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Musing about Anthologies

At Windycon I was on a panel about anthologies. I asked a lot of questions, since there were anthology editors on the panel, and when I'm on a panel with people who know things I don't, I try to both learn from them and let them shine.

One of the things we discussed was what makes a good anthology.

One answer was not having too tight a theme--if the theme is too small, the stories end up being too similar, which makes for a boring anthology.

But the answer that I've thought about the most was that the emotional arc of the stories is important--that just like a novel, the editor tries to bring the reader through an emotional arc that is much like the one you work for in a novel, starting with a hook and then raising and raising the stakes, finally providing an emotional high point near the end, before tying up the emotional loose ends.

I had never thought about an anthology quite that way before, though I can see some logic in this proposition. I often read stories out of order in an anthology. But I wonder--how much of this emotional-arc thing matters to readers. Are readers who read the stories in order even aware of it?

Do you read the stories in an anthology in order?

I always read from cover to cover, front to bavck
I always hop around, choosing the stories that look good first
I always read my favorite authors first
That depends...I'll explain in comments
I hate anthologies but I'm glad you made me a ticky-box

When you read the stories in order, do you notice an emotional arc or the lack thereof?

I love it when an editor provides that kind of experience
emotional arc? what nonsense!
The quality of the individual stories matters more
Ticky boxes are wonderful!

When I buy e-books (or if I do in the future--or even if I don't )

I'd rather buy each individual short story separately
I'd rather buy an anthology
If stories are all in the same world, I want them in chronological order even if that means breaking up stories with the same characters
I'd rather see stories about the same characters clumped together
I'd rather see the stories organized in some other way
I have other comments I'll leave in the comments
I still love ticky-boxes, for when I don't have an opinion
I'm never lacking in opinions! Comments here I come!

I'd love to get your opinions and comments, to help me sort out my thoughts on this topic.  


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2011 12:03 am (UTC)
I will USUALLY read an anthology in order, but sometimes I buy anthologies I'm not really interested in (knowingly or unknowingly) because I know an author in it.

If the first three stories bore or annoy me, I skip to the story I bought it for and put it down.
Dec. 4th, 2011 12:23 am (UTC)
My comment would have been much the same. I've bought anthologies because a favourite author had one story in there in the past.
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:21 am (UTC)
That makes sense. How often do you find that having a favorite author in the book indicates you will like the other stories?
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:20 am (UTC)
Putting it down if you're bored or annoyed makes sense.

So, when you read an anthology in order, do you notice an emotional arc?
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:21 am (UTC)
....er, no. But then, I'm not really all that observant.
Dec. 4th, 2011 12:27 am (UTC)
I LOATHE anthogies, I will make exeptions for collections by one author (Side Jobs) or if a story in one is pertinant to books I'm reading.

Anthonogies have a story arch? I had no idea. Similar ideas, Babes in Chainmail (wayne read it not me) but an actual story? Who knew

I'd like the option to buy an individual story in one in ebook format. I don't but much else these days.

Dec. 4th, 2011 04:12 am (UTC)
What this editor said wasn't a "story arc" but an "emotional arc".

I'm still wrapping my brain around that idea myself. Certainly, stories have an emotional effect on the reader, but using one story to get the reader into a good mindset to read the next? Does that really work? It's an interesting thought!

A collection of short stories _can_ have a single story arc, but only if it's a shared world or stories set in the same world by one author. The People No Different Flesh by Zenna Henderson comes to mind.
Dec. 4th, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
Ooh, these are hard questions to answer, because it really does vary for me between anthologies, depending upon the purpose of the anthology, the way it's structured, and stuff like that. It'll be different if I buy an anthology of "all time best science fiction" stories, for example, versus an anthology of urban fantasy stories that I bought because one of them is a tie-in for a series I like, versus an anthology of stories that are all by the same author and set in the same world ...

I usually skip around, going first to the authors I like best, or the characters I like best. But if the whole thing was built around an obvious internal chronology, or if reading the stories out of order would spoil them, then I'd rather read them in the preferred reading order.

I changed one of my answers several times on the last poll - questions 3 & 4, if you'd rather have stories arranged chronologically or by character ... the thing is, if they're arranged chronologically but feature several sets of characters, I usually skip around to get the characters I like best. So at first I answered "by character". But having it anything other than chronological would be horribly confusing, especially if the characters move in and out of each other's stories, so then I switched to "chronological". I really don't think there's a right or wrong answer -- if they're completely unrelated sets of characters who never intersect each other's stories, then probably it makes more sense to group them off together, but if the main thrust of the anthology is the way that their world changes over time, then it probably should be chronological even if that does break up individual characters' arcs with unrelated characters' arcs ... yeah, it's hard, and I think it's very dependent on what is right for a particular project.

I expect the process of putting together an anthology is a lot like the process of putting together a musical album. Before I started making mix tapes for friends, the thought had never occurred to me that it mattered what order the songs go in. But it really does -- some songs clash terribly with another song if placed together, in terms of music or "story", but might work just fine in another part of the album. And some songs make good "beginning" songs, while others are very nice and solid album-ending songs. I made a driving album recently for my dad where I started out with embarking-on-a-journey songs, then moved on to open road songs, then finished off with a couple of happy, everything-is-gonna-be-okay songs. And for all I know, he's gonna listen to it and skip straight to "Thunder Road", or whatever, but it mattered to me when I was putting it together, and I think it makes a better overall listening experience. And it's made me notice the arrangement of songs on professional albums more than I used to. I expect that the process of putting an anthology together is a similar one.
Dec. 4th, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)
Oh, the other question I meant to comment on -- usually, if I have the option, I would rather buy individual stories, even if they're cheaper in bulk, kind of like I'd rather buy individual songs than whole albums because usually I only like about half the songs on the album anyway. But, just like a music album, anthologies can be a good sampler to introduce me to something I'd never knew I would like, so sometimes I will pick up an anthology of similar/related stories just because I know I will like one or two, think I might like a few more, and would love to be introduced to something new and fun. I've discovered several new authors via their stories in anthologies that I bought for an entirely different author.
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:26 am (UTC)
I wonder if in the future the software will support selling an anthology as separate files, so people can choose to keep their favorites in their kindle/nook/whatever "playlist" just as people who buy albums of music can keep some (but not all) the songs in an album on their MP3 players?
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:24 am (UTC)
Thanks! You gave me lots of things to think about. I like the idea of comparing an anthology to an album or mix tape. Or, perhaps, a concert set--something I've had occasion to do, and not something I really feel I have mastered. Perhaps I should ask my musician friends to weigh in on how to put together an album or concert set, and see how those answers cross-fertilize with these!
Dec. 4th, 2011 02:22 am (UTC)
I actually enjoy short story anthologies a lot; I own several of the "Mammoth" line of anthologies, among others.

I have picked up on that emotional arc, though didn't realize exactly what it was till you mentioned it, and I DO like it. I mostly look for editors who have similar taste to my own; if I see certain key qualities in the stories as I skim through, I generally am confident that the whole will be enjoyable. Of course, I'll gamble on an editor based on theme or a number of stories by favorite authors, etc.

I have occasionally skipped around, usually because I wanted a short-short and the next one was long or something like that, but I typically read front to back because I don't want to get confused about what I read and what I didn't and possibly skip a story or something like that.
I even more occasionally have skipped to a favorite author, but I'm actually more likely to save one by someone I know is good in case I don't like the last story...though, really, I extremely do that, and generally just read in order.

I do agree that the overall quality of the stories is by far the most important factor; I'll give up emotional arc for that in a heartbeat if I must choose! Usually, though, the emotional arc is a bonus from a good editor. Most important for me is consistency of quality and, even more important, the stories must make SENSE with each other. A story that jolts me out of the anthology is NOT good. (Unless it's the one good story in a crappy anthology, but that's a whole other kettle of fish, really.)

Generally, I'm most comfortable with chronological order, but I'm not too picky; I'll take any kind of order that feels comfortable/makes sense. I like whole anthologies as compared to individual stories because I'm signing on for a whole book-level experience, just in distinct units instead of one whole cohesive story. Anticipation is part of reading for me; I don't get that in the same way with a one-off.
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:34 am (UTC)
I skip around quite a lot in magazines, and frequently in anthologies, skipping to favorite authors or choosing stories based on my mood or the length of time I have to read in a single block. One of the pleasures of short stories is you often CAN read them in a single block of time, without resorting to abandoning the rest of life for hours at a time.

Maybe I should try reading some anthologies in order for a while, just to see what I've been (mostly) missing!
Dec. 4th, 2011 03:07 am (UTC)
Thieves' World. Anthology that reads like a book, is my general preference. A bunch of disjoint stories is less attractive, even if they're grouped around the same theme; if the stories are good then I find I want to read the novel that shares the same storyspace as the short story.
Dec. 4th, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
I liked that about early Thieves' World and Wild Card books, too. Asprin and Martin did a good job of organizing them so that they felt interconnected. Liavek, too -- I think that was Will Shetterly and Emma Bull.
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:37 am (UTC)
Thieves World was designed as a shared world, and designed to allow the stories to each tell parts of a larger story. It didn't suck me in as much as I hoped it would, however.

Gosh, I haven't really thought about Thieves World in a long time, even though I'm involved in a shared world now.
Dec. 4th, 2011 07:28 am (UTC)
I've only ever read two anthologies (not including collections of short stories by one author): Wizards of Odd and the Torn World one. I read both of them in order, but I'm not sure what I'd have done if Wizards of Odd had not started with the story by Terry Pratchett, which was the reason why I bought it.

Wizards of Odd rather put me off the concept, because it was billed as "comic fantasy", but I found most of the stories either decidedly unfunny (e.g. dystopian horror) or stupid(ly predictable), or both. It seemed like the same thing as with music albums, really: Before individual song downloads, those used to be a way to make people pay for 10 songs to get the one or two they wanted. Additional problem with a fiction anthology is that you don't know most of the content beforehand. (Mind, this was a €9 paperback, and if it had been a $5 ebook I'd be fine with it.)

Even the collections by the same author about the same character I sometimes think I'd rather have as separate files than as one. Collections confuse me as to what happens in which story. Collections tend to have the advantage of being cheaper, though.

I think "emotional arc" I'd only recognise in the negative, as in "the order of stories keeps giving me mood whiplash, this is not good".

I agree with laylalawlor that the "chronological order or not?"-question depends too much on the project to give a blanket answer.
Dec. 4th, 2011 07:43 am (UTC)
"mood whiplash" -- what a great phrase!
Dec. 4th, 2011 07:29 pm (UTC)
I heard it in a lot of places. :D
Dec. 4th, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
Much the same as what the others have said... there is no "all" answer for me w/ anthologies. Sometimes I buy them for a particular story or author, in which case I'll probably read that first and then see if any of the rest of the anthology interests me. Sometimes I'll buy one because it just generally has a good selection of things that look interesting or that I know I'll like. I'll usually read those in order, but just because it's simpler that way. :-P

Dec. 8th, 2011 04:39 am (UTC)
Looking at these comments in order makes me want to ask you, as one of my musical friends:

So, how do you look at anthologies as compared to music albums, mix tapes, and/or concert sets? Do you think of them in the same way, or totally different, and why?
Dec. 4th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC)
Some anthologies I always read in order: shared world anthologies come to mind. If a collection has some stories by favorite authors of mine, I might read those first. If I'm not enjoying the first few pages of a short, I may skip to the next one.

I like to see stories organized in *some* way, but I don't have a hard and fast rule about what way to organize them. If they're all in the same universe, by region might make more sense than by chronology or character. Or by theme. Or whatever makes sense for that particular collection of stories.
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:42 am (UTC)
Thinking of novels, I used to very strongly want to read an author's works in the internal chronological order, but over time I've come to appreciate reading them in the order the author wrote them too, though for different reasons. I guess any organizational scheme will have benefits and flaws!

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )


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