Monday, June 18, 2018

The Predator Editor

It has become common now to blame John Campbell and his clique of writers for many of the long-standing evils affecting the genre of science fiction. But as the crazy years of the 1970s showed, Campbell has no monopoly on the ruin of the genre. He wasn't even the first to set American science fiction's course. And at least he paid his authors.

I had long known about pulp writers' valid complaints about Hugo Gernsback and his miserly approach to payments. But thanks to a tip from Deuce at The Swords of Robert E. Howard board, I learned the effect Gernsback's greed had on the writing in the genre.

Darrell Schweitzer's "Why Stanley G. Weinbaum Still Matters" (found in his The Threshold of Forever: Essays and Reviews) begins by describing a low point of quality in imaginative fiction already in place in the 1920s. The usual suspects earn their blame, including a rise in Realism as being the only real literature. Then:
"...things got worse when the first product actually marketed as science fiction was Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, which began with the April 1926 issue. In orthodox fannish histories, this event is called 'the birth of science fiction.' The truth is a lot more complicated."
First, a little background.
"Gernsback was a strange combination of visionary, entrepreneur, incompetent, and crook. He was the first person to see some use for what he originally called "scientifiction" as educational pro-science propaganda, and he figured out how to market it. Unfortunately, he simply was not a literary person at all, and seems to have been completely insensitive to what we would today call 'literary value.' He also did not believe in paying his writers except, all too often, under threat of lawsuit. [...] How did Gernsback treat [H. P. Lovecraft]? He paid him, reluctantly, well after publication, a fifth of a cent a word, a rate so insulting that before long HPL and all his circle referred to Gernsback as 'Hugo the Rat.'"
You can imagine the effect that this had on authors.
"Unsurprisingly, the real pros, the top science fiction writers of the day, such as Ray Cummings, Murrary Leinster, Ralph Milne Farley, and A. Merrit, may have been reprinted in Gernsback's various publications, but they did not write original stories for him. Who wanted a fifth of a cent on threat of lawsuit when Argosy paid one to two cents a word on acceptance, very reliably? This was the same Gernsback who reprinted many stories by H. G. Wells until he stiffed Wells once too often and lost him as a contributor. 
"The result was that the actual science fiction magazines, Amazing and Wonder Stories particularly, were a backwater in science fiction."
Not only did Gernsback thus form the science fiction ghetto of genre, the literary quality of the stories tanked.
"Most of the non-reprint content of the early Amazing was decidedly non-pulp. The writers did not have--or need--the routine storytelling skills required by, say, a western or adventure story magazine."
Here Schweitzer uses pulp as a synonym for professional.

When spoiled by the bounty of Weird Tales, it is easy to view Asimov's various stabs at pulp writing as the sort of chest-pounding self-promotion at the expense of the past that we've come to expect from science fiction. But after a decade of works like "The Electric Duel" preceding the Campbelline Revolution, perhaps there's a bit more truth in his claims.

Gernback's greed ghettoized science fiction away from mainstream adventure fiction, ran out the popular and talented writers, leaving only the amateurs who would write for little to nothing at all. And it's from these leavings that the first fans and conventions welled up. I can now understand the almost religious reverence given Astounding. Even before Campbell, the magazine paid more and demanded more from its writers, and served as a refuge for fans from the dreck. The problem is, Astounding was a ghetto within a ghetto, and no more the mainstream of science fiction as was Amazing.

Perhaps if Gernsback wasn't such a rat, some of the vitality and mainstream presence of science fiction might have been preserved. Unfortunately, he chose to beggar his writers while lining his pockets, and he loved writers too new and too poor to find a lawyer.


  1. Out of curiosity, did either Amazing's or Thrilling Winder Stories' approaches change after Gernsback was pushed out in 1929 and 1936 respectively?

    1. I'm less read up on Thrilling Wonder Stories, but Amazing's rates didn't change right away, as Astounding was the first pulp-rate SF magazine upon its founding in 1930. It would take twenty years for Amazing to set sales records still unequaled, but it never, for various reasons, really recovered its prestige.