The American Academic Cass R. Sunstein has an interesting argument in his book Republic.com.2.0 Revenge of the Blogs, that the abundance of information, choice, and social networking available on the internet ultimately leads to a more restricted closed culture. For a well functioning system of free expression, Sunstein argues, there are certain requirements that go beyond the absence of government control and censorship; one of these is that people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. “Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself’. The scope for those unplanned encounters are rapidly being diminished by friendly algorithms that analyse your online activity and focus on things you should, in all probability, like.
In book-selling terms this is nothing new really. With the advent of major chain bookstores we’ve become accustomed to clearly delineated sections – books fit into popular fiction / literary fiction / crime etc and rarely is one allowed to escape the boundaries. Our cultural landscape has long been limited by marketing concerns and shelving logic.
Stories is an apt antidote to this pigeonholing, with its simple, unambiguous title both reassuring and gently polemical. In his very fine introduction Neil Gaiman explains the logic behind the collection, which pulls together writers as diverse as Roddy Doyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Chuck Palahniuk, Diana Wynne Jones, and Carolyn Parkhurst (to name but a few):
“Talking to Al Sarrantonio I realised that I was not alone in finding myself increasingly frustrated with the boundaries of genre: the idea that categories which existed only to guide people around bookshops now seemed to be dictating the kind of stories that were being written. I love the word fantasy for example, but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination. I do not love it for the idea of commercial fantasy. Commercial fantasy, for good or for ill, tends to drag itself through already existing furrows, furrows dug by JRR Tolkien or Robert E.Howard, leaving a world of stories behind it, excluding so much. There was so much fine fiction, fiction allowing free reing to the imagination of the author, beyond the shelves of genre. That was what we wanted to read.”
And so we have a collection that includes much fantasy, plenty of genre props, and heaps of imagination, but the over-riding logic is one of great story-telling (as demonstrated by the dedication, to Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Baroness Orczy, and most of all Scheherazade). Crucially it’s also a perfect literary occasion for those unplanned and unanticipated encounters.
Roddy Doyle’s opening story, Blood, is a great example. Doyle, best known perhaps for his keen portrayal of working class Dublin in novels like Paddy Clarke Ha Ha, and The Barrytown Trilogy, is the last person I’d imagine writing a vampire story, and it’s because of his fresh approach to a tired, tired genre that the story works. The story brings the author and the reader out of their respective comfort zones, and is breath-taking as a result.
Other highlights for me were Carolyn Parkhurst’s Unwell, a supernatural tale of twin sisters separated by the grave, whose rhythm and timing brought me back to the best moments of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected; Jeffery Deaver’s The Therapist, which managed to mix detective and horror fiction together without a splice, and threw in a wonderfully unreliable narrator at the same time; Kat Howard’s remarkably crafted A Life in Fictions (it’s her first published story), which delves into literary fiction’s devices (helpfully reminding us that it’s not just fantasty or crime fiction that has stock elements) with very pleasing results, and finally Gaiman’s own story The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. Like most of his work, reading a synopsis of the story would hardly have me racing to pull it off the shelves, but reading the first paragraph is enough to be hooked. He is, quite simply, a master storyteller who combines craft and imagination with such a skill that you know you’re in good hands when you suspend your disbelief and dive into his stories.
Criticism? Well, some stories did very little for me – precious few out of the 27 on display -but that may be as much to do with the reader as with the writing. And that’s the risk, when you open up to unplanned encounters – they don’t always go well, but it’s a risk well, well worth taking.