Only a fool would deny the influence magazine editors Hugo Gernsback, John W Campbell and Michael Moorcock had on science fiction. So to suppose that editors still wield such influence over short form science fiction is not that much of a stretch of the imagination. I put together some pie charts of the contents of the year’s best anthologies for 2011 to test the truth of this. Perhaps it was unsurprising that the biggest markets in terms of readership provided the most stories for the anthologies. Writers will send their best works to where it will earn the most money and be read by the most people. But the editor still has to buy it. It could be arguing they’re just siphoning off the cream of the crop, but that would have to assume their taste plays absolutely no part in their purchasing decision. And that’s unlikely.
So, I put up some numbers, but it wasn’t enough for some people. Who chose to sneer on Twitter at my post. (To be fair, one did then apologise, and we went on to have an interesting discussion on the topic.) One of their criticism was “rotating editors” – but Gardner Dozois has been doing his year’s best anthology for twenty-nine years, Hartwell and Cramer for seventeen years. Sheila Williams has been editing Asimov’s since 2004, and it was Dozois for eighteen years before that; Stanley Schmidt has edited Analog since 1978, and retired only this year. Gordon Van Gelder has been the editor of F&SF since 1997 and its publisher since 2000. Not much rotation there.
David Hartwell, in a comment on my post, raised the point that year’s best anthologies are commercial endeavours. It’s a valid observation. Stephen King, for example, may not have written one of the absolute best stories of the year, but if it’s good enough for inclusion, then putting his name on the cover could help sell a few more copies. Plenty of people have said that year’s best anthologies aren’t really “best”. Fair enough. But it does devalue the term. If something is not the best, is not chosen solely because it is of the best quality, then it’s not, er, the best. Mind you, An Anthology of Good Stories Published In The Previous Year Which [editor's name] Has Selected For Reasons Of Taste, Quality And Commercial Appeal probably wouldn’t fit on the front of a massmarket paperback.
It seems plain that the single biggest factor affecting genre fiction is the number of units shifted of genre books. Publishers publish books to make money, and if a book of a particular type does well they’ll naturally want to publish books of a similar type. Successful authors become well-known – often it’s their name alone which sells the books (cf the thriller sweatshops of James Patterson and Clive Cussler; or Virginia AndrewsTM). Hugo voters, faced with a ballot of novels they’ve not read, will often as not plump for the one by the author whose name they recognise, or have read and enjoyed in the past. The appeal of those names can carry across to short fiction – though now that shortlisted short fiction is routinely given free to voters (in both the Hugo and BSFA awards), you’d hope their decision would be based solely on the quality of the stories. Big names on the covers of fiction magazines will sell more copies of an issue than the names of unknowns…
Names have weight. Especially in a small group like the science fiction community. How many people have I heard explain Connie Willis’ Hugo win last year as the result of her being “a nice person”? Her book(s) was shortlisted for the award, but she won it. And some people’s writing will be preferred over others. Even by editors. Who have chequebooks, and can make good use of their choices. There have been, and likely will continue to be, magazines who routinely publish work by certain authors to the mystification of everyone – some people might perhaps remember UK small press magazine Dream from the 1980s and an author whose stories appeared in it regularly…
Science fiction is neither monolithic nor homogenous. Nor is the community which both supports it and feeds off it. Sf can be affected by a number of things; some parts can be affected while others are not. Despite being a written genre, it has been changed by individual films, Star Wars being the classic example. Changes in taste in short fiction rarely impact novels, but the reverse is not uncommon. As editors develop the characters of their magazines and so build up “stables” of writers, so they play a part in shaping genre fiction at short lengths. As anthologists turn to the same small number of names to provide reliably entertaining content, so do those names carry greater weight and their style of sf come to be reflected wider in the genre. As publishers rub hands gleefully at the runaway success of an author, so they start looking around for more material to capitalise on that success. And so on.
So no, it’s not stupid to imagine that editors and year’s best anthologies still have influence on science fiction. It’s stupid to imagine they don’t.