Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Warnings from Hamilton and Brackett

The final look at Tangent Online's 1976 interview with Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton ends with some warnings for science fiction writers. #PulpRev would do well to consider them.
BRACKETT: I would hate to see the field become introverted; to see it become kind of an in joke where everybody's using each others stuff...writing for each other, instead of the public...which can happen. I hope it will always retain that openness and freedom to move in any direction. You have new talent coming out all the time; you have new ideas, great new paths. And I think this is good. I would hate to see anything happen to it to close it in. 
HAMILTON: Some years ago the late Schuyler Miller, writing in Astounding Stories I think, warned of that danger. He pointed out that the detective story had almost gotten itself into a straitjacket, the mystery story around 1930 when the rules were laid down, where things must be done this way or that way. By the late 20's they were trying to formalize it. And then along came Chandler and Hammett and broke all the rules and gave it new life. 
BRACKETT: Remember that ultimately though, the editor, whether a book has a beginning, a middle, and an end—or has none of these—will not buy it if it does not sell. That is the final word on what editors eventually do. 
Remember in the 50's there was a particularly vocal group in the science fiction community that impressed all the editors in New York that science fiction had changed, it was totally different, and now it's this and nothing else. And they tried publishing this kind of thing and the magazines died. Remember Howard Brown's long “Folks I'm Bleeding” editorial? It was like there aren't enough of you out there to keep the magazine going and I've just got to publish the stuff that sells. It eventually settles itself that way. 
HAMILTON: Of course with these “revolutions” in science fiction it always comes out to about the same thing. Somebody comes along and breaks all the rules, and they're successful at it, like Hammett and Chandler did long ago in the detective story. Ray Bradbury I think was good for the field in that sense. What he was writing was not science fiction, but it was so damn good that it had to be included in science fiction. I think you'll always have this cycle, where somebody tries to formalize it, and becomes High Priest or Priestess of the Cult, and as you say, Leigh, it becomes an in joke. People can have a delightful time writing for each other but they lose the public. That doesn't mean you have to pander to low taste, it just means that science fiction ought to have a thousand different doors to go through and not be confined to anybody's idea.
Part of the text of Howard Browne's March 1955 editorial is reproduced below:
 "Not enough readers will buy the magazine to justify the tremendous costs involved. It was your editor’s argument that a magazine containing the best of everything in the science-fiction field — best paper for best reproduction of the best artwork illustrating the best stories, plus the use of color — would bring a couple of hundred thousand steady readers every issue. We were wrong — and the figures were not long in arriving to prove us wrong. Sure, circulation mounted, but nothing like it had to justify the expense involved. We stuck to our guns as long as we could, but the day arrived when retrenchment was in order. We hated to back down; but in view of the circumstances it would have been foolhardy not to."
(A quick reminder on circulation numbers: the average SFF magazine brought in 50,000 readers every issue. Amazing set records at 200,000 per issue. Browne was betting that the hardcore approach of a small but vocal group of readers would translate into record appeal. As usual, it did not.)

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