by Matthew Cheney
The three words in our title do not have stable definitions. Instead of a cause of frustration, this lack of stability can be a source of wonder.
Best. According to whom? Under what criteria? Relative to what?
American. Where? Is it a geography or a mindset? Is it governments or landscapes? Is it a history or a bunch of histories or the eradication of history? Is it by birth or choice? Is it more about and and less about or?
Fantasy. Swords and dragons? Dreams and portents? Nonsense? Does fantasy have to include magic, or can it simply hint at strangeness? Is it a genre or a lens? Is it subject or object? Can it live within the structure of a story, or must it emanate from the content? Where does fiction end and fantasy begin?
To explore these instabilities and pose impermanent answers to the questions, we have settled on two principles for this series: after the second volume, each book will have different guest editors; and every editor will be encouraged to search as broadly as possible for stories that fit within their conception of what best, American, and fantasy mean. If there is one prejudice at the heart of these anthologies, it is a prejudice in favor of the theory that great writing does not show up only in predictable places, under predictable labels, in predictable forms—great writing is, in fact, the least predictable.
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You could be excused for wondering why the world needs yet another best-of-the-year collection when dozens are published annually by big and small publishers alike.
I can only answer by telling a story.
More forcefully than any other books, a series of best-of-the-year anthologies edited by Judith Merril in the 1950s and 1960s taught me how limitless and powerful short fiction can be. I discovered a few of these anthologies in a used bookstore when I was in my teens, and for some reason or another I bought them and read them. Though at first they challenged and frustrated me, soon I found those books to be among the most thrilling collections of short fiction I ever read.
The first of Merril’s anthologies came out in 1956, was titled The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, and had an introduction by Orson Welles. The last came out in 1968 and was titled SF 12. Merril had always had eclectic taste, but the last few volumes of her series are monuments to diversity. That last volume puts Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” beside J.G. Ballard’s “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D”; it puts a short-short story by Günther Grass beside a novella by Samuel Delany; it puts writers generally considered traditional genre writers (Katherine MacLean, Fritz Leiber, Charles L. Harness) beside writers who skirted the boundaries of genres (Sonya Dorman, Thomas M. Disch, Carol Emshwiller) beside writers generally seen as “literary” writers (William S. Burroughs, John Updike, Hortense Calisher).
What is most remarkable to me now when I look at Merril’s last few annuals is that they represent the fiction of their time so well. Many of the writers she included are writers who have, for one reason or another, maintained strong reputations for decades. Certainly, there are stories and authors that have lost their appeal over the years, and stories that do not hold up well when read now, but the contents of those books still, forty years later, impress. (Consider, for instance, the authors listed on the cover of the beat-up old Dell paperback of the eleventh volume that I have: Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Jarry, Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard, Roald Dahl, Thomas M. Disch, Gerald Kersh, Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, John Ciardi, Harvey Jacobs, Fritz Leiber, and Art Buchwald. “And many more.” Indeed.)
Best-of-the-year collections today sometimes make an attempt to add writers of a variety of styles from various types of publications, but none to my knowledge make it part of their purpose the way Judith Merril did. That is the gap we seek to fill, because we believe the world of fiction is as diverse and exciting as it was when Merril was compiling her collections, and there should be one anthology, at least, to chronicle such diversity.
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Why have any limits, then? Why best? Why American? Why fantasy?
One of the reasons we set limits is that we do not have time to read everything written everywhere in any one year. There are tens of thousands of short stories published annually in big and small magazines, in anthologies and single-author collections, on websites and via email subscriptions. We searched high and low and far and wide for every sort of fiction we could find, and yet we know there are great swathes we never even glimpsed.
I am haunted by all the stories I know we missed, the gems we never discovered, the masterpieces that got away. Nonetheless, I was amazed by the quality of writing we encountered—stories of vivid imagination, stylistic brilliance, narrative power, and personal vision. Every one of the dozens and dozens of stories I recommended to Ann and Jeff was one I thought would do the book proud if included. The stories we settled on including were the ones that we couldn’t forget, the ones we couldn’t bear to let go, the ones that held our interest even after we had read them again and again.
The list of Recommended Reading at the back of the book is a list of stories we seriously discussed including. We’re not lying when we say we recommend them. Seek them out. Support the publishers of these stories, because it is their efforts that allow quality writing of all types to thrive.
We have planned from the beginning to have Ann and Jeff VanderMeer as guest editors for two volumes, because we want to establish as solid a foundation for the series as possible, and I don’t know of anyone better qualified than the VanderMeers to help make this anthology vibrantly unique. Indeed, the project was their idea originally, and it would not exist without their vision and effort. Working with them on it has been both an honor and a joy.