Becoming a better editor, or me and the Best of the Year

I started editing anthologies in Australia in 1996. Looking back, it’s completely unsurprising that the first anthologies I edited were ‘year’s bests’. I first really became aware of science fiction as a ‘field’—a group of texts in dialogue with one another over a period of time—when I encountered Locus magazine and Gardner Dozois’s first Year’s Best Science Fiction in 1984.

Locus introduced me to the broader field and trained me about what’s important in science fiction, and Gardner’s book was like having the entirety of the field parachuted into my hometown once each year. When I had the chance to edit an anthology—when it’d been made clear that I would be allowed to—it had to be a year’s best. Since then I’ve edited or co-edited fourteen year’s bests and am currently finishing a fifteenth so it seems like a good time to talk about how I choose the stories I opt to reprint.

The way that I choose stories for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year changed in 2009, and only time will tell if it’s a change for good or ill. Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time editing the Eclipse series of anthologies, which I hope to blog about later, and I have learned a lot from doing so. In fact, when I sat down to write this post I surprised myself when I realised just how much the Eclipse experience has changed what I do.

I won’t go into what made the Eclipse series so controversial—Google can tell you readily enough—but up until Eclipse Two was published in 2008, if you’d asked me how I selected stories for the year’s best, my answer would have been something like this: I read everything I can find and then pick the stories I like best, balanced against length, theme and how important the stories seem to be to me in genre terms.

That is no longer the case. Or it’s not longer simply the case. In fact, it now seems an insufficient response and possibly a naive one. While I maintain that ALL of those factors—from genre value to theme to the extent that I ‘like’ a story—are still important, they aren’t the only factors I consider to be important. I now pay more attention to things like audience, theme, how a work interrogates the rest of the genre, and how other readers will respond to a story.  I want to edit books that will appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and that means taking them into account when I edit those books.

A lot of this, on a day to day basis, can be fairly subtle, but I found I’ve made major changes to my process during the past year so that I now not only read as widely as I can, and deliberately push myself to do so, but I make a point of re-examining stories that evoke a knee-jerk reaction in me. If on some level a story seems “not for me” or uncomfortable or challenging I make a point of attempting to understand my reaction to it, and factor that into how I assess the story. I believe that this has made me a better reader and, in turn, a better editor. The other change I’ve made, which was mostly a subconscious thing, is that I find myself listening to a broader range of opinions when I assemble my year’s best. I’ve always monitored the short fiction reviews that are published during the year, and have to some extent used them as something to bounce off when gathering my own thoughts. This became much more overt when I became involved with the Last Short Story on Earth project.

Last Short Story is a group of Australian readers who, a couple years ago, set off on the journey of reading everything published during the year so they could see what they thought of year’s best selections. They kindly agreed to let me join their group the year before last and I monitored their discussions, just to see what they thought: to get another opinion, if you will. However, this past year, and in the past six months especially I began to respond to their views much more directly. Several times Last Short Story readers had strongly positive reactions to stories I felt neutral about. I found myself engaging with them about that, working out why we had differences of opinion, and that in turn affected my thoughts. I’m arrogant enough that I can shrug off opinions I disagree with, but what I found was that this interaction, combined with my commitment to broadening my own horizons, lead to me changing my opinions on some stories. Their arguments showed me different facets to stories which led to me appreciating them in different ways.

As I’ve worked on compiling the final table of contents for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Four I’ve found those conversations echoing in my ears, and they have definitely impacted on my decisions and selections. How? Well, I still pick the stories I ‘like’ the best, it’s just that I believe I’ve arrived at a richer, better informed and more considered version of ‘like’ than I previously had. I found myself wanting to include stories that sat outside my comfort zone because I could appreciate their merit and see how they belonged in the book, even if they were not necessarily my comfort-food reading. It made, I believe, for a much stronger book.

I don’t doubt that some people will say that any attempt to include anything other than what the editor ‘likes best’ is going to be flawed. There was a time when I felt much the same way. What I’d now say is that I’d never publish a story I don’t believe in (which is not the same as agree with). Every story in this year’s best is one I believe in and consider to be excellent in a number of ways. It’s just that hopefully now the value of ‘excellent’ has been expanded to include more readers, and I can only see that as a good thing.

Jonathan Strahan is an editor, anthologist and book reviewer. He also edits anthologies on a freelance basis and is the reviews editor—and an occasional reviewer—for Locus magazine.


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