News: Pro mags good, semi-pros bad

Monday, November 8, 2010

I thought SF folks and publications (in general) were all in this together, and tried to promote one another to the greater good. Especially when it comes to broadening the awareness of short SF/F as opposed to all the many traditional and high circulation review publications for SF/F novels, to the detriment of the short SF/F low circulation magazines (i.e. the prozines today) Ah, well. Maybe I'm wrong. Again. :)

Dave Truesdale

Although my involvement with the SFF community tends to be peripheral at best, I realised some years ago that, unlike many of the other touted 'communities' out there, it really is a community. In the sense at least of a smallish group of people, most of whom know each other, and who will help each other out both in a crisis and day-to-day. 'Pay it forward' is a common belief. Charitable drives or rallies-round are quickly got together for community members who are in trouble--viz the recent Twitter furore when Cooks Source allegedly used a writer's work without their knowledge.

So, when Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online complains that Tangent is being routinely overlooked by Locus Online, the natural reaction of the SFF community is to agree that we are all in this together, and perhaps something should be done.

Except that Mr Truesdale has recently left something of a sour taste in at least part of the community's mouth, not so much by his declaration that Tangent will no longer review the semi-pro magazines (except for certain, unnamed worthies), but by the reasons he gives.

Taken as a gestalt—the “smallness” and relative unimportance of many of the stories, the tired, lazy thinking on the part of many of the writers (primarily the new), the politically correct element (editorially, and in individual stories), and the fact that while I still love the good short story but I now desire the time to read more of what excites me...I decided to eschew reviewing the less than pro-paying markets to free up my reading time. My time is increasingly valuable. And here's a truth I was reminded of recently: there is (99% of the time) a clear and readily apparent qualitative difference between a professionally crafted story and a semi-professional (or less than semi-professional) story. Never doubt it. I've found, over the years, that while a few semi-pro magazines are quite good, the vast majority of them (and I hate to be so blunt) are akin to reading published slush.

Full article here

Making decisions as to what to review and what to ignore is the undisputed province of the editor, even when such a decision sits badly with the 'all in it together' flag that Mr Truesdale would like us to rally around. Yet it's not unreasonable to wonder if his stated reasons for dumping the semi-pros in a collective bin marked 'published slush' are sound.

We semi-pros are not in it together--it seems--because we're 'politically correct'. What does that hoary old phrase mean in this context? Mr Truesdale's nostalgia for the Golden Age of the pulps may give us some clues. Ah, yes, the good old days when women writing SF had to use their initials or male pseudoynyms, and when Ben Bova could confidently tell a room of women that they had contributed precisely nothing to SFF. Is old-style racism and sexism what's lacking from the semi-pros? Dear, dear.

We semi-pros are not in it together--it seems--because we only publish 'semi-professional stories'--an appellation that must automatically stick to your story once it's published in a semi-pro magazine. We have to wonder why venerable SFF editor Gardner Dozois even bothers to read the semi-pros looking for stories for his Year's Best series, if it's true that any such stories are instantly rendered second-best. We're muddy, we semi-pros, and the mud sticks.

We semi-pros are not in it together--it seems--because we're producing 'published slush'. In response, I can only say that it must be a very long time since Mr Truesdale read any slush.

Did we save the semi-pro Hugo only to be dissed in Tangent? What are your thoughts about the quality of the semi-pros?

- reddit, digg, facebook, stumbleupon, etc... please! ;)
posted by Debbie

38 comments; 6 subscribers

Monday, November 8, 2010 / 10:45:53
I cannot speak for Tangent but I am familiar with the situation and do review for them. The primary reality is that the number of quality reviewers is limited and the amount of material is vast. While there are semi-pro zines which put out good quality material, there are also many which take castoffs or lesser quality material. It's hard to separate the two without extensive research and effort and the quality of material can vary from one issue to the next. Additionally, I would have to agree that there are far too many cases of people pushing their PC agenda through their zines to the point that the fiction is not challenging anymore. One wonderful thing about the speculative fiction genres has always been its ability to challenge readers, not only with new ideas and imaginative images of possibility, but by holding up a lens to the contemporary world and asking important questions about its values, morals, beliefs, etc. You cannot do that and be politically correct because that kind of writing by its nature challenges people and pushes them outside their comfort zone, the antithesis of being PC. As a result, the stories can seem bland and almost factory-like in their repetitiveness of questions and ideas. That becomes disappointing to people with a rich memory of the history of the genres and a broad knowledge of so much of what has come before and how speculative fiction genres have functioned in relationship to literature as a whole and society as a whole.

I believe he also may be lumping in semi-pros all together, including many free e-zines as well. You would have to ask him that, but if you look at the vast numbers of such zines, there are definite differences in quality among them. It covers quite a range. That is not to say that all semi-pro zines are not of quality. But by sheer numbers, you may well have a higher percentage which don't reach the standards of the pro zines.
Monday, November 8, 2010 / 10:49:09
If 'we don't have the time' had been the reason given, that would hardly have aroused a single note of dissension. The reasons given however go far beyond that.

Perhaps you could link to an example of one of these stories that's been rendered bland by 'PC' so we can all be on the same wavelength.
Monday, November 8, 2010 / 10:53:24
Next time I come across one, I will come here and put a link. I read a lot of stories as Assistant Editor of E-zines for Tangent, and remembering one from another can be hard sometimes, as far as such specifics.

And I thought I'd noted the reasons went far beyond that in my comments.
Monday, November 8, 2010 / 10:54:14
Thanks :). I'm a bit puzzled about these free ezines that are being bundled in with the semi-pros. What definition of semi-pro is being used here?
Monday, November 8, 2010 / 11:14:50
This would seem to lump Weird Tales, Black Gate, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede and a number of other semi-pros as unworthy of review, when they're quite good.
Monday, November 8, 2010 / 11:29:55
I am not saying they are being lumped in, but since he is not explaining how he defines semi-pro, I assume they are. As I said, you'd have to ask him to clarify that definition.
Monday, November 8, 2010 / 12:30:18
Fair enough :).
Thursday, November 11, 2010 / 16:53:52
Spoke with Dave and here's an official response:

I have been asked to respond on Dave's behalf. I am Assistant Editor of Ezines at Tangent. The decision was made 90% because we are overwhelmed with the sheer volumes and have not enough reviewers to keep up with it. We have standards for our reviews and have had some people not work out, so the reality is that we've had even less reviewers than before as a result. Something had to give.

For 17 years, Tangent was the only place online where many of the non-pro zines even got attention from reviewers. But over time, as the mass numbers of 'zines has grown, demand for stories has led to acceptance by some 'zines of lesser quality stories, and this has been a frustration for reviewers with limited time, who, instead of keeping up with the best in the genres, instead must spend time reading lesser quality stuff. Dave, in particular, who loves science fiction and fantasy, has experienced this frustration. It's a feeling of missing out on the excitement and joy of good science fiction and fantasy writing because you just don't have time to read it. I'm sure many readers of this blog can relate.

It's a difficult and time consuming process to start categorizing zines based on a survey of issues to determine whose quality is consistently good enough and whose isn't. So we had to make a judgment call. And the easiest way to do it was along pro/semi-pro lines. We have made exceptions for several zines who have proven to have consistent quality, but many will be off our lists.

Most of us know that the majority of science fiction and fantasy writers come from a certain segment of the population. Most are upper class, liberal and white. As a result, the worldviews of stories can fall into the same narrow spectrum sometimes. It has been happening all too often as writers strive to write stories to please their fellow writers more than to challenge readers and push the boundaries. That is to the detriment of the zines and stories and has resulted in less boundary pushing, mold challenging stories. Dave, and myself as well as many of our reviewers and other fans, lament this fact. The issue is stories being about something. We love women characters. We want to see more believable women characters. Race, religion, creed -- not issues. The sex of the writer is not an issue. One of Dave's favorite writers (and mine) is Leigh Brackett. What we lament is the tired retread of the same white male Western narrator drawing similar conclusions and reacting similarly to the same old tropes. What happened to stories which reach out of the box or have fresh ideas? We'd just like to see more of that.
Thursday, November 11, 2010 / 17:42:41
Let me make one clarification, with apologies. I meant to say it like this:

What we lament are repetitive things like, as an example, the tired retread of the same white male Western narrator drawing similar conclusions and reacting similarly to the same old tropes.

Just one example.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 02:45:22
Thank you for the response :).
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 07:27:26

You asked for a more specific PC example. Running an issue of a magazine requiring every story to have a female protagonist. Asimov's did this, for example. Not a semi-prozine example, but an example of the kind of thing. Concern about how that makes them supportive of stories about women should be less the focus than say good stories with plots and original twists turns or takes on ideas. Running an issue with all women writers to show support for women writers being a higher concern again than quality and originality of content, being another example I personally can think of.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 07:38:08
A note from Dave T.:
A few clarifications of my own. I did not say that all semi-pro or lesser paying magazines weren't any good. What I was trying to say was that the vast majority of the lesser paying markets--markets I have followed for nearly the past 20 years, do not nearly match the quality of the professional magazines. I was careful to say that there were exceptions, and that these exceptions would continue to be reviewed. I have no intention of listing those we will continue to review or those we will not. It's simply not in good taste.

I think perhaps there are many here who lack a proper perspective on the overall quality of many (not all) of the lesser paying markets I have personally read over the past 17 years--and which Tangent has reviewed. There have been nearly a hundred, most having vanished very quickly. Without this perspective it is impossible to say that what one has read over the past few years is enough of a perspective in order to criticize my opinion of the vast number I have seen and read over the years.

I mentioned the PC element as but _one_ of several other reasons I tire of a lot of current SF. Here's but _one_ example: it is fashionable these days to believe in Man-Made Global Warming (not the same thing as simple global warming, which is also up for debate). Yet, in story after story after story over the past few years there are constant references to MMGW. Sometimes the global warming thing is the backdrop for a story, sometimes it is the focus, sometimes it is tossed-off dialogue that refers to some element of MMGW. If you read widely enough, you see that in far too many post-catastrophe stories these days that some form of global warming scenario is the default setting. It's the received wisdom of many a newer writer, the politically correct "take" on the issue, and whether you agree with global warming (man-made) or not, it quickly becomes flat out _boring_ simply as literature. Show me the stories in professional or semi-pro or lesser paying magazines in the past three years that dares to espouse that global warming _could be_ based on false data, is erroneous, or where a post-catastrophe story doesn't have some element of global warming involved. It's lazy thinking on the part of the writer to just plug in the same old, same old--and not even provide a new take.

Here's another example of PC in the SF world (not involved with the fiction directly). Recently, a huge hardcover anthology of original stories appeared, edited by two names well-known to SF fans. Both editors are nice guys. The anthology had 20 stories, only 5 of which were by women. Yet, on the cover there are only 8 names mentioned: 4 women, 4 men. Exactly equal. And this antho appears hardly a year following a major brouhaha where another hapless editor--through no fault of his own--had too many males in his own antho, and either one or no female names on his cover. He got all kinds of sh*t for this "inequality" and was accused of blatant sexism.

Editors are skittish because of a vocal minority who see sexism, racism, and all sorts of other "isms" in everything, when they aren't warranted. And I'm tired of it.

But what irks me the most is when, in certain blogs (I'm thinking of another blog right now, not this one) where an author--whom I've never met and had no dealings with--used me as a poster boy for someone brought up in the 50s when sexism and racism were much more prevalent than they are now, and who _assumed_ my attitudes were racist and sexist, and therefore because I liked reading classic SF it was because I liked the sexist, racist days of SF! As if all SF from the 30s-60s was all sexist and racist and nothing more. That it had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

This automatically equating anyone who likes classic SF as being a racist or sexist because _some_ of SF from that time was, is ludicrous. And false. Yet it gets spread around as truth by those with an agenda, and woe be to those who don't agree with their narrow agenda 100%, in every ideological detail.

So I'm tired of that, too.

Not all less than pro-market fiction is bad--but the lower down the food chain you go, it certainly is. Read it for almost 20 years as I have and then feel free to challenge my opinion. :)

There is a _ton_ of PC element in SF today. I've just mentioned one element of many in the fiction, and given two examples not dealing directly with the fiction. I am far from the only voice who thinks so.

But, the primary reason I decided to eschew reviewing almost all of the lesser paying markets was because I wanted to free up my time in order to read more of what I like, and have missed out on, for the past 17 years. That accounts for 95% of the decision. All of the other reasons--the remaining 5%--were just added incentive.

As I said in the editorial, I asked the review staff about this. With but one dissenting vote, and two who were neutral, the entire rest of the staff applauded the move, and agreed about the quality of the fiction. And these are the people who read it regularly, and widely--and some have been doing so for decades and have as wide a perspective as I do.

To go back for a moment to a previous subject: I love women writers and women characters. I don't care one iota who writes the fiction as long as it interests me, challenges me, both intellectually and emotionally. I really couldn't care less.

One thing I hate about current SF and the field in general is that (_some_ of) the writers and editors are being intimidated into making sure everything is "equal," when in life things are hardly ever equal. I'm tired of PC witch hunts when someone says something with which a few folks don't agree. I'm tired of the same old scenarios and political views in the fiction, views that have been written about for 40 years or more and might have been fresh back in the day but are intellectually vacant now.

Check it out: every time you read a post-apocalypse or some sort of post-catastrophe story in the next year, see how many times it has something to do with global warming in any form, and to whatever degree. You'll find it everywhere. And this is just one example of how writers--just from a literary standpoint--are lazy today. They aren't challenging any of the accepted wisdom, and if they do they'll be toasted for it. Sad, but true.

If there's anything else that needs clearing up, I'm here, but don't expect any lists of dozens or hundreds of examples. If you know what to look for you'll find them easily enough yourself. :)

PS: I don't mean to sound overly harsh here, but I tend to type quickly and to the point, which makes it seem as if I'm in a more somber mood than I really am.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 08:03:16
Thank you for your input :).

I have however to question whether males predominate in some venues 'through no fault' of the editor. Sexism can be unconscious--people can honestly believe they're behaving fairly while not in fact doing so. It's reasonable therefore to question why there is a preponderance of one gender over the other in a situation where it's claimed there's no bias. How then has that preponderance come about? I agree that it's lazy to jump to automatic accusations of sexism, but it's nonetheless important that the question be asked.

I'm interested in your point about global warming, although I'm not sure it's more prevalent now as a cause of global apocalypse than nuclear holocaust was in its day. Maybe there are just more stories being published, without the ratio of cause:effect having changed. Or maybe not :).

Thanks again for taking the time to comment. It's appreciated.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 08:04:26
You make an interesting point too, Efo, but I'm not sure there's much difference between consciously choosing all-female protagonists and unconsciously choosing all-male ones. The outcome is the same; the motive is the same; only the self-awareness is different XD.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 08:55:22
I think males predominate because in stories because males dominate the writing field. But that doesn't mean male writers shouldn't reach harder to be more unique in their narrator's voices. At the same time, I think it's also wrong to try and force fairness by requiring all female protagonists or all female writers as I said.

Of course there is accidental sexism, as you say. But there's often an effort to compensate that goes too far as well.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 11:54:46
But why do males dominate the writing field? There are at least as many female writers as there are male. Tis perplexing if you discount sexism, no?
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 13:00:03
See, I would disagree. There are not just as many female writers as male writers. If anyone actually counted them up, I think you'd see I'm right.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 13:20:36
That really doesn't seem like the case to me--but I hang out at a lot of different writing forums and don't even know how we could go about starting a census. I'm curious what you're basing your assumptions on, sample size, etc. :)
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 13:21:14
Certainly I doubt that the numbers would be exactly equal, but then that's not what I said. It's quite likely there are more female writers. But I'm not sure how we would count them--or if we'd ever be able to define 'writer' satisfactorily.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 13:40:13
I am basing it on experience. Do a general survey of the people writing SF today and you'll see predominantly male names in the stories. Are there females? Yes. Do they sometimes outnumber males in an issue? Yes. But not the majority of issues I have reviewed or read on my own time. And at conventions, men predominate in the writing seminars and on the panels. So it seems a logical assumption.

Of course, is this even really important?
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 13:42:04
Personally, I think it's very important. I'm also unconvinced that visible writers=active writers. The preponderance of men doesn't prove that there are more men writing than women; all it proves it that the men are more visible than the women. Which, in a patriarchal society, shouldn't surprise anyone.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 13:45:41
It's important insofar as you say that what is published is population-based, and anything that unnaturally deviates numbers from that is wrong. The argument is that what is published is not population-based but instead suffering bias either explicit or implicit, intentional or otherwise.

Arguing that mostly males are published so mostly males are writers is exactly the fallacy that is being addressed.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 13:58:43
Hold on. When did I say "anything that unnaturally deviates numbers from that is wrong?" I never said that. That's an assumption being read into what I said. I just said that PC attempts to compensate for that are being used and story quality often gets lost in the process.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 14:01:55
I think you've misunderstood kaolin, but I'll let him try to untangle himself. Yes, story quality can suffer from attempts to redress the imbalance--but it also suffers from the imbalance itself.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 14:22:16
Ah, now, that I agree with.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 14:27:17
Well I suppose if you didn't say that then it's not important to the argument. :You didn't use absolutes as such, and I have a bad habit of taking things to extremes.

I've been trying to find "all women" issues and came across two--one by Helix SF (…-sf-magazine-publishes-all-female-authored-issue-verdict-cookie-allotted/">ref'd here, with some good discussion around it ), and an Analog mentioned in….htm">Joan D. Vinge's biography, where her novella in the issue won a Hugo.

I do want to lay some of my assumptions as an editor down on the table, though:

1) there's more brilliant writing out there than I can publish. I can pick and choose from that based on any number of criteria and not hurt for excellence in what I publish--except insofar as pushing people away by pushing politics, perhaps.

2) We all judge stories by different metrics. Some people think that a barely intelligible story (due to grammar, spelling, what have you) is the best thing since apple pie because it has an idea they haven't come across before. Others have seen the idea done dozens of time, and others won't be able to get past the presentation.

The above said, I won't disagree that folks will latch on X and publish less-than exemplary (or less-than-targeted-for-me) issues/anthos. X could be anything--and there is a LOT of crap out there. Yanno, objectively, everyone would agree. ;) :) But I think the problem there is not so much the X.
Friday, November 12, 2010 / 20:58:49
Efo - I actually read your post initially on a different blog and commented there as well. While I disagree with some of what you've said, it's your editor's (publisher's?) original and subsequent posts that really frost my cookies.

The nostalgia factor, for one. It's not the first time I hear his sentiments about PCness in the context of some golden time when everything was just so much better. The current discussion about undocumented immigrants, for example, is rife with just this sort of pining. I hear it from individuals bemoaning the ways their neighborhoods have changed, and I hear it every time I turn the TV on and have to listen to Pat Buchanan or some other pundit expound about the obliteration of American culture as "we" know it.

I work as the managing editor of a small weekly Catholic diocesan newspaper and, needless to say, I've heard a lot of moaning there too - about those "wonderful times" when people when to church and were perfectly obedient to Church teachings and blah, blah, blah. Let me just say - as a woman, person of color and erratic (albeit, not a stone one) - the nostalgia, the golden years, were so only for a very select few. Ever.

I'm so tired of hearing anti-PC rants characterizing themselves as some brave last stand against totalitarianism or as the measure of authenticity (which is the tack your editor took). Come on. What "PCness" is (at least to people like me) is a thin veneer of civility. The chance, for example, that someone might pause to think before calling my daughter and me illegals to our faces. Or, the smidgen of expectation that when I'm told I act "too Latina" at work, I can, conceivably go to HR with a complaint. Or, that when my poems and stories are read by editors they won't immediately be set aside because they are informed by different conventions or experiences or "other" ways of seeing.

And, I don't believe the materialist quality argument either. I've read great stories in semi-pro zines and cheesy ones in pro zines. If remuneration were the measure of quality People would trump the New Yorker, and Stephanie Meyer would wipe the floor with Octavia Butler. I know which I'd rather read and review.

As many have commented, the sheer numbers of zines reviewed are a perfectly acceptable basis on which to make the decision Tangent made. It's just all the other stuff that rankles.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 07:26:26

I am going to cease to comment on this. Last night I resigned as editor at Tangent for reasons I won't go into here. Suffice it to say I stand by what I wrote previously. And I grow tired of everyone saying "the sheer numbers of zines reviewed are a perfectly acceptable basis on which to make the decision Tangent made but." But nothing. The man has a right to his opinions. You have a right to yours. If you disagree, fine, but people are acting as if they somehow have a right to demand something from him. They don't. And they won't get anywhere. But from now on, if you want to argue with someone, argue with him. I am done defending him.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 11:34:47
I can see one advantage of Tangent producing a list of the 'worthy'--it would be possible for print semi-pros to know whether or not to send material for review. But that, of course, is our problem.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 13:32:16

He notified the non-pros he's still reviewing. If you weren't notified, you're not on the list.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 13:36:50
Efo -

Sorry to have directed this at you.

Yes, your editor will do what he wants. And so will writers and readers.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 13:48:16
Kaolin, Debbie & Efo -

In newspapers, producers of niche papers or those who specialize in hyperlocal content (a lot much smaller, more quotidian and less signficant pieces) are faring much, much better during the downswing (or death throes, depending on your politics) of newspapers. The big papers -- especially those that once made their reputations on splashy, high end reports -- are much worse shape (advertisers have taken a powder, but worse, circ. has nosedived).

Does the pro zine/semi-or-no-pay zine replicate this pattern? What are the circ numbers (such as they might me) for pro zines v. others? What are the submission rates? Higher in one category than another? And does more submitters tie to more readers?

Just curious.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 13:49:29
whoops, typing to fast. "might be" not might me. And other assorteds.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 14:46:26
Well, we weren't notified, so presumably we're not on the list. That presumably leaves us among the mags tagged as bland, unoriginal, far from how we perceive ourselves to be that it's like being in a different dimension.

I'd encourage people to read our magazine and decide for themselves.
Saturday, November 13, 2010 / 15:00:34
I meant to say (hence I've deleted the comment) that unfortunately there seems little correlation between the *number* of submitters and the number of subscribers. Unfortunately!

Here's another mention of semi-prozines, GUD among them, on a more positive note:….html
Monday, November 15, 2010 / 14:34:23
I would like to point out a new reviewing outlet.…-boost-announcing-rise-reviews/

They appear to want to pick up the slack the others leave behind and fill the big hole for magazines not reviewed.
Monday, November 15, 2010 / 14:37:24
@snappr -- thanks =) They're on our list, and we have high hopes for their future. :)
Friday, November 19, 2010 / 10:41:51
As a budding writer who has spent a great deal of time in writing classes, let me confirm that there are way more women out there attending writing classes than there are men. Whether this translates to the totaly ratio of men to women writing, I can't say, but for those people who aspire to writer-hood in Vancouver, BC, and folloe their aspirations by attending writing classes, the ratio is definitely skewed in toward the ladies.

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