Australian Speculative Fiction: writers, editors, publishers
Interview by Ben Peek
Bill Congreve is the co-editor (with Michelle Marquardt) of the Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Science Fiction 2004. It'll be released shortly by Prime Books.
1) Approaching a Year's Best would be, I think, quite different to creating an original anthology of short fiction. What are some of the concerns and interests, however, that go into creating a Year's Best Australian volume?
There's a number of issues that need to be considered with a Year's Best. The first is that, if we're going to be in any way honest, we've got to read everything. It is either the best of, or not. We did our best with that. There has been some mention in the media recently of a SMH reviewer referring the Frank Moorhouse's edited 'Year's Best Australian' to the ACCC, because there was no attempt at all to read widely. We read nearly 400 stories, for a total of more than 1.2 million words. We advertised for stories, we trolled for stories... We've included stories from overseas sources, and from small local websites. I think there were about a dozen stories we heard about for which we couldn't obtain manuscripts. The things just weren't submitted.
With original stories, there is room for an editor to direct traffic, to work to get the best story out of a writer. My priority is the story, more than it is the writer. Communication is a two-way process and editors not only must draw the best out of writers, they must also represent the readers. Dealing with writers then becomes a matter of diplomacy. This can, of course, be taken too far. We're all in this for our own reasons, whatever they may be, and editors must also respect the motives of the writer. With a Year's Best? It's a reprint anthology. We've got to assume that first level of editing has been done. Outside of minor changes, the stories shouldn't be rewritten.
2) Having taken it as a task to read the entire Australian scene, what are your opinions of its content, pro and con?
There's a lot of fantasy, not much SF. With one or two notable exceptions, SF exists mainly in the small press. It's great that the genre is being preserved there, but it also has problems that come with small press publication.
There's an awful lot of political stuff out there. We've chosen a couple of stories along those lines, but we've tried to avoid the didactic stories, and the ones which just drag out the same old 'ain't it awful' themes and structure. When half the published fiction fits the same mould, you recognise it very quickly. The best stories are ones which carry their ideas in character and plot, not in preaching.
There's also a vast number of flash fiction pieces which re-invent the ideas and plots of North American magazine SF of the 1950s and 1960s. I'm not sure how to take this. While it's nice to see some of these ideas again, it's distressing if these folk think they're being original. Perhaps it's a tribute. Or perhaps it's a sign that John Howard's Australia is biting into the grass roots.
I think it was Spider Robinson who picked up a Hugo for story in which popular culture was allowed to copy itself for a new audience every few years. That's very wise.
3) What kind of speculative genre fiction does it appear that the scene is encouraging, and what kind of fiction do you think is struggling to find a voice?
Horror always struggles when presented as a genre. Outside of the genre, when incorporated into other genres including the literary and dramatic, it does spectacularly well. But this is one of those little hypocrisies that horror writers hate, so they try a little harder -- and get patronised, pushed out of sight, and copied that little bit more. Horror probably does it's best work in the ghetto (and thanks Rob for that insight), but it also struggles in the ghetto, and is at its most immature there.
Similarly, hard SF is struggling. Only one or two writers are seriously attempting this. One of the tenets of hard SF is a philosophical attitude appropriate to the subject matter. A way of observing the universe which allows the universe, rather than our own desires, to be a dominant force in the fiction. Perhaps Greg Egan will begin writing again soon. Greg Guerin is developing as a writer. Chris Lawson doesn't have time to write enough stories. There aren't many others.
But we're also noticing that the flavour of the best work changes from year to year. If we had done a Year's Best last year (for 2003), with Southern Blood, Gathering the Bones, and several excellent stories in other publications, a Year's Best would have been dominated by horror. This year we have a range of stories with, if anything, literate urban gothic dominating. And YA is well represented. And we can already tell that the adventure story is on the agenda for the Best of 2005 volume.
4) You're dead. Like most Sydney residents, you died decadently, which is good. Still, you're dead. You go to Heaven (assuming there is one, blah blah) and you see God. You say?
Pint of your best, please.
I hope you can play that guitar you're holding.
5) Favourite swear word?
Karla kippeneucker (and I apologise to any Dutch folk out there for the spelling). I was taught that by one of nature's gentlemen, Harry Schenk, who's probably dead now. He was a registered nurse who spoke six languages, was a chief steward for KLM, a medic in the Korean war (his best friend died in his arms), and he emigrated to Australia in a yacht he built himself. His final career move was as a manager of retirement villages. I'm sure Harry wouldn't mind my spelling, but he did insist on the right pronunciation.
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