Short story collections which are presented as novels: they annoy me. I read two over the Christmas period, both of which were good short story collections, one of which was really straining trading standard rules to be presented as a novel, let alone a Whitbread Prize winning novel.

The first did not win the Whitbread Prize: and it is science fiction (SHOCK!). Now a science fiction novel actually being a collection of short stories is not that unusual, and actually this works quite well as a narrative in as much as each story, whilst from varying viewpoints, tell a coherent story. Coyote by Allen Steele is the standard first Earth colony kind of story, and initially seems very slow in starting. But you soon realise that is because the first 100 pages are a self contained short story more interested in describing a fascistic American state than the journey. Stories bounce around from different character viewpoints and various stories have very different micro or macro focus which lead to the short story idea. However the big hint is the list of when each story was published in the Asimov Science Fiction magazine…

Coyote however is coherent compared to Jim Crace’s Continent. Ostensibly a novel detailing the existence of a mythical seventh continent, I am surprised that it won the Whitbread First Novel Prize. Not so much because it isn’t good, it works very well in its own limited way: namely as a collection of short stories. But there are stories which in theme and practice seem to contradict each other, and leave very little coherent to say about its subject. I like a lot of Crace’s other work, but I cannot help thinking that the overwhelm secret of Continent’s award success is in matching a peerless style with it being very short (I read it in just over an hour).

Of course short story collections don’t sell, so hiding them as novels is a much better way of boosting sales. But if your tales really have nothing in common, don’t bother please. Continent is a book whose rationale is only given in its back cover blurb. Coyote works better – possibly because there is a well imagined narrative behind its disjointed stories. But not novels.