Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Bad Pennies, Part 4

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On June 10, 2014, the author Deirdre Saoirse Moen published an email on her blog from Moira Greyland, the daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley. In a few short paragraphs, Greyland devastatingly described the extent of the abuse that she had suffered at the hand of her mother: “The first time she molested me, I was three. The last time, I was twelve, and able to walk away…I put [her stepfather Walter Breen] in jail for molesting one boy…Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims…but Marion was far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.” Later that year, Moira’s brother Mark gave an interview in which he corroborated her claims, while also revealing the difficulty that he had felt in speaking out:

There was always drama and there was always the invisible blade of what would happen if all of this dreadful secret got out. The atmosphere of fear of discovery was simply everywhere and there was no place to hide. Worse, I was ashamed. When you are small you believe stuff, and I felt with my whole heart that I was responsible when she would go bad. There was absolutely no way I was gonna drag the mountain onto my head…And nobody spoke. Everything was always fine and that was my clown suit. I thought everyone knew and that I was such a bad person no one would speak to me. My echo chamber filled me with such fear of exposure I would do anything to make the shadow go away. And I did.

Not surprisingly, these revelations sent a shockwave through the science fiction and fantasy community, with many writers—including those associated with Bradley’s fiction series and magazine—speaking out against what John Scalzi called the “horrific” allegations. Yet while the full extent of Bradley’s abuse may have been unknown, her culpability in Breen’s crimes had been public knowledge for years. In 1998, Bradley testified in a series of depositions about her relationship with her husband, in which she admitted that she was fully aware of his behavior. When asked why she had defended him from accusations of child molestation during the buildup to the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, she responded that she had felt that it was “nobody’s business” but Breen’s. And her involvement went far beyond the decision to keep silent. As the writer Stephin Goldin, whose stepson was abused by Breen, writes in a discussion of the case, which was published shortly after Bradley passed away:

[Bradley] actively aided and abetted her husband, Walter Breen, in the sexual abuse and molestation of children. Before people cast too many tears over her death, they may wish to learn some of the harm she helped perpetrate in the world as well…[Bradley] admits having deliberately covered up her husband’s involvement in activities she knew were illegal and harmful. She took some pains to tell Walter not to molest her own children, but she didn’t care in the least what he did to other children. Readers will be able to judge for themselves the sort of moral character this woman possessed.

And while this information was publicly available for fifteen years before the disclosures by Bradley’s children, they remained largely unknown outside a relatively small circle of fans.

So what happened in the meantime to inspire such a strong response to the statements from Moira and Mark Greyland? I can think of several possible reasons, all of which may have played a role. The first is that our culture has simply changed, which comes close to being a tautology. Another is that the accusations from Bradley’s children are more horrifying, because they indicate that their mother was an abuser as well as an enabler—although this doesn’t explain why her involvement with Breen had gone mostly unremarked until then. The third, which I think gets even closer to the truth, is that the fact that this information was rapidly disseminated online made it harder to ignore. (As Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker write in an article in CoinWeek: “Consider this: as a hobby and an industry, we’re actually quite fortunate that the Breen scandal erupted when it did. Had Breen’s crimes come to light in the Internet Age, the hobby as a whole could have been implicated.” And you could say much the same of the science fiction community.) A fourth explanation is that it can be difficult for us to collectively catch up with allegations that have existed for a long time, until they’ve been catalyzed by a fresh piece of news. As the events of the last two years have made clear, there’s a huge backlog of horrific behavior on the part of our artistic and literary heroes that we haven’t yet processed, in large part because we’ve been preoccupied with developments in the present. I’ve made this point before about Saul Bellow, among others, but an even more relevant example is the Nobel laureate André Gide, whose abuse of young boys was remarkably similar to Breen’s. A lot of this information is out there, but it’s been grandfathered into the conversation, and we don’t always pay attention to it until we don’t have a choice.

But there’s one more factor that may be the most significant of all, and it brings us full circle to Breen’s mentor. William Herbert Sheldon’s crimes were of a different kind, but he benefited from the existence of subcultures that allowed him to operate for years without scrutiny. The Ivy League nude posture photo scandal, as its name implies, depended on the existence of a relatively closed world that permitted Sheldon’s work to continue. I suspect that much the same holds true of the community of numismatists, who trusted him with access to rare coins that he quietly switched out for his own inferior samples, mostly because he could. And it’s worth noting that these were groups of people who presumably thought of themselves as more intelligent than average, which might actually allow such behavior to go unchallenged for longer. Breen, who became involved with Sheldon through their shared interest in both coins and gifted children, could hardly have failed to notice this. (While writing this post, incidentally, I became aware of the novel Wild Talent by Wilson Tucker, first published in 1954, about a telepath named Breen who is conscripted to work for the government. The main character is undoubtedly named after Walter Breen—Tucker named characters after prominent fans so often that it inspired its own term of art. And the timing, which seems too perfect to be just a coincidence, makes me wonder if there might be something to Jack Sarfatti’s claims about Breen and Sheldon’s work on psychic powers with children in the early fifties.) Science fiction, of course, is another such subculture. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, it’s embedded in the mainstream, which makes it harder for predators to work undetected, or for their crimes to be covered up for long. Bad pennies, as we’ve all seen, can appear in any context. And the best way to deal with them may be to let the truth circulate as widely as possible.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2018 at 9:11 am

The Bad Pennies, Part 3

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On September 4, 1964, the annual World Science Fiction Convention opened its doors at the Hotel Leamington in Oakland, California. The guests of honor included Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton, and Forrest Ackerman, with Anthony Boucher serving as toastmaster, but the conversation that weekend was dominated by a fan who wasn’t there. After a heated debate, Walter H. Breen had been banned from attendance by the convention committee, for reasons that were outlined by Bill Donaho in a special fanzine issue titled “The Great Breen Boondoggle, or All Berkeley Is Plunged into War.” (The newsletter was privately circulated, and Donaho asked that it not be quoted, but the complete text can be found online.) As Donaho makes abundantly clear, it was common knowledge among local fans that Breen—who had moved to Berkeley in the fifties—was a serial abuser of children. Four cases are described in detail, with allusions to numerous others. I won’t quote them here, but they’re horrifying, both in themselves and in the length of time over which they took place. Donaho writes:

Walter’s recent behavior has been getting many Berkeley parents not just alarmed, but semi-hysterical. If Walter is in the same room with a young boy, he never takes his eyes off the kid. He’ll be semi-abstractedly talking to someone else, but his eyes will be on the boy. And if the kid goes to the bathroom, Walter gets up and follows him in…Knowing Walter I can readily believe that he was completely oblivious to the obvious signs of strong objection. Those who say Walter is a child are right and as a child he is completely oblivious to other people’s desires and wishes unless hit on the head with them.

In the meantime, the prominent fan Alva Rogers said that he felt “great reluctance” to exclude anyone from the community, and he had a novel solution to ensure the safety of his own children whenever Breen came to visit: “He wanted to protect his kids of course, but that the situation was adequately handled at his house by having them barricade themselves in their room.”

But the most unbelievable aspect of the entire story is that no one involved seems to have disputed the facts themselves. What remained a source of controversy—both before the convention and long afterward—was the appropriate action to take, if any, against Breen. As Donaho writes of the reactions of two influential fans, with the name of a child redacted:

They swung between two points of view. “We must protect T—” and “We’re all kooks. Walter is just a little kookier than the rest of us. Where will it all end if we start rejecting people because they’re kooky?” So they swung from on the one hand proposing that if Walter wasn’t to be expelled, then the banning from individual homes should be extended so that club meetings were only held in such homes, and on the other hand calling the whole series of discussions “McCarthyite” and “Star Chamber.” “I don’t want Walter around T—, but if we do such a horrible thing as expelling him, I’ll quit fandom.”

On a more practical level, some of the organizers were concerned that if they banned Breen, they would also lose Marion Zimmer Bradley, who married him shortly before the convention began. When informed of the controversy, Breen explicitly threatened to keep Bradley away, which led to much consternation. Donaho explains: “Many of us like Marion and all this is not a very pleasant welcome to Berkeley for her. Not to mention the fact that it’s going to severely strain her relations with almost all Berkeley fans, since naturally she will defend Walter…We feel that she most probably at least knows about some of Walter’s affairs with adolescent males but believes in tolerance.”

Even after the decision was made, the wounds remained raw, and many writers and fans seemed to frame the entire incident primarily in terms of its impact on the community. In the second volume of his biography In Dialogue With His Century, William H. Patterson quotes a letter that Heinlein sent to Marion Zimmer Bradley on July 15, 1965:

The fan nuisance we were subjected to was nothing like as nasty as the horrible things that were done to you two but it was bad enough that we could get nothing else done during the weeks it went on and utterly spoiled what should have been a pleasant, happy winter. But it resulted in a decision which has made our life much pleasanter already…We have cut off all contact with organized fandom. I regret that we will miss meeting some worthwhile people in the future as the result of this decision. But the percentage of poisonous jerks in the ranks of fans makes the price too high; we’ll find our friends elsewhere.

Patterson, typically, doesn’t scrutinize this statement, moving on immediately to an unrelated story about Jerry Pournelle with the transition: “Fortunately, not all their fan interactions were were so unpleasant.” His only discussion of the incident takes the form of a footnote in which he quotes “a good short discussion” of the Breendoggle from a glossary of fan terms: “The sole point fans on both sides can agree upon is that the resulting feud had long-lasting effects [and] tore the fabric of the microcosm beyond repair…The opposing forces retired to lick their wounds and assure themselves that they had been undeniably right while the other side had been unmistakably wrong.”

By now, I hope that we can arrive at another “single point” of agreement, which is that fandom, in its effort to see itself as a place of inclusiveness for the “kooks,” disastrously failed to protect Breen’s victims. In 1991, Breen was charged with eight felony counts of child molestation and sentenced to ten years in prison—which led in turn to a comparable moment of reckoning in another subculture in which he had played an even more prominent role. Breen was renowned among coin collectors as the author of such reference works as the Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, and the reaction within the world of numismatics was strikingly similar to what had taken place a quarter of a century earlier in Berkeley. As Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker write in an excellent article in CoinWeek:

Even in 1991, with the seeming finality of a confession and a ten-year prison sentence, it was like the sci-fi dustups of the 1960s all over again. This time, however, it was coin collectors and fans of Breen’s numismatic work that came to his defense. One such defender was fellow author John D. Wright, who wrote a letter to Coin World that stated: “My friend Walter Breen has confessed to a sin, and for this, other friends of mine have picked up stones to throw at him.” Wright criticized the American Numismatic Association for revoking Breen’s membership mere weeks after awarding him the Heath Literary Award, saying that while he did not condone Breen’s “lewd and lascivious acts,” he did not see the charge, Breen’s guilty plea or subsequent conviction as “reason for expulsion from the ANA or from any other numismatic organization.”

It’s enough to make you wonder if anything has changed in the last fifty years—but I think that it has. And the best example is the response to a more recent series of revelations about the role of Marion Zimmer Bradley. I’ll dive into this in greater detail tomorrow, in what I hope will be my final post on the subject.

The Bad Pennies, Part 2

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William Herbert Sheldon achieved his greatest fame by classifying human beings into degrees of three basic categories—ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph—based on their physical proportions. At exactly the same time, and with far more enduring results, he did something similar for rare coins. In 1949, he developed what became known as the Sheldon coin grading scale, a modified version of which is used to this day by numismatists and coin collectors. In his book Early American Cents, Sheldon notes that numismatists gain much of their knowledge from studying photographs of coins, and he continues:

A workable idea can be formed as to how the various shades of condition from a poor coin to a perfect coin can be scaled or graded. This progression is of course a continuum, not a series of discrete steps, and for those who think quantitatively rather than adjectivally it is more accurate to grade coins on a numerical scale than to try to fit them into a series of adjectival pigeonholes.

Sheldon goes on to provide “a quantitative scale of condition” for the coins known as large cents, ranging from 1 to 70, with the highest rating reserved for specimens in an uncirculated state. And while I don’t know enough about Sheldon to speculate on the direction of influence, the entire project was strikingly similar to his work on somatotypes, which classified individuals on a quantitative scale, ranging from 1 to 7, based on the close examination of photos.

Both aspects of Sheldon’s career were also tainted by what appears to have been a deep streak of dishonesty. One of his former assistants, Barbara Honeyman Heath, said decades later that Sheldon had “mutilated and manipulated the materials” for his book Atlas of Men, and an even stranger scandal emerged after his death. In the course of his research on large cents, Sheldon frequently studied the examples held by the American Numismatic Society in New York, including a collection donated by the numismatist George H. Clapp. As a legal filing states:

ANS took physical possession of the Clapp collection in 1947. At some time after ANS’s receipt of the Clapp collection and before 1973, a number of coins were surreptitiously stolen from the Clapp collection by someone who replaced the Clapp coins with coins of the same variety but of inferior grade…The late William Sheldon, a preeminent classifier, cataloguer, and collector of large cents, lived near the ANS until 1973. During that time, Sheldon spent much time at ANS, unguarded, examining the Clapp collection. In 1973-1974, the ANS catalogued its Clapp collection and discovered that some of the coins had been switched for inferior coins of the same variety.

In 1991, a collector published a book, United States Large Cents, that included photos of coins that had been acquired from Sheldon. After closer scrutiny, they were identified as the coins that had been stolen from the Clapp collection—and Sheldon also appears to have pilfered coins from at least four other private collectors, switching them out in each case with inferior examples of his own.

Sheldon’s thefts evidently took place during his research for Early American Cents and its successor, which was titled Penny Whimsy. The revised edition was prepared by Sheldon in collaboration with Walter H. Breen, a much younger numismatist whom he had met while teaching at Columbia University. The two men worked together on what become known as the Sheldon-Breen rarity scale, which rates a coin’s scarcity on a scale from 1 to 9. And much as in Sheldon’s case, Breen’s interest in coins was mirrored in his fascination with unusual human beings, particularly those of high intelligence. Breen was an early member of Mensa, and he evidently attempted to start a program for gifted children that may have involved Sheldon. Our primary source here is Jack Sarfatti, a controversial physicist with ties to Uri Geller, who has made some unusual claims about this project:

I was part of a group of super kids, these genius kids that were being studied at the Columbia University Laboratory of William Sheldon, and one of his assistants, a Walter Breen—we’re talking like 1953…It was also connected to the government.  It had something to do with what later became Sandia Labs in New Mexico…There were experiments, and they would just sit with the kids, you know, trying to get them to move objects.  We never moved anything, but there was a whole program going on about this.  Also, they talked about aliens and flying saucers, trying to figure out how they fly, and all that kind of stuff, it was a lot of science fiction.

In the same interview, Sarfatti claimed that Alan Greenspan had been involved, and that “it was all connected somehow with Ayn Rand,” which is more plausible than it sounds. Sarfatti also stated that Breen often took the kids to science fiction conventions, and he added: “Oh, and I met Isaac Asimov at that time.”

Whether or not we take this seriously, it’s obvious that Breen was interested in fringe aspects of psychology, often with a paranormal or mystical element, which he later called “biological humanics.” (Breen said in an interview that he investigated various subcultures as a sociologist, “including not only the Beat Generation groups on both coasts but also some of the very earliest hippies, finding out incidentally that some ideas that the bunch of us had developed in science fiction fandom had gotten into the hippie subculture and were being paraded around as their own inventions.” He also said that he had broken away from Sheldon after becoming concerned by his antisemitism.) And another side of his work wouldn’t become widely known for some time. In the critical anthology Before Stonewall, the scholar Donald Mader writes:

Walter Henry Breen (also known under his pseudonym J.Z. Eglinton) was the most important theorist of man-boy love to appear since the German figures…in the first third of the twentieth century…Breen independently affirmed, as they had, the distinction between what he termed “Greek love” (pederasty, or intergenerational homosexual relationships) and “androphile homosexuality” (eroticism between adult males)…He himself argued that androphile homosexuality had usurped the “true” tradition of homosexuality which belonged to Greek love.

Writing as Eglinton, Breen published a book on the subject, Greek Love, which he dedicated to his wife Marion Zimmer Bradley, who became famous decades later as the author of The Mists of Avalon—and it eventually became clear that both Breen and Bradley were guilty of offenses that far outweighed Sheldon’s thievery and deception. I’ll talk more about this in a concluding post tomorrow.

The Bad Pennies, Part 1

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For the last couple of months, I’ve been trying to pull together the tangled ends of a story that seems so complicated—and which encompasses so many unlikely personalities—that I doubt that I’ll ever get to the bottom of it, at least not without devoting more time to the project than I currently have to spare. (It really requires a good biography, and maybe two, and in the meantime, I’m just going to throw out a few leads in the hopes that somebody else will follow up.) It centers on a man named William Herbert Sheldon, who was born in 1898 and died in 1977. Sheldon was a psychologist and numismatist who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago and studied under Carl Jung. He’s best known today for his theory of somatotypes, which classified all human beings into degrees of endomorph, mesomorph, or ectomorph, based on their physical proportions. Sheldon argued that an individual’s build was an indication of character and ability, as Ron Rosenbaum wrote over twenty years ago in a fascinating investigative piece for the New York Times:

[Sheldon] believed that every individual harbored within him different degrees of each of the three character components. By using body measurements and ratios derived from nude photographs, Sheldon believed he could assign every individual a three-digit number representing the three components, components that Sheldon believed were inborn—genetic—and remained unwavering determinants of character regardless of transitory weight change. In other words, physique equals destiny.

Sheldon’s work carried obvious overtones of eugenics, even racism, which must have been evident to many observers even at the time. (In the early twenties, Sheldon wrote a paper titled “The Intelligence of Mexican Children,” in which he asserted that “Negro intelligence” comes to a “standstill at about the tenth year.”) And these themes became even more explicit in the writings of his closest collaborator, the anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton. In the fifties, Hooton’s “research” on the physical attributes that were allegedly associated with criminality was treated with guarded respect even by the likes of Martin Gardner, who wrote in his book Fads and Fallacies:

The theory that criminals have characteristic “stigmata”—facial and bodily features which distinguish them from other men—was…revived by Professor Earnest A. Hooton, of the Harvard anthropology faculty. In a study made in the thirties, Dr. Hooton found all kinds of body correlations with certain types of criminality. For example, robbers tend to have heavy beards, diffused pigment in the iris, attached ear lobes, and six other body traits. Hooton must not be regarded as a crank, however—his work is too carefully done to fall into that category—but his conclusions have not been accepted by most of his colleagues, who think his research lacked adequate controls.

Gardner should have known better. Hooton, like Sheldon, was obsessed with dividing up human beings on the basis of their morphological characteristics, as he wrote in the Times in 1936: “Our real purpose should be to segregate and eliminate the unfit, worthless, degenerate and anti-social portion of each racial and ethnic strain in our population, so that we may utilize the substantial merits of the sound majority, and the special and diversified gifts of its superior members.”

Sheldon and Hooton’s work reached its culmination, or nadir, in one of the strangest episodes in the history of anthropology, which Rosenbaum’s article memorably calls “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal.” For decades, such institutions as Harvard College had photographed incoming freshmen in the nude, supposedly to look for signs of scoliosis and rickets. Sheldon and Hooton took advantage of these existing programs to take nude photos of students, both male and female, at colleges including Harvard, Radcliffe, Princeton, Yale, Wellesley, and Vassar, ostensibly to study posture, but really to gather raw data for their work on somatotypes. The project went on for decades, and Rosenbaum points out that the number of famous alumni who had their pictures taken staggers the imagination: “George Bush, George Pataki, Brandon Tartikoff and Bob Woodward were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep; at Mount Holyoke, Wendy Wasserstein; at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham and Diane Sawyer.” After some diligent sleuthing, Rosenbaum determined that most of these photographs were later destroyed, but a collection of negatives survived at the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian, where he was ultimately allowed to view some of them. He writes of the experience:

As I thumbed rapidly through box after box to confirm that the entries described in the Finder’s Aid were actually there, I tried to glance at only the faces. It was a decision that paid off, because it was in them that a crucial difference between the men and the women revealed itself. For the most part, the men looked diffident, oblivious. That’s not surprising considering that men of that era were accustomed to undressing for draft physicals and athletic-squad weigh-ins. But the faces of the women were another story. I was surprised at how many looked deeply unhappy, as if pained at being subjected to this procedure. On the faces of quite a few I saw what looked like grimaces, reflecting pronounced discomfort, perhaps even anger.

And it’s clearly the women who bore the greatest degree of lingering humiliation and fear. Rumors circulated for years that the pictures had been stolen and sold, and such notable figures as Nora Ephron, Sally Quinn, and Judith Martin speak candidly to Rosenbaum of how they were haunted by these memories. (Quinn tells him: “You always thought when you did it that one day they’d come back to haunt you. That twenty-five years later, when your husband was running for president, they’d show up in Penthouse.” For the record, according to Rosenbaum, when the future Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley, undergraduates were allowed to take the pictures “only partly nude.”) Rosenbaum captures the unsavory nature of the entire program in terms that might have been published yesterday:

Suddenly the subjects of Sheldon’s photography leaped into the foreground: the shy girl, the fat girl, the religiously conservative, the victim of inappropriate parental attention…In a culture that already encourages women to scrutinize their bodies critically, the first thing that happens to these women when they arrive at college is an intrusive, uncomfortable, public examination of their nude bodies.

If William Herbert Sheldon’s story had ended there, it would be strange enough, but there’s a lot more to be told. I haven’t even mentioned his work as a numismatist, which led to a stolen penny scandal that rocked the world of coin collecting as deeply as the nude photos did the Ivy League. But the real reason I wanted to talk about him involves one of his protégés, whom Sheldon met while teaching in the fifties at Columbia. His name was Walter H. Breen, who later married the fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley—which leads us in turn to one of the darkest episodes in the entire history of science fiction. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2018 at 8:35 am

The old pornographers

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Spaceways by John Cleve

“Dad typed swiftly and with great passion,” Chris Offutt writes in “My Dad, the Pornographer,” his compelling essay from last weekend’s New York Times Magazine. “In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than four hundred books. Two were science fiction and twenty-four were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using seventeen pseudonyms.” Offutt’s reflections on his father, who wrote predominantly under the name John Cleve, make for a gripping read, and he doesn’t shy away from some of the story’s darker elements. Yet he touches only briefly on a fascinating chapter in the history of American popular fiction. Cleve plunged into the world of paperback pornography and never left, but other writers in the middle third of the last century used it as a kind of paid apprenticeship, cranking out an anonymous novel a month, learning a few useful tricks, and moving on once they had established a name for themselves in other genres. And they included Dean Koontz, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, and Anne Rice, as well as undoubtedly many more who haven’t acknowledged their work in public.

These cheap little novels were the product of a unique cultural moment, spanning the forty years between the introduction of the paperback after World War II and the widespread availability of videocassettes in the early eighties, and we aren’t likely to see their like again—although the proliferation of erotic short stories for the Kindle and other formats points to a possible resurgence. And although in a few cases, like that of Marion Zimmer Bradley, those detours into erotica cast a troubling light on other aspects of the writer’s life, for many authors, it was just another job, in the way a contemporary novelist might dabble in corporate or technical writing. Block—whose first published book was a “lesbian novel,” mostly because he knew it was something he could sell—wrote erotic paperbacks at the rate of twelve or more a year, spending exactly two weeks on each one, including a weekend off. He says:

There was one time I well remember when, checking the pages at the end of the day’s work, I discovered that I’d written pages 31 through 45 but had somehow jumped in my page numbering from 38 to 40. Rather than renumber the pages, I simply sat down and wrote page 39 to fit. Since page 38 ended in the middle of a sentence, a sentence which then resumed on page 40, it took a little fancy footwork to slide page 39 in there, but the brash self-confidence of youth was evidently up to the challenge.

The Crusader by John Cleve

To be fair, it’s tempting to romanticize the life of a hack pornographer, as much as it is for any kind of pulp fiction: most of these novels are terrible, and even for writers with talent, the danger of creative burnout or cynicism was a real one. (Westlake describes this at length in his very funny novel Adios Scheherazade, a thinly veiled account of his own days in the smut mines.) But it’s hard not to feel at least a little nostalgic for a time when it was possible for writers to literally prostitute their talent, while hopefully emerging with some valuable experience. In Writing Popular Fiction, which dates from around the same period, Koontz outlines a few of the potential benefits:

For one thing, since virtually all Rough Sexy Novels are published under pen names, you can learn to polish your writing while getting paid for the pleasure, and have no fear of damaging your creative reputation. Also, because [erotica] puts absolutely no restrictions on the writer besides the requirement of regular sex scenes, one after the other, you can experiment with style, try stream of consciousness, present tense narrative, and other stylistic tricks, to learn if you can make them work.

Pornography and literary modernism have always had a curiously intimate relationship: Grove Press, which published Cleve’s most successful titles, was both a landmark defender of free speech in fiction—it released the first American editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer—and a prolific producer of paperback smut. Erotica, both in written form and elsewhere, has often been used to sneak in subversive material that would be rejected outright in more conventional works. For evidence, we need look no further than the career of Russ Meyer, or even of Robert Anton Wilson, who tells the following story about The Book of the Breast:

This book, frankly, got written originally because an editor at Playboy Press asked me if I could write a whole book on the female breast. “Sure,” I said at once. I would have said the same if he had asked me if I could write a book on the bull elephant’s toenails. I was broke that month and would have tried to write anything, if somebody would pay me for it. When I got the contract and the first half of the advance money, I sat down and asked myself what the hell I would put in the damned book.

Wilson eventually ended up structuring the book around an introduction to Taoist philosophy, “to keep myself amused, and thereby speed the writing so I could get the second half of the advance quickly.” Regardless of how we feel about the result, that’s a sentiment that all working writers can cheer. These days, a novelist in need of a paycheck is more likely to go into public relations. But I don’t know if that makes us any better off.

Intuition and the White Goddess

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The poet Robert Graves

As I hinted briefly yesterday, there was a time, in my early teens, when I thought that The White Goddess by Robert Graves was the most important book I had ever read, and perhaps that had ever been written. I’ve since modulated my admiration a bit, largely because I’ve come to realize that Graves’s central argument—that the Celts worshiped a Triple Goddess of the moon whose cult was forcibly overwhelmed by the followers of an usurping male deity—has no historical basis whatsoever, regardless of what fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley would like to believe.

Yet it’s still an astonishing book, and one that everyone should read, if only for the glimpse it provides of a matchless poetic intuition at work. Graves’s conclusions may be flawed, but his process is exhilarating, and it yields enough ideas, good or bad, to feed a reader for a lifetime. My own life has certainly been changed by it. In fact, The White Goddess is possibly the single most useful guide by any major author to the role of intuition in imaginative literature. Graves makes a considerable effort to support his conclusions with historical arguments, but the conclusions themselves, he freely admits, were the result of intuition, assisted by moments of scholarly serendipity:

Really, all that I needed to do was verify [my conclusions] textually; and though I had no more than one or two of the necessary books in my very small library the rest were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.

This is an experience to which any writer can relate: when a project is rolling along, it really does seem as if the entire universe is conspiring in the author’s favor. But Graves takes the argument further:

In fact, it is not too much to say that all original discoveries and inventions and musical and poetic compositions are the result of proleptic thought—the anticipation, by means of a suspension of time, of a result that could not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning—and of what may be called analeptic thought, the recovery of lost events by the same suspension.

While this may sound suspiciously like mysticism, it’s actually a description of a very real phenomenon. In the past, I’ve talked about a number of creative tools—mind maps, intentional randomness with the I Ching and Shakespeare, scene cards—designed to make the creative process more efficient. A solution to a fictional problem that might take days or weeks to solve using a more rational approach can often be solved within minutes using one of these more intuitive methods. And I don’t use these tools for mystical or superstitious reasons: I use them because they work, in the most practical and unsentimental way possible. (Since I currently have just over nine months to take a novel from initial proposal to final draft, I’m going to use whatever methods I can.)

Ideally, as an author continues to grow in craft, such methods become ever more efficient. (I no longer need to spend as much time with my scene cards and mind maps as I once did.) And once the author is sufficiently experienced in intuitive thinking, the tools may be discarded altogether, until the writer simply needs to look at the problem “slantwise,” as Graves puts it. At that point, the time between the posing of a fictional problem and its solution, once measured in days, has been cut down to a matter of seconds. And it isn’t hard to imagine that the lag between problem and solution might occasionally be reduced to less than no time at all—that is, for the writer to discover the solution to a problem that he or she didn’t know existed.

This is how the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton—to use one of Graves’s favorite examples—first intuited the existence of quaternions, as a flash of insight as he was crossing Broom Bridge in Dublin; it’s how Graves had the initial moment of inspiration that led to The White Goddess; and it’s probably how many novelists arrive at their most surprising and unexpected ideas. Such imaginative leaps may seem magical, but in reality, each moment of intuition is the result of a lifetime of preparation—in Graves’s case, as a poet, novelist, and classicist. The White Goddess, for all its shortcomings, is the best record we have of how the process worked for one of the most fertile poetic minds of the twentieth century.

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2010 at 9:19 am

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