How and Why to Edit an Anthology: Addressing the Naysayers
“Two years ago, a friend and I signed a contract to edit an anthology. Criticism for the book started pouring in before the ink was even dry. It was not for the nature of its content or the quality of the writing that we took the hits; it was for the form. Anthologies don’t sell well. The writing is uneven. People don’t like reading collections. These were the words of the naysayers, and there were many. ‘Don’t do it,’ my friend’s agent said to her without pretense. ‘Editing an anthology is a heroic amount of work for very little payoff.’ We began to think that anthology was a dirty word, and not in a good way.
To be fair, the naysayers weren’t all wrong. Two-thirds of the people we asked to contribute to the collection turned us down, some with encouragement, some with silence, and other still with unsatisfying explanations. (Maria Semple: ‘Anthologies just aren’t my thing.’) Of the writing that did come in, it was uneven. Younger, little-known writers sent us finely honed gems and established writers—writers with powerhouse agents and award-winning books—sent us essays that needed many revisions. And while I wouldn’t call the work a ‘heroic’ effort, I would say it’s been consuming. I haven’t written much of my own work in the past year, and neither has my co-editor. But the book we have created—this anthology—has turned me into an ardent advocate for the form.
Maybe the word anthology sounds too much like an intro-level college course to be alluring, and for anyone who took ninth-grade English it may forever trigger terrors of the old doorstop Norton. But the basic idea of the anthology is grand: a curated collection where each work plays off the ones beside it to produce a swirling, thought-provoking mix of many voices. Liken it to visual art and the idea becomes commonplace: if a short story collection is an exhibit of one artist’s work, an anthology is most every other room in the museum—a presentation of works by various artists in engaging, enlightening juxtaposition.
Last year, Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time was a ‘surprise New York Times bestseller.’ Why should it be a surprise that a beautifully conceived collection of excellent writers writing on a topic at once timely and historic, of universal and imperative concern, should reach a wide audience? To its credit, the word anthology didn’t appear on this book’s front cover. But perhaps most importantly, and unlike most other anthologies, reviewers weren’t afraid to give it some coverage. Maybe this will be the beginning of a new-found interest on behalf of acquiring editors, writers and readers. In the hopes of advancing the case a step or two further, I’ll take our naysayers’ issues and address them in turn.”