13 January 2004

Anthologies in Theory and Fact

The closeted formalist in me loves anthologies -- loves to see how editors arrange a bunch of disparate pieces into a whole, loves to read around in search of resonances and repercussions, loves to discover writers I haven't heard of and unknown works by writers I've long adored. I've never read an anthology cover-to-cover in order, and there are very few anthologies of which I've read every word. I should, perhaps, feel guilty for this, but I don't. Reading around, skipping and skimming, allows the book to remain fresh for me whenever I return to it, and I find myself returning to favorite anthologies far more often than to favorite novels. (There are many novels I want to reread, but few I have, because the next novel and the next and the next are always calling. And I'm a slow reader.)

I've been thinking about anthologies recently because I've just returned to skipping and skimming in three which Thomas M. Disch edited in the 1970s: The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Near Future, Bad Moon Rising (an anthology of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction about politics of the present and future), and The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian SF. (Tables of contents can be found here. The books have long been out of print, but are readily available via various websites, including Amazon, to which I've linked above).

I first got these three anthologies a few years ago after reading Norman Rush's novel Mating, one of the most impressive novels I've ever read by a living writer. I had devoured Rush's short story collection Whites and his second novel, Mortals, had not yet been published, and I was famished for more of his work. Through a Google search, I discovered he had stories in two of the anthologies above, and so I sought them out, ordering The New Improved Sun as well, even though it was Rushless, because I've got a soft spot for utopian stories.

I read the Rush stories (enigmatic and atypical, but fascinating) and ignored the rest, because life is always busy and there are always other things to read. Recently, though, when teaching a unit about utopian and dystopian literature to my Advanced Placement class, I went back to The New Improved Sun and found it so odd, so interesting (and so frustrating at times) that I immediately took the other two books off the shelves and spent some time with them.

What impressed me about Disch's editing was that it was idiosyncratic and unpredictable, the hallmarks of a great anthologist. Perhaps I should qualify that statement. For me, there are two types of great anthologists: the ones who create comprehensive and definitive books about certain subjects, books which have a kind of arrogance to them, but an informed arrogance (David Hartwell's The Dark Descent is the apex of such an anthology for me). Then there's the other kind of anthologist, the Disch kind, the weirdo, the iconoclast, the demented hedgehog (to steal Archilochus of Paros's analogy). I suppose I'm more fond of the Disch-type than the Hartwell-type, but such a statement is only useful when a gun is held to your head and a choice is demanded, because really we need both.

Bad Moon Rising is the most bizarre of the three in its contents, which range from essays and articles to poems to short stories. It's a kind of bricolage aspiring to be collage, a mini-Frankenstein monster of interstitiality, the science of plate tectonics applied to the continental drift of genres and imaginations. The anthology as tone poem.

When the book was first released, it may have seemed less odd than it does today, for today it is not only a book, but a historical artifact, unemcumbered as it is by Reagan or Rambo, Ethiopia or AIDS, 9/11 or all the fascists hiding in the Bush. It is of its time, as are all three books, and reading them now throws a membrane of irony over the whole endeavor -- we live now in the ruins of earth, and the bad moon keeps rising, holding at bay whatever new improved sun waits to appear. I think I like the books better now, with all their suggestions and implications, their burden of history yet-to-be, than I would have when they first came out, when they were mere collections of interesting words.

The three anthologies make me wish Disch would get back into the anthology trade. He's been busy in the years since, writing novels and plays and stories and poems, many of them captivating and marvelous, but we don't have an anthologist like him anymore (though the annual
Year's Best Fantasy and Horror
anthologies come close). No, too many of our anthologies are hemmed in by market forces and imaginations dulled or shackled by those forces. It's not a genre problem, either -- few anthologies of any sort that I've seen dare to be anything other than what you expect of them (the Beacon Best series, which seems to have died, came close sometimes, as do the Pushcart Prize anthologies, but they've become predictable in their own way, a hazard of any annual collection).

One of the beauties of the Disch anthologies is their determination to ignore genre boundaries, both boundaries of form and of subject matter. Poetry and fiction and not-quite-anythings comingle, as do works published by writers labeled as SF and others labeled as mainstream. Since Disch, there have been occasional anthologies which did one or the other, but few which did both at once. (It's important to note, though, that he wasn't the first. The later books of Judith Merrill's Best SF series did the same thing, and they remain interesting reads even while hundreds of anthologies published around them have sunk into oblivion. Here's a project for a publisher -- reprint some of Merrill's anthologies. It might teach us a thing or two.)

There are some daring anthologies out there (The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide comes immediately to mind), and, more importantly, daring writers and readers. Therefore, I am hopeful for the future, hopeful that within the next few years we'll get some anthologies which surprise and challenge us, rather than giving us only what we want.