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Dec 27, 2015

Reading Disease

Robert Heinlein's bu$ine$$  rules
About a month ago I mentioned "the reading disease" in a blog post that was about how writing can be a disease. Continuing that theme, today I was again reminded of Heinlein's rules for writing and I also saw the following tweet:

source

Do The Math
I suppose you might diagnose me as having a "reading disease", but the evidence might be hard to come by. These days I seldom buy new books. One reason for this is that I already own plenty of great books that I like to read. Another reason is that I have very little interest in most books. I think that Sturgeon's Law needs an update for the current millennium: I'd say that after taking into account inflation,  99% of "science fiction" is crap.

Some Sci Fi can put me to sleep.
First of all, note that I put "science fiction" in quotes. Most of what gets called science fiction (particularly in Hollywood) does not qualify to be included in the genre according to my rather narrow definition. So, I might have a reading disease, but over the years I have become much more selective about what I read.

And as I emphasized in my recent blog post about "writing as a disease", I'm particularly interested in cases where a reading disease progresses to a writing disease. My two favorite science fiction story writers, Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance each produced a huge amount of published writing.

In the Spirit of Festivus
in the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by Milton Rosenblatt
For each of these great authors, I find some of their writings to be unreadable. As they say, everyone should have an editor.

In the case of Vance, I just don't even try to read some of his books. A few of these sit on a self beside me right now, but I know I will never open them again. I tried once and fled. I have not been able to stop myself from mentally exploring the hypothesis that sometimes Vance became bored with a story and dropped it. Later, someone, possibly his wife, finished it up and sent it off to the presses. Ew.

Whoa, don't step in that crap!
In the case of Asimov, some of his novels are among my favorites, but when I re-read them, I just skim through the boring parts. Really, someone should do the world a service an re-issue most of his work in a condensed format.

The practice of paying pulp science fiction writers by the word did a whole lot of damage. There should have been special bonuses paid for elegantly written short stories without all the lard.

Live and Let Die
When I was in the first phase of my personal golden age of science fiction and reading every story I could find, I soon started to rein-in my reading disease. This was a natural reaction to the crappy stories I had read. I knew that I could not continue being a science fiction fan unless I learned how to protect myself from all of the horrible stories that got marketed as "science fiction".

in the Ekcolir Reality
original cover art by Walter Popp
About the time that I had this epiphany, 'Live and Let Die' was filling the airways. I went through all of my accumulated science fiction books and ranked them (A, B, C...). The real stinkers I simply threw away. I vowed that I would never buy another "stinker". From that point on, I'd only buy a book after carefully reading a good chunk of it. I spent a lot of time reading books in book stores and not buying them.

Funny Story
Asimov told the story of once being asked by Robert Heinlein how many revisions an Asimov story went through before being submitted for publication. After hearing the answer, Heinlein asked a follow-up question: "You type it twice? Why don't you type it correctly the first time?"

She put it on the market. Original
 cover art by Isaac Paul Rader.
Of course, before computerized word processors became available to authors, it was tempting to only type a story once and then move on. I had to type my senior thesis and believe me, with the painful way I type, there was no way I was going to type out a second draft. White-out was my savior. Asimov also described another factor that helped him learn to limit the amount of story revising: when he started writing his science fiction stories, typing paper was so expensive that he would make the most narrow page margins possible, saving on paper but infuriating editors. There was great motivation to get it right the first time.

Asimov eventually had a good paying day job, but Vance needed to turn out large volumes of story material to support his family, so he wrote at "pulp speed". I don't fault anyone for writing in torrents, but I'm horrified to hear the words "everything I write gets published" coming from an author. I despise the fact that once an author becomes popular and well-known then book publishers know that they can sell any crap that has that author's name on it.

Pulp Speed
I'll read it! I'll read it!
original cover art by Milton Rosenblatt
I have loads of fun reading old stories from the pulp science fiction magazines that helped create the science fiction genre. Lucky for us, many of the old stories are no longer behind copyright walls and we can access them via the internet (example). And of course, Sturgeon was correct: the vast majority of those old stories were really bad and it is no wonder that they were never included in the many anthologies that were put together as a way to share the better stories with a new generation of readers.

Still, I'm not sure I've ever seen a science fiction story that I completely despise. Particularly if someone had fun writing the story or if there is at least one person who enjoyed reading it. Some stories that did entertain me when I was 12 years old are painful to read now. No matter how bad the story, somewhere there is somebody in the throws of their reading disease, someone who is ready and willing to read it.

Next: in anticipation of the X-Files 2016 miniseries.
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