Past Masters – Preface

Mrs. [Rosel George] Brown is just about the only one of F&SF’s former gaggle of housewives who doesn’t strike me as verging on the feebleminded; in fact, I think her work has attracted less attention than it deserves.

That’s James Blish (writing as William Atheling, Jr.) being nice. He was talking about Brown’s story in the August, 1962 issue of F&SF (then edited by Avram Davidson). He doesn’t name the story—odd that a critic wouldn’t, even in a review published at the time—but a little online research shows it to be her novelette “The Fruiting Body.” It’s a pretty good read, too, as most of Brown’s work is.

For me, though, the salient point of the quote above is the off-hand contempt he throws on such fine F&SF contributors as Zenna Henderson, Katherine MacLean and Miriam Allen DeFord, a blatant disdain that is both unfortunate and unwarranted. Looking over the first Blish/Atheling volume, The Issue at Hand (Advent Publishers, 1964), in fact, the reader finds similar contempt for one writer or another on nearly every page.

It got worse. In the March, 1954 issue of Campbell’s Astounding, a story by one Arthur Zirul titled “Final Exam” appeared. It was the author’s very first story. Blish/Atheling, in the Spring 1954 issue of Redd Boggs’ fanzine Skyhook, devoted almost his entire column (which translated to an incredible six pages in book form) to tearing this story to shreds; calling it “…one of the worst stinkers ever to have been printed…”, and on and on ad nauseum.

Why? What was the point? Is there some reason why a writer, either self-defined as a critic or anointed as such by others, must heap that kind of scorn on something they don’t care for? Spending approximately 2000 words to slam the first story by a presumably-young writer is worse than just needlessly cruel, it’s deliberate sabotage.

(Sam Moskowitz had an explanation for this fervid attack on a writer Blish had never even heard of before. Writing in Science Fiction Studies #70 in November of 1996, Moskowitz says, “It turned out that a Blish story was supposed to go into the issue [of Astounding], but at the last minute Campbell rejected it and substituted the Zirul story!” Was this, in fact, the case, or was SaM just being a mixer as was his wont?

Try as I might, I was unable to confirm the story’s veracity, and frankly, considering both his avid willingness to feud with anyone and his personal dislike of Blish, my guess is that he made it up. After all, Blish had been dead for more than twenty years and couldn’t argue. Barry Malzberg, himself a respected critic, states categorically that “Sam just hated Blish, had hated him for twenty years, old feuds, old loathing… Lying about the motive for the Zirul attack would be among the least vicious of his rodomontades.”)

The perception of “Critic” as “Butcher” is omnipresent in our culture. Every cop, lawyer or detective show on television, every mystery novelist has offered at least one episode or book based around the plot that a local TV or newspaper critic has been shot, poisoned, strangled and/or defenestrated by someone he had gleefully eviscerated earlier and in each instance said Critic is portrayed as snide, embittered, egotistical and arrogant. Is it any wonder that so many who find themselves in a position to act as critic assume that unfortunate posture as a matter of course?

I wish I could say that this sort of venomous self-indulgence was unusual, but I can point to a number of examples by other critics just in our own field that are every bit as intentionally contemptuous and harsh, albeit not necessarily as omnipresent in those critics’ oeuvre as in Blish/Atheling’s.

The real purpose of a critic, it seems to me, is to evaluate the creative output of an artist (in whichever medium) in a way that establishes a historical and/or cultural context and makes that context comprehensible to the reader. In order to do that effectively, the critic may not have to know more about the subject than the audience he/she is writing for, but for damn sure he/she has to know enough about it to be able to both articulate his/her opinions and authoritatively substantiate them.

(This is to differentiate critics from reviewers, whose job is to give their readership a head’s-up on individual, currently available works in order to help said readership make up their collective minds whether to buy that Blu-Ray set of the first—and only—season of Firefly or another six of Amstel Light, a more than worthy objective as far as I’m concerned.)

Where is it written, though, that the Critics’ Chair should be a bully pulpit, with the accent on “bully?” Why are so many critics seemingly determined, even eager, to show so much unreserved disdain for their subjects, to cross the lines of civility to devastate the reputation (not to mention the feelings) of the artists they write about? Is the answer as simple as their wanting to portray themselves as clever, to prove that they’re more so than the writers they slam?

I honestly think that’s true in many cases, I really do. Do I think James Blish, author of the Cities in Flight stories, and the “After Such Knowledge” books had nothing more in mind than savaging his fellow scriveners and their work, though?

No. In all fairness, and as extreme (and objectionable) as I find much of his commentary, there’s plenty of legitimate insight in his criticism. He knew what he was doing as an author, and although he may have been afflicted with the same institutional bitterness so many other writers suffer from—and allowed that acidity to color his critical writings—he was certainly able to shine his analytical light with accuracy and vigor. So, I can’t be but just so, er, critical of him.

Nevertheless, “Critics” (as differentiated from “critics”) have a reputation for cynicism and mockery that I find not only distasteful, but diametrically opposed to the very thing they’re supposed to be doing; i.e., communicating a persuasive and reasonably accurate overview of the subject to their readers. I don’t expect complete impartiality (and I ain’t gonna get it anyway), but I would like at least a modicum of civility.

There’s a reason, over and above the fact that my mother brought me up right. Critics, upper- or lower-case, have a twofold audience: first and foremost are the fans of whichever creative endeavor they take it upon themselves to evaluate – for our purposes, fantastic literature. Fans are far more likely to be interested in detail than more casual readers, and they tend to seek out information above and beyond that commonly given by reviews. They want to compare their opinions with those expressed by people they respect, if only to see if they agree with each other.

The second part of that audience is the authors about whose work they write. Lemme tell you something about most creative types, if I may. We who write (or paint or quilt or play Theremins or whatever) tend to possess a less-than-half-full bottle of Self-Confidence Cola. There are notable exceptions, of course, but on the whole we’re a neurotic and overanxious lot, and any criticism is seen as a possible encounter with Jack the Ripper, no matter how gently worded. If our Critic is harsh and/or snarky, that means our Significant Others have to run around the house hiding all the sharp pointy things from us.

(Paradoxically, a lack of self-confidence doesn’t preclude Ego; almost all creative types – barring those who secrete their work in closets, either actual or metaphorical – operate under the audacious notion that someone out there actually wants to read what we scribble in our lonely garrets, surrounded by hungry cats and tattered reference books. This ambiguity can cause much serious emotional heterodyning, like a psychosomatic ring modulator. What this means, in essence, is that all the various slings and arrows that plague us normally increase geometrically and start bouncing around in our heads like balls of psychic Flubber studded with nails. Ow.)

Here’s another example, not quite as egregious. In Damon Knight’s collection of critical writings (like the Blish/Atheling, originally published in fanzines and collected by Advent), Knight eviscerated A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A, titling the essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt.” The title alone gives the reader a clue as to Knight’s opinion of the writer’s work, and any doubts are dispelled quickly by phrases like “[van Vogt] is a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter.”

The difference between Blish and Knight is subtle, but important: Knight wrote what he did not out of simple meanness or, if Moskowitz is to be believed, revenge, but because of a very genuine feeling of frustration at seeing a bright and extremely imaginative writer doing what he considered to be sloppy work. Did Knight enjoy the same degree of amusement that Blish did in flensing a work he didn’t like? I honestly don’t know, but I suspect not; I think he saw it as his duty, however unpleasant, to offer his considered opinion.

All that above is me trying hard to figure out just what the hell I am. When people mention one of my columns in their blog or on FaceSpacePlace, they frequently refer to me as a “critic.” In reviews of Anthopology 101: Reflections, Inspections and Dissections of SF Anthologies (Merry Blacksmith, 2010), others have done the same.

I’ve always cringed away from the appellation, for several reasons, not the least of which is that I’m not willing to be as malicious as the stereotypical Critic is supposed to be.


However. The key reason is that I’ve just never felt qualified. Of course, I never thought I was qualified to write about old anthologies or unjustly forgotten authors, either, but I’ve been doing it for more than a decade now. Mary, who always knows better (don’t tell her I said that, okay? If you do, I’ll never hear the end of it) had been urging me all along to include more of my own opinions; little by little, I began to sneak some in and was surprised to find that my editors were pleased. This is a good thing, n’est-ce pas?

This shouldn’t be taken as a claim that I have to force my opinions out. Anyone who’s ever spent more than, say, five or ten minutes in a room with me knows better than that. There’s something so terribly permanent, though, about committing those judgments to the cold light of print, isn’t there? I mean, it’s one thing to say “Cordwainer Halvah’s last book really sucked!” in the con suite at 2:00am when everyone’s bleary and barely conscious, but quite another to put it out there where your listeners/readers are clear-headed and ready for an argument, right?

So, it seems to me that you have an obligation to make sure that your statement that said novel “really sucked” can be supported by reason and analysis, and isn’t just a poopy-headed expression of your dislike for the cover art, or because that cute girl in the chain-mail across the room won’t smile back. That means you have to know something about whatever it is you’re talking about. That means you have to have an informed opinion.

Do I got one o’ those? Well, I’d like to think I do. I’ve certainly read widely in the field, both the fiction and the criticism. Not out of some directed intent to become what I was reading, mind you, but out of plain old curiosity. I did the same thing when I was collecting records and rocks.

So, what the hell am I, anyway? Some people have referred to me as a critic, as I said before, but then I’ve been called a Commie-Fag-Junky, too, and I’m not any of that. I can state categorically that I am a historian of the field of science-fiction and fantasy, that I’m a biographer of those who helped create it, and that I am (to a lesser extent, admittedly) a bibliographer (and please note that there are others out there more accomplished in these areas than I am). I will admit further that I have developed strong opinions about the subjects I have written about over the years, and that I’m more at ease expressing those opinions now than I was a decade ago. However…

However. I am not, and never will be, concerned solely with their literary work. As anyone who’s read any of my columns (or even these blog entries) can tell, I’m a bull-goose process freak with an insatiable curiosity about the men and women who have created and shaped this wonderful literature, which means that as far as I’m concerned, it’s all relevant and all grist for the journalistic mill.

If you will forgive me yet another “however,” this doesn’t mean that I have any interest whatsoever in making fun of, or being rude/cruel to/about, any of the authors or editors I write about. If I mention a flaw or foible, it’s because I honestly believe that it affected the subject’s work, not to “dis” from a distance in order to make myself look clever, or to elevate myself above the very people who have engaged my enthusiasm.

If I don’t like a book or an author, I can find very little reason to write about it. Why bother? I’d rather spend the same time and energy covering someone with whose work I have connected in some way than go on and on about a book or writer who leaves me cold. Isn’t it a better use of my efforts to advise readers about what they should actively seek out, not rail for page after page about stuff they should go out of their way to avoid?

Yeah, I have opinions, informed ones at that. Yeah, I have a lot of fun expressing them. But first and last, I am a writer and I’m only too conscious of what it must feel like for some uppity criticizer to go postal for six pages on a five-thousand word story just because they can get away with it. I’ve been harassed by bullies, and I try very hard not to be one. There’s enough of that in the world as it is; I don’t need to add to it. If that makes me not a critic, I’m content.

So, what the hell am I, anyway? Well, as long as you like what I write, it doesn’t really matter, so call me whatever you like (as long as you don’t call me late for dinner).


Although this volume is titled to reflect its primary content, Past Masters includes a number of other articles I’ve written over the years, all related to literature on one level or another. Most of them come from the column I’ve been doing for various online publications beginning with Helix SF and currently running (sporadically, due to the vicissitudes of Reality) in The Grantville Gazette. Aside from a one-off chapbook of the installment on Murray Leinster done in a very limited edition of fewer than a dozen copies by a friend, none of the “Past Masters” pieces have seen actual print. Of the others, the short-short bits on off-the-wall SF/fantasy books ran in Fantasy and Science Fiction as “Curiosities” pieces, the three “Alternate Dialogues” originally ran in the SFWA Bulletin, and I’ve included my history of the SFWA Bulletin itself, which was published in the 200th issue. The lone singleton, an examination of Tom Reamy done for the print edition of Black Gate, is the first of what I hope will be a new column series, “Who?!”, devoted to promoting those fine authors even less well-known (now, anyway) than those I cover for “Past Masters.”

“Past Masters” began in 2006 when a group of us (headed up by William Sanders and Lawrence Watt-Evans as editors) started Helix SF, an online semi-pro quarterly supported by donations from readers that lasted ten issues. The first installment originated as a speech I gave in 2005 at a Williamsburg, Virginia library as part of a conference on the planet Mars. I was asked to do a lecture on the literary explorations of our nearest planetary neighbor, and as the research was fairly simple I said “Oh, all right.”
Helix’s Editor-in-Chief Sanders had asked me to do a column for the magazine (as well as act as Poetry Editor), and I proposed several ideas for one; we decided on a series addressing classic-but-no-longer-famous authors, but for the first issue William allowed me to recycle that Martian lecture. I left the title of the column up to him and he chose “Past Masters,” an appellation I considered perfectly apt.

There are nine of those columns collected herein, lacking only the tenth; that one was a farewell to the readers of Helix and none of us felt that it would add anything to the continuity if included.

After Helix SF folded, the column moved to Eric Flint’s onliner Baen’s Universe for a few issues until its demise, and thence to its current home, The Grantville Gazette, edited by Paula Goodlett.

A note about the columns: you can see the way they developed over the past few years, from general treatments of a theme (Mars, flying saucers) to examinations of specific authors. In each case I tried to include a bibliography, although those for the first two columns were more jokes than serious attempts to give the readers a direction in which to look.

The actual bibliographies are as complete as I can make them, and should not be considered whole or complete; nevertheless the more than casual reader will find them useful, I hope, in tracking down material they haven’t yet encountered and of course that is my purpose in including them in the first place.

My thanks to William and Lawrence for giving “Past Masters” the opportunity to exist in the first place, and to Eric Flint and Paula Goodlett for giving it new lodgings. Also, my extreme gratitude goes to Phil Stephensen-Payne for his help more than once in assembling the bibliographies, and to the denizens of the FictionMags and PulpMags e-mail lists for their in-depth knowledge of the history of fantastic literature and its perpetrators. Thanks as well to Mary, who reads every line of what I write and tells me not only when it sucks but why, and to the trio of felinical beings who inhabit the parts of my heart not already claimed by Mary.

– Richmond, December 2012

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