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Shaping sf

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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.

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45 thoughts on “Shaping sf

  1. # So, I put up some numbers, but it
    # wasn’t enough for some people. Who
    # chose to sneer on Twitter at my post.

    For the record I wasn’t one of them, I’m all in favor of anything with pretty graphs!

  2. It would be fantastic to have some new editorial blood in science fiction. The present bunch is long in the tooth, plays favorites and lacks any kind of literary aesthetic. You cite some names and let me toss in Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who should have been put out to pasture many moons ago. Hartwell, Schmidt, the Haydens, Dozois et al still reflect the old boys and girls network and need to move aside (or be sent to the glue factory) so that SF can evolve, grow, morph into something that reflects the diversity and breadth of the genre. The editors and their hack writer pals have kept the field back far too long–time to touch the monolith, folks, make a bold, literate leap toward the future.

    And that means carving or hacking away the dead hive mind that has dominated SF for far too long.

    No great loss.

    • Got to say it Mr Burns, you’re coming across as something of a big meany here!

      It can’t be denied that these editors are veterans, but it’s going a bit far to suggest they be melted down for glue.

      New blood and new ideas is always a good thing, but I think that will come in the form of new publications, rather than in changing the guards at the established outlets, who each have an established tradition that will constrain any new editor.

      Colum

      • I AM a meanie, Colum.

        But there are too many apologists about these days, too many people screaming “Heresy” when one confronts established wisdom or tries to debunk the soothsayers. That ain’t healthy for any branch of society and it certainly isn’t a great atmosphere for civilized debate…or the creation of ground-breaking, innovative literature.

        • Do you have a white cat and a secret lair? They’re obligatory you know!

        • I agree with you that the genre has an atmosphere that is absolutely hostile to civilized debate though. But, what are you gonna do?

          • Actually, thinking about it, it’s unfair of me to say that about the genre. The *internet* has an atmosphere that is absolutely hostile to civilized debate. From what I’ve see there’s plenty of civilized debate happening at cons, but not online.

  3. I also point out that some literary venues, like BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, employ a rotating editor philosophy which, I think, is a far more effective method of seeking out and identifying fine authors (while defeating the notion of favoritism and “cliques”).

    This mentality is, of course, far too logical and effective to ever take hold in science fiction. The Old Guard will hang on to their power with split fingernails, teeth and claws–any “new wave” will have to defeat the concerted, desperate efforts of these people to have any chance of changing the shape of the genre and promoting exciting, innovative work.

    • To be fair, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Greatest Uncommon Denominator, both genre magazines, also do something similar.

    • I have to be honest, I don’t recognise this description of “editors and their hack writer pals [who] have kept the field back far too long” in the people you’re talking about here. Far as I can see these are all respected industry professionals who remain in charge of selecting years’ bests because they have a track record of producing such volumes, and ones that satisfy the demands of the market (ie books that sell in sufficient quantities). Clearly their customers believe that the books they put out are close enough to Best to keep on buying them.

      In addition, I genuinely believe that these editors go out of their way to find new and upcoming authors whose careers they can keep tabs on in the hope of some day being able to include them in their anthologies.

      But maybe that’s just my perception. So, I went and looked at a couple of this year’s ToC’s (Dozois’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Year%27s_Best_Science_Fiction:_Twenty-Ninth_Annual_Collection and Rich Horton’s http://oldcharliebrown.livejournal.com/376894.html). Honestly, guys, looking at those ToCs where are these hacks? There are some well known names on both lists, quite a few writers who have definitely earned their right to be at the top of the tree IMO (sure I’ve not ready the stories, but they’re not surprising names), and there are an awful lot (to me at least) of new names too.

      The Horton especially, but also the Dozois look to me like a good blend of established and progressive. Which is surely what most readers want from that type of anthology. No?

      • The Horton is both sf and fantasy, which may partly explain the spread of names. Of all the year’s bests, I thought the Dozois the least adventurous in choosing its content – see the pie chart on my earlier post. I look at its TOC and I see only one name I don’t recognise. And that’s from Analog.

        • Well since I read more Fantasy than SF, I’d have thought I’d have known *more* of the names in the Horton. :D

          Now I consider myself, reasonably widely read, although recently my opportunities have been a little diminished, and for me the attractions to this kind of volume are both a chance to enjoy work by writers I love and also a chance to discover new writers that I might love.

          Here’s some personal stats regarding these two volumes: the Dozois has 34 stories and the Horton has 29. The writers I’d not heard of counted 4 and 6 respectively. The writers I’d heard of but not read counted an additional 5 and 6. So, in the Dozois volume, 9/34 = just under a 1 in 3 of the writers are new discoveries. In the Horton it’s even better at 12/29.

          Looking down the ToC for writers that I enjoy, for names in my personal fave list that, I find that there are 5 in Dozois and 7 in Horton. The rest of them are solid names I mostly have nothing against and whose work I’ve enjoyed before, but wouldn’t make me buy an anthology. Only one or two are writers I actively dislike (actually in those cases it was the stories, not the writers necessarily).

          So, aggregating all of that, I’ve got 14/34 possible reasons to want to buy Dozois (I probably wouldn’t), and 18/29 reasons to buy Horton (I’m seriously considering it).

          But each reader’s version of this (and we all do it in our heads) will be different, I guess. The Horton sounds good to me, but of course it has *fantasy* in it…. :D

          • I had a go at doing the same:

            Dozois: 12 like, 15 meh, 6 dislike
            Horton: 5 like, 22 meh, 2 dislike
            Hartwell: 6 like, 13 meh, 3 dislike

            Well, the Horton includes fantasy, so that result isn’t surprising. However, I’m a little surprised Dozois has more writers I like than the other two, though I suspect that’s because Horton and Hartwell have more new writers and a lot of them I find somewhat missable.

      • But Dozois has his preferences (they all do)–editors from Campbell on have had (too) long tenures, their longevity negatively affecting the field. It is inevitable that patterns and tastes become calcified and, thanks to convention encounters, friendships strike up, alliances are formed and when they last long enough you get, yup, an Old Guard.

        These folks have their allies and lackeys, usually motivated by self-interest, and I’ve learned the hard way it’s unwise to question their influence. No criticism allowed, any suggestion that the genre (or anyone affiliated with it) needs upgrading treated like the most profane apostasy.

        SF is constantly accused of being in-bred and solipsistic and surely part of the problem is the lack of turnover in crucial editorial chairs. Institutional change is vital to the growth of any endeavor and speculative fiction would be better served if, in the long run, certain individuals didn’t take it upon themselves to out-stay their welcomes and become permanent exhibits in their own, self-maintained museums…

        • Okay so what about the newer editors? What about Horton, Strahan, Adams, Link & Grant, the Vandermeers? Even if they’re not all editing Year’s Bests, they’re editing the anthologies from which many of the stories are chosen. Aren’t they new blood?

        • Here I’m far more in agreement with you, but I don’t think that progress is going to be made by storming the winter palace and setting up a new tzar, but by building new institutions all together.

          Colum

    • You say you want a revolution, well we’d all love to see the plan!

      But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.

      Colum

  4. Hm… in the end money, or to be more precise the power over money talks. These editors have the wherewithal to publish in the first place. But they also have it because they can say the public liked certain types of stories last year and we are publishing what they liked. So we are going to make money based on that.

    Now about this plan to revolutionise science fiction… hm… I have idea as to how to start to begin to go about that… anyone want to join the fun?

    • That’s one banner I’ll march under. Along with:

      “FREE SCIENCE FICTION!”
      “TOWARDS A LITERATE FUTURE!”
      “EDITORS, NOT DINOSAURS!”
      “TOM DISCH WAS RIGHT!”
      “ALL WE ARE SAYING/IS GIVE INNOVATION A CHANCE!”

      Etc.

      • All right, here’s your chance. All of the years best have croaked in a tragic outbreak of editor’s croup and the publishers have asked YOU to edit this year’s volume.

        30 stories, with a good chance of making the same kind of returns as the Old Guard.

        What’s your line up?

        • Should have been ‘all the years best editors have…’

        • Seriously? I think that would be something Ian would be more qualified to apply himself to–he’s got his finger much closer to the pulse than I do. But, for the record, I do like Small Beer Press (you mentioned Kelly Link) and Another Sky Press out of Portland publishes some wondrous spec fic.

          And, to be clear, I wish nothing but the best for today’s crop of superannuated SF editors…once they retire and hobble off to their care home of choice…

          • C’mon, Cliff, that’s a cop out. (Although SB etc are more than worthy of praise!) It’s all very well declaring that the year’s bests don’t print the best SF, but in order to make that declaration you must surely have an idea of what you’d publish instead! It’s a bit rubbish to loudly, but vaguely, denounce the current high end editors without showing us where you think they’re wrong.

            Personally for me, anyone that’s publishing Ian McDonald, Gwynneth Jones and Ian McLeod or Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, and Alan DeNiro, AND Jonathan Carroll, isn’t going to be far off the mark. But that’s personally, for me, what about you?

            • Carroll hasn’t worked for me in years (I’m a big fan of his early stuff, LAND OF LAUGHS one of the best debuts EVER) and I especially dislike his short stories (not his best medium). Some of the current favorites leave me cold (including Connie Willis, Ted Chiang) and few of the old-timers still catch my eye but, then again, my tastes in short stories runs more to the slipstream, the unclassifiable: George Saunders, Ryan Boudinot, Wells Tower, Paul Auster. I buy the NEW YORKER “science fiction” issue every year and most of it leaves me (to quote Ian) “meh”. But five bucks, man, every July/August, regular as clockwork, bang, a fiver out the window.

              And may I gently remind you that my take on this topic, originally, was the long reign of editors and the disproportionate amount of influence they wield. If you’d like to start a thread on your favorite SF authors, I’d be happy to drop by your blog with my picks. Hint: Iain Banks would make the roster as would Ms. Link, John Varley, Jonathan Lethem, Peter Watts, John Kessel, John Barnes, Vernor Vinge, Tony Daniel…er, how am I doing?

              • You could try my stories… if you can get hold of them… sounds as if you might enjoy some of them.

              • You’re doing great! I like all those suggestions too. Even better, there’s a few real marquee names among them. Now the trick is to look at their short fiction output in the last year (and sadly Banks doesn’t write short fiction any more) and weigh it up against all the other short fiction that fits the remit of SF and make a call as to which 30 stories among all that lot was the best.

                The point I’m attempting to make is that these editors work really hard to read all those stories and make those judgements. They honestly don’t just call up their mates.

                And the thing about your list of suggestions, Cliff… I’m pretty sure most, if not all, of them have featured in Year’s Bests over the years. And some of them may in fact be among the class of writer that *some* people might refer to as Old Guard.

              • But okay, let’s go back to the editors and their “influence”. Actually, yes, I think there’s an amount of truth in some of what Ian says above. Editorial taste must be a factor in the selection of stories for a YB anthology – but it’s far from the only, or even dominant, factor. As I said on the previous thread there are a whole bunch of other things that go into such a selection: you’ll want to vary length, subject and tone; you’ll try and get a good mix of types of writer (especially these days); you have to get those marquee names and also ensure you that you’re introducing some new faces too; and you may not be able to get the rights for all the stories you want anyway. And going back to those marquee names – sometimes that works against editorial taste. If the new novel by Jimmy Bloggs is selling like hotcakes, if he’s on all the award shortlists, and he had a fine but not spectacular story out last year that’s probably going to be on the TOCs of the other YB’s, you’re going to have a tough conversation with your publisher if you choose a Jane Noname story that you liked better over it, because of editorial taste. Sometimes, you’ll have to make selections that a lot of readers will like, even if you don’t.

                But that’s Year’s Bests. They’re smorgasbords. No-one’s expected to like everything in them. They’re created for multiple readerships, not just one.

                As for the mags, which I think is Ian’s biggest beef – the “Big Three” and their long-tenured editors (although of course Schmidt has stepped down at Analog). Yes, of course they build a stable of writers and define their vision for the magazine, and of course that will involve selecting a certain type or feel or style of story. But that state only persists as long as the readership agrees. And subscriptions for the big three are reportedly dwindling.

                Meanwhile, there are all of these other publications – the Strange Horizons, the Clarkesworlds, Beyond Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, the Eclipse anthos, Tor.com, Interzone!, even Rocket Science. All of these are publishing stories by editors each of whom has their own editorial taste, each of which is different not only from that of the big three editors but from each other. And then there’s the Vandermeers who have been going out of their way to source and translate SF and fantasy originally written in foreign languages in their anthologies.

                Ian’s complaint of a hermetic hierarchy might have held some water ten years ago, but honestly, now? I don’t think the SF field has ever been so broad, and that rich breadth of stories so easy to access. And I actually believe that Ian’s charts are showing that. The big three are still showing strongly, but they’re far from obliterating the rest.

                The reason that the big three still have buying power to attract top writers? Masthead prestige and reader loyalty. Fandom can be conservative, and there’s a core readership who stick with what they know, and they happen to be the ones that attend Worldcon and vote in the Hugos. But things change, and are changing. In the last few years, the Hugo shortlists have changed a lot. You may still not like them, but you can’t deny they’ve changed.

                If we don’t like the situation, here’s the things that you or I can do:

                1/ As writers, write the best, most innovate stories we can, and send them to the big three first. Give them the opportunity to change.
                2/ As editors, put out the occasional original anthology filled with dazzling stories by amazing new writers that’ll blow people’s socks off.
                3/ As readers, ignore the publications we don’t enjoy and give our money instead to the new guns who are publishing those new maverick writers we’ve been waiting for. Like that Tidhar guy. Oh wait, didn’t he just sell a story to Asimovs?

                • I think the situation is much improved over past decades, though whether that’s due to broadening or shrinkage is debatable. I don’t know if there are more small press magazines now than there were in the 1980s, but I suspect the average readership of them is much lower. And when venues have smaller readerships and correspondingly less cachet, so the prestige attaches to the names of the writers who regularly appear in the big venues… Which is what has always happened, of course. I just wonder if this “broadening” will only make it more obvious and widen the gap between the gap between top and bottom.

                • Not sure what you mean by small press here. Do you mean “anything but the big three”? Cos I’m pretty sure the readership of the online mags is pretty healthy, and since they are now providing many of the anthologised and award nominated stories – the de Bodards, the Swirsky’s, etc – I can’t say I agree that these writers’ cachet is in anyway reduced. Quite the opposite.

                  For my money, in another five, ten years. The “big three” will have been caught and overtaken by these other venues. Tor.com is already there, and my suspicion is that the reason that those other publications don’t publish many of the same old names is down to the taste of their editors rather than because they’re not necessarily being sent them.

                • Have any of the online magazines posted hit numbers? I don’t doubt that they get more eyeballs than print mags – it’s the nature of the medium. But the pie charts in my previous post didn’t demonstrate they were providing “many of the anthologised” stories – on the contrary, most of the Dozois came from print venues, including original anthologies from major publishers. I agree the Big Three’s readership and influence will continue to shrink, but I think that’s likely for ALL print venues. It hasn’t helped them that they’ve been slow to adapt to online – F&SF still won’t accept electronic subs, for example.

                  I wouldn’t like to speculate whether or not the likes of Swanwick or Reed submit to CW or SH – if they can sell to Asimov’s, they might not even bother.

                  Small press – see the various wranglings over the Hugo semiprozine category over the years. On a side-note, I don’t actually see the point in distinguishing venues by pay-rate or readership. There should be a Hugo for best fiction venue (which has published a minimum number of words in the year preceding), and a Hugo for best non-fiction venue. The latter category also handily covers fanzines.

                • Well the conversation wasn’t print v online (and I’m going to gloss over your “big publishers”, because that’s another perception issue – the prominent anthologies were pubbed by Solaris and Night Shade), it was Big Three v everything else, surely? Here’s some more figures from your pie charts. Approximate percentage of combined Big Three contributions to YB’s (approximate because Analog seems to be mostly so small it didn’t make your legend).

                  Dozois – 34.3%, Horton – 24.1%, Hartwell/Cramer – 21.7 %

                  These are hardly overwhelming figures. By comparison, Tor.com contributed 17% of the stories to H/C.

                  The pie charts for the awards are much more revealing, I think, and actually cast the YB anthology make-ups in a better light. I’ve always thought the average Hugo voter was a conservative soul with limited breadth in reading. To that end I’d add a fourth suggestion to my list of things that we can do to change the landscape:

                  4/ As voters, make ourselves eligible to vote – and if that means buying a society or convention membership, fair enough – and exercise that right. Otherwise we have no vested interest in complaining about how other people vote.

                • # But that’s Year’s Bests. They’re smorgasbords.
                  # No-one’s expected to like everything in them. They’re
                  # created for multiple readerships, not just one.

                  Good point, that’s why we need more diverse yearly anthologies, I think. We need to stop thinking of SF as being one thing, and see it more as a broad church of different movements.

                • Totally agree with you here Neil, though I do think Ian is right about influence, but it’s not a problem with the editors, it’s a problem with the system. If we are really unhappy about it, we should organize to create a new system. With the net and the ebook revolution underway there’s never been a better time!

            • Gwyneth Jones and the two Ians, certainly. Carroll never really did it for me, and having checked out both Grant and DeNiro I see they’re similar to Link and not to my taste at all. Authors I’d like to see include Paul Park, Carolyn Ives Gilman, L Timmel Duchamp, Adam Roberts, Douglas Thompson, Steve Palmer, Justina Robson… And no doubt I’ll think of more throughout the day. But certainly less of the “ubiquitous” ones – Michael Swanwick and Robert Reed have written some excellent short fiction, but given their prolificity that’s hardly a surprise. But do they have to be in every year’s best anthology every year?

              • I’m not able to do the research right now, but can you honestly say that in years when those writers have been writing short stories they’ve been unjustly overlooked in year’s bests?

                Personally I agree with you about the likes of Swanwick and Reed – as I did about Resnick and Willis on the awards lists. Yes, they’ve produced good work, but *every* year? But that’s only two writers – it’s hardly damning evidence that the whole system is riddled with croneyism.

          • # And, to be clear, I wish nothing but the best for today’s
            # crop of superannuated SF editors, once they retire and
            # hobble off to their care home of choice

            That’s being a bit ageist, let us not forget that none of us here are spring chickens ourselves!

      • Singing Tom Disch’s body is a-moldering in the grave?

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