Science Fiction Studies

#46 = Volume 15, Part 3 = November 1988

David N. Samuelson

Spiking the Canons

Thomas Clareson. Frederik Pohl. [Starmont Reader's Guide No. 39.] Seattle: Starmont, 1987. x + 173pp. $17.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper).

Leon Stover. Robert A. Heinlein. [Twayne's "United States Authors" Series.] Boston: Twayne, 1987. xviii + 147pp. $17.95.

The news that Twayne has begun publishing canonical volumes about writers associated with SF should be greeted as a mixed blessing. In various series, Twayne includes just about every writer in English and European languages academics deem significant. Ubiquitous in libraries, Twayne's books usually offer a competent critical introduction and overview to readers interested in learning--without reading the entire canon--how a particular book fits into an author's oeuvre and how the author fits into the literary landscape projected by the contemporary critical community. Like any series, Twayne's "United States Authors" varies widely, but its imprimatur implies a kind of recognition not bestowed by series predominantly devoted to writers of SF&F. It's certainly a step up from the only other series in which accommodations for SF writers are not "separate but equal": Cliff's Notes.

That the blessing is mixed is due partly to the nature of canonical essays, perhaps especially those concerned with commercial writers. The difficulty may be illustrated by comparing Twayne's first volume on a writer best known for his SF with a recent book from Starmont, one of the better established "specialty houses" in SF criticism. Both critics have academic bases, in English and anthropology, and had personal access to their subjects. Authors and critics alike have long associations with the specialty field. There is little in common between the two volumes, however. Thomas Clareson does a workmanlike job for Starmont without having a great deal to say about his subject. Leon Stover, writing for Twayne, almost overflows with things to say, in an act of appreciation that does not pretend to be a work of criticism. Between dutiful hackwork and amateur crankiness, neither volume offers much reason to rejoice at the professionalizing of SF studies.

Time was when almost the only writing about SF appeared in fanzines and the letter columns of SF specialty magazines. Then academics began to hold forth, in scholarly publishing apparatus, supplementing those sources with various kinds of books as well as critical periodicals like this one. Much of this work may be done more for love than money, but it is still professional, paid for in faculty positions as well as subsidies for journals. In recent years, moreover, larger numbers of academics (myself included) have earned small sums of money, indulging themselves and other readers by writing and compiling books about SF and its creators.

The growth of commercial opportunities has not meant a commensurate growth in quality. Much writing about SF in fact bears out the charge George Slusser opposed in his acceptance speech for the 1987 Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association: that we are second-rate critics of second-rate authors. Indeed, the list of winners of the Pilgrim Award (for lifetime contributions to scholarship and criticism in SF&F) hardly deserves to be cast in bronze. Most "critical" books published, in fact, are or consist of canonical essays about individual authors, sometimes at the level of quickie non-books on SF films.

Discounting Wells, Huxley, Čapek, and Orwell, canonical essays on SF genre authors have appeared in book form since 1968, when Advent published Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension. The first to follow was Cliff's Notes on Heinlein (Baird Searles) in 1975. Borgo also used Heinlein (Slusser) to begin its long-running Milford series in 1976. Starmont started in 1979 with Clarke (Eric Rabkin). Begun in 1980--again with Heinlein (Bruce Franklin) --Oxford's program lasted only three years and four volumes. Ungar also began in 1980 with Bradbury (Wayne Johnson). Indeed, in adding SF writers to its list, Twayne lags by several years the bibliographies of its sister imprint, G.K. Hall. Single authors have been the foci of essay collections from Kent State (since 1976), Taplinger and Ungar (beginning in 1978), and others (Bran's Head, In/Sight, Kennikat). Meanwhile, St James, Salem, and Scribner published author-oriented reference books and series (for the record, I contributed to some by Kent State, St James, Salem, Scribner, Taplinger, and Ungar). Widely varying in length and quality, these essays often do not exceed a string of plot summaries, while some dissolve into gush. A critic's purposes perhaps must include self-promotion and sales, but I would like to believe they also include offering new insights or knowledge. The market for books about SF, however, may not be conducive to progress in scholarship.

The Salem Press effort to determine 500 important works of SF was laughable. Fulfilling a contract, we wrote, for the most part, serious essays with a straight face. With the proliferation of book-length canonical essays, however, standards are being inflated still more. Most commercial editors want positive characters and happy endings in SF stories; positive treatment of writers and stories in SF criticism is also desired, sometimes by editors, sometimes by the critics themselves, to justify of their own time and effort. Both books under review here seem to defer to this kind of expectation, but it is not criticism simply to puff an author's wares and to state likes and dislikes, or to recount plots and paraphrase unanalyzed the arguments of others (including the author being studied).

Books on SF rely on three audiences: fans, specialized scholars, and the "common reader." Fan writers without academic training tend toward anecdotes, bibliographies, indexes, publishing histories, and plot summaries, leaving more controversial studies and thorough-going critical judgments to others. What matters is being involved, loving or hating authors and texts, not attempting dispassionate description and evaluation or engaging in an intellectual colloquy with others who have thought about the matter.

Trained scholars should be expected to do more digging and more close analysis (often boring fan readers to tears). They should be able to present not only insightful readings of individual texts, but also coherent arguments tying them together and connecting them to a larger context. The context may be the development of the writer's beliefs or command of craft, or something broader, related perhaps to social history, to the dynamics of creativity, or to the interrelations of literature. To be useful to others, a critical essay may offer such benefits as elucidation (of sources, allusions, ephemera, arcana), appreciation (of art, philosophy, growth, undervalued contributions to the field or movement), or justification (of influence, popularity, quirkiness). Consciously or not, it will also exhibit certain forms of literary theory, if only in the writer's stance.

If the fan's market is relatively small, the scholar's is even smaller, so most books about SF authors are aimed at the common reader (high school and college libraries being the major buyers). Their focus is usually on a single author and the level tends to be elementary. A life-and-works format is most common, shaped by the author's publishing history. It seems necessary to mention, if not describe, everything the author wrote, although Borgo is less committed to the "completist" approach. I do not always agree with Slusser's books for Borgo, but they do go into more detail on fewer texts than is usually the case.

Before considering more fully the books under review, let me make clear some of my conscious biases. Having written at length on most of the fiction of Pohl and Heinlein, I backed out of book contracts on both of them rather than write down to my audience. As a knowledgeable observer, I may disagree with someone else's interpretation, but I do not think mine the only opinion that counts. I am not aware of having a "love/hate" relationship with Pohl (as Clareson contends on p. 165) or with any other writer. As luck would have it, Stover does not mention me by name, but his book castigates all of Heinlein's critics for not accepting his work and opinions in toto. My preference is not purposely to champion or attack any single writer, but to examine the craft of both fiction writers and critics. If I have a love/hate relationship, it is with all of literature, but perhaps especially with SF&F and--more to the point here--with criticism and scholarship generated about them. Reading critical writing, I seek a fair and accurate rendition of what I think I know, but I also hope to learn something I didn't already know, or to share a new, interesting, even challenging, slant.

Thomas Clareson's Frederik Pohl is the first critical book on its subject, but not the first canonical essay. Unhappy with my own piece on his work in 1980, Pohl may find this book more complimentary. Clareson's praise, however, is not always fully supported by his own analyses of texts. Given Starmont's size and format, perhaps there was too little space for such a prolific writer, but the usual length for this series is extended here, with more chapters than usual and more individual books given longish analysis.

Clareson's argument takes shape gradually, going in two directions. Pohl's unquestionable effect in shaping the field of SF is indicated, without detailed examination. In effect, it functions to justify the rest of the book, which is more involved with the usual canonical theme: the growth of the artist. Hard to fault in a general sense, this position is argued fitfully, with obligatory if not too apt comparisons with writers of some academic respectability (Dreiser and Dos Passos), culminating in a curious comparison to H.G. Wells. But broader critical arguments are overshadowed by attention given individual works. If connections between general and supporting statements are not always firm, the book is a model of clarity in contrast to Stover's Heinlein.

Given this theme, Pohl's later works understandably bulk larger than his earlier, but while Clareson assimilates his materials into the 1960s, the book's second half suffers from the "then-he-wrote" syndrome. Leading us from Pohl's apprenticeship through his partnership with C.M. Kornbluth, Clareson aptly separates Pohl's early short stories and novels, culminating in "The Gold at the Starbow's End," arguably an artistic breakthrough. Six of the last eight chapters, however, focus on single novels, weighting them equally with "Encounter with the Heechee" ("one of the finest accomplishments of modern science fiction," p. 121) and "A Resurgence of Pessimism" (burying Jem amid lesser fictions, short and long, as if Pohl's later writings were otherwise optimistic). Pohl is still writing, of course--Chernobyl and Narabedla, Inc. as well as more short fiction have been published since Clareson's book went to press--and the book-by-book nature of the later chapters gives little hint as to how they might fit into Pohl's career.

Finding in the early Pohl a "voice" (p. 59) but no worthy subject matter, Clareson sees his work in general as "not easily labeled or identified with a single motif" (p. 2). Yet he argues that a central preoccupation emerges in the social criticism of The Space Merchants. What I have called Pohl's "consumer cycle" and "possession" stories Clareson quite properly unifies as active opposition to manipulation, war, and the despoliation of nature. Yet he also finds pessimism and determinism dominant in Pohl's fiction--if not overwhelming, as in the late works of Wells. Clareson does not seem to see active opposition and determinism as contradictions, nor does he appear to notice any connection between them and another contradictory assertion. Taking Pohl at his word, Clareson finds him trying (with limited success) to break out of the trap(s) of pulp SF which he himself has long enforced as an editor and practiced in his own fiction. His characters are usually puppets, often explicitly so, while his futures are mostly filled with fear and loathing (as Barry Malzberg pointed out in The Engines of the Night [1982]).

Clareson credits Pohl as an artist with a number of technical achievements, some of which I find dubious. Every Pohl reader must be familiar with his wry if not mordant humor and razor-edged satire, and some have observed his mastery of understatement and of the sudden switch in perspective. The latter need not translate into mastery of perspective in general, however, as Clareson suggests. More than once, Pohl's use of aliens as dei ex machina closes down rather than opening up perspective. In delineating characters, moreover, though he often shows mixed motives, that in itself is not enough to make his characters complex. Except possibly for Roger Torraway and Robinette Broadhead, they are by and large cartoons, not objectionable in satire but hard to credit as evidence for a major novelist.

While Clareson approves Pohl's unoriginal premise that "the plot is not the book" (p. 60), he fails to explain how, in a given story or novel, formal innovation, satirical bite, and management of narrative perspective interact to produce something transcending plot. And while Pohl's latest fictions may be more open-ended, the advantage of that is not explained. It does not reduce the deterministic cartooniness of his plots and characters.

In reading individual texts, Clareson does in fact write a lot about plots. In my eyes, it leads him to overrate Pohl's artistic achievements in the "consumer cycle" and Black Star Rising, to underrate "The Tunnel at the End of the World," Jem, and The Years of the City, and to omit any mention of "In the Problem Pit." Moreover, while I would like to believe the Heechee Saga a greater achievement than my senses perceive, the argument for it needs better support and contextualization than Clareson musters. Yes, the series exhibits varied literary forms, but to what end? Yes, Pohl plays with "hard science" more than ever before, but I would put the emphasis on play, and not necessarily with a full deck. Yes, in these four novels physical action has been downplayed, but the talk replacing it does not exactly crackle with wit and grace. Impressed by the climax of the series, involving a confrontation between alien and machine- stored personalities, Clareson sees in it a "satisfying answer" (p. 121) concerning life and reality. I think this refers to something like the superiority of the life of the mind, even without the body, but I am not sure in what way that should be "satisfying" or for whom.

I do not believe Clareson has made the best case for Pohl. Acknowledging that Pohl's forte is satire, he gets distracted by questions of both art and science, which often are there to serve social or political ends. The definitive work on Pohl would also examine more closely how he has helped shape the kind of SF published and the careers of other writers, now extending overseas. It would take more into account Pohl's non-fiction writing in fanzines, and treat with less deference his memoirs, which may or may not accurately portray his life outside his works (at best, they are highly selective). It would also try to make something of the connections. If his many and complicated marital entanglements are off limits--they seldom are for writers of major stature--what about his consummate professionalism at least? What are the effects on Pohl's fiction of his buying and selling others' writing, serving as a roving ambassador for the "idea" of SF, daily producing at least four pages of "publishable prose"? Clareson's book may be no worse than the one I would have written, but it certainly falls short of what I had hoped to write.

If Clareson's work is perfunctory criticism, Leon Stover's Robert A. Heinlein is impassioned cheerleading. It is hard to see why the world needs a new introduction, lamely written and poorly reasoned, to a highly popular author who virtually needs no introduction and who could, when alive, write and think rings around his interpreter. Preaching to the converted has already won Stover applause among Heinlein fans, but his "arguments" will hardly win over those who resist Heinlein's appeal. They may, however, give false confidence to juvenile fans, untouched by mature critical judgment, whose grit and paranoia are shared by someone with academic credentials.

Often at odds with his actual presentation, Stover's purpose changes several times in the unnumbered three-page Preface alone. It is first announced as an attempt to rescue Heinlein from SF genre criticism: "This work is the first to treat him as a significant American author and not merely as a genre writer." Heinlein's significance, however, seems measured by appearances on the best seller list and by Stover's agreement with what he says. As his purpose modulates into an act of "fanship," Stover turns Henry James's admiration for critical writing that emerges out of "curiosity and sympathy" into an attack on any criticism which is not reverential. Then the body of the book for the most part emphasizes the "public educator" (p. 12) akin to Mark Twain, undermining Heinlein's disavowal of any "isms," his claim only to write "entertainments," and his resistance to interpretation (i.e., "a search for the man in his work": p. 14). In the later chapters, however, the book becomes more and more an act of homage to a revered dying elder of the tribe.

Disengaging Heinlein from genre fiction is a trick Stover cannot completely pull off; while disavowing the importance of genre in later years, Heinlein continued to write almost entirely SF and to address SF audiences. By aligning him with Mark Twain in the American literary mainstream, however, Stover seeks to have his author's works transcend SF&F. His ammunition includes numerous allusions to major and minor literary figures, some of dubious relevance: Poe, Lovecraft, and Bradbury are invoked simply to elevate Heinlein above them. Rescuing Heinlein from his critics --all of them purportedly incompetent or misguided--Stover challenges descriptions of him as a Social Darwinist, a fascist, or a solipsist. For these labels he substitutes his own: "romantic naturalist" (Preface), prophet of Emersonian individualism, and Calvinist. Correcting his own Calvinist reading of "Coventry," however, he defers to Heinlein's self-evaluation of his intent 40 years after the writing. Taking what he says is a fan standpoint, he is quick to correct fans when they are wrong, which is almost any time they write down their thoughts (thereby committing acts of criticism). In contrast to these fans who express themselves, he claims communion by unstated means with the silent majority of Heinlein's mass readership.

Giving little sense of the development of Heinlein's fiction over time, Stover offers a vast oversimplification of his career's coherence, a name-dropping defense of popular writing, and hectoring advice on proper belief and behavior. Seeing Heinlein's importance in his message, Stover fully identifies with his commitment to pioneer independence, equated with decency, courtesy, and patriotism. He will have no truck with the ambiguity, irony, and indirection of sophisticated fiction or sensitive criticism. Readers expecting a critic to be able to write well may also object to frequent errors in grammar, fallacies in logic, repetitive and archaic verbal tics, and highly dubious and unprovable superlatives (when he can't prove his point by other means, he raises his voice).

Like Clareson, Stover lets his subject's more recent books overshadow earlier works, but with less good reason. Not attempting an orderly account, he switches back and forth (more archly than skillfully) between Heinlein's past and present and imaginary alternate presents (echoing later Heinlein novels). Blind to artistry, Stover has an acute nose for heresy, appropriate in someone concerned more about Heinlein's opinions than his craft. He regularly brings in irrelevances and personal asides, such as his visit with Heinlein and the ups and downs of the author's illness (from which he died not long after this book was published). Not bearing on Heinlein's craft or content, they may belong in a eulogy, which could also justify deferring to what seems to me Heinlein's own apologia for his work, based on my own conversations with him. Neither a eulogy nor an apologia, however, should be expected from Twayne.

This is not to say that Stover's book is a total loss. There are things of value in it, as there may be at a flea market or a jumble sale. His defense of Heinlein's personal character and influence on non-academic readers is important to note; it has been neglected in academic criticism. There are interesting excurses on Heinlein's inventions (spacesuits, waterbeds, "waldoes") and the grace and fluidity of his technical description. Stover surpasses his predecessors in spotlighting parallels with Emerson, Mark Twain, and Whitman, borrowings from James Branch Cabell and Vincent McHugh, and detailed resemblances to early Calvinist teachings in Heinlein's thought. Without adequate context, Stover credits him also for being ahead of his time for the pulps: he was an early advocate of gender equality and sex in its place, he separated SF from fantasy only to meet market demands, and he led the way into juvenile novels, slick magazines, television and films, while maintaining his base in the SF magazines.

Unlike Pohl, Heinlein has already generated a scholarly literature that is not wholly negligible, though Stover will have none of it. Contemptuous of anyone questioning the Master, he sees only fault-finding in previous critics, lumping most of them into an anonymous mass, refuting or correcting those he names. Panshin antagonized Heinlein by analyzing his technique and calling attention to his use of solipsism, which Stover wishes to efface. Slusser tried to locate his appeal in Calvinism and Social Darwinism, which Stover seeks respectively to correct and refute. In my own work on Heinlein, I tried to widen the focus from SF to fantasy and to spotlight his complicated interaction with his public. Where Franklin's award-winning study connected Heinlein with the times in which he wrote, Stover tries to show his message as archetypally American, almost immune from history. Dismissing Franklin's study for its Marxism, he also censures the Science Fiction Research Association for honoring it.

Unlike some fanzine writers and many people in the British SF community, however, none of us was as negative towards Heinlein as Stover makes out, nor was our tone ever as partisan or strident in opposition as his is in defense. Stover provides an astringent corrective, to be sure, but his disciplinary and ideological blinders, his intolerance for ambiguity and indirection, his incoherence and sentimentality, make it especially difficult to swallow. From the standpoint of someone trying to understand Heinlein as a writer, Stover's book is the work of a crank, which would hardly be worth the effort of demolition, except that Twayne's imprimatur guarantees its staying power.

Arguing that Heinlein was an important American writer of the 20th century, regardless of genre, does not require asserting that he walked on water, nor does crediting the importance of Pohl within the SF genre require evidence that he is a great artist. But the expectations of the canonical essay and fannish demands for unconditional "appreciation" can lead to an inflation of values out of any correspondence with demonstrable reality. Both Clareson and Stover rely too much on their subjects' testimony, not as one view among many, but as a definitive factor in interpretation. Critical judgment should be circumspect not just toward other readers' responses to what they think they have read, but also toward authors' views of what they think they wrote.

Stover's contempt for academic critics of SF is not an isolated one, though it seems ominous and out of place in the "United States Authors" series. His attitude is in fact typical among fans and writers of SF. Academics may be able to take solace in the thought that it stems from the fan's preference for feeling over intellect. Writer-critics Algis Budrys and Stanislaw Lem have landed more telling blows, ridiculing our unconscious parodies of the professional image we affect. If canonical essays on SF writers are not to be literary equivalents of political campaign biographies, they must be searching, cumulative, and open about their subjects' flaws, as well as temperate in tone, rational in argument, and written with some style and grace. We academics may think we are helping to raise the consciousness of readers and writers of SF. That will continue to be an illusion, unless we raise our own consciousness about the quality of our own discourse. An academic writing about SF is already suspect; an SF academic writing quickie books is exposed at best to the same kind of censure as a prophet with a great revelation rushing into the street before getting dressed.

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