Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Editors: Gordon Van Gelder

Having spoken to many of the UK's SF magazine editors, I decided it was time to go international. Hopping aboard the glorious steam-powered airship SS Imperial I crossed the Atlantic in luxurious comfort. Over the skies of New Jersey I leapt from the craft at 4000 feet and swooped back to Earth using my patented retractable piston-powered dragonfly wings, landing unerringly on the office roof of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. There I was joined by editor Gordon Van Gelder.

GDJ: F&SF has a long and venerable history behind it. Do you find this weighing heavily on your shoulders, or is it more of a privilege?

GVG: That’s a good question . . . but I don’t have a good answer for you. Some days the magazine’s reputation is a great boon, other days it’s a real burden. I guess that when I stop to think about it, overall the good aspects outweigh the bad.

Back in my first editorial, I compared editing *F&SF* to managing the New York Yankees. I still think of it in those terms. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of such a storied franchise, but you’re also always aware that you’re part of a larger tradition and sometimes that sense of working for a big enterprise does grow heavy. Joe Torre left his position as Yankees manager last year and he admitted this year that the last two seasons hadn’t been much fun for him. I can understand how he felt.

GDJ: ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ is a description as well as a title and typifies the titles from the Golden Age. Do you think it adds to the air of authority? Would you consider ever changing the title?

GVG: I think the name has defined the magazine for six decades and I wouldn’t change it. There are plenty of other magazine titles available, if I ever want to publish a different magazine.

GDJ: People like short stories and novels for different reasons. What appeals to you about the short story form?

GVG: A lot of things. As you probably know, I was a book editor for a long time and I like novels just fine. What I like most about short stories are their concision (naturally) and their ability to strike quickly. A novel can be a bit like a prize fight that goes the distance, while a short story can be more like a one- or two-round knockout.

I also like the way a short story can take an idea and explore its ramifications without overdoing it. Some nifty ideas---a lot of ideas, actually---work well as stories but won’t support a full novel.

GDJ: In a previous interview you agreed with the general opinion that British SF tends to be pessimistic. Does American SF have any identifying qualities or does the size of the country result in greater diversity?

GVG: Oh gosh, I wish I could sum up identifying qualities of American SF. (You’re asking great questions, by the way.) I definitely think there is *a* strand of American SF that is relentlessly positive in its outlook. It’s the strand that maintains mankind will conquer the stars in some sort of intergalactic version of Manifest Destiny and it will turn the universe into a vast utopia. Time and again, I see American writers trying to tap into that theme, with varying success.

As for other strands in American SF, well, I’m not sure if this really answers your question, but it might. Last summer I held a panel discussion with Jonathan Lethem on genre vs. Mainstream and Jonathan said he was never really an SF fan so much as he was an enthusiast of a group of writers he termed “American Bohemians”---like Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson---and he was always interested in the ways in which they took other forms (like the Southern Gothic) and adapted them to the SF genre.

Jonathan went on to say that while he was never a big SF fan, his friend Michael Chabon was---Chabon was the one with the whole set of Gnome Press books and Doc Smith books and so forth.

It occurs to me that Jonathan’s answer might point up two major strands of American SF, but I’m not sure if either strand is inherently American.‘

GDJ: You recently received the Hugo for best short-form editor. How important is that for the magazine and for you personally?

GVG: Since we’re doing this interview by email, you can’t see the expression that crossed my face and you can’t hear my laugh. The short answer is that it’s not important to me at all. I’m pleased and flattered to get the trophy, but I don’t believe I’m the best editor in the field, not by a long shot.

How important is it to the magazine? Not much that I’ve been able to measure. It hasn’t brought us vast hordes of new subscribers or elevated the quality of the submissions we receive.

GDJ: What plans do you have for F&SF next year, assuming they aren’t secret?

GVG: Well, you can see some of them already---starting with the December issue, we’ve been running reprints in the magazine, each one introduced by a current or former F&SF staffer. We’ve also been running some special covers that artists created for the anniversary. And of course we’re planning a special extra-large issue for the anniversary.

I’ve also got a couple of other things in the works, but I can’t guarantee that they’ll come to fruition, so I won’t say anything yet. But if you’re online, keep an eye on our blog or our forum for the news.

GDJ: Thanks for your time.

GVG: My pleasure. Thanks for the interesting questions.

Unforunately, Gordon mentions that the interview was conducted by email. without that you would probably not have guessed that my introdcution was a fabrication.

Other editor interviews can be found on the left-hand sidebar, or you can read all of them here.

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