Thursday, November 10, 2016

Breakfast in the Ruins, by Barry Malzberg

As part of the slow process of digesting "Our Pulp Fiction Heritage", I started reading through one of the sources listed within: Barry Malzberg's Breakfast in the Ruins.  Written mostly in 1980, it offers a critical yet lionized view of publishing history in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when science fiction was separate from fiction and magazines replaced the pulps.

In it, he describes how the Campbell branch of science fiction was centered around a group of about 50 people doing 90% of the editing and writing. Entering the field at the time was reliant on access to this Central Fifty, as he called them. He says that it is possible to speculate that an entire alternative science fiction likely languished in the slush piles without those connections. And yet to work in the field, you had to be current on what that Central Fifty was doing because the train of thought in the genre was moving so quickly. I had previously considered science fiction to be a regional literature centered around New York and its SF clubs.  Malzberg instead indicates that science fiction was instead a literature of a clique.  One wonders if this contributed to the limited appeal of science fiction through the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Henry Kuttner rises high in the esteem of these pages, greater than either the ABC Big Three or van Vogt, Asimov, and Heinlein.  His wife and writing partner, Catherine "C. L." Moore, unfortunately, was an afterthought.  Since the couple often worked together in such creative harmony that neither could tell who wrote which passage, seeing her credit denied was a disappointment.  I look forward to acquainting myself with both of their works.

Further observations include Malzberg noticing that to the new science fiction editors of the 70s, science fiction began with Ellison in the 60s and they had slight knowledge of the Campbells or the pulps.  This was due in part to the collapse of the magazine markets and the rise of the book as the main serving of science fiction stories.  Unfortunately, this would be yet another in a series of erasures divorcing science fiction from its past. 

Take these observations with a grain of salt.  Malzberg provides a somewhat heroic view of the  clique of science fiction writers, even when dealing with their faults.


UPDATE:  As I prefer to have quotes for support when possible, here are Barry Malzberg's word on the insularity of Campbell science fiction:
1) "Modern" science fiction, generally dated as having begun in late 1937 with the ascent of Campbell, was a literature centered around a compact group of people. It was no Bloomsbury but there could have been no more than fifty core figures who did 90 percent of the writing and the editing. All of them knew one another, most knew one another well, lived together, married one another, collaborated, bought each other's material, married each other's wives and so on. For a field which was conceptually based upon expansion, the smashing of barriers, the far-reaching and so on, science fiction was amazingly insular. One could fairly speculate that this insularity and parochialism were the understandable attempts of frightened human beings faced with terra incognita to hold on to one another and to make their personal lives as limited and interconnected as possible. It could be speculated further that this parochialism shut off an entire alternative science fiction. (Alexei Panshin has intimated this possibility but not this particular set of reasons.) Who is to know what writers and manuscripts not connected in any way to the Central Fifty languished in slush piles or in stamped, self-addressed envelopes? Science fiction simply was not for them; it was being cooked up in offices and bars and bedrooms and apartment houses; people would stream from Central to write it all up in their own way and send it back in (and then write up next month's issue taking up the stuff already laid down in print), but the field was based on personal access and very few writers and stories were getting into the magazines without personal acquaintance with other writers and with the editors. The first thing that Damon Knight did in the forties as a science fiction writer manque was to accept Fred Pohl's invitation to come out from Oregon to Brooklyn and live with the Futurian Club; the young Asimov was introduced to present contributors by Campbell before Asimov had sold a word; Malcolm Jameson, pensioned off by the Navy for medical reasons, began to write science fiction (and became, briefly, an Astounding regular in the mid-forties) at the urgings of his old friend and fellow Navy officer Robert A. Heinlein.
Malzberg on the editors of the 1970s and 80s:
Conglomeratization of publishing has had and will probably continue to have a numbing effect upon most work that does not fit neatly into the balance sheet, "literary" work, that is to say, or work of political or social controversy. But it is less a question here of censorship than of self-censorship; given only a marginal understanding of science fiction and only a superficial grasp of its history (to most contemporary science fiction editors "modern" science fiction began with Harlan Ellison, and they have only the most superficial acquaintance with the work of the forties, fifties, and even nineteen-sixties), these editors tend to publish what looks like science fiction and their view is necessarily parochial and, granted the nature of Conglomeratization, not without fear. "Most science fiction editors seem mostly to seek the assurance that they are doing nothing wrong," Samuel R. Delany writes in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, "and since I cannot grant them this assurance I stay away from most of them."


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