Confessions of an Editor

On Writing

Why is this dated? Well, I’m not an editor any more. I happily retired from that job in 1997. I am a writer first and foremost, and I was even in those days. Only people forgot that. They liked my editing and wanted me to edit more. They wanted me to spend all my free time on someone else’s work instead of my own.

So I escaped—just barely, I think.

This essay was written while I still edited, and its content is still very accurate today. Once again, my haphazard nonfiction records fail me. I believe I first published this in the Report as well.

There is a sidebar. I will post that tomorrow.

Confessions of an Editor
Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I write these things of my own free will. No one has coerced me; no one has placed me beneath a single swinging lightbulb in a dark, cramped room; no one has pushed pins beneath my fingernails. I tell you these things not to change you nor to get any sympathy, but simply by way of explanation. You see, in the course of my life, I have been called “difficult,” “opinionated,” “unreasonable,” and “harsh.” I have been called “rigid” to my face, and “bitch” to my back.

I am all these things and one more. I am a woman with a vision. In my mind, I hold the model for the perfect short story…and it is flawed.

Before we get to the model, let me explain the other terms. I was the little girl who always had to get her own way, the friend you never invited to the movies because my opinion — expressed during the closing credits — ruined what had been a satisfactory viewing experience. I am the woman who wants to know why parking meters no longer take pennies, and the employer who expects her employees to put in at least as much work as she does. I bow to the God of Deadlines, and I know that producing an issue for 80,000 people to read each month is more important than the Martian Death Flu that has me shivering with cold.

I believe in the power of Fiction the way some people believe in the power of God.

So I serve my Deity in my own way, and find it ironic that the very qualities that make me unbearable in life made me a candidate for editor of F&SF. And it is that editorial job which acts as both my personal heaven and my personal hell.

Heaven exists in the perfect story — in that piece of fiction which grabs me by the collar, pulls me from my desk and takes me to a new world. Sometimes that world is grim, and sometimes it is bright. Sometimes the world glitters and sometimes it gleams.

Hell is knowing I cannot buy the story. In my haste, I bought too many similar but flawed stories, not knowing the perfect story awaited in my mailbox. Or the story has little to say to the readers of F&SF who expect, after all, a bit of F or SF in their tales.

Hell also exists in the slush pile. Remember this: I am a woman who loves fiction, who believes in fiction, who lives for fiction. The perfect short story is an aria sung by Luciano Pavoratti, a home run flying straight and high against a blue summer sky. It is a moment captured forever on paper: a first kiss, a rootbeer float on a hot July afternoon, a baby wrapping its fingers trustingly around your thumb.

The stories in the slush pile share none of these things. They lack the sincerity of those moments. They are pale imitations. They are Handel’s Messiah sung by three-year-olds or batting practice on the first day of kindergarten. Slush pile stories lack distinction: an unwanted peck on the cheek, the fifteenth blueberry pie eaten in a pie-eating contest, the cold unbending hands of a china doll.

For my sins, I spend most of my time in hell. But that time makes heaven all the more sweet.

But what I have learned in this place is that no story is perfect. Beneath the emotional moment, beneath the beauty of the aria, behind the shadow of the baseball, lie tiny imperfections. The kiss is too short, the float too sweet, the baby’s hand sticky against your skin. Yet it doesn’t matter for those imperfections add to the moment, reminding us that we are human and that fiction is a human product no matter how divine we believe it to be.
In my difficult, opinionated, unreasonable way, I can — and will if dared — find a flaw in any manuscript, from Shakespeare to John Donne, from Toni Morrison to Ray Bradbury. But I will take no pleasure in it. The pleasure exists in the moment — in the trill of a high clear soprano above the cacophony of three-year-old voices, in the crack of a bat as a tiny ballplayer connects with his first pitch. I spend my time in hell, hoping for those moments, and I find them, although not often enough.

Being an editor is a difficult job for a person who is not afraid to be rude. For if I were not rigid about most things and bitchy about the rest, my opinion would not matter at all. When I find something I like, I praise it, I pay for it, I publish it if I can. I defend it as a little piece of the faith. And I only share with the readers the good moments. I see no reason to share the bad.

Copyright©1994 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch