The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #23: Heroes

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 162, Summer, 2004.

MIKE: You and I disagree on a hell of a lot of things, which is at least partly the basis of this column. I think we have shown over the previous 22 Dialogues that Rudyard Kipling may have been just a tad optimistic about how many ways there are of constructing tribal lays, but I think we’ve clearly shown there are at least two viable and defensible ones: yours and mine.

And now we come to a subject on which I think we will agree—(No, not Sophia Loren; I mean still another subject)—and that subject has to do with the heroes of science fiction. I’m not talking about writers like Robert A. Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or any of the others who put science fiction on the map and made us millions of new readers, or about editors like John Campbell who dragged science fiction, almost against its will, into the mid- 20th Century. Their contributions are remarkable, no question about it—but they mainly benefited the readers, which is certainly not a bad thing, since it is the readers who keep us all in business.

And science fiction is a business, at least to the readers of the SFWA Bulletin, and there have been a lot of unsung heroes who have helped make it a better place for us to work. I think nobody will mind if we stop arguing for an issue and give some long-overdue credit to some of those heroes.

I’ll start with a couple of members of the old Futurian club.

The first is Donald A. Wollheim. Not because of his editing, which extended over half a century, and included far more brilliant works of fiction than he’s generally credited with (including yours). Not even because he founded a successful and still viable mass market science fiction publishing company. No, Don Wollheim is a hero because back in the 1930s he went to court for ten dollars.

Hugo Gernsback loved to publish science fiction. He loved to buy it from writers. He loved to promote it. For all I know, he loved to edit it. What he didn’t love to do was pay for it. He treated his writers like unpaid coolie labor. It was Wollheim who showed his fellow coolies in this then-embryonic field that we didn’t have to put up with that abuse. When Gernsback accepted one of Wollheim’s stories and ignored his requests for payment, Wollheim went to court and won a judgment—and no solvent publisher has pulled that stunt since then. It was a precedent that unquestionably made things better for all of us who came after him.

The other Futurian hero was Isaac Asimov. Not for being the national treasure he became, not for anything he wrote, not for the non-stop promotion of science fiction throughout his long life. No, it was for being proud of who he was and what he wrote. When John Campbell suggested that Isaac write under a Western European pseudonym, Isaac, who held Campbell in awe, nonetheless refused. He was not ashamed of being a Russian Jew, and—the reason he belongs on this list—he was not ashamed of writing science fiction. He was proud of it, and he wanted everyone to know that he, Isaac Asimov, wrote it. Prior to that, every writer who had been asked to hide behind pseudonyms had done so. After all, it was just pulp pap, so why make a fuss over it? It was Isaac who said that no, it wasn’t just pulp pap, and he won his fight, which made it a lot easier on those of us who followed him to hold up our heads and explain to the world at large that we weren’t just writing that crazy Buck Rogers stuff, that there was more to it than that.

I see you chomping at the bit, so let me take a coffee break and let you enshrine another hero or three.

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BARRY: Science fiction does not have an abundance of heroes (neither does politics, but we will mercifully give that one a pass in this and all other columns). Damon Knight wrote in Pitfcs 45 years ago, and I am paraphrasing although not so freely, “I like science fiction writers just fine except for their lamentable tendency to roll over and show their bellies when an editorial check of any denomination is waved.” When science fiction is officially interred in the 23rd or 24th century (after the death of the last surviving member of First Fandom) that line, edited a bit perhaps, might as well lie on the tombstone.

But there are a few, heroes that is, and although at first thought this topic appears to be a candidate for our shortest column ever (since we never attempted “The Wit and Wisdom of Ray Palmer”) I can think of one immediately: Avram Davidson, whose name of course surfaced in a less flattering way in an earlier column. Avram Davidson was briefly, in the mid-l960’s (shortly after he had left the editorship of Fantasy & Science Fiction), a client of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency and it took Avram little time to absolutely despise the eponymous Scott and to quit him.

Why? Because Avram had a policy: he was then in a period when he was a practicing Orthodox Jew and he made it clear in public announcement and prior conversation that he would under no circumstances permit his work to be sold in German translation. The Agency accepted a German offer for an Ace Double and sent Avram the contracts. Avram returned the contracts unsigned explaining his policy. The Agency Foreign Rights Director signed the contracts instead and returned them to the German publisher. In due time an advance was paid and the Agency, taking its 20% commission, forwarded the balance to Avram. Avram ripped up the check and returned it with a covering note quitting the Agency. “And I will never accept any deal of any kind made by you people,” he added.

Some months later, there was another foreign offer for the novel—French rights I believe. Cautiously, the Agency sent the contracts to Avram pointing out that France was not Germany and anyway it was a few hundred dollars of found money. Avram’s response, accompanying the (this time destroyed) contracts was unprintable. The Foreign Rights assistant—taking Scott’s dictation—pointed out that Avram was cutting his own throat, not the agency’s, by refusing the sale. After all, the bulk of the advance was the author’s.

Avram’s response: I hate you and everything you represent so much that I gladly, freely, cheerfully give up my ninety percent in order to deprive you of your ten percent.

Heroic? Well, it’s a beginning. Scott died rich and Avram defiantly otherwise (at the same age, incidentally, their shared dates were l923-l993) but this kind of thing reminds me that there are, after all, other issues.

I’ll continue my Diogenes’ quest—it may take a while—while giving you the floor.

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MIKE: OK, my next nomination for a Hero’s Hall of Fame isn’t a writer or editor at all. It’s perhaps the most recognizable artist ever to work in the field: Frank Frazetta.

All during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s publishers owned most of the art that they commissioned. A lot of it they simply threw out when their offices and storerooms got too full. A bunch was given to any fans who had the good sense to walk into the office and ask for some.

It was Frazetta (another source has it that it was Mrs. Frazetta; if so, it was still part of the same team) who insisted that he owned his paintings. He was selling reproduction rights only, not the paintings themselves—and his work was so much in demand that he made it stick.

That opened the door, and today all but the most clueless beginning artist sells only reproduction rights. Eventually most fantasy and science fiction art sells for far more to collectors than the reproduction rights ever sold to book and magazine publishers, so here’s a man who almost single-handedly made it possible for many sf artists to multiply their incomes with no extra work.

And let me name another hero, one you labored for for many years, who was neither a writer nor an editor. It’s Scott Meredith, who also qualifies as one of the great villains for the invention of fee reading—but he is also a hero, because he is the first agent to turn writing from a tweedy gentleman’s sport into a business. He did it by the simple expedient of holding auctions for books by hot writers. The publishers had never had to bid against each other, and they were outraged—but outraged or not, they bid rather than lose a coveted manuscript. And once Scott opened the floodgates, just about every major author has had one or more works auctioned off. In fact, these days you don’t have to be a bestseller; I would guess that well over 75 members of SFWA have had something auctioned at some point in their careers, either here or overseas. With that one action, Meredith gave writers the equivalent of free agency.

Another hero? The beloved Julie Schwartz, who just passed away this year. Julie was the editor of All-Star and Batman and a bunch of other comic books, and he edited some early-1930s fanzines, but it was as an agent that he became a hero. (He was a little guy. I always used to call him “Big Julie,” which made no sense to him since he’d never seen Guys and Dolls, but it seemed to delight him anyway.) Julie, as I say, was a science fiction agent in the 1940s, and one of his clients was Ray Bradbury. And there came a day when Julie contacted him and said that he was about to break out in a big way, and he needed an agent who could do more for him than Julie could. Can anyone think of any agent, before or since, who would be that honest and sacrifice that much income to help a client’s career?

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BARRY: Implicit in our little survey, I think, is the word “obscure.” Or perhaps “unsung.” It is no feat of detection to write of Campbell’s heroism, he gave us “modern science fiction” entire, or Anthony Boucher fighting for the science fiction’s acceptance as literature all through his working lifetime . . . editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction of course, critic for the New York Times and Herald Tribune, novelist, short story writer, polymath. Everyone knows of that heroism or of the heroism of Isaac Asimov who throughout his career, from obscure beginning to world-famous end, possibly the most famous figure to come out of the field, always called himself a science fiction writer, insisted upon his origin as a science fiction writer, his lasting debt . . . he never in any venue lost the opportunity to celebrate science fiction and his own role as dedicated disciple of Campbell. But Isaac, as I say, died famous, perhaps the most famous of all of us in his lifetime (Heinlein and Bradbury close of course) and “unsung” he was not. Isaac Asimov would be proud to tell us today that he made sure that he was the least unsung person of his acquaintance.

But how about Robert A.W. Lowndes (l9l6-l998). Futurian, minor writer (collaborated in the l940’s with Blish, Wollheim, many others, sold a few stories in collaboration to Astounding) and, most importantly, editor for more than 30 years at a variety of markets.

And what markets! Bourgey Books, the Original Science Fiction Stories, Famous Science Fiction . . . Lowndes never worked at other than bottom-line publishers with virtually no editorial budget. And was able somehow to find stunning work. Carol Emshwiller’s first story, “The Hunting Machine.” James Blish’s “A Work Of Art.” Stephen King’s first published story in l967.

Lowndes produced bricks not from straw (straw would have embarrassed him) but from air; his magazines, poorly illustrated, crudely published, unevenly distributed, were very close to the level of Astounding, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction and he had at best a fifth of their budget. He labored in service of some of the most venal and penurious publishers science fiction has ever suffered (and that means pretty venal and penurious) and was able to shape some memorable work. This was not unnoted within the field itself—Blish had kind things to say abut him which were collected in The Issue At Hand—but Lowndes was virtually invisible outside of science fiction.

In l967, when Galaxy was teetering on the verge of dissolution (somehow Robert Guinn found the money and was able to hold on for a few more years) Donald Wollheim came close to persuading his stupid and brutal masters at Ace Books to buy the magazine. “I don’t want to edit it,” Wollheim said, “I have enough to edit. I’d want to give it to Robert Lowndes. I wonder what he could do with anything approaching a real budget. He might be the finest magazine editor in science fiction. Campbell and Gold have all the reputation but I wonder what they would do if they had to work with his budget and publishers.” Lamentably, Hanseatic Corporation’s missionaries to science fiction were not persuaded and there was no deal, Lowndes continued to struggle along with Famous Science Fiction and Fate (Gernsback publications by the way) and eventually tumbled into utter obscurity . . . but he was a figure of major ability and absolutely no luck who loved science fiction as passionately as the famous editors and managed to make a real contribution while having absolutely no help at all. I call that kind of heroic.

I call Sol Cohen (l905-l984) heroic too for stepping in with just of a loan to save Galaxy in l964 when Guinn a few years earlier was about to give up the magazine but the thought of Sol Cohen Hero—well, it is more than I can imagine without at least a comfort break.

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MIKE: Let me start with the four horsemen who prevented the apocalypse—August Derleth, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Donald M. Grant, and the first Martin Greenberg (as opposed to the current anthologist). These four guys essentially created the science fiction (and fantasy) specialty press, and gave the field a hardcover home before the New York publishers showed any interest in us at all. Derleth specialized in the supernatural with Arkham House, Grant in fantasy with Hadley House, and Eshbach and Greenberg blanketed the field with Fantasy Press and Gnome Press, respectively.

There was a major difference between the specialty press circa 1950 and the specialty press today. The average Gnome or Fantasy Press print run was well over 4,000 hardcovers; some topped 5,000. In other words, they were about the same as an average New York print run today, maybe a little more in some cases. And it was the success of all those hardcovers, with then-unknown names like Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Howard, Lovecraft and Bradbury on the covers, that convinced the major publishers that maybe, just maybe, there was money to be made in publishing that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.

Which leads me to another hero: Ian Ballantine. It was he, more than any other individual, who brought science fiction to the mass market, both with Bantam Books, which he started and sold, and with Ballantine Books, which he started and kept. This is a man who was paying as much for books back then as first novelists get today—but back then the books were selling for 25 cents US apiece rather than $6.99 US . . . and he had the guts and foresight to see that if he paid a living wage he could get the best work available, and that if he got the best work available he could create a category that would last for, well, more than half a century and counting.

One more hero before I turn it over to you. There’s a lot of talk, always has been, that this is a field of personal cachet, that you can’t sell without it, that you certainly can’t win Hugos and Nebulas without it, that you put yourself at an enormous competitive disadvantage if you don’t hit the convention circuit, cultivate fans and editors, go the whole self-promotion route. To which I reply: James Tiptree, Jr.

Tiptree/Sheldon had sold the bulk of her science fiction and won almost all her awards before anyone knew who she was, or even that James Tiptree was a woman. It’s comforting to know that, sometimes at least, talent is all it takes.

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BARRY: Yes, Alice Sheldon made her case—a major career conducted from a post office box; two Nebulas and a Hugo to a pseudonym from an electorate none of whose members had ever seen her. (She was, under her Tiptree pseudonym, a prolific correspondent.) Surely the astonishing power of her work was responsible; certainly her public relations skills were not. It seems that one writer a generation can bring off this kind of coup (Greg Egan is in many ways the neo-Sheldon); twenty years before Tiptree, Cordwainer Smith’s astonishing “Scanners Live in Vain,” published in an obscure near-fanzine was found by Fred Pohl who later anthologized and then at Galaxy took on a succession of novelettes by a writer he had never met, retitled them, and sent him off to glory. “Cordwainer Smith,” it was revealed but only after his death, was the pseudonym of the remarkable diplomat and academic figure, Paul Linebarger (l9l3-l966) and the spectre of CIA employment lurked over him posthumously as it did with “Tiptree” in his lifetime. Linebarger has never been widely read other than by one group, science fiction writers and would-be writers who have studied him as carefully as your witch doctors are reputed to study animal entrails. Clearly one of the most influential of all science fiction writers, his work replicated and imitated in great volume, his stylistic tricks appropriated by almost everyone in town including on more than one occasion your faithful undersigned.

Speaking of Sol Cohen—I was not but let it pass, let it pass—there is another aspect to his heroism: almost singlehandedly he gave the infant, struggling SFWA credibility in l965. Cohen, after his involvement with Robert Guinn (and his discovery that he liked being an SF publisher), bought Amazing and Fantastic at fire sale prices from Ziff-Davis in l965, Ziff- Davis, a major magazine publisher, having lost interest in floating these struggling, essentially unprofitable magazines. With the sale came the inventory of published and accepted material; all of the published stories had been purchased through all-magazine-rights contracts giving the magazines the right to reprint perpetually without fee. Sol, quite reasonably, proceeded to do this, starting several reprint magazines and also—through his first editor, Joseph Ross—filling two-thirds of the l965 and l966 Amazing and Fantastic with old stories from the magazines and not compensating the writers.

Some of the writers protested to Sol; Sol shrugged. (I came to know that shrug well.) A few of the writers complained to the then-nascent SFWA, formed that year by Damon Knight, consisting perhaps of l00 members. The SFWA’s first President, Damon himself, declared a boycott against the magazines; no member would submit stories until or unless Sol agreed to pay for those reprints (even though, contractually, he was free of that obligation). Cohen immediately and almost frantically gave in to this demand; offered token payments of $25 US for every reprinted title and the boycott, in existence for only a few months, was cancelled. The speed and desperation of Sol’s capitulation gave the organization its first victory and an aura of power, solidarity and effectiveness which in tandem with the establishment of the Nebula Awards (the winners and finalists would appear in an anthology Doubleday agreed to publish) made the organization a credible and intermittently effective force which forty years later seems unimpeachable. Sol was not only The Man Who Saved The Galaxy but the Liberty Valence of the SFWA.

And honorable mention to Walter Miller, Jr. (l923-l997) who by consensus wrote a novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is on the top ten list of everyone who knows the field well, who won his second Hugo in five years for that novel (the first was for the novella “The Darfstellar”) and who then stopped writing science fiction—stopped writing anything for over 30 years, abandoning his work without explanation or complaint, maintaining an absolute uncomplaining and mysterious silence until near the end of his life he emerged with an almost-completed sequel to his great novel which was sold for a great deal of money to Bantam. “Never complain, never explain,” was the motto of the Bourbons or perhaps I am thinking of John D. Rockefeller; they should have met Miller. Maybe they did. Time travel! Alternate worlds!

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MIKE: I don’t know that not writing for 30 years qualifies Miller as a hero, at least by my definition—but not writing made Damon Knight one. He was the first member of the field to attempt to write serious criticism, and while I think some of it was and is pretty wrong-headed, much of it was excellent and it clearly paved the way for the countless books and essays that followed. Damon reviewed science fiction books for Doc Lowndes’ magazines, then moved up to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—and quit when they refused to run one of his reviews.

To this day I don’t know what book he was reviewing, and whether he liked a book he was supposed to trash or trashed a book he was supposed to like (knowing Damon it was probably the latter), but it made no difference: the field lost its most important critic over a matter of integrity. Damon never made the big bucks that accrued to many of his contemporaries, but he quit an assignment he needed before he’d let himself be censored. That’s my kind of hero.

Let me step a few paces outside the field for another hero, the late Stanley Kubrick. He made a trio of wildly different science fiction films in the 1960s—Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange—and whether you liked them or disliked them (and they each had their faults), he was the one major director who always treated science fiction with respect. You won’t find Wagon Trains to the Stars, or swordfights for the fate of the galaxy, in a Kubrick film. He was self-indulgent and secretive, at times brilliant and at times far less than brilliant, but the one constant was his absolute respect for his source material, be it parable or parody.

And let me nominate another hero from outside the field, and that is Kingsley Amis. A bestselling darling of the intelligencia, he discovered science fiction over half a century ago, gave a series of speeches about it in 1958 and 1959, and collected them in a very popular book entitled New Maps of Hell. This was unheard of: an “outsider” reporting on science fiction—not just on Verne and Wells and Stapledon, like the stuffy academics who had gone before him, but discussing Pohl and Sheckley and Heinlein and Kornbluth and Bradbury and all the other contemporary practitioners. And, stranger still, he liked it.

And suddenly people who were too proud, too sophisticated, and/or too snobbish to read science fiction picked up New Maps of Hell and said, “Well, if a man like Kingsley Amis likes this stuff, maybe I should give it a try . . . ”

And they did. In quantity.

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BARRY: James Blish, who began writing “serious” criticism for fanzines such as Skyhook at the same time (the early l950’s) that Damon was reaching prominence as a critic, also has to make this short list; in tandem these two were the first critics to bring to science fiction the insistence that the genre was not somehow “special,” was not exempt from the standards which are to be applied to “mainstream” literature and that good writing was not the enemy but the colleague of good science fiction. They made plenty of enemies, both of them (Knight more, because unlike Blish he did not write criticism under a pseudonym) but that was inevitable; as Fred Pohl wrote about his own brief foray into reviewing for one of the magazines he edited, “This is the quickest way I know to lose friends, outside of editing.” Damon’s rejected review was, I believe, of a Judith Merril book, either the collection Daughters of Earth or her novel, Shadow on the Hearth, an exemplar of what he called the soiled-diaper school of writing, and of which he concluded, “This is not ‘women’s science fiction’ but, I believe women’s-magazine science fiction which is an entirely different thing.” I don’t know if Damon was exactly heroic but he was irreplaceable, which is in part the same thing.

Judith Merril played a part in the dismissal of another critic by the way; Alfred Bester briefly in the early l960’s also reviewed for Fantasy & Science Fiction and is reputed to have given one of the early Judith Merril Best Of The Year anthologies a vicious review which Robert P. Mills, the editor, refused to publish. Bester shrugged and quit, a gesture which could not have done the relationship all that much damage; Mills was his literary agent through the l960’s.

And one more hero in the category of Robert Lowndes: Ted White, who succeeded me as editor of Sol Cohen’s Amazing and Fantastic and who lasted for ten years (l968-l978) until Cohen sold the magazine to the silent partner Arthur Bernhardt, who in turn immediately sold it to some obscure publisher in Arizona. White had to struggle with all the demons of Cohen’s operation—terrible production, penny-a-word budget, all of the bad kharma which Cohen had cast over the magazines—and somehow for that decade was able to produce bricks without straw . . . two memorable bi-monthly magazines, about l20 issues on deadline which serialized important novels (Silverberg’s The Second Trip and Up the Line, Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound), published Piers Anthony’s much-rejected novel Hasan for the first time, bought a lot of memorable stories from Tiptree and Brunner, published the first, novella version of Jack Dann’s JUNCTION & etc . . . probably in relation to his circumstances the best science fiction magazine editor of his time and easily in the top ten since l926. All of the conditions which I had found utterly daunting and which had driven Sol Cohen and me to hopeless opposition until he mercifully fired me in l0/68 were encountered and overcome by Ted White whose remarkable contribution has never gotten its due. I do what I can.

As I noted at the outset, this is a genre whose literature abounds with heroes but not its life. But these are the exceptions; exemplars who would stand judgment in any situation and we honor them as for the most part in their contribution they were unable to honor themselves.

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MIKE: We’re not that short of heroes. I’ve got at least a dozen more. But we’re short of space as this thing nears its assigned word limit, so I think I’ll name one last hero, perhaps the greatest of the past 40 years—and I’ll even give you a hint: this particular hero published this column.

That’s right—SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America. This is not to say they don’t drive me up a wall with their bickering and their incessant backbiting and the mean-spiritedness of some of the members, or that I haven’t been tempted to quit half a hundred times since Anne McCaffrey and David Gerrold got me in a corner at St. Louiscon back in 1969 and insisted that I join.

So what makes it heroic, and why have I stuck around?

Two reasons.

First, the Ace audit. No other writers advocacy group ever pulled off anything remotely resembling that remarkable early-1970s audit that unearthed about a quarter of a million dollars (give or take; I don’t remember the exact figure—it might even have been more) of unpaid royalties for its members (and this was back when a dollar bought a lot more than it buys today).

Second, SFWA’s ongoing heroism, which takes on form and substance as the Grievance Committee. Again, I don’t have the total number of writer/publisher disputes they’ve solved, but it has to be well into three digits by now—and I know a number of writers whose causes were lost (or, far more often, merely ignored by their publishers) until the Grievance Committee got into the act.

Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths. I figure you and I need all the heroes we can get, and this field has been producing some of the unlikeliest ones since its creation. It’s nice to acknowledge them at long last.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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