Doing Something Wonderful

A writer I know sent me e-mail urging me to affix my name to a petition protesting an “emergency” archive that stores books that can be downloaded without charge. The archive exists, I was told, so that people who can get reading matter for teaching purposes or light the darkness with cultural sparklers after the end of the world as we know it (presuming that the internet, computer operating systems and screens still function). Until the apoclaypse arrives, people can download this stuff for free.

The Writers Guild says this is theft and should be stopped. I agree that it is theft of an author’s copyright. As someone who has a copyright, I can say it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when publishing royatlies come up for discussion.

For example: a while ago a friend bought a digital copy of one of my books. This should jave triggered an infinitesimal publisher’s royalty payment to me. Because publishers like to hold on to royalties, just in case the world ends, the publisher should at least have sent me a statement filled with creative accounting methods that prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that even if the entire population of Sweden bought digital copies of my books–the publisher owed me nothing.

I’m still waiting for the statement.

So I checked out this emergency list. Most of the stuff on it I didn’t recognize. I saw copies of Architectural Digest and immediately thought of a dystopian scenario (similar to Canticle for Liebowitz) in which commercial effluvia attains the veneration of a sacred text. Most of the books were in the public domain, so Lord Byron will not rise from the grave to claim whatever he is due for Four Longer Poems downloads.

I almost wished to see my books on the list. They were written to be enjoyed. I like the idea of someone in the distant future finding my work and having a chuckle. I did not see them but, then again, I did not search for them because, long ago, I learned the frustration of searching for my books in a bookstore.

My first job was bookstore clerk. Though I had wanted to be a writer long before that, I had a dream of strolling into a commercial literary establishment and, after enhaling the aroma of freshly printed paper, I would find one of my books sitting snugly on a shelf, cover out.

This actually happened, and, when it does, it’s one of the things that can make you forget all the other stuff that’s supposed to happen to an author, but doesn’t.

Still, I quarreled with the dream: my book wasn’t science fiction or fantasy, which I have always revered; and the book wasn’t is every bookstore. But it was in a some. And, for a moment, that was wonderful.

When I was a child I thought books were monuments of an author’s genius that, once published, sat on shelves forever to delight those that found them. When I began to publish journalism, I believed that my important writing—the stuff I was born to do—would happen in books.

This expectation made writing books slow, worrisome and fretful. When you want your stuff to be good, when you write for the ages and fear that mistakes, hidden biases and sloppy work will damn you forever, you want every word to count.

Though my mother encouraged me to read books, neither she nor my father were avid readers. Both thought science fiction and fantasy was a childish thing that I’d put away. I never put it away,  largely because it “spoke” to me, as it does to many adolescents who have no idea how they’re going to navigate the perils and pleasures of the adult world.

Most of the writer heroes of my youth wrote for money, which meant they were known for what they wrote about, not how they wrote. They cranked the stuff out quickly, depended on editors to tidy up the messy parts, used stock characters, reused plots and settings like old tea bags, strung out their stories in a sequels and prequels when a single volume would have sufficied, shamelessly copied the tropes and pacing of movies and mainstream fiction, and didn’t fret about critics because they had two other manuscripts awaiting publication, a third in the typewriter and a dozen more waiting to be written.

No matter how much they seemed to know about astronomy, engineering, the military or advanced technology, most had day jobs. I can infer now from the authors’ ritualistic disparagement of authority figures, that these jobs were sufficiently degrading and humiliating to inspire fantasies of strong willed, brilliantly inventive heroes from outside the social mainstream who instantly see the truth, realize their destiny, fight the good fight, rescue the damsel and save humanity.

The editors and exemplars of the genre rationalized their hastily cooked escapism as a necessity: science fiction no longer about predicting the future as much as it was anticipating the moral, psychological and sociological implications of technological developments, and show that humans will not only solve problems, but evolve (symbolically or actually) into beings who can master the rude passions that brought wars and the threat of Cold War era thermo nuclear destruction.

And, more than any other literature (or so the purveyors claimed), fantasy gushed with the sense of wonder, that ecstatic, sublime, transcendent emotional state that would redeem us from our narrow, selfish concerns, and inspire us to take our place as explorers and citizens of a universe better than we can imagine.

What genre fiction really did was make money for a very few people, shamelessly exploit many more and create fan cultures that found imaginary worlds more appealing than their own. In terms of production values, it was about quantity, not quality, though some writers sought an illusory legitimacy by selling their work to mainstream publications that not only paid more, but reached a larger audience.

When science fiction and fantasy found that bigger audience it was rarely taken seriously. Oh, there were a few infamous moments, such as Orson Welles radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, but it was only until the hippies of the 1960s turned to J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, that a scaffold rose that would one day bring us Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones and, finally, the Marvel movies. And you know these have inspired a new generation that can’t wait to chose the tropes they most enjoyed from previous literary and visual genres, and put them into a package that sparkles with the spectacular adventures and wonderful visual effects that the rest of us can’t find at home.

In a sense, the Marvel movies are a new generation’s equivalent of the traveling circus that used to come to town and, for pocket change, thrill us with things we’ve never seen, makes us laugh and fills us with a sense of wonder about the astonishing things people can do on the high wire, the trapeze, in the lion cage and behind curtains in the side show.

How many wanted to hop aboard an elephant, or stowaway on a truck or a train when the circus left town? Of that number, how many found out that to do those tricks required discipline and dedication: you had to practice, practice, practice and practice some more, and that one slip can either end your life, or render you worthless for any other kind of employment?

And how many reached that conclusion that being able to do something wonderful ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s still worth doing?

More than enough so that when their work speaks to you, you can’t help but listen.




The Reading on the Wall

Right at the top, I want to thank those who have read and appreciated what I’ve written so far. This contribution is dedicated to you.

I have always been a reader more than a writer. Both parents valued reading over television–the major cultural cornucopia of my generation. My father liked magazines and newspapers–especially the vast New York Times Sunday edition. My favorite section was the book review (to which I would one day contribute, and see my own work commented upon). I read it while eating dinner and only later found it curious that my family rarely spoke at meals.

My mother encouraged me to read books that had more print than illustration. Both she and my father believed that now disproven canards that exposing kids to comic books, Three Stooges comedies and refined sugar foster a generation of hyperactive sociopaths. Considering how many among my generation have been prosecuted (as well as some who SHOULD be sanctioned but have, somehow, escaped judgement), they should have let me wallow in the Dr. Strange, the Fantastic Four, Green Lantern series that I devoured at summer camp.

Reading was definitely NOT fashionable in my town of mostly working class people whose jobs came from Fort Dix/McGuire AFB, Campbells Soup, RCA Camden and the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The school system did its best to encourage the passion. Weekly Reader, a newpaper for kids, was distributed in my elementary school classrooms, with a catalog of what would now be called Young Adult paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Service. My mother agreed to pay for any book I wanted, so, where most kids bought none and a few got one, I walked home with a stack that I spent hours reading in front of a rattling air conditioner–when I wasn’t watching television, sneaking glimpses of the Stooges on the New York television stations that our rotating rooftop antenna pulled in. It’s possible that my interest in martial arts began with the Stooges, because of the rhythmic and–in some circumstances–graceful movements in their slapstick routines. Though I never met any of the Stooges, I lectured about them as part of a course in the history of American comedy, and discovered that, when they started out as Ted Healey’s Stooges, they were hurt during every performance because of Healey’s carelessness. When they became the stars of Columbia’s two-reelers, they escaped injury by rehearsing with as much precision as a Fred Astaire dance.

My passion for science fiction began with the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials that the New York kids’ shows offered. I found it quite believable that some day a that a guy wearing pajamas would buzz about outer space fighting Satanic nasties, saving damsels, protecting bearded mentors and get along perfectly with societies that melted into cavern walls or flew through the air with ludicrous wings,  My love for jokes and comedy came from Milton Supman, who started his Soupy Sales TV show by a guy with a shaving cream pie thrown in his face.  (I would interview and meet Soup later, when he performed in Atlantic City. After telling him how much I loved his show, I got the feeling from him that being a king of kids shows was no longer enjoyable to man whose popularity increased only after he was banned from television for telling kids to send “pictures of Washington” from “your Daddy’s pocket” to him, and again for the punchline “I see F. You see K.” ).

What a surprise it was to find comedy, science fiction adventures and safe, bloodless, heroic violence in books from Scholastic, my hometown library, the local Woolworths (which sold the Tom Swift Jr. adventure series, and its lesser known Rick Brant series, set on a mysterious island off the Jersey shore called Spindrift) and then–miracle of miracles–a bookstore that opened in my hometown shopping mall. I was in that place once a week, squandering my allowance on books featuring cool spaceships, most of them drawn by the great science fiction illustrator Frank Kelly Freas.

Yes, it’s true: I bought books by their covers. Short story collections tended to have the most peculiar covers, ranging from Dali-esque surrealism to the knock-offs of the whimsical abstractions of Paul Klee. When I found an author whose short story I liked, I bought everything I could find by that author.

When I later met Keith Laumer, who would explode in rage when the subject of cover illustrations came up, I discovered that most writers have absolutely no say on what adorns work, and that many science fiction illustrators cranked out generic, planet-‘n’-spaceship covers and sold them to publishers by the truckload. About a decade after that, when my own books were published, I vowed to be reserved and agreeable about cover illustrations–until I saw my own. My first novel flashed a photograph of a (then) bankrupt Atlantic City casino (I thought I would be sued by the owners of that casino, until I noticed that casino people don’t read). My second had a pulp-magazine-style painting of a man with a gun apparently defending a damsel in distress.  The third had an enigmatic man in a trenchcoat. I threw tantrums, to no avail.

How could so much “disposable” pop-culture art be so important to me, and others? English classes were definitely not helpful. Poetry was presented as a dandified code, a soggy puzzle from which had to be wrung theme and meaning. My love of direct, plot driven, action-oriented fantasy did not prepare me for the slower-paced, prose-heavy, character-driven classics of English and American literature. The single exception was the Lord of the Rings, which was promoted by a rather daring elementary school teacher who also took his class to a performance  The Tempest, my first Shakespeare play.

Even in college, I preferred stories that thrilled me, to those that made me “think,” had fancy prose style or clobbered me with “meaning.” When “magical realism” became fashionable, I argued that these mostly Latin and South American writers were using techniques that had developed in “New Wave” American science fiction and fantasy. My argument was dismissed by my professors as not worthy of comment.

I had already determined, way back when I was eleven years old, to become a writer, because writers pleased me the most. I dedicated all my education to that goal. I began to send short stories to magazines. Each rejection hurt more than any physical pain.

I had given up on television (I thought Star Trek, for all its pretenses and pajama-clad guys, was inferior to contemporary literary science fiction). I ignored most movies, dismissing them as to be more about Hollywood than anything pertinent in my life. I did not notice at the time that “high culture” of literature and “art house” movies was merging with the “low culture” of television, comic books and genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. When I was on an archaeological dig in Israel, one of the people on the dig told me about a movie I had to see called Star Wars. Upon returning to the United States, I stood on line to see the film. Coming out of the theater, I was convinced that I had just experienced an up-to-date, fancier spaceship version of what science fiction people called “space opera,” the pulp magazine adventure stories of the 1930s and ’40s. The Jedi knights were similar to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen (and, it turns out, were based on them).  Star Wars was more about old movies (including Kurosowa’s Hidden Fortress) and old science fiction serials than it was about where science fiction was in the 1970’s.

But, like just about everybody who saw it, I really wished that “the Force” was real. Martial arts teachers I met likened it to the “ki” in aikido and the “chi” in tai-chi: a living energy that could be felt, but not measured or critically examined. Finding and harmonizing with your ki was a source of power and strength (which are not the same thing–one may be very powerful and have no strength, and vice versa).

Now the stuff I loved when I was a child is big business. Comic books, space opera and what was once called “high fantasy” (wizards, dragons, castles with kings and princesses) have, over time, made more money for Hollywood than all other kinds of films.

And…I’m bored with them. Superheroes were fun when film makers like Tim Burton gave them Shakespearian dilemmas. A few of the Marvel stories were charming, but they’ve grown stale. The Lord of the Rings was delightful, even if I got tired of all those CGI crowd pans and crowd scenes. Game of Thrones did not interest me from the first episode: it’s more about what adults think adolescents want to see. George Lucas had no Force with him when he did the Star Wars prequels, but Disney has resurrected it as a comic book again, with many talented people struggling to give us the same thing, again and again and again.

But I continue to read: histories, biographies, newspapers, magazines, poetry, and stories, piles and piles of stories. I’m not sure why I need them. I’m less sure why our culture likes them so much. I’m even less sure why so many people read mine.

For those who do, I am grateful beyond words.

When I have taught writing, I first say that writing is 90 percent reading: what you read, be it easy or “hard,” thick or thin, junk or jewelry, shapes how you live in the written world. So keep reading and, if you can, stop to ask yourself why you like what you read, why you don’t, and why you put a book down and don’t want to pick it up.

Then there’s the tough part: writing. We have more than enough reasons not to. Then there are the frequently burdensome reasons we should write: fame, fortune, the attention of those you adore (I showed so many of my early short stories to my high school sweetheart–I still do, now that she’s my wife), the possibility of seeing your work on The Big Screen, the possibility of seeing your work in a bookstore (with a decent cover illustration!), to please a reader you’ve never met who is “out there” waiting to find your work,  a validation of what you believe about yourself and your life, the possibility of “giving back” to those who were important to you, a desire to enter a world in which the best things happen even if the science has determined that they can’t, the opportunity to “make a statement” that may influence others and, finally, a good feeling you get occasionally when you’re finished working.

I’ve also taught that you should write from inner necessity. This I got from from martial arts and “ki”, as well as Keith Laumer: write about what’s really important to you. The problem with that is, sometimes you want to get away from important stuff. You just want to make readers, and maybe yourself, feel differently.

And I’ve occasionally thrown up my hands and said that it doesn’t matter why you write: it’s enough that you do.

After so many unreasonable reasons, if readers find you, it can warm your heart.

So, thanks for reading!