The Times They are a Changin’

Joshua Reynolds over at his Hunting Monsters Blog, weighs in on the current kerfuffle over Weird Tales. It’s too long and complicated for me to detail here and others have done a much better job than I could. Nevertheless, the incident has put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, including Josh who, as a result, has given up on his lifelong dream of getting published in the pages of Weird Tales.

Weird Tales debuted in 1923 and in its run as a pulp purveyor of tales of the strange and fantastic the magazine introduced readers to many wonderful authors, among them the two giants: H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Having a story published in that sainted publication is a dream held dear by many including myself.

But, let’s be honest, the Weird Tales that we can read today is not the Weird Tales of yesteryear. The original Weird Tales folded in 1954 after 279 issues. In that time it was no stranger to controversy. From outrage over the lurid covers to the furor caused by C. M. Eddy’s The Loved Dead, the original Weird Tales managed to remain somewhat less than respectable.

In its various iterations Weird Tales has acquired a certain degree of respectability, though, particularly most recently under Ann VanderMeer as editor. Therein, however, lies the problem.

It is highly doubtful that many of the authors who published stories in the original Weird Tales would have been accepted for today’s publication. If he had been writing today would H. P. Lovecraft have a forum for his work in that magazine? What about Robert E. Howard? Seabury Quinn? Frank Belknap Long? Somehow I very much doubt it.

Same goes for Analog (formerly Astounding Stories). How many of the authors who eked out a living selling pulp tales to John W. Campbell would make the cut with Stanley Schmidt today? Not many I’ll wager. Things are different from the wild and wooly days of the old pulps. The editors and publishers were individualists from various backgrounds. They were defining the genre and were not concerned about maintaining an editorial “tone” or giving the reader a “specific reading experience” beyond plenty of action, hair raising thrills and terrifying stories.

Today’s editors all seem to have graduated from the same school. They are steeped in post-modern literary theory. They have specific ideas of how a story should go and what the reader’s experience of it should be, This makes for a uniformity that sometimes goes right across the board — fantasy, science fiction, horror — as disparate as those genres are, the elements of the story become more and more the same. Many of the newer magazines specify in their submission guidelines that “…the fantastic element may be slight”. And it is.

It’s also a self fulfilling prophecy. Editors frequently advise writers to read the magazine that they are trying to sell to and see the kinds of stories that they publish. On the face of it that makes sense. You don’t want to sell a police procedural to a romance magazine. However, it also means that the magazines are looking for stories that are more of the same.

I think of it as the American Idol syndrome. The young hopefuls who audition in front of Simon Cowell and the rest of the judges are all hoping that they “have what it takes” but what the judges are really looking for is a very specific kind of performer and they have a very specific criteria for judging who gets through to the final. There is a specific “American Idol” shaped hole that needs to be filled. Deviations from that ideal are winnowed out over however many weeks.

Ask yourself this: How would Bob Dylan have fared on American Idol? Janis Joplin? Tom Waits? Michelle Shocked?

The fact that magazines have to face is that the old paradigm of anthology magazines is changing. The whole concept is being smashed to pieces on the shoals of the electronic ocean: the internet. Fiction available online is like one gigantic anthology and readers can pick and choose what they read, how much they want to pay for it (if anything) and how they want it delivered. That kind of freedom of choice can’t be matched by the table of contents of one magazine, even if they did put out twelve issues a year (an rarity these days).

I believe that the future of fiction is similar to the future of music. Experts and pundits have been predicting the death of the CD for decades. Traditional music venues are being replaced by itunes. One’s ipod becomes a unique expression of one’s individuality. This seems evident.

Experts have been predicting the death of the paper book for even longer and that has raised a great hue and cry from many (myself included at one time) that it would never happen. Well, with the proliferation of Kindles and similar devices and the closing of many bookstores and chains, that reality seems to be at hand.

Traditional magazines like Weird Tales, Analog, Fantasy and Science Fiction and others are finding their print sales dwindling but their electronic sales increasing. Eventually the mindset of the issue of a magazine and it’s table of contents as a package in and of itself will fade away.

In the internet age the web is a back catalog, a gigantic table of contents, from which the reader can pick and choose. The “packaging” of a monthly or bi-monthly or quarterly magazine will eventually fall away. That is the reason I have made my stories and novels available in this way. They will succeed or not on their own merits without the delivery system of a magazine.

Times have changed and magazines like Weird Tales will have to find their way in the new paradigm. They just have to try not to stumble along the way.

2 thoughts on “The Times They are a Changin’

  1. I prefer print books to e-books, but not by much. I read my first e-book on my kindle app around January 2012. It’s sad, but what you say may be true. Anyway you slice it, the whole publishing industry is rapidly evolving.

  2. Well said. Change isn’t always bad. For instance, I never would have been able to read any of Ash Tree Press’ back-catalog of out-of-print/extremely pricey books without them being made available in Kindle format.

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