Monday, 20 August 2012

Collected Irks

This is a rant concerning a detail that many of you will consider inconsequential. But this is my blog, and blogs are home of the triviality-induced crosseyed hissy-fit. So no apologies.

I love anthologies and compilations of essays and reviews. Love 'em. Can't get enough. I've just finished Christopher Hitchens' mammoth Arguably, presently I'm reading Jonathan Meades' hefty Museum Without Walls, next in line is Mark Dery's welterweight I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. Such is my taste for the format I might even get the AA Gill. I don't know what gave me this taste for longform episodic nonfiction; Tom Wolfe or Hunter S Thompson, but I can't remember who I read first.

However I have a recurring problem with these anthologies, one that baffles me as much as it irritates me. These collected essays all appeared at different times and in different places. They are often assembled out of chronological order. That's all fine. But the date and location of appearance is mostly only given at the end of each essay. That's annoying. But it can be worse, and worse. Sometimes only the date is given, and the original publication is hidden in the copyright info or the index. Sometimes (and this is the case with the new Meades) only the date is given and there is no way of telling where the essay appeared. And on very rare occasions, not even the date is given.

Date and location of first publication are vital pieces of information, crucial to properly understanding the texts, and they should be given at the head of the essay, under the title. I am sick of having to skip ahead to see if, for instance, X is writing about JG Ballard before or after his death, or Y is writing about George W Bush before or after his re-election. Why are readers treated this way? Is there a rationale beyond mere convention? Do anthology editors believe that readers do not like to be reminded of the fact that they are reading "second hand" pieces? That seems condescending and deceptive. Some other reason? Perhaps essayists or their editors do not like to let readers see how a writer's cloth is cut to suit their clients - how a voice might seem to alter depending on whether one is appearing under the masthead of The Spectator or The Guardian. But this sort of subtlety is precisely why contextual information is invaluable. And we are all adults - surely the intelligent reader will appreciate that writers gotta write.

In summary: knock it off. Please. And to end on a positive note, William Gibson's Distrust that Particular Flavour is a recent example of an anthology that did it right and put the info up front. Sadly it's the only one I can think of. But it can be done. 

1 comment: said...

Hmmmm. I think uou are the absent ocd pianist not the clueless narrator! I love the way the narrator is so human and clumsy. He does a job many of us do. We cant all be successful artists. He succumbes to temptations like many do. A great first novel. Deserves more recognition.