A conversation I've sometimes considered starting myself has begun over at the Nightshade message boards: "The Resurgence of the Small Press Zine". It's an innocuous enough title, but the discussion quickly grew to be an important one: Are the small press magazines publishing high-quality work that should, but does not, get published in larger markets, or are the small press zines publishing work that is interesting only to a very small audience?
Some of the participants in this discussion include Sean Wallace (of Prime Books, Ellen Datlow (of SciFiction, Gordon van Gelder of (Fantasy & Science Fiction), Tim Pratt (of Flytrap), Jeff VanderMeer, Theodora Goss, Jeff Ford,Lucius Shepard, Mikal Trimm, and others.
I have been very close to writing something about this subject and held off at the last minute, because I didn't feel like I had enough information or perspective. It's easy to point to all the great writers that F&SF or Asimov's hasn't published, but the reasons tend to be many and complex, and both those magazines have published authors you might not expect to find there. Some writers don't submit at all to the major markets, some writers are truly terrible at judging which of their stories are best for which editors, and editors often think as much about the balance of the work they're publishing as any one particular story. And then there are readers. It's easy for me to say, "Publish more weird stuff!" -- I don't have to keep advertisers, owners, readers, etc. happy, or try to make some sort of profit. Check out the message boards for Asimov's or F&SF if you want to see the diversity of readerly opinions that these editors are trying to appeal to. I was stunned to see how infuriated some readers got with Mary Rickert's story "Cold Fires", a story I thought was one of the best of 2004, in or out of the SF field.
It's easy to beat up on editors, since they are the ones most obviously in charge of choosing what goes into an issue of a magazine. Putting some pressure on them does have value, and I don't intend to stop, because it may be a way of counteracting the pressure editors get from people who just want stories that feel like they could have been published fifty years ago. What we may need to appeal to more than the editors, though, are the readers, because if an editor publishes something and it causes lots of lost subscriptions and no new ones, then there's no reason for the editors to change. All the SF magazines have declining circulations right now, at least according to the most recent Locus summary. Taking too many risks could be deadly. Places like F&SF and Realms of Fantasy that really do try for some balance between more traditional work and more innovative work deserve support (and, of course, websites like SciFiction and Strange Horizons, though they face somewhat different circumstances than print mags).
So here's today's little something to be celebrated: Mary Rickert's "The Harrowing" is the cover story of the April F&SF, a fact that deserves happy hoots and hollers, because regardless of whether you consider her work "traditional" or "innovative", she's a remarkable writer, and F&SF has consistently and loyally given her a home, despite some very perplexed and even angry readers. A new Rickert story always makes my day brighter, and so I thank Gordon van Gelder and his staff (don't forget our beloved, venerable, and all-knowing Slush God) for providing a venue for such a marvelous writer.
I've got a list of a few more who would be nice company....