Taking Care When Biting the Bear

Some days you might bite the bear…
But take care or the bear may bite you…

Bear Eating

It has often been said, and rightly so, that there is little value in an author complaining about what others say about their work. No matter how wrong-headed an author might think such opinions, in the normal course of events complaining about them rarely does the author much good. The problem for any author who feels slighted is that we all form opinions about everything we experience and few of us will happily accept being told our opinions are worthless. Thus when an author uses the argument ‘that X did not understand what I was trying to do’ most of us feel our hackles raise in empathy with the critic.

To argue about anything but clear errors of fact (as Jack Vance once did in response to James Blish) is risky business for this very reason.

Now, true as this might be there remain lines best not crossed. None of us can afford to pontificate in a thoughtless manner if we value our hides. If pride goeth before a fall then such arrogance goeth before a public stoning.

Even offering up an ill-conceived but otherwise relatively harmless review can be especially fraught with danger. No author cares to sit still and be told their work is flawed if the party doing so cannot present a well thought out explanation as to why this is so. Consider the following review written by somebody hiding behind the childishly rude pseudonym of K.U.F. Widderershins (really, only a young teen would think that name clever). Harmless as this well meaning but exceptionally clumsy review is it’s hard to fault the author in question, a notoriously touchy individual as it happens, for making reply. The initial review appeared in Australian Science Fiction Review #5, (published by John Bangsund in December 1966):

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the revamped Impulse* is Keith Robert’s series of stories set in an alternative England. Admittedly, apart from the first issue of the magazine, they have appeared in lacklustre company, but even by themselves the Pavane stories are pleasant reading.

The stories would never have been published in Unknown. The trouble is that although Roberts has gone a long way to construct a believable England, he hasn’t quite reached the standard of logical necessity which Campbell, for example, would have required. Although the author says that the Church has good reasons for suppressing inventions, none of these reasons emerges from the stories. Accepting this fault, however, we can investigate what Roberts has to say.

Pavane itself simply reveals something about the world Roberts dreams of. The Guild of Signallers is a good idea, but one obviously worth expansion to novel length, as perhaps are many other ideas in this series. For no apparent reason, Roberts uses a flashback technique which only serves to confuse the reader slightly. The end of the story is not at all clearly resolved, with two entirely contradictory endings appearing consecutively. Doubtless this has something to do with the unexplained ‘people’.

The other stories – The Lady Anne, Brother John, Lords and Ladies and Corfe Gate – deal with an episode in the history of Robert’s England. They cover a couple of generations, and each of them suffers the fault of appearing to be truncated; for each the resolution is unsatisfactory. It is as though the author himself didn’t really want to finish off the story. Sometimes, as in the case of the original ‘Anne,’ the character is removed in a subsequent story in a way entirely at odds with the character’s previous behaviour. This makes the overall impression rather unsatisfactory, too.

The last story, Corfe Gate, is obviously intended by Roberts to be the best, with characters overflowing with life and reality.

As the series now stands, many questions are unanswered: who are the ‘people’? is Brother John the same man as Sir John the seneschal? (and if not, why not?) We may never discover now the secrets of Cordwainer Smith’s world, but let us hope that Keith Roberts will reveal, in time, just what makes his delightful world tick.

As you can see this is a review which was meant to be a positive one, but with certain reservations. Trouble is the various comments Widdershins offers are too little fleshed out to be useful or even to always make much sense. Widdershins repeatedly commits the sin he accuses Roberts of in that each of his points is truncated to the point of being unsatisfactory. For example Widdershins write that the Guild of Signallers is an idea that deserves a novel-length treatment. Which would be all well and good except he doesn’t go on to explain why he thinks that or if this means Roberts failed to use this idea properly. So Widdershins’ comment feels like nothing more than a random musing left hanging. All in all this review reads like some semi-coherent notes which Widdershins had made in order that he might write a proper review at some future date.

It is hardly surprising then that an acerbic reply appeared in Australian Science Fiction Review #9, (published by John Bangsund in April 1967). Before reading the following letter from Keith Roberts I suggest you put on some sarcasm proof goggles:

I’d like to take this opportunity of thanking you for sending me the various copies of ASFR in which my work has been discussed; I’ve found them informative and excellently produced and thoroughly enjoyed reading them through. BUT, I feel I’ve just got to take exception to the Widdershins report, or review, or whatever he calls it, of Pavane in issue five.

Whoever is lurking behind that noxious pseudonym really should have his head immersed in a vat of treacle, or sheepdip, or whatever bizarre fluid comes most readily to hand Down There. I’ve read bad reports of my work and I’ve read downright vindictive ones but I’ve never come across such an absolute masterpiece of misunderstanding; I’m well aware that widdershins traditionally go backwards but this is really too much. I’ll stress I’m in no way miffed, the thing’s too daft to be taken seriously, but I would like to straighten the poor confused chap out just a bit.

Taking his points in the in the excitingly random order in which he presents them, I’ve said quite clearly at umpteen places in the book just why my postulated Church behaves the way it does. I could I suppose arrange some critic’s copies where a little light comes on or a bell rings when the reader gets to the Author’s Message, but I this might be going a little far. The novel has a post-nuclear setting, embodies the elderly notion of repeating time-cycles, and poses the even more hoary question of the validity of scientific progress; see Brave New World, &c &c &c. Maybe it would have helped Maybe it would have helped Mr. Widdleskin if I’d hyphenated some of the longer words. I’m sorry the stories wouldn’t have been good enough for Unknown, whatever that is, but as I didn’t write them for it I’m not as distressed as I otherwise might be. As a matter of fact I don’t think the quarterly journal of the Ear, Nose and Throat Practitioners of Kuala Lumpur would have gone much of a bundle on them either.

However Mr. Ditherspin successfully confuses the whole issue, with I must admit great skill and economy, before moving on to What I Have To Say. (Armed, one imagines, with deerstalker, calabash and king size magnifying glass.) His first conclusion emerges with lightning-like rapidity; The Signaller is not a novel. This would seem to be a fatal flaw. It could, he growls, have been Expanded. Well, I’m sorry; but sometimes I write novels, sometimes short stories. Authors do that sort of thing. This is exactly the type of critical remark that drives one to a clucking fury; if Mr. Withershin had devised an apparatus for, say, polishing the outer husks of Bomongo nuts, he would be quite justified in losing his temper if I turned around and pointed out that it wouldn’t whitewash pigruns. Signaller was devised as a short story, part of an interlocking set; I never wanted it to be a novel, it never will be a novel; can’t he be more constructive than to pick at it for the thousand and one things it isn’t? He also becomes disturbed at my use of flashback; this, I learn, leaves the reader slightly confused. While manfully repressing the suspicion that Mr. Diddleshin started out just slightly confused, I would still like to know how in the name of ten thousand devils can a death-dream, which is what the whole thing is, flash in any other direction but backwards? If he would lay out for me, in detail, the more logical and polished treatment he no doubt has in mind, I promise to study it with fascination.

To cap it all I discover the story is not after all clearly resolved, with “two entirely contradictory endings appearing consecutively.” Here is the one point at which I rally could emit short bursts of steam from the ears. Does Mr. Hitherthin actually imagine I was so vapid and so totally idle as to be unable to finish the piece? That I – and my editor – simply stuck on a pair of likely ends and left the reader to choose for himself? Did it not cross his mind, even briefly, that he might have missed out somewhere, that he hadn’t in fact understood the first damn thing about the story? The rest of his remarks merely verge on the cretinous; that crack is downright bloody impertinence. He has of course shown himself unable to grasp the central point of The Signaller at all, though I would have thought it was crystal clear; I don’t frankly see how I could have underlined more firmly the parallel between the death of the god and the half-sacrificial death of the boy. Possibly he has never heard of the Baldur myth; that’s fair enough, but I did put down a full version within the story to sort of help him along. Maybe he missed that bit. I would suggest a short course in comparative mythology, kicking off with the Epic of Gilgamesh, working through Venus and Adonis, &c &c, and not missing out on Christ. It wouldn’t take more than three or four years.

And the rest of the stories were unsatisfactorily truncated because I’d got fed up with them. Well, I just couldn’t have realized how bored I was when I was working on them; funny how one can never appreciate one’s own state of mind. I thought I was enjoying myself. And, oh dear, I never did get around to explaining about the People. That’s just my whole trouble, Mr. Sniddlepin; always leaving nuts and bolts off things. But didn’t you ever believe in fairies? Not even when you were a little moron? What a horrid dull life you must have had, I’m so sorry. I’m afraid you sound a bit like a chap I once knew who sent Picasso a ruler and compasses so he could get his lines straighter. And though I’m really pleased you find my little world delightful I’m not going to tell you what makes it tick, I positively decline. You’ll just have to sit out somewhere with an icepack and a nice cool drink and fret about it. I will give you one tiny clue though, since you were really quite nice and jolly about everything. Brother John isn’t the same as Sir John the seneschal.

Why the blue hell would he be, you nit!

Yes, I will admit that Mr Roberts overreacted, his letter clearly reads as more annoyed than he initially claimed to be (or perhaps he found putting the boot into Widdershins too much fun to hold back) and went on at far more length than the review deserved. (“Oh, you don’t say. Thank you for pointing that out,” reply the more sarcastic readers.) However, because the review in question is so frustrating incomplete the normally self-defeating argument ‘that Widdershins did not understand what I was trying to do’ made by Roberts fails to raise reader hackles for once. I imagine most bystanders would be content to stand back and watch Widdeshins being mauled.

However there are worse sins than merely writing a clumsily and carelessly worded review, much worse. Let’s consider the case of James Blish, writing as William Atheling Jr., in Sky Hook #16, (published by Redd Boggs in the winter of 1952/53). In an installment of his column which appeared in that issue Blish commented on (among other things) an Isaac Asimov novel which had just been serialised in Astounding:

The conclusion of The Currents of Space leaves us with another reasonable but dull Asimov novel on our hands, the three installments of which coincided with the three months under review here.

Blish then spent the rest of that paragraph explaining that while The Currents of Space was a very solid novel he, and unnamed others, still felt let down at the end. Naturally Blish has a theory as to why this should be so:

The main reason is stylistic. Asimov is a highly circumstantial writer, sharing with Heinlein and Norman L. Knight the ability to visualise his imagined world in great detail, so that it seems lived-in and perfectly believable. He does not, however, share Heinlein’s lightness of touch; instead, he more greatly resembles Knight in writing everything with considerable weight and solidarity, turning each sentence into a proposition, a sort of lawyer’s prose which is clear without at any time becoming pellucid.

This kind of style is perfectly suited for a story which is primarily reflective in character, such as Asimov’s recent robot yarns. It is also just what is required for a story in which history is the hero and the fate of empires is under debate. What Asimov has been writing lately, however, beginning with Tyrann**, has been the action story, to which he seems to have turned more or less at random after his long Foundation project reached its culmination. And the action story cannot be written in that kind of style. Why? Because a style that ponderous, that portentous, constantly promises to the reader much more than even the most complex action story can deliver. The tone of The Currents of Space justified any reader in expecting that in the last installment Asimov would at the very least rend the heavens in twain. The plot provided no such encouragement, but the style did. Instead, Asimov blew up one sun under circumstances which could hurt no one but one man who wanted to die, and we are left wondering why this very workmanlike novel “somehow” didn’t satisfy us, why it “let down at the end.”

Now while I don’t agree with James Blish as to why The Currents of Space is a rather dull novel (and I have to wonder just what he meant by calling Asimov a ‘circumstantial writer‘), I can’t fault him for expressing the opinions quoted above. Describing The Currents of Space as ‘dull‘ may seem harsh but whether you agree with such an assessment or not Blish does go on to defend his assessment without getting personal. Reading these comments may be a bitter pill to swallow if you happen to be called Isaac Asimov but nobody could say that Blish has been dishonest in regards to what he wrote.

So far, so good but then in a subsequent installment of the William Atheling column (which appeared in Skyhook #20, Winter 1953/54) Asimov receives another mention, but not in regards to a newly published story. While writing about a Randall Garrett parody of the executioner’s song from The Mikado that had appeared in the November 1953 issue of F&SF Blish has this to say about Isaac:

Garrett can, of course, do absolutely nothing for about writers like Asimov, who are (1) too likely to bleed at the slightest harsh word to profit by any sort of criticism, and who are (2) still being solicited by editors to carry on their series projects, even in the face of the evidence that the readers have had enough, and even that the writers have had enough, too…  My point #1 was intended to apply primarily to Isaac, who is one of the two or three most easily hurt people in our universe; why, I couldn’t say, but there’s good evidence for it.

While I find Blish’s second point a contentious claim it’s obviously the first one that concerns me here. Regardless of whatever he knows about Asimov, or believes he knows, to make such a claim without presenting supporting evidence to back it up is at the very least both reckless and tactless. Even with clear evidence personal attacks such as this rarely reflect well upon the accuser, so to make such an accusation and back it up with no more than a claim that good evidence exists, but then not present any of it, is little more than cutting one’s own throat.

Of course the wisest response to such calumny is none at all but if the victim must reply it’s best to seize the moral high ground. Something which Asimov, with the support of Anthony Boucher, does to excellent effect. Let’s see how these two gentlemen respond to the Atheling accusation of literary haemophilia.

First Boucher:

I must protest Atheling’s description of Isaac Asimov as “too likely to bleed at the slightest harsh word of criticism…one of the two or three most easily hurt people in our universe.” As a professional reviewer I know the type described, and have a by no means little list of people with whom my personal relations will vary according to the tone of my last review. Asimov is emphatically not among them. I have disliked a number of Isaac’s books in front of (according to the latest ABC figures) 585,725 people, and carried on a perfectly friendly correspondence with the author all the while. I have personally ribbed him about infelicities and received good-humored replies; as an editor I’ve torn a story to shreds and got back a long and sincere thank-you letter. Conceivably Asimov may have displayed irritation at some imperceptive remark of Atheling’s; this, after all, could happen to anybody. But in my own records he goes down as an unusually well-balanced and tolerant professional.

Then Asimov:

I feel sadly moved to answer William Atheling’s statement that Asimov is “too likely to bleed at the slightest harsh word of criticism” and that Asimov is “one of the two or three most easily hurt people in our universe.” I say “sadly” because it seems obvious that argument with Atheling is a losing proposition.

Concerning Randy Garrett’s satire “I’ve Got a Little List” which criticises me, among others, and which Atheling fears can do nothing for me because of my objections to criticism – may I say that when I toastmastered the Philcon on Labor Day eve 1953 I referred to that very poem with great approval, and sang it in full, as well. Several hundred people were there and will bear witness, I have no doubt, that I did not bleed.

As for criticism in general: Mr Atheling’s criticisms are pretty small beer, after all. Now I’ve had comments from gentlemen like Campbell, Gold, and Boucher-McComas, whose barest word of criticism sometimes means the loss of a thousand dollars because it comes in the form of a rejection. I hereby, with the greatest of respect, offer these gentlemen as character references. I will rest my case, sound unheard, on what they have to say concerning my attitude toward criticism. I understand that Mr Boucher has already, of his own unsolicited free will, seen fit to make comments in this matter.

Then why do I bother to answer Mr Atheling if I am not sensitive? Oh, but I am sensitive. Not to literary criticism, to be sure, but to personal criticism on the part of people who do not know me and can scarcely form proper judgements.

Blish is lucky this all happened before the Internet. If such an exchange occurred today I’ve no doubt there would be an impressive dog-pile and I suspect that most of those piling on would be on the side of Asimov.

Call a novel bad and you will certainly get an argument, but unless your opponents are dishonest in their views (and I will grant that such types are hardly uncommon) they will concede that you have a right to your opinion, no matter how wrong-headed they may think it is. Make your comments personal on the other hand and soon enough every hand will be raised against you (well unless you have acolytes willing to defend any and all of your pronouncements, and again I will grant that such are common enough) because any honest third-party will recognise that making personal attacks is hardly playing on a level field. If I were to besmirch the good name of George R.R. Martin by describing him as a theodolite, a coelacanth, a kakemono you would be entirely justified in thinking less of me for making such claims. For how can you know if the inestimable Mr Martin is really any of these things, or if I know the gentleman well enough to make such claims? Simply put, you don’t, and will rightly resent being asked to accept such claims without good and adequate proof. So even if I truly believed George R.R. Martin to be a theodolite, a coelacanth, a kakemono it would be unfair of me to bring such claims into a review of his work. (For the record, I do not think George R.R. Martin is any of these things. Furthermore I will admit to being myself, a coelacanth. However I doubt this will much surprise anybody already familiar with my writings here.)

However, such suicidal behaviour need not be confined to personal criticism. Sometimes honesty isn’t the best policy, especially if it means being honest about practises that are difficult to defend. In Cry #184, (published in the mid-September, 1969 by Vera Heminger, Elinor Busby, and Wally Weber) there appears a report on the 1969 worldcon, the St Louiscon penned by Wally Weber himself. At one point Webber described a Saturday afternoon panel on editing that took a wrong turn:

The conversation was drifting towards prose anyway, so a new panel convened consisting of Lester del Rey (who moderated immoderately), Terry Carr, George Ernsberger, Don Benson, Ejler Jakobsson and Ed Ferman. Both the panel and audience behaved very well until the subject of how much rewriting an editor should be allowed to do on another person’s story. The editors suddenly became politicians, mumbling about “improvements” and cleaning up minor errors in grammar and spelling, and “suggesting” changes to authors. Then Lester made the unfortunate admission that while an editor should never rewrite, he must often shorten or lengthen a story to fit the number of pages the story must fill in a magazine’s format. He referred to a 10,000 word story he had lengthened to 15,000 words for this purpose. From the audience came a bone-chilling moan previously never heard outside the torture pits of hell. That terrible sound had come from Bob Silverberg and it set the mood for what may become known as Lester’s Last Stand.

I have seen Lester in many debates, but never have I seen him fall apart and be so mercilessly inundated with abuse. Authors rose from their seats and shook their fists and screamed through their beards. Lester’s pleas about what must be done in the line of duty and how writing in another author’s style is the most difficult work in the universe only increased the new waves of hatred focused upon him. I suspect that he was even being attacked by the author within himself. Even Harlan, who you must admit has listened to some pretty awful things and believed them, said, “I hear all this in disbelief and horror.”

This was madness.

Most jobs have a downside. Usually it’s merely a matter of soul-destroying tedium but sometimes it involves unsavoury practices best not talked about. Nobody wants to hear about these unsavoury practices. How many lovers of bacon want to dwell on where their sliced pig comes from? Or even that it involves pigs being sliced up? Of course not, most people don’t want to hear about the nasty stuff, even if not knowing is to their detriment.

I suspect most of the stories Lester del Rey was slicing up as per editorial need were by unpublished authors, innocents so thrilled to receive a cheque in return for their work that it never occurred to them to closely examine the published story. And even if they did and noticed that their work had been altered they were unable to do much about it other than send Lester a letter of condemnation rather than any further manuscripts. A gesture unlikely to bother a thick-skinned editor like Lester del Rey.

Unsavoury as this practise is, given the magazines Lester had been editing I doubt he had much choice but to do as he did due to the twin problems of limited budget and a set number of pages to fill. I don’t want to absolve him of all blame but I do want to make the point that if he felt he had no choice but to do this then common sense surely dictated that he do it as little as possible and be very discrete when he did.

If your job involves practices that other people might not look upon favourably then surely it’s obvious that you not tell them about them. For an editor like Lester del Rey to reveal his worst professional sins to a crowded room full of published and would-be authors makes no sense whatever. Lester didn’t just invite the bears to have a nibble, he lathered himself with honey and tried to crawl between every set of jaws that he could find.

Sheer. Utter. Madness.

In conclusion, while there may be little value in an author complaining about what others say about their work, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can write as we like. We do not perpetually hold the high moral ground. Poke the bear too hard my friend and you’re on your own.

* Impulse was a science fiction magazine published as a companion to New Worlds.

** Later retitled as The Stars Like Dust.

 

5 thoughts on “Taking Care When Biting the Bear”

  1. A very enjoyable post – I read the Wally Weber segment out loud to Suzle, but she made me stop and re-read some of it because I was laughing too hard.

    Like

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