We Are Not Alone
Note: Delivered as the Keynote Address at the Campbell Conference, University of Kansas, July 6, 2006.
In the midst of a writing life which I still think of as "only so far," this talk is a kind of stock-taking, and also a belated alarm, since others have come this way before me; but this time these words and their supporting research are being sent to New York State's dedicated Attorney General and next Governor, Eliot Spitzer, who has said that he never hesitated to step into a buzz saw, and never asked whether an issue was large or small but only if it was right or wrong--and I take him at his word.
I want to thank James Gunn and this Center for the chance to present these comments in a serious forum.
Please keep in mind that I will be juggling what may seem at first to be two sets of differing problems--the writer's working conditions and the character of science fiction. They do intertwine.
I will abridge and simplify, because I have an hour gun to my head; but there will be some hope waiting as I hurry through what's wrong with contracts, royalty statements, with the dark castles of publishers' warehouses, and with the plight of writers, one part of which is the unsurprising victimization of SF.
The position of writers much more resembles that of "Bambi Meets Godzilla," than that of partners in an industry. Adapt or get squashed; usually get squashed, and contribute to the larger tally of a company's earnings even when your work is individually accounted a loss, or further enslaved when the publisher refuses to revert rights through the subterfuge of a token "in print" claim, to beef up the assets column, which includes losses.
"Publishers kill authors by creative bookkeeping," wrote Richard Curtis in his pioneering study of the 1990s. "By depriving authors of vital information about book sales, delaying disbursements interminably, obscuring the meaning of figures, manipulating collection dates of subsidiary income, and withholding excessive royalties as a cushion against returns, many publishers figuratively strangle writers and literally poison their good will."
Royalty statements are fictional because, as more than one accountant has noticed, the information provided tells you nothing beyond the fact that someone wrote it down and forces you to take his word for it.
I refer mostly to big publishing, which today is better at hiding its ways, not to the often brave small and midsized venture whose failings arise from having to share breath with T-Rex distributors who make and keep a dishonest environment encouraged by the big houses. The smaller houses are slowly taking publishing back to its roots, especially in science fiction, even as the big houses are seeking to sell off divisions and bury the records of a diseased past before it can be excavated.
The most surprising thing is how well known and uncontested the facts are and how little has been done to change them. Writers grow used to things and have to choose what to do first. Even if I could pay the legal costs, I cannot sacrifice the time needed to find out what happened to the "bragged about" last 300 copies of Brute Orbits, my 1999 Campbell Prize winner, or try to discover the why of the ever-receding earnout figures for my Star Trek novels, where the records probably no longer exist.
Publishing contracts are inherently one-sided, and illegal to one degree or another, because they fail to perform what is promised while saying that they will, by claiming in too many pages of non-English that they are not responsible for anything even when they are. Publishers get defensive toward protesting authors who point out this and other failings, even threatening them with "junk publication"--a minimal edition, for show, which only claims to fulfill the contract, by putting them on an economic blacklist that amounts to censorship. These threats are well known even among authors who earn good money, so called in the allowed accounting, and is carried out in other contexts, as when a publisher wishes to downsize books from planned hardcovers to a smaller printing in mass paperback. This happened to a novel of mine, which subsequently made the New York Times Notable Books of the Year, which infuriated the editor, whose judgment and ulterior motives were suddenly exposed. The small printing, on the cheapest paper stock, was in fact the uncorrected proof, with some fifty errors, all corrected on time by me, left unfixed. The editors at Easton Press, a book club, made all the corrections for their signed, leatherbound hardcover first edition--of a mass paperback, which further irritated my editor, who had reverted the book club rights to me, thinking it a worthless concession that would shut me up. The downsizing was later admitted, with no sense of irony, to have been useless. The justice that comes to authors is much smaller than the original injustice.
The good faith clause was violated, since my novel was to have been a hardcover, but this provision is always violated in one way or another. It's not that more is done for one author's book over another, but that nothing or next to nothing is done for most, even as bookstores are paid to display certain titles prominently. Laws governing the conduct of contracts, rather than the contracts themselves, are routinely ignored. Take it or leave it. Don't bite the hand that feeds you crumbs--sometimes big ones, but not what is owed.
An editor can mislead a writer, even tell him in good faith how many copies were printed or how few remain in the warehouse, but this has no accountability because of the merely insisted upon whole-contract-and-nothing-but-the-contract wording of that illegal contract clause. An editor may promise you a contract, even tell your agent, then retract and say that his word is without contractual meaning, and claim to be the sole arbiter of that claim. The full law of contracts and the laws governing contracts disagrees, but they count on your being unable to fight the case, even with words on paper.
Slowly, contracts have been contrived to disable a writer's awareness of his protections, turning him into a leashed migrant--by denying the larger legally recognized relationship on which a contractee welfare depends, that of the implied contract built on the good faith clause. There is no such thing as a contract free of implied obligations, but they have striven to deny it, by omission and by blinding the author to available remedies with mere assertion, with the knowledge that he can't afford remedies; and if he can, then one case settled is merely the cost of doing business--a safe distance from class action cases, or even a larger number of suits; and a single winner can't possibly bring to court all the abuses that accountants, writers, editors, lawyers, and other whistle blowers have made known about the larger legal issues.
One point to keep in mind is the same as with the other big corporate scandals we've seen: they are not exceptions but endemic. This much has been admitted widely, to small effect, with the excuse that a full housecleaning would ruin us all.
More is done for the highly paid author than for a less well paid one; and sometimes even the opposite, which is just as uncontractual; but the fact to stress is not that more or less is done, but that for most nothing at all is done, because the fate of a book is decided long before its publication, sometimes even before it is written, by so-called cooler publicity and sales heads, well beyond the editor who accepted the book--who may even have picked the book for its merit.
A form of horse-race fixing gives all the push to the imagined winner, who cannot help but sell more--and that still may not be enough as the bar is raised higher by greed, so that fewer can leap it.
Since writers are not given print runs and accurate sales figures, they never know if the advance money was justified--earned out, or overearned. Unless print runs and sales are larger than we know (possibly as much as 2-6 times the admitted numbers), it's hard to see how the industry survives. One answer has been that even though most books are accounted as losses, it is the aggregate sales for a company that make groups of books or particular categories profitable; another claim is that a house may lose money on a book that has earned the author's advance, and even make a profit on a book whose author has not earned his advance. Strange also is the fact that when half the author's advance is earned out the publisher is making a profit, but the author must wait for the earnout that may never come, and that seems to recede with each fictional royalty statement. Not to mention the subsidy given to the publisher who holds authors' monies for an annual or by-annual statement.
I have already noted that it is no accident that royalty statements leave out key information--print runs and accurate sales--no accident that model royalty forms, long agreed to by publishers, are not used. I helped bring about such an agreement decades ago, and continue to run into stone walls when I ask why the model form is not used, why writers' organizations don't demand that the agreement be kept. They are not used because key information may reveal too much, give authors too much with which to hold publishers accountable, and reveal how the horseraces are fixed. If you lie once, you have to remember the lie. Therefore, royalty statements reveal only so-called sales, at the time of the statement. To change now might draw the interest of IRS and state authorities.
Unjustifiable practices involve reserves against returns. Publishers do get returns of unsold books from stores, and the idea is to guard against large returns and limit how much might be paid out to authors mistakenly. The problem arises when the reserves number is not removed from the statement, sometimes long past any reasonable time. The author cannot check these numbers, or have them removed; often he gets no answer to his queries. If he is owed money, he has loaned it to the publisher at no interest, and may never learn how much.
A PIN-accessible account for each author, with transfer of monies capability, would make a system of structural theft more difficult, and easier to prove. With no key information declared, a publisher can decide what figures he "needs." Telling how many copies were printed and sold would limit future lies, especially about how much a publisher pockets after the book is supposedly "out of print" but money keeps coming.
Year after year, I have found, older records cannot be retrieved, but they seem to surface on the author's rapsheet--a history of past sales, like a police record--used to limit future prospects, or even to shut the writer out of all new contracts. The sharing of these records among publishers sets aside considerations of merit; or if merit is obvious to a good editor, to keep down how much a publisher will pay for a new work. As one editor said to me, if they want your new book your rapsheet doesn't count.
Contracts are a labyrinth of evasions, contemptuous of authors' rights because openness would cost more. There is no obligation to even publish a book that has been paid for; failure to publish cannot be compensated for by the monies paid, because it tarnishes a writer's reputation, and if the balance was to be paid on publication, then even final acceptance means nothing. A writer and a publisher are not playing the same game; a writer and his editor may not be playing the same game, since an editor's job depends on guessing financial winners--always a slippery slope when winner is not the same as good.
"The merits of your book," one editor told me, "have nothing to do with whether we publish it. A million copies sold of blank pages would do just as well." I wanted to say that I had lots of blank pages at home.
I have attached two studies to this talk about contracts and royalties, much of which is unknown even to some editors, many of whom love their work but don't want to know what goes on in the kitchen, or find it difficult to find out. A major New York agent, Richard Curtis, President of Richard Curtis Associates, made these studies some ten years ago; they were published and reprinted, yet no publisher dared go to court to deny them. The reaction seems to have been: well, now you know that royalty statements are fiction and we know that you know, and since no author can do much about it, business as usual.
I turn now to the darkest castles of dread--the publishers' warehouses--where trusted managers bury and unearth books and records in advance of the accountants. The warehouses are instructed as to how many of each book shall live or die, how many will be put on damaged and destroyed lists, how many remaindered and sold off, and how these numbers will be reported--and only a few know these peoples' names. One accountant once told me of errors programmed into the system, how much error was to be gotten away with, how much encouraged, how much might have to be "revised" if the numbers were not the "needed" ones, and how documents were to be lost and what would always be denied. If you imagined it all and made it all up, you could never equal the reality.
Just think how far we are already in these descriptions from any thoughts of literary accomplishment and skill. The cultural drug that business minds sell, they buy cheaply, because authors can't help writing and many would and do publish for nothing. Most who are "paid" do it for next to nothing.
These corrosive ways have long selected the editors we often have. Writers too are selected by this environment, but first the editors, because they help select the wordsmiths on whose blank pages they will encourage and discourage. Overworked, sympathetic to writers, often would-be-writers themselves, editors are drawn into behavior which some of them later despise. Endless delays due to overwork puts ever more of the editing burden on the writers, who in effect are asked to subsidize part of the cost of publishing; add to this the practice of "aging" payments to writers--first delaying, then letting the checks sit with their interest rate in the out-baskets until the last possible moment--puts editors in impossible positions, of going to superiors to ask about money for authors; many editors simply wait with the writers. Many who have quit say that they got sick of telling lies.
The web of behavior by which authors subsidize publishing is mostly concealed. As a young writer in the 1970s I would go and sit in one publisher's reception area until they paid what had been due months before. I was usually given a check by five o'clock, and whispered to by the receptionist that I got away with it because I was only one. Most would never show up, so the publisher let it go. I never questioned the accuracy of the check's amount.
Editors adapt or leave, regardless of larger concerns of culture and merit. Each choice is fraught with corporate dangers. You're an author's editor or a company person, suspect by both sides. Sometimes an editor can walk the line and get good work out through the cracks in the regime, when your books make enough money by the permitted accounting, and the extreme dilemmas rarely come up; but even then they can get rid of you for a younger, less expensive editor and point to the authors you herded who did not make money. Many editors side naturally with their authors in heart and mind, but the editor who gets too close to the workplace concerns of writers arouses suspicion. The central question that is unavoidable, for both writers and editors, is what are we part of? And the answer is--not what we imagined.
Look closely and the concealed problems proliferate. The degree of ignorance to be found in so-called acquiring editors, non-line editors, and packaging editors, whose failures are considered irrelevant unless they affect profits, and are never litigated, even though, along with editorial incompetence, they can amount to malpractice and even fraud, in a culture of greed that eats away at the foundations of its civilization, and produces fiascos like that of the young Harvard novelist/plagiarist, whose handlers tried to buy her a career. She may have thought that this was how it is done--and not been far wrong. She may well write a tell-all book about it someday.
People are sometimes baffled when I say that the act of writing is more important than publication. A reader asked me whether my Star Trek novels were my breakthrough works, and seemed puzzled when I told him that they were not well thought of by people I respected, much as I enjoyed crafting these books.
The true business model is the story of the goose that lays the golden eggs. Don't sustain the creature, kill it and get all the gold at once. For writers this means overproduction, underedited, under-revised novels and stories of mediocre prose (few notice prose--just get the drama and story, we've already bred readers who won't care). Few writers lead; they are taught to follow an ever debasing taste, measured by untrustworthy sales. Good works are produced in any way possible, at great cost sometimes, to few rewards beyond occasional praise.
Commerce requires that there be too much of everything--yet another form of the goose-golden egg story. Don't kill the critter, get her to overproduce until she drops. It is gold, so how bad can it get?
Joseph Conrad, a poor man for much of his writing life, collapsed one day and lay under his table for some time, but finally got up and finished his novel; taking him to a hospital would have lost him that novel. His view seems to have been, let other things bring me down; I will not do it myself. I think that novel was called Victory. I would give much, if by some magic I could trade places with him under that table.
Choose--to write for a living, or not. Deal with smaller houses. Finish the work at whatever cost. Don't prejudge your work, especially if you are ambitious. A pragmatic philosophy works absent the extremes; pragmatism is unprincipled but principles may destroy you. Will principled choices always bring benefit? They may not.
This, and more, is the background against which most publishing exists, in which the corporates above the heads of editors think money first and let merit be only when it doesn't diminish money. It doesn't always and shouldn't. "You don't know how dumb they are out there," an editor once told me, and I asked, "who made them that way?"
Science fiction exists primarily as entertainment and children's fiction, in the pictorial pillagings of TV and movies--where serious elements have to be slipped in (perhaps to be discovered and censored later--i.e. the money-free socialist future of Star Trek, or the Wellsian reference to evolution as the savior of humankind permitted by Spielberg in his WAR OF THE WORLDS). Economics raises the censorious fear of socialism and class warfare in America. I have often thought that SF is maligned not only because it often does not present the human mill in all of its repetitive glory, as good literature should in its acceptance of our changeless nature, but because it speaks of past and present critically. "Oh, my God, all we've done may become irrelevant and be swept away!" cry the voices that cling to the magnificent and true bogs of family feuding in The Brothers Karamazov. The fleeing past defends itself.
I want to say now why SF matters and why it should survive, but keeping in mind how the complaints collected here about publishing threaten that survival. No one denies that wealth is a necessary helpmate to all culture, but not a sufficient condition. Bricks are a necessary condition of a house, but the architect is the sufficient need.
Let's enter the labyrinth:
Does it ask the question too tightly--whether SF's soul belong to money or to itself? One writer told me that he's in it for the money, not the art, so criticism from that quarter can't ever touch me; another very considerable writer said that he wrote it all for the money; and still another for the money so he could continue to write.
Now it would be strange to say that money and art are of equal stature; but this is not a simple contrast. A whore does it for money but may love a client. A commercial writer sometimes can't help but be good, and the dedicated artist may fail to create good work. Motive may contradict outcome. Only the realized work counts.
Still, motive may affect the outcome. Moneyed success remains a means, not an end. It buys power, which mostly preserves itself first, as with any organism. Means without more meaningful ends belong to a pragmatic philosophy, which by its nature is unprincipled. Some have tried to make pragmatism into a principle of flexibility, but that makes lying at some point inevitable; even the pragmatist must at some point balk and say what he will not do. Pragmatism can be defended with endless qualifications, but sooner or later reveals a hidden, unpragmatic principle, a value which does not contain a monetary profit but only a selfless, perhaps even lethal gain. Talk to a die-hard pragmatist and uncover a principle by getting him to admit what he will not do.
Some people make a lot of money, then set practicality aside. Others lose everything interesting about themselves in the time they set aside to be practical--a ballerina who starts too late or the pianist who can't afford to practice. Pragmatism works best in mild circumstances; extreme ones reveal its weakness.
Be bad first--good later, when you can afford it.
I sometimes dream of a locked cell, where I can't escape my writing self, which I do escape much too often and take longer each time to return (especially if I fly through O'Hare). Some people think this sad. But Albert Camus imagined Sisyphus happy with his hill and rock.
Science fiction lives for its merits in a sea of money looking to make more money. But what is to be done in science fiction?
I remember the thrill of having this question answered as a beginning writer, when I heard James Blish's call to ambition in a speech that was later published as "A Question of Content" in The Issue At Hand by William Atheling, Jr., Chicago, 1964. Ask of any work of SF, "Is it about anything? Nothing could be better for the health of our field than to let every science fiction writer know, beginning right now, that from now on there will be no escape from this question."
Works should reach beyond being about themselves only, to the provocative and threatening concerns that bedevil our human life; yet so many writers do escape the question Blish posed--and the result is a trivialization of SF's inherently critical nature, which says, even in its simplest works, that the future may be different, better or worse, and, most frighteningly, that futurity will judge the past. It is this intrinsic criticality of SF, born of what H. G. Wells called "The Discovery of the Future," that makes it such a diminished literature. Full tilt, it is revolutionary, doubting even of our traditional humanity. Commerce would rather have adventure fiction, with a little bit of sex, and a lot of violence--because the hierarchies need armies.
Pulp magazine SF could not avoid the critical nature of SF. Hugo Gernsback knew that knowledge and foresight were part of SF, which is why Isaac Asimov's candy store owner father let his son read the lurid magazines from his newsstand. But John W. Campbell championed the critical stance, which survives even when you knock the work down to action-adventure stories. A sense of change, that everything might be different, spooks readers, especially younger ones, who can't help but imagine.
The best answers to "What is there to do in SF?" have all tended toward the answer given by Blish. The question whispers in the commercial writer's darkened soul, as he stubs his toe now and then on the genuine thought that SF without thought is not worthy of the name.
Consider the meteoric passage of the beloved Stanley G. Weinbaum, whose stories appeared for only about two years from 1934 until his premature death in 1936. What is interesting today is not only the influence his graceful, often thoughtful work had on later writers, but--and this is less well known--how quickly his views of what he was doing pushed against commercial constraints, with the result that his more thoughtful works are not the popular ones.
"...most of our writers fail to take advantage of science fiction's one grand opportunity--its critical possibilities...it can criticize social, moral, technical, political, or intellectual conditions--or any others. It's a weapon for intelligent writers, of which there are several, but they won't practice its use.
"For science fiction can do what science cannot. It can criticize because science fiction is not science. It is, or at least ought to be, a branch of the art of literature, and can therefore quite properly argue, reject, present a thesis, proselytize, criticize, or perform any other ethical function.
"...it won't make a bit of difference to those readers (if any) who've plowed through to this point. The younger writers will stand by their guns--or purple rays--and the younger readers will take as much delight as ever in super-scientists, Earth-Mars wars, antmen, tractor rays, and brave heroes who save country, earth, solar system, or universe from the terrible invaders from Outside.
"More power to 'em. I'd like to experience those same thrills again myself."
But he no longer could.
The irony in these last lines are those of an author who knows that in time he won't fit into the food chain of formulaic, commercial writing, because he knows that would betray what is possible. It's there, but few go for it. He has discovered the classic struggle of the serious writer with the demand to cater taught to him by profiteers.
It is unclear whether "An Autobiographical Sketch of Stanley G. Weinbaum" ever appeared in print during the author's lifetime. I came across it in the omnibus collection, A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales: The Collected Short Stories of Stanley G. Weinbaum (Hyperion Press, Westport, CT, 1974). It is a poignant testament of discovery by a writer whose tragically short life, and even shorter writing life, remains relevant but undiscussed today.
SF seeks to present dramatic stories that are linked, creatively, to reality, through our fallible human entanglement with a burgeoning knowledge. What this entanglement has brought us is an historical marriage between our biological evolutionary character and new means to express that character, good or greedy. The importance of a genuinely critical SF, as Weinbaum and others have glimpsed it, is that of a literature that explores this entanglement, as SF's major writers imagine ways out of the human maze that is so well exampled in our great literatures, which repeatedly bring us only to the point where we all came in. SF has only incomplete knowledge to work with, as it raises itself out of the hopes and fears that it provokes. It can be said that storytelling has given birth to a planetary literature, when SF lives up to the task.
One so often hears that there is nothing new to write about, when what is meant by this lazy way is that there is nothing easily worked outside of genre props. But the edge of the unknown is always a visible opportunity to be original, but the whip of commerce teaches us to avoid thought in favor of familiar easy reads that are quickly written and quicken money collection.
A view of SF's goals was stated with exactitude by the late Stanislaw Lem, as he stood up for John W. Campbell's vision of SF as a literature of new horizons and human involvement:
"...it isn't possible to construct a reflection of the conditions of the future with cliches. It isn't the archetypes of Jung, nor the structures of the myth, nor irrational nightmares which cause the central problems of the future and determine them. And should the future be full of dangers, those dangers cannot be reduced to the known patterns of the past. They have a unique quality, as a variety of factors of a new type. This is the most important thing for a writer of science fiction. But sf has meanwhile built itself into a jail and imprisoned itself within those walls, because its writers have not seemed to understand that the salvation of the creative imagination cannot be found in mythical, existential, or surrealistic writings--as a new statement about the conditions of existence. By cutting itself off from the stream of scientific facts and hypotheses, science fiction itself has helped to erect the walls of the literary ghetto where it now lives out its piteous life." (From SF: The Other Side of Realism, edited by Thomas D. Clareson, Bowling Green, 1971).
Many a writer has come and gone since Lem wrote this is 1969, and he and others have noted the exceptions that seem immune to the finely made prison bars of commercial entertainment. We've had the non-fiction science writing renaissance of the last three decades, in books and countless articles of considerable literary elegance, in which waves of talented writers have redrawn the public's conceptions of who we are and where we are, based on the many edges of science, in ways once pioneered by SF. There is more science fiction, one scientist has complained, in today's science, perhaps too much. And less science in the books called SF.
Quite by accident, I opened a 1971 book entitled For Freedom of the Imagination by Andre Sinayasky, the once imprisoned Soviet writer, and read the essay, "No Discount (On Science Fiction)" with keen interest, since it addressed the issues of censorship, and I was reminded of the demand to be entertaining above all other values. The essay, now thirty years old, has not dated, and stands up for an independent science fiction:
"The development and character of our modern reality, the demands of the modern reader convince us that science fiction does belong among the phenomena of our time which are most viable and full of hopeful prospects. In order to enable this genre to take its rightful place one has to enhance its rights--and obligations. It means that one should boldly bring it to the level of the most genuine, the most worthy and greatest literature, and accordingly require that science fiction give no discount to artistic backwardness."
Pretentious? You bet. Keep in mind that it has been done, here and there, in the now nearly two-hundred year history of the field's multilingual existence. The tyranny of money and mediocrity still fails. One cannot guarantee accomplishment, but the walls of tyranny have enough cracks to catch the grappling hooks of invading innovators--in contrast to those who are let in through the front gate by paid collaborators.
Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked, to those of us who complain about market censorship and profit and loss blacklists, that we still have the choice to do otherwise, that we can still say no and write what moves us. Some of us do so, and are even happily mistaken for commercially desirable products; others pay the price but still create their works. It's a hard prescription to follow--and more than one new Philip K. Dick walks amongst us. One left the field of battle a long time ago; another has just died; and yet another gets by and continues to create.
One might rephrase the question, "What is to be done in science fiction?" with "What does an SF writer do?" In his introduction to Cyrano de Bergerac's Other Worlds (Oxford, 1965), Geoffrey Strachan writes that Cyrano's originality "was not that of the scientist or philosopher. It was that of a poet who listened to their talk and used it for his own ends, that of the science fiction writer." An SF writer will not violate what is known unless that is the point of the story, or for dramatic ends, as in Wells's The Invisible Man, where invisibility only serves an ironic visibility.
It has been a fashion among critics to remain agnostic about ever finding a good definition of SF, but this reluctance is laziness at worst and romantic grail seeking at best, and has contributed to a wretched understanding of genuine SF--as a fiction, in Clarke's words, "about what might reasonably happen." Few writers worry, for example, that a novel overstuffed with novelties can easily hop the tracks and become a fantasy novel by default, when restraint might have made a more artful, and a more significant use of a novel's ideas. Here again, the market puts a premium on extravagances that really don't fit together--even as the finished work lacks nothing in skill.
Asimov's definition, properly put, does it all:
SF is fiction about the human effects of future changes in science and technology. The human effects, including other forms of intelligent life, fictionally presented, make it literature, when it also delivers writerly virtues; the future changes in science and technology, without which the human effects would not happen, makes it uniquely SF. Now watch this: remove future and science and technology from the definition, substitute "changes"--whether past, present, or future, and the work can still be SF, if cast in a critical visionary way. We can see such "bits" of SF in many works of fiction--in Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, Richard Llewellyn, James Hilton, and others. It's a rising awareness breaking through into our storytelling from an evolving, self-correcting scientific culture that brings us dangers as well as hope, and seeks expression in a literature that belongs to that new, still struggling culture that is not an enemy of the past, but of the past's errors and confusions.
When he was an old man of seventy-nine, in 1945, H. G. Wells sat in his high-backed chair in his London house, where he had spent the war, refusing to leave for safer places, and drifted in and out of wakefulness. Years earlier he had complained about how reality had "taken a leaf from my book and set itself to supersede me," in the wars he had predicted, in his glimpse of nuclear fission in 1914's The World Set Free--where he coined the term "atomic bomb" and foresaw an arms race. Today he might sit up and shout, "Look what you have done with SF! How shameful that you have taken a critical way, blazed by Swift and myself, and have made it into so many pointless adventures and games. I liked games, mind you, for the very young, but never to the near-exclusion of farseeing."
The issues raised by SF's very existence have been collecting for well over a century; these confrontations, which began with the questioning of a "literary sport" to be tolerated on special occasions, now cut across cultural, historical, philosophical, and commercial realms, where they raise reactions of shame, disdain and denial, are poorly understood, and are rarely collected in one basket, as I have tried to here.
The value of genuine SF, as eloquence and influential insight into unique, possibly inevitable changes, to the very question of change, is inestimable, and poorly encouraged.
The dollars don't care. They make of SF what we have today, and to one degree or another have always done so, by putting a premium on what can be written quickly and in quantity.
So it is up to the writers to resist by sticking to merit. That's hard to do when you want to make a living--but if it means enough to you, you'll do it, eyes open to the fact that the condition of the writer has both an external constraint and an inner one, one to blame and one to tame.
The importance of SF as a literary strategy is one that maps out possible repairs to our human history, even our given human nature, indicating hopes to seize and dangers to avoid, in the explanatory form of a story, which is the paradigm of all human explanation; even a physics paper is a story, though they try to conceal it.
And what does unbridled business do with this unique impulse, but saddle it with a feudal economic past and rides it to the bank on a wagon pulled by writers and editors who, with all the love of what they nurture, do double duty by wearing blinders and pulling an oversold, overloaded wagon.
Many author-editor-publisher quarrels seem to have no remedy because the author does not have a corporation behind him, and also involve confusions about editorship's social status--important to those underpaid editors who wanted to be writers. An editor once told me about a picture he saw of some well-known writers, and how he longed to have been one of those writers at that table. Moved, I wanted to put him in the picture with PhotoShop, thinking it might encourage him, but I didn't because I knew he did not really want to pay the price of being a writer.
It is no accident that nearly all the editors who created SF as a publishing category were writers, who were gradually eased out of corporate positions. Fredric Brown once warned of the demise of genuine editors, when writers would fall into the hands of fan readers, who could be better controlled by their bosses.
"I'm not a line editor," we hear these days. An acquisitions editor does not edit text, which means he is not an editor, but a person trained by his corporation to pass judgments on all that does not belong to a work's intrinsic merits. This is a fan, or the reader that movie producers once asked to read a book and tell them about it.
Part time writers don't face such issues often, since they don't feel the pinch. They concentrate on their work as best they can. Full time writers have to be more productive, and are often more desperate. The abuses that each accepts to get work done help to subsidize publishing. They are poorly rewarded, powerless participants in a business, most of them and even the finest, consoled by the fact that their work is published, and even well recognized by awards and good reviews.
This is how SF is sidetracked, nearly derailed, into skilled adventure fiction. Real work takes too long. Good SF is the strange workhouse of shared, hand-me-down ideas encouraged by money, the good wishes of some editors and the dedication of serious authors, but existing only for the money in the eyes of the publisher. Merit that makes not money is not wanted, even though they make mistakes about that and let some merit through. Thank a good editor somewhere.
Paul Gauguin, when he expressed his disdain of Parisian painters, and was asked what he did like, picked up a lone Van Gogh and cried out, "See! Owes to no one. Has something to say and says it!" And never a penny earned.
A truthful presentation would be a phone book sized directory of publishers' abuses--of talent, of small bookstores, and even each other. Successes that reveal the incompetence of editorial judgment calls do not count (which of the dozen or so house editors who rejected Harry Potter puts that on their rsum?).
I have been warned over the years of being the slave who hangs himself in the master's doorway, because the master will merely shrug on his way to the market, wondering what he'll have to pay for a new servant. Maybe he can find a real deal.
But today you can say what you please and it won't matter, as long as you can't do much about it. We make publishing possible, cry the publishers, even as they diminish what they are given. Half-truths we know, but quarter truths, or ten percent truths, are a deeper innovation.
Good does break out in bits and pieces everywhere. I reduced "good" to "some good" as I learned more; "less" came next; and "next to nothing" waits up ahead. Midlist books are taken from their authors as the newborn of slaves were taken and sold off. Is your life that bad? I have been asked. Well, no--but does that diminish principle? Do right and wrong have to cower in the shadows, afraid to confront one another?
Most writers, when a tally is made of their lives and what it cost to do good work, end up having either given it away, or made less than minimum wage--even the very best. (Who knew he was going to be Philip K. Dick?) "Consider it a contribution," I once heard said, accepting that we do live in a rob Peter to pay Paul physical universe, in which counting all the costs of doing anything would not even break even, due to inefficiency. Profit is an accounting artifact which works by what it leaves out; the reality is that wealth flows from the very many to the very few and fewer. How did that happen? Some claim it is deserved. Someone has to run things, but they could at least not take so much and leave a humane bottom, still well short of justice but good enough.
The just answer is that all who are born into our world deserve a fair share, as affirmed by the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by all, and whose language was drafted by SF's own Shakespeare, H.G. Wells. But market economies say you're deserving if you work, with the irony being that those who work hardest live poorest, and if you don't or can't work, you perish.
At this lofty point, let me say that the position of writers is not the most important problem in our world, yet writers clearly give a lot and get among the least.
Remedies for writers wait on legislation, and later on safeguarding all efforts to subvert gains. Class actions are the new union movements (without unions much of social justice would not have been won--a fact denied only by amnesiacs even as they reduce the gains). Writers need a contractual recognition of the fact that the inequalities of wealth and the power between a writer and a publisher must give way to equal, verifiable protections
Many writers, even the finest, have simply tightened their seat belts and done the work they loved, leaving practical matters to agents, who, like the police, can fix symptoms but not underlying disease. My friend Isaac Asimov, who rarely had an agent, told me, in the last decade of his life, that he just signed all the contracts. They could steal what they wanted as long as he had enough and was left alone to work. Later he realized his bad example, and that publishers used his name to justify "what Asimov signed." Then he spoke out on just about every point I have raised in this talk, to no great effect. In fact, most writers speak up at one time or another. I have done so. I got along too long.
It is laughable that we have to argue for the abolition of intimidating publishing contracts and concealing royalty reports.
Here is the core of a contract, routinely ignored:
Contracts are the minimum conditions between parties, the laws that govern contracts state, but publishers have made their contracts the maximum conditions beyond which nothing else is required of them, while everything is asked of talent. And they enforce this with mere insistence, unchallenged, from an economic high ground.
"It's our money!" cry the corporations.
"And our lives," say the authors.
But it's not even their money, because no one earns it all alone. No one accomplishes anything alone. It's the publishers who are at odds with talent, because money and power can ignore the truth when it goes against them.
Two ways lie ahead:
Publishing as a playpen, where talent tries to contribute as artfully as it
can in the time it has; or an industry in which the best editors have gone
freelance, to smaller houses, and thrown in their lot where it has always
belonged, with the writers. Both exist, with shame in one and hope in the other.
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