Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Essay: Magazine/Anthology Redundancy

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

When it comes to speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, a question that pops up from time to time is redundancy. Last year, a question that got asked with regards to the local speculative fiction scene is why bother with a magazine like The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories when there's an annual anthology, Philippine Speculative Fiction? In light of the recent announcement that there won't be a St. Martin's Press release of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror in 2009, I'm sure some fans are also wondering about all these "best of" anthologies and if having too many is such a bad thing. Even Eric Marin, editor of Lone Star Stories, recently asked whether his publication is distinctive enough.

Steve Berman, in a different topic altogether, best answers that question: "There is no such thing as competing anthologies - fact is, people who like a genre never say, 'well, I will only read one book in this field all year.' No, each book is welcome."

While I'll happily quote Berman with regards to that topic, allow me to elaborate.

First off, when it comes to producing an anthology or a fiction magazine, it's an art as much as a science. One won't say, "Hey, Strange Horizons is a really cool website. Let's copy it." That's easier said than done. I mean how exactly do you "copy" Strange Horizons? One can mimic its format, with fiction/nonfiction/poetry getting published every week plus book reviews every Monday/Wednesday/Friday but just because one does so doesn't make you a Strange Horizons clone. The only time that'll happen is if you also port over the content. Heck, Transcriptase carries a lot of fiction from the now-defunct Helix but Transcriptase is definitely not Helix.

Now this might all seem elementary to some people but let me break everything down, on what makes an anthology or magazine unique.


At the most fundamental level, what can readily be distinguishable is the format. For example, in the The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories vs. Philippine Speculative Fiction argument, it's a simple difference. The former is a quasi-quarterly magazine while the latter is an actual book. There's a big difference between a magazine and a book, everything from page count (and size) to the schedule of release.

There's also the medium to consider. For example, Asimov's and Weird Tales are print magazines with some online support and that's very different from a publication like Fantasy Magazine and Clarkesworld Magazine which are mostly online publications supplemented by some print products.

Frequency is also a significant factor. Lone Star Stories for example is published once every two months while Subterranean is a quarterly, doled out in small chunks. There's definitely a different reading experience and expectations there, especially when compared to a monthly publication that you receive in one plop.

Subject Matter:

While we might use terms like Fantasy or Speculative Fiction, there's actually a broad definition of such terms. Perhaps the only way to truly understand what kind of content a certain publication includes is to actually read the said publication.

For example, both Goblin Fruit and Lone Star Stories publishes poetry but the former tends to focus more on "the fantastical" while the latter has a more general "speculative poetry" slate (which might include the fantastical). Also distinguishing Lone Star Stories from Goblin Fruit is the fact that it publishes fiction in addition to poetry and that in itself is a significant distinction.

Let's even compare the various "Best Of" anthologies for 2008. There's the aforementioned Year's Best Fantasy and Horror but simply looking at that particular anthology, we already see that it covers BOTH fantasy and horror (and poetry) in addition to the summations and honorable mentions list in the book. There's Jonathan Strahan's Best SF and Fantasy of The Year Vol. 2 but again, that's an amalgamation of two genres. Perhaps the only best of anthologies which supposedly overlaps is David G. Hartwell/Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy 8 and Rich Horton's Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008 Edition as far as subject matter is concerned but if we lately look at what's in the actual contents, they're far from identical (see below). And then there are the books which limit themselves in scope: Best American Fantasy and Wild Stories 2008 for example cover a particular niche.


This all boils down to taste and suffice to say, each editor has a specific preference or way of doing things. I mean just look at Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. It's the same anthology for the past two decades but there's definitely a noticeable shift in story selection when Gavin Grant and Kelly Link inherited the post from Terri Windling. That's not to say one is superior to the other but there is a comprehensible change.

It is also this editorial taste that distinguishes Year's Best Fantasy 8 and Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008 Edition. They both supposedly cover the same subject matter yet their Table of Contents is anything but identical. That's not to say they aren't all fantasy stories but obviously there's a judgment call as to what is classified as "best" or even what is "fantasy."

And if we look at the various fiction magazines, I think it's mostly associated with their editors. In the first two years of Clarkesworld for example, the influence of Nick Mamatas can be felt. And hasn't Gordon Van Gelder been associated with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction?

It's probably understated that when you're buying a fiction magazine or an anthology, you're not really buying it for the brand name as much as you're buying it for the editor's tastes. That's not to say a magazine can't transition from one editor to another but for the most part, story selection boils down to a subjective choice by a certain set of individuals rather than an empiric process of whittling down what is "best."


And then one combines all those factors (one thing I left out is packaging, layout and art but I'll leave that to those with more discerning aesthetics). One must wonder for example how much of a draw The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror would have been if a) it wasn't published by St. Martin, b) released consistently for the past twenty years, c) features summations of the year and an extensive honorable mentions list, and d) selections from respected editors. Omit one of those components and it's a very different book.

To Eric Marin's question, the same is true for Lone Star Stories. It's a combination a) his unique editorial taste, b) consistent bi-monthly schedule, c) three fiction and three poetry releases every issue, and d) that it's online and free.

Thus I don't think the various anthologies and publications are really competing with each other per se. They might occupy the same niche--genre publications in this case--but each one has a different demographic (and it's not like I'm only going to buy one book during the entire year).

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