Essays

Chaotic Neutral: Reading Short Story Collections Out of Order

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Most of the time, there is only one way to read a novel — from beginning to end. It’s a forward motion, anchored by a direction of plot or other strong factor. Be it an experimental novel, novel-in-stories, or epistolary, you still read it front to back.

With some exceptions, of course. Maybe you’re one of those chaotic evil readers that read the last page or chapter before you start. Still, the way most novels are written, it’s beginning to end. Front to back. Prologue to epilogue.

Short story collections are different. Since collections and anthologies are are made up of multiple stories, each with its own, contained arc, the possibilities open up.

A Short Story Collection’s Order is a Guideline, Not a Rule

That’s not to say that order isn’t important to a short story collection. In a 2015 article published in Electric Literature titled “How Should You Order a Short Story Collection?” much of a collection leans on the first story in the table of contents:

The first story in a short story collection should do two things:

1) Open strong to establish the writer’s authority

2) Prepare the reader for the rest of the collection

From “How Should You Order A Short Story Collection?” in Electric Literature

The first story is the promise of the premise for the collection’s overall theme. Mostly, I have been lawful good and, at the very least, read the first story first in a collection. I still often read in order based on the table of contents, since that is how the author and editor compiled the collection.

But I digress.

With collections, you don’t always have to follow guideline set by the table of contents. Especially with strong collections, you can still have a great reading experience and understand the overall theme without starting at story one. There are other ways and strategies to digest and enjoy. This is one of many reasons why short story collections are such amazing books (being a short story writer, I admit bias but have no regrets).

Reading Short Story Collections By Accolades

Like novels, there are awards for short stories in the publishing world. From literary magazine contests to the Pushcart Prize. For SFF genre, there are the Hugos, the Nebulas, and World Fantasy Awards. Successful collections will, and should, lean into any awards. This is one way to read a collection, starting with the award-winning story or stories and then diving into others. Sometimes an award-winning story is listed first, so you might start naturally at the beginning. Other times, the stories with accolades are sprinkled throughout.

cover of short story collection Mothers & Other Monsters by Maureen F. McHugh

I was drawn to Maureen F. McHugh’s 2005 short story collection Mothers & Other Monsters because it won the Story Prize and because I love Small Beer Press books. McHugh’s Hugo Award–winning story “The Lincoln Train” is listed fourth in the table of contents, and I started there. It’s a riveting story set in an alternate history after the end of the American Civil War. The main character, Clara, is from a family of enslavers; they are forced to take a train out of the South. Clara is about to travel with her mother when a terrible tragedy occurs before the train departs. The rest is an exploration of morality, turning perspective on its head. Once I read “The Lincoln Train,” I then went back one story to read “The Cost to Be Wise,” and then jumped around throughout the collection.

McHugh’s collection is gritty and full of similar explorations to “The Lincoln Train.” Starting with an award-winning story was a great jumping off point to experience the rest of this brutal and genius collection.

Reading Short Story Collections By Publication History

Similar to awards, reading stories by where they were originally published can help get a feel for the author’s history and growth. Reading by previous publications can also be helpful for writers. For those researching the style of literary magazines, collections are a great place to start, and I wrote about collections as portals to literary magazines in a prior Book Riot article.

cover of short story collection Exhalation by Ted Chiang

A personal example: While researching publications to submit to for a novelette I was working on, I dove into Ted Chiang’s brilliant collection Exhalation. I checked the publication history page first, and I saw “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. While also the first story in the collection, it was the story I wanted to read first. It’s a long story, full of world-building, and plays with time so exquisitely I haven’t seen a story to match it since.

From this reading, I hoped my novelette had the world-building F&SF might enjoy. My novelette did not include time travel, but my enjoyment of Chiang’s story made me believe that I would enjoy other stories from F&SF (which I did). Therefore, the publication might enjoy my work. I went for it, and my novelette “How to Burn Down the Hinterlands” went on to be published in F&SF‘s November/December 2020 issue.

For writers, research can do a world of good. Reading a collection as a writer, with a strategy to explore publications and in the order you prefer to study, is a wonderful tool.

The Best Part of Reading Collections

Accolades and previous publications aside, you can be as chaotic as you want. Maybe you want to read the first title that grabs your attention. Perhaps you want to check how many pages a story is before you start. You can start with the last story and then jump to the first. You do you! There might be a way the author prefers the collection be read, but as with novels, the book becomes the reader’s once it’s in their hands. With collections, you are in control. We’re in a chaotic world, so be a chaotic reader, if that’s what strikes your fancy. Open up the collection and let the pages fall where they may until you find a title.

Then begin.

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