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Happy Thoughts on the Way to Oblivion
a discussion amongst Barry N. Malzberg and Carter Scholz


Carter:

So, Barry, is literary science fiction doomed? Advances for first novels and word rates for short stories have been basically flat for the past 20 years, while the cost of living has quintupled. It was a starvation wage then, today it’s a poet’s wage. But being an optimist, I view this as an opportunity — less money means that only the dedicated artists and lunatics will stick around.

Barry:

Sorry, Carter, but taking away what little money there might have been isn’t the answer. There was no money in the 30s other than from Astounding, “a penny a word on threat of suit,” as the sainted Cyril Kornbluth noted, and except for maybe Don A. Stuart and Weinbaum’s Martian Odyssey there wasn’t much art around. There was — everything is relative of course — quite a bit of money around in the 50s, $5000 advances from Ballantine, and the 50s were a benign and insightful decade the foliage of which we are still digesting. I don’t think poverty feeds art although it would be pretty to think so. What the hell did poverty do for Kornbluth? Put the snow shovel in his hands, I sometimes think.

Carter:

Maybe what put the shovel in Kornbluth’s hands was the mistaken idea that his work could ever reach a mass audience. For all that we’re told that sf is popular art, the audience is at the movies, and the money, with some few established exceptions, is in sharecropping media properties.

Barry:

Kornbluth suffered from delusion beyond his belief that The Altar at Midnight or The Syndic or even “The Marching Morons” could appeal to a wider audience. (I do think that he wrote “The Marching Morons” in the hope that the audience would take note and proceed to feel guilty, surely an irrational hope, but there you are.) Kornbluth believed that sf itself was important, that it could occupy an important, central place in the culture, that it was not idiosyncratic and marginalized. He did know that it had no ability to really change anything (see “Science Fiction and Social Theory,” his 1957 speech in the old Chicago symposium, five essays published by Advent), but he didn’t blame sf for that, he thought the real issue was the importance of “art” of which sf was certainly an important part.

That’s one delusion. Another — even more dangerous to Kornbluth — was his belief that he was a better writer of mainstream than sf and in his last year he wrote four or five non-category novels all of which were published in paperback original. They were bad and Man of Cold Rages, his last novel, posthumously published, was terrible.

Carter:

This is an oddly persistent notion among certain SF writers from Phil Dick on — that the “literary novel” is just another category. You’d think SF writers would be especially aware that the issue is more complicated, given the ample evidence of failed sf by good mainstream writers.

Barry:

But of course, that’s one of the delusions (oh, there are so many) of sf writers; many if not most of them are convinced that they could write so-called realistic fiction just as well or better than anyone, they write sf by choice. Yet there are very few good realistic novels by writers primarily identified as emergent from sf. Spinrad’s Mind Game isn’t bad, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, his Civil War novel, is a masterpiece, but Bester’s Who He? is labored and Blish’s historical novels, Dr. Mirabilis and the rest, are almost unreadable.

As to the botched sf novels of mainstream writers — now here I can’t think of any success at all; Malamud’s God’s Grace is awful, Lessing, Hortense Calisher, Updike have missed, Nabokov’s Ada is labored and deadly. But this arrogance I guess all comes out of the Milford zeitgeist; these people sitting around Damon Knight’s barnyard in the 50s and 60s with their self-congratulatory assumption that sf was the One True Task and that the contemptible mainstream certainly was not. Kornbluth who died just around the time that Milford really got going notably suffered from this kind of thinking; Richard McKenna, a revered Milford figure, dealt with it by writing The Sand Pebbles and dying at 51 before he had to deal with any crossover dilemmas.

Carter:

You yourself are a cunning appropriator of mainstream techniques, but you’ve always deployed them within a genre context.

Barry:

I think I’m a better sf than mainstream writer, it took me a long time to recuperate from my own mutation of the Milford Zeitgeist and make this judgement and I’m sure that we can agree that no one much cares since there have been no novels of either kind from me for 14 years.



Epilog dated 9/26/99

Barry:
The day of the Harper/Avon debacle, I spoke with George Zebrowski, who of course was far more than a witness; “we’re in a business that is obviously dying,” George said. “No George,” I said. “It’s dead.” As we knew it and etc.

About Barry N.Malzberg

About Carter Scholz




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