Saturday, April 14, 2007

Just Read: Breakfast in the Ruins by Barry N. Malzberg

Careful readers might have noticed that I've been reading this book for the past few days.

Breakfast in the Ruins is an odd portmanteau, similar in its structure -- reprinting an old book with new stuff added on -- to Gene Wolfe's Castle of Days, a book otherwise completely unlike Breakfast (don't know why I mentioned it, actually). The first half of Breakfast is a reprint (with new introduction and afterwords) of Malzberg's "screw you guys, I'm going home" book The Engines of the Night from 1982. That part was the source of all of my various quotes and posts from earlier in the week, and is the more interesting part of Breakfast. The main part of Malzberg's SF career was from roughly 1965 to 1975, and Engines is a deeply sour look at the SF world in those days. (Which were already past in 1980; interestingly, Malzberg seems to believe both that it was a horrible, soul-destroying thing to be a SF writer in those days and that things were only getting worse. This is, the astute follower of the genre will have already realized, the quintessential Malzberg attitude: everything is always worse than you think, but it was even worse back in the day, and it's getting worse by the minute right now.)

The second half of Breakfast is in three sections:
  • "Meditations," which are general essays on SF and culture, mostly from Pulphouse in the early '90s -- some of these are good and some are not-so-good, but they are all separate essays, not chapters of anything larger
  • "Writers and Other Culprits," essays on various writers and editors, mostly from convention program books, NESFA Press introductions, and similar venues -- also exceptionally miscellaneous, and mostly in the hagiographic mode (all dead writers were geniuses, and are now unjustly ignored)
  • "Ruthven Agonistes," a story plus fore- and afterwords about SF writer Henry Martin Ruthven, the protagonist of "Corridors," the story at the end of the original Engines
The original Engines (which is only otherwise available as a used book) is one of the great books about SF, in all of its glory and hideousness. It's invaluable for an understanding of the New Wave, even though I don't think Malzberg uses that term, and he's too obsessed with his own situation to even provide a thumbnail history of those times. (It doesn't matter: his obsession illuminates those times better than any more dispassionate history could have.) Malzberg, oddly, spends more time talking about the Fifties (his Golden Age of SF-reading, of course) than his own career, but I think that's because other people's failures were bad enough -- his own would be unbearable. As Malzberg says in the new introduction to this volume, "This is a work about losing and losers, conceived and executed in that mode." He explicitly means that genre SF is a crucible of losers, but we also have to remember that Engines is very much Malzberg's Fox-and-the-grapes moment. For those who hold to the pure Campbellian ideal of SF (battered and out-of-date as it is), Engines will be a book to make you gnash your teeth and hurl heavy objects around the room.

I have my doubts that the field was ever monolithically the way Malzberg depicts it; the descriptions of the sex-book field of the early '60s I've seen are, at worst, only slightly more soul-destroying than the way Malzberg saw the SF paperback mills of the early '70s, and I really doubt SF was that bad most of the time. Both areas did seem to be open to writers whose skills were perhaps not all they should have been -- I haven't read much of Malzberg's early fiction, so I really can't say if he fits into this category-- and either provided a trial under fire to better those skills (like such folks as Silverberg, Ellison, Westlake, and Lawrence Block) or a way to earn some money for a while before getting out of the business. Malzberg does seem to have been extraordinarily unlucky in his successes -- he won the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award with a book (Beyond Apollo) that would have appalled Campbell (and did appall a large swath of the field), and got a steady job at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency when that, apparently, was the worst possible thing for his writing and his vision of his writing career. He also seems to have gotten the opportunity to write too many novels too quickly, none of which were much of a hit with the general SF audience.

Engines deservedly belongs on the short shelf of essential books about SF by working SF writers -- with The Issue at Hand, Trillion Year Spree, and In Search of Wonder. It's substantially less positive and nastier than any of those -- but, again, it is written by Barry Malzberg, and some things just come with the territory.

The new half of this book is more problematic: it's an accumulation of piecework that does not hang together to form any shape (either on its own or in conjunction with Engines), it's more than a little repetitious, and it's clear that Malzberg disengaged from a lot of the field between Engines and now. (And, on top of that, a good half of the "new" stuff is over a decade old -- so it doesn't depict the field as it is today.)

The best parts of the new stuff are the fragments of autobiography Malzberg gives us here and there, particularly an essay on his work at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. These pieces help to explain why Malzberg is who he is, particularly the horrors of the SMLA fee desk. Malzberg's day job, most of the past forty years, was there, and his job essentially was conning lots of would-be writers out of a few bucks each through upbeat pseudo-criticism about their generally lousy work. That half of the SMLA of Malzberg's day bears some resemblance to the worst vanity publishers of today, except, with SMLA, you didn't even get published at the end of it.

For those of us with a penchant for alternate history, it's interesting to speculate about a Malzberg who didn't go to New York, didn't get caught up in SMLA and the SF world -- would he have finally written a mainstream novel that could be published, round about 1970 or so? Could he have fulfilled his original dreams and become the next Philip Roth? That's the kind of story someone like Malzberg might write...well, not too much like Malzberg, since it would depict an alternate world with more happiness than our own, something Malzberg does not seem to believe in.

So the second half of Breakfast is not as strong as the first; that was inevitable, given the book's history, and Malzberg's career. But having The Engines of the Night back in print is still something to be happy about (a mild, it'll-probably-all-turn-out-horribly, Barry Malzberg kind of happiness), and the rest of this book is at worst along the lines of DVD extras and at the best very illuminating. As I said in one of my other posts about this book, I expect it to be a strong contender for the "Best Related Book" Hugo next year, and it's an important book for historians of the field -- particularly pessimistic ones.


Anonymous said...

That half of the SMLA of Malzberg's day bears some resemblance to the worst vanity publishers of today, except, with SMLA, you didn't even get published at the end of it.

Would you explain how that worked?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Johan: Let's see if I can put this in non-actionable terms...

SMLA had two sides: one was a regular literary agency, with lots of real clients who sold real books to real publishers, and were represented by real agents -- some of the best agents and clients in the business, actually.

The other side was the fee desk: SMLA's other business activity was providing critiques of manuscripts to would-be writers, such critiques to be written by the inmates of the fee desk and sent out over Meredith's signature. (See Writer Beware for all of the usual arguments against such schemes.) In his essay about SMLA, "Tripping With the Alchemist," Malzberg describes how he was "selected to write ENCOURAGING, HELPFUL, PLEASANT (capitals on the test sheet explaining the demands made of the prospective critic) letters to fee clients who were availing themselves of the evaluative and (they hoped) marketing services of the world's leading literary agent. ENCOURAGING, HELPFUL,PLEASANT letters nonetheless in the defined and irreversible negative turned out to be my signal talent."

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