magazine or newspaper, on a website: very rarely is it presented solo. There will be something – usually something similar, often another story – jostling it from one side or the other.
- When you pick up a collection of stories, or an anthology, do you start with the first story?
- When you finish a story in a collection, or an anthology, do you read the next one next?
- And do you read it straightaway, turning the page as you might to start a new chapter in a novel?
The answer, for me, to those questions, is no, no, and no. Perhaps the reason for this is that I want to cut the possibly unintended, possibly intentional links between adjacent stories. I want to lift each story, so far as possible, out of its context.
So: like novels, stories are independent entities, and deserve to be considered on their own terms, but also: they tend to occur as part of a local ecosystem. They are, in a sense, communal creatures. They congregate, almost as if despite themselves. However much short stories may want to be treated as individuals, the facts of their production, or dissemination, or publication, work against that. I sit down with a novel; I read until I’ve read enough. I sit down with a collection or anthology of stories; I read one story, and I finish it, but I’m not finished. Often, I’m still hungry.
I often think of collections or anthologies of stories as being like art exhibitions.
- You might have a show of new paintings, or photographs, by a particular artist. (This would be a writer’s new collection, albeit of stories that could well have appeared in other places previously.)
- You might have a solo retrospective. (A selected or collected stories.)
- You might, on the other hand, have a group show, putting works by different artists next to each other, and again these might be new paintings or photographs (the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition)
- Or old ones (the Tate’s Queer British Art).
A single work of art, over time, might appear in each one of these types of shows, but each time its relationship to the works hanging next to it will set it in a different light. Each time, the nature of the exhibition affects its status as artwork. The same painting, but each time different.
It is this that makes the act of curation interesting – the creation of constructive adjacencies and unforeseen harmonies, of refracted and reflected meaning. It’s a skill that those of us from the mixtape generation (in the pre-hip-hop sense) learned in our teens, only to find our opportunities to exercise it in this digital age all but drying up. Playlists simply don’t have the same edge, the same power: their unconstrainedness in terms of length; the lack of craft involved, both in the recording and in the presentation; their non-uniqueness as object in the world.
Of course, the most successful mass market example of the mixtape format (and it’s something that predates the C90 cassette) is Desert Island Discs. If mixtapes are most often private, intended either for personal use or given to someone in particular, then Desert Island Discs is overtly public and – linked to this – quasi-autobiographical. The ostensible reason for choosing the eight particular records – that they are the tracks you would want to keep you company on your island – can hide any one of a number of rationales, but these generally boil down to the basic idea that pieces of music can become repositories of aspects of the self, cultural spaces for self-encounter, places where you can recoup the emotional capital you have deposited there. (The eight songs you choose are like the Horcruxes in which Voldemort has hidden parts of his soul.)
What’s interesting about the format of Desert Island Discs is how clearly the various rationales of liking, loving, personal resonance, autobiographical significance and impersonal judgement are mixed together. You choose songs that you love, that show you to yourself, and somehow represent you to others. Taken together, they are like a personal version of the Golden Record sent out into space on the Voyager spacecraft.
I had the idea for this project when, a month or so ago, I was idly considering, as you do, what my favourite short stories might be. I found that the daydream took on a particular, more critical tenor when I pretended that someone was actually giving me the opportunity to put together a real book, a personal anthology of my favourite stories. Rather than just listing my favourites, now I was physically bringing them into close proximity, ordering them (if not ranking them), imagining them as part of a whole package that I could take down from the shelf, could offer to someone as once I offered a lovingly designed mix tape.
This made me think of the story anthologies on my shelves, and how often the personal aspect of the editing process is cloaked, or subsumed, behind another, often purportedly objective one. Philip Hensher’s excellent Penguin Book of the British Short Story is supposedly representative of English literature as a whole; Nicholas Royle’s essential series for Salt of yearly Best British Short Stories wears its evaluative aspect on its sleeve. Both of them write eloquently about the tricky task of editing. Mr Royle has already kindly agreed to contribute his own personal anthology to this project.
I thought, then, of David Miller’s That Glimpse of Truth, subtitled 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written, which clearly presents itself as at least partly a personal judgement. Ditto Jeffrey Eugenides’s My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. Further back, I remember an encounter with a book on my parents’ shelves, Lord Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers which was a personal anthology of the viceroy of India’s favourite poems. That was the first time it occurred to me that a book could be like the windowsill of a seaside holiday cottage, decorated with the shells and seawrack you’ve found on your strolls.
From this, then, came the idea of a blog post in which I’d list and introduce my own personal ‘Desert Island Stories’, the stories that I love the most, that mean the most to me, and from there it was a small step to thinking that it might work as a larger project, inviting others to enjoy the dual pleasure of recommending great fiction and, through that, and however obliquely, writing about yourself.
I was inspired by Helen McClory’s The Unsung Letter to do it in this form. In her letter Ms McClory asks someone every week to recommend an underappreciated book by a living writer, with no limits on form or genre. I invite guest editors to select and introduce twelve stories. As with Desert Island Discs, the criteria for inclusion are entirely up to the guest, and I would hope that is something they address in their letter. I’ve chosen twelve stories, and that is what I offer as the basic format of what follows, but I would imagine it’s pretty malleable as formats go, and I’m as interested as anyone in seeing what follows, and in how far people are able to make it bend to their own desires.
Next Friday, then, my own personal anthology. I hope you sign up. I hope you enjoy. If you would like to contribute then please do get in touch. It will only last as long as there are willing readers and correspondents.
[And you can read my Personal Anthology, plus any additional contributions to special collaborative anthologies here.]