Anthology: Definition and Examples in Literature

The Norton Anthology of English Literature
The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

"In literature, an anthology is a series of works collected into a single volume, usually with a unifying theme or subject. These works could be short stories, essays, poems, lyrics, or plays, and they are usually selected by an editor or a small editorial board. It should be noted that if the works assembled into the volume are all by the same author, the book would be more accurately described as a collection instead of an anthology. Anthologies are typically organized around themes instead of authors.

The Garland

Anthologies have been around much longer than the novel, which didn’t emerge as a distinct literary form until the 11th century at the earliest. The "Classic of Poetry" (alternatively known as the "Book of Song") is an anthology of Chinese poetry compiled between the 7th and 11th centuries B.C. The term “anthology” itself derives from Meleager of Gadara’s " Anthologia" (a Greek word meaning “a collection of flowers” or garland), a collection of poetry centered on a theme of poetry as flowers he assembled in the 1st century.

The 20th Century

While anthologies existed prior to the 20th century, it was the modern-day publishing industry that brought the anthology into its own as a literary form. The advantages of the anthology as a marketing device were plentiful:

  • New writers could be linked to a more marketable name
  • Shorter works could be collected and monetized more easily
  • Discovery of authors with similar styles or themes attracted readers looking for new reading material

Simultaneously, the use of anthologies in education gained traction as the sheer volume of literary works required for even a basic overview grew to huge proportions. The "Norton Anthology," a mammoth book collecting stories, essays, poetry, and other writings from a wide range of authors (coming in many editions covering specific regions [e.g., "The Norton Anthology of American Literature"]), launched in 1962 and quickly became a staple of classrooms around the world. The anthology offers a wide if somewhat shallow overview of literature in a relatively concise format.

The Economics of Anthologies

Anthologies maintain a strong presence in the world of fiction. The Best American series (launched in 1915) uses celebrity editors from particular fields (for example, "The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004", edited by Dave Eggers and Viggo Mortensen) to attract readers to short works they may be unfamiliar with.

In many genres, such as science fiction or mystery, the anthology is a powerful tool for promoting new voices, but it’s also a way for editors to earn money. An editor can pitch a publisher with an idea for an anthology and possibly a firm commitment from a high-profile author to contribute. They take the advance they’re given and round up stories from other writers in the field, offering them an up-front, one-time payment (or, occasionally, no up-front payment but a portion of the royalties). Whatever’s left when they have assembled the stories is their own fee for editing the book.

Examples of Anthologies

Anthologies count amongst some of the most influential books in modern literary history:

  • "Dangerous Visions," edited by Harlan Ellison. Published in 1967, this anthology launched what’s now called the “New Wave” of science fiction, and was instrumental in establishing sci-fi as a serious literary undertaking and not silly stories aimed at kids. With stories collected from some of the most talented writers of the time and a no-holds-barred approach to depictions of sex, drugs, or other adult themes, the anthology was groundbreaking in many ways. The stories were experimental and challenging, and changed forever how science fiction was regarded.​
  • "Georgian Poetry", edited by Edward Marsh. The five original books in this series were published between 1912 and 1922, and collected the works of English poets who were part of the generation established during the reign of King George V (beginning in 1910). The anthology began as a joke at a party in 1912; there had been a craze for small chapbooks of poetry, and the party attendees (including future editor Marsh) mocked the idea, suggesting they do something similar. They quickly decided the idea had actual merit, and the anthology was a turning point. It showed that by collecting a group into a ‛brand’ (although the term wasn’t used in that manner at the time) greater commercial success could be attained than by publishing singly.​
  • "Literature of Crime," edited by Ellery Queen. Queen, the pseudonym of cousins Daniel Nathan and Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky, put together this remarkable anthology in 1952. Not only did it elevate crime fiction from the cheap paperbacks into the realm of “literature” (if only by aspiration), it made its point by self-consciously including stories by famous authors not normally thought of as crime writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain.
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Somers, Jeffrey. "Anthology: Definition and Examples in Literature." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Somers, Jeffrey. (2020, August 27). Anthology: Definition and Examples in Literature. Retrieved from Somers, Jeffrey. "Anthology: Definition and Examples in Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).