Business Musings: My Magazine. My Voice. My Rules.

Business Musings free nonfiction On Writing

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I did not want to write this post. In fact, I would have skipped the topic altogether if maybe a dozen different people hadn’t asked me to weigh in. I also felt that I was one of only a handful of people who could explain some of what editor Sheree Renée Thomas went through this summer. She can’t be 100% honest without jeopardizing her job.

In brief, a U.K. author mentioned on his website that he had sold a story to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in July. Writer Christopher Rowe saw that notification and immediately asked F&SF why they were publishing this particular U.K. writer. Turns out he’s affiliated strongly with the National Front, a U.K. political party with horrible white supremacist views.

This all took place in public, putting editor Sheree Renée Thomas in the forefront of a social media shitstorm. Eventually, the acceptance was rescinded, which caused another shitstorm. She got no support in this at all from owner and publisher Gordon Van Gelder until he issued a very tepid statement at the end of August.

Before I go deeper into this, let me say that this sort of thing has happened hundreds of times before at many publications over the decades. In the days before the internet, it would happen in public after the story was published if the editor and publisher were unlucky. If they were lucky, they would somehow catch the problem before the story made it to print.

In those days, there was a grapevine among editors which worked about 50% of the time. The worst failure during my tenure at F&SF was when a male writer of great ability sent out his first few stories. When a male editor rejected him, he was all sweetness and light. When a female editor rejected him, this writer wrote a long screed in great detail about how he would rape the editor and maybe even kill her when he saw her next.

I got one of those. Every female sf/f editor got one.

The male editors thought our warnings were “exaggerations” and we were “overreacting,” even though the writer in question was a violent paranoid alcoholic who had been imprisoned for assaulting women in the past. The night of the 1998 Nebulas, during which his story lost, he got drunk at the event and tried to assault a friend of mine running the SFWA suite. Fortunately, others saw this and managed to stop the attack.

As I was looking up this man’s name, which I will not repeat, I saw a recent article by another male friend of mine asking if the writer was a victim of cancel culture because the man’s career only lasted until 2008.

Nope. He was published for a decade after that horrific event. A male sf editor even published another story even though he had been terrified by the writer, because he believed that no one should be judged by their behavior. Only by their writing.

He was wrong, as publishing learned with Norman Mailer and Jack Henry Abbott over four decades ago.

I have been quite reluctant to weigh in on the F&SF mess for personal reasons. I believe that rescinding that contract was the absolute right thing to do, and I will get to that in a moment.

But let me say this first:

I try very hard not to discuss The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I think Sheree Renée Thomas is a fantastic editor. She’s done a spectacular job at F&SF. I think she’s managed to honor the magazine’s traditions and bring it solidly into the 21st century.

I wish she had a better boss. But I have remained mostly quiet about Gordon Van Gelder. The transition between my editorship and his was ugly, with him sending a form letter to everyone with a story in inventory, telling them that the editing on their stories was poor and the stories needed to be re-edited. That was but one thing that he did when he came on board. The microaggressions continued for decades, including leaving me out of as much of the history of the magazine as possible (including the Wikipedia page, except as a name, until people complained).

The behind-the-scenes stuff got so ugly that a friend of mine, a big-name corporate lawyer, wanted to take my case for free because he said it was a textbook case of tortious interference. I did not let my friend or, later, another lawyer who offered, take the case because I was not going to edit any longer. I didn’t need editing work. If I had, I would have had to take them up on going to court.

But I was no longer interested in editing. I was more concerned with my fiction career. If Gordon and his friends managed to destroy my reputation under the Rusch name, I could—and did—write under pen names. I didn’t want to spend time in court, even though a few other lawyers (and one appellate court judge) who learned the story agreed that the case was a slam dunk.

But let’s just say that I have very little good to say about Gordon, and the lack of respect he showed, not just me, but most women in his orbit.

When he hired Sheree, I thought, Gosh, maybe being married and becoming a father helped him grow up. I was pleased that he hired a person I consider to be one of the best in the field. I was stunned that he hired a woman at all, given the crap he had said to me even before he followed me at F&SF. (He had bought The Best of Pulphouse from us when he was at St. Martin’s Press. That was…well, it’s another story.)

I thought of contacting Sheree directly when she was hired and warning her about my experiences with Gordon, but there was a distance of more than 20 years from my direct experience of the man to the start of her tenure. I thought that he had become a different person. After all, most of us change as we age.

But clearly, from his terse statements about a crisis in which he should have had Sheree’s back and did not, and from statements from Sheree’s predecessor, C.C. Finlay, Gordon has not grown up. He has just stayed mostly under the radar.

(Apparently, the problems weren’t, as I thought, limited to women. C.C.—Charles—had a nightmare turn as Gordon’s replacement. Gordon had bought the magazine by then, something that had always amused me, because back in the 1990s, he took the deal to purchase the magazine that Dean and I refused to take. The deal was untenable, not something anyone who understood business would have done, and eventually had to be renegotiated to keep the magazine from going under.)

(Please note that, at the moment, I am not linking to Finlay’s post directly because I can’t access it. I’m not on Bluesky, even though I applied to join after I saw the notice. Initially, I relied on a Patreon post from Jason Sanford for his Genre Grapevine column. I find it more detailed and more reliable than anything else I’ve seen. Then one of my Patreon supporters gave me access to this Google doc on the thread. Scroll down for Charlie’s comments.)

I have a very strong perspective about F&SF, about Gordon, and about some things that happened in the 1990s in the science fiction field, things that involved a lot of nastiness against me, partly because I was a woman and partly because one now-mercifully-dead Tor editor took exception to the fact that I was hired as F&SF’s editor instead of him, and took massive, continual action to destroy me and my reputation from the moment I took over F&SF onward..

For all intents and purposes, the behavior of that man, Gordon, and others like them made me stay away from the center of sf. Editors like Sheila Williams and Gardner Dozois, and others in the short fiction field, as well as some influential book editors kept me in the field whenever I wrote something, but the days of promoting myself within the genre confines and going to conventions mostly ended.

Fortunately, I’m a multigenre writer and could work in mystery and romance. Then indie publishing came along, and really saved my ass.

Maybe I’ll write up the history someday. Every time I gave an interview about it, with evidence, to people writing “a history” of the sf field, they said they couldn’t collaborate my statements and refused to publish anything I said, sometimes leaving me out of their books and websites entirely. (See tortious interference, above.)

So let’s set aside my anger at the past—an anger that, as I type this vague outline of all the crap that happened, has my fingers shaking and a decades-old fury rising yet again.

Instead, I am going to discuss an issue that people brought to me with great distress. Can an editor, a publication, refuse to buy someone’s work because of who that person is, even if the work is “good”?

I tipped my hand with the story about the writer at the Nebulas above. But I have more to say. You all asked me to respond, and so I will, but you will not like what I have to say.

To be charitable, many of the people who ask that question apparently believe that there is an easily definable thing called a “good” or “great” story. Or maybe even a perfect story, one that everyone on the planet will agree on. I wrote an entire book called The Pursuit of Perfection, which takes on that myth, and, I hope, destroys it.

To continue with that charity, I have to assume that most people who ask that question do not know the history of publishing. At all. New York traditional publishing was run by old money and/or family money. I wrote a long post about the history of promotion in traditional publishing but the post’s opening reveals the editing history as well.

The people who ran these companies were white heterosexual men, most of whom had not a lick of business sense. Nor did they understand the world outside of their wealthy East Coast bubble. Occasionally, they could be shamed into publishing something by people whom they considered “other,” like women or people of color, but for the most part, traditional publishing was about white heterosexual men for white heterosexual men.

When those publisher types could be shamed into bringing in other voices, those voices were labeled and placed into a ghetto. From romance and women’s fiction (which is just plain old literary fiction and/or crime fiction) to African-American literature to gay fiction, these books written by The So-Called Other were under a quota.

White people did not complain about this, even when they knew about it. It was “just the way things were.” Oh, if I had a penny for every time I heard that…

So when people today tell me that publishing used to be fair or it used to only publish good stories or it never judged anyone on their appearance or identity or actions, I know for a fact that person is white. I also know that they’re pretty much oblivious to the history of publishing.

The bigotry inside traditional publishing continues to this day.

Indie publishing is an absolute blessing.

Now it’s time to stop with the charity. The very question about the validity of deplatforming a white supremacist—as if we owe that asshole anything—makes me furious. Folks, why did this case cause you to ask if it’s okay to rescind an acceptance? Why not cases that occurred when a publisher learned that a writer was Black or a woman or trans?

What is it about this one that has you so upset?

But now that I’ve been blunt, I’m going to go back to charity for a minute. I’m going to assume you don’t understand editing and curation at all.

The title of this post should tell you everything.

When I edit an anthology for WMG, I edit it. These days, I can look up a person’s social media and see who they are and what they are espousing when they’re not writing fiction. Will I rescind a story sale if I learn that the person is a white supremacist after purchase? In a New York minute.

Chances are, though, that person will never get an acceptance from me because I learned the hard way that some people are dangerous and it doesn’t matter how good they are as writers, their voices will never ever ever ever get my support.

My anthology. My voice. My rules. You don’t like them? Send your work to someone else.

It’s tougher when you work for someone, like Sheree does for F&SF. The magazine itself gets the final word, not the editor. If you read what Charlie Finlay said in his post, he had to pay a kill fee out of his pocket so that he wouldn’t publish a story chosen by Gordon. A story Charlie characterized like this:

…a story [that] ended with a sexual assault and the implication that the woman deserved it. I didn’t see any way to rewrite the story to fix the problem, and I didn’t want my name attached to its publication.

I wouldn’t have wanted that under my name either. Gordon could have fired Charlie for this. He did not. But Gordon also refused to pay for some stories Charlie had bought and treated him poorly in other ways. I urge you to read what Charlie wrote so that you can see what Sheree is putting up with.

Sheree has to walk a tight line between her boss and her own voice. She’s been doing so for three years now. But this conflict spilled into the open, and Gordon, acting in a typically insensitive manner (at best), left her out to dry for nearly six weeks.

That’s the problem here.

Not rescinding the acceptance.

No magazine should ever be forced to buy something from anyone they find abhorrent. Or from anyone who espouses different views than the magazine itself.

Every magazine has a voice and a perspective. Sheree’s assignment is to maintain the voice of a seventy-three year-old magazine while making that magazine relevant to 2023. She has brought in new voices while keeping some of the old ones. She has maintained the reading experience for long-time subscribers and has managed to bring in new ones along the way.

She’s doing an amazing job.

It’s a balancing act that all editors face.

An editor of a book line about Jewish history would never accept a book from a known Holocaust denier. Nor will the editor of a Catholic magazine take an article by an avowed atheist who thinks Catholics should be destroyed.

Why on earth would you people think that fiction editors must buy stories from white supremacists?

It’s the same thing.

When I edit something, I make sure that I’m proud to publish these writers. Sure, we might differ on most everything. Some of my favorite writers espouse political views that I disagree with. That’s fine.

It’s when those views slide into violence, extremism, bigotry, and full-blown hatred—or into defending all of those things—that I draw the line.

So…let’s discuss one last thing.

I mentioned the history of traditional New York publishing above. It excluded (for the most part) women, people of color and gay people.

Sadly, those were the rules of the day. The money in trad pub came from white heterosexual East Coast men. They made the rules. They owned their businesses outright and they had the right to make those rules, as abhorrent as they were.

So what happened? People of color, women, LGBTQ+ writers all started their own presses, even before indie. And had their own bookstores, and published work that was so wonderful that it made its way into the mainstream anyway.

I’m sure there were rules at those presses too. I’m sure they would not have tolerated queer-bashing or racism or sexism.

So settle down.

If you want your work published by someone else, then you are subject to their rules. All of their rules.

Whether you like them or not.

“Business Musings: My Magazine. My Voice. My Rules.” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Ralko.

32 thoughts on “Business Musings: My Magazine. My Voice. My Rules.

  1. Thank you for making me aware of this interesting issue. I don’t suppose we’ll be hearing Gordon’s side of the story, as he is probably smart enough (a Princeton grad, no less) not to stir the pot of an ancient workplace feud, which, in the current climate, could not but redound to the detriment of both his own reputation and that of his magazine. I am assuming that he felt he had legitimate editorial reasons for requiring re-editing of those stories, and not due to some personal or cultural bias on his part. Probably something like this is happening someplace in the publishing world even as I type, without any other motive than to make an improvement of the product. Simply an occupational hazard, I’m thinking, and really not worth carrying a years-long grudge about. Heaven knows I would be in constant agony should I be intent on recalling every (assumed) injustice done to me in my long professional career.

    I have no dog in the fight, but I long ago came down on the side of “the art, not the artist.” If we “cancelled” every great writer who was simultaneously an abominable human being, much of merit would surely be lost. Your definition of “abominable” may differ from mine, but then that leaves the unreliable matter of subjectivity as an open sore. In the case of John W. Campbell, for example, had the cancel culture warriors been in business in 1938, we would surely have had no Golden Age, which I think no reasonable person could see as a good thing for the development of the field.

    Anyway, on a more positive (and more worthwhile) note, I have always enjoyed your work for its smooth readability, its inventiveness, and its unusually good character development. As I said, it’s the art, not the artist.

      1. Either he doesn’t care or *thought* he was being intellectual – but wasn’t thinking *that* much or he wouldn’t have posted this.

        1. Yeah. I only posted this so people could see the gaslighting and the prejudice that I had to deal with…that we all had (and still have) to deal with. It’s deeply unpleasant and to engage more than I did is playing their stupid petty little game.

  2. Kris, I hope that all your naming and shaming details will come to light eventually. Maybe have your literary executor publish them after you and Dean have shuffled off this mortal coil. Which means I probably won’t ever see them, but there will still be toxic men and RWNJ around and it would be good for the future writers/editors/fans of SFF.

  3. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing that. Very sorry to hear what you went through and what Sheree is going through now.

  4. I don’t know if anyone will see this but I found this article via BlueSky. We are slowly building a community of authors and readers over there. Some friends and I have been giving away codes to authors who are stuck on the waiting list. As of now we have 7 codes left with more coming every two weeks. If any authors still on Twitter would like a code, you can contact @prosewitch. The only requirements are please have a Twitter account prior to 2016 (the beginning of the end times) and be an author, indie or trad or whatever, no genre restrictions, just be a human writer and not a bot or corporate account. Twitter is no longer a safe place for anyone with a soul.

  5. Thank you for speaking out, Kris. I know you’ve never made a secret of the fact that there were issues when you left F&SF, but you have always been very circumspect. I think that at this point it’s important for everyone to know the types of things (if not the details) of what went on. Also, thank you for linking to the document with the Bluesky threads. I am also waiting on an invite to join and was glad to be able to read the information in a better format than the blog you originally linked to.

  6. Wow! Hard to express how sad and angry all this BS makes me, and I’m whiter than Wonder Bread. I hope I never fail to take white supremacy to task, and I knew for sure that you wouldn’t. Thank you, Kris.

  7. Bravo, Kris!

    Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned a debate about whether Nazis–any debate, whatsoever–should get a seat at the table. Not in my lifetime.

    Yet, here we are.

    1. Kat: Oh, it happens *way* more often than you think. As a Black person, I get to hear this convo *way* too many times and it’s usually in the vein of “Why are *you* being prejudiced against a person who hates your very existence (and would support any preferably violent removal from said existence against you. Vehemently.). They’re a *good* person/writer/artist/friend/etc. You need to broaden your worldviews and let [the Nazi] be.” They tend to have a massive league of supporters and enablers … who magically like to pretend they have gone deaf, amnesiac and blind should anything, big or small, go south.

      If anything, it’s an *extremely* common topic in my experience. Complete with Enabler’s Blustering and things like that. Because their belief is “have a Nazi or Nazi type? Remove the people they hate and bingo! No more problems! No more complaints! Everyone happy.” And it looks all quiet. [It’s also the basic recipe of how to make a regular bar turn into a Nazi bar.] But, as the vast majority of BIPoC has noticed, it’s a too-common topic that keep coming back again and again, to say the least

  8. As Black writers such as myself usually say: Sounds about White. ?????

    It’s literally zero surprise that this is the turbulence at F&SF. It painted itself for the *longest* time to anyone who wasn’t White in subtle and overt ways from the cover to the stories that it publisher that F&SF was what’s considered a White publication. As with any primarily White SF/F publication (read: almost all of them), the people there may look like a Klan rally at Burning Man, just add funky, wild dyed silver hair, who say pretty (but very empty) words – but they tend to be the same White Het East (and sometimes West) Coast types. Even I ran into them constantly as a teenager & young adult at a Book festival and they treated any pointing out that they’re a White publication as if it was worse to be called a racist than it is to be one. I doubt I have ever subbed to them because the abysmally low number of diverse stories accepted over their history (I have a better chance getting struck by lighting, frankly), thus it just makes the effort simply not worth it.

    In all honesty, not a single Black- or PoC-only writing group I am part of even *mentions* F&SF, it’s *that* out to pasture. And among other mags that are heavily White (but have pretty DEIs that I assume are just writing practice prompts because they sure don’t really adhere to them unless in trouble, from my perspective) the reception is about the same.

    A publication that has been so staunchly White accepting a White supremacist’s story is not at all surprising to me. The difficulty to rescind it is not at all surprising to me. The lukewarm response from Gordon is not at all surprising to me. Letting Thomas play Token Negro Human Shield for over a month is not at all surprising to me. It’s all about skill and “good writing” untill that skill comes in a shade besides White. Naomi Wu put it best: “it’s all about merit until merit has tits.” Super textbook. If F&SF was *genuinely* about “good writing” and not “‘good writing’ – preferably from a particular group of people that we *always* feature and collect”, then it would look radically different and much more diverse than what it does now so anyone fussing “oh, they have to pick based on writing, not on person” is delivering a moot and phony point and by someone who is most likely White. F&SF has rejected almost anyone who had amazing work but wasn’t from the European diaspora (or simply lacked a dick, or simply weren’t straight – or some combination of the three) during their long history so they can reject or rescind a White supremacist and find someone better as replacement *easily*.

    If anything, I remember thinking that this would happen when Thomas first was announced to the job. She got picked up not by people who *can’t* see their blindspots, but by people who are very good at pretending they can’t see so you can be their bumper and walking airbag for when it all comes to a crash. The dogpiling I saw on her was also all very textbook because of course the writers, who were overwhelmingly White, were upset she couldn’t rescind the story and played the “You’re Black, how could you do such a thing [that we literally created through structure and design like a Double Dare surprise tournament constructed by Jigsaw and melded in place for *decades* so either you were going to get snagged or you were going to get snagged anyways]” card. That has *got* to be stressful for her. It seems like she just wanted to do her job, which is a job that has some things she simply can’t do since she’s editor and not owner.

    1. First, hats off to Kris for shedding light on an ugly situation. Jojoba, thank you for adding for a spotlight from your own unique angle. Speaking as an immigrant from Eastern Europe who writes, but who’s new to the short story magazine ecosystem, what are your favorite magazines that show a good, inclusive author mix?
      When I came to America as an unruly teenager, I was sold on the concept because they told me America is a free country where anyone can become whatever they want (I learned about the small print only much later. I also discovered I cannot become an Apache chief who rides the west and sets right all wrongs – we call that appropriation nowadays.)
      I have moderated my old motto “I am in Amerika and I can do whatever I want!” Now I allow for municipal sensitivities against harmless things like, say, skinny dipping. I allow for what’s realistic, both physically and temporally. But my writing life is governed by my motto, which raised some family eyebrows over the years. To give my father credit, he read all my books, even the gay romance ones.
      I can write whatever I want – but not everyone has to like it. And that’s okay.
      My question to you stands: what are your favorite fiction mags that represent our entire population?

      1. Kate, good question because currently, it’s mostly no one. It’s usually pretty White unless a magazine is created for BIPoC. All the long standing mags are definitely non diverse for the most part.

        I usually check the Black In Spec Fic report when it comes to finding people to submit to and I ignore anyone under 10% Black authors/stories (excluding reprints). Thing is, everyone is dismal, especially the long standing ones. So it’s like finding out which water has least amount of lead to drink – but rest assured, they all have lead in their water and quite a bit of it.

  9. Well said! This reminds me of the Sad Puppy debacle of a few years ago. The people who want us to listen to Nazis are the same folks who will shriek about Black Lives Matter.

  10. I have a short story in progress that I originally hoped to send to F&SF.

    With the latest reports of slow payments and responses, as well as what you discuss here, I’m torn.

    The issue is not with Sheree Thomas, but with the man signing the checks.

    The publisher’s response was, in fact, tepid as you say. Generic platitudes, and he can’t even bring himself to actually name his editor.

    It’s always been a dream of mine to be published in the pages of F&SF, but if dealing with said publisher is part of the package, I may have to reconsider fulfilling that dream.

  11. Thank you for your clear history (and on-going) writing about the reality of publishing. I hope enough people read your piece and CC Finlay so they can stop blaming the editor for the issues that are not in their control.

  12. I keep hearing the phrase “separate art from the artist” in the broader discussion.

    SAFA is a postmodern idea created for types of literary analysis. Jerks grabbed it from the college lit major toolbox and used it to excuse their actions. Then it caught on.

    It’s not a standard anywhere except in literature neepery. Throughout history, art and artist were indistinguishable. Good art is the most personal expression of a person’s truth.

    Signed, a Literature Neeper.

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