The Faber Book of Anthologies? Some thoughts on the form

Here’s a new book in the house, a well-chosen present from my sister, who doubtless had to listen to me pontificate on myriad wonders of A Bout de Souffle when younger. It’s The Faber Book of French Cinema, and it’s a great book, to be sure, but would you join me in asserting that there is something slightly dubious about its title.

At first glance, surely, you would take this to be an anthology, a lovingly chosen selection of, say, various newspaper clippings about the Lumière brothers’ first reels, a gnomic interview with Jean Renoir, some polemical screeds extracted from Les Cahiers du Cinema, and maybe a translated extract from one of Richard Bohringer’s Bukowski-esque books. Slap a photo of Anna Karina on the front and Jacques’s ton oncle.

But it’s not. It’s a perfectly fine history of French cinema, taking in all those players and many more (actually, no: Bohringer doesn’t figure in the index, and nor for that matter does Alain Robbe-Grillet: a history of French cinema without L’Année Dernière A Marienbad?) written by Charles Darzin, but an anthology it’s not, which makes me wonder, did someone at Faber think this was a smart trick to pull, to dress this book up as something it’s not? The quickest flick-through in a bookshop would set a potential purchaser straight, but someone buying online might well be fooled.

This then got me thinking about anthologies in general, and what a – ha! – mixed bag they are. Some have been hugely influential in my reading life. I could name James Campbell’s Picador Book of Blues and Jazz, which as well as being very interesting in its own right was my entry point into Campbell’s excellent non-fiction books as author, and which also gave me my first taste of Geoff Dyer (an extract from the opening to But Beautiful, in which he extrapolates from George Steiner’s Real Presences to posit jazz as the form which merges criticism and creation). Or there’s The Penguin Book of Art Writing (Ed. Martin Gayford and Karen Wright) which has given me some important cues for the art novel I’m writing.

Others are simply interesting books to dip into (The Faber Book of Writers on Writers), but the anthology does sometimes seem like a rather desperate lunge for the market. The Faber Book of Smoking. The Picador Book of Cricket. The Granta Book of the Family.

I have a character in a story I’m writing fantasise about editing an anthology called The Faber Book of Adultery:

‘It would be stories, and selections from the classics – Updike, Carver, Yates. The joke being, I suppose, that the subject is so all-pervasive as to make the process of selection entirely otiose. It could be pages taken at random from any book, published ever. They’re all about adultery.’ A sweep of his arm, taking in the well-stocked shelves. Then, marking each word with a shift of the hand along an invisible banner, ‘The Faber Book of Writing. The Faber Book of Words.

 I thought it was a reasonably funny joke until I saw, in a charity shop, The Penguin Book of Infidelities. I was too depressed to buy it. How desultory a task it must have been for Stephen Brook to sift through his and others’ bookshelves, picking out a bit of Updike here, a bit of Catallus there. And all for what? Who’s going to buy it? If love anthologies are always going to sell in February, who would actually buy their married lover a copy of this book?

The anthology, let’s face it, is the ultimate gift book, safe because varied, certain to contain something of interest, and thus – in bringing this post back around (as posts always must) to the future of publishing – the most doomed. No one’s going to buy anyone a Kindle edition anthology as a gift, and no one’s going to browse one.

Anthologies require the book as physical object, because their interest rests on an innate understanding between the part and the whole, the extract and the collection, both in terms of length, and of position, where it sits in the taxonomy of the subject that the editor has decided upon. The anthology is going to be the first thing to go, because it will become superseded by the web itself – where the only thing missing will be the editor.

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One comment

  1. Philip

    Interesting, Mr Tiny Camels, but I don’t think I can agree with your central point because of your final point – ‘the only thing missing will be the editor’.
    One way or another, web or no web, there will always be those – and I count myself in that number – who don’t object to a bit of guidance, to the sense an expert eye (whether spurious or otherwise) can bring to extensive, even if widely available, terrain. Think of Iain Sinclair’s ‘London: City of Disappearances’, or Robert Irwin’s ‘Night, Horses and the Desert’ (now available in a Kindle edition), books which, as well as mapping old terrain, made new sense of it. Gift books maybe, but gift books that have a shelf life beyond the downstairs loo, that open subjects up – at which point the web can come in and do its job.

    (As a specialist quibble, I’d say that the Picador Book of Cricket was less a desperate lunge for the market than a partial corrective to a largely (ignoring, for the moment, CLR James) Anglo-Australian tradition of anthologised cricket writing. )

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