NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 141, Spring, 1999.
MIKE: The first four truly influential short story editors in the field were John Campbell, Anthony Boucher, Horace Gold, and Mike Moorcock. I don’t think there’s any serious debate on this point. Oh, you might want to name Hugo Gernsback, too, but his importance was as an innovator and publisher, certainly not as an editor.
It wasn’t all that difficult to define what Campbell wanted. The best exemplar was Robert A. Heinlein, of course, but Asimov, de Camp, the Kuttners, all practiced the rigorous extrapolation Campbell demanded, and most of them could push a noun up against a verb with some skill. Not as beautifully as Sturgeon, who remains Campbell’s outstanding exception, but good enough to please the editor and the readership.
Boucher (and, to be sure, his partner McComas) brought the story of literary ambition to the field. It didn’t much matter if it was science fiction or fantasy; if it was written as well as it could be written, then Boucher was a receptive market. And with Unknown long dead, his magazine has remained the best fantasy market for the past 49 years.
Horace Gold liked sharp-edged social satire. It’s hard to imagine an issue of his magazine without a contribution from Pohl, Sheckley, or Tenn, and certainly he was the driving force behind Bester’s The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, which to this day still read as if they’re five years ahead of where the field’s currently at.
Moorcock was the ringleader of the New Wave. Ballard was to Moorcock as Heinlein was to Campbell, but he also published Disch, Spinrad, Aldiss, anyone with the will and the skills to try the “new thing.”
The concept of slanting a story existed back then. As I say, it wasn’t difficult to figure out what Campbell would and wouldn’t be willing to buy. Ditto for Gold. Ditto, if you could evaluate your literary capabilities, for Boucher. Ditto for Moorcock.
Now let’s move the clock ahead a few decades. Who is the outstanding short fiction editor in the field today? Clearly, that honor goes to Gardner Dozois. He’s won ten of the last eleven Hugos for Best Editor; more stories from his magazine have won Hugos and Nebulas than from any rival; and his annual best-of-the-year anthology, though it has had occasional competition, remains the definitive yearly state-of-the-art analysis.
So the first question is, can one read a few issues of Asimov’s and determine what he likes with the same certainty that one could pinpoint the tastes of the four above-named editors?
Personally, I think not. I’ve sold him close to 20 stories. So has Pat Cadigan. I doubt that Michael Swanwick has hit him on less than 90% of his submissions. Ditto Jack Dann. Ditto Janet Kagan. And if the five of us (to say nothing of his occasional contributors such as Robert Silverberg and William Gibson) have much in common besides our SFWA memberships, I don’t know what it might be.
So my question is: is Gardner’s taste that catholic (hardly a bad thing, though in this field an unusual one) . . . or, and here’s the key question, is it because science fiction has become so all-encompassing that there are no more barriers left except self-defeating, limited ones like, say, an all-cyberpunk magazine when that sub-genre never had as many as 20 practitioners at one time? Or, to put it another way, is it impossible for one short fiction editor, even one as pre-eminent and brilliant as Gardner, to shape the field as his predecessors did? And if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
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BARRY: The last editor who truly shaped the field in significant and continuing ways was Judy-Lynn del Rey. Isaac Asimov pointed this out, noted that she had had as great an impact upon science fiction or fantasy as John Campbell, maybe more, because she had more money to pay and far more words to buy. What was really interesting, Isaac noted — she died in February of 1986, this was the content of his eulogy at the memorial service — is that no one really understood that at the time. Her influence just kind of crept up and around and only after she was so suddenly gone did people for the first time realize how much she had changed the terms and contents of almost everything that followed her. (How she changed it can be the subject of another dialogue.) Her effect is no less pervasive a dozen years later. In effect, she shifted the concept of the audience, vastly widened that audience because she saw no reason why a popular science fiction or fantasy author could not be successfully promoted to the general readership assuming a certain kind of slant and a fair amount of promotion. There had been bestselling science fiction and fantasy novels prior to del Rey Books, but they were isolated cases, they were not programmatic. Judy-Lynn was putting five or six novels a year on the New York Times bestseller list.
Gardner Dozois is no less important and certainly no less able than Judy-Lynn del Rey, but his situation is entirely different. He is dealing in the magazine rather than the book market, he is buying short stories, novelettes and novellas, and he has no promotion budget — nor has the circulation of Asimov’s exceeded 100,000 at any time since 1985 when he became its editor. These are in no ways reflections upon his skills or the high quality of his magazine. It has everything to do with factors of distribution and audience (this is simply not an era kind to the fiction magazines) and with the fact that science fiction isn’t as it was in Campbell’s time, a field centered in the short story. The magazines were, right through the mid-sixties, the point of origin for almost everything important or interesting. With the collapse of the magazine distributors, and the advent of mass market conglomerates (to say nothing of media science fiction), all of this changed. Work short of novel length became marginalized.
The magazines remain vital as a point of introduction and as markets where novels and careers are originated and appear in early form . . . feeder lines, as it were. But they don’t pay enough, aren’t widely enough read to have any significant influence. Science fiction in the 1940s was synonymous with Astounding; add Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction and the same could be said of the 1950s. (Ballantine, Doubleday and Ace, the major science fiction book publishers of the time, were deriving most of their material by reprinting or expanding upon work that had appeared in the magazines.) That’s certainly not the case now. Surveys in the last decade have shown over and again that there’s surprisingly little overlap between magazine and book buyers, that most buyers of books don’t read the magazines any more (or at all).
That having been said, I’d note that Gardner can in my opinion be understood: his magazine contains two kinds of fiction. One kind is the fiction to which he responds and for which he genuinely cares, another kind is the fiction he thinks he ought — as a mass market editor — to run. The magazine has won awards in both categories and Gardner has been as content hanging around with one kind of story as the other; he gives no external sign of policy or preference, which is the sign of a competent editor. But I think that I can tell the difference, and I am smart enough to offer no clues or speculations as to which the works of frequent contributors X, Y and Z represent to the editor.
All editors — those who hang around to buy more than 50 stories, anyway — can be figured out. The really eclectic ones (like James Quinn at If so long ago, who appeared willing to buy anything) are just as predictable that way.
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MIKE: Before we go any further, I should point out that there are occasionally factors, for better or (usually) worse, that have nothing to do with editorial taste.
For example, I’ve edited some 20-plus anthologies, an overwhelming percentage of them original anthologies. These days you can’t sell — or at least I can’t sell — something as broad-based as Universe or Orbit or New Dimensions. If you can’t tie the stories to a theme, something the editor thinks the marketing department can get behind and push, you’re not going to make a sale.
So I would contact maybe 15 established writers (gotta have those names on the covers) and 10 newcomers (can’t pay back, so gotta pay forward), and make assignments. And because the books were written to themes, because I knew that none of the writers involved would have sat down to write a science-fictional Sherlock Holmes story or an Alternate Kennedy story without my encouragement, I felt a certain obligation to buy those stories, even if they weren’t quite what I wanted. Oh, I’d offer suggestions, and send them back for rewrites if they needed them . . . but if the suggestions were ignored and the rewrites didn’t do the job (and thank heaven it didn’t happen very often), I’d buy them anyway and bury them in the middle of the book. I’d never have done it with a non-theme anthology, but as I said, if someone’s going to write a story on a particular subject solely because I request it, then I have an obligation to pay for it. Or at least pay a kill fee (an honorable alternative, but one which I never chose to do.)
My anthologies were by invitation only, of course; no anthology advance — which isn’t very much after you pay the writers — is worth the effort of reading 500 slush stories about Kennedys or detectives or dinosaurs. And because they were, in truth, closed anthologies, beginners would resentfully tell me that it was unfair to them. Yet from 1991 through 1994 I bought more than 40 first stories, which I think is probably more than the three major magazines bought between them. You talk to people at conventions, and on the computer networks, and the ones who run workshops, you don’t have any trouble finding good new writers.
Getting back to your comments, I agree that Judy-Lynn del Rey was the most commercially formidable book editor the field has ever seen. But we’ve had others who deserve their fair share of glory, too. Certainly Terry Carr established his reputation for all time to come with the two incarnations of the Ace Specials. The only problem is that they constituted less than four years of a program, separated by more than a decade. I would say that for continued excellence — by which I mean picking those books that could not only win awards and get great reviews but also sold well in the marketplace — no one has an extended track record to equal Beth Meacham’s at TOR.
(And let’s not forget Don Wollheim, editing 60 Ace science fiction titles and Ghod knows what else every year. I thought of that when, during the Ballantine acquisition of Fawcett some years back, it was announced that Fawcett was paying 192 editorial personnel to put out 180 books a year.)
But even a fine editor is often held hostage to a less-than-fine budget. Take, for example, Amy Stout. When she was in charge of ROC, she simply didn’t have the budget to buy the writers who were eager to work with an editor of her quality. Then, a couple of years ago, she moved over to del Rey, and in the space of a few months she had acquired a number of Names who had just been waiting for someone to give her enough money to afford them.
But you know, Barry, you didn’t quite address my question, so I’m going to reword it a bit: do you foresee a day when a Campbell or a Judy-Lynn del Rey can re-shape the short fiction or novel field as definitively as those two stalwarts did — and, if so, what do you suppose those changes will be like?
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BARRY: Well, those are direct questions, aren’t they? I hate direct questions; because they implicitly demand direct answers, and I’d rather talk about what the meaning of the word “is” is, even though I’m not a veteran of the Oxford Union or Yale Law. (No politics, please, we’re science fiction writers.)
I don’t foresee a day when “a Campbell or a Judy-Lynn del Rey can reshape the short fiction or the novel field as definitively as those two stalwarts did.” The market is just too fragmented, the audience scattered, segmented. In Campbell’s time and even in the 1970s before Judy-Lynn del Rey there were one or two or at the most three or four kinds of fantasy or science fiction, and as Arthur C. Clarke noted in a memoir, “Everybody read everything.” There was a defined core, some kind of center: an idiosyncratic, strongly-defined editor placed at that center could create changes immediately felt . . . first by writers responding to the demands of the editor, then by the audience not too much later. The field as I understand it was so compact in 1937 that Campbell could make it over in less than four years. Even in the 1970s Judy-Lynn needed no more than four years to change everything, not only because of the obvious success of her line but because in her wake editors everywhere — magazines, too; covers took on a del Rey look — imitated her. Brilliant as they were, Campbell and Judy-Lynn were nonetheless predictable, their prejudices and preferences were clearly defined and work could be aimed at them. That — as you noted at the beginning of this dialogue — doesn’t seem to be the case with the present editors.
So now we have 124 kinds of science fiction and fantasy, redefinition and compartmentalization breaking the field into ever smaller segments and encouraging not one readership but a host of demi-readerships which may intersect with one another in certain ways and might, that dreaded term, be persuaded to cross over by writers with a somewhat broader appeal . . . but it isn’t a circumstance which could be shaped as easily (if at all) by a single, determined (even willful) editor as was the case in 1937 or 1973 when the 27-year-old Campbell or the 30-year-old Judy-Lynn del Rey could survey the fields of design, rolling to the horizon.
And yet, all that having been said, could Campbell himself have been predicted? Could Judy-Lynn? In the first case, science fiction was a small part of the pulp action magazines, five or six titles in a field of several hundred, submerged by the mystery and Western and romance pulps. Anyone handicapping would have made science fiction was more (or most) likely to perish, certainly to pre-decease the air war magazines or Street & Smith’s leader, The Shadow. Campbell had a penny a word to offer to an uninspiring group of writers, best typified by Arthur Leo Zagat, a prolific pulp writer who did some science fiction too, but with no particular understanding or sophistication. (Of the writers Campbell found in place, only Simak and Williamson were still publishing at the end of the 1940s.) And yet, as we know, he did remarkably.
Judy-Lynn was looking at a pretty-good-to-great backlist at Ballantine, none of whose titles except possibly Arthur C. Clarke’s managed significant sales. She was looking at a market for adult fantasy which Lin Carter, in a distinguished series with introductions to classic novels, seems to have definitely proved did not exist. She had less money by far to spend than some of the new conglomerate publishers — NAL, Dell, Fawcett — who had had a great infusion of cash. And yet, within four years, she had taken over the field. As I wrote somewhere or to someone when she died (venue and provenance of my work are slipping away; sometimes I feel like poor old Cornell Woolrich, “Did I say that? Where did I say it?”), by 1977, “If you wanted to succeed, you either did it the way Judy-Lynn del Rey did or you failed. There was no middle ground.”
Great editors (and even very good ones) are anomalous; they impose themselves upon conditions. Sometimes the imposition is so powerful that years later the historians miss the point and confuse cause with effect. (“Science fiction just before World War II was a field poised upon the edge of great success because the war would give us the bomb and enormous public interest in technology” is a good example to me of that kind of wrong-headed appraisal.) But at least in their case, cause is effect.
So if someone of equal ability finds herself in a position to acquire a great deal of work, such changes may occur. Strong editors clear the room, install their own furniture.
I have no idea what those changes might be. If I had a clear vision of them I might be such an editor myself; but I’ve never claimed, in editorial terms, anything beyond speed and competence. “I could tell a good story from a bad story,” I wrote a long time ago about my brief tenure in 1968 as editor of Amazing Stories, “and that struck me at the time as being the least that could be asked of an editor . . . but I learned in due course that, in fact, it was the most.”
Terry Carr was a good guy and a great editor who had two separate fabulous careers at the Ace Specials, separated by more than 15 years. That’s remarkable. It’s like David Cone having two 20-game seasons nine or ten years apart. But although Carr’s books were profitable in the long, long run, most of them distinctly were not in the short. Carr had an enormous effect upon writers, significantly less of an effect — at least during his tenure — on the audience. That doesn’t make him less great than Judy-Lynn del Rey, but it makes him a different kind of editor altogether.
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MIKE: You know, when you get right down to cases, there has been another sea change in the field. Problem is, it didn’t come from an editor.
I’m talking about mediabooks, of course. Walk into any superstore, and the mediabooks have their own shelf space. Just the Trekbooks and the Wookiebooks alone seem to constitute a third of the sf and fantasy titles these days — and most writers of category SF and Fantasy would love the mediabooks’ royalty statements, if not their royalty rates.
And yet (and I don’t think my memory is playing tricks on me) the first Trekbooks and even the first Wookiebooks weren’t the automatic kneejerk bestsellers that they’ve become. I don’t remember the Star Wars books dominating sales, or even being a noticeable program as such, until the advent of Tim Zahn’s trilogy, maybe a decade or more after the first of the Wookiebooks came out. And while Jim Blish made a buck or two with his Star Trek adaptations, the early Trekbooks — his, the Mack Reynolds novel, most of the Timescape Trekbooks — also gave no hint of the market domination to come. That didn’t occur until Pocket killed Timescape and began a full-fledged Trek publishing program.
So maybe the next truly major editor will be the one who, instead of picking Hugo winners or even bestsellers, publishes half a dozen titles in a three-year period that Hollywood picks up for big-budget movies. Maybe four will flop . . . but I think Lucas and Roddenberry have shown that you just need one major success to establish a billion-dollar spinoff industry (and in this instance “spinoff” of course includes an aggressive publishing program). Based on my experiences in Hollywood, which include selling a number of options and some sf screenplays in the past few years, I’d have to say that almost no SF writer, editor, critic or fan I’ve spoken to really understands what will and won’t work in Hollywood . . . so perhaps the first editor with a true grasp of Hollywood’s needs will be the next one to revamp the field. (No, I’m not saying it will be a Good Thing. Moral judgments are another union . . . or at least another dialogue.)
Now, you mentioned that you can’t slant stories and books the way writers used to, and I’ll agree. But that’s not to say that various publishing programs don’t have certain identities. For example, if I were writing about a war in space with lots of high tech hardware, I’d certainly think it had a decent shot with Baen Books. If I wrote a 1,200-page fantasy, especially with a strong romantic interest, I’d consider DAW. And if I were doing a book-length alternate history, I’d surely contemplate giving del Rey first look at it.
Okay, these houses didn’t create the forms that many people now identify with them, and they don’t publish them to the exclusion of all else . . . but the tendency of each house to like a certain type of story more than others is certainly there.
So I have a final question for you: is it a good thing for writers if magazines and publishing houses do have identifiable tastes and tendencies? And if you agree that many houses do have such tastes and tendencies, then does the editor with more catholic tastes stand at an advantage or disadvantage to those who wear their tastes on their sleeves? (Based on my initial observations about Gardner, I’d say an advantage — but is the corollary that the editor with catholic tastes must also have excellent taste, since he hasn’t got a clearly identifiable audience?)
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BARRY: I think you’re wrong about the pre-Zahn Star Wars. The novelization of the first film, as by “George Lucas,” sold and sold and sold. (Am I permitted to say that it’s my understanding that Alan Dean Foster ghosted the novelization and that this is pretty much an open secret in the way that it’s known by anyone who cares that the “Gypsy Rose Lee” or “Helen Traubel” mysteries in the 1950s — The G-String Murders and others — were written by Harold Q. Masur?) Judy-Lynn acquired the right to novelize the script while the film was in early pre-production (apparently no one thought it would be made; no other publisher offered on it) and paid very little. It’s sold millions of copies and of course is in print more than 20 years later. The re-release made it new all over again, and the second trilogy, all to be released within the next ten years, will put it into the hands of an entirely new audience.
Talk of editorial prescience. A lot of people thought that Judy-Lynn was just lucky, you know, fell into a backlist and then the Star Wars phenomenon, but if it were only a matter of luck science fiction and human affairs in general would have a different history. What did Casey Stengel say in the 1950s about Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling, who refused to try to pull the ball, who would hit 450-foot outs to the deep Yankee Stadium center field and then complain about their rotten luck? “Some of these guys complain about being unlucky, but if they don’t wise up to themselves they will be unlucky for the rest of their lives, which will be short.”
I agree with you that any editor who could acquire (not lease) a property or properties which became enormous media successes would be the most successful (if not necessarily the most “important”) editor in the years ahead. I don’t think this is likely to happen, however. It’s my observation that the really successful science fiction films have all come from original screenplays and that the adaptations have ranged from the marginally successful (Starship Troopers, say, or Blade Runner, which was a kind of critical success but which I suspect is still in negative earnings) to the commercially disastrous (The Postman, The Puppet Masters, Martians, Go Home.) Maybe the long-promised adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land will be the rule-proving exception. (Okay, Total Recall was a big hit, but that was based on a short story obscure to the audience base for such films, and it was Shwarzenegger anyway. Doesn’t really count.)
The next great editor will be the next great editor. Beyond that tautology I can’t predict; greatness, particularly in what we still know to be an artifact of popular culture, is so self-congratulatory that it is almost anomalous.
So your final question: is it a good thing if magazines and publishing houses (as opposed to editors) do have identifiable tastes and tendencies? Sure it is — and in that sense the DAW editors and Jim Baen meet at least one of the tests of a good editor: there’s a distinct and linking theme to most of the material they publish. Baen, in fact, has created what most writers and many readers can think of as a “Jim Baen novel,” and that’s not a bad thing. His impact would be more directly visible to the SF community if he edited a magazine, obviously, but if you put that to him he’d probably give a one-word reply — Destinies — and shudder. Been there, etc.
Editors who claim catholic tastes can have no taste at all, of course. Looks pretty much the same from the outside. Of course, editors with no taste tend not to publish memorable material . . . but Silverberg’s Shadrach in the Furnace, I remind the membership, was written under the commission of Roger Elwood.
So who can mark taste or influence to an absolute standard, anyway?
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MIKE: First, a quick correction. According to Murderess, Ink, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mysteries were ghosted by one of my very favorite writers, Craig Rice, and not by Harold Masur.
I’d also take issue with your stand on Star Wars — The Book. Not that it wasn’t successful. Not that it isn’t still in print. But it was a paperback original (whereas the first Zahn title topped the New York Times bestseller list and sold over a million and a half copies in hardcover), and it did not prove to be the immediate precursor of a regularly-scheduled line of big-budget Star Wars books, which the Zahn trilogy clearly was.
You’re not exactly wrong about the movies, but despite the fact that film and science fiction have been around for the whole of this century, Hollywood hasn’t really gotten out of the gate on adapting SF books to film yet — or, rather, adapting the right books (which absolutely does not mean the best books). There are brilliant executives out there when it comes to making deals, but almost no one reads science fiction, and they keep listening to hype. Yet more and more of them are starting to pay attention, not only to the field, but to the box office. You didn’t really have to be a genius to predict that Ken and Barbie Go to War — excuse me: Starship Troopers — would top $100 million US in domestic gross; just as it shouldn’t have taken an Einstein to foresee that Do Replicants Dream of Colorless Dystopias — excuse me: Blade Runner — was never going to find a mass audience despite the brilliance of the sets and Harrison Ford’s drawing power. But, in something less than giant steps, Hollywood is getting better at it. The problem is that no one will know it for another two or three years.
Okay, back to the subject of editors. In closing, let me mount one of my hobby-horses and suggest that it’s past time for a living book editor to win a Best Editor Hugo. (Only Judy-Lynn del Rey and Terry Carr have won, each posthumously.)
As far as I can tell, I am the only free-lance anthology editor ever to even be nominated for the Best Editor Hugo. Since Damon Knight (Orbit) and Robert Silverberg (New Dimensions,) among others, were eligible for a number of years, I consider that worse than an oversight and only minimally less than a mortal sin.
Now, I’m not saying that the editors who have won the Hugo didn’t deserve it — certainly Gardner deserves all that he’s managed to accumulate, and probably more — but I do think it shouldn’t be a lead-pipe certainty that the editors of the major magazines will automatically make the ballot every year.
But (I hear you — and everyone — say) the fans do the voting, and they don’t know who the book editors are, and if they know who the anthology editors are they tend to forget them from one book to the next.
Well, then, who does know who the editors are?
(Aw, you guessed.)
So perhaps the next time we discuss what to add to the Nebula ballot, we might stop fighting about Dramatic Presentation and consider adding a category for the men and women who keep us all in business.
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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the Locus Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with me of our collected Dialogues, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest. Along with 60-plus Dialogues, we have collaborated on four short stories.