Friday, August 19, 2011

FFB: the critical legacy of the Futurians...

Frederik Pohl is credited with getting it all going, sort of. He was the young editor of Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, nineteen when he started in 1940. His magazines were published by the discount line, "Fictioneers," of the Popular Publications pulp house...so he was getting less per week than the lowest-paid secretaries at Popular, and was expected to write for his own magazines. One way he did so was in writing book reviews...and, unusually for the pulps, he took his best shot at applying technical literary criticism to the books under discussion. Slightly younger member of the NYC-based sf-fannish group the Futurians (which included Pohl) Damon Knight took that as his model, for his reviews in fanzines and then for reviews in professional sf magazines, and so did James Blish, who chose to write his criticism under the pseudonym William Atheling, Jr. (after Ezra Pound's use of "William Atheling" for his own critical work...in its turn a reference to an historical figure among English royalty).


Donald Wollheim, one of the few members of the Futurians (slightly) older than Pohl (and the primary rival of Pohl's in the factionalism that developed in the Futurian Society) had published before Pohl, but became an editor afterward, and for an even less-well-bankrolled publisher...and his critical writing was somewhat less prominently published, as he focused on his editorial and publishing career. For that matter, Pohl never published a volume of critical writing, while Wollheim restricted himself to the survey The Universe Makers, a chatty review of broad themes published in 1971. Pohl has contributed to various anthologies of critical writing over the years, such as those edited by R. Bretnor, and had a column, "Pohlemic," devoted to criticism of literature among many other things as they occurred to him in the magazine Algol, later Starship, in the 1970s.


But Knight and Blish published books of their critical writing early on, Knight winning the first Hugo Award for nonfiction with the 1956 first edition of his In Search of Wonder, and Blish as Atheling, Jr. following up in 1964 with the first of what would eventually be three volumes of his collected critical writings, The Issue at Hand, both these volumes published by the small house devoted to sf criticism and historical writing, Advent: Publishers.

Advent is for the most part sustained these days by the NESFA Press, the New England SF Society imprint that grew out of the MIT-based fan group responsible for a wide range of Boston-area fannish activity, including the Boskone conventions, and the books in tribute to Boskone guests. Thus a relatively early NESFA Press publication, collecting the historical and critical essays of the third magazine editor to come out of the Futurians, Robert A. W. Lowndes, who published the contents of his The Three Faces of Science Fiction as editorials in his 1960s magazine Famous Science Fiction; despite some impressive reprints and new fiction in that Very low-budget magazine, Lowndes's essays were often the highlights of a given issue.


So...amidst a slow trickle, at first, of critical and historical works about sf beginning to appear in boards, beginning with Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's anthology of essays Of Worlds Beyond and J. O. Bailey's augmented PhD thesis Pilgrims in Time and Space in 1947, about half up through the early '70s had come from the ex-Futurians noted here...and these were among the most important books of my early reading...along with autobiographical and biographical works that these folks, and such fellow ex-Futurians as Judith Merril and Dave Kyle, would write and have published (most in the 1970s), along with those who were influenced heavily by the work of these folks (including Joanna Russ, to some extent Ursula K. Le Guin, Barry Malzberg, Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldiss and particularly Algis Budrys, all of whom produced their own collections of critical writings that have been covered by others and/or myself in this series of FFB posts). As Budrys would note in the 1970s, Blish brought a better literary (and, as a student of music and Shaw's criticism, critical) education to the task, but Knight was even better at stating clearly and forcefully his technical and other sorts of assessment of a given work. All, however, are valuable, particularly when compared to such lesser work in the same vein as that offered by Sam Lundwall and Alexei Panshin, among many others who followed the pioneers...or Sam Moskowitz, who attempted to do important work contemporaneously with these folks, and sometimes did so well, but usually didn't.


For more, and probably more amusing and fully-realized, examples of today's choices of books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

9 comments:

Ed Gorman said...

Your knowledge of so many things amazes me as I've said many times Todd. Boy this post takes me back to my fanzine days in the fifties and early sixties. I liked Blish's fiction but I always thought his reviews were a little bit bookish. I was reading Mailer and a lot of the Beats at that time and when they reviewed books the pages were on fire. I always suspected that Damon Knight wrote out of envy as much as his real taste. He was ruthless in judging Richard Matheson and anybody who could make nice guy Jerry Sohl tear up because of the harshness of the review (Bob Tucker told this story) is a grade-A asshole as far as I'm concerned. Knight wrote a number of classic stories but he as a novelist he didn't have a clue.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Ed...I try to keep up..

Damon Knight finally learned how to write a good novel in the last decade of his life, with CV and its sequels (THE OBSERVERS, A REASONABLE LIFE) and HUMPTY DUMPTY...his heart never seemed in it in the earlier attempts, even the sort of tribute to Heinlein (which nonetheless also mocked some of Heinlein's pet notions) that was A FOR ANYTHING (even given the brilliant, despairing short story that serves as the prelude. I think you have a better case with Mailer than Knight that the reviews were driven by envy...but, then, Mailer (like Kerouac) could barely stand any available attention not being focused on himself...but Knight at his most cutting was more often compared to a grizzly bear, rather than the usual term used in Blish's case, "waspish"...I'd heard from another source that Sohl was both laughing and tearing up a bit over the POINT ULTIMATE review.

George said...

I was a fan of Knight's ORBIT anthologies. But I've never understood why some reviewers write cruel assessments of books.

Todd Mason said...

Well, as Algis Budrys put as a credo, "A book should be good. If we growl [at this point I'm in paraphrase] at the writers of bad books, perhaps they will do better or go away."

Also, George, anything negative about a work in a review can be seen as cruel...you've, as far as I know, never written a savage review, but your negative assessments of stories in, say, Terry Carr's YEAR'S FINEST FANTASY (1978) could be seen by an oversensitive writer, and goodness knows by a partisan of that writer, as cruel or unnecessarily harsh or simply as unperceptive. Even where I disagreed with your assessments in that particular review, I wouldn't say that, but the theoretical UberFan might well...and certainly the web is full of those and those who enjoy pretending to be such.

Which leads us to another reason for the creatively savage review, or an attempt at one...to be entertaining. Review columns such as the ones ANALOG has tended to run under Stanley Schmidt, or Floyd Gold's in GALAXY after Groff Conklin quit, tend to be deadly dull in part because they go out of their way not to speak frankly about bad work. You might've thought that Lester Del Rey and Spider Robinson, the primary reviewers in the magazine after Schuyler Miller's death during Ben Bova's editorship, were too opinionated and prone to hyperbole...I would just tend to disagree with them, particularly to the extent that Del Rey resented anything that wasn't a plain tale plainly told and Robinson insisted that Heinlein could do no wrong, but they were more fun to read even while very wrong.

So, a genuine passion for literary art and a desire to make the work of reviewing and criticism (allied but not identical tasks) tend, I think, to color even the reviewing of a Mailer, where ego and self-congratulation are also strong...or of a Alfred Bester, who in his F&SF columns particularly was always trying to work out his own mixed feelings about the sf and fantasy fields and the response of the fannish community to any kind of rigorous scrutiny of any work, as well as trying to perform such scrutiny.

And Knight moved away from criticism and toward instruction in the 1960s, and any number of critics and reviewers are sometimes less happy as the years pass with their passionate assessments of their youth...at least two I know have either publicly or privately expressed regret about some of the more damning statements they'd made earlier.

Todd Mason said...

And then there's the book like ANARCHAOS, where a writer who presumably does know better chooses to blatantly insult a few of the noblest people who have lived, to lie about them (this is not a matter of disagreement, in this case, but of either vast ignorance or intentional misrepresentation) and their work for the purposes of a hack premise for a novel. That, even or particularly when the writer can and has done better in nearly every instance, deserves all the remonstration it can get, and certainly more than it's gotten.

Richard R. said...

I read IN SEARCH OF WONDER waaaay back when, remember nothing at all about it and lost it somewhere along the way. I still think my favorite SF reviewer was P. Schyler Miller...

Todd Mason said...

Yes, but Rick, you are an '50s/'60s ANALOG partisan...he was the reviewer for your own golden age!

K. A. Laity said...

Whereas snark now seems to the order of the day for mainstream reviews: the NYT certainly lives for it, nothing doing but they either fawn over someone like Franzen or mercilessly skewer lesser mortals. Tedious and predictable and *not* indicative of whether there's any quality and if so, what kind of reader might be drawn to it -- which seems to me to be the point of reviewing, but then again, I'm just a foolish writer so I don't know anything.

Todd Mason said...

Well, when you consider how much effort it takes to find lesser mortals than Franzen, now wonder...the poor dears are bitter with exhaustion.