The reader could open it to any page and find something extraordinary.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have become the premiere anthologists of “genre” writing. Since the release of their massive and essential compendium The Weird, the VanderMeers have put out volumes devoted to time travel, feminist speculative fiction and plain old sci-fi. Their latest work, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is part of this lineage. It is appropriate to call it a lineage, too, for all these volumes are offshoots of that first spectacular work (itself a culmination of nearly a decade of smaller, more focused anthologies and Ann VanderMeer’s editorship of the illustrious magazine Weird Tales) – often duplicating authors and even whole works while following a different thread in the tapestry of the weird. While the similarly titled science fiction anthology from 2016 sought to swallow that genre whole, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy takes a different approach.
In their introduction to the book, the VanderMeers outline the two most salient details of their working method. The first is that – due to the potential span of a work covering a genre as ill-defined as “fantasy” – they had to limit the time-frame of their anthology. So, the work is representative of only the 19th and the first half of the 20th century – or, to put it another way, the stories in this book go from Grimm to Tolkien and no further in either direction. There is certainly sense in where the VanderMeers end this volume. Regardless of your thoughts on the man’s work, almost all (western) fantasy since has been written in reaction to Tolkien. However, it does seem odd not to send the volume back further. The editors readily acknowledge that most (if not all) the works contained herein were not labeled by their authors as “fantasy.” It is we moderns that have developed this category. Indeed, to culminate a volume of fantasy both thematically and literally with Tolkien and not include even one example of the more ancient and epic works from which he drew seems a missed opportunity.
The second element of the VanderMeers’ working method in the curation of this book revolves around how they decided to classify a work as “fantasy” or not. Primarily concerned with differentiating these stories from works of horror or “the weird,” the editors have chosen a sui generis rubric that they call “the rate of fey.” This “rate” seems to be defined mostly by a tale’s “otherworldliness.” They write that fantasy stories “can be . . . defined by a wildness or an unease or ethereal alienness that emanates from the fey.” They also have attempted to choose stories that gesture, somewhat, toward our modern conception of what makes a work “fantasy.” Warning so-called “strict definers” ahead of time that this will not be a satisfying mode of classification seems something of a cop-out on their part, one similar, in fact, to their non-committal relationship (either for or against) the canon of such stories. The VanderMeers purposefully avoid racist stories (commendable) and stories they deem too didactic or moralizing (questionable). Someone ought to remind the editors that politics is not downstream from culture and that the canon is ours to make and re-make as we see fit.
In her essay “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale,” the writer Kate Bernheimer outlines the four elements that, to her, are present in traditional fairy tales. They are, “flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic.” What is compelling about this formulation is that it is concerned, primarily, with style rather than content. Many of the stories in The Big Book of Classic Fantasy fall more convincingly into this rubric than they do into the rubric levied by the editors. In fact, the title could replace “classic fantasy” with “fairy tales” without excising a single story. One wishes the VanderMeers had attended more to the stylistic elements of “fantasy” than their nebulous content qualifier of “fey.”
The works in The Big Book of Classic Fantasy can be broken down, roughly, into three categories: the classics, the masters, and the discoveries. A volume such as this would be remiss not to include Hoffmann, Andersen or the brothers Grimm – these works, and others, fall under the “classics” categorization and are well-represented, here. But the VanderMeers wisely choose less well known works even from names that the reader is familiar with. “Little Red Riding Hood” is, mercifully, absent. Lovecraft, while not represented in this volume, haunts this category through the inclusion of writers like Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard.
Adjacent to, but differentiated from, the classics are the “masters.” These tales might be read as subtextual attempts to legitimate fantasy through exhibiting its use by more “literary” practitioners if the editors did not warn against this impulse in their introduction. The presence of some writers, like Kafka or Carrington, will not come as a surprise, but others – W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston or Edith Wharton, for example – are a welcome addition and broaden the reader’s conception of who, exactly, has written fantasy. Du Bois was also present in the VanderMeers’ science fiction anthology and one hopes that a complete collection of these lesser known fictional works is forthcoming.
The last category is perhaps the one that makes this volume most worth owning. The “discoveries” consist of a dozen or more stories never before published in English, along with a few that have been newly translated or excerpted at length for the first time. They are the least Eurocentric of the bunch, part of the VanderMeers’ worthy effort to bring the fantasy genre into global focus. Among these, the anonymous Korean tale “The Story of Jeon Unchi” and Louis Fréchette’s French-Canadian logging stories stand out, as do the inclusion of several Native American writers (though the categorization of their works as “fantasy” troubles the anthologies methods even further). One could pick any of these lesser known tales at random and find something rewarding.
And this is the great virtue of this book: that, for all its limitations, the reader could open it to any page and find something extraordinary. The works here are, for the most part, unimpeachable. Yet, the difficult part of the anthologist’s work is not to choose worthy fictions, but to choose how to limit their inclusion. On that score, it might have made more sense for the editors to confess that the stories that made it into this collection were simply the stories of a particular and ill-defined kind that they liked the best. It is, after all, the VanderMeers’ good taste in such things that makes their anthologies worth reading.