Earlier this month, I asked questions about anthology editing and anthology reading. As you can tell from the thread, there were a lot of good, thoughtful responses.
Next week, I’ll address some of the issues surrounding anthologies from a writer’s perspective and from an editor’s perspective. For now, though, I’ll explore what I as a reader want from a fiction anthology.
As a reader, I’m omnivoracious when it comes to novels but tend toward surreal, absurdist, fantasy, and related modes of writing when it comes to short stories. However, some of my favorite short fiction is published by sources outside of what would be called “genre” or “core genre” (see Larry’s excellent essay here). Among contemporaries, my favorite fantasy short fiction skews about 65-35 percent toward preferring women writers. (Just by way of contrast, my favorite noir mystery novels are mostly by men.)
When I glance at an anthology in the bookstore, I tend to be interrogating it in the following ways.
—Does the antho include any of my favorite writers? (Which automatically means I’m expecting some level of diversity.)
—Does the antho include anyone I’ve wanted to read but haven’t gotten around to yet?
—Does it include anyone I’ve never heard of? (Potential discovery!)
—Does the antho appear to feature a mix of writers from both “genre” and “mainstream”, or just from genre or just from mainstream? (Not a deal-breaker, but immediately gives me an idea of where the editor might be coming from.)
—Has the editor clearly identified her focus in the introduction? (Sometimes really good editors suck at writing intros, so this isn’t a deal-breaker.)
—Is the book aesthetically pleasing? (Again, not a deal-breaker, but if I’m undecided, this may help make up my mind.)
Once I’ve picked up an anthology, I’m unlikely to read it straight through. I’ll pick at it and sample it here and there, letting my mood at the time decide what I read. If I encounter something that seems less interesting, I’ll skip it and come back to it. Eventually, though, even skipping around, I’ll begin to get a sense of the anthology as a whole. The interrogations that occur at this pointâ€”or elements that come into play –are different than when I pick up the book, and they occur on a subconscious level, really, while reading.
—Does the focus, theme, or editor’s point of view carry through in pleasurable ways in the antho? (Note that â€œpleasurableâ€ for me might be excruciating for someone else.)
—Are there connections between stories, and does the total reading experience, including story order, enhance my understanding and appreciation of each individual story?
—Has the editor been adventurous in the modes of writing included, or are they pretty much all traditional (structurally or in terms of non-structural elements, like characters)?
—While maintaining focus, has the editor been willing to take chances with a story thatâ€™s just on the edge of the focus?
—Is the weakest story still a strong story?
—Was I surprised, shocked, horrified, moved, amused, saddened, or in other ways changed by the stories?
—Did they satisfy intellectually as well as emotionally? (This seems to be less common than emotional satisfaction.)
—Did any of the stories challenge me? (Here I mean, did they challenge my view of the world, make me question anything in my life or my experience.)
—On the level of language, did any of the stories make me re-read a paragraph or two here and there just because something was so well-written?
Most of the anthologies I read fail for me on a holistic level, while usually giving me a pleasurable reading experience in terms of a few individual stories. The most common way that they fail? The editor seems to think that just providing solid stories with some highlights is enough to justify the existence of an anthology–in other words, there’s no sharpness to the editorial perspective in the attempt to achieve the focus.
These problems become more obvious when the focus of the anthology touches on the idea of canon in some wayâ€”the most brain-exploding SF of all time, for example, or the early stories of iconic writers. Thereâ€™s a greater responsibility to be organized, logical, and inclusive, and, if doing an anthology focusing on some historical period, to use that opportunity to re-evaluate canon rather than blindly mimic choices made in the past. (All of which speaks to powers beyond simple organization, like the ability to analyze and synthesize.)
As a reader, I know I expect what’s impossible, in a sense–there are constraints that I’ll talk about when discussing anthos from an editor’s point of view–but regardless I keep searching for it. (And I also know my view of things is skewed by also being a writer and an editor.)