Best American Fantasy: A Look Behind The Scenes

October 30th, 2007 · 1 Comment
by Matt Cheney

Best American Fantasy CoverBS: One day back from vacation and already leaning on guest posters to make it through the week! We are privileged to know the uber-charming Matthew Cheney, proprietor and wiseacre behind The Mumpsimus, a favorite way to waste time — and Matt, generous man that he is, hooked us up with a copy of Best American Fantasy (excellent, excellent beach reading and a fantastic gift for all those on your holiday list). The 2006 edition is also Volume 1 with Volume 2 in production as we write. Matt, the series editor, also graciously offered to corral the anthology’s editors, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, into an interview. Needless to say, things got out of control quickly.

Read on to discover the secrets behind editorial oversight, amazing discoveries, future challenges, and the importance of diversity in anthologies:

Jeff: Why should people care about this anthology, with so many year’s bests out there?

The commonality was American and Fantasy; why publish an anthology of stories that are all alike?

Matt: I don’t know if people in general should or could care about Best American Fantasy. I mean, there are lots of other things to care about. Genocide, global warming, war, poverty, suffering. But let’s say you’ve already cared about those sorts of things, and you’ve even cared about other things, like what shoes to wear and whom to love, and you’ve still got some caring left. And one day you think, “Hey, I’d like to read a strange and interesting short story, preferably one published recently!” Well, then, it’s time to care about BAF. Because this is a book that does things other books don’t. That’s why we made it. We saw a gap. We wanted to fill the gap. We saw oodles of stories being neglected because they didn’t fit into a particular marketing category or a narrow aesthetic, and we wanted to give them some love. And we wanted to do other things, too, like create a way for interesting and idiosyncratic writers to spend some time as guest editors and show the world the sorts of weird fiction they care about. We thought readers might find that intriguing.

Now I’ll turn the question back around on the two of you and ask: When you made the final selection for the anthology, what mattered most to you? Were you trying to create an anthology of fantasy stories from non-genre sources, or did you have other goals in mind?

Jeff: I just wanted it to include the best, most interesting, most original stories we could find. While aware of the fact that the purpose of the anthology was to fill a niche not currently being served, this didn’t really play into the decision-making process. I do think that in trying to be that “pure” we’ve created an anthology that will look different to each individual reader, depending on how they’re coming to it, and what they’re coming from. Which is to say, I’m not sure there are that many readers who will love every story in BAF. But I don’t know that that should be the goal of a year’s best.

Ann: I echo Jeff on searching for the best stories we could find. I was not interested in where they came from or who wrote them. The story must speak for itself and that is all that is important. I was actually quite surprised to find so much excellent fantasy being published in the literary journals. We also searched online journals for fiction and had many lively discussions while choosing the final stories. Our main goal was to provide an anthology with rotating editors, so that readers will get a different take for each volume. All editors (and readers, too) have their own prejudices and favorites. By doing it this way, I believe this keeps BAF fresh, new and always changing.

Matt: Looking back now with a wide-angle lens, what do you see in the landscape of American short fiction? How do these stories fit into that landscape?

One day you think, “Hey, I’d like to read a strange and interesting short story, preferably one published recently!”

Jeff: I think these stories are hardwired into that landscape, that most magazine editors at the literary magazines no longer think of something with a fantastical element as immediately escapist or not worthy of serious consideration as literature. The landscape strikes me as incredibly diverse and vibrant, despite many lamentations from Stephen King on down about problems. Yes, “workshop” stories are still being published and yes there are stories that disappear up their own excretion apparatus, but that’s bound to happen when you have so many hundreds, even thousands, of publications out there. On the whole, I think a lot of writers are doing brave and necessary work in the short story form.

Ann: When speaking of “American” short fiction, whether it be fantasy or mainstream, I think of work that has a blend of all kinds of cultures and influences, a melting pot if you will. American writers have so many influences and a history that is decidedly different from their European, African, Asian and Middle-Eastern counterparts. And a history that is also so much younger. It’s almost as if the American writer is trying to define that history with each story. When you read through BAF, you will see some fiction with an American Southern flavor. Others with that American Tall Tales persuasion. And yet others with a California or Old West or New England bent to it, just to name a few. It’s all about the imagination, whether a “mainstream” or “fantasy story”. And I think of American literature as a whole encompassing both worlds very nicely.

Matt: What most surprised you — what had you least anticipated before you began reading for BAF?

Jeff: I hadn’t anticipated finding so much fantasy material in the literary magazines and, for 2006 at least, I hadn’t anticipated liking that material more than most of what I found in genre magazines.

Ann: I was very surprised at the quality of fiction coming from the online magazines. It had been so long since I looked at online magazines and I was very inspired by what I saw. I was also excited to see so many different types of literary journals.

Jeff: Matt, what’s the biggest challenge for a series editor do you think, having now completed work on volume 1? And how do the guest editors perceive the role of the series editor? What’s the dynamic there?

Matt: The biggest challenge is certainly the amount of reading. I want our guest editors to be able to put together an eclectic book, a book nobody else could ever create, and to do that I have to seek out stories from every venue I can find. I’m not a fast reader, either, so it means constant, steady work. Much of what I encounter isn’t appropriate for the book — there’s no way it would fit even the most open definition of “fantasy” — and then I don’t want to just dump all that I do find onto the guest editors’ laps if it’s obviously not of the quality we’re looking for. I think the first volume set a particularly high bar for quality, and so now the challenge for volume two is not to let the bar fall.

As for the guest editors, I of course hope they see me as a wise and endlessly generous saint who again and again leads them to caves full of treasure. In reality, I hope at least they find me more help than hindrance, as I try to guide them toward interesting material. They might simply see me as an annoyance, because I try to get them to justify all their choices. If I do my job well, I’m relatively invisible: neither yearned for nor resented.

Jeff: Now that you’ve had time to go through the whole process of putting together a year’s best, has your perception of the task changed, and will you be doing anything different in future years?

Matt: Well, I have a bad tendency to just jump into things without reflection. So I had no idea what I was doing in taking on this job. But then, none of us did. I was the only one, though, who hadn’t had any experience editing an anthology before. And then I decided to completely uproot my life — to finish a masters degree and start a job search while we were putting the book together,and then to move from New Hampshire to New Jersey while we were in the midst of doing the initial publicity for the book, which was another thing I had no experience with and a certain horror of (both publicity and New Jersey). It’s been remarkably fun despite all that, though had we had a less patient and indulgent crew, I might have been murdered in my sleep by hired guns. I still might be.

I don’t think my perceptions have changed so much as I’ve learned for more than I ever thought there was to learn. For future volumes, I want to be doing more to find places where great stories are being published. The most thrilling joy for me throughout this whole process has been finding publications the guest editors had never heard of, convincing them to look at a few stories I’d found there, and having them say, “Wow!” That’s when I love this job. The thrill of discovery mixed with the joy of sharing. That, ultimately, is what all of us are trying to bring to whoever reads the book.

Let’s finish with those whoevers reading the book. What advice would you give to a reader of BAF? How will they get the most pleasure from it?

Jeff: I see it as a collection that reflects the reading tastes of a very eclectic group of editors, and for that reason I don’t believe it’s an anthology that every reader will love all of. But I don’t believe a year’s best should be something everyone loves from cover to cover. A best-of should try to be both entertaining and challenging, and not all in the same way. It’s not like a regular anthology. It exists because it is someone’s idea of the best, regardless of the “names” or any other consideration.

Ann: Jeff is correct. Not everyone will love every story. But our goal was to have a wide diversity of fiction styles and themes here. The commonality was American and Fantasy, but beyond that, you can see all kinds of variety. Why would we want to publish an anthology of stories that are all alike? And why would anyone want to read it?

[tags]best american fantasy, fiction, anthology, matthew cheney, anne vandermeer, jeff vandermeer, fantasy[/tags]

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