Over at s1ngularity::criticism there's been a discussion of the value or lack of value of the digest-sized SF magazines (Asimov's, Analog, and Fantasy & Science Fiction), their current blandness or excitement, etc. It started with this post from Gabe Chouinard, to which I too-quickly added a comment of "Hurray! Yes! Down with the system!" or somesuch thing, being an inveterate knee-jerk revolutionary. As I read more of the posts, I began to think more clearly about my own reservations about the digests, as well as what I like about them, which, it turns out, is quite a bit.
First, there's a certain bit of nostalgia. The digests are what brought me to SF. It was a copy of Asimov's loaned to me by my mother's boss, who thought I might like such things, that got me interested in what "science fiction" is, an interest which has continued, with occasional breaks, for nearly twenty years.
But nostalgia isn't what keeps me subscribing, despite all my various inconsidered kvetches about the apparent lack of bravery of the editors (for all I know, they could be very brave people, and I, in their positions, would be publishing considerably worse material). No, I subscribe because there are a couple of authors whose work I don't ever want to miss, and because I like to see what new sorts of writers are popping up amidst the more established group. It's one thing to meet new writers in edgy publications, but it's quite another to see what new writers do in established, traditional markets.
Some people have complained about the format of the digests, but this doesn't bother me too much, though I recognize their difficulty in being seen on bookstore magazine racks. I like their portability, though I did prefer the size and feel Asimov's and Analog had back in the '80s to what they have now. F&SF is pretty much as it's always been, though thankfully the two-columned approach of the '50s-'80s is no longer with us for the fiction. Perhaps, though, the appeal of the format for me is also a product of nostalgia.
What, though, would be a better format? People have suggested the zines as models (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet being one of the most prominent), and while I like a lot of the fun the zines have with their layout, I still find the digests a bit easier to read. Perhaps that's just me. Perhaps I'm becoming an old fogey.
Gabe continues at s1ngularity with a post about the "placid core" and the "lunatic fringe" (great terms, though misleading, as most great terms are). Be sure to read the comments thread as well -- the value of the kind of generality-based, passionate bomb-throwing that Gabe has done is in the reactions it provokes and the discussion which develops.
The best thing to come out of it all, it seems to me, is praise for Shawna McCarthy's years at Asimov's. If we're looking for a model of good editing -- that is, editing which serves both writers and readers, and a wide variety of both -- then we could do worse than to read her issues of Asimov's. Or Cele Goldsmith's issues of Amazing. Or Avram Davidson's issues of F&SF.
There's no need to demonize the digests -- overall, each year they do produce a healthy amount of strong stories, and serve as the spine of the SF short story world, a world which is small enough and endangered enough to deserve protection. We need digests to function as a moderate mainstream, and we need the lively young turks on sidelines to be clamoring for change and revolution so that the mainstream doesn't get too polluted with its own effluent.
Finally, here's a question I don't have an answer to, and would love to know: How many of the writers who are regulars in the more avant-garde (for lack of a better term) small press markets regularly submit their work to the digests or other major markets, and how often do they get rejected? Are interesting writers not sending their work to those markets because they are more interested in supporting small press endeavors? If the digests are publishing repetitive or dull stories, could it be because they need to fill their pages and so now and then have to settle for familiar or unexciting tales? Blaming the editors seems too easy to me.