I was amazed and not a little amused by the many adverse criticisms appearing lately on Isaac Asimov's new book, PEBBLE IN THE SKY. Appearing in the fanzines, that is. Although the Spacewarp reviewer was kinder than most critics, many of the fan reviewers not only turned thumbs down on the volume, they loudly stomped on it as being worthless, pointless, exasperating, unhinged and confusing. One fan also gave it this kind of a review in a promagazine.
At first I failed to understand this attitude, for I had considered it a fairly good novel and definitely worth a nod. But after several such reviews and much thought on what might be behind the reviews, I believe I've found the answer. The answer isn't at all flattering.
I don't believe the fan field can appreciate a book.
That isn't meant as an insult or spoken patronizingly; it only seems to me that an original novel written solely for book publication is simply beyond the fan ken because they are not used to such fiction. Speaking generally, knowing there are many individuals contrary to the rule, it appears that the fan field was weaned on magazine fiction, grew up on magazine fiction, thrived and will die happily with magazine fiction because they have never known or never bothered with any other. Apparently this type of fan reader is so completely educated to and dependent upon magazine fiction of pulp quality, that an original novel not intended for magazines and not written down to magazine standards, is consequently not understood by him. Meaning that the long-held taste for magazines is so thoroughly ingrained that the new taste of a book is unappreciated.
Another facet of this answer appeared last year when Robert Heinlein was published in the Sat Eve Post with a slick piece of science-fiction. Remember the many outcries against it? There again, pulp readers were criticizing a piece of work they could not appreciate and understand because they were used to pulp stuff, and tended to judge all science-fiction by familiar pulp standards they knew and liked. It is an unfair standard because the pulp level is the lowest of the writing world; a fan should attempt to criticize by becoming more familiar with the higher levels.
Basically, a pulp plot depends on action, movement of people and machines, the hero foiling the villain, the use of a gimmick. The slick plot contains most or all of these but so nicely diluted and hidden by the drama, or idea, or theme, that the bones do not show through and the more sophisticated reader is contented. Whereas a book-slanted novel may contain anything, one or more of these ingredients plus other un-pulp-like elements, but usually hinges upon integrity of character. Whole books are built on nothing more than character, or theme, or simply a mood. Try that in a piece of pulp magazine fiction.
Asimov's PEBBLE sounds like a space-opera if you were to judge by the reviewer's remarks, but it isn't space opera, it is the story of a character pushed beyond his depth. Whereas a magazine yarn demands a healthy young hero willing and able to smash his way in and out of any imaginable pirate den in all space (so the reader may put himself in the hero's shoes), Asimov's "hero" is an old man who couldn't punch his way out of a paper bag. Are we to suppose the fan reviewers did not like the novel because the hero was not a typical red-blooded American boy like themselves? Like the magazines always print.
With the possible exception of some of van Vogt's wandering, contorted, interwoven plots, magazine fiction is straightforward stuff unreeling as simply as thread from a spool, having a beginning in which the hero finds himself in a pickle, a middle which slowly crawls over the formula hazards and keeps the reader biting his nails, and an ending in which the hero wins the girl and pushes the villain into the dust beneath his feet. The base, the bones of the entire yarn are as plain as a highway dotted with road markers and numbers, you simply ride along. PEBBLE, on the other hand and like a great many books, is web work. Web work is the spinning of several strands and several characters, each working toward his own ends, and the several strands come together at the hub to form many climaxes into one grand climax.
Are we to suppose that the fan reviewers rejected PEBBLE because there were too many strands, too many characters and subplots, too many things going on at once (all of which were clearly working toward a common climax) for them to encompass? Perhaps I am overestimating the intelligence of the Great American Fan, but when reading a book, the reader is supposed to hold in mind the various threads and characters, to keep them in near-focus at all times so that the theme is crystal-clear as each page is turned. The majority of pulp fiction makes this unnecessary, for it does your thinking for you; when reading a book you are supposed to think for yourself to supply all the bits of business the authors hinted at but did not say. He supplies a suggestion, assuming each reader will seize upon that suggestion and twist it into an outcome that reader most desires. Those books I enjoy and treasure the most are the ones in which I must do half the thinking for the author.
A working example of the current fan mind is the success of the small fantasy book houses now unloading dozens of volumes a year on the world. Given the money, every fan would buy nearly every book published by Shasta, Fantasy, Gnome, Prime, and so on. I believe only a few of them would buy original novels published by the New York publishers, novels like PEBBLE and THE BIG EYE. The answer to this, too, is simple. The fantasy houses are simply reprinting magazine serials and novels, pulp yarns the fans love and understand.
And yet, the great hope of science-fiction's future is the constant finding and publishing of new writers, new novels. The fantasy houses can't go on reprinting and re-reprinting the old magazine yarns forever if we wish to avoid becoming a stagnant pool. A fairly good answer is the sales figures of these publishers who specialize in reprints, and those who bring out new novels.
Most if not all of the fantasy houses print from 2000 to 4000 copies of a book. And then they put them on their shelves and somewhere between one and three years, all the copies are sold. In New York, Doubled began with a printing of about 5000 copies of THE BIG EYE, had to increase it, and at last reports had sold something like 7000 copies not counting the number of volumes used by three book clubs which selected the title. If one takes the book clubs into consideration, something like three-quarters of a million BIG EYES will be floating around the country this year. Making due allowances for the greater circulation and sales a big publisher commands and a small fantasy house cannot hope to duplicate, this figure still reflects the startling difference between pulp fiction and an original novel.
Neither BIG EYE or PEBBLE are world-beaters, the science of the former is faulty if compared to Campbell's magazine standards for accuracy, the characters in the latter fail to show sufficient development when considering the passage of many thousands of years, yet I submit both books are more enjoyable than nine-tenths of the pulp fiction turned out last year. A refreshing breath from the continual round of magazine space-opera.
What's the matter? Do you have Pulp's Disease?
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Text versions by Judy Bemis, page scans by Judy Bemis and Kim Huett
Data entry by Judy Bemis
Updated June 19, 2015. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.