Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Essay: Creating A "Best Of" Anthology for Philippine Speculative Fiction

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

This essay's for Banzai Cat who wants to talk about the intricacies of making a Philippine speculative fiction list.

A couple of us Filipino science fiction and fantasy fans are eagerly awaiting a thick tome of the year's best Philippine speculative fiction short stories in the vein of Ellen Datlow/Gavin Grant/Kelly Link's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror or Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction. There's nothing like the thrill of holding all your favorite short stories in just one book because let's face it, tracking down the various publications, whether online or print, can be time consuming or sometimes, simply impossible (thanks to small print runs or simply a lack of a good distribution channel). And thankfully, I think we've reached the point where we can actually have such an anthology--it's been three years since the Philippine speculative fiction movement gained some headway (note: Dear Mr./Ms. Anonymous, if you're going to comment to tell me that local speculative fiction has always existed, just stop right here because beyond three years ago, no one was even using the term Philippine speculative fiction nor do I feel was there a venue for such work to be published) and there's a couple of local publications and venues since then that have sprung up and started publishing science fiction and fantasy short stories.

So far though, what we have are lists. Don recently gained some web presence as he posted his list of the year's best speculative fiction (alas, my own list has been neglected) and I have another friend who has kept her top reading list private. Unfortunately, not everyone is Rich Horton so lists will remain lists but I've given some thought on publishing an anthology. Aside from the logistical nightmare (i.e. seeking an ISBN, seeking the rights from various writers, etc.) involved, here's some of the difficulties a would-be editor faces (and this isn't a list of excuses not to do such an anthology but rather one should be prepared for ahead of time).

First off, creating an anthology isn't be for the faint of heart. At the end of the day, when you make that list, there'll be someone criticizing you. It could be one of the writers you excluded, it could be a fan who simply begs to disagree, or it might be one of the more conservative groups who'll ask what right do you have to publish such an anthology. Compiling an anthology is pretty much like writing a review and it can draw heat towards you as well as praise. And perhaps one thing to remember is that when you're doing a local anthology, we all live in the same country and it's really a small nation. I wouldn't be surprised if you encountered authors on a regular basis and you might be living a block away from your worst critic. Balls of steel? Check.

Second, doing a "best of" anthology is a lot of work and many people are daunted by the task--mostly by their desire to be "fair". One needs to go through a wide variety of material and honestly not all that material is easy to acquire. I mean good luck finding back issues of The Philippines Free Press or Philippine Graphic. Oh, and if you thought tracking down all those publications is difficult, wait 'til you have to actually read them. Reading and re-reading takes time and while making a simple top ten list of the best stories you've read for the year is relatively simple, the pressure starts piling up when you're doing something as authoritative as a "best of" anthology (never mind the fact that everything is subjective). But don't get me wrong, this challenge isn't insurmountable. I do think it's possible to go through a lot of reading materials and as for acquiring them, well, there's always the Internet and one can always make an open call to submit stories published in the year. Will you get all the stories that's ever published in the year? Probably not. But it's the closest and I'm of the opinion that instead of getting it perfect, just get it out.

Third is classifying the stories. If we're going for speculative fiction, we have much leeway. But if you're going for something more specific such as science fiction or fantasy or horror, then one will eventually run into a story that'll make you wonder whether this belongs to one category or the other (and sometimes it's both). I can even imagine a scenario where the author might become angry at where you classified their particular work ("I'm not fantasy, I'm fiction!").

Fourth, what's your criteria for choosing a particular story or author? Here, a lot of elements will come into play. Classifying stories for me is important because the editor might want to create an anthology where half the stories are fantasy and half of the others are science fiction. What if there's a disproportionate amount of stories chosen? Does it matter to you? Another monkey wrench in your decision making process might be a prolific author. What if the author has two good stories? Do we simply choose one story to give an opportunity for another author or do we acquire both stories? Or maybe we do it the other way around: we think of the various authors to include and then choose their best work. Is that any more valid? Oh, and if the editor is an author himself/herself, there'll always be someone ready to criticize him or her (even other editors) if they include their own story in the anthology (whether it is indeed worthy of inclusion or not).

Having said all that, there are several good reasons to produce an anthology of reprints. The first thing that comes to mind is that it gives the stories of various authors a new lease on life. People who weren't able to acquire the publication in which the story was previously published in now have the chance to finally read it. It's not only the author who's reaping the rewards: readers of the said anthology might look at the references and become interested in the publication in which the story was originally printed, especially if they weren't even aware that said publication was in existence or printing that kind of stories in the first place. But first and foremost I think is the fact that here is an anthology of speculative fiction that features the "best of the best". Is it subjective? Yes, absolutely. But that's besides the point. Any one's list of best speculative fiction stories are just as opinionated and biased. But unlike a list, an anthology can be verified by the reader--people can actually read the story (as opposed to tracking it down) and judge for themselves whether the story is truly good or not.


banzai cat said...

Hehe nice one charles. Though unfortunately, I can't read AND write at the same pace as you. Alas, something's gotta give.

Don said...

good essay!

haha. true that I'm a bit slow on catching up on my reading lists especially now that I'm reviewing for the board.

and yes, I did have a hard time tracking down various magazines/publications that had SF stories.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that the PSF series is the Philippines' answer to Year's Best. There are so many parallelisms.

Charles said...

Nope, nothing could be further from each other. They're both anthologies but that's where the similarities end.

PSF features original stories--especially from new authors and it's an open call. PSF is more like an unthemed anthology.

All the "Best Of" anthologies are for the most part reprints of stories that have been published in the previous year. I've cited the benefits of that in the essay. And as a writer, you also want to get into the "Best Of" anthologies. Aside from the "honor" or praise of getting included in such a book, there's also the possibility of getting paid again for something you've already written--which is something you want to maximize if you want to write for a living.

Charles said...

As an editor, the work you do is also entirely different. In PSF, there's more work involved depending on the slush pile but here, the editor has to work with the writer and hammer out the kinks so it can be best story that it can possibly be. With the "Best Of", one just needs to go through the existing material, pick your choices, secure the rights and write a short write-up about them.

Dean said...

Haha, I've been careful not to position PSF as a Year's Best (although, of course, to me and Nikki the stories we selected are definitely among the best). We simply are not able, for one reason or another, to read everything that comes out (because of the difficulty of finding the original publication or even being made aware that such and such was published). I would love to do one in a couple of years though, with a couple of co-editors, and present a "Best Of" the past 5 years - like Gaiman asked us to (and he even offered to write the intro). By that time, I think we'll have enough of a body of work to select the very best from.

Dean said...

And also, part of PSF's vision is to help introduce new voices - which means first time publication in PSF. As Charles said, a Year's Best needs to be composed of previously published stories.

banzai cat said...

Hmmm, maybe given the limited number of entries per year, it would be best to make a 5-year Best of PSF? That way, there would be more stories to choose from.

kaolin fire said...

Would you consider Philippine-authored speculative fiction published in non-local venues?

Semi-selfish curiousity: Greatest Uncommon Denominator has published a few speculative poems by a Philippine author, and will soon-ish be printing another (different author, displaced from the Philippines).

Hmm. Speculative poetry, though, no prose. I hadn't noticed. :) Must be a poetic land. ;)

Charles said...

Kaolin Fire: Is that question addressed to me? Because I'm not, uh, publishing a "best of" anthology, at least not yet.

Ultimately, that choice is up to the publisher/editor. Do they want to limit it to local publications or is the world their stage? (And will they be able to acquire the rights to reprint them.) Also, will the anthology include poetry?

At the end of the day, it's also best to inform the editor so they know you exist. It's difficult to feature or include material that one hasn't heard of or read before. =)

GUD Magazine said...

Well, you know--it's all speculation at this point, right? But to you if you were doing it, sort of thing. :)

And just to put us in your mind if you do go that route or wind up talking to someone that does. :)