I went in search of background on editors as gatekeepers in the science fiction and fantasy field and came up with an interesting text. This is Inside Science Fiction (2006) by SF writer, editor and SFWA Grand Master James E. Gunn. Gunn started writing science fiction in 1949, so he’s seen quite a bit of water flow under the bridge.

Anyhow, Gunn has a chapter in his book titled “Gatekeepers.” He reviews the history of pulp SF magazines, mentioning Hugo Gernsback, Anthony Boucher, H.L. Gold and John W. Campbell as early gatekeeping editors who shaped the definition and direction of science fiction by what they accepted. According to Gunn, SF magazines flowered until about the mid-1950s when they started to die back a bit, impacted by the pressure of novels. This declining trajectory was jolted in 1964 when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine. Moorcock, Gunn thinks, was the “last gatekeeper” for SFF magazines because he threw the doors open wide. This let in a lot of what would have been unacceptable just a few years before, such as anti-heroes, and eventually, New Wave science fiction.

So who are the gatekeepers now? Gunn thinks competition in the marketplace means that individual magazine editors have very little influence on the overall direction of SFF. One reason for this is the sheer volume of material that’s being published, and another is the huge popularity of novels. In the mid-1950s, the advent of the science fiction novel meant that book publishers took over the major role of shaping SFF. However, Jeff Bezos came along in 2009 and shattered that structure with the launch of Amazon’s publishing business.

The huge impact of free and easy self-publishing on the marketplace means there’s a certain amount of chaos out there. You can see from the published figures that submissions for some magazines run into the thousands every month. This means that slush-pile readers are the main gatekeepers for the major publications. Anything they think is interesting gets passed along to the next level, until it’s ultimately added to the body of published work—or not. Noted writers might circumvent this stumbling block by going direct to the top level, but most writers can’t do that.

Nick Cole’s story shows that novel editors still feel very secure in their long-running role as gatekeepers for what’s acceptable and what’s transgressive in the genre. To the list of current gatekeepers, I think you also have to add the nebulous groups the Puppies are accusing of influence on the major awards. Otherwise, why is there such a huge contrast between the Nebula and Dragon Award finalists?