Thursday, November 19, 2009

Secret Histories

A few years ago, Jonathan Lethem published an essay in The Village Voice, ‘Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction’, in which he decried the close-mindedness of the genre and sketched an alternate history in which Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow won the Nebula instead of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama in 1973, leading to a reconciliation between sf and the rest of literature and the mutual enrichment of both. Editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel have an argument with that idea in their anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction, selecting stories by authors on both sides of the divide to illustrate their thesis that the so-called boundary between sf and ‘mainstream’ literature has long been blurred and hard to define: sf authors can turn in well-honed stories that match the best in ‘mainstream’ literature (hate that term, but it’s convenient and everyone knows what it means), while mainstream authors can be as adept at using the tropes of sf and fantasy as genre writers. In short, Lethem’s alternate history is a true history, albeit unrecognised.

All of which is true, and has certainly been true for all kinds of crossover and slipstream works since 1973, if not much earlier. But you can find a different kind of secret history of sf in another book, Sin-a-rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties, which collects together all kinds of lurid covers and essays by publishers and authors, including one by Robert Silverberg in which he describes how he wrote 150 softcore sleaze novels in five years for fun and profit. Harlan Ellison and Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote sleaze novels, too; so did mystery writer Donald Westlake, and a number of other well-known authors. At the time, Silverberg explains, ‘A dozen or so magazines for which I had been writing regularly ceased publication overnight; and as for the tiny market for s-f novels . . . it suddenly became so tight that unless you were one of the first-magnitude stars like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov you were out of luck.’ Silverberg turned to the sleaze trade as a way of earning a living, and discovered that it was also a valuable apprenticeship: ‘It isn’t just that I earned enough by writing them to pay for that big house and my trips to Europe. I developed and honed important professional skills, too, while I was pounding out all those books.’

Sf publishing has always been a chancy, hand-to-mouth affair for most. It imploded again in the early 1980s, and there are signs that it’s about to implode again. And because they can’t hope for sinecure positions in creative writing in universities (although that’s changing, now), sf writers have always been ready to turn their hands and minds to the kind of writing that can be churned out quickly and profitably. In the golden age of the pulps, the 1940s and 1950s, sf authors like James Blish or Frederik Pohl were capable of banging out one story for Amazing in the morning and another for Stirring Sports Stories in the afternoon (and barely made a living at it - see for instance Pohl’s fine memoir The Way the Future Was, or the roman-a-clef opening of Blish’s Jack of Eagles, in which the penniless hero pours tea on his cornflakes because he can’t afford milk). While Silverberg et al were working in the titillation trade in the US, over here in the UK Michael Moorcock was editing New Worlds with one hand and writing Sexton Blake adventures with the other, while many of his contemporaries were writing westerns, biker novels and, yes, sexploitation novels. A little later, Kim Newman and Neil Gaiman worked for the British soft porn magazine Knave. And sf writers today are also working in comics and graphic novels, novels based on role-playing games (Kim Newman and a slew of authors associated with Interzone in the 1990s wrote innovative and highly successful short stories novels for Games Workshop), film tie-ins . . .

These days, of course, there are plenty of sf writers who didn’t come up through pulps, or via sf fandom. But it was in the febrile arena of pulp sf that many tropes and imagery in common sf toolkit was generated and shared and elaborated upon (apart from all those ideas invented by HG Wells and Jules Verne). And while sf can sometimes aspire to the condition of literature, just as literature can sometimes aspire to the condition of sf, and while there are plenty of so-called literary qualities which all writers should aspire to master, and every kind of bad writing in whatever field should be rightly despised, there are values outside of the literary canon that have their own intrinsic worth.

The themes and tropes of sf have become part of pop culture and the happening world. Most of the writers in the sf genre use them as if they were real, most writers outside it use them metaphorically or allegorically. Both can produce works of lasting value, but one is looking forward, and the other is looking back. Think of these two secret histories as poles of a magnet, with sf inhabiting the field lines stretched between them: a continuum in which the only borderlines are those writers choose to draw around themselves.


Blogger RFYork said...

It sounds like Knave might have been a clone of Playboy. Playboy has been, and continues to be, a mainstay of the short fiction world for decades. The magazine has some of the highest rates for story writers.

Scott Turow, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Clancy, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Stanley Elkin, and Margaret Atwood have published writing with playboy.

(I actually found that list through Google which pointed me to a porn site.)

There are a few other high end short story outlets in the US, such as The New Yorker. But, few of them have any record of publishing genre fiction. The only writers in The New Yorker one might consider genre would be Stephen King and Jonathan Lethem.

November 19, 2009 9:05 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Imagine Heffner in Y fronts and a string vest. That's Knave.(Apologies for the mind-scarring.)

at the other end of the spectrum, am I wrong in thinking that Ursula Le Guin has been published in the New Yorker?

November 19, 2009 10:25 pm  
Anonymous Nader Elhefnawy said...

Interesting piece, especially in its indirect approach to a pretty important bit of genre history.

I'm interested in your mention that there are signs of another implosion in the science fiction novel market, however, and what might be driving it. The general economic downturn (and the panic in publishing broadly), or other factors more specific to the business?

November 19, 2009 10:38 pm  
Blogger RFYork said...

Oooh! Did you really have to say that? Yuck, I'm now stuck with that image. Maybe I should go look at a centerfold to cleanse my imagination.

I don't know if LeGuin was published in The New Yorker but here's a page at their website where LeGuin discusses "The Left Hand of Darkness":

I also believe that "The Dispossessed" may be the greatest Utopian novel of the 20th century.

November 19, 2009 10:41 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Nader, here in the UK there's certainly a lot less sf being published as sf, and a lot more teen vampire and alt history w/dragons stuff. But there's quite a bit of diffusion sf, so maybe the genre isn't so much imploding as dissolving.

RFY - a discussion of an sf novel certainly counts for something. And come to think of it, the New Yorker has published Stephen King this past month. Boundaries seem less tangible than some would have us think.

November 19, 2009 10:54 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

I was relevantly disappointed yesterday. Here in Uppsala Sweden there's a (so-called) Academic Bookshop very close to my apartment. I go there at least once a week, to look for new SF, pop-physics, physics, maths, and psychology. Last Thursday's visit dismayed me. I went straight to the SF/F section, which less than a year ago had a reasonably good, varied, assortment. Well, I saw lots of F but far less SF than I have ever seen there since I moved to Uppsala last 8 January. I was glad to see a large row of Alastair Reynolds' books, but except for some Card (which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot tractor beam), nothing struck my eye.
I wondered if this was a sign of what I'll now call the implosion. I'm not sure. My fine city (with a world-class university) hosts the excellent Uppsala English Bookshop. There one can indeed find lots of the best recent SF, neatly separated from the F. All depends, I guess, on the SF sales at the UEB. I hope they are good. I do know that many Uppsalafans (as we call ourselves) buy there. I certainly do. But still, I wonder what's going on at that so-called Academic place, which has little enough to offer in any academic category. Lots of mushy pop-psychology can be found there, but almost no pure math. So I suspect intellectual dumbing down at the university. I hope I'm wrong.

November 20, 2009 7:12 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

George - yr absolutely right: customers can have an effect on what's stocked, not only by what they buy, but also by what they ask a shop to place on order.

From Locus:
New F novels: 439
New Paranormal Romances: 328
New SF novels: 249
New Horror: 175
That's only SF/F novels labelled as such of course, but still...

November 20, 2009 9:49 am  
Blogger George Berger said...

Not pretty at al Paul. I hope to post a sad story about my first and last attempt to promote good British SF in Holland's most intellectually advanced rag. I'll post it on thisi blog.

November 20, 2009 11:08 am  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Stanislaw Lem appeared in The New Yorker a few times, some of tose appearances translated by Michael Kandel, which could, I guess, qualify as a double genre-incursion.

My personal favorite secret sf history fantasy has always been of Harold Ross and, later, William Shawn, editing Astounding/Analog instead of Campbell.

November 20, 2009 11:46 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

As one of those SF writers who also does comics/tie-ins/etc., I want to point out that I have a "sinecure" teaching creative writing and American lit at the University of Maine. But if five courses a year and a full load of advising and thesis projects is a sinecure, nobody told me.

(Also, before people ask: no, I've never encountered anything in the way of genre bigotry at UMaine. Everyone there takes what I do seriously; or if they don't, they don't say anything about it.)

The New Yorker has published a number of George Saunders short stories that you'd have to consider at least genre-inflected.

November 23, 2009 7:07 pm  
Anonymous David Mosley said...

I need to correct one small factual inaccuracy in the article:

"...over here in the UK Michael Moorcock was editing New Worlds with one hand and writing Sexton Blake adventures with the other..."

Although Moorcock had edited the Sexton Blake Library in the late '50s, he only wrote one single Sexton Blake story at the time, 'Caribbean Crisis', which was co-written with James Cawthorn and then re-written (before publication in 1962) by the SBL editor (Bill Howard?) who replaced all of Moorcock/Cawthorn's pro-Castro sentiments with anti-Castro ones.

What Moorcock was doing during the NW years was mostly writing comic strips for Fleetway titles such as 'Lion' and 'Valiant'. He wrote (or re-wrote) three Nick Allard spy novels for Compact Books - who also published his sf novels written under both his own name and various pseudonyms - and in the late '60s 'churned out' the Hawkmoon novels in three days apiece to support NW itself.

The sixties is the decade when Moorcock wrote the majority of his sf novels - the Michael Kane trilogy, 'The Twilight Man', 'The Wrecks of Time', 'The Sundered Worlds', the Hawkmoon quartet, 'The Ice Schooner', 'The Final Programme', etc. - but what he was *not* writing I'm afraid were Sexton Blake stories.

November 24, 2009 1:12 pm  
Anonymous David Mosley said...

Incidentally, during the '60s, while he was editing 'New Worlds', Moorcock did edit a short-lived soft-porn magazine called 'Golden Nugget', which mostly repackage an American title but also featured a number of other NW writers such as JG Ballard and Langdon Jones (though not in the pictorials thankfully). More information about this little-known publication and Moorcock's involvement with it can be found at if anyone's interested.

November 24, 2009 1:32 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Alex, I didn't mean to imply all creative writing positions are sinecures - far from it. But - perhaps more in the past than the present - there have been examples of authors appointed to academic positions because of who they are rather than what they can do. That's what I was thinking of. A better example might be the MacArthur Fellows Program, which has begun to include genre authors. Good to hear that genres of all kinds are taken seriously, in Maine; another sign that the us/them high/low culture wars are becoming a thing of the past. The New Yorker's fiction selections have been very interesting, the past few years...

David, thanks for the correction re Sexton Blake. Serves me right for relying on my faulty and partial memory; your examples are even better. Had never heard of 'Golden Nugget' before! In the 1990s, a pron/technology mag, 'Rage' reprinted a bunch of SF short stories, including one of mine. So it goes.

November 25, 2009 10:37 am  

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