Part 2 and part 3|
appear in this issue.
|part 1 of 3|
Lewayne L. White interviews publisher Jerry Wright and copy editor Don Webb in anticipation of Bewildering Stories’ fourth anniversary.
Lewayne: To begin with, where did Bewildering Stories come from? Obviously there are pat answers like “started as a joke” and “slush sensibility,” but what really happened? Whose idea was it, how did you connect and begin what would become Bewildering Stories?
Don: I confess. It was my idea. Where did it come from? The Analog forum had been discussing print magazines’ “slush piles.” The consensus seemed to be that the handful of magazines were swamped by submissions and could accept only a limited number. The odds against acceptance were — and are — astronomical.
Jerry: Don made the comment that there should be a place for people to get their failed stories published, stories that couldn’t make it out of the slush. He said, and I quote: “Our editor says, “Read the rejects! Calling all writers! Read the best of the worst, the bad-to-middlin’ and the absolutely atrocious! Top ’em and you stand half a chance to make a sale!” And it could be called “Bewildering Stories.”
Don: Egads... did I say that? I cringe. But the conversation was good-natured, and a little ironic humor seemed to relieve a certain sense of frustration at the time.
Jerry: I took the idea, and as a joke registered the name with GoDaddy, and set up a quick and dirty website (with a purple background, as in “purple prose”) and called for submissions over at the Analog board. The first person to actually send something was Thomas R. What he sent wasn’t really a story but more the outline for a story.
Don: I also had a couple of questions in mind that arose out of the Analog forum conversation:
What to call this hypothetical website? Something high in the alphabet. All the a’s seemed to have been taken. What’s a snazzy title in the b’s? Aha: Bewildering Stories! And the rest is history, as Jerry has told it.
I also had an ulterior motive:
Do magazines like Analog and Asimov’s print all the best that is being written? That’s it? Is all the rest dross? No one believed that for a minute.
For many reasons, too few magazines are printing science fiction these days. The public sees in print only what’s funneled through a handful of editors, who define the genre as it is today.
Such a narrow pipeline risks starving the field of diversity. The consequence may be a narrowing of vision, conformity, and, ultimately, stagnation. As I recall, that thought was motivated by someone in the Caribbean asking one of the forums where the unconventional, avant-garde literature was.
Lewayne: Did you experience difficulties at the beginning, either technically or creatively?
Jerry: Right after the first issue, I got an email from a fellow that had been frequenting the various forums. His pseudonym on the boards was “The Invincible Spud, the self-appointed Official Vegetable of Science Fiction” and shortly after the first issue appeared, he wrote me and asked if he could redesign the website. Which he did; in black, with green text.
As to contributors, it varied wildly. We publish Sunday night/Monday morning, and often we would publish something that came in that Sunday.
When Spud’s college work became too heavy a load, I got with Don and asked for help. And got it in spades. Without the yeoman work that Don has done the last four years with editing and web redesign we wouldn’t be anywhere near the magazine we are now. In fact, we probably wouldn’t be publishing.
I want to be the first to say that in all my on-line conversations with “The Invincible Spud” I found him to be a brilliant young man. He easily grasped the intricacies of HTML and knew how to imitate a website. That made it possible for him to set up Bewildering Stories and make it more than a nice idea.
However, he was laboring under the same handicap as the rest of us: inexperience. None of us realized at the time that the website model he’d borrowed was the worst possible choice.
The problem was that it used frames. Frames are now “deprecated” — obsolescent — in HTML. They’re still serviceable for private and educational websites, but they’re a disaster for public ones like Bewildering Stories.
The reason is that while frames make it easy to navigate within a website, they also make it opaque to Net indexers. Google, Yahoo, and others could find Bewildering Stories, all right, but they couldn’t get in; they couldn’t find anything inside it. That was a terrible drawback to our contributors.
Spud soon left to go to college. Over several months I managed to teach myself a lot of HTML, enough to enable us to “go frameless,” as we put it. The transformation was achieved in the 90’s issues. Jerry and I worked on it very hard together, and I think we were both holding our breath lest we and the whole website warble off into another dimension or something. But it worked.
As a consequence, the issues of Year 1 and most of Year 2 are in an obsolete format. I’ve “modernized” some files, but updating everything would be an impossible task.
Lewayne: Was it a challenge getting enough material to produce a regular webzine, or to get the public to read it?
Don: Bewildering Stories has gone through several important phases:
1. The first issues were basically trial runs.
2. Kate Bachus sent us a couple of essays and noted that the mission statement on our home page was too modest, to say the least, and didn’t do justice to the contributors. Jerry is the best one to tell us about that...
Jerry: Actually, our present concept and purpose was forced upon us by Kate Bachus. She had written a fine article called “Magnificent Desolation” in the Asimov’s forum. I emailed her and asked her if we could reprint it. Her response was that she didn’t want her article published in a magazine where the masthead read “Read the rejects!”
Don and I got together and realized that we really weren’t “publishing the rejects.” The quality of submitted stories had risen dramatically since shortly after the beginning, and we were even publishing ‘real authors’ who had actually written and been published in real books. So it was time for a change.
Don: In what turned out to be the third stage, Spud suggested we publish a translation of Voltaire’s «Micromégas», a philosophical short story important in science fiction and the history of ideas. It even predicted the two moons of Mars before they were discovered. A good idea, but I noted that translations were already plentiful on the Net and that we wouldn’t be adding much.
I then looked for Cyrano’s Voyage to the Moon. Like most students, I’d read an excerpt or two, but only specialists knew what it really was. It turned out to be one of those books that are frequently talked about but nobody has read. And there was no English version on the Net. I began translating it in issue 27 and the rest, as they say, is history. The Other World became our “flagship” publication and a powerful motivation for me to help make Bewildering Stories attractive.
4. We adopted a “readers first” policy. We avoid website design for its own sake. We want Bewildering Stories to be easy to read and navigate. We changed the color scheme, and that took a lot of work. The original green on black — apparently borrowed from the original website model — made texts practically illegible. Also, the Times font families are primarily printer fonts rather than screen fonts. We let our readers view our pages in the fonts of their own browser preferences.
5. We “went frameless,” which I’ve already talked about. Since then, a lot of streamlining has been done gradually behind the scenes. We’re still working on it.
6. We began adding review editors. Mike Lloyd’s Author & Title index deserves a special salute, and together the editors have contributed more to Bewildering Stories than I can begin to enumerate. Katherine Allen, Ian Arbuckle, Mike Lloyd, Danielle Parker and Carmen Ruggero have all done great work in their own ways and are like family to us.
Lewayne: What’s the deal with “Invincible Spud” and some of the other creatively named contributors like “Diphosphorus Pentoxide,” “Anonymous Bosch,” “Splendiferopundit Etherflux,” and “Avenger Scientist, Polyethylene Polymer XXXVII?” Though Spud is referred to as a “fictional staffer” in some descriptions of BwS he’s clearly a real person, as, presumably, are the others listed above.
Are they still involved with BwS, under other names? I suppose I’m asking if you know “Where Are They Now?” or if they realize that their work provided a foundation for a project that is not only going strong, but getting better.
Jerry: Spud is all those strange characters. And he wrote all those bizarre stories. Yes, he cleared out his trunk and printed stories going back to those he wrote in grade school. Spud should have graduated college by now, and I’ll see if I can get a response from him.
Don: Only Spud himself can reveal his real name. The fanciful pen names are all his own invention. Spud was both very serious and a lot of fun; we wish him well, wherever he is. I imagine he’s graduating from a high-powered university, possibly with a degree in physics or another of the sciences.
Lewayne: How did the print magazines, like Asimov’s, Analog, or Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction respond to Bewildering Stories? Has their response changed since the beginning?
Jerry: We have been at the least, tolerated; at the most, with the responses of Gardner Dozois, even mentioned in his “Year’s Best SF” books! And we are even part of the links page at both the Analog and Asimov’s websites. Some people have been irritated, or at least they questioned the propriety of our weekly updates of “what’s new at BwS” on the various forums, but the powers-that-be seem to like us.
Don: The weekly announcements to the magazine forums began with the Readers’ Guides, about two years ago. The overwhelming majority of participants on the magazine forums have at least tacitly accepted the announcements, which have brought us new readers and contributors.
Gardner Dozois has never publicly acknowledged Bewildering Stories on the Asimov’s forum, that I know of, but I suspect he feels he shouldn’t. If he did, what about all the other webzines, authors’ websites, etc.?