Many Voices: The Pleasures and Pains of Anthologizing

Guest-blogger Michael Engelhard’ s newest anthology will be hitting stores next week. You can find an excerpt and more information about contributors at the University of Alaska Press website.

Guest post
By Michael Engelhard

Call me deranged, or hopelessly old-fashioned—but I like a good anthology. My third one, Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North, will be hitting the bookstores this spring. “No more,” I’ve said before, and I’m saying it again, burned not only by dealing with publishers, but also by unruly writers. (Fortunately, most proved to be rather easygoing and responsive this time around.) And yet, in some dim future an idea will pop up, too spare to fledge into a full-blown book, too different to stand with my other essays, or too strange to ever make it into print as an article. The rest will be déja vu…

Freelance, part-time writers have the luxury of simply writing a piece they feel inspired to write. Writers who depend on their words to make ends meet, on the other hand, better think about possible markets before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard. As the former kind, I have on occasion indulged in the “unpublishable” odd duck. Failing to find venues, I have formed a habit of creating them—for myself and for others. A story about a disastrous first date on an Arctic river (rejected even by Paddler magazine) became the seed of my first anthology—the beginning of an enduring love-hate relationship.

My participation in a botched raven rescue in downtown Fairbanks sparked the idea for this latest project. Though the resulting essay turned out to be another mutt—mixing natural history with a tale of alcoholism and recovery—this time, the difficulty of finding a magazine to publish it was only a minor reason for turning it into the foundation of a new book. I began to wonder. What amazing wildlife encounters must other Alaskans have had? If you live in this state long enough—in town, in the bush, or in-between—you will have animal yarns worth recounting. Think about your most incredible animal encounter ever. Then think of writing a book of equally engaging tales showcasing all kinds of different animals. Impossible! As a wilderness guide, wild animals are my bread and butter, and for most visitors the highlight of their Alaska vacation. To us, they are neighbors, source of food, or a connection to the land we inhabit. Our eternal fascination with critters, seen against a backdrop of current issues like aerial predator control, the plight of polar bears, and most recently, our prom queen governor’s attempt to have the species removed from the “threatened” list, required some strong response. My voice by itself was insufficient; a multi-author approach seemed called for.

This has been, and remains, the greatest strength of anthologies since the format’s inception: polyphony, the dissolving of authorial hegemony (or solipsism), the multi-facetted description of reality, not based on one, but on numerous life experiences. (The caveat here is, that, as gatekeeper, the editor chooses the book’s selections and therefore introduces a personal bias. Ideally, however, his or her criteria will be literary quality and fit with the overall concept, rather than personal worldview or values.) Such books are good deals for the reader as well. Where else could you hope to find great takes on a favorite subject by some of your favorite writers in one handy volume? Out-of-print material, pieces scattered in obscure publications, “classics” you’ve never had the time to read, and “undiscovered gems”—they all may be assembled there.

It may come as a surprise, then, to hear that anthologies are a pain to sell. (Publishers refer to them as “collections,” as if the term itself were anathema; perhaps that moniker is meant to suggest single-author short story or essay collections to prospective buyers.) Unless the topic is baseball or some other all-American pastime, most anthologies end up with regional, specialty, or university presses. When I tested the waters for Wild Moments, I almost immediately got offers from one university and one regional press, based only on the proposal. This gave me hope, and I shopped the idea around with some agents. Elizabeth Wales in Seattle (whose agency specializes in Pacific Northwest writing) indeed took me on. I thought my fortune was made. We were talking five-figure advances—no mean deal for a mere “collection.” Despite initial interest, however, East Coast publishers were not willing to take risks with an unknown, regional, “nature” writer and his motley host of contributors. Even the regional publisher backed away from the initial offer, as its editorial board started having second thoughts about the book’s marketability. (At some point they batted about the idea of reducing the word content in favor of wildlife photos.) Another regional press wanted me to “tone down” the essay nature of my selections and favor adrenaline-infused writing instead. They more or less told me to turn this brainchild of mine into a bodice ripper in the tradition of Great Bear Attacks. None of my previous anthologies had even earned back their advances, so these publishers had a point. (The only thing harder to sell than a literary anthology must be an anthology that mixes nonfiction with poetry. I commend fellow wordsmiths Marybeth Holleman and Anne Coray for having done that with their timely and necessary compilation Crosscurrents North.)

I passed on these twisted offers, and, minus an agent, committed to the university press. The agent’s commission from my advance on royalties would have barely covered her phone bill for this project, and, graciously, she relieved me of my contractual obligations. My house of cards had been blown apart. A society that increasingly abandons books for less time-consuming magazine articles (or activities that require no literacy at all) had given its thumbs-down to what basically amounted to a highly selective sampler of just such “articles.”

At least, with a university press, I felt assured that my vision for the book would not be compromised. Because the need to make profits does not single-mindedly drive subsidized presses, I could hope that the book would exceed the typical shelf life of a few years: I might receive royalty checks of $ 50 per quarter to tide me over until retirement. (The publisher of another anthology perfectly summed up their potential: “They can be slow out of the gate, but often backlist beautifully.”)

I soon found out that economic prospects also are bleak for contributors to nonprofit or university press-produced anthologies. The University of Alaska Press (which has begun to distinguish itself by publishing non-academic, narrative nonfiction under its Snowy Owl imprint) had no budget to pay for anthology contributions. University presses typically don’t. The underlying assumption is that they do educational work and that writers should “donate” their work and feel proud of being part of something bigger. This may be fine for novices who try to break into print or need to feel at the cutting edge of modern thought. But like any professional (or even semi-professional), those of us who feed families, and pay for fuel, and scramble to meet deadlines for paying assignments can hardly do “pro bono” work. And perhaps, we shouldn’t. It might raise false expectations and create unfair advantages for those who offer their written words for free. Authors deserve compensation, if only token compensation, even for the inclusion of previously published material in an anthology. Amazingly, many will still write original work or allow reprints for chump change or for free if they believe in a project’s “mission” or worthiness. May they be blessed!

After much wheedling and cajoling and a handshake to seal the deal (I kid you not!), the press granted a slim budget to dole out to contributing writers, which hopefully set a precedent for future projects. Submissions started to arrive, and I settled into the routine of selecting and editing. Ironically, I ended up ditching the essay that had inspired the book for a better-suited one by another writer.

This, at long last, brings me to the pleasures of anthologizing—and there are many. Much has been made of the solitary nature of writing. Writers often complain that time spent alone at a desk or doing research curtails the necessary exchange of ideas. Like blogging, enlisting writers for a joint effort has provided me with a virtual community and sense of solidarity. Reading submissions has made me a more critical and sensitive reader and thereby benefited my own writing. I have gained new appreciation for full-time editors and the hard places in which they can find themselves. I have been able to repay old debts, giving the occasional leg up to an unpublished writer. With their clearly defined focus and parameters, calls for anthology submissions I received have spawned some of my better essays—delivered for paltry or no pay.

The gathering of forces, the juxtaposition of personalities, the variations on one theme that are the hallmark of anthologies remind us that no artist lives—or creates—in a vacuum. I consider the twelve months between this book’s conception and its completion time well spent. Like one of my mentors, the Colorado writer Dave Petersen, I could live without writing but not without the things about which I write. If nothing else, Wild Moments should stand as a modest monument to the grace and importance of wild animals.

Some “green” anthologies I’ve enjoyed reading or participating in:

This American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (The Library of America, 2008. Bill McKibben.)

From the Island’s Edge: A Sitka Reader (Graywolf Press, 1995. Carolyn Servid.)

The Glen Canyon Reader (University of Arizona Press, 2003. Mathew Barrett Gross.)

Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004. Susan Zakin.)

Comeback Wolves: Western Writers Welcome the Wolf Home (Johnson Books, 2005. Gary Wockner, Gregory McNamee, and Sue Ellen Campbell.)

Wyoming Fence Lines: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry (Wyoming Humanities Council, 2007. David Romtvedt.)

Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers. (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009. Laura Pritchett.)

Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment (University of Alaska Press, 2008. Marybeth Holleman and Anne Coray.)

1 thought on “Many Voices: The Pleasures and Pains of Anthologizing”

  1. A fascinating glimpse into the process of anthologizing. Looking forward to the debut of Wild Moments. Thanks, Michael.

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