Context is Everything

A little while ago, Jeff VanderMeer asked the important question: what do you look for in an anthology?

I meant to answer at the time, but I had been mulling over a blog entry on a similar topic for some time, and it was all just too big in my head to condense down to a comment. And, you know, I didn’t get around to it. I recommend checking out the comments on that post, though, there’s a wealth of reader response there!

Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about this is a conversation I had on Twitter between several friends, about the role of introductions and other supporting materials in fiction anthologies. While we did get a little bogged down in definitions when discussing the difference between, say, forewords, introductions, story-specific supporting materials like author notes/afterwords and critical essays, the discussion still raised a few questions:

Is it better that supporting text to be as minimal as possible to allow more space for stories?
Are extended introductions useful, or just patronising to the audience?

Personally, while I like the minimalist approach to supporting material for an original anthology of new stories, for anything beyond that I tend to think that more is better when it comes to supporting text. Reprint anthologies, whether they are reprinting work of the last year or from fifty years ago, are a contribution to our history, and as such they need to do more that merely archive stories.

Now that I read so much of the year’s short fiction when it is first released, thanks to the Last Short Story project, Years Best anthologies are little more than an interesting shortlist to me. The Table of Contents means something to me, but I’m not going to go out of my way to get hold of the books, simply because I tend to have read it all already, and am already looking forward to the next year. I think they’re fantastic for other people to get an instant feel for some of the better stories of the last year, they’re just not a product built for me any more.

But I still remember the experience in the late 90’s and early 00’s of reading my way through one of the Datlow and Windling or Dozois Year’s Bests – through the library at first, then purchasing my own copies. I enjoyed the fiction, but it was the essays that drew me in, the detailed overview of our field and what had been published each year. Sure, the analytical parts were more interesting than the pages that were just lists, but I would still completely pore over the lists, hunting out familiar names to see who had been honoured.

I still miss the Datlow/Windling books in particular, as there was something special about that chemistry of the stories they chose and the work they discussed in their essays. Sadly, many aspects of those books were eventually made redundant by the internet, and they perhaps didn’t change fast enough to reflect that. These days I can read a list of Ellen Datlow’s Best Of Horror recommendations directly from her blog, a far more appropriate way to consume incredibly long lists, and a lot of the information that those Best Of books used to provide is the sort of thing people prefer to glean from the internet. Still, I treasure the ones that I own, as little (okay, stonking big) time capsules, and the value is just as much for the essays as the fiction.

Most of my self-education about feminist SF and its history comes from anthologies. I found the Pamela Sargent Women of Wonder books in a little English section of a bookshop when I was staying in Rome, and consumed them voraciously. Without the historical background provided by the introduction and other supporting text, they would just have been a bunch of old-fashioned stories. But thanks to Sargent, I got an amazing grounding in the story of women in SF from the early days through to the period I was more familiar with.

I have also really enjoyed anthologies that go further than that and tell their story through a combination of non fiction and fiction. The non fiction goes beyond being “supporting text” and is treated equally. Tess Williams & Helen Merrick’s Women of Other Worlds (you still have my copy, right, Alisa?) does this brilliantly, and was probably responsible for my deep respect for interdisciplinary history (which um got me into some trouble in my academic days!). When you’re telling the story of people who write fiction, it really helps to see some of that fiction – and, likewise, if you’re presenting historical examples of fiction, it really helps to provide context about what people are reading. The Tiptree Award books also do this well, though I would prefer more essays instead of sample chapters from novels, which never quite sits right with me.

Justine Larbalestier hit the nail on the head with her Daughters Of Earth book, which provided essays and the stories they were about in matched pairs, and was one of the most pleasurable experience I’ve had in reading vintage SF stories. I’d love to see this format become more common in reprint anthologies – it would be really cool to see it used on single author collections when it comes to those authors who are of “academic interest.”

I can’t think of much classic short fiction, in fact, that I have read without the aid of meta text in some way. I read Robert E Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in the Fantasy Masterworks editions, with essays attached. When it came to Conan in particular I know I found the essay a lot more interesting than the fiction itself… my, that stuff is hard work to get through.

Recently when I started my reading-Joanna-Russ project, I really enjoyed dipping into her fiction and into Farah Mendelsohn’s book On Joanna Russ at the same time – what would have been far better was a companion volume to that book with the relevant short fiction included! A reprint collection to match the brilliant Tiptree biography by Julie Phillips a few years ago would likewise have been fantastic, especially for copies going straight into university libraries. One of my favourite textbooks ever is a history of Roman Religion by three of the field’s pre-eminent historians – paired with a second volume reproducing a whole lot of relevant source material.

Of course, bad introductions or meta text are far worse than having none. I’ve read more than my fair share of introductions that patiently explain every single story, or that talk about the importance of coffee in the editor’s life, or author notes that take every bit of magic out of the story… but you can’t judge the value of something by examples of it done badly. If an editor’s strength is not in the writing of meta-texts, they would be better off not including substandard material – but surely there are ways around that, too? Such as commissioning introductions/supporting essays from other writers, something I’ve seen done to great effect in some places. I think I heard that a new Masterworks series or equivalent was being published in the UK soon, with well known writers contributing the introductory essays?

But on the whole, I think it’s more important to provide solid and detailed context to classic or reprint fiction than to pack another story or two into the book. My time is pretty limited these days – I want to know what I’m going to get out of a book, and I want to be given a sense of why these stories are still worthy of being read this many years later. Also I do like a bit of an insight into the editorial process though I don’t see that as quite as essential.

One thing that Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe talked about recently in one of their podcasts was what SF classics do people perhaps not need to read, in order to understand the field now. This was quite interesting to me, coming not many episodes after a discussion about how you can’t really understand the body of feminist SF without also having read all the work by men that was published at the same time. I think we’re well past the point of expecting readers to have read everything the field has to offer in its long history, or even a fraction of it. Even the most educated and interested readers are often so busy reading forward in the field that their historical reading is more likely to be cherry picked.

I can’t say whether supporting materials would increase the sales or popularity of reprint anthologies to your average reader, but I do think that they are important to increase the accessability of said anthologies to new or even not-so-new readers, and also to position the books as a part of our history. I know that if I’m going to put another collected work on my already overstocked shelves, I’m primarily interested in the ones that are doing more than just telling me stories. I want the DVD extras, damn it! I want the scandal behind the scenes, the authorial gossip, and the footnotes.

Yeah, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for footnotes.

And oh yes, this so wouldn’t have fitted in as a comment on Jeff’s blog…

10 replies on “Context is Everything”

  1. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Thanks for that! I’ll reference it when I post later this week (or early next) about anthos from my editor’s perspective.

    Joanna Russ needs a collected fictions out. I don’t think enough current readers have encountered her work, and certainly not all of it in one place. There’re some whispers of such a thing occurring, and I hope it does.

    JeffV

  2. tansyrr says:

    Hey Jeff!

    It’s quite shameful – I had to hunt down a whole bunch of 1980’s editions to collect her work. Considering how many volumes the SF & Fantasy Masterworks have have out, they should definitely have included her.

    Hopefully the NF books out last year discussing her will spark a bit of interest. This is a book that has to happen!

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ann and I had to revisit her work for our Weird antho, and that meant we sought out all of her fiction in the various collections. To our mind, it held up favorably in comparison to other major fantasists, including, just to cite an author who addressed similar themes, Angela Carter.

    Alas, I don’t think Wesleyan is thinking of doing that collection, but I know a press that’s considering it, and I’ve offered to write an intro if it’s of use. We’ll see.

    Jeff

  4. Al Harron says:

    What did you find difficult about Howard’s and Leiber’s prose? I had little difficulty with them, and my experience is that they are extremely readable authors.

  5. tansyrr says:

    Hey Al

    Nothing unreadable about Leiber, I didn’t mean to imply that there was! The Fafrd and the Grey Mouser stories were fascinating to me and I enjoyed them greatly – even coming to them, as I did, post-Pratchett.

    Conan is another matter. The prose was readable enough (if on the purple side) but I found the stories incredibly dull and hard to identify with. I was reading it for the sake of historical reference but I struggled to get through the whole (first?) volume. On the whole I find reading about Conan & his creator far more interesting than the stories themselves.

    I should add I think Conan is an essential read for any fantasist – it’s important to know about where we come from, and in particular to know that fantasy isn’t just what comes out of the Tolkien tradition – but after a couple of hours of jewels and pale-skinned maidens and muscle flexing and having to provide all the irony MYSELF I was dying for something a bit more… civilised.

  6. Amanda says:

    Tansy

    Thanks for the great recommendations. I’ve added the Larbalestier and Sargent books to my wishlist.

  7. tansyrr says:

    Hey Amanda

    If you’re interested in the history of women’s SF Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (her published PhD thesis) is also gold, though doesn’t fit into the category of fiction+NF I was discussing here – it’s NF all the way.

  8. Al Harron says:

    *Three months later*

    Well, that’s quite interesting, because of the two, I actually found *Leiber* to be more difficult to read than Howard. I think maybe one of the problems is that the Conan stories aren’t meant to be read in one single sit-down: they were written and published months apart. Even so, I devoured the stories as soon as I got the book, and there was enough variety in them to satiate my thirst for reading.

    A shame you didn’t have the same experience, but I’m still glad you made the effort to read them. They are indeed essential reading.

  9. Al Harron says:

    Forgot to add: you say that you read the volume of the Fantasy Masterworks Conan. If I’m thinking of the right editions, “The Conan Chronicles” were printed in two volumes.

    This is a big problem, because Stephen Jones edited the volume in such a way that it follows a “chronological” order, and NOT the order Howard himself wrote them. So you’d have the thief stories all grouped together, the warrior, the adventurer, and then the king. Howard wrote the stories in no such order, and as a result, I think you’d get a lot more variety in Howard “jumping” from story to story.

    Secondly, if you have in fact read the first FM volume “The People of the Black Circle and Other Stories”, then you’re missing out on a lot of the very best Conan stories. In fact, the first volume mostly consists of the mediocre Conan stories: “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” and “The People of the Black Circle” are all Howard at his very finest (though if you didn’t enjoy even those stories I guess I can’t help you), and “The God in the Bowl,” “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” and “Black Colossus” are also solid, but a good half of that volume is made up of the lesser and mediocre Conans.

    In contrast, Volume 2, “The Hour of the Dragon and Other Stories” almost totally consists of some of the finest Sword-and-Sorcery stories ever written, with only one mediocre adventure (“Jewels of Gwahlur”) and an unfinished draft. Except for those two, every story in that volume is truly excellent.

    I won’t force you to read them if you really find it difficult, but I guess you and I just must be on two different wavelengths.

  10. tansyrr says:

    Hi Al

    Thanks for your observations. It is of no surprise to me that many others find Conan more enjoyable and rewarding than I do; this is something I have long since come to terms with.

    I do appreciate your perspective that reading the Conans in chronological order might have meant it didn’t get the best possible chance with me, but in fact I have read several of the stories you list as Howard’s best, and remain unconvinced.

    There comes a time when you just have to accept that a work others deem brilliant and iconic is in fact not something you’re going to ever like, and I have far too many other classic authors to educate myself about right now – giving Howard another chance to impress me is unlikely to be a priority any time soon.

    You don’t have to feel sorry for me at all – I’m quite happy to have my deep appreciation For Fritz Leiber and his sophisticated tales of urban sword and sorcery instead! The excellent thing about the Lankhmar stories is that it doesn’t matter which order you read them in – they’re all fantastic. Plus there’s the added bonus of the meta conversation with Joanna Russ…

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