In 2013 I put on my editor’s hat and put together a book called 40 Below: Edmonton’s Winter Anthology. It was a collection of stories, poems, and essays about or inspired by winter in Edmonton. The book had about 70 pieces from over 50 writers in it. The book came out in November and beginning in January of that year probably not a day went by that I wasn’t working on something to do with the book. First there was the work that went into just getting the word out about the anthology and the call for submissions. That was done months before. Then I had to read through the 300 or so submissions and pick the ones I wanted to put into the book.
I didn’t have any requirements for the book other than the pieces be in some way about or inspired by life in Edmonton somehow. I didn’t know how much short fiction I wanted or how much poetry or how much non-fiction. There were no other quotas to be met.
At the beginning of 2015 I started this whole process over again. I had so much fun putting together the first anthology so I decided to do another volume of 40 Below. This time the pieces would have an Alberta in winter theme. Alberta is the province that Edmonton is in. Provinces are like states, but they’re provinces.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of putting together a collection of writing from dozens of different authors a lot lately. Mostly because of this story of what happened with the Best American Poetry 2015 collection this year. A poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitted a poem under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou and the guest editor of the collection, poet Sherman Alexie accepted the poem. Alexie wrote in a blog post this week that he chose the poem partly because he thought Yi-Fen Chou was a Chinese-American poet. Hudson says that he chose the pen name to see if it would increase the success rate of his poem being accepted into a literary journal. He claims it was rejected 40 times under Michael Derrick Hudson and only 9 times under Yi-Fen Chou before it was eventually accepted into Prairie Schooner.
Now a lot of people smarter than me have a lot of smart things to say about this weird situation. This situation made me think about my own process in putting together the 40 Below anthologies. Now, I’m well aware that my little books published in western Canada have very little to do with the prestigious and very popular series that is Best American but at the end of the day this is about the process of choosing stories/poems/whatever to an anthology collection.
You want the collection to first and foremost have the best possible pieces in it. You want people to buy the book and read the thing from cover to cover and love every piece. You have the impulse to showcase a writer or a piece of writing that you feel is under appreciated and you will be the one person who truly understands it and by choosing that piece to go into your anthology you will make the person who wrote it a literary star. Maybe they’ll thank you in their Giller/Booker/Pulitzer Prize speech.
So maybe Sherman Alexie and I are similar in this regard. Even though he’s editing a collection that one million people will read and I’m editing a collection that slightly less than one million people will read (although I intend to try my damndest to get a million people to buy my book). It’s easy enough to say that you should just pick all the best pieces and the best pieces get published. If there’s 50 or 75 or 30 pieces that are the best then that’s what there is. But sometimes it’s not really about picking the best. You want each piece to represent something different. In the case of my first 40 Below book I was looking for pieces about Edmonton in winter. So once I found something that worked then I didn’t really need a story or poem that said that exact thing again. I needed to look for the next story that said something about Edmonton in winter…but differently than the last story. And better. But equally great as well. You see, it starts to get complicated.
In the case of 40 Below Volume 2 (40BV2) these are supposed to be pieces about Alberta in winter. Alberta is bigger than Edmonton. So what if I got 40 great stories that were all about Red Deer? Like, these are amazing stories all about Red Deer. Do I publish them all in the book? It probably wouldn’t sell that well outside of Red Deer. Anyway, there are lots of things to think about.
One thing that this Best American poetry situation made me think about was what happens when you read a piece that was written by:
a) someone you know
b) someone you hate
c) someone too famous to say no to
d) someone using a fake Chinese pseudonym
I never had this problem with 40 Below. This is because I read my submissions blind. That means that the piece does not contain the author’s name or any other info about them. I read the story or poem and then I make my decision on whether to publish it in the anthology or not. This takes some time but it’s not until I hit the giant ACCEPT or REJECT button on my submission manager that I find out who this person was who sent me a story or poem to read.
Now this is not a perfect system. This is mostly because writers are just like everybody else and they sometimes don’t follow instructions and read submission guidelines as well as they should. Sometimes a writer will still include their name right on top and then I have a decision to make: do I still read the piece or do I stubbornly reject it immediately because they didn’t follow the rules or do I just read the piece and see what happens later? I usually do the second thing.
Did I end up publishing people who I knew in 40 Below? Yes.
Did I know that before I read their piece? Mostly no (some people really don’t like following the rules).
Seems simple enough, no? I mean, things do get more complicated from time to time but a blind submission process is something I really like and has worked for me. I know that not everybody can use it but I recommend it. The best pieces and the pieces that fit perfectly into the anthology make it into the book. You don’t have to worry about publishing something by a former student or rejecting an author who has a long list of titles and awards to his/her name. You pick what works for you based on nothing but the piece itself. And it’s such a great book. Both of them are. 40 Below Volumes 1 and 2 are so good. You will learn more about the new one soon and hopefully you’ll buy it.
I don’t envy the situation that Sherman Alexie was put into while editing the Best American Poetry 2015 collection. I think I can empathize somewhat but not all the way. My goal in the future is to publish more anthologies and collections of writing and while that goal, in its purest form, is about bringing people together through literature- there are always people who will be left out of the process.
I stand behind all the pieces in the new book and think they’re the greatest poems and short stories you’ll read this year. I worked very hard to put together the best possible book that I could and I can’t wait to share it with all of you.