Author Vs Art

Can mere words catch and pin art?

As anybody who has read much of Doctor Strangemind has probably noticed I’m not exactly cutting edge. None-the-less I’m not entirely unaware of the cutting edge of controversy (especially if said edge cutting is happening on File 770). And so it is that I’m aware of how Terry Goodkind recently described his latest novel, Shroud of Eternity, as ‘…a great book with a very bad cover. Laughably bad…’ and later on claimed he disliked Bastien Lecouffe Deharme’s cover because it was ‘sexist’.

I’ve seen the cover in question and while it doesn’t wow me it doesn’t strike me as ‘Laughably bad…’ In fact my only complaint is that I’m not keen on the colour scheme which is a bit too grey and brown for my taste. As to whether the complaint of sexism holds up I’ve no idea given I’ve not read this or any other of Terry Goodkind’s novels. As such I’ll leave that question to those of you better equipped to make a case one way or the other.

What I can do is point out that author discontent with output of those artists contracted to illustrate their work is nothing new. As it so happens I recently discovered some interesting comments in regards to this very topic in Mithril #4, published by Dennis Stocks sometime in 1973. (You knew I was going to dive back into the dear, distant past at some point, didn’t you?) As a starting point for a convention panel titled SF Illustration… A Dying Art? Stocks asked various professionals for their opinions. Unfortunately while it’s clear from the responses that Dennis Stocks posed two, or perhaps three, questions I can’t find any mention in Mithril #4 as to what he asked exactly so I can’t put these comments in exact context for you. Oh well, not that it matter in regards to the first respondent, Isaac Asimov:

Heaven knows I have no views whatever on art, science fiction or otherwise.

Really? No views whatever? Okay, so I’m pretty sure this is just Asimov’s way of politely declining to be involved but none-the-less I find his wording in this sentence absolutely fascinating. This is because he didn’t make what is to me the more obvious excuse of not being qualified to comment. No, instead he stated he had no views whatever, a rather myopic claim if you ask me. Not that it clashes with my general impression of Asimov, the sheer amount of popular science writing he produced always did make it seem to me that he didn’t have much time for anything besides science. But even so I did expect Asimov to at least imply that while he didn’t know much about art he certainly knew what he liked. Is it actually possible Asimov was that indifferent to art, or was this an ill-considered statement made in haste? I’d suggest the latter except I’m reminded of the fact that the first few issues of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine featured photos of Asimov on the cover rather than any artwork. Hmmm…

Asimov Covers

Enough about Asimov, let’s see how L. Sprague de Camp responded:

I have no special ideas on sf illustration; it seems to me to putter along pretty much the same regardless of the New Wave. I think the New Wave is already becoming Old Wave, as such things do. Experiments are fine, but only a small minority of those in the arts have permanent effect; most don’t work and are soon forgotten.

This is the way I expected Asimov to respond, by appearing to tackle the issue but actually dodging it. I assume from the way de Camp mentioned the New Wave that Dennis Stocks asked about what effect the New Wave movement had on science fiction art. I imagine Stocks had in mind the sort of eccentric graphics the British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, became well known for after Michael Moorcock took over as editor. Unfortunately de Camp confines himself to generalities of the sort I can imagine a first year art student mouthing. Which is not entirely surprising given that by the sixties de Camp wasn’t writing or editing anything which called for any but the most obvious graphics. His non-fiction wasn’t art orientated and the Conan paperbacks didn’t need covers showing anything other than barbarians bashing each other with swords before they were good to go.

Perhaps we’ll have more luck with Robert Bloch:

About science fiction illustration being a dying art – I’d be more inclined to regard the patient as not dying but merely partially crippled. My diagnosis is as follows:

His skin – that is to say, cover illustrations in both magazines and paperbacks – has a good, healthy tone and radiates a high degree of vitality,

His insides – i.e. interior illustrations in the magazines are ailing. And have been for many a long year. Much black-and-white is crude, hastily-executed and poorly reproduced, and necessarily limited as to size by the digest format of the pages on which it appears.

Bloch then went on to suggest the latter was not due to a lack of talent among artists but a mechanical problem. I’m in agreement with Bloch in this matter, interior artwork was always going to suffer once the science fiction magazines went from pulp size (25cmx17cm) to digest (19cmx13cm). However while this change shrank spot illustrations and reduced the amount of visible detail I suspect the real problem was one of budget. The vast majority of fiction magazines were discontinued during the 50s leaving only a handful of survivors, mostly science fiction and mystery titles. Not surprisingly magazine publishers had little reason to consider these few survivors important to the company bottom line. Consequently budgets didn’t keep up with inflation and soon enough there just wasn’t enough money to spare for b&w interior illustrations of the highest quality.

I have to wonder why editors didn’t use the opportunity afforded by by the move from pulp to digest size to begin phasing interior art out entirely. They surely knew it was possible because the editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had always used interior art very sparingly ever since that magazine began in 1949. However this is an easy decision for me to make in hindsight. At the time I imagine editors felt that the average reader would be disappointed if a longstanding feature like interior art disappeared. It’s also possible magazine editors felt that the interior art was a point of difference between their publications and the ever increasing number of paperbacks and thus saw the b&w illustrations as a selling point. For all anybody knew then or knows now keeping interior art did indeed help keep at least some of the magazine readership loyal.

None-the-less evolution is a thing and art has to evolve along with the rest of the world. In this case it has to asked if there is even a place for b&w science fiction art any more. If we assume that online publishing is where it’s at in regards to anything other than novels (a bit of an exaggeration I know but let’s roll with it) then why accept the budget limitations of the pulps and use anything less than full colour? While a website can afford the space to display large b&w pieces to best advantage is this a thing which people would still be interested in? This is certainly a question I would hope websites publishing science fiction have already asked themselves (perhaps they have, I don’t know enough about the modern scene to know) because I’m sure at least some artists would still like to produce b&w art on SF themes.

Bloch also wrote:

My opinions as to art used to illustrate my stories? I still admire what Virgil Finlay did on some of my yarns in the old Weird Tales – and what two friends and proteges, Albert & Flo Magarian, did in the Ziff-Davis pulps of the mid-forties, very much in the Finlay manner.

Finlay on Bloch
Fane Of the Black Pharaoh by Robert Bloch & illustrated by Virgil Finlay

My gripes are reserved for artists who obviously do not read the stories and who make their own decisions as to how the characters should look, without bothering to follow descriptions. I am not fond of abstract squiggles, nor do I care for ‘comix’ techniques which result in slapdash sketches of heroes with beetling brows and oversize jaws.

Bloch’s gripe about artists not reading his stories reminds me of a complaint made by I don’t remember who in which they claimed “Artists never read the story while blurb writers read the wrong story.” Such assumptions were often unfair to the artists though as books and magazines are produced by rigid schedule and artists weren’t always granted the time necessary to do justice to the story they were being paid to illustrate. (This is also why minimalist graphics have replaced cover art on an increasingly large percentage of books these days.)

Let’s move on to James Blish. We’ve already seen he’s the opinionated sort:

Unfortunately, I’m a poor person to ask any sort of question about art, a subject of which I have little knowledge or appreciation.

Don’t know about you but I’m sensing a theme developing here. I wonder why nobody seems game to take the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ route?

Anyway, Blish goes on:

I’m inclined to agree with your suspicion that many New Wave stories don’t supply enough visual images to give the artist something concrete to draw. But the artists who attached themselves to the New Wave couldn’t seem to have cared less. In New Worlds many of the graphics didn’t seem to have anything at all to do with the text.

As for cover art – I get many hardcover books for review and all too often their jackets show nothing but that the artist was utterly baffled by the task. (My favourite example of this is a collection of Avram Davidson stories, the jacket for which depicted an ice-bag floating in mid-ocean – a dead giveaway of how the artist felt, but nothing to do with anything in the book). Paperback covers have generally been much better as illustrations, and I hope they last a long time.

Strange Seas & Shores
I wondered if James Blish wasn’t being a little harsh but ghad, this is uninspiring!

Ah, so Blish decided to take the ‘I don’t know art but I know what I don’t like’ route. Still, I do think he makes an interesting point in there among the general grumpiness. I think it’s fair to say that the fiction being written by most authors identified with the New Wave didn’t lend itself to striking imagery. Authors such as Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Philip Dick, the later Robert Silverberg weren’t writing material that lent itself to visual interpretation given that scenes more often than not involved groups of relatively ordinary people talking together. This actually takes me back to my earlier question about whether there is even a place for b&w science fiction art any more. In this case however it’s not a question of whether b&w art is desired when colour is so easy but if any art is desirable at all if science fiction is no longer focused on visually exotic topics.

The thing about science fiction art is that it has rarely existed as an end in itself. Most of the time SF art has been produced as an adjunct to SF stories and novels. Even when a piece wasn’t intended to illustrate a specific story it usually features objects and ideas we’re familiar with from reading those afore mentioned stories and novels.

There was a time when the art served to visualise these new concepts and add depth to them. That time is long past, so long past that what once exited us now bores. How many of us really want to see new visual iterations of the robot, the spaceship, the time machine, the alien landscape?

Okay, so the problem for visual SF seems to be that the old concepts are passe while many of the new ones are less visceral and don’t lend themselves to interesting visual representation.

I think I should end this piece with Ursula le Guin because of all the authors asked she seems to be the only one capable of being both grumpy and graceful about the art associated with her books. Other authors might like to read the following and take notes:

I know absolutely nothing about SF illustration, and yet find I have opinions about it – predjudices even – which go so far as asking, is it a dying art, or was it even born?

SF illustration. What comes to mind? Some subtle and handsome paperback book covers by the Dillons and Kelly Freas? The line drawings Gaughan did for the Jack Vance story The Dragon Masters. Tolkien’s own drawings for The Hobbit, and the beautiful dustjacket, which I think he did himself.

Then what? The illustrations to my own books, you ask about? Oh Lord. Well. You know, I trust that unless you are Harriet Beecher Stow you do not get consulted about illustrations, or book covers – or even shown them before publication, unless your publisher is uncommonly courteous? You DO know that? (I keep getting asked Why did you let them put that cover on etc, etc. Let them! Hah!)

I have been given two covers I unqualifiedly like. One is the French edition of Left Hand Of Darkness (La Main Gauche de la Nuit), which is heavy silver paper with an embossed pattern of what might be snowflakes. No picture at all. The other is the British (Hardcover – Gollancz) edition of Wizard of Earthsea, a neat Durer-like drawing in black on ochre. The original (Parnassus) and the Ace editions of the Wizard are also very handsome covers, and Ruth Robbins’ interior illustrations are elegant. The wizard on the Puffin paperback is either anaemic, or stayed too long at Oxford – I am arriving at something. I am arriving at the fact that I know what my people look like, and what their landscapes look like, and that nobody else (naturally) knows it quite the way I do – they know it their way – which is fine, so long as they keep it to themselves. But when they draw it, it looks wrong. To me. I don’t tell them that. I only tell you that. They are all talented people and they worked very hard.

But the plain silver cover with a suggestion of snowflakes still leaves the imagination free to work – which is, perhaps, the best of all?

le Guin
I strongly suspect none of the images I can find online do justice to the original French cover but hopefully this gives you some idea of why it appealed to the author.

Anthony Boucher & I Discuss Pseudonyms

Their names are Legion, for they are many.

According to The Illustrated Book Of Science Fiction Lists (edited by Mike Ashley for Virgin Books in 1982) E.C. (Ted) Tubb has 45 pseudonyms credited to him, Robert Silverberg is well behind with 25, Henry Kuttner further back yet with 18, while Cyril Korthbluth trails with a mere 13.

I suspect that in this, the future world of today, the question the above information raises is not why so many pseudonyms but why any at all? I know that when I were a lad it was a given that authors used pseudonyms all the time while we, their audience, didn’t but nowadays it seems to be very much the opposite. So yes, I can understand why the above numbers might seem inexplicable to many of you.

So why were authors fond of pseudonyms once upon a time? Luckily for us editor, author, and co-founder of The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Anthony Boucher, decided to offer some explanation in Rhodomagnetic Digest #2, published by George Blumenson in August 1949 for The Elves’, Gnomes’ & Little Men’s Science-Fiction Chowder & Marching Society. Boucher was certainly qualified to write on this topic since his real name was William Anthony Parker White. As to why somebody who had been given so many names already decided to add Anthony Boucher and H.H. Holmes to the collection, well according to William Anthony Parker White he used these pseudonyms for reasons 2 & 5 as explained below.

So now on to Mr Boucher and why authors so often used something other than their real names back in the day:

The reasons for adopting a pseudonym are many, and the simplest is that the author’s proper name may be unsuitable as a by-line. Anyone christened Hieronymus Zuckerswilling is obviously going to adopt a pseudonym; and so is anyone unfortunate enough to have a perfectly good name which somebody else has already made famous. A pseudonym is convenient , too, for avoiding the multiple by-line of a collaboration; Ellery Queen and Q. Patrick are good examples. And occasionally a woman adopts a male name to avoid anti-feminine prejudice, though more often, like C. L. Moore, she uses initials.

But we’ll concentrate here, not on the cases in which all of an author’s published work appears under a pseudonym, but on the cases, especially frequent in fantasy fiction, in which the same writer’s stories appear under two or more different by-lines. The principle reasons for this are:

1.  To distinguish two different types of work — for instance fiction and serious articles; or terror and humour.

2.  To keep series characters and events straight – so that all the stories under one name are part of the same series.

3.  To please different publishers — so that each has an ‘exclusive’ name author.

4.  To differentiate markets — for instance, one name for slicks and another for pulps; or a separate name for selling rejects to poor markets without damaging the well-established name.

5. To use when two stories appear in the same issue of the same magazine — as frequently happens when an author is selling heavily to one market.

6. Allied to 5. is the problem of the ‘house name’ — a name owned by the publisher. This is legitimate enough when, as in The Shadow, a freelance series is supposedly all written by the same non-existent ‘author’. It’s more questionable when the house name is simply stuck on a story of any type by anybody when there are two by one writer in the same issue.

7. The oddest pseudonym-reason I know occurred in this wise: an extremely prolific writer was turning out so much that his own by-line had become almost meaningless; you never knew whether it indicated a small masterpiece or a trashy quicky. He adopted a pseudonym and henceforth published all his really good stories under that name, with the result that the pseudonym came to be one of the top names in the field, while the original by-line usually connotates a competent hack story.

Much as I find the above interesting I do think Boucher rather stumbled out of the gates with the idea that anybody’s given name might make for an unsuitable byline. Is Hieronymus Zuckerswilling any more unprintable than G. Peyton Wertenbaker, A. Hyatt Verrill, or Clare Winger Harris? The latter three all managed to have stories published with their own fairly elaborate names intact. I suspect that those same editors would do the same for Hieronymus Zuckerswilling just so long as he was giving those editors the sort of material they wanted.

On the other hand his point about the potential confusion of a well-known namesake being an irritant an author might want to avoid is a good one. I know for a fact that while I don’t hate the pop music of Ed Sheeran or Justin Bieber if I was a published novelist who shared a name with either of them it would annoy me to have strangers mistake who wrote my golden prose. I’d have to use a more obscure name like John Lennon if that were the case.

I’ll also concede that collaborative authors using a pseudonym is tidier than multiple bylines (and also avoids the question of whose name should be first) and that there was a time when some editors, and some women, preferred the anonymity of male sounding pseudonyms, or at least the anonymity of initials. As recently as 1969 Ursula Le Guin reluctantly agreed to use the byline U.K. Le Guin when her story Nine Lives appeared in the November issue of Playboy.

However in regards to the meat of Boucher’s article, the seven principal reasons he lists, I am confused. Boucher was an editor and author for a long time so he obviously encountered many authors using pseudonyms for the reasons he gives but that doesn’t mean most of those reasons make much sense to me (even Boucher himself seems to question how some magazines used  house names).

Take the idea that an author would use a different name for a particular series of stories. Imagine for a moment that you’re the young Isaac Asimov, a rising star within the pages of John W. Campbell’s Astounding. Your stories, in particular those about robots, have proved quite popular, but now you have a new series in mind. This series will chart the rise and fall of a galactic wide empire and span millennia and it’s the grandest thing you’ve ever attempted. So of course you decide it can’t appear under your own name, it needs to be associated with a unique byline. So you ask Campbell to ensure that every Foundation story appears in Astounding as by Gaston Feeblehare. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me! Why give up the hard won selling power of your name in order to alert readers that a particular story belongs in a particular series. I’m pretty sure the average reader would be able to work this out for themselves. On the other hand Boucher does point out that Robert Heinlein used pseudonyms as a means to keep series characters and events straight though not in the way Boucher explained. According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia Heinlein had his non-Future History stories published under the Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, and Caleb Saunders bylines so clearly there are cases where my brand name argument fails to apply (I still think it’s a silly idea).

Using different names for different types of work also seems to me to be giving up the hard won selling power of your name for no real gain. Would it really affect an author’s ability to sell factual articles if they were known for their science fiction? If E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith or Robert Heinlein had decided to write articles for the hot rod magazines back in the fifties would the editors insist they do so under a pseudonym? This seems unlikely to me, indeed I suspect said editors would want to be associated with previous success by mentioning Smith and Heinlein’s science fiction careers.

Just as an aside Asimov did use the pseudonym Paul French when he wrote his Lucky Starr series of SF juveniles. At first this seems like a perfect example of an author doing exactly as Boucher explained. However it seems Asimov wasn’t inexplicably refusing to use his name power for no reason. According to various sources he decided to hide behind the name Paul French because there was talk of the Luck Starr stories being turned into a TV series and Asimov apparently had no faith in the potential quality of such a series. Since he didn’t want the hard won selling power of his name sullied by the production values of a fifties TV show made for children Asimov hid his involvement behind the Paul French pen name in order to pull an Alan Smithee before that became a thing.

If however two different editors wanted an exclusive name for their magazines then why would an author argue with them? Did it make sense for editors to do this back in the day? It doesn’t seem like it would be worth the bother but then again I’m not such an expert on editorial practices back then that I can dismiss the idea out of hand. From the point of view of the author though I would think the right idea was take the cash and hope both markets prove successful. I know if somebody offered me enough money I’d be happy to write as Gaston Feeblehare (don’t get any ideas though, it would have to be a LOT of money).

That gets us to the different names for different markets category and this one makes more sense to me but for a reason Mr Boucher doesn’t mention, snobbery. From various comments I’ve read here and there it seems to me that some authors and editors didn’t care to be associated with certain genres. Examples of this include two different judges keeping secret what they did in the evening because at the time writing fiction wasn’t considered respectable; Fred Pohl mentioning in passing how none of the Futurian editors liked sport but all were editing sports pulps that he was very careful to not name any titles; A.E. Van Vogt admitting to writing for true adventures style pulps but giving no details. (For the record I can’t quote sources for any of this because these are things I read years ago when I didn’t realise I would need to quote them in a future article.)

In which case it wouldn’t surprise me if at one time the slick magazines preferred to hide authors who had made their names in the pulps behind pseudonyms. Slick magazines were printed on high-quality glossy paper and were designed to be bought by well to-do readers. As such the editors and publishers preferred to avoid association with the less refined pulp magazines. The pulps were printed on cheap, rough paper (hence the name pulp) and had a far more garish image. (However by the 50s magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Mademoiselle did relaxed their standards sufficiently to allow certain authors with pulp histories, such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, to grace their pages.

I also have the distinct impression that while many authors were willing to write fiction in more than one genre not all of them wanted this to be known. If this is correct then using a pseudonym for stories in the little favoured genre is a quick and easy solution to the situation. (Unfortunately I can’t think of any concrete examples to back this up so for the time being this will have to remain an unproven assertion.)

What is however easily provable is the use of the ‘house name’ in certain magazines. Again this is a practise the benefits of which I don’t always understand. Yes, as Boucher noted, it does make sense if multiple writers are using an intellectual property owned by the publisher. The Shadow wasn’t just a magazine published by Street & Smith, they also laid claim to the character and everything about him so while various authors contributed stories to the series the lead ‘novel’ was always published under the Maxwell Grant pseudonym.

However the other usual claim is that house names were used to conceal the fact that an editor might be using more than one story by a particular author in the same issue of a magazine. And again as Boucher noted, this is a rather questionable practise. I suppose it’s possible in such a situation an editor might arbitrarily assign a house name if there isn’t time to ask an author what pseudonym they would prefer (or because a particular editor doesn’t care what mere authors want). However disguising multiple stories by a single author in one issue doesn’t explain those occasions when editors used house names indiscriminately. For example at both Standard Magazines (Space Stories, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories) and Ziff-Davis (Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures) multiple authors were published under the same house names. If there were good reasons for this practise I’m yet to discover them. I can’t see how the indiscriminate us of house names benefited anybody seeing as such a system surely didn’t encourage any of the authors concerned to submit their best. Anything published this way under a house name isn’t going to improve an author’s reputation, and indeed isn’t likely to harm it, so authors have every incentive to send to such editors the stories they can’t sell elsewhere. Mystifying.

That leaves me with only the last item on Boucher’s list to comment on. So who was the extremely prolific author who was writing so much of such varying quality that his name had become almost meaningless? It was Henry Kuttner and according to Anthony Boucher the pseudonym he began to publish all his best work under was Lewis Padgett. Which is true as far as that goes but it was extremely remiss of Boucher to not mention most, if not all, the Lewis Padgett stories were written to one degree or another in collaboration with C.L. Moore. I can’t believe Boucher didn’t know about the collaborative nature of this pseudonym so again I’m mystified as to why he didn’t mention it.

Now before I finish here is Will Fitzgerald Jenkins on why he used the name Murray Leinster. This appeared in Fantasy Magazine #26, published by Julius Schwartz in October/November 1934 and I think it lends some credence to my snobbery theory:

Murray Leinster, my pen name, was adopted because somebody flattered me. My first published stuff was sold to Smart Set when that magazine was edited by Nathan and Mencken (and some said God was a member of the firm) and was quite the hottest of the intellectual magazines. At least it seemed intellectual then.

Since they bought the first stuff I was ever paid for, I naturally thought them persons of brilliant discernment and wisdom. And being just out of short pants, I could be kidded. I think it was Mr. Nathan who suggested that I ‘save’ my own name for Smart Set and use a pseudonym for inferior publications.

At least Mr Nathan didn’t suggest Jenkins call himself Gaston Feeblehare (what a stupid name).