The English Class from Hell

I've had an amazing reading experience this spring. I teach week-long writing craft workshops, and I assign reading. I expect the students to finish the reading before the workshop, so that we have a common pool of stories to discuss.

One of the workshops I will teach this year is how to write short stories. I always assign short stories of every genre, usually in a year's best collection. My theory is this: the editors of the year's best chose not only good stories, but stories that represent the range of their respective genres.

Sometimes I get burned. I've learned, for example, not to assign any romance anthology because that genre does not have a year's best. Nor are the existing romance anthologies compiled with any eye to quality. Instead, book editors ask their bestsellers to write a novella. Then the editors mix two of those bestseller novellas with two novellas by newer writers, in the hopes that the compilation will boost sales. Inevitably the newer writers have the better stories; the bestsellers often have no idea how to work at the short length.

This year, in the romance category, I created my own anthology with a combination of e-book short stories and my favorites from previous anthologies.

But I did—and do—make them read The Best American Short Stories every year. The volume always contains the pretentious and unreadable, but with the right editor, there's only one or two of those stories. The rest are beautifully written, fast-moving, and often powerful.

I just finished the volume I chose for this year. Editor Richard Russo, whose Empire Falls is one of my all-time favorite novels, knows and appreciates plot, so I figured he'd choose a lot of plotted stories. I figured his volume would be on par with Stephen King's, which was, in my opinion, the best of the Best American Short Stories volumes precisely because of his love of plot.

Only now I have a new best. King likes dark, dark, dark fiction. Russo appreciates the dark, but he also loves humor. This book has wonderful tales, memorable tales, and sometimes they made me laugh out loud.

It also has two science fiction stories, both from a special issue of McSweeney's Magazine, published in 2009. The editor of that issue wanted stories that focused on single cities around the world 25 years in the future. (Unlike sf publications, McSweeney's had enough money to actually send its writers to those cities to do research.)

One of the stories was pretentious and hard to read. The other was a good near-future sf story with a lot of drama and pathos.

I finished that story the day my June 4th New Yorker arrived. That issue bills itself as “The Science Fiction” issue which is, to my knowledge, the first time The New Yorker has done a genre issue, let alone an sf issue. What also amazes me is this: If you look at the line-up of authors, it quickly becomes clear that they belong in the issue. From Ursula Le Guin to Ray Bradbury, from China Miéville to William Gibson, this could easily be an issue of Asimov's Magazine or a prestigious anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, Gardner Dozois, or John Joseph Adams.

I want to read all of this issue, and I can't say that about a lot of magazines that cross my desk these days.

I set The New Yorker aside, however, and went back to my reading for the workshop. Next up, the book I'd saved for last, following my own instructions for the workshop. I tell the students to read the volume they think they'll like the least first, and the book they think they'll like the best last. That way, if they couldn't finish all the books in time, they'd at least be exposed to something they wouldn't normally read.

I figured I'd love the sf best-of because I'd liked editions of it in the past. Unlike a couple of the other sf best-ofs, this particular editor tried, in previous volumes, to cover the range of the genre.

Only not this time. I have no idea what happened, but the reading experience I expected with The Best American Short Stories I had with the sf best-of. Pretentious, bloated, overwritten stories without plot or point. Most of them were difficult to read, trying to write from the point of view of a machine or a creature/person from a different time period (and failing miserably: we have to be able to read and enjoy the story before we appreciate a different point of view).

(By the way, you may think you know which best-of I'm referring to, but you don't. As with the Best American Short Stories, I often pick a volume from a few years back. That, and the proliferation of sf/f/h years-bests should make it somewhat unclear which book I'm referring to. That's on purpose.)

I read 300 pages of the 600-volume, growing angrier and angrier. I wanted to love this thing. Instead, it has become my bête noire. I will finish it in time for the workshop, but I'm using P.N. Elrod's wonderful anthology, My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, as a carrot to get me through. When I finish the best-of anthology reading for the evening, I read a few stories in the Elrod volume and feel much better.

I've had trouble with previous sf/f/h best-ofs because of the same problem this best-of volume has: the stories have become unreadable. In each case, the books were not the first in the annual series. My personal opinion, as a former editor, is this: the editors of these books have burned out. They're no longer reading like readers; they're reading like students trapped in the English class from hell. Instead of admitting they like stories about werewolves and Elvis impersonators, they're buying things that will impress the teacher—or things that impress them because the story does something “hard” or “different,” forgetting that hard and different are not the experience readers want.

Next year, I'll have to find a different volume. Or maybe I'll do as I did with romance short stories. I'll create my own volume, using all the available e-stories, anthologies, and magazines out there.

I do read the digest magazines. I know that Asimov's and Analog are publishing great fiction, but little of it gets in these volumes. In fact, all of the “important” anthology editors have told me that they don't read Analog any more. Nor do the sf field's main reviewers. Why? Because, they say, Analog publishes the same old thing. Well, not that I've read lately. (And how do they know if they're not reading the magazine????)

In fact, Analog's recent issues have had a lot more in common with the June 4th issue of The New Yorker than the sf/f/h best-of volumes do. The New Yorker asked good writers who sell well—because their books have plot as well as stefnal interest—to write about their favorite genre or write something in their favorite genre.

The sf/f/h best-of anthologies read like The New Yorker did in the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s, when the term “New Yorker fiction” was an epithet in the genre world.

The New Yorker got a clue. McSweeney's got a clue. The Best American Short Stories got a clue.

But the small “important” part of the sf genre is doing what literary fiction did twenty years ago—writing for a select few people who only own the books to impress their friends. No one reads this stuff—at least willingly—and certainly not in large amounts (like 600-page books). Maybe one or two stories with lovely writing and no plot per anthology would be good. Y'know, like Stephen King's or Richard Russo's Best American Short Stories volumes.

Because right now, the best-ofs in the sf field aren't introducing new readers to the field. That's what Analog, Asimov's, Lightspeed, and all the other magazines available digitally are doing. New readers are pouring in, and they're enjoying the adventure, the inventiveness, and yes, the plots.

The things readers of the Grantville Gazette have loved for years.

The sf best-ofs are chasing readers away from the field, and that's a bad thing. I'd rather see no best-ofs like the romance genre instead of pretentious best-ofs. I certainly don't want new readers to think that sf/f/h is a pretentious genre. We're not, you know. We're a lot of fun. Just look at the TV shows and movies that have come out of our genre.

I'm hoping that the sf best-of that I chose this time was simply an aberration, that the editor will do better next year.

I would love to have a good representation of the field I love in a single volume every year so I can share it with students unfamiliar with the genre.

Stranger things have happened. Like an sf issue of The New Yorker.

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