NORMAN SPINRAD VS PARNASSUS
comment by Piers Anthony
I was sent a printed copy of an open electronic letter by Norman Spinrad at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/normanspinrad, titled HELP! addressed to friends, colleagues and even enemies. I fit two or three of those categories, so I am responding in my fashion. I am not online myself, but will try to get this response onto the HIPIERS Page and to Spinrad.
I have a long and mixed history with Norman Spinrad, who came on the SF genre scene about the time I did. In fact his first story was published one month after my first story, in 1963. He is six years my junior, which is par for that course; I was always a slow starter, and took longer to break into print than others my age like Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, or John Brunner. I liked Spinrad's stories, which were well written and generally original. I met him at a Damon Knight Milford Conference in 1966 when he and I were starting to move up as writers. In fact at one point the redoubtable Harlan Ellison, whom I also met there and with whom I also have mixed relations, said that the hottest new talent in the genre was Norman Spinrad. But it was the time when the critics were raving about Roger Zelazny and Chip Delany, who were also there, without any inkling who was going to be most successful in the genre. This is not to disparage those two writers, both of whom I knew personally and liked, and who were genuine talents, though perhaps not of the magnitude at which they were touted. So writers like Anne McCaffrey (also there - in fact, every writer named here was there), Piers Anthony, and Norman Spinrad were not particularly noticed. (Oops, I almost overlooked one of the critics' favorites, Tom Disch, perhaps because he wasn't there. But the point remains: what critics like has no necessary relation to what real readers like. Disch was certainly competent, but never achieved great fame, and he, too, was screwed over by the system.)
Spinrad went on to do provocative novels, such as Bug Jack Barron, which at first suffered the usual fate of original and expressive writing: it was unpublishable in America. Only after it was serialized in a magazine in England, and the distributor refused to distribute an issue because of the "bad" words in it, did the Americans pay attention. Controversy is marketable in a way that quality is not. So Bug was published in America by the same publisher who did my major novel Macroscope, and both novels were wiped out of Nebula Award contention because the publisher goofed on the distribution of the novels to the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America. So neither Spinrad nor I achieved our breakthroughs to fame on that occasion, though I think we could have, had the playing field been level. Yes, Bug is a great novel, deserving of a place in genre history even if it is out of print. And I am saddened to see a writer of genuine imagination and competence dumped on the trash heap of has-beens by Parnassus. By "Parnassus" I mean the publishing establishment taken as a whole.
So how is it that I got generally known and Spinrad did not? I offer two reasons. One is that he became a columnist in the genre news magazine LOCUS, from which turret he blasted the idiocies of publishers. (No, I was never a columnist there; LOCUS won't even review my novels. I think that dates from the time they trashed my autobiography, even putting "(sic)" by an "error" that wasn't in the book, and I exposed their agenda. No publisher tolerates exposure.) I wondered, at the time, what his future was likely to be, because though he was right about publishers in general, they can also be mean spirited and have long memories. Now I know: they have happily declared him to be washed up and therefore unpublishable, never mind how well he can write. I have been just as negative about Parnassus, but lacked the forum he had, so have not suffered that particular consequence. Ironically, I learned later that I was a contributor to Spinrad's loss of his column at LOCUS, though it was inadvertent. I had written a long letter to them detailing the continuing unfair things the magazine was doing, which letter was of course ignored, as it could not be refuted, and one example was the way they openly favored their columnists with guaranteed favorable reviews. I gave Spinrad as an example; there was even an ad for his book placed beside the review. "Piers Anthony never got treatment like that," I remarked with pointed understatement. So what happened? Instead of cleaning up their act generally, I understand they ran a negative review of one of Spinrad's books, though they had a positive one in hand. Disgusted, Spinrad left. I can't blame him, though at least it showed him how some of the rest of us were being treated.
The second reason I got known is that largely by happenstance I got in with the right publisher at the right time with the right genre, fantasy, and did the Xanth series. That put me, in due course, on the national bestseller lists. I believe that had Spinrad done similar, he could have had similar success. Naturally the critics trashed me when I got successful, but there were big dollars to be made in Xanth, and Parnassus worships the big dollar. So my position was secure, for a time, though idiocies by four different publishers have since been destructive to my career, and I am now struggling to avoid the looming trash heap. So I have a good deal more sympathy with Spinrad than he may realize.
Here is the situation: critical acclaim plus six or seven dollars will buy you one paperback book. The deserved acclaim for Bug Jack Barron yesterday doesn't make Spinrad publishable today. Only the prospect of more than average sales does. Perhaps more than more-than-average for Spinrad, because of those mean spirited memories of publishers. Shifting to an unknown pen name won't do it, because unknown writers are not good sales prospects either. In fact, publishers can be so resistive even when a known writer collaborates with an unknown, that good novels can't get published. I had to take legal action to get some collaborations published, when the publisher tried to renege. Yes, I can one of them: The Willing Spirit, with Alfred Tella, a pleasant, sexy fantasy of medieval India. Publishers are so enamored of the notion of publishing only best sellers that they tend to give short shrift to anything else. This is of course stupid, but saying that publishers are stupid is liking blaming a dodo for being dull: it's just its nature. The question is, what, if anything, can any writer do about it?
Well, the Internet does offer a prospect. My serious World War Two novel Volk is now at Pulpless.com. But that hasn't even made expenses. So at present on-line publishing is not a way to make money or earn a living. Will it be so in the future? I hope so. At least it offers a way to get material before the public, so that those who are interested can see what Parnassus won't print as well as what it will. That satisfaction may be worth no more than critical acclaim in real terms, but perhaps it is an avenue to better things eventually. This is of course one good reason why writers should fight to hold on to their electronic rights, rather than allow Parnassus to swallow them and extend the corral that keeps publishers fat and writers lean. But the NEW YORK TIMES tried to blacklist article writers who refused to give away those rights, and its attitude is hardly unique, so there's an ugly fight there. But perhaps there is hope. I think of how it was that the Romans lost a battle to the slave army of the rebellious slave Spartacus, because at one point they didn't even post sentries. Why were the Romans so criminally negligent? "But they were slaves," the commander explained. Slaves were never taken seriously. Parnassus seems to view writers similarly, so may be slow to comprehend any genuine alternative to conventional publishing. I'd love to see the writers win one, and hear a publishing mogul explain "But they were writers!" Unfortunately the immediate prospects for that are not bright. It has been a long time since David beat Goliath.
As I said, my relations with Norman Spinrad have been mixed. But I'm with him on this one. I hope he finds the help he seeks.
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