Profile of David Hartwell

If you want the essential man, you must imagine him leaning forward, eyes bright, grinning almost wolfishly as he shares his enthusiasm for a story, a writer, a musician, a poem. Or he may equally well be listening. "I have infinite patience for hearing why somebody’s work is good," he once said in my presence, "and none whatsoever for why it isn’t."

But let me give you some background.

By the nature of the profession, editors work their secret ministry far from the public eye, and the great bulk of what they do goes unnoticed and unremarked. So I cannot pretend to be familiar with more than a fraction of David Hartwell’s accomplishments.

The little I know, however, is impressive enough. In his time, David has published and edited magazines of poetry (The Little Magazine) and criticism (The New York Review of Science Fiction), and edited a major fiction magazine (Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine). He’s a small press publisher of long standing (I cannot resist noting that Dragon Press published my own Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary) and has been an essayist, a reviewer, and the author of book-length nonfiction.

Further, David’s thumping big critical anthologies are magisterial attempts to define modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror, as well as such sub-genres as space opera and hard science fiction, by example and explication. (Northern Stars: The Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction, co-edited with Glenn Grant, is probably the best single starting place for anyone who’d like to get a sense of the distinctive nature of Canadian SF.) He’s a collector, scholar, and part-time dealer in classic genre fiction. He’s won both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards, and edited novels that went on to win the Nebula or Hugo Award.

Are you out of breath yet? There’s more. David chairs the board of directors of the World Fantasy Convention and is co-administrator of the Philip K. Dick Award. He’s been an editor for Signet, Berkley/Putnam, Gregg Press, Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster (where he created Timescape Books, one of the best lines of genre fiction ever published), Arbor House, William Morrow, and is now a senior editor at Tor Books. With his wife, Kathryn Cramer, he edits both science fiction and fantasy best-of-year anthologies. He has a huckster table at most of the conventions he attends.

He has, in short, filled every ecological niche in the publishing universe save one — that of a fiction writer.

This last is unusual and may be unique. Almost all editors begin as writers, whether successfully or not — and almost all writers begin by reading a bad work of fiction and thinking, "I could write better than this!" David Hartwell’s moment on the road to Damascus came when he read a bad science fiction novel and thought, "I could show the writer how to fix this!"

He’s been on that road ever since.

David has been my friend for the entirety of my professional career, and in that time he’s been unfailingly warm and open-hearted. He’s a bit of a raconteur, something of an amateur historian of the field, and possessed of a puckish sense of humor. He has a Ph.D. in Comparative Medieval Literature and the most extraordinary fashion sense in the known universe. He is a tireless promoter of the good. And, to this end, he has an agenda.

That agenda, if I read him correctly, goes something as follows: Science fiction is best understood as itself. It has virtues that are not achievable in mainstream fiction, and trying to shoehorn SF into the mainstream or even to judge it by mainstream standards only dilutes those virtues. This, however, makes it in no way inferior to other forms of literature — merely different. It is to be celebrated, admired, and cherished.

As is David Hartwell.

I’ve had many a conversation with David and I can always tell if I’m holding up my end of one. He leans forward. His eyes brighten. He smiles almost — but not quite — wolfishly. For a writer, that’s as close to being the embodiment of one’s ideal audience as is ever going to be met in the flesh. Which is, I suppose, one definition of what an editor is.

© 2009 by Michael Swanwick

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