Monday, December 19, 2016

A View of The Crazy Years

A recently republished Poul Anderson interview from 1975 sheds some light on the state of publishing in the 1970s:
TANGENT: What do you think of the pulps, now that they are all but dead?

ANDERSON: Well, the pulp magazines are dead, and the magazine field generally is in a bad way. But I’d say that the old-fashioned pulp novel at least is flourishing as well as ever. It seems they’ve moved over into the paperback books.

But, now, obviously the more markets there are from a writer’s viewpoint the better, not only from a pecuniary viewpoint, but the more activity there is going on, the more vitality there will be in any given field, and the more chance for people to experiment and find new directions and so on. So, yes, I certainly regret the shrinkage of the short story market on such grounds.

TANGENT: What about the short story anthology as a replacement?

ANDERSON: To some extent they’re stepping in to fill that need, but the fact is though, that for whatever reason, by and large, short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. Evidently fewer readers wish to buy a short story collection.

TANGENT: What do you think of the cycles and trends in science fiction, if they exist at all?

ANDERSON: Well, I think Algis Budrys put it very well once—a passing remark in a review or something: ‘Trends are for second-raters.’ There seems to be an occasional bandwagon, but what really happens is somebody has come along and broken new ground, done something original, and it’s worth exploring, you know, so naturally we all get interested—a lot of us try ourselves out in it too. But as far as making that an all-time direction or something, that is only what people incapable of originality would do. The originators, the ground breakers, they’ve gone on to something else.

I think, basically, that Jim Baen is right in his new direction. Not that there should be any declared moratorium on down-beat stories, but it does look as if that theme has been pretty well worked out, for the time being at least. What new disasters can you think of that haven’t already been done? (Laughs) You get these cycles, you know, about ten years or so ago, there was such a rash of stories, about psionics especially, and we all got sick of ‘psi’, and about ten years before that there’d been such a rash of anti-utopian things, especially bad imitations of The Space Merchants. I at least got the feeling that if I read one more of those I’d have to go and throw up.
Reading this interview, smack in the middle of the 1970s, further cements some of the impressions of the time I got after read Malzberg's Breakfast in the Ruins.  Starting with the death of John W. Campbell in 1971 and ending with the Thor Power case in 1979, science fiction publishing was getting hammered again and again.

John Campbell's death in 1971 extinguished a guiding light for the genre.  Campbell continued as a magazine editor for years after the age bearing his name had passed, only stopping when they laid his body to rest.  Evidence of his continuing influence can be seen in Anderson's interview, as Campbell coined the term "psionics" and promoted the idea, beyond the point of saturation into hoary cliche, a good ten years after "The Cold Equations" murdered the Campbelline Age.  When Campbell passed, a friend of Barry Malzberg remarked, "The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there's no one to get mad at us anymore."  

Campbell's death also coincided with another collapse of the short fiction market. Science fiction as a short fiction market had survived the death of the pulps in the 1950s, and continued through the 1960s as the main voice in the great conversation between science fiction writers. But changing times, and yet another swing towards the literary, had run short fiction sales into the ground. While some of the magazines survived, even to this day, they no longer held the prominence once held in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The novel took its place. But as the Anderson interview shows, the short novel format of the pulps, 40,000-60,000 words, and science fiction serials, including translations of international series like Perry Rhodan, flourished for a time.

A change of the guard in editors accompanied the shift from magazines to books. Magazine editors tended to be active writers with a connection to the history of the genre. Even though many Golden Age and New Wave writers looked down on their pulp forebears, they were also involved in translating these works into new media, such as television, movies, and graphic novels. However, the book editors were university graduates, without an understanding of the history of the genre. From his vantage point in 1980, Malzberg derisively pointed out for many of the newer editors, their understanding of the genre only began with the books of Harlan Ellison. This would put works from before 1958 outside of their frame of reference, including the pulps, the Campbelline era, and even much of the Golden Age stories. As the new gatekeepers, the book editors would select works that reflected their vision of the genre; one that had been divorced from science fiction's past. And, since short story anthologies did not sell, there was little incentive for editors to familiarize themselves with the short works of the pulps, Campbells, and Golden Age.

As books took over, so too did the economics of the book market. Publishers made more money off of larger books, so the length of the average novel grew, first to 80,000 words, then to 100,000 and beyond. This trend continues to this day, with TOR bragging about creating new book binding technology to handle the 400,000 words of Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance as recent as 2014. The pulp novel format, with its shorter length, was not as cost-effective as the longer stories. Nor could multiple pulp novels be easily combined into a single volume. So newer works written to the longer formats were favored over the old. Even the international serials, which evolved from the pulp formats, fell victim to this trend.

Much has been written of the two black swans of 1977; Star Wars and the epic fantasy explosion. Both represented a sea change in the type of stories readers demanded, representing types of stories that publishers had not been offering before. Preference shifted away from the works of the Golden Age and the New Wave, from the dystopias of the early 70s to more hopeful adventures. Epic fantasy also contributed to the growing word counts of the novel.

Finally, in early 1979, the Supreme Court announced its decision on Thor Power Tool Company vs. Commissioner, essentially rewriting the tax code covering inventories. This made the extensive backlists held in publishers' warehouses a liability. Almost overnight, the publishers pulped thousands of titles, effectively killing off the backlists including a large number of older titles. SFWA and many writers see this as the act that caused the divorce between science fiction and its past. However, it is better understood as the final blow in a series of calamities.

Given the turmoil of the decade, even more trends and events leading to the transformation of science fiction and fantasy may be discovered. However, it is clear from Malzberg that the world of science fiction in 1980 was fundamentally different from the world of science fiction in 1970, and he was uncertain if the changes were for the better. Anderson sheds a little light on the progress of various changes already well under way in 1975.

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