Assembling a story collection is very like structuring a novel: stories are “chapters” in a (subterranean? atmospheric? oblique) narrative.
As the first sentence or paragraph in a novel is a (hidden) signal of all that is to come, so the first story in a collection is crucial.
As the final scene, even the final words, in a novel are crucial to its meaning, so the final story in a collection is crucial.
Structuring a story collection you know that there is a “ideal” opening–but it is not easy to find it. (All true for poetry books, too.)
Generally, a movement from “relatively simple/ clear” to increasing complexity & length; from “realism” to something like “surrealism”…
(The obsession of the writer with “structure” is ironic since many readers don’t read books in a linear fashion, even mysteries(!).)
John Updike once remarked that the writer’s effort to get words down in precisely the right way is ironic in that, for many readers, read-
ing is a losing proposition with sleep as in, for instance, reading in bed until the book slips from the reader’s hands. Not flattering.
(Yes, there are “avid readers of mysteries” who will admit to reading the final chapter first.)
(Yes, I confess that often I have read story collections & poetry books in a haphazard fashion thus undercutting my own convictions.)
All works of art are assemblages of bits & pieces–memories & invention–“inspiration”–but their final structure is highly deliberated.
Books carefully constructed can’t be read but only reread–any more than one can see a Shakespearean tragedy just once & “experience” it….
…but apart from students, other writers, & isolated obsessives, few people reread books, & especially not line-by-line.
—Tweeted by @JoyceCarolOates, May 24, 2013
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.