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“Best Of” collections are a fascinating thing. It’s an age-old discussion: what does it mean to be the best? Who gets to decide? Best at what aspects of writing? I have gotten in fights about this, and also have strong feelings about all “best” judgements being subjective, which makes me either the best (see what I did there) or the worst person to be writing this. But here we are! And I have a big love for “Best Of” collections, even as I have big feelings about what those words even mean.
For this task, start with a little strategic planning: what do you hope to get out of reading one of these? Do you want to read amazing examples of writing from a genre you already love? Or perhaps you’d like to give a genre you’ve never read a try — collections are a great way to dip your toes in and test the water. Perhaps you have a particular reading goal you’d like to further, like reading more internationally. Maybe you want to get some perspective on how a given genre has changed. Or maybe, like me, you just want to see what’s considered “the best” so you can fight about it. All of these are valid, my friends!
Whatever your answer, I’ve collected various series here for your perusal, with some suggestions as to particular years worth your consideration.
Make sure to get your own Read Harder Book Journal from Book Riot to track your reading for the year!
The Best American Series, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Possibly the best-known of the category, this series has been in publication since 1915 (!). It’s grown to cover a wide variety of topics; currently, you can get collections dedicated to Short Stories, Mystery and Suspense, Essays, Food Writing, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Science and Nature Writing, and Travel. Each year has a regular editor and a guest editor, and as you’ll see once you start looking, those guest editors are typically highly-regarded authors in their own right.
Discontinued categories include: Nonrequired Reading; Comics; Sports Writing; Spiritual Writing; Infographics; and Recipes. I don’t know why they stopped or if they’ll ever come back, but since this task lets you select your year, don’t let that stop you!
If you think I’m not eyeballing Best American Travel Writing 2021 edited by Padma Lakshmi and Jason Wilson, you’re very wrong. If sci-fi and fantasy are more your bag, N.K. Jemisin edited the 2018 edition alongside series editor John Joseph Adams, and it was glorious. And if you want to go a touch further back and get visual, Roz Chast of New Yorker fame guest-edited The Best American Comics of 2016.
International “Best Of” Series
The Best European Fiction series from Dalkey Archive Press ran from 2010 to 2019, with a few different editors, and it was my first exposure to a “Best” series outside of Best American. This is a good one if you’re looking to broaden your literary horizons; some of the stories in question hadn’t been translated into English before their inclusion. The first one I encountered was 2010’s, which also happened to be its inaugural year. Editor Aleksandar Hemon assembled stories originally written in Gaelic, French, Dutch, and more, from many different countries, and for someone relatively new to translated literature it was an eye-opener.
I just recently became aware of The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror; a look through the 2015 edition’s table of contents reveals stories from Garth Nix, DK Mok, and Angela Slatter, all of whom I’m a fan of, plus a whole host of other writers that I’m itching to learn more about.
Also new to me and newer to the world, with its first collection published in 2019, is Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy. Volume 3 was published this year, edited by Marie Hodgkinson, and I did not recognize a single name on the table of contents. This is a glorious moment, my friends! 22 new writers to explore, plus two more volumes after!
Despite a lot of poking around, I was unable to find other regional series, but I’m betting they’re out there or in process, and I cannot wait for them. It’s also notable that the ones I did find skew towards the SF/F genres; confirmation bias, since that’s my most beloved wheelhouse? Or are SF/F editors just more motivated? Who can say…
The Best Erotica
You didn’t think I’d leave my fellow romance/erotica readers hanging, did you? There are series for that too! Cleis Press has a few different iterations, including Best Women’s Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica, and Best Bondage Erotica. We actually have a Book Rioter in Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 4 (2018), edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel! Patricia Elzie’s story, “Breathe,” takes kink in a silly-sweet new direction. This collection also includes Alyssa Cole’s “Essential Qualities,” which is a must-read for fans of her book The A.I. Who Loved Me.
Then there’s sex-educator Susie Bright’s Best American Erotica series, which is predominantly on audio and goes back to the 90s (!). If ever there was a moment to find out how a genre has changed over the past 30 years, it’s now.
The Year’s Best, Potpourri
Various publishers put out other “Year’s Best” collections, from Night Shade’s Best Horror with Ellen Datlow, to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction from Undertow Publications. Da Capo’s got their own Best Music Writing series! Search for “Year’s Best” in your library’s catalog and you’ll find a bonanza of options.
An exciting new-to-me find was the Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction series, edited largely by Bogi Takács. There are four years available currently, 2016-2019, and it’s another “many of these authors are new to me” situation — my favorite.
Don’t forget you can get three free audiobooks at Audiobooks.com with a free trial!
Whatever route you decide to take, may your journey into the Best Of landscape be full of surprises, and full of excellent stories!