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Article WINTER 2006

An Interview With Gordon Van Gelder,
Editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

by
Celu Amberstone

 

The March 2006 issue of F&SF

To start, tell me a little about yourself and how you got started in science fiction and fantasy, and maybe a little of the history of the magazine.

Well, the history of the magazine could fill a small book, so I'll leave that aside. My own history is much shorter anyway. I got bitten by the SF bug when I was 12 or 13, decided I wanted to be a writer. With good luck I sold a story to Terry Carr when I was 14 or 15.

Went to college and majored in English/creative writing. Sophomore year, Joan Vinge spoke on campus and her husband, Jim Frenkel, came along. He was running Bluejay Books at the time, he had an opening for a summer intern at the time and eventually gave me the job.

And thus was I turned to the dark side of the Force.

What sets The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction apart from other short fiction magazines of the genre?

Well, the magazine was founded on the principlewhich I think was fairly radical at the timethat it didn't much matter if a story was SF or fantasy as long as it was good. Until then, most magazines were either chocolate or vanilla and nobody really tried a chocovanilla swirl.

For decades, that was one of the big things that set us apart, but in the past few years, it seems like some of the other magazines have opted to go with the swirl also instead of the approach of just one flavor. So I have that what sets us apart nowadays is probably that we're the most "literary" of the SF magazines.

Who is reading F&SF? Has the readership changed over time?

Well, some of our current readers have been with us since issue #1, so parts of the readership haven't changed. But in terms of overall demographics, we ran reader surveys in 1992 and in 2002 and there wasn't much of a change. The percentage of female readers dropped a bit when I took over from Kris Rusch, and the average reader age increased by a few months, but basically our readership is still the same: lovers of good fantasy and SF stories.

Where do you see SF/F short fiction going in the future, both in its literary direction and its commercial survival?

The answer to both is really, "I don't know," but I'll try to give you something a bit more constructive. Literary direction first. I think I'm seeing signs of a backlash to the trend I mentioned above, where all the magazines are publishing swirl fiction. I'm seeing indications that what lies ahead will be more SF stories that know they're SF and they're proud they're SF. But then I also see indications that more writers want to mix the swirl up more, they're happiest when you can't tell whether it's chocolate, vanilla, or something else. So maybe we're going to see a rift grow in the next few years between the genre hardliners and the genre-line fuzzifiers.

Commercial survival? To me, that question seems to have in it some implicit suggestion that maybe the form won't survive. Which doesn't seem to me to be a danger. Short-form SF is kudzu, it's lichen, it's cockroaches: it's one of the toughest, fastest-adapting, most malleable forms, and I don't see much danger of it dying out.

What forms will it take? Well, we're already seeing that in addition to the fiction magazines, it's finding homes in e-zines, in nonfiction magazines like Nature, and I suspect it has already lodged in a few video games.

What do you see is the future of the grand old pulp mags in the electronic age?

In 2001, after I first bought the magazine, I asked myself this question a lot (although I didn't call F&SF a pulppurists will tell you that it was never a pulp magazine). And after wondering about it, I decided to accept that the magazines are dinosaurs. But you know what? Dinosaurs are cool. How many people do you know who feel any kinship or even affection for those little scurrying egg-eating mammals that supposedly supplanted the dinosaurs? A few (my father was a mammalogist, I'm pretty fond of mammals in most forms myself), but I think more people are like Calvin and fantasize of being a dinosaur.

And as long as people harbor those sorts of fantasies, I think the print magazines will have a niche.

Where are the new writers of SF/F coming from? Are they changing the genre? If so, how?

From all over. Albert Cowdrey started writing in the '90s after he retired from a government job that entailed writing biographies of generals. Laird Barron came to the SF field from poetry. M. Rickert set out to be a literary writer but her stories kept veering into the fantastic. A lot of writers are learning their craft in zines and indie magazines and anthologies. They seem to come from all over the world (Canada and Australia seem to be particularly fecund right now).

Are they changing the genre? If I've seen anything, it goes back to the ice cream metaphor I mentioned before. A lot of them want to mix up the flavors, and a lot of them want to keep the flavors separate. Will any new flavors arise from the mix?  I can't tell.

Do you think stories with Canadian history or cultural content have a hard time getting published in the U.S.? What percentage of works going into F&SF are by Canadians and people of color or other ethnic groups?

I'm going to answer question one with an example: I turned down a story about two years ago that was pretty good, but it hinged on the notion that one person would alter all human relations with aliens because he favored separating Quebec from the rest of Canada. I found the concept too hard to believe. Would I have found it more believableor entertainingif I were Quebecois? Possibly. Would I have found it more believable if the story had been about someone who favored separating southern New Jersey from the rest of the state? Definitely not.

So did that story have a hard time getting published in the U.S.? Yes. A harder time?  I don't think so.

To answer question #2, I don't really know. The majority of our contributors are Caucasians from the U.S., but percentages? I don't know.

What place do minorities and other ethnic groups have in the future of the genre both in the novel form and short fiction?

A vital role, probably. But I've got to admit that this question bugs me. Because ultimately, it's not the gender or race of the author that counts, it's the vitality of the work. I'll tell you, one of the highlights of my time as editor of F&SF went completely unnoticed by the world at large. It was when Michelle West reviewed books by Ted Chiang and Karin Lowachee in one column and there wasn't one mention of gender or ethnicity except as it pertained to the fiction. And nobody wrote in to say, "Why are you reviewing books by those people?"  All that mattered was the quality of the fiction.

If a writer wishes to have a piece published in F&SF, what are the crucial dos and don'ts? How long does the process take from acceptance to publication?

Do read the guidelines. Do read the magazine itself. Don't do things that are discouraged by the guidelines. I know that sounds obvious, but people still think the rules don't apply to them. I tell everyone that nothing stands out more from the slush pile than a manuscript that follows the standard rules, but people don't believe me, they think there's gotta be some trick.

How long does the process from acceptance to publication take? Seven to 10 months, on average. Sometimes it takes as long as three years, but those instances are very rare nowadays.

I happen to have the paperwork handy for a story called "iKlawa." It was submitted by the author on April 12. We sent him a contract on July 15. And the story is set to run four issues from now, so that means it will be out in Februaryabout 10 months after it was first submitted.

With the rise in public interest in books and stories with a high sexual content, like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart, what is your feeling about publishing such material? Are there any taboo subjects, things you won't publish?

Basically, I follow the MPAA guidelines and I try to keep F&SF at a level where it would get a PG-13 rating for most of its stories. You have to understand that in this regard, a magazine is not like a book. If you buy a book and the sexuality in it offends you, or the violence, you just put it aside and vow never to buy another book by that writer. John Norman wrote books for years that many people found offensive, but those offended people didn't stop the Gor fans from buying and reading the books.

With a magazine, however, if people buy it looking for general entertainment and they find sexuality that's too forthright for them, they might cancel their subscription. And that means that they'll be cut off from the stories they would like...and their subscription won't go to encourage new writers. I knew a fan who told me he stopped reading all the SF magazines because he read a story in one of them in 1986 in which modern athletes were sacrificed like Mayans. That's it. He didn't like the one story, so he stopped reading all the magazines.

Now, it's his loss, but if a lot of people react this way, then it's the magazine's loss. So a magazine can't afford to run a lot of stories that will offend people.

Which leads me (in this roundabout way) to answering your question. Are there taboos? Not that I know of. But are there subjects we shy away from? You bet. Which means that if I'm going to buy a story that has, say, graphic rape followed by dismemberment of one of the characters, I have to like that story a lot.  In other words, the more dangerous the material, the better the story has to be. A great story like Michael Blumlein's "Paul and Me," which had Paul Bunyan in a homosexual relationship, I'd buy again in a second, even knowing that people would (and did) cancel their subscriptions over it.  But a mediocre story on the same subject, I'd certainly skip.

Where does Internet publishing fit in the scheme of things, both today and in the future?

Um, sorry, this question's too broad to answer in any meaningful way.

In general, where does the future of genre publishing lie, with the small presses or the big companies?

Yes.

Sorry, that answer isn't meant to be as obnoxious as it sounds. But I think it's a mistake to look at things this way.

Here, let me give you an example. When I worked at St. Martin's, I knew a pop culture writer who made a good living from his books for a decade. But he felt like he was slaving away while his publishers got rich, so he set up his own publishing firm. And within two years, he wasno exaggerationa millionaire. (I'd rather not name him, but he had a national bestseller or maybe two.) So he expanded his publishing firm.  At one point, I think he had 12 employees and rented half a warehouse.

But the reason I'd rather not name him is that in another two or three years, his staff was down to three and he told me he thought he was a failure. Why? Because none of the big New York publishing firms tried to buy out his company. His whole plan had been to launch a new outfit and then cash in on it. I suspect that if he'd stuck with it, his company would now be a big successbut he didn't want to run a publishing house, he wanted to write books. So he ultimately shut down the operation.

Now, here's the question: where does he fit in your scheme? Was his firm a small press or a big company? At its height, his company probably billed as much annually as some New York publishers that have been in business 50 years. But his company was only in business for eight years or so and the books are all out of print.

The way I see it, the large publishers are like professional sports teams, and the smaller independent houses are like the minor leagues and farm clubs. Both of them have their virtues and their flaws, but I don't think many people are saying the future of, say, baseball, rests entirely in the major league clubs or in the minor league teams. They're all important, and the main thing is that they all give you a good game for your money.
 



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Posted February 15, 2006