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33 - The Short Story Anthology: Shaping the Canon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

Lynda Prescott
Affiliation:
The Open University
Dominic Head
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham
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Summary

One of the ways in which short stories are like poems (rather than like novels) is that they lend themselves to being collected for publication in anthologies. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the original meaning of ‘anthology’, in ancient Greek, was ‘a collection of the flowers of verse, i.e. small choice poems, esp. epigrams, by various authors’. In fact, ‘flowers’ and ‘choice’ are appropriate terms for the first literary anthologies in Britain that appeared during the publishing boom of the second quarter of the nineteenth century: these were gift-books, containing a mix of poetry and prose that would be suitable for young women readers. Annuals such as The Keepsake were designed as elegant, illustrated gift-books, published each autumn in time for Christmas and New Year present-giving. The Keepsake, which ran from 1828 to 1857, enjoyed enormous sales figures and included in its roster of contributors some of the best-known writers of the day, including Walter Scott, Harrison Ainsworth and Mary Shelley (most of Shelley's short fiction was first published in this way). The concept of annual short story anthologies has remained an important one in the development of the genre: sifting and circulating stories in yearly compilations helps to maintain the genre's visibility in the literary marketplace as a form of writing which is ‘of the moment’. But there are numerous cross-currents in the tide of anthologies that regularly wash the shorelines of bookshops, classrooms or the virtual fringes of the Internet, and more specialized collections range across named periods, places, themes or sub-genres. Although the majority of short story anthologies are commercially oriented, often featuring specific genres such as fantasy or ghost stories, literary anthologies can occupy influential spaces in terms of helping to shape tradition. They can not only build and perpetuate the reputations of particular writers and particular short stories, but they can also influence the formation of canons.

The routes by which individual stories find their way into anthologies are various. The ‘standard’ route would probably begin with the short story being published in a magazine, then, if the writer is sufficiently successful, it might be gathered with other stories in a single-authored collection; from here an anthologist might single it out for reprinting amongst a number of stories by other writers.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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References

Enright, Anne, ed., The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (London: Granta, 2010).
Prescott, Lynda, ed., A World of Difference: An Anthology of Short Stories from Five Continents (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Short Stories Volume 1: English and Irish Authors Read Their Own Work (audio CD) (London: The British Library, 2011).
Yentob, Alan, ed., BBC National Short Story Award 2014 (Manchester: Comma Press, 2014).

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