MIND MELD: Why are Anthologies Important?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, we asked our panelists the following:
Here’s what they said:
I adore anthologies. As a reader still new to speculative fiction, it’s a quick way to discover writers, both established and up-and-coming, in one go. In any anthology though there’s a unifying theme there is also usually a huge range of styles, forms, and perspectives – diversity in every sense of the word. It can be exciting compared to reading a novel by a familiar writer; there’s something new every time you reach the end of a story and turn the page. Rapid-fire and heady!
My relationship with anthologies as a writer is not so dissimilar in that it lets me discover different things to experiment with. I’d come to a theme thinking I haven’t anything to say or write about it, only to realize that I actually do, and it’s a beautiful opportunity to try something new. This was the case with Jonathan Oliver’s End of the Road, whose theme I was initially unsure I could do justice to – travel stories with a touch of the weird – but the newness of it proved to be a real inspiration, more so than themes I was more confident about. I turned out a historical story “Fade to Gold”, rooted in folklore and desire and monstrosity, not quite like anything I’d written before. So I was really thankful to have been presented with the framework of travel fiction. Many of my stories wouldn’t have been written if not prompted by specific themes. It’s a lot of fun, a grand challenge. And I like having a deadline! It makes me so much more organized, and feel extra accomplished when I’ve met it. (I try to turn in submissions early, generally, which makes me feel like a real adult.)
Some of my favorite anthologies have been Anil Menon’s and Vandana Singh’s Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, which contains outstanding stories and creative takes on the epic and Nick Mamatas’s The Future is Japanese which is really fun. And I was in love with the previous three Clockwork Phoenix volumes long before I even knew about the submission call for the fourth one, they’re just so full of interesting, unusual stories – magic realist, speculative, a glorious blend. More recently, I enjoyed Anne Perry’s and Jared Shurin’s The Lowest Heaven, which has two of my favorite authors, Kameron Hurley and Lavie Tidhar; they are, as always, in fine form – striking and brilliant.
We’re currently in a golden moment of anthologies, thanks primarily to the phenomenal success of The Living Dead (John Joseph Adams, ed.) Adams hit on a very clever idea—inexpensive reprints, with a few big names paid a premium, to create a phonebook-sized value proposition that can be sold almost as though it were non-fiction. “What are zombies all about?” a bookstore customer might ask. “Here you are, my friend! Everything about zombies!” the bookseller says. Ditto vampires, steampunk, and the like. Compare this to the previous model of the anthology—the Tekno Books model, which competed primarily on price: any crazy and sometimes baroque theme (Zombie Raccoons and Killer Bunnies was probably the conceptual nadir), as a mass market original, sold for under ten dollars and featuring stories by nobody in particular. If I remember correctly, a previous Mind Meld featured a Tekno anthologist describing how sometimes he spent a whole afternoon calling his many friends and acolytes to put together an anthology. After having read one, I had to say to myself, “A whole afternoon? I would have guessed only between the hours of 3 and 5.”
For writers, it’s great. Even not-very-famous writers can sell reprints of their stories more easily now, and often it doesn’t even require any effort. One wakes up one morning to an email offering a few dollars—usually a penny a word or so—for non-exclusive reprint rights. On a per-keystroke basis, a fair amount of money can be made just by typing Y-E-S. To use one example: My novelette “Arbeitskraft” was one of the few originals in the largely reprint The Mammoth Book of Steampunk (Sean Wallace, ed.). I then submitted it, as a reprint, and it was accepted by Ann Vandermeer for her Steampunk III, another mostly reprint anthology. It was then chosen by Rich Horton for his Year’s Best annual. Allan Kaster at Infinivox, which makes audiobooks on CD, then asked for it for his audio/electronic anthology Steampunk Specs and then ran it again for his Top Ten best-of audio annual. More recently Martin Šust of the Czech Republic’s Laser Books asked for translation rights for his forthcoming steampunk anthology. And the original Mammoth volume sold to Russia. Seven publications in about two years, on a single story, most of them active solicitations to me, rather than from me. Not too shabby, and given that I am not famous something that likely would have been impossible before the anthology boom.
The rise in reprint anthologies has also lead to more chances to publish original fiction, in that many of the anthologies are actually mixed reprint/original, or will try to include at least one new piece. Of course, one must be good at writing to themes: incubi, Civil War ghosts, fashion fantasies, Lovecraftian stories with violence and fights, new fables for the twenty-first century, stories reminiscent of David Lynch films—yes, I’m looking at my own brag shelf here.
For readers—well, they keep buying them, and I think anthologies have improved from the days of Toaster Fantastic III and dumb themes like that, so readers appear eager to read higher quality stuff. I suspect the phonebook anthologies also make a lot of their money via the gift trade. “Doesn’t Tyler like werewolves; isn’t it his birthday next week?” “Isn’t little Ruth into that Twilight stuff—let’s get her this vampire book for her bat mitzvah!”
If there’s a problem, it’s for anthologists. It’s harder to place an all-original anthology than it might be otherwise, or at least a particular all-original anthology that might have a very specific theme, or no theme at all. That said, I’m certainly seeing more anthologies in general, so an original anthology with only a few reprints can sell. Another issue is that anthologies seem easy—just ask people for stories and pick the good ones! Bam, a book with your name on the spine. Now you get to be a big wheel at your local science fiction convention, you get to write tedious “advice” on your little blog because you are a Real Editor Now. And some people are sufficiently eager to be loved by sectors of prodom/fandom that they will edit a book for free. Five books for free! Pay the writers, but do the anthologizing for looove! Editing is as easy as making sure the table of contents isn’t accidentally alphabetized when the book goes to press! Finally, given the ease of self-publication, only a fool would give an original novel to a small press, so many of the new small presses are trying to make a splash by putting out anthology after anthology. (It’s harder to get eighteen writers together for Kindle, without an editor and a press attached.) So we’re seeing a return to baroque themes and mediocre stories, except that this time the books are $15 and not $8 and you can generally only buy them via amazon or via pushy editor at a SF convention’s dealer room.
I’m something of an exception among readers I guess. While I think that some of the best work in science fiction these days is in short fiction, I tend to prefer single author collections over anthologies or magazines. I’ve discovered authors like Nancy Kress (Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories), Paolo Bacigalupi (Pump Six and Other Stories) and Ted Chiang (Stories of Your Life and Others) through short fiction collections and am still unreasonably fond of those. There is a kind of consistency in those collections that you don’t find in anthologies. Picking stories by different authors and creating and making it more than the sum of its parts is very difficult and attempts fail more often than not in my experience.
There are a few notable exceptions to that however. One that come to mind is Wastelands – Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams. His collection of tales of the apocalypse shows the breadth of this particular subgenre in a way that makes the reader want to read more. The end of the world, dystopias and technology running wild have always captured the imagination of science fiction writers and readers and this leads me to a second anthology that, while perhaps not entirely successful in what it was trying to achieve, worked quite well for me: Shine – an Anthology of Near-Future Science Fiction, edited by Jetse de Vries. I remember stories by Mary Ness and Kay Kenyon as absolute highlights. It appears to be a lot harder to write optimistic science fiction but this anthology shows it can be done successfully.
I may not be the biggest fan but there is one way in which anthologies worked their way into my reading habits. Anthologies are a great way to get out work by people who’d have a hard time getting published otherwise. It’s a way to discover new voices without having to commit to a full length novel. One project that comes to mind that has made a big impact on my reading are the two volumes of The Apex Book of World SF, both edited by Lavie Tidhar. Tidhar is not looking for an overarching theme but tries to make the reader aware of the wealth of material being produced outside the US and UK. It shows the reader a slice of the genre that until recently has been largely ignored. For me personally, The Apex Book of World SF has introduced me to the work of Aliette de Bodard. She has written a lot of very interesting short fiction recently. I’m at the point where I’ll read anything by her I can get my hands on.
A second example is the crowd funded anthology We See a Different Frontier – A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad. It focuses on colonialism and cultural imperialism and takes the viewpoint of the colonized. There is a distinct lack of this point of view in science fiction. The frontier mentality, that of the explorer and the conqueror of space, is much more prevalent. As such, I think this anthology would be almost impossible to sell but the editors manage to put it out there anyway. It turned out to be a very diverse and high quality anthology. One of the people in it I mean to read more work of is Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (there is another one of her stories in The Apex Book of World SF 2). She always seems to have something interesting to say on diversity.
All things considered I guess you could say that as a reader I have mostly found anthologies useful in expanding my horizons. They exposed me to writers and themes I would otherwise probably not have encountered. Maybe I have talked myself into reading a few more in the near future.
It’s worth noting that I’m speaking of multi-author anthologies. The role of single-author anthologies is a completely different ball of wax.
That said, I think the importance of multi-author anthologies shifted over the last six or so years, and is still shifting. The conventional wisdom was that anthologies had a headline author or two to draw in the readers, several other midlisters, and a few underexposed writers to introduce to the readers. A laudable goal, even if it didn’t often work the way it was intended, possibly due to the sheer volume of multi-author anthologies being published.
That’s not the way to approach them now.
Short fiction is a place where you can take risks, where you can push the envelope. But when you have print runs (or other sunk costs) to pay for, you have to make sure that as many books as possible are safe, digestible “blockbusters”.
It doesn’t have to be that way now. Publishers do not need to focus as much on “blockbusters” with the advent of crowdfunding, print-on-demand, and eBooks.
Multiple-author anthologies are going to become important for reasons of style and art. Whether the style is a “house” style imposed by a publisher, the style of each anthologist, or a combination of the two, we have an opportunity to really change the way we see and experience short fiction.
First, we can take risks again. With relatively low overhead, it is possible to let a book find the right audience and build organic word-of-mouth. This is great for both authors and readers. We get to tell and read the interesting stories, not just the “commercial” ones.
Second, it gives the anthologist a chance to really set the tone of the work. The selection of which stories make it into an anthology – and their arrangement in the text – will set the tone of the whole anthology. The anthologist now can focus more on getting the best stories instead of just concentrating on getting the marketable stories.
And that’s also a win for readers. Some folks like hard-hitting action-packed tales. Some like introspective musing ventures. But we now have space for all of those different story styles, instead of everyone trying to chase any lowest-common-denominator “target demographic,” and that’s a beautiful thing.
Anthologies are no longer random collections of “hit singles”. They are carefully crafted mixtapes where each part serves to make the whole stronger.
What have been some of my favorite anthologies?
It sounds cheesy, but I really enjoyed the last three multi-author anthologies that I published. (Of course, you would probably hope that I enjoy the ones I publish…)
For multi-author anthologies, in recent years I have really enjoyed Dark Faith and Glitter and Mayhem (Apex) and METAtropolis (Brilliance Audio/Tor). Both 999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense and Thieves’ World had a huge impact on me as a young reader and were landmark volumes for their genres.
When you look at single-author collections, Doug Warrick’s Plow the Bones (Apex) is the most recent fiction one that stands out. Doug’s work is simply beautiful and deserves all the praise. On the non-fiction (but yet speculative fiction) side, I would give a huge shout-out to Alasdair Stuart’s The Pseudopod Tapes (Fox Spirit). Alasdair is simply one of the most fantastic commentators working in speculative fiction today, and it’s a joy to see him bring it all together.
Anthologies are very important for both writers and readers of speculative fiction for a variety of reasons. As a writer, I think they provide excellent opportunities to new writers to be exposed and get their publishing careers underway. For established writers, they give chances to explore themes and genres that the writer might not have explored before (As was the case when I wrote a short story in the steampunk genre, for the first Dreams of Steam Anthology).
For readers, an anthology can be an excellent introduction for a particular genre (the aforementioned Dreams of Steam anthologies are great examples of this), in addition to being a fantastic way to discover and sample new writers. They also allow a great outlet for known/established writers to release new content for their fans.
In regard to favorite anthologies, recent ones include titles such as Apex’s Dark Faith and Dark Oak Press’ The Big Bad. In terms of all-time favorites, the Heroes In Hell anthologies really won me over to the enjoyment of anthologies and what they could offer.
In 2011, she self-published Out of Xibalba, a time travel/alternate history that begins when the world ends. The same week that work launched, Liz sold dark contemporary psychological thriller Pretty Girl-13 to HarperCollins for US/UK publication. Overseas editions are available in nine translations. Liz lives in the YA writing mecca of Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and teenaged daughter, sans the two older boys who have flown the nest. Her hobbies include singing, photography, and baking. She plays competitive tennis to keep herself fit and humble.
My passion for sci-fi was sparked in middle school by Ray Bradbury’s short story collections, followed by that famous collection of Heinlein’s, 6XH . My favorite anthologies today are also collections of the short stories by famous and established sci-fi writers, such as the four volume complete Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov’s The Early Years, and Connie Willis’s shorts. Anthologies are the only practical way to dip back in time and see masterful stories that originally appeared in magazines. That said, today’s multi-author “for the love” or “for an author copy” anthologies that collect the works of beginning authors are a portal into print in a world where very few spec-fic magazines have survived as the fittest. For an author willing to accept low-to-no pay and modest circulation, anthologies are a great way to get feedback on your work (anthology editors may offer the opportunity for revision), see your story in print, and get a publishing credential to use in query/cover letters and on your author website. So, for readers, anthologies offer a way either to immerse in one or to sample many; and for authors, anthologies offer a way either to break in or to curate a successful career.
The places to publish short fiction (something I seem to do an awful lot of!) come and go with some regularities – at the moment we seem to be in transition from traditional print magazines to electronic publications, where a lot of the more exciting, edgy stuff can be found. Anthologies are the middle ground – the bigger ones can have wide distribution and large print runs, and down to some incredibly obscure concepts often funded now by various kickstarters.
I’ve noticed, in my own work, a shift from electronic magazines to print anthologies, which seem to suggest the anthology market is picking up some of what the print magazines are losing (and they themsleves are transitioning to e-book sales).
But I think what’s exciting, to me, is how editors – of anthologies and other material – are becoming more aware of the need for diversity, and are becoming bolder in setting out to challenge the norm of the all-male, all-white table of contents – which no one would have even raised an eyebrow at a few years ago! Alex Dally MacFarlane did a great reprint anthology recently, Aliens: Recent Encounters, with a really strong, diverse list of authors and stories. And I love what she said recently: “Editing cannot be a passive act.” It’s so true! If I can put on my other hat on for a moment, as editor of the 3 Apex Book of World SF anthologies, I went out and got the stories, I didn’t wait for people to come to me. And recently, too, I can mention Jonathan Oliver’s The End of the Road anthology, which is similarly very international and diverse.
And I think that makes for a stronger anthology. I was also struck by Bill Campbell’s Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond, which again is very strong. Anne VanderMeer’s Steampunk Revolution is very strong, very good.
So there’s something really exciting and new happening with anthologies today, something we would not have seen at all 5-10 years ago. There is so much more international stuff around than since I edited the first Apex Book of World SF, which came out in 2009. And more awareness of all the intersectionality of diversity, of course.
Anthologies are a good way of showcasing writing talent. They can be useful for writers in the same way as magazines. For upcoming writers, having a story published in an anthology may be the first time they have worked with a professional (or at least, professionally-minded) editor, and the feedback from editor, readers and reviewers can be invaluable. For established writers, anthologies can be a way to keep their hand in with short fiction, and stay in touch with their readers during the lull between novels. For readers, anthologies are good way of staying abreast of the current state of the genre, allowing them to sample short works by authors that are new to them. In many cases, I have gone on to buy novels by writers I’ve discovered in anthologies.
When it comes to selecting favourite anthologies, I’d have to plump for Mirrorshades, the classic 1980s cyberpunk anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling; Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison; and New Worlds, an anthology of writing from the magazine, edited by Michael Moorcock. Although each ostensibly represents a different movement or moment in science fiction, all have opened my eyes to new writers and new possibilities – and that, after all, is surely the whole point of our genre.
I have a confession to make: I can’t think of a single anthology I’ve actually finished reading cover to cover. There have been many anthologies I’ve been excited about because they contain stories by several of my favorite authors, but once I start reading them I usually end up reading a couple of stories and then moving on to a novel. I like long stories with time to explore arcs and characters, and I often struggle with reading short stories. The only time I’ve actually read a book of short stories from cover to cover that I can recall is collections by single authors, usually some of my favorite authors, and I don’t have a favorite anthology.
Despite the fact that short stories often do not work for me personally, I do think anthologies serve a purpose and I’m glad they exist. I do love novels, and many novelists begin gaining experience by writing short stories. Anthologies that collect stories by many different authors are a great way of introducing people to authors they’ve never read before. The names of the authors they’ve read serve as a selling point, they discover some new authors they haven’t read before, and it helps those authors to become better known as more people are introduced to their work. It’s win/win for both authors and readers.
Plus one of the great things about anthologies is that you don’t have to read them all the way through since each story does stand on its own. You can take your time, and even if you barely read any of the stories, you still might discover a new author whose work you’re interested in reading. I recently started reading Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales edited by Paula Guran since I love fairy tales and have read books by some of the authors involved that I enjoyed. Due to other blog-related projects, I haven’t had time to get very far in it, but I did read some of the early stories—and was completely enchanted by “The Coin of Heart’s Desire” by Yoon Ha Lee, a tale of a young empress and a dragon. I’d now like to read more of her work, and I’d like to read more of the anthology to see what other treasures I can uncover.
I don’t know that I’d use the word “important” – regardless of how much I love anthologies. And I do love them; I’ve edited twelve (and I’ve got at least two more on the way that I can’t quite divulge yet), and my own fiction has appeared in more than thirty anthologies so far. Throughout my life, I’ve always sought out and read anthologies. So, as a reader, as an editor, and as a writer, anthologies are an essential component of my relationship to the written word.
Let’s ignore the “important” word. It’s too distracting, too big, too … important. But, yes, let’s talk about anthologies.
Most of the writers I’ve come to admire the most and who have had a lasting influence on me, I’ve discovered through anthologies. Even now, knowing full well that good writers of short fiction are not necessarily good novelists, and that good novelists are not necessarily good writers of short fiction, I still find it difficult to try a novel unless I’ve read short fiction by that writer first. I do it, but it feels like I’m taking a greater emotional risk. Risk-taking’s a good thing, though.
As a form, the anthology is not homogenous. There are several different types, each of which offers its own set of pleasures and satisfactions.
Year’s-best anthologies give readers a snapshot of what’s going on within the field of a given anthologies purview. That said, one editor’s idea of the state of the art might not mesh with yours. Terry Carr was my favourite year’s-best editor for SF, and in my opinion no-one’s ever had quite as good an eye as his for SF (though Donald A. Wollheim came close, and his series of year’s best SFs was really good, too). When it comes to fantasy, I’m very partial to David Hartwell’s annual series, and I’m quite sad that series was discontinued.
Retrospective anthologies are also very rewarding. If a topic, a category, a sub-genre, or whatever else interests you, reading an authoritative, hefty volume that highlights the important (oh no! – there’s that word) texts and/or writers in the history of that branch of fiction can be a deeply satisfying experience. My latest anthology is an attempt at such a volume: Super Stories of Heroes & Villains. I’ve never had so much satisfaction editing a book as I had combing three decades plus of the best superhero fiction to put together my vision of the definitive retrospective superhero anthology. Above, I mentioned David Hartwell’s now-defunct Year’s Best Fantasy as my favourite such series, but Hartwell also assembled an outstanding retrospective anthology of fantasy fiction, a visionary statement on the accomplishments, breadth, scope, and history of English-language fantasy fiction: Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment. Do I agree 100 percent with the selections and omissions? No. But that doesn’t diminish the power and impact of the material as it’s presented and collected. A successful anthology contributes to the dialogue on the topic it covers, in addition to stimulating dialogue among its readers. That’s especially true of retrospective anthologies.
My favourite run ever on any magazine is David Pringle’s tenure on Interzone; his editorial vision was one of the greatest influences on my own writing. It gave me immense satisfaction when my very first fiction publication, 2002′s “Bestial Acts,” was acquired by Pringle for Interzone. To tell the truth, though, my acquaintance with Interzone came primarily not from the magazine but from the anthologies culled from its pages. I’ve never been much of a magazine reader – I’ve tried a few times, but I can never keep up the habit. I’m too impulsive a reader – habit makes it a chore instead of a pleasure. But I do love reading anthologies. There are seven Interzone anthologies, none of them that easy to find anymore, alas. Five numbered anthologies; a massive sixth volume called The Best of Interzone (but it doesn’t reprint anything from the previous five volumes); and a final volume oddly titled The Ant-Men of Tiber and Other Stories – with no mention of Interzone on the cover, although all the stories are culled from Pringle’s final years on the magazine. Every volume is outstanding, with a few original stories never found in the magazine occasionally sprinkled in – including Richard Calder’s unforgettable and spectacular debut, “Toxine,” in volume 4 (in my opinion, one of the greatest stories ever written).
As a writer, my favourite type of anthology is the thematic anthology of original fiction. Give me a good prompt, and off I go. Of course, one writer’s inspirational prompt is another writer’s dead end. Variety is good – for writers and readers. I also love to edit all-original thematic anthologies, having done several of those (and more to come…). These are particularly fun to do with a co-editor. The back-and-forth dialogue and friendly arguing makes for a stronger and more eclectic book. (Although, not a committee of co-editors – therein lies the nearly inevitable danger of eliminating anything quirky and different and settling for the blandly competent.) My favourite editing experiences with the all-original thematic anthology were collaborative: Lust for Life: Tales of Sex & Love with Elise Moser, 2006, and Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories with Camille Alexa (the sometime pseudonym of Alex C. Renwick), 2013.
2013 saw the release of two superhero anthologies I edited, so I obviously have a lot of affection for the genre. It’s no surprise, then, that my favourite all-original thematic anthology ever is a superhero anthology: Who Can Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories, edited by Owen King & John McNally. In fact, three of its stories made it into my retrospective superhero anthology.
There are also (although not common now) all-original anthology series built around the literary reputation and acumen of a specific editor: Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions, Terry Carr’s Universe, Damon Knight’s Orbit. We don’t see so much of these anymore, and the reasons why are probably more complex than simply relying on the old chestnut that such books don’t sell.
In the late 1970s, in a comics shop in Montreal, I stumbled across a complete set of the Weird Heroes paperback series edited by Byron Preiss, a post-New Wave reconceptualization of pulp adventure fiction. My imagination was forever marked by these books, four of which were novels and four of which were anthologies. Most memorable are Philip José Farmer over-the-top gonzo contributions, including the Greatheart Silver stories and a particularly odd and inspired spin on the creators of Doc Savage and the Shadow.
I have a lot of affection for the multicultural Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, the centrepiece of which is Jane Yolen’s authoritative and massive anthology Favorite Folktales from around the World.
Finally, I’d like to mention what is perhaps the oddest anthology I’ve ever read. I’m a huge admirer of the work and imagination of Philip José Farmer, and it gave me immense pleasure to lose myself in the pages of Win Scott Eckert’s Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, an anthology of faux essays by various hands expanding on PJF’s metafictional game – most famously encapsulated in his “biographies” Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life – reimagining the entire canon of adventure fiction into one big interconnected tapestry.
The most interesting anthologies to me are those that make some form of editorial statement via the collective works of a varied group of authors. These types of anthologies function as a nice record of what’s on the mind of speculative fiction readers, writers, and publishers. Some examples can be seen with the influx of international themed collections, an onslaught of ‘uneasy’ themed anthologies (zombies/post-apocalyptic/dystopian), and anthologies that explore gender issues.
Of course, not every anthology is rooted in high-minded ideas. Many are fun ideas, and as a writer and reader, it is fun to see what a collection of authors can do with a theme such as “glitter & mayhem.”
Among my favorite anthologies include: Corpse Blossoms edited by RJ and Julia Sevin (Creeping Hemlock Press), John Joseph Adam’s anthology Wastelands, and any book in the defunct Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series edited by Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant.
I love anthologies. I love them partially because they’re made up of stories, but I love them mostly because they’re arrangements of stories.
That’s what makes a good anthology so much more than the sum of its parts. The stories shed light on each other, challenge and reframe each other, and collide in a thousand different delightful ways. And you don’t have to read an anthology in the way it’s presented — although that’s certainly a good way to read it. If you want to, you can dip into it like a box of chocolates, extracting the best ones first, or eating around some particularly delicious morsel that you want to leave until the final moment.
I particularly like the anthologies that gloss the story in some way: perhaps the editor detailing why that story was picked or the author talking about why they wrote it. The new Clarion West 30th anniversary anthology, Telling Tales, does a nifty thing with this by appending a note to each story, written by one of the author’s Clarion West instructors, talking about what it was like to teach have the author in class.
A themed anthology can shed light on a central idea from a multitude of interesting angles. Some favorite examples: all of the Tiptree Award anthologies; recent What Fates Impose: Tales of Divination (edited by Nayad Monroe), which has some innovative takes on fortune telling; and the Machine of Death anthologies, which amaze me with their multitude of interesting specimens of what seems like a very narrow category for stories.
I’m also fond of the various “Best of the Year” anthologies. It’s fascinating to watch multiple takes on some theme that surfaced in the zeitgeist. Reading through past ones gives you a cross-section of that year in speculative fiction, and it’s interesting each time to see who surfaces again later and who vanishes, never to be heard from again.
A good anthology is like a good party, with plenty of witty people to talk to, all of whom have different things to say. Time spent with one should be time you can look back on, thinking fondly of particular story/moments, while looking forward to re-meeting some of those voices in anthologies yet to come.
One caveat: I’m going to limit myself to science fiction anthologies: I will assume that the other Mind Meld contributors will cover the fantasy, horror, slipstream and what-have-you anthologies.
For me, the most important quality of an anthology is its willingness to take risks, to experiment, to explore new areas. To boldly go where no man has gone before, if you will.
In that manner, a well-conceived anthology can not only capture the zeitgeist, but also function as a catalyst for renewal, re-invigorating the genre. See ‘Some of my favourite anthologies’ mentioned below for a few examples.
On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of themed anthologies: I mean those whose theme is too general, too unfocussed. On the other hand, non-themed anthologies are also very much hit-and-miss. I think there’s a good middle ground in a loosely-themed anthology that does link the stories together while still maintaining a high diversity: like, for example, Jonathan Strahan’s recent Engineering Infinity and Edge of Infinity anthologies.
Another thing I like to see in SF anthologies: humour. Not necessarily an anthology completely dedicated to humour like Alex Svartzman’s Unidentified Funny Object series (which had Kickstarter fundraisers) and John Joseph Adams’s Help Fund My Robot Army (which is a satire on Kickstarter fundraisers and had its own Kickstarter fundraiser: it doesn’t get more meta than that, and I mean that in a good way), but also more humourous stories in all other anthologies.
So basically a good anthology can be a force of innovation, while having the odd laugh certainly helps (in other words: don’t take yourself too seriously).
Importance for writers:
Obviously, to be able to experiment, try out new things while not investing so much time as in a full novel. Kick out the jams, baby!
Also, a rightly-themed anthology might inspire a writer to explore a theme and/or produce a story she/he would otherwise not have written.
Importance for readers:
To find and be exposed to the possible new directions that SF might take. Also, to check out and discover new writers.
On top of that, a good anthology is a more varied read (not necessarily better, just different) than a novel.
Some of my favourite anthologies:
- Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison;
- Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling;
- New Legends edited by Greg Bear;
- There Won’t Be War edited by Harry Harrison and Bruce McAlister;
- The first five Nemonymous anthologies edited by Des Lewis;
- Twenty Epics edited by David Moles and Susan Groppi;
- The Crimewave series edited by Andy Cox;
Dangerous Visions may very well be the mother of all risk-taking anthologies. While obviously influenced by the New Wave, it spread its wings well beyond that. A rightful classic, and its sequel Again, Dangerous Visions is quite good, as well. The story of The Last Dangerous Visions, is well, another story.
Mirrorshades is often seen, quite rightly, as the ‘call-to-arms’ for cyberpunk. Even if it didn’t quite launch the sub-genre (there were already several cyberpunk novels out), it did bring it to everybody’s attention.
New Legends wasn’t ground-breaking in the way both Dangerous Visions and Mirrorshades were, but it’s just a damned good anthology with stories from its contributors that are some of the finest these authors ever have written.
The reviews of There Won’t Be War were mixed—to say the least—but I highly admire its ambitions, its lofty goal: imagining the end of warfare. Not all stories were successful, but I do particularly remember Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Lucky Strike” and “We, the People” by Jack C. Haldeman where people were allowed to determine where their tax money would be spent on, and could put in new allocations. A war veteran remembers the horrors of war, the friends he lost, and puts up a new allocation: “Peace, everlasting peace”. And the story ends with “By Christmas it was an accomplished fact.” It still sends a shiver down my spine.
OK: the Nemonymous series is not SF, but a weird mix of horror, fantasy, slipstream and literature that is 100% Des Lewis. Caveat: I had a story in Nemonymous 4, but I liked the previous three immensely, and was extremely chuffed to sell a story to number 4. It’s truly idiosyncratic in a way only Des Lewis can, and because Andy Cox did the design (for the first five), the production values were simply sublime. I like them so much I bought multiple copies of them.
Also Twenty Epics didn’t limit itself to SF, but I loved its attempt to tell a truly epic story in a few words as possible. If I recall correctly, even the payment was set up to reflect this, i.e. shorter stories got more pay. Very inspiring: it made me write a story for it (which was rejected, but eventually published in Clarkesworld Magazine), and the anthology is kick-arse.
Crimewave features purely crime stories, brought out irregularly through TTA Press. What basically happens is that Andy Cox waits until he has enough top quality stories, and will only release the next Crimewave then. Sometimes this happens within a year, sometimes it can take over two years. Despite—I actually think because—this unscheduled schedule every Crimewave is very, very good at worst and more often brilliant than not. Modern, cutting-edge crime stories done right.
Finally, a small plug: I have a story in Looking Landwards, edited by Ian Whates, of which I have received my contributor’s copy at this World Fantasy Convention. So while I haven’t had the chance to read the other stories, I really like its theme: the future of agriculture. I’m looking forwards (pun intended) to it!
As I was at World Fantasy, I took the liberty to ask a few well-informed attendees to react to the question “Why are anthologies important?” in a single sentence (or more). Here are their reactions:
- Jonathan Oliver (editor-in-chief of Solaris Books): “Because you can do things in a short story you can’t do in a novel. Also to test new waters, break new grounds.”
- Jonathan Strahan (prolific anthologist): “Because anthologies represent the best of the old and the best of the new. Also, anthologies are more durable (physically) than magazines. On top of that, they generally have better distribution (than magazines).”
- Ellen Datlow (prolific anthologist): “Original anthologies publish stories that wouldn’t otherwise wouldn’t be known anywhere else.”
Short stories in general are the ultimate tool for a writer to experiment with different methods and styles of storytelling, and to explore a specific idea or situation. Because writers have limited space, they have to be selective about what they choose to show–they must make every word and scene count toward the ultimate goal of the story. No detours, no beating around the bush.
As a reader, there’s so much to explore and admire, while writers can learn endlessly from each story they read or write. They get an impression of what does and doesn’t work in a much more compressed time frame than if they were working on novels.
Anthologies, specifically, are important because they take all the above strengths of short stories and add their own: versatility. Having twenty short stories packaged together displays the strength of the art form like nobody’s business. This goes double for themed anthologies. Earlier this year I appeared in an anthology called Fish (guess its theme–come on, guess) and a common thread among the reviews was how surprised and delighted the reviewers were by the wildly different approaches to the topic. By limiting the subject or genre of its stories, themed anthologies only emphasize the creativity and variety found within their pages.
In addition to enjoying the sheer artistry on display, reading themed anthologies helps writers see just how many directions they can go into even with a seemingly narrow prompt. Nearly every anthology I’ve read has left me in awe and brimming with ideas.
Finally, anthologies are unique in being able to collect work stretching over many months, years, or even decades, for “best of” anthologies. These anthologies are important not only because people can enjoy and learn from the high-quality short stories selected, but also because they gather and record some of the genre’s greatest works for posterity and show them off to a much broader audience.
There are certainly any number of reasons that speculative fiction anthologies are important for both writers and readers. I will not speculate on the reasons from a writer’s perspective other than to make the assumption that anthologies provide yet another avenue for their fiction to get into the marketplace and that has to be a good thing, right? From a reader perspective there are a couple of reasons that anthologies are important to me. One of those reasons is history.
The foundation of what are considered the classic works of fiction in the genre and the authors whose influence continues on past their deaths had their genesis in what could arguably be considered the anthologies of their day: the pulp science fiction magazines. Many now famous authors and editors got their start in presenting single-story and serialized fiction in the pulps. Collections of short genre fiction may have had their heyday in those times yet I see an importance in that continued tradition of gathering short story offerings from a variety of authors and presenting them in a structured format, be that the many electronic magazines available for public consumption or the print/ebook anthologies that continue to be published. It may be naught but whimsical nostalgia, but I personally get excited by the idea that these collections of genre fiction share a kinship of format with the stories that defined, and later redefined, the genre.
From a more practical perspective, anthologies provide readers with the opportunity to sample the works of a variety of authors in one handy volume and that is, I believe, a priceless experience. With a minimal time commitment a reader can experience the skill and imagination of an author which may then prompt them to seek out more of that author’s works and/or begin following that particular author through the course of their career. There are several authors I would consider among my favorites whose work first came to my attention because an anthology peaked my interest that I have then supported through my purchasing dollar by buying their novels and/or anthologies/magazines simply because of their presence in the collection. If I see the name Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Kress, Genevieve Valentine, Daniel Abraham (just for a few examples) on a magazine/book cover or in a table of contents I am highly likely to pull out my wallet irregardless of whoever else may be featured. In so doing I get a great value for my investment: I get to read the latest story by an author I have come to admire and also have the opportunity to discover new-to-me authors.
I prefer anthologies of original fiction over those that collect previously published works, however I see great value in the later in that the sheer volume of short fiction produced over the decades since the early pulps means that even the most ardent reader cannot read everything. If an editor feels a story from the recent or distant past is of value to contemporary readers, it is a great way to get those stories onto a reader’s radar.
My current favorite anthology is Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan. The anthology features science fiction that is relegated to travel/existence within our solar system and that idea particularly excites me. Plus it is an outstanding collection filled with worthwhile stories by some of the genre’s best and brightest. While on the subject of Jonathan Strahan, I first started following his editing work with his Eclipse series, an annual anthology that I looked forward to with great enthusiasm. The series was marred by criticism and presumably poor sales which lead to its demise after four printed volumes and a brief online presence, which is unfortunate because the anthology was consistently engaging. While Strahan has no doubt moved on (considering the volume of work he puts out on an annual basis), I live in hope of the resurrection of the Eclipse series.
I love to write for anthologies because I love the challenge of coming up with a fresh take on a theme. I enjoy curating anthologies for similar reasons–it’s a lot of fun to see what diverse stories writers come up with when given the same theme or topic. I get a little thrill every time one of my authors surprises me with something totally unexpected and brilliant. Anthologies benefit readers by introducing them to new authors, obviously, but I think they can also have a greater impact on readers as well. Some of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read have been short stories. I’m thinking specifically of Anne McCaffrey’s story “Velvet Fields,” which blew my mind when I first read it as a teenager (you can now find it on Lightspeed Magazine‘s website.). A truly brilliant short story can make you reconsider reality, and a whole collection of them can be life-changing.
Thus my first recommendation for an anthology is really a single-author collection, but please forgive me: Tanith Lee’s collection of retold fairy tales Red As Blood had a huge impact on me when I was young. I’d never considered fairy tales told from other points of view and in new settings, and a whole world of interesting perspectives was opened for me with that one book. In the same vein I must recommend both volumes of Women of Wonder, which some well-meaning relative gave me for Christmas in my teenage years and which subsequently changed my life all over again by proving that women do, in fact, write hard science fiction, and do it well!
More recently, I would recommend Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenburg’s anthology Hot and Steamy. I’m not usually a romance reader, but I do love me some Steampunk, and I really enjoyed all the stories in this volume, especially “Love Comes to Abyssal City” by Tobias Buckell. Right now I’m reading the first Unidentified Funny Objects anthology, edited by Alex Shvartsman, and I’m really enjoying it. So far “One-Hand Tantra” by Ferrett Steinmetz is my favorite story in the collection because the protagonist is a masturbatician, which might be the most original idea I’ve seen in a fantasy setting…pretty much ever. And next up I’m looking forward to reading Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, which I want to plug because it is, in my opinion, on the cutting edge. I’m forever trying to recreate those first experiences I had with short stories that totally changed my perspective on the world, so I try to read something outside of my own experience regularly.
Tagged with: Benjanun Sriduangkaew • Carl V. Anderson • Cat Rambo • claude lalumiere • Corinne Duyvis • Gareth L. Powell • Jason Sizemore • Jetse de Vries • Kristen Bell • Lavie Tidhar • Liz Coley • Mind Meld • Nick Mamatas • Rob Weber • Sarah Hans • Stephen Zimmer • Steven Saus
Filed under: Mind Meld
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!