Alice K. Turner, who cultivated new writers, nurtured established ones and delivered their work to millions of readers during two decades as fiction editor at Playboy magazine, died Jan. 17 at a hospital in New York City. Of her age, she once joked to New York magazine, “let’s be vague.”
Her brother, Daniel Turner, said that she was 75 and that the cause of death was complications from pneumonia.
While not known most widely for its literary fiction, Playboy was for many years one of the few mainstream monthlies that published ambitious short stories. Ms. Turner became fiction editor in 1980 and guarded that tradition, shepherding works by John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Shacochis and other acclaimed writers into pages better known for Playmates and other pinups.
“Fiction is kind of a nuisance,” Ms. Turner once quipped to the New York Times. “The ad sales guys don’t see the point. They would cut it out if they could, except for the fact that it adds a certain respectability.”
In addition to its work by high-wattage authors, Ms. Turner recalled, the magazine received as many as 50 to 80 submissions daily in the slush pile.
“We get them from prisoners and we get them from garage mechanics,” she told the Times.
Through her connections in publishing, she sought out, identified and promoted promising young writers. Among them was David Foster Wallace, the author of the novel “Infinite Jest” (1996), who became known as one of the most significant writers of his generation and who died at 46 in 2008.
Bruce Kluger, a former Playboy editor, recalled that Ms. Turner handled most aspects of the editing process, from signing authors, to coordinating with agents, to perfecting the copy. “Whoever Playboy published, it went through Alice,” said Stephen M. Silverman, an editor at Time Inc.
Ms. Turner said she envisioned Playboy as “a kind of heir to the old-fashioned middlebrow magazines of yore,” such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. Those magazines, she told the Missouri Review, “are probably the very first place that many people ever read a short story, ever read fiction at all.”
“Playboy stories have beginnings, middles and ends,” Ms. Turner added. “They have a kind of general appeal. They are not experimental. They are not terribly modern or forward-reaching but they have real quality, or so I hope.”
Ms. Turner was credited with publishing many science-fiction and fantasy writers who might not otherwise have gotten the money or exposure. Among her authors were Terry Bisson, Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert Silverberg, according to Locus, a science-fiction and fantasy magazine.
“She knew more about putting together short stories than anybody I’ve ever encountered,” Silverberg said in an interview. “To have Alice publish a science-fiction story of yours was a big seal of approval.”
Ms. Turner edited volumes including “The Playboy Book of Science Fiction” (1998) and “Playboy Stories: The Best of Forty Years of Short Fiction” (1994).
“Now’s your chance to atone for all those lies about buying Playboy for the stories,” a Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote in a critique of the 40-year anthology. “And painless penance it is. Here is some of the sweetest, sharpest prose between covers, one piece for every Playboy year, and not what you may have been expecting.”
Ms. Turner wrote a nonfiction and scholarly book of her own, “The History of Hell” (1993). She professed that she did not believe in the afterlife and described her book as a “real history of an imaginary place.” The erudite work encompassed theology, art, literature and history.
Writing in The Washington Post, reviewer Frances Taliaferro observed that Ms. Turner’s “worldly experience” at Playboy seemed to have “sharpened her visual imagination and her ability to render in practical language the complexities of this sexy subject.”
Alice Kennedy Turner, the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, was born May 29, 1939, in Shenyang, China, her brother said in an interview Monday. She went to school in Thailand, Japan and India before receiving a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Her book on the history of hell grew from her studies at New York University, where she pursued a master’s degree after working for years in editing, and where her professors included the renowned literary critic Harold Bloom.
In the early years of her career, she was an editorial assistant for the New York Post, an editor for Eye magazine and a producer for British broadcaster David Frost, among other positions, according to the reference guide Contemporary Authors. She also worked at New York magazine before joining Playboy.
There Ms. Turner succeeded a fiction editor who died in the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 near Chicago in 1979. Sheldon Wax, Playboy managing editor, and his wife, Judith, also were among the more than 270 dead. After her retirement, Ms. Turner continued overseeing the Playboy college fiction contest.
Her brother was her only immediate survivor.
Ms. Turner ruefully joked about fiction’s place at Playboy. At a magazine anniversary celebration, she told the Missouri Review, founder Hugh Hefner gathered a large group of the magazine’s top models from the past. Clad in his finest pajamas, he offered a toast to them.
“Ladies,” Hefner said, “it’s been a wonderful 25 years, and I want you to know that I owe it all to you. Without you, I would have had nothing but a . . . literary magazine.”