What makes a short story collection work?

In a successful short story collection, each story is an integral piece of a larger puzzle that is greater than the sum of its parts.Short Story Month is celebrated in May, apparently. I only just discovered this a few days ago, perhaps because I read short stories at about the same rate I read poetry. Which is to say, not very often. (Though I might need to amend this where poetry is concerned as I’ve read three poetry books this year so far – quite a record for me!)

I can’t say the same about short stories. Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is on my list. The YA collection Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories caught my eye on Instagram recently. Stephanie Perkins edited it, and I adored her holiday YA collection, My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Stories, the year before last. I haven’t acquired either yet, though.

In recent years, I’ve read short story collections over the holidays, the aforementioned My True Love Gave to Me and Anthony Trollope’s Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Stories. The selections were, obviously, inspired by the season. I found both deeply satisfying for very different reasons.

Each story in My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories captures the magic of the holiday season, in very discrete ways. Each offers some iteration of a love story set during winter holidays, from Christmas to Hanukah to Yule. The collection features contributions from Rainbow Rowell, Matt de La Peña, Gayle Foreman, Jenny Ha, and David Levithan, among others. Not one story disappointed.

When I’m reading stories by the same author, some mechanism in my brain triggers a desire to linger in the world of the story. Wait, wait, I’ll think, as I turn the page and am plunged into newness, I’m not ready to leave yet! I did feel this way when each story in My True Love Gave to Me ended because they were so lovely. At the same time, I was interested to see what the next author would do with the collection’s theme. Each new story rewarded my curiosity by being its own brand of luminous, which made the wait, wait feeling morph into, Oooh, what’s next?

With Christmas at Thompson Hall: And Other Christmas Stories (Penguin Christmas Classics), I appreciated it most when I’d finished the last story and saw how intricately each meditated on what Christmas means. The first story, the titular “Christmas at Thompson Hall”, was painfully hilarious. I say “painfully” because it’s full of missteps and miscues and awkward moments. Christmas is more backdrop than foreground, as it follows a young ex-pat couple traveling from France to England for Christmas. The subsequent stories (five in total) pick up themes from the previous stories and build on or transform them. The final story is a serious exploration of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. For those of us who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, it’s a very touching and meaningful way to bring the collection to a close.

Perhaps that provides the answer to the question I opened this piece with: What makes a short story collection work? My answer might be something like this: Each story builds on the previous one, turning themes over and finding new approaches, new ways of looking at them, pushing themes further. Each story is an integral piece of a larger puzzle that is greater than the sum of its parts.

What about you? How would you answer the question? Do you have any short story collection suggestions for me?

6 Replies to “What makes a short story collection work?”

  1. This is really interesting. I’ve never thought about short story collections this way. To me, if the author/stories is/are good, I’m good to go. I also like that you can dip in and out of short story collections, like Kafka’s collected short works, because in that case, I probably wouldn’t want to be submerged in such an ambiance for a long, continuous time (not saying I don’t love Kafka – his wok just gets a bit oppressive after a while…).

    Lately, the way I read short stories is through the New Yorker, first when I had a subscription I’d gotten as a gift, and then sometimes online when I feel a hankering for a quick but good read. The stories rarely disappoint, and I like that I can read as many or as few as I like without feeling obligated to finish a book.

    Wow, that sounds kind of lazy! 🙂

    I’m going to think about this post for a long while, just like I do with so many of your posts. Thanks for that!

    1. Interesting! I was thinking more about reading short stories in books as opposed to magazines. I don’t know why, but I rarely read the fiction section in magazines. This is making me think I’m too rigid with my categories. I.e. If I’m reading a magazines, I read the nonfiction. And: If I’m reading a book, I need to read the whole book, from beginning to end. I’m going to try being more flexible about this with short stories, let myself read one here and there and see how it goes. Thank you for this!

      1. Whoa, I tend to do that, too – if the short story’s in a book, I’ve got to read the whole book! And yes, I compartmentalize magazines as nonfiction, too! But The New Yorker changed that for me, because so many of the fiction writers they publish are ones I love, and I couldn’t help but be intrigued and drawn to the stories, even if they weren’t like the rest of the magazine.

        It is an easier way to do short stories, but of course there’s also merit in short story collections. I was thinking about this post a few days ago when I was thinking about a Mavis Gallant short story collection I’d read a few years ago. I think in that case, the way Gallant writes and the ambiance of the stories made it a good experience to have read them all at once like that. And when I was thinking about this post at another point, I had a “duh” moment when I remembered that one of my favorite books, “Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Cambrioleur” (Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar”) is actually a short story collection, and works well because the stories are like episodes featuring your favorite characters, not so much something you might get bored of or jarred by finishing and having to move on to the next one. So I guess it really depends.

        1. Oh! I hadn’t thought about short story collections featuring the same characters. That makes me think of The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. I can’t remember now for sure, but I think it was classified as a novel yet read more like short stories. It’s about an English language newspaper that’s dying out, and each chapter is from a different character’s point of view. Each one is related to the paper in some way (some more loosely than others). I loved that book!

  2. I agree with you that all stories in a short story collection must have a unifying theme. But, for me at least, they should all be from the same author. I’ve seldom enjoyed a collection that includes a number of different authors. But that may be just me.

    1. It can go either way for me. So much depends on how well conceived the theme is. Reading “best” short story collections, where the topics are totally random, doesn’t really capture my interest.

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