Anthologies: A Reader’s Point of View

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 point—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 “pleasurable” 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 that’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 way—the most brain-exploding SF of all time, for example, or the early stories of iconic writers. There’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.)

10 comments on “Anthologies: A Reader’s Point of View

  1. Jacob says:

    Does the particular editor ever weigh in on your decision pre-purchase? Such as if you know an editor has done good work in the past?

  2. Oh sure. I know some editors are more conservative than others. That can be a good thing on some projects and not so good on others. Once I remember seeing the name of an editor who usually did pretty center-genre anthos on a book focused on more out-there stuff and I thought, “this will not be good,” and, for me, it wasn’t. But I’ll talk more about this subject in one of the next posts. Fact is, not all editors should take on all projects.

  3. Tim says:

    Um, a resounding YES, Yes, yes… from me. You’ve given me some great ideas for how I might start reviewing anthologies and magazine issues. Very exciting.

  4. Larry says:

    Thanks for the link to my essay!

    As for your points, they are similar to mine, except I would add that in the case of a new editor, I would be interested to see just how that newbie goes about constructing his/her stories.

    The point about anthologies on the holistic front is one that is near to some of the questions I’ve had recently.

  5. I think a good anthology is possibly the most difficult job for an editor. Really good anthologies are not just a bunch of stories stacked one atop the next.

    For me the coolest anthology I have ever been in is Album Zutique, for a number of reasons.

  6. Rachel Swirsky says:

    I’ll be very interested in hearing your opinion on The People of the Book, should you choose to read it. (Though I know one thing already: our introduction will be kick-ass.)

  7. jeff vandermeer says:

    all I know is if there are no jews in it I will be piiiissssed.

  8. Tuan Ruezga says:

    This can be by far the very best post I’ve found on this topic, thanks for generating my day.

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