Monday, August 10, 2009

Sad songs 4 dead writers

Barry N. Malzberg's THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT (1982) is a lengthy critique of the science-fiction field, subtitled "Science Fiction in the '80s," but mainly it's a look back at some of the Xcellent writers who helped bring literacy 2 SF -- & what happened 2 them.
Malzberg spends mosta his time mourning about how writers as gifted as Theodore Sturgeon, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, Mark Clifton, C.M. Kornbluth, William Tenn, C.L. Moore & many others beat their brains out writing pulp-magazine stories 4 a penny a word. Summa their work was brilliant & revolutionized the SF field -- & Malzberg is alternately mournful & outraged about the fact that all the great SF writers of the '40s & '50s probly cranked-out all their work -- in its Ntirety -- 4 less than 1/4 of the avg advance 4 yr avg Big Best-Seller, these days.
But it's not just about economics. In a way, ENGINES OF THE NIGHT is about the fate that awaits all genre writers -- or possibly ALL writers -- 1nce they're no longer read.
In the book's most gripping & successful chapters, Malzberg paints unbearably moving portraits of the last days of Mark Clifton -- who discovered 2 his horror & disappointment that Bcoming a better, more effective writer DIDN'T Xpand his audience -- & of mystery writer Cornell Woolrich, who Dspite his brilliant writing ability had only 1 successful, lasting emotional relationship in his Ntire life, w/ his mother -- & who Dspite dying rich, spent his last days living alone in a Manhattan hotel, drinking & watching old movies on TV. These portraits Rn't easily 4got10. (& these sorta portraits could B carried thru 2 the present: The more recent deaths of SF stars like Philip K. Dick, John Brunner & Thomas M. Disch would provide still more sad portraits of supremely talented writers who were left w/ little or nothing -- but of course it wasn't the kind of WRITING they were doing that did this 2 them, or at least not directly....)
The resta the time, Malzberg looks back at the '50s, which he nominates as SF's best & most revolutionary decade, the time when the most lasting of SF's stories & novels were written, when the most adventurous, mind-Xpanding & Xperimental work was done, even moreso than during SF's late-'60s "New Wave."
There R Xaminations of sex in SF; the 6 mo's in the late-'60s when Malzberg was Editor of the 3rd-rate SF & fantasy magazines AMAZING & FANTASTIC; & a hilarious, revealing, unBlievable peek Bhind the scenes at the 4 DAYS it took Malzberg 2 write his early-'70s novel THE TACTICS OF CONQUEST (based on a 2,000-word short-story called "Closed Sicilian"; his slightly-later novel 4 the same now-Dfunct publisher, GALAXIES, was Xpanded from a story 5x as long, so Malzberg notes it was "easier to bloat").
Thruout this book, Malzberg keeps threatening 2 write what he calls "The True, Terrible Secret History of Science Fiction," & I wish he would do it B4 he gets 2 old 2 pull it off. This 200-pg critique is angrier, more emotional, more direct, & more successful than NE of his 50-some novels.
(& in the early '00s Malzberg Xpanded it w/ the addition of the 35-pg reminiscence "Tripping With the Alchemist," a lengthy recounting of his many yrs as a manuscript-reader w/ the Scott Meredith Literary Agency; the updated & Xpanded book is now titled BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS.)
I think Malzberg missed his calling & shoulda bn an essayist & critic from the start....

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