Monday, July 28, 2008

The Issue at Hand, William Atheling, Jr.

"William Atheling, Jr.,” was the pseudonym under which James Blish wrote criticism. The Issue at Hand collects the columns he wrote in that guise in 1952, '53 and '54, then in '62 and '63, finishing with a speech from 1960. There is an additional collection, More Issues at Hand which I can assure you I will be purchasing in the near future. His criticism is ruthless and insightful and still fascinating to read. It also gave me some insight into debates that have been raging for decades and still do today. This book is valuable for writers (to avoid the mistakes of the past), readers who want a glimpse into the past of the field, and any reviewer or critic.

Let's start off with something I found quite gratifying: Atheling was writing for fanzines. He started off in Redd Boggs' Skyhook, then continued in Richard Bergeron's Warhoon and Dick and Pat Lupoff's Xero. Given the esteem with which this criticism continues to be mentioned today, I had assumed that it appeared in the regular (and regularly edited) fiction magazines—Astounding, F&SF, or perhaps Galaxy. After all, older critics are always telling us bloggers that only properly edited reviews/criticism/essays are worth reading; if it's not edited by professionals, don’t bother. So to find out that this amazing criticism that has stood the test of time was published in fanzines, which, let's face it, were the blogs of their time, tickled me to no end. It is also quite encouraging to think that our bloggy blatherings really do have the potential to produce great criticism (and on some occasions have already done so).

Generally Atheling's reviews get deep into the craft of writing, both when it's well done and more often when it isn't. In his first column, after laying out the goals of his criticism and its justifications, he takes apart a story from the Sept. 1952 Startling Stories, "Night Talk" by Charles E. Fritch. Atheling starts out:
One would think, for instance, that no writer should need to be told that a story cannot get along without at least one believable person in it; and that no editor would buy a story that lacked such a person. If you think both these points self-evident, please turn to.... The basic point is that there is nobody in the story. The man from whose point of view the story is told has no name; he is referred to only as "the traveller." Also, he has no appearance; the sole clue we are given to help us visualize him is that he is wearing boots...and, on the second page of the piece, "clothing." The illustrator has given him fur cuffs, collar and hat, but this is a completely creative gesture on the illustrator's part, and gives the author more aid in reaching his readers than he has earned.... This may seem to be heavy artillery to bring to bear upon a story which can be little over a thousand words long, but I can't see why a story should be excused for being bad because it is short.
Atheling gets specific in his criticism, which brings us to another point: audience. Atheling had a luxury that we don't today. Writing for fanzines in the '50s and '60s, he could expect that most of his readers owned the magazines, and either had read or would read the stories he covered. He didn't need to worry about spoilers, he didn't have to give the context, and he certainly doesn't do plot summary. The essays read perfectly well without having the text to hand, although several times I wished I did so I could see exactly what Atheling meant and get more context. Today we can't assume that people reading our reviews have, or are ever going to, read the stories and novels we talk about. It's a shame, but really only in that we have to spend time writing plot summaries. It's boring, but necessary.

Atheling defends his detailed critiques from all comers. For one, he points out that he is performing a service for writers (one which he strongly indicates editors should be doing but aren't). He points out that writers rarely get any feedback at all on their stories, and if you rule out the "plot summary + I liked it" sort of review, often none at all. Once most of the magazines shut down their letter columns (which situation has not improved; only Analog today continues to have a regular letters column) the writers and the editors both became blind in an important way. It is inevitable that when they know letters won't get published the fans don't write them (I can only imagine how many more letters Stan Schmidt receives than Gordon van Gelder does), and then both the editors and the authors lose a valuable source of feedback. Authors need to know when something doesn't work so they can get better, and Atheling sees himself as providing this service, to a limited extent.

Also, Atheling had to contend with criticism of his own work. (Critics critiquing critics also isn’t new!) For instance:
Some time back, Damon Knight wrote me a letter about this column in which he said, among other things, "...I think it's a waste of time to bring up your big guns against short-shorts by Charles E. Fritch. You ought to aim at the top, where the cliches are being perpetuated, not down among the black-beetles."

Perhaps so...I have several times torn newcomers to shreds, and will be at it again in just a moment. I think Damon has a different conception of what constitutes aiming "at the top" than I do, at least for the purposes of this column. I am not particularly interested in criticizing authors, known or unknown, in a vacuum. If there is to be any point in analyzing what is printed in the professional magazines, the analyses should also be read by editors, who are usually at least as guilty as writers when a nuisance is committed....

To aim at the top then, let's examine such a case of editorial collapse on the part of a great editor: John W. Campbell, Jr. The story under consideration is "Final Exam," by a new writer (if that's the word I'm groping for) named Arthur Zirul.
His awareness of the larger industry that goes into making genre literature gives him more insight and a better aim than average, definitely something for the lowly reviewer to keep in mind.

Unfortunately, I am nowhere near the writer that James Blish was, so it is difficult for me to criticize a work down at the nitty-gritty level of word-craft (although after Geoff Ryman's tutelage at the SF Masterclass, I'm more aware of that level than I have ever been). However, towards the end Atheling speaks of higher aims that I also found gratifying. He is discussing non-genre authors playing in our sandbox (turns out the McCarthy/Atwood-style controversy has a provenance going back generations!) and why they are so often successful:
In short, all these books are about something. I submit to you that very few science-fiction stories, even the best of them, are about anything... For all their ingenuities of detail and their smoothness as exercises, they show no signs of thinking—and by that I mean thinking about problems that mean something to everyone, not just about whether a match will stay lit in free fall...

I am trying to discuss the kind of book from which the reader emerges with the feeling, "I never thought about it that way before"; the kind of book with which the author has not only parted the reader from his cash and an hour of his time, but also has in some small fraction enlarged his thinking and thereby changed his life. For this kind of operation an exploding star is not a proper tool; at best, it is only a backdrop.
This is so much like what I wrote in my "Reviewing Philosophy" post, that I'm just grateful that I demonstrably read the book after composing the essay; otherwise I would think myself a horrible plagiarist.

In general, Blish as Atheling is arguing for holding genre fiction to high standards, not giving in to excuses such as "it's just entertainment" or worse, "it's educational." He argues (as did Gary Wolfe at the Masterclass, which proves that this battle must be continually waged) that genre literature is LITERATURE, and should be read and written as such. The authors won't spontaneously get better if their mediocre efforts get published; and if the editors won't knock them into shape it's up to the critics.

I'm not sure that Atheling’s style of criticism is right for me—the word-by-word analysis of the craft of a story. I might experiment with it, but I doubt it will make up the core of what I do. However, it is immensely valuable to read the arguments for it, and to see it done brilliantly. His clarion call to not cut sf any slack just because we like it—that encourages me more and more, and will certainly influence me as a move forward with my reviewing experiments.


Jed said...

Good review; thanks for posting it! I'd heard about Blish-as-Atheling, but didn't have a clear idea of what kinds of things he wrote under that name.

Particularly interesting to me to see him talking about Literary Values in the early '50s and/or early '60s; I associate that discussion in sf with the New Wave in the mid- and late '60s. I wonder to what degree the New Wave writers and editors were influenced by Atheling's (and Knight's) criticism.

One nitpick, about lettercols: my impression (which may be totally wrong) is that most of the magazines that have abandoned lettercols have done so because they don't get enough letters, not the other way 'round. For example, Asimov's published letters for a while (and responses from Asimov himself, and sometimes from the authors of commented-on stories), but stopped sometime in (I think) the '90s; my impression was that they stopped because they weren't getting letters. I vaguely think there was another experiment with publishing letters there a year or two ago, but I'm not sure what the current status of that is.

Oh, and last I saw, Interzone had a thriving lettercol, with a nice sense of community, but I'm a couple years out of date there too.

Karen Burnham said...

Jed- Thanks for stopping by! I have to agree with you; I associate Blish so strongly with the New Wave that I was very surprised that the book started in the early 50's. I have to assume that his "Atheling" work had at least some influence on the New Wave as a movement in SF.

I can't say why the magazines dropped letter columns, but it is interesting to me that apparently (according to Blish) F&SF had dropped theirs by the mid-50s. Were people really not writing letters then? Likewise, do people today really only write letters to Analog? Apparently Interzone as well has dropped their letter column in the last year or two, including it only in their "Year's round-up" issue.

Maybe today it is more defensible, since so much of the genre conversation has moved online, but back in the 50's? Anyway, it's just something to think about. I can certainly see Blish's point about the value of reader feedback, no matter what form it takes.

Duncan said...

Interzone's "interaction" has mostly moved to the forum on the TTA Press website. I recall the Interzone editors of a decade ago calling for more letters - and wonder whether the rise of the interwebs can be blamed for the death of the lettercol.

As Jed said, I'm glad to get more of an idea of what Atheling wrote and am looking forward to your further thoughts on Joanna Russ. Although I don't think I can count it as having read those books these reviewers read if I read your review of their reviews.

Karen Burnham said...


and wonder whether the rise of the interwebs can be blamed for the death of the lettercol.

I had sort of assumed that was the case, which is why I surprised to see Blish complaining about it back in the 50s.

Although I don't think I can count it as having read those books these reviewers read if I read your review of their reviews.

Now that's the sort of statement that belongs over at Fruitless Recursion!

Gabe said...

Just wanted to say I read this the other day when it came through my feeds, and I thought you did a great job reviewing THE ISSUE AT HAND. You've really captured what I love about Blish/Atheling's criticism. I hope more reviewers are inspired to read it as well!

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks Gabe! Glad you liked it. I hope more people do run out and get it; it's really worth it. It's aged surprisingly well.