Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘literary criticism’ Category

Yesterday, Benjamin Szumskyj emailed that his Fritz Leiber: Critical Studies, was now officially out of print. I turned sombre at the news, because that anthology marked the last remnant of my academic aspirations.

In any number of alternate universes, I am probably teaching English at some university. For years, that was my intention in this one. But finances, family, and a reluctance to work towards a doctorate put an end to those ambitions years ago. I was so disillusioned by academia that I even stopped my critical work on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and emerged myself in the world of technical writing. All that survived was Witches of the Mind, the revised version of my master’s thesis, selling a few copies every year and being praised by the half dozen other people in the world who were interested in the subject.

Several years later, Szumskyj, then a semi-professional fantasy scholar, contacted me, praising Witches and eager to lure me out of academic retirement. Mostly, I resisted the temptation, but he did manage to coax from me a contribution for Critical Studies, “The Allure of the Eccentric in the Poetry and Fiction of Fritz Leiber.”

The writing of the article was a painful reminder of academic discourse; as Phred Nguyen, the member of the Vietcong in Doonesbury said when hearing Marxist jargon for the first time in a long while, I kept thinking, “Man, I’d forgotten we talk this way.” I enjoyed writing it as a prolonged daydream of what might have been, and I think I managed to say something original, but after it was done, I had no desire to follow up with more articles. Literary analysis was no longer what my life was about.

Still, now that the rights have reverted, I like the idea of giving the article a semi-permanent home. I’m posting it here under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license for any who might be interested in what else I write when I’m not discussing free software. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to read a relic of an alternate universe.

allure-of-the-eccentric-by-bruce-byfield

Read Full Post »

For the past week, I’ve spent an hour or two each day time-travelling. Mainly, I’ve been touring the mid-Twentieth Century courtesy of Fritz Leiber’s letters to his lifelong friend Franklin MacKnight, but I’ve also been visiting my personal past, trying to decipher my intentions when I first started transcribing and editing the letters.

The letters were a project that I undertook after my thesis. In those days, I still had hopes of an academic career, and MacKnight had just donated large mounds of papers to the University of Houston for its Leiber collection. Armed with the published version of my thesis on Leiber, Witches of the Mind, I persuaded the librarian to send me several thick folders full of material.

What I had really hoped to find were Leiber’s letters to his other lifelong friend, Harry Otto Fischer. According to Leiber himself, his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series had begun in an exchange of letters with Fischer in the early 1930s, and, from the quotes in his essay “Fafhrd and Me,” the letters promised to be richly inventive.
Unfortunately, if those letters have survived, no one has found them yet, and the few letters from Fischer that had survived proved banal.

But, MacKnight, I quickly found, had exchanged long letters with Leiber for sixty years, and carefully preserved most, if not all, of the letters he had received from Leiber. And, although, for much of that period, Leiber hadn’t returned the favor, what was preserved was still a rich correspondence.

My first job was to transcribe the photocopies – the University of Houston was so concerned about illegal copying that the photocopies it sent had vertical writing as a watermark that also thwarted legal copying like mine. Next was the annotation of the letters for a general audience than they were ever intended for.

It was slow going. First, Leiber died, and, having seen him on his death-bed, I didn’t feel like working on the project for about eighteen months. Then I left academia, and in the throes of establishing myself as a technical writer, I didn’t have much time for such a non-profitable project.

Still, I persevered. I had got into the mid-1950s, and even published some of my preliminary work in The New York Review of Science Fiction when my personal life exploded, and I had no time for anything else. And so the folders sat on the desk in the spare room, slowly fading in the sun for years.

Then, this fall, I received a copy of Benjamin Szumskyj’s collection of Leiber essays, to which I contributed. Through FaceBook, I got in touch with Arlynn Leiber Presser, Leiber’s grand-daughter. And, suddenly, it seemed time to return to the project.

Leaving a manuscript is always a sound way to get enough distance to edit it, and the years since I touched the project were more than enough for me to gain perspective on the work I had done so far. But I am no longer the person I was when I started the project, and, looking at my previous work, I often find myself thinking that the editor is a rather strange young man, with thought processes I no longer understand. I disagree with many of his choices, particularly about where to omit passages, and wonder about his judgment. What was he thinking? I keep asking, and then the slow machinery of memory rumbles into action and I vaguely recall the intents that were responsible for a particular piece of editing.

My collaborator in the past, I conclude, as a timid sort, far too nervous about causing anyone offense by my present standards. But no doubt I’m coarsened by several years of on-line journalism with its instant and often frank feedback.

Then there are the letters themselves. Inevitably, the letters are full of news of the world around them, both that of world events and of the science fiction community through the ages. Reading them and tracking down references, I feel a stronger sense than ever before of a history that is still in living memory – although not, for much of it, my living memory.

It’s a world where people worried about being drafted to fight a world war, and watched McCarthyism creep in. It’s a world where gender roles are strongly defined, where a steady job is everything and walking away from that – as Leiber did in the late 1950s – is an eccentric act. It’s a world where secretaries take dictation, and an interest in science fiction is a juvenile, perhaps subversive pastime. And through it all, the main vehicle for recording impressions is the typewriter – a machine that I am old enough to have learned to use, but which now seems an unbelievably clumsy device, as frequent xing out of phrases show in the transcripts.

Immersing myself in the letters and reading Leiber’s reactions to the events around him, I fell that I have a stronger sense of this recent history. In fact, when I break to make dinner, I almost feel that I have time-travelled, and have to shake myself to remind myself that what I’ve been reading isn’t decades old and not current at all.

So far, I’ve just managed to revise my previous work to my present standards. That still leaves me with thirty years’ worth of correspondence to work through. With luck, I hope to have a manuscript ready by the New Year.

I consider myself lucky to be editor of the letters. Quite aside from the fact that I’m working with the words of a great American fantasist, I suppose that we won’t get many of those exchanges in the future. Those of us who write long emails are a minority, and most people probably don’t preserve emails more than a few years. Nor are we as likely with emails to get reflexive responses developed over several days, or even a couple of weeks – the medium seems to place a premium on quick responses. I don’t regret the change in technology — I can’t imagine, for instance, returning to a typewriter after using a word processor — but the thought keeps occuring to me that I am editing a correspondence of a sort that is about to become extinct.

I can’t imagine any greater privilege.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »