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9.19.2010

Book Review: Stories, All New Tales

Stories: All New Tales
edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
9780061230929

This has always been a dream for me: to read a book of short stories by writers who don't usually write short stories, or with writers working outside their genre. For a while, I even thought about doing it myself, but thought it would be rather difficult to talk to Nora Roberts, let alone ask her to write horror.

Neil Gaiman, however, has power. Neil Gaiman is accomplished. Neil Gaiman is probably a nice guy too. So, Neil Gaiman phones up his friends. His friends say sure and write stories for him. Neil Gaiman goes to WIlliam Morrow. William Morrow publishes Stories: All New Tales. A dream comes true.

Almost.

Anyone reading this collection are reading it for their favorite authors. For example, in line to buy the book, I skipped to page 194 for Chuck Palahniuk's "Loser," a well-crafted, head-first story about drugs and The Price Is Right with hints of Hempel-esque influences (one fan can tell another fan, I know). I flipped to page 15 for Joyce Carol Oates's haunting "Fossil-Figures" about rival brothers and the ties that bind; this story is visceral and claustrophobic--in a good way.

Yet once and I sat down and started reading everything else, I was left to ponder how these writers are writing: specifically, that these writers shouldn't be writing short stories. The saying goes, "Never let a man do a woman's job." The same can be said here: Never let a novelist do a short story writer's job.

The novelist has different ways of looking. The novelist's technique, craftsmanship, and eye can be seen everywhere. A novelist has time--hundreds of pages for revelation, hundreds of pages for character development, hundreds of pages to draw out. The best thing a short story writer can do to hone his/her craft is attempt the Hemingway story, or in particular, the six-word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

In short stories, you need to be precise knowing that you must end soon. These writers don't seem to know that.

We have Joanne Harris's quirky story about gods in modern Manhattan feeling more like a novel excerpt than a short story. We have Joe Lansdale's tale of revenge jumping slowly at times, and then speeding up quickly to get enough killing scenes in. We have Walter Mosley, whose vampire story suffers the same ills as Joe Lansdale's: uneven pacing.

Yet the novelist problem isn't the only problem. Sometimes the problem is just that the writers are not skilled enough. The stories are simply badly written and not worth the effort of reading, even if it is short. Michael Marshall Smith's Santa Claus story was short, but cheap and predictable. Michael Swanwick's metafiction was (again) cheap and annoying. Jodi Picoult: your writerly strings are showing: we get that they are suffering from grief: their grief is very, very loud. Jeffery Deaver: pick a point of view, stick with it. I can go on for quite a while.

But despite these train wrecks, there are some good stories--highlights that perhaps are worth the price of the book. Besides Palahniuk and Oates, we have Stewart O'Nan's story of obsession left at an ambiguous conclusion. There's Lawrence Block superb character sketch in "Catch and Release." Gene Wolfe is who you read when you want science fiction with heart. Tim Powers and Carolyn Parkhurst stories of siblings were respectively touching and darkly humored. Kat Howard makes a strong metafictional debut.

The highlight, I can't pick. It's somewhere between Elizabeth Hand's story of grief or Joe Hill's Poe-esque story about evil. Both end the anthology. Both are strong endings to a book of mostly disappointing stories. Or more accurately, both are well-crafted stories to end a collection that didn't feel too serious. Obviously, these are writers having fun, experimenting for a bit. But as someone who love the short story form, this was a disappointment.

Gaiman obviously had a goal in putting this anthology together. In his introduction:

"It seemed to us that the fantastic can be, can do, so much more than its detractors assume: it can illuminate the real, it can distort it, it can mask it, it can hide it. It can show you the world you know in a way that makes you realise you've never looked at..."

Stories is Gaiman's attempt to save the fantasy genre from critics. But screw saving the fantasy genre, save the short story!: get people who can write short stories. Show readers that short stories can be fun and well-written. Yet I still want Nora Roberts to write a zombie story and Bret Easton Ellis to write a regency romance...

3 comments:

  1. Then, Eric, ask them. You never know til you try. Seriously.

    BTW, good review.

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