Monday, September 06, 2010

Book/Magazine Review: The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle

Last year, Tachyon released The Secret History of Science Fiction. The first question that came to mind is how will The Secret History of Fantasy set itself apart from its predecessor. Peter S. Beagle’s introduction, which criticizes not Tolkien but the derivatives that came after him, sets the context for what this anthology is about: not necessarily to blur the lines between mainstream Fiction and genre, which seemed to be the goals of James Patrick Kelley and John Kessel (the editors of the previous anthology), but to show that there’s more to Fantasy than the stereotype that’s been established with the commercialization of Tolkien and those that came after.

That’s not to say that there’s no overlap between the two anthologies. If one were to simply glance at the table of contents, the selection seems identical. Beagle draws upon popular genre authors like Patricia McKillip, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Swanwick, as well as writers that we don’t normally associate with genre--even if their fiction is clearly fantastical--such as Steven Millhauser, Aimee Bender, and Yann Martel. But what interests me is the rational behind the selection and here, it’s not so much that they write prose that could easily be classified as fantasy, but that fantasy is quite a rich and broad genre.

The two essays at the end are interesting companion pieces to Beagle’s introduction. Ursula K. le Guin’s “The Critics, The Monsters, and The Fantasists” chimes in on the limitations of the Fiction critic--that is, their ignorance of genre--and is more in line with the “secret history” theme of the book. David G. Hartwell’s “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre”, on the other hand, is a stark contrast to Beagle’s opinions. Whereas Beagle is critical of Terry Brooks and Lin Carter, Hartwell praises them, but does so in the context of a historical perspective, especially how American Fantasy publishing evolved.

Some readers however will prefer the anthology’s fiction selection to speak for itself. On one hand, some of the stories are Catholic. It’s fair to say, I think, that one of Neil Gaiman’s most popular stories is “Snow, Glass, Apples”. The same can be said for Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire”, and Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood”. That paradigm can be limiting however. While it makes sense for some of the stories, it doesn’t in others. Take for example Kij Johnson’s "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss". It’s a piece that won her the World Fantasy Award (along with other nominations) but it’s hardly her iconic story, or even her best. The same goes for other talented and prolific writers such as Octavia Butler (“The Book of Martha), and Jonathan Lethem (“Super Goat Man”).

There’s a method to Beagle’s selection that goes beyond simple popularity. As a veteran reader, I’m glad that the editor doesn’t play it safe in this case. “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” by Stephen King, for example, isn’t exactly the short story that we tend to associate with the author, but it fits the book’s agenda. On the other hand, there’s bound to be some stories that won’t necessarily appeal to some readers, and in my case, I found “We Are Norsemen” by T.C. Boyle to be underwhelming.

One way to test an anthology is to disregard the editor’s introduction and assess the book’s theme solely based on the fiction. For example, my initial impression of the stories was that they tend to be layered, with plots and conflicts that go extend beyond just the literal level. There’s a lot of open-ended stories here, open-ended not in the sense that it doesn’t have a conclusion, but rather a point wherein the reader is fed a question, or come upon an ambiguous epiphany. Emotional resonance is another characteristic that I observed, but that’s honestly harder to measure. Is that present because of the editor’s criteria, or is it more due to the strength of the author’s writing? There’s also a point wherein Kelley and Kessel’s agenda is equally valid: some of the stories could easily be published in literary publications and vice versa.

If we’re talking about the quality of the stories, for the most part, Beagle gets it right. The Secret History of Fantasy collects some of my favorite pieces, from “The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford to “Fruit and Wonders” by Aimee Bender (and thankfully, I’m aware of Bender’s fiction but genre-exclusive readers might be discovering her here for the first time). One of my pleasures however is discovering new writers or new fiction, and when we talk about secret histories, that, I think, is a valuable metric. Take Yann Martel for example. I’ve heard of him but I didn’t know he wrote fiction that I’d be interested in reading. Or in the case of Patricia McKillip who has a large body of work, “Lady of the Skulls” is easily a story I would have otherwise overlooked.

There are some critics who look down upon editors who include their own work in their anthologies and without over-analyzing the situation here (i.e. did the publisher require Beagle to include one of his own stories?), this isn’t an anthology that’s exempt from that. In Beagle’s defense, “Sleight of Hand” is an effective piece--certainly a different way of looking at alternate realities and time travel--and is aptly chosen in my opinion (it could have been one of Beagle’s more famous pieces). Does it warrant an undeniable inclusion? Probably not, but arguably the same can be said for any replacement story.

Beagle might offend some readers with his introduction but the end-product, a selection of diverse, non-sword & sorcery fantasy, is laudable. At times, it might feel like it doesn’t push the envelope far enough, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when introducing readers to this kind of fiction. If there’s one thing about the book that bothers me, it’s who the target audience is. Beagle and le Guin can be a bit too antagonistic for the non-genre reader, while genre readers will either be impressed or disappointed with the lesser-known (within the genre) contributors.

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