Thursday, July 7, 2016

Clear communication

While surfing the Net this morning I tripped over a three-year-old article from THE PARIS REVIEW about Barry N. Malzberg's many early-'70s science-fiction novels. The author took about 4,000 words to conclude that all those books are crap -- but it took him years to decide that.
He said he read Malzberg's most famous novel, BEYOND APOLLO (1972), SEVEN TIMES while trying to decide if it was crap.
That's devotion above and beyond the call of duty.
SF readers apparently took this as a slam. But here's the thing -- have you tried to READ any of Malzberg's novels?
This PARIS REVIEW write-up struck me as a pretty legit response to some pretty difficult books. It was written with a lot of humor and insight, and the writer had clearly done his homework.
I read BEYOND APOLLO twice and didn't like it much -- that was back in the day when I forced myself to finish EVERYTHING, no matter how bad. I didn't mind the book so much -- but I thought I was missing something. I thought there was something wrong with ME. That's why I read it again. And decided I didn't miss much.
The PR writer's point was that Malzberg's books aren't so much science fiction as they are about THE DIFFICULTY OF WRITING.  They're all pretty distant, many of them are about a character making notes for a story he can hardly tell, etc. Read Malzberg's HEROVIT'S WORLD (1974) -- one of his few novels I finished back in the day -- and you'll get all that in spades.
As I get older, more and more I prefer direct, clear communication that doesn't play games with me. You can still handle Big Subjects while being direct. You don't have to be clever or tricky or murky.
But here's the thing. Some of Malzberg's work is pretty great. I think some of his essays on SF's history and his part in it are pretty freakin' brilliant. His book THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT (1982) is an angry, despairing look at the history of SF, with some amazing, moving portraits of forgotten writers. His essay "Tripping With the Alchemist" is a very interesting peek behind the literary scene, and very warm and human.
Some of his short stories are pretty great -- especially "La Croix (The Cross)" and "A Galaxy Called Rome." Both these later became novels. GALAXIES has some interesting sections about the brutal reality of the SF world and SF publishing at the time. It's an angry, hilarious book ... in places. But I couldn't finish it. CROSS OF FIRE pads-out a brilliant short story.
If you read ENGINES OF THE NIGHT, you'll learn (in a section called "What I Did on My Summer Vacation") how Malzberg once wrote a novel OVER A WEEKEND for $4,000 -- and once you get over the shock, it's pretty freakin' funny. Of course the novel, TACTICS OF CONQUEST ... well, I couldn't finish it.
Some people think Malzberg's novels are funny. I'll get back to that.
I tried others. GUERNICA NIGHT shows an overcrowded future plagued by suicides. But the best, most painful part of the book has Malzberg writing about a talented fellow SF writer who died -- a guy Malzberg could have helped, but for some reason chose not to. Those sections are great -- couldn't finish the novel.
THE SPREAD is an early-'70s porn novel written just like Malzberg's SF, only using a porno-mag setting. Kinda dull, but not terrible. Odd how much SF and porn have in common.
THE MEN INSIDE is an ugly and depressing attack on cancer. Couldn't finish it.
If a book doesn't work for you, put it down. Don't waste your time. There's plenty of other good stuff out there. Maybe you're not who the book was meant for.
There are lots of great writers I can't read. I haven't been able to finish a Stephen King novel since NEEDFUL THINGS.
I haven't read a single thing ever by acclaimed SF writer Gene Wolfe that I've been able to figure out. Got all the way through SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, but I was confused. I read all those reviews saying "Great, magical writing, epic adventure," and I thought there was something wrong with ME. Thought I'd missed something again. By the time I picked up SOLDIER IN THE MIST (which should have been simpler because the hero only remembers what he writes down), I still couldn't figure out what Wolfe was up to. But I learned my lesson -- I gave up halfway through.
Lotta people think Samuel R. Delany's brilliant. His early novels THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION and EMPIRE STAR are magic, but by NOVA (possibly by BABEL-17) he was cramming too much into too small a space, and I gave up 200 pages into DHALGREN.
Just because a book gets rave reviews doesn't mean it's good. Does it work for you?
On Malzberg the comedian -- he may be a cranky New Jersey version of Harlan Ellison, but Malzberg likes to joke. Awhile back at the GALAXY'S EDGE website, Malz posted a criticism of '60s anthologist and book-critic Judith Merril, saying her work to publicize the '60s "New Wave" in science fiction "destroyed the field."
If it weren't for the New Wave, Barry's experimental, off-the-wall work would never have been published. And he took the loosening-up in the SF field back then as far as he could, selling something like 70 novels between 1968 and 1975. He wouldn't be able to sell any of those works in the SF field of today.
Barry owes the New Wave whatever career he's had. And he'd admit it.
He has to be joking.

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