I don’t like short story anthologies. Oh, I read them from time to time, I just almost always end up disappointed. Kind of like every time Christmas rolls around and you see those chocolate medley gift boxes and think to yourself, “I should try one of those. Maybe it won’t taste like burnt hair this time.”
There are multiple reasons for my dislike of short story compilations, not the least of which is the structure of the stories themselves. See below for the handy-dandy diagram!
I imagine most of you have seen something like this before. It’s called Freytag’s triangle, and it illustrates the elements of plot as they happen in most stories. There’s the exposition (characters are introduced, the plot gets rolling, etc.), rising action (things start to heat up), climax (the action/conflict is brought to a boil), denouement (the temperature is cranked down), and the final resolution. It’s worked this way since the days of classical Greek drama, though more attention was given to the denouement in those days, with the climax generally occurring in the middle of the play. The classical Freytag’s Triangle doesn’t look like a pyramid built by a bunch of drunk Egyptians.
What you see in the chart above is a more accurate representation of modern fiction, but it still serves as a great illustration of why short stories pose such an aggravation for me. In the “rising action” portion of the plot line, the pace of the narrative slowly picks up, as does the pace at which the audience reads (because they get excited about what’ll happen next). I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but my reading speed is greatly dependent upon this buildup. I read slower as I’m getting into the book and pick up steam as the action escalates. But imagine doing that over and over again inside of a 300 page book and you’ll start to understand my frustration. Oh, and then there’s the fact that most of the time in short stories, that triangle of Freytag’s is really just a huge honkin’ cliff. Climax, bam, done, and we start over again. So that constant speeding up and slowing down really cramps my style and makes it seem like it’s taking forever to get through the book. Mostly because it is.
And then there are other complications. Take, for instance, one of my recent reads, Ray Bradbury’s Long After Midnight. As is with most anthologies, not all short stories included in the collection are created equally. Some of them are mind-bogglingly good. Some of them make your eyes cross with the sheer pointlessness of them. You would think that, being such a world-renowned writer, even Ray Bradbury’s worst stories should still be tolerable. And you would be wrong. What I found out after the fact is that Long After Midnight was the literary equivalent of a “New Jersey Turnpike.” Don’t know what that is? It’s number 4 on this list of the 17 worst shots ever created. Read, laugh, and be disgusted.
Anyhow, the creation of Long After Midnight went down something like this: by 1976 Bradbury had 16 short story anthologies to his credit, but in the publication of those works there were a few stories that got left out of the mix. Either they didn’t fit with the overall milieu of the collection or there wasn’t enough room for another story or they just weren’t good enough. Take your pick. Some enterprising publishing exec (or, who knows, maybe even Bradbury himself) decided that all these derelict needed to have a home of their own, so they mopped them up with the proverbial bar rag and squeezed them into a shot glass, slapped the label Long After Midnight onto the side, and sent it out to the masses for public consumption. Therefore, none of the stories make sense with one other.
Given the cover of the book, I was also expecting a sci-fi anthology. I mean, look at it! Who wouldn’t be expecting a heady rush of mind-expanding sci-fi goodness if they saw that cover? But in reality, only a third of the stories included were even tangentially related to science fiction. Far more prevalent were the tales of young love and friendship and old love and family—you know, uninteresting crap. I’m kidding, of course. Those are all worthwhile subjects for fiction; it’s just that the reversal of expectations was extremely off-putting. It’s kind of like putting a video in the VCR that you thought was Saving Private Ryan and finding out someone had taped it over with Fried Green Tomatoes—both good movies in their own rights, but for totally different reasons that appeal to totally different tastes. Now imagine that the recording of Fried Green Tomatoes has been spliced with alternating snippets and vignettes cut from a Lifetime movie, and you’ll have a fair approximation of what reading Long After Midnight was like.
Overall, I give the book three out of five stars. The only—and I repeat, only—reason it didn’t get two stars was because of the few stories that genuinely took my breath away. Brilliance lurks within Long After Midnight. You just have to wade through a lot of trash to get there—not unlike the real New Jersey Turnpike, if you think about it.