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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

David G. Hartwell

I got to participate in an SF Signal "Mind Meld" this week, to talk about a science fiction ship I might want to ride upon. My mind often goes in weird directions, and I decided I'd enjoy riding on a nameless ship one might happen upon wandering the world of Severian's New Sun, from the classic Gene Wolf tetralogy The Book of the New Sun.

As I sent my Mind Meld off a couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be nice, when the Meld appeared, to drop David Hartwell a note, and let him know that these books he had edited 30, 35 years ago, still resonated with me. I never had the opportunity. When I woke up on the morning of January 20, I was greeted with two things: the Mind Meld I'd participated in had gone live on SF Signal. And David Hartwell was unexpectedly, critically ill, news that had broken overnight.

Titles from early in David G. Hartwell's editorial career.  One look says it all.
Gene Wolfe was hardly the only great writer that David Hartwell had edited, The Book of the New Sun far from the only book he'd touched that went on to have a long impact in the field. His career spanned 45 years, and touched pretty much anyone who worked in science fiction and fantasy over that time. Besides many a Gene Wolfe book a quick glance at my bookcase reveals Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite, Gregory Benford's Timescape and Across the Sea of Suns, Philip K. Dick's The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and Norman Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale, all from Hartwell's years at Simon & Schuster/Pocket's Timescape imprint in the early 1980s.

By the time Hartwell moved, first as a consulting and then as a full-time editor, to Tor Books in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a professional in the field with little time to read for pleasure, and my relationship with Hartwell evolved. He wasn't an editor whose acquisitions I had much time to read, and instead, he was the editor I badly wanted to sell to, in large part because I needed only to look at my bookcase to see the influence he'd had on Joshua Bilmes. And as a professional, one of the things I appreciated most about Hartwell in those early years was the professional respect that I received from him. I didn't get that from everyone. Why would I, really. I was in my 20s, I had some accomplishments, and I expected a certain amount of associational respect solely by virtue of working at the Scott Meredith Agency, which was at the time a leading agency in the field. But David G. Hartwell went beyond that. He treated me like a peer. When I told him I had a first novel that seemed just right for him, he told me how he often purchased books that had that effect on people, and he seemed quite sincere in saying so.
The Tor Books cover for Outpost, by Scott Mackay

David Hartwell also gave the impression that he knew what he wanted to do when he woke up in the morning, that he had a vision for what he wanted to buy, an actual point of view. And again, I didn't get that from everyone. There are editors I've known about as long whose point of view eludes me still. Why be in this business if you don't have a strong sense of the mark you'd like to leave on it? When I cracked the Hartwell code and sold him Scott Mackay's OUTPOST in the mid-1990s, I was a very very happy man. I'd like to say that I went on from there to have this incredible agent-editor thing with David Hartwell. I can't. OUTPOST didn't do well, and he wasn't able to buy a second novel from Scott. I can wrack my brain and have a hard time thinking of the next book I sold to him, though my colleague Eddie Schneider recently cracked the code with something that's currently wending through the contracts process.

The publisher I like most will always be the one I've never done any business with recently. It's inevitable when you're in business with people that you'll get to have problems together. David Hartwell could be slow tending to his submission pile, a trait common to many editors in the sf/fantasy genre; and one of the reasons why we didn't do more business together. If we didn't think a project was tailor made for David Hartwell, we'd tend to steer submissions in other directions at Tor. We disagreed on the cover for the Scott Mackay novel. He liked it because it was appropriate to the Canadian market, which he was trying to cultivate. I was dubious; even a well-cultivated Canadian market for a Canadian author was going to be smaller than the US market. I thought if they could have gotten a 9-copy shelf display with OUTPOST by the cash registers at bookstores that people would pick up the book and ask to return it.

But it didn't matter. However much or little the business we did together, the mutual professional respect we had was a constant. We'd schmooze at his table at Boskone; there will be more than an empty spot in the dealer's room this year. I joined his children for dinner one night in Dublin during EuroCon in 2014. We stayed late at the bar in the San Antonio Marriott, and he shared his very clear opinion of the networking style of an aspiring author several tables away. The author wasn't being humble enough, he said, the conversations were too much about the author, the author needed to be listening more and talking less. It was a question of respect.


David Hartwell gave it, and he commanded and demanded it. One of his most important contributions to the field of sf and fantasy is exactly that. Many of the books and authors he advocated for, acquired, edited, nurtured, were authors that could command respect outside the community of science fiction and fantasy. The anthologies he edited were often designed to be boats landing on the shore of mainstream literary respectability, the stories they contained part of an attack on the sands of the beach that separated us from them. There always seems to be this neutral zone, the sands that the water touches as it goes from low tide to high tide and back again that separates the sf and fantasy communities from respectable literature, and David Hartwell never doubted that we could cross that strip of sand.

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