Gordon Van Gelder is in his eighth year as editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), and his fourth year as publisher.
He started out seeking to become a writer, but that didn't work out. "For years," he says, "and I still make this self-consciously disparaging remark—and say it all went downhill from high school."
But the real revelation occurred between 1986 and 1988. "The two things that happened were conjoined," Van Gelder says. "One of them was that I went to work for Blue Jay Books in the summer of '86 as an intern and loved it. The following summer, I went to Clarion West as a student. After Clarion and after Blue Jay (and after getting a degree [from Princeton, 1988] in creative writing), I came to the conclusion that I did not want to make a living as a writer. I was pretty certain that I was a better editor than writer. The main thing I got out of Clarion was the self-knowledge and certainty that I didn't want to do this for a living. I figured it was worth it to spend the summer for me to learn that."
Van Gelder's work as an editor for St. Martin's, which began right after he graduated from Princeton, prepared him further. "The main thing it did," he says, "was that by the time I took over F&SF, I had a fairly good sense of my own tastes and a fairly well-established sense of the market from looking at books. I can still pretty much pick up most of the books that are published and have a good idea of how well they sell and have a sense of where they place in the market. Being able to apply that to the magazine has been very helpful.
"It also certainly helped me understand overall story structure. It happens to me all the time now where I get something submitted to me—a novelette, and the author doesn't realize it's not a novelette, that it's a piece of a novel—the whole story isn't there yet. I can see that clearly. The author never thought of doing anything more with it, but I see the character development isn't done or they may have completed one episode but not the overall picture. I guess those are the primary ways that St. Martin's prepared me for working on a magazine."
What's so special about editing? Why does Van Gelder do it? He says: "I think I've always been one of those people who says, 'oh, man, you've got to read this! This is great!' That's the basic fundamental truth of it—finding something that turns me on as a reader, and getting to share it with other people. Finding a new writer. Everybody glows when they find a new writer that they really like.
"I told Barry Malzberg when I did the special Barry issue that most years there are one or two pieces that really sort of tickle my pride. It's hard to believe now that there were editors that didn't want to buy 'Flowers For Algernon.' If you look at a story like that, you think that anybody can read this story and say it's great—you've got to publish it. I feel like I get a lot of stories like that that I would say, 'this is great. Of course we've got to publish it.'
"Every year or so, there are two or three stories that I look at and say, 'this is why I'm here. This is not the kind of story that everybody would publish but I do and I think it's worth it.' I usually get somebody that says roughly the same thing and says 'I'm so glad that you published that piece.'
"I mentioned Barry because getting Barry to write that essay for his issue gave me that sort of pride. Malzberg on the Scott Meredith Agency—that's one of those things that I'm glad to say that I was there to help make happen. That's one of the many pleasures I get out of editing the magazine."
There was a three- or four-month transition period at the end of '96 and the beginning of '97 as Van Gelder assumed the F&SF editing helm. He recalls: "Kris [Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who Van Gelder replaced as F&SF editor] and I didn't get off on the right foot in terms of the transition. I sort of got the basics from her, but I got a lot of guidance from Ed [Ferman] when he was the publisher. A year before she resigned, Kris had told me that she wanted a book-writing career and I got the sense at the time that she resented the time she was putting in on the magazine, which I think I read more into than was there. I had the sense that she was going to be happy to be rid of the magazine, but her ties to the magazine emotionally were much stronger than that, which is why we didn't get off on the right foot. I didn't get a lot of guidance or tutelage from her. I don't know that I needed a lot.
"Ed was very good, as I said, especially at the beginning of things—'We should be doing more of these stories, we should be doing fewer of that sort of story'—and we sort of had a three year correspondence on the subject till I bought the magazine. But if I could do it all over again, I think that the one thing I'd do would be to spend at least a month working with the Fermans on the day-to-day operation of the magazine—subscription stuff and circulation. That's where I really had to fly by the seat of my pants for a while."
For his first three years at F&SF, Van Gelder still edited at St. Martin's—trying to serve two masters. "People warned me that you cannot obey two masters," he says, "but it was working okay and I think it would have worked out even longer except that St. Martin's was sold during that period and the new publisher and I weren't quite on the same page. I think the last couple of years were okay, but I was finding it much easier to work for the magazine than to work for a big corporation.
"Almost everything I was doing for the magazine seemed to make more sense than what I was doing for the book publisher. I really don't want to dump on St. Martin's because they were giving me a lot of room and I was getting through a lot of great stuff there. When I originally cut the deal with St. Martin's to do both that and the magazine, I said I could see this lasting for ten years and if it hadn't been sold, I think it might well have lasted for ten years. It was okay all the way around."
In October 2000, Van Gelder bought F&SF and left St. Martin's. F&SF's then-publisher Ed Ferman was looking to retire. "He had a heart-to-heart talk with his daughter," Van Gelder says [The Fermans have only one child], "and she said, 'Dad, I love you, but I don't want to go into the family business.' And Ed, who went into the family business, said 'I can understand that.' So he started looking around for what to do with the magazine and how to make sure that it continued. We got together and he broached the subject with me. I thought this was too good an opportunity to pass up; it's never going to come by again. So I spent a long time putting a deal together and we worked it all out. There was no gap between when I left St. Martin's and when I bought the magazine. I left St. Martin's specifically because I bought the magazine and I knew I couldn't do both together."
Van Gelder says he "doesn't connect" with a lot of fantasy, meaning in particular Tolkienesque fantasy. "I do connect with the basic fantasy impulse," he says, "the impulses of escapism, of unreality, of 'things could be better than they are now, or worse than they are now, but things are different from the here and now.' I think what I don't connect with very often is what I see a lot of in contemporary fantasy especially—magic happens because it should.
"Was it the ctic poets that referred to the 'pathetic fallacy'? I sort of feel like the 20th century has the equivalent in the 'Disney fallacy,' that if you think hard enough and wish hard enough, and are good enough, you deserve magic and magic will happen for you. I don't connect with a lot of that. It's not the technical pathetic fallacy of the Romantic poets, which is specifically about the connection of landscape to emotion, but it's a good analogy—the 'Disney fallacy,' I think."
Still, Van Gelder says the quality of genre fiction being written today remains strong. "I was just looking over the 2003 issues and I thought it was a strong year overall. I know 2004 is looking like it's going to be on a par."
Certain trends are apparent. "I'm seeing fewer cyberpunk stories than I was a few years ago," Van Gelder says. "It's gotten to be more old hat. It's harder to come up with new variations on it. The other trend is virtual reality. I think I've bought only one virtual reality story since 1999. We have a whole different world where you can put a computer on your head and log in and once you get over the initial thrill of that, there isn't a lot there."
Another trend Van Gelder sees too much of, manifest since 9/11, is a focus on death. "A reader pointed it out to me that I was running a lot before then. Around the time of Dale Bailey's 'Death and Suffrage,' which I think was the Feb 01 issue, I started to notice what a dominant theme it was. After 9/11, it seemed like zombie stories, stories about the walking dead, a lot of stories with varied issues of survivor guilt, were showing up.
"I don't know if you saw that movie '21 Grams' which was all about survivor guilt. It's about a car accident and the driver who runs over two girls and kills the girls and the husband and it's from the point of view of the wife. There's one scene where the survivor wife has saved the last phone message from her husband on her answering machine and she keeps playing it back. My wife said that a lot of 9/11 people did that. They saved the last phone messages from their partners who called from the burning building or whatever. Then I discovered that the director of '21 Grams' last movie before that was a 9/11 documentary. So it was clear that he was working with those same themes.
"The July issue, the next one out, is a special all-American issue. None of the fiction was solicited for the issue. I just noticed a lot of different American themes and I thought that they worked together well and I put it all together.
"One of the main stories in there is by James Stoddard. It's sort of reinterpreting the myth of America as though it were a genre fantasy film. I asked him if the story [The Battle of York] was consciously written in any way as a result of 9/11, and he said no, not consciously, that he was more concerned about the Poems of Ossian [a compilation of Gaelic poems 'discovered' by James Macpherson. Some say they are genuine, some say MacPherson wrote them.]. James said afterwards that while it certainly wasn't written in response to 9/11, he felt like there would be a more receptive audience post 9/11, that there'd be more people open to a story with a patriotic element to it."
Van Gelder is adamant that science fiction, as literature, is as relevant today as ever. "When I first became editor of the magazine, Patrick Nielsen Hayden said to me, 'Congratulations. You're now the editor of the largest literary magazine in the country.' He didn't mean it as an insult. It's a good point. There aren't all that many magazines anymore devoted to short stories and to fiction, and we are one of the bigger ones in the country.
"I'm not even a pimple on the circulation of the New Yorker, but the New Yorker isn't primarily fiction. 'Is science fiction relevant to literature?' is one of those trap questions you can never answer because you're required to define literature. If you buy into the French theory that when something is defined, it's dead—well, I don't think literature is dead.
"I think what you're getting at is the whole 'literary-ness' of SF—literary in quotes—as opposed to the old pulp tradition of keeping science fiction in the gutter, gosh-wow, sense-of-wonder. And the overall answer I've been coming up with lately, or have been working towards—evolving—is that if science fiction is acceptable by the mainstream, it's doing something wrong. You can define science fiction any way you like, but there has to be a sort of—not necessarily a counter-culture—but an imaginative element to it that goes against the bulk of society, because it's challenging the status quo, it's challenging our assumptions of reality and normal things, and if that's not there, then something's wrong.
"I know I don't want to be a part of it if it's not there. A lot of people that want science fiction to be aimed to a mainstream sensibility think that if you can dress like them and can walk like them, you should be able to hang out with them. There are just fundamental elements that don't gibe.
"I've known Jonathan Lethem for years. Jonathan tried to have a foot in both camps—he understands both camps well—and I think fundamentally, he's a mainstream writer who 'gets' science fiction. I don't think he's fundamentally a science fiction writer. I think it's great that he's enjoyed all his success.
"Compare him to Neil Gaiman. Equally successful, I suspect, but I think Neil is a science fiction writer, or a genre writer anyway. Neil is doing stuff that is just not going to be acceptable in certain households, whereas I don't think that's what Jonathan's about."
On the question of modern science outpacing science fiction, Van Gelder claims a lack of authority—his "take" is literary, not science. "I'm interested in the way writers write," he says, "and incorporate through science and play around with it and spin out new ideas. For me, it's got to work as a story first and foremost. There are plenty of writers who are doing that. Are they keeping up with it or are they getting outpaced? That's beside the point to me.
"There was a piece in the news about a couple that were dating—I don't think they were married—and then they discovered that they were both from the same sperm donor. It would be a brilliant story, but the fact that it really happened makes it hard to write a story about it. You can do it, but it loses its freshness by knowing this really transpired. Someone could still do it. As long as it feels fresh, great, but if it's nothing but essentially a repeating of what I just said, it's not going to feel fresh.
"That's where you run into the risk of science out-pacing science fiction. But so much of science fiction really isn't about how we react to technology, how we react to science, that it's not that much of an issue. I was saying a couple years ago that I know a lot of writers, mystery writers in particular, who were finding it hard to write because now that everybody has a cell phone, all these plot twists that they relied on were no longer valid because you'd say, 'Why doesn't the character just pick up a phone, call for help, and solve the problem?' I know a lot of writers that are setting their books in the late 80s and early 90s so they wouldn't have to deal with this.
"I was talking about this to Scott Westerfeld and he said, 'Yeah, but think of all the new opportunities this opens up. Imagine the scene where a guy's out in a bar and he sees his girlfriend on the other side of the bar with some other guy so he calls her on his cell phone. She picks up her phone, looks at whose number it is, and puts her phone back without answering it.' That's what I mean. The advances in technology opens as many doors as they shut, so worrying about whether the technology and science is out-pacing the field—it's never going to do that."
Another trend Van Gelder notices relates to new writers—they're younger. But what does that mean? "A lot of the new writers that I was buying stories from," he says, "were of my generation—born in the mid-60s—like Charlie Finlay, Ben Rosenbaum, Mary Rickert, Alex Irvine. It's not like I was even aware of their ages when I was buying their stories. I'm trying to figure out what they're about, what they're up to. There's some bigger picture there that I'm not seeing. I don't know what the themes are yet. I'm obviously responding to them, but I can't put my finger on them. The danger to me is that if I do figure it out, I'm worried that it'll lose interest.
"Part of it, I'm sure, is that it's post-baby boomer stuff. No offense to anyone, but I'm really tired of reading how baby-boomers have dominated popular culture for the last fifty years, since the fifties, when canny marketing people discovered that you can sell to teenagers. It just doesn't make a lot of great reading for me to read fiction about how awful it is that Social Security is going to be bankrupt in twenty years.
"I can't tell what the post-baby boomer writers are about yet, but I think somebody's going to sit down and look at Ben Rosenbaum stories, and Jonathan Lethem's, and Charlie Finlay's and Alex Irvine's, and they're going to put it together and figure what they're about, what their big themes are in the same sense that the Lost Generation had big themes."
No "graying of the readership," then? "Most of the people talking about the 'graying of the genre,'" Van Gelder says, "are talking about their own graying in some sense. 'I read this when I was thirteen and kids today can't do this.' Kids today do read. Look at J.K. Rowling. Whether the science fiction that kids today are reading is the same science fiction that I was reading twenty years ago, that other people were reading forty years ago in a sense is immaterial, as long as the story is getting through to them.
"As for finding young readers, every generation is growing more multi-media. Sheila Williams was saying that one of her assistants sees the current music scene and the science fiction that he reads and all the pop culture as of a piece, but she's never really looked at it that way. And I have cousins who are fourteen and seventeen now, I think, and for years I've shamelessly used them as a test market, getting a sense of what they're reading. There are some books that were classics for me that they don't relate to. There are others that I feel are fairly routine stories that they really get into—but they are getting into them.
"Without getting into the issue of how do you reach new readers, I do think that kids today are readers in general, and I think that they're there, they're reachable, and the science fiction that they read should not necessarily be pre-Star Wars science fiction or pre-Star Trek science fiction or pre-Planet Stories science fiction. It's got to change for every generation. To stay in the same mold is just living in the past."
Still, Van Gelder maintains, "that when you're trying to figure out what the reader today is about, you're always going to be chasing after the donkey's tail. Five years ago, it was J.K. Rowling, so everybody is reading J.K. Rowling? I've got to publish a million stories like J.K. Rowling? You have to have the understanding that as long as you put the material out there, readers will to gravitate to it, but it's a double-edged sword in that if it's out there and they can't relate to it, they're not going to gravitate to it. It's a challenge to the editor and publisher to find those readers and to get through to them."
Van Gelder sees a limited impact by the electronic revolution on F&SF. "The impact has almost all been a matter of how we're getting material to different people. Foreign subscribers have really taken to electronic subscriptions. They don't have to wait two and a half months for the copy to arrive in the mail—if it arrives, if it doesn't get picked off at customs by someone who wants to read it. I find that a lot of foreign subscribers are more au currant on US publishing that US readers are. And in that sense, it's been a godsend. It's made material available to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't be able to find it.
"But it's not so different a medium that there's a message to it that's different than the print medium."
Van Gelder says his first year as publisher "was by far the hardest. Between October  and January  I think I lost fifteen pounds.
"When I took over in 2000, I took a vow that in the first year, I wasn't going to change anything. I wanted to make sure that I knew how to run this ship before I tried to learn how to steer it. The only thing that I changed in the first year is that I went to heavier cover stock."
Look for no changes in F&SF in the immediate future. "I have some ideas for things I want to do down the road, but almost none of them involve changing the magazine substantially. I like the size, I like the format, I like the content. The worst thing you can do for something that isn't broken is try to fix it."
Van Gelder articulated what he'd like to see as his legacy in his first editorial. It still stands. "I said that I felt like I was becoming the new manager of the New York Yankees," he says. "I felt like I was stepping into big shoes and taking a position in one of the best franchises, the best dynasties, in the field. I'd love to have people look at my years at F&SF the way they look at Joe Torres' years with the Yankees."
Retirement is not an option any time soon. Way too early for that. After all, "I bought the magazine almost four years ago now," Van Gelder says. "I like what I'm doing with the magazine, I like where it's going, so I'm not looking to change any of that. I've certainly considered other options down the road, but it's hard to think about giving it up right now. I'm not looking to rock the boat any time soon. I realize I've edited of the magazine now longer than Kris did. There's a 'Where did the time go?' type of shock. Also, of all the fiction magazine editors in the field, I think I'm the shortest tenured still. Shawna, Ellen, Gardner, Stan, and the anthology editors have been going at it longer than I have."
It should be noted that Gordon Van Gelder seems to be a shy person, not given to ostentation, self-aggrandizement, ego-puffery. It should be noted that he laughs a lot, often at himself.
So it should be noted that he laughed before answering the last question: "Any final thoughts?"
"I had my last thoughts years ago," he says. "I'm an editor."