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Vintage Treasures: The Year’s Best Fantasy, First Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Year's Best Fantasy First Annual Collection-smallSome 27 years ago, the first volume of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s long-running Year’s Best Fantasy series appeared.

Created in conscious imitation of Gardner Dozois’s even longer-running Year’s Best Science Fiction (also published by St. Martin’s), Datlow and Windling’s Year’s Best Fantasy became the most prestigious and long-lived fantasy annual the genre has yet seen. Renamed The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror beginning with the third book in 1990, it lasted an impressive 21 years, publishing its final volume in 2009.

The series accumulated numerous accolades and award nominations over the decades, and became the acknowledged yearbook for the field. Just as Dozois did with his sprawling summations, Datlow and Windling summarized the year’s news, events, and gossip in lengthy and highly readable intros. If you were a new writer, publication, or small press, it was a major career milestone just to be name-checked.

I remember how excited I was to finally get my hands on a copy in the fall of 1988. I took it to the common room of my graduate dorm in Urbana, Illinois, and curled up in a comfy chair, where I read for hours while the first winter snow accumulated outside. I read this first volume cover to cover, in the process getting introduced to dozens of writers like Delia Sherman, Michael McDowell, David J. Schow, Susan Palwick, and many others. The book was the equivalent of a graduate course in modern fantasy.

In fact, there was just one problem. I didn’t like most of the stories.

There were exceptions, of course. I was thrilled to find a prose story by the brilliant comic writer Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta. There was a twisted and very original piece of Lovecraftian horror by George R.R. Martin called “The Pear-Shaped Man” and Michael Shea contributed a disturbing horror tale titled “Fat Face.”

But overall, the stories weren’t for me. I can vividly remember several other excellent anthologies I read the same year, but when I picked up my copy of The Year’s Best Fantasy, First Annual Collection today and looked over the table of contents, I found that almost none of the contents had stuck in my memory.

When I closed the book 27 years ago, I came to the conclusion that Datlow and Windling had assembled a very talented group of writers, but that we clearly had very different tastes. I was looking for tales of adventure fantasy and sword & sorcery, writers telling stories of desperate events in fantastic lands, and I knew those stories were out there. But the editors had something very different in mind — the fiction they had selected was, by and large, quieter, more contemporary, more concerned with character studies and small events. Stories I could certainly appreciate individually — but in aggregate, they made a very different anthology than what I had been hoping for.

Year's Best Fantasy 1 Hartwell-smallThe fact that I had starkly different taste than two popular editors was a useful thing to learn. In fact, it directly impacted my decision, a decade later, to launch Black Gate magazine. The nagging suspicion I felt when I put the book down grew into conviction over the years… there was a significant lack of real adventure fantasy in the short fiction market, and I decided to do something about it. The response from readers in the first few years was overwhelmingly positive, and I sometimes wonder if Black Gate would have sprouted in the year 2000, if that seed hadn’t first been planted in 1988.

Not too surprisingly, not a lot of fiction from Black Gate got selected for Datlow and Windling’s Year’s Best Fantasy over the years. I was grateful to see that stories from our first few issues — including “Stitchery” by Devon Monk (BG2), and Richard Parks’s novelette “Golden Bell, Seven, and the Marquis of Zeng,” from our very first issue — were reprinted in several other volumes, including David Hartwell’s prestigious Year’s Best Fantasy. But we never cracked Datlow and Windling, and that was okay.

In fact, I was never really sure if they even knew we existed. While I stopped reading the Datlow/Windling Year’s Best Fantasy after that first volume, I did read their invaluable 90-page industry summations every year — we may have had different tastes, but that didn’t lessen my respect for their knowledge and insight into the field. Once I started Black Gate, I hoped that we’d at least be mentioned. I studiously mailed off copies of every issue to the address they gave, and diligently followed up with the editors or their assistants to make sure they’d been received. Alas, it was not to be. I checked the summary every year the print version of Black Gate was published, and it seemed to me we were just as studiously ignored. I can’t recall ever being mentioned.

Datlow and Windling accomplished a great deal in the years they published their huge volumes, reprinting some terrific stories and showcasing hundreds of excellent authors. But I can’t help feeling that they never really connected with an audience the way they could have. Sales were an issue, and after a few years there were signs of trouble. Windling eventually departed in 2003, replaced by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. The series endured for another five volumes, before coming to an end with volume 21 in 2008.

To some extent, I think it suffered from a declining interest in short fiction, and the collapse of magazine sales in general. Black Gate was certainly a victim of the same thing, especially after about 2008. But I do believe that those of us who edited and published fantasy for the last ten years bear some responsibility for that decline. We didn’t bring people back to the field the way we should have. We didn’t reach a new generation of readers, and send them scurrying to the magazine rack to read the latest adventures of their favorite heroes the way I think we could have.

Well, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Datlow and Windling did more to support and nurture fantasy short fiction than almost anyone else in the last 25 years. Perhaps I didn’t find their taste in alignment with mine, but that’s hardly a crime. If I have a serious criticism to level their way, it’s that they could have done more to attract a new generation of fantasy fans — and especially young readers — by being more inclusive of the kind of fiction that audience craves. But they did a lot of other things right, so in the end, I can overlook that one.

The Year’s Best Fantasy, First Annual Collection, was published in 1988 by St. Martin’s Press. It is 492 pages, priced at $12.95. The cover is by Thomas Canty.

18 Comments »

  1. This was quite pleasant to read. I had the same reaction to the first two or three of this series and stopped bothering with them. I’m glad to hear it wasn’t just me!

    Comment by Welleran - January 8, 2015 2:56 pm

  2. No, Welleran, it certainly wasn’t just you. Sounds like you had more patience than I did with this series, too.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 8, 2015 3:25 pm

  3. Part of the problem is the very term “fantasy” – it just covers so much territory. When Robert E. Howard and Lord Dunsany are both fantasists (both writers from an era when fantasy wasn’t nearly as diverse as it is now), there’s plenty of ground for narrow choices (for writers, readers, and editors alike) – unless an anthologist is deliberately aiming for as broad a definition as possible, an enormous range of work is going to be left out.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - January 8, 2015 4:17 pm

  4. Thomas — right. That’s the challenge, isn’t it? To craft an anthology that represents the entire spectrum of the genre.

    I think Datlow and Windling choose exclusively adult, literary fantasy for their YEAR’S BEST. As a result, they made the field look good in the eyes of critics and many long-term readers.

    But the cost of that approach was the deliberate exclusion of the adventure fantasy (and serial fantasy) that brought so many of us into the genre. I think this was a conscious choice the editors made, and they paid a price for it – indeed, the whole field paid a price, as I don’t believe their volumes won many new readers to the genre.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 8, 2015 5:01 pm

  5. Add me to the list — I loved reading all of the essays & round-ups &c. (and love the Thomas Canty covers!), but didn’t necessarily read all that much of the fiction; not that the fiction ever wasn’t _good_, I hasten to add.

    Comment by Joe H. - January 8, 2015 7:34 pm

  6. Joe,

    Well said. I frequently dipped into later volumes and enjoyed individual stories. But I didn’t have a lot of interest in reading 500+ pages of similar fiction.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 8, 2015 7:49 pm

  7. Now I have no real frame of reference because I’ve never read these ‘Best Of’ but just from the read this seems to be hedging close to a ‘guy v girl’ taste argument. Datlow = Marion Zimmer Bradley lover while O’Neill = Robert Howard adventurist. Am I wrong here?

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 8, 2015 8:10 pm

  8. I want to thank you, John, for courageous posts like these.

    And I heartily agree with your assessment of these anthologies. Nick Ozment and I had a similar impulse when we started _Mooreeffoc Magazine_ in 2000. I had been reading _Realms of Fantasy_ and had writ many a critical letter to “Realms” editor Shawna McCarthy. This magazine was a classic case of not delivering remotely what the cover promised. And it wasn’t even just a case of little Sword and Sorcery and adventure in those pages, but little actual FANTASY. Now, a few of the stories were quite all right, but more than one of them turned out to be (literally) some character’s dreams, and most of them were some surreal/experimental/urban horror kind of thing. As you say about the Year’s Best anthologies, John, not necessarily bad work, but not the type of work one would expect next to reviews of the upcoming King Kull movie (to cite one example).

    But it seems no surprise that so many of us like-minders have ended up here! Though I would quibble with you, Scott. Unless you see a gender in genre (hey, that’s kind of clever sounding!), I would argue that it’s not about gender but about… well, genre (or sub genre, or sub sub genre), I guess! :)

    Comment by Gabe Dybing - January 8, 2015 8:21 pm

  9. Scott,

    That’s probably oversimplifying it a bit. :)

    For one thing, Datlow proved to have pretty broad taste in other markets… she edited OMNI magazine for 17 years (’81 to ’98), and has a zillion anthologies under her belt, like Lovecraft’s Monsters and Alien Sex. Terri Windling was an editor at Ace and Tor for many years, where she discovered Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, and many others. Just describing them as “Marion Zimmer Bradley lovers” doesn’t really do them justice, I think.

    In YEAR’S BEST FANTASY, I think they both picked modern fairy tales over any kind of adventure fantasy… so make of that what you will. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - January 8, 2015 8:22 pm

  10. Sometimes I think that certain anthologies are a little too rarified to make for particularly engaging reading. It can be way too much work!

    There is something to be said for publishing a certain introductory and intermediate level of fiction– that occasionally spikes up to a more complex advanced work. It is accessible, and challenging, and if one out of the five stories is too far “out there” you can skip it without feeling bad about yourself. Reverse those numbers and you might wish you got college credit for it!

    I also suspect that a lot of what gets into the “Year’s Best” were those advanced kinds of stories.

    Comment by Adrian Simmons - January 8, 2015 10:36 pm

  11. John, I think I know where you’re coming from. I often get the feeling that Datlow is something of a high brow or literary SF&F editor as opposed to giving the “peasants” what they want.

    However, as a counterexample to this claim, I think her horror anthologies are all-around excellent. Not only do I think they represent some of the best writers currently in the field, I think these anthologies are fairly straightforward horror–something the peasantry can still enjoy.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - January 8, 2015 10:46 pm

  12. I think you may have a point, John, one I need to think about some more. I read this volume all the way through when it was published and remember one or two stories from it today, such as Lucius Shepherd’s “Delta Sly Honey”. I never finished any of the other volumes, although I did buy them and dip into them from time to time.

    Adventure oriented fantasy and science fiction seems to have become the red-headed, left-handed stepchild of the field. While I’m not any of those things, I think there’s a lot to be said for those traits. (I did, after all, marry a redhead.) While I do enjoy the more literary branch of fantasy, and indeed any well-written short fiction, adventure fiction is where my heart is.

    Oh, and James, if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me, I think Datlow selected the horror stories and Windling the fantasy. I think I read that was the case in the introduction to one of the volumes. This would explain the emphasis on literary, at least to a degree. Datlow seems to have broader tastes than Windling.

    Comment by westkeith - January 9, 2015 12:52 am

  13. I picked up one of the mid 1990s volumes in this series and had the same reaction. Just a sort of lifeless sort of fiction to me that I had no interest in reading. I just had the same experience reading THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF WARRIORS AND WIZARDRY which was underwhelming.

    Comment by docpod - January 11, 2015 11:51 pm

  14. > I heartily agree with your assessment of these anthologies. Nick Ozment and I had a similar impulse when we started
    > _Mooreeffoc Magazine_ in 2000. I had been reading _Realms of Fantasy_ and had writ many a critical letter to “Realms”
    > editor Shawna McCarthy. This magazine was a classic case of not delivering remotely what the cover promised.

    Ah, I remember Mooreeffoc fondly! (I still remember the moment I finally figured out it was “Coffee Room” spelled backwards.) Now that you’re blogging for us Gabe, maybe you’ll take a column or two to tell us how the magazine came together? It would be great to see a reminisce or two here.

    As for RoF… yeah, I could never figure out why, if the editors knew putting adventure fantasy surrogates on the cover would draw in readers, they couldn’t figure out that readers might actually want that kind of fiction IN THE MAGAZINE.

    Other magazines, like FANTASY and SHIMMER, were far more honest in the type of art they had on the cover – quiet, thoughtful pieces that reflected the type of fantasy inside. But RoF kept splashing S&S images on their cover till they day they died.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 14, 2015 12:13 pm

  15. > I also suspect that a lot of what gets into the “Year’s Best” were those advanced kinds of stories.

    Adrian,

    Oh, for sure. I think Datlow and Windling wanted the most demanding, thought-provoking, thoughtful fiction they could find. Fantasy that demanded a lot from its readers.

    Nothing wrong with that…. except that it’s inaccessible to anyone who hasn’t been reading for a long time. THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR ended up in a lot of libraries, and it was frequently the ONLY fantasy book read by a lot of young readers. There wasn’t enough intro-level fantasy in the book, and the genre lost those readers forever.

    I like the idea of having a collection like Datlow and Windling’s. But I wish the editors of a book called THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR had created a book that drew new readers into the field, rather than turned them away.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 14, 2015 12:21 pm

  16. > John, I think I know where you’re coming from. I often get the feeling that Datlow is something
    > of a high brow or literary SF&F editor as opposed to giving the “peasants” what they want.

    James,

    Well, I don’t usually think of readers like myself as “the peasants” (make of that what you will.) :)

    I’ve been reading fantasy a long time, and I can get a lot of enjoyment out of demanding short fiction, like the kind Datlow and Windling clearly preferred.

    But I don’t always find it fun, and that’s what gets me to open my wallet. When I read an entire anthology of THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY and find only a handful of really fun stories, I find myself pretty disappointed.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 14, 2015 12:29 pm

  17. > I read this volume all the way through when it was published and remember one or two stories from it
    > today, such as Lucius Shepherd’s “Delta Sly Honey”. I never finished any of the other volumes,
    > although I did buy them and dip into them from time to time.

    Keith,

    Your experience sounds broadly similar to mine. I kept half-heartedly sampling from volumes as the years went by, and buying them out of habit, but gave up on both after a while.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 14, 2015 12:33 pm

  18. > I just had the same experience reading THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF WARRIORS AND WIZARDRY which was underwhelming.

    Docpod,

    Sorry to hear that. I haven’t tried it myself, but I have heard positive reports from several folks who have.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 14, 2015 12:34 pm


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