Weird Tales: Nir Yaniv on Writing Speculative Fiction in Israel

Writer: Nir Yaniv
Weird Tales Story: The Dream of the Blue Man (Issue #352, October 2008)
Writer Bio: Nir Yaniv is an Israeli writer, editor, musician and computer programmer. His story collection, “One Hell of a Writer”, was published in 2006 by Odyssey Press. In 2000 he established Israel’s first online SF&F magazine, and edited it until early 2007, when he became chief editor of “Dreams in Aspamia“, Israel’s only pro genre magazine. He lives in Tel Aviv with his girlfriend Keren and records his music in his own studio, The Nir Space Station.

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Small Crowds – Big Dreams
There’s no law of physics, as far as I know, preventing a person from becoming a speculative fiction writer by deciding to become one. I’m sure that there are such writers in the genre’s history, though I wouldn’t know. To me, however, and to some other Israeli SF writers I know, becoming worthy of that title seems more like a sort of accident, albeit a happy one.

How does one become, then, a member of that rare breed, that semi-secret society of people who write speculative fiction in a 2000 year-old language, in a land that, to its great misfortune, some would call holy?

Well, being born here, I guess, is a good start. Other than that, it seems to me to be suspiciously close to what some American writers say about their roots: learning to read at an early age, public libraries, being fascinated by Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke/whoever (in my case: Bester, Lem, Philip K. Dick), trying one’s hand in writing short stories, submitting them to local SF magazines, getting published… whoa, stop right there.

The existence of SF magazines is, to an American, a given. SF, in the form it is known today, began its way mostly as stories published in magazines. Some of the best known classics of the genre were first serialized in magazines. Describing current SF without mentioning magazines is quite difficult; describing its early history without mentioning them is like eating ice cream without using your teeth and tongue.

But in Israel, by the time people of my generation (born 1972, brown eyed, handsome) were first toying with the idea of writing a story or two and publishing them, there were no such magazines. Not even one.

Some background: The first modern SF novel to be translated into Hebrew was Heinlein’s “The Puppet Masters”, in the late sixties. The translator was Amos Geffen, who later translated and published many other classics. In the 70’s translated SF became quite popular, and a considerable number of translated books became available to the Hebrew readers. There were some attempts at establishing an SF magazine, the most famous (and rightly so) of which was “Fantasia 2000″, which included mostly translated stories (with rarely an original Hebrew one) and locally-written articles and reviews. Its 44 issues were published between 1978 and 1984. In the early 80’s, for various reasons not entirely unconnected to the Lebanon war, the popularity of SF in Israel suffered a serious drop, in which state it stayed until the mid 90’s.

So the year is 1995, and a young writer-to-be, about a year after finishing his compulsory 3 years of military service, is interested in publishing a short story he wrote. What can he do about it? Nothing much. In a country with a population of about 6 million, there doesn’t seem to be any chance of ever having a genre magazine. In a country of practical-minded people (a horrible generalization, mind you), there’s not much of a chance of finding a readership big enough to support such a publication. Later in the year Rabin is murdered, and there’s a feeling of desperation. Never having peace is added to the prospects of the young author, who doesn’t know why he’s writing but does so anyway, believing that no one would read them.

Or so it seemed, at the time.

But then, in 1996, the Israeli Society for SF&F was established, and with it the first of the “new era” Hebrew SF magazines, “The Tenth Dimension”, which started as a fanzine but got bigger and better, and today has a publishing agreement with Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. Suddenly there was somewhere to publish one’s SF stories, even though there was no payment involved and they’d reach less than 500 readers. In 1998 the society established Israel’s first (and currently only) SF award, the Geffen Award, named after the abovementioned Amos Geffen. In the year 2000 the society (well, your humble servant, acting for it) founded the first Hebrew online SF&F magazine (to be found at www.sf-f.org.il); the sheer number of hits for this site showed us that there were many more fans and readers out there than we’d imagined (soon afterwards another online magazine was born: “Don’t Panic”). Meanwhile (or even a bit before that) fantasy became, just like everywhere else, quite popular, and this caused some publishing houses to try their luck with the genre again. The Israeli fandom community became amazingly active, especially in Internet forums, and soon Israel had more conventions than many countries ten times its size (this was not always a good thing, especially not when rival fandom groups had organized overlapping conventions). In 2002 a new printed magazine, “Dreams in Aspamia”, was born, and was the first to focus almost entirely on locally written SF, and also to actually pay the authors – a huge breakthrough in Israeli terms. Its first editor, Vered Tochterman, was also the first of the new Israeli SF authors – as opposed to mainstream writers toying with SF-ish ideas – to publish a story collection. Other such authors soon followed. More recently, some more famous mainstream writers also started writing SF – we’re not the only country in which this happens, but here it’s particularly encouraging.

All of this is very good, but it doesn’t mean to say that an Israeli SF writer can dedicate all his or her time to writing without having a day job. This country is simply too small for that. This doesn’t apply to SF alone: all other fields of art suffer from that as well. In the US, publishing a comic book or an underground music album can many times at least pay the author’s rent. Here it doesn’t happen. A successful mainstream album here sells about ten or twenty thousand copies. A very successful mainstream book may go as high as 100,000. But those are extreme cases – and, as said, mainstream. As for SF…

So some of us writers work as translators, especially of SF books. Others make money in hi-tech, working towards the day when enough of it is made in order to stop working and get more writing done. Others make a living off the usual variety of odd jobs found among writers everywhere. All of them hope, against all odds, that one day they could make a living by writing SF.

But is it against all odds? Considering what happened to the genre here between 1995 and now – I’m not sure.

Comments

  1. Boojie says

    One might also mention the fact that serious SF writing in Israel started in SF forums (mostly on the IOL SF forum). Since there was nowhere to publish, no workshops, no available peer group, much of the experience of many of our generation of writers was acquired as part of our regular forum participation – we’d publish our stories there, get peer reviews, promise to get better next time (or rip out the reviewer’s innards, depending on temperament. I always tended towards the innards ripping option myself). We had forum contests and forum writing projects and a forum magazine which collected them (and later became, through several transformations, the online magazine Don’t Panic). Later we’ve founded specialized forums dedicated to SF writing, and more professional contests were founded by the ISFSFF.
    That was our audience and our peer group at first. This has had much effect on the character of Israeli SF, namely the fact that most of the “real” SF (the SF that has grown from within the community and is written as SF proper) tends to be on the shorter side of the short story category (the net does that to you) and its writers tend to have an awful craving for comments for each and every story.
    Vered Tochterman

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says

    This is all fascinating to me. Thanks for contributing something so interesting to my blog. And to Boojie for adding more.

    Jeff

  3. says

    The existence of SF magazines is, to an American, a given.

    lol! certainly true. A lot of this rings much too familiar, but my country is still far behind, about where Israel was in ’95 then, as far as the formation of SF writerly culture goes.
    Rumor has it we used to get some of the zines, but there were definitely none around when I was a kid [’80’s].
    Still don’t have any, although a couple people are making a go of publishing a horror zine.

  4. Nir says

    Hi David,
    I think you can use the internet to improve the situation, and today it’s much easier than it was for us in 95, at least technically. For instance, it is now quite easy to open an online magazine: all you have to do is open a blog on some free platform (or pay a bit for a server and have your own WordPress), and start asking your fellow writers for stories. Thus you’re left with the job of selecting and editing the stories, and I’m sure there’s no SF community in the world in which people with the right skills for that can’t be found…

  5. says

    yeah, true. Don’t think I’ll ever go into the publishing end of the business, but if I did, I’d go online. Part of the reason for that would be to expand and become part of the international community, not remain insular which is a problem we have.
    We don’t have enough local writers, really, and the ones who are out there are very isolated from each other. There’s the odd fumbling attempt to bring more of them together, but depressingly few of us have any notice or contact with the outside world at all.
    I know Something Wicked, our horror mag, is now finally making an attempt to go international, listing on Duotrope and Ralan, etc.
    A big part of their headeache of course is submissions, for the first issue I think they only got about 27.
    Most of them from a writing group. I briefly had contact with that group [and without the internet, even that would have been impossible] and while a few of them are very open and eager to learn more and expand, depressingly many of them are suspicious and hostile to outsiders.
    We’re also not a wealthy country, so it’s an open question just how many possible writers have internet access.
    A few of us have stumbled across each other, and the odd few have made some publishing strides in the international community. And having one magazine at all is better than nothing.
    See, the problem is exactly the fellow writers bit, those few of us who have been working the last while almost none knew the other existed till recently.
    So, this is all very new and hopefully the numbers wille xpand and grow.

    I don’t know what it was like for you guys, but the biggest stumbling blocks in my countrymen, and one of the reasons I almost totally gave up trying to bring any kind of community or writing groups together, the problems are apathy and insular mindedness. to wit: “Well, they won’t publish us because we’re South African so why even bother? yeah, I’d like to work on a comic/ magazine/ whatever, but you know, it’s so much work!”
    And then of course there’s the massive headache of convincing people not to just write and publish locally, but to think wider.
    I’ve heard this is a problem in Australia too, as many writers and markets as they have who do think and act towards the outside, it seems most just draw inwards and refuse to participate with the outside world.
    But again, they do have a culture of sorts.

    It’s happening here, but very slowly and it’ll take a loooong time still.
    baby steps I guess:)

    that aside, well done to you guys for making it happen in your country and best of luck for the future.

  6. Boojie says

    Writers appear when there are platforms. I was rather awed at this, actually. When we founded Dreams in Aspamia I was quite skeptic about us getting enough material. I was really surprised at the – growing – number of submissions we got.
    The internet is excellent for this. It helps create the critical mass necessary so writers (and any other types of fans) don’t feel as though they’re working in vacuum. Our writers’ community was born and raised on the net.

    The negative sort of thinking you describe I know quite well and hate wholeheartedly. We have quite a few of those here, but since we have enough positive, insistent doers to make things happen, we usually just ignore them. We do what we want and have fun while we do it, and usually we get results that far exceed our expectations. What you need is a small but stubborn group of doers who don’t really care about the obstacles they face, and just want to have fun in the process.

  7. says

    Thanks for a fascinating portrait of the world of Israeli SF, Nir. I guess what surprises me most about the relative lack of popularity of speculative fiction in Israel is the rich history of Jewish fantasy writing and stories, from golems and dybbuks to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Robert Bloch. Being of partial Jewish descent myself, I find that what ties me back to my roots isn’t so much synagogue or borsht but the unique Judaic sense of the fantastic and even macabre. Could it be an accident that Tim Burton’s “The Corpse Bride” was based on an old Jewish folktale?

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