Recovering from a leg injury and facing a delayed article and a heavy autumn rain, I was delighted to find Benjamin Szumskyj’s Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays in the mail box today. I still have to read the contents in detail, but my first romp through the context was a combination of pride in my contribution, nostalgia, and the feeling that whatever critical heritage I had generated had passed into safe hands.
For those who don’t know, Fritz Leiber is one of my favorite science fiction writers, and, when I say that my short book Witches of the Mind remains the definitive study of his works, I am only stating the truth (although I have to confess that the field of Leiber studies is not very large).
Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays is the first major scholarly work since mine, and I caught a few glimpses of its creation, so naturally I would feel a certain grandfatherly interest in it under any circumstances. But the collection also marks my first academic paper in over a decade, an effort that I was only persuaded to by Szumskyj’s unrelenting badgering and against my natural sense of caution (there were men with dark glasses, I swear. And tire irons).
(And grocery store coupons!).
So I was seriously torn between anticipation and apprehension when I opened this afternoon’s parcel. I wanted to say honestly that it was first-rate effort, but I was nervous that I would have to lie – and, even worse, that I had contributed nonsense.
With the typical vanity of a writer, my first act was to turn to my own essay, “The Allure of the Eccentric in the Poetry and Prose of Fritz Leiber.” Were there any typos? Had I said anything stupid? I’d hardly dared to look at the article since I submitted it, and perhaps some unintentional double entendre had slipped past Ben’s watchful editorial eye.
Mercifully, I saw nothing at first pass that made me wince. Once or twice, I thought I even sounded sensible – but that could be the Ibuprofen talking.
My next step was to see the references to me in the index. The point was not so much vanity as to catch up with what Leiber scholars were saying. Had my ideas from all those years ago been superseded? Another new paradigm (or trio of nickels) generated?
“No” was the answer to both questions. But several writers had expanded into areas where I had lacked the space to explore and others had struck out in interesting new directions. The community of Leiber scholars might be small, but it was evidently thriving.
Remembering Justin Leiber’s earlier rambling and charmingly digressive articles on his father, one of the first pieces I read in full was his contribution. Not only was it everything his earlier articles had been, but it got me thinking about the couple of times that I had met him – once at a World Fantasy Convention in Seattle, and again in San Francisco shortly before his father’s death. These were in many ways a golden era in my life, in which I had the privilege of knowing Fritz and his second wife Margo Skinner, I was a semi-regular at Diana Paxson and Paul Edwin Zimmer’s Greyhaven, and my own study was receiving attention and award nominations.
With two years, I had turned my back on that world and, become a technical writer and started sliding into the worst circumstances so far of my life. At the time, I thought my chief concern was the need to earn a better living, but today I wonder whether experiencing Fritz’s last days hadn’t influenced my choice not so subtlely.
And what, I wonder, might have happened if I had stayed in academia? Would I have slipped on to the tenure track, or at least found a permanent lectureship? Or would I still be grubbing for contracts and growing increasingly embittered with each semester?
And would I have done any more work on Leiber? There was a time when I was the one thinking about doing essay collections on Leiber.
But that all seems a long time ago, and, although Szumskyj, Australian that he is, keeps hinting at dire uses of Vegemite if I don’t contribute to his studies of other authors, I only have one academic project that I’d like to finish in the remaining half of my life.
Besides, I’m not altogether sure that I could hold my own. The essays in Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays seem awfully literate and penetrating to me. So, although I’m still a relatively young man (a phrase that, as I write, I eerily remember reading Leiber using of himself at about the same age), I think that, for the most part, I will take the grandfather option, expressing pleasure in the fact that I made a small contribution to scholarship, and others still find it interesting enough to improve on it.
All joking aside, thanks for an excellent collection, Ben – you’ve done Fritz proud.
Now, put away the Gnutella and the fire ants, and I promise to do anything you say.