The One Constant in Life

From the introduction to The Best of British Fantasy 2018:

When starting a new tradition - and I sincerely hope this inaugural volume of The Best of British Fantasy becomes one - the respectful thing to do is study what came before. And then promptly do the opposite.

In the case of the “year’s best” subgenre, introductions tend to take one of two forms. The first approach is that of the annual overview. The editor heroically attempts to catalogue all things related to the genre that occurred in the calendar year. Some of these introductions can run into the hundreds of pages: an annual index of trend-spotting that captures publications, movies, comics, awards, theatre, and beyond.

I suspect the reasoning behind this approach stems from the sub-genre’s distant origins – that is, “before the internet”. It is flattering to be part of a tradition this ancient, but, in 2019, I think these details are best captured elsewhere. There are a host of formal and informal resources that capture this data for posterity far better than I ever could.

The second approach found in “year’s best” volumes is the imposition of thematic consistency. The editor stares at the year’s fantasy outputs until the void stares back - and then helpfully whispers a single, unifying truth. Future readers then learn that 2018 was entirely about the apocalypse. Or nostalgia. Or any other themes that could, with the appropriate amount of pruning or plumping, define the historical record. As a fan of brutal simplicity - and of sweeping statements - I can appreciate this approach.

However, as much as I admire the ambition, I’m not comfortable with how the thematic approach deceives when it comes to chronology. All of the stories enclosed in this volume, for example, were definitely published in 2018. They were not all written in 2018. Some were written and published that same day: the miracle of self-publishing. Others were written in the interminable past, then sent forth to run the submissions gauntlet: the vagaries of traditional publishing. Some were inspired years before being written; some were constructed on the spot in workshops. Nor can we even ascribe “publisher intent”. The websites, anthologies and magazines that published these stories all began their own selection and publication processes at various times.

As much as I would love to declare 2018 to be the year of the apocalypse, nostalgia, or anxiety, that would be a false imposition not only of my own perspective, but of what even constituted “2018”.

What unites both approaches - the fact-collecting and the theme-building - is the sense of writing for posterity. These are introductions not for readers in 2018 (or even 2019), but in 2028, 2038, and beyond. They are attempts to provide valuable context for future readers of the collection. To explain not only that these are the best stories of the year, but to provide a ‘why’: what it is about the stories that makes them so very 2018ish.

But if the ‘facts’ are best provided elsewhere, and the ‘theme’ is chronologically suspect, what else is there?

Only the most important thing of all: the reader.

Whenever they were written, commissioned or conceived, all of these stories were first read in 2018. The reader is therefore the ultimate context. Who are the people who read these stories? And how would the stories have reflected their attitudes, or their perceptions?

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Because I like self-inflicted pain, I then spend the rest of the introduction actually trying to answer those questions. If you enjoy spurious use of data, please do pick up the book.

I’m fond of this introduction for two reasons. (Three, if you count my natural attraction to my own voice.)

The first, in the past, I’ve written a pretty venomous review of a “Year’s Best” volume for presenting personal opinion from an authoritative platform. I’ve also gone on record writing about the flaws in the cataloging approach. I am probably the only person that remembers either of these articles, but… I still needed to find a new path for this book’s introduction.

The second - and this is a little less personal - it follows some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a planner: everyone will always listen to the audience.

As long as the strategy is based on evidence of what the audience is saying or thinking, it is sound. As a debating tactic, it is solid: you can’t argue with what the audience feels. As a planning tactic, it is even more solid: remove yourself from the equation, and all the subjectivity that goes with it. This isn’t about you: it is about the people you are setting out to influence. And, finally, as a sales tactic, that’s one of the core pitches of any agency: you’re providing a client with insight into the attitudes and behaviours of their user or consumer.

I’ve been swinging the ‘audience-first’ club a bit more vigorously recently - especially in speaking with practitioners and academics. Both groups have a tendency to go in with the hammer mentality, and will immediately start searching out nails. Taking a step back and reviewing the audience(s) - again, we want to influence - and what they’re thinking, feeling, or doing - isn’t just best practice, it is essential.

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Relatedly, I’m now taking submissions for The Best of British Fantasy 2019. All the details are here. Please share about, if you can.

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I’m at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend and next.

There’s been a slight schedule rejig, which works out well for everyone involved:

  • On the Industry Day, the marketing panel will now have an arts, culture and publishing focus (the organisers: ‘there will be a lot of publishers there, do you have anything to say to them?’, me: ‘I CAN THINK OF SOMETHING’.)

  • And on the 7th, Anne and I have swapped Takeover panels, so I’ll be leading the discussion around Dystopian Fiction, while she’ll be talking Stereotypes. Sort of a win-win for everyone involved.

  • You can also find me talking Fatherhood and the Night, two topics very near and dear to my heart right now. And, as you might expect, interlinked.

All my recent books will be at the festival, but in case you aren’t: The Best of British Fantasy, The Outcast Hours and the perennial favourite, The Djinn Falls in Love. Enjoy.

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Pub simulator, complete with Orcs.