Today I was reading a review of Cate Kennedy's new short story collection, Like a House on Fire. The reviewer commented that although the individual stories were good (some terrific), overall the collection seemed too much of the same - the same pace, the same preoccupations, the same way of dealing with the subject matter. I got the impression that the reviewer had sat down, as you do when you have a deadline (publication date), and read the whole book in one or two sessions of reading. Maybe this is not the way to read a collection.
We don't complain of a novel that it's all about the same thing. We expect it. But what do we expect from a collection? A theme? A connection? Some writers, like Tim Winton, have written hybrids, where the stories interconnect in ways that feel like a novel. How do we read collections? I know with poetry I like to keep a book by my bed. I might only read three or four poems at once, sometimes only one if it's one I want to think about. Short stories are the same. I feel like if I read too many at once, I'm pigging out, and I lose the effect of each one.
Somehow my brain wants to connect them like a novel, and if I can't, I connect them through the writer. Are these all her, hidden behind the words? Does he have an obsession? A certain voice? A writer's tic? And that's when I stop reading, because that's me, pushing things onto the collection that don't belong. Things that might end up ruining my pleasure in stories or poems that should stand alone. The writer has polished each one separately, like a piece of jewellery, and here I am, wanting to pile them all on together until I look like I'm covered in bling. (Yes, I'm feeling a bit metaphorical today!)
The thing is, any collection is going to have stories or poems that shine for you, for personal reasons or because you just enjoy that style or tone or perspective. For me, Kennedy's story of the woman whose husband is disabled by a tractor accident resonated deeply, but the one about the woman forced back to work with her little boy in childcare didn't because I didn't relate to her much. But that's me, you see. That's what I bring to each story, as I do for poems. A bit like a CSI crime scene theory - we take something away with us, and we leave something behind. It'll be the same for you.
But the resonance, the bell ringing deep in our minds and reactions ... well, it becomes duller and duller when you sit and read the whole lot in one go. I like the idea that ebooks are allowing us to buy and read just one good short story. It means that story gets its full quota of attention. Maybe the next thing will be ebooks of a dozen poems. That'd be nice. I'd like it to be like music - let me put together my own "best of" collection to savour when I'm in the mood. Anyone out there in publisher land listening?