Plus ca change? by Michael Moorcock

‘For all its reputation as a hotbed of cultural advance,
the Sixties was no great sponsor of fiction.’
— Jonathon Green, Preface to the 1997 Edition of Groupie by Jennie Fabian and Johnny Byrne.

I WONDER IF the above astonishingly daft opinion  is a prevailing received notion today?  Green, who was briefly editor of FRENDZ underground newspaper, seemed, with co-editor Rosie Boycott, rather more focussed on which smart clubs would offer him contact with the most famous rock and roll  faces, actually shared typesetters and distributors with NEW WORLDS,  and indeed published work by me, Harrison, Delany and others, which was actually commissioned by Jon Trux, an editor who became the central character of Harrison’s The Centauri Device.  Certainly Green, had he not been so distracted, would have been able to read in this period  work by Ballard, Zoline, Disch, Sladek, M.J.Harrison, myself and others published a couple or doors down from his Portobello Road offices.  All expanded the boundaries of contemporary fiction and developed new techniques.    

            Apart from William Burroughs, who did much of his best work in the sixties and began publishing books like The Naked Lunch for the first time in England and America (previously they had appeared in Paris from Olympia Press), the decade saw work by Pynchon (V and The Crying of Lot 49). Ballard (The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash in its earliest form) and Donald Barthelme (Come Back Dr Caligari, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Snow White).  Alexander Trocchi published both Young Adam and Cain’s Book. Hubert Selby gave us Last Exit to Brooklyn.   Gaddis had already published The Recognitions and was working on his second novel.  William Gass’s In the Heart of the Country and Willie Masters’; Lonesome Wife and  Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea came out.  Garcia Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Although writing mostly screenplays in this period, Terry Southern saw the appearance of Red Dirt, Marijuana.  Kurt Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse 5.  We had Joseph Heller’s Catch-22,. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and  Capote’s   In Cold Blood.  De Beauvoir gave us, among others, Les Belles Images.  We had Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Pnin and Pale Fire by Nabokov, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.    Doris Lessing published The Golden Notebook, Joanna Russ published her first book Picnic on Paradise, Günter Grass  published Dog Years.  Elsewhere the likes of B.S.Johnson,  Anna Kavan,  Ursula K. Le Guin,  John Fowles, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Samuel Beckett, John Banville were all producing work, most of which was an advance on their previous fiction and much of which was decidedly experimental.   The likes of Borges and Vian first began to appear in English in that period.

            The sixties and early seventies were, in fact, a very rich time for fiction, an exciting time to be writing it, with publishers willing to back experiment.  Much of it had already begun to incorporate the tropes of science fiction into conventional realism.     The early post-modern experiment of the sixties gave us the mature work of the seventies.  A lot of this experiment, in my view, saw print because the economics of publishing in those days allowed a greater risk and therefore made a greater variety of fiction  available to the public.  Since the 1980s, we seem to have witnessed a dimunition of widely-published influential experiment and novelty in fiction, though the conventions of the most obvious elements of so-called postmodernism have been incorporated into something very close to a new genre while the reading public appears to have developed somewhat conservative expectations, including a taste  for the likes of Ian MacEwan, whose novels hold no surprises and are deeply reassuring to the middle-brow reader.  The tone of fiction and movies until about 1980 was more confrontational and far likelier to take a risk, than at present.   

            Though certain techniques borrowed from commercial science fiction and fantasy, have been employed in the mainstream, they have primarily worked to supply a spark of life to existing popular forms as, for instance,  magic was introduced to the old-fashioned English school story to give us Harry Potter.   I believe that the success of The Lord of the Rings is symptomatic of middle-brow conservatism in reading.   Fundamentally, such books, with, say,  Martin Amis’s current output, are generic, quite as rigid in what they can say or try to say as the popular generic work of Ian Rankin or Iain Banks.   Indeed, apart from Iain Sinclair, fewer and fewer technically ambitious novelists are  published in the UK mainstream and even those associated with innovation seem to have fallen back on self-imitation.    Only in America do a few ambitious novelists such as Roth, DeLillo, Eggers and Chabon continue to offer work questioning middle-brow assumptions and finding a broad readership but even in America is a tendency to return to safer and more predictable forms.   If, as I believe, the medium is the message, this means that in conventional publishing we see little in the way of innovative ideas or analysis and are forced increasingly to search through the internet to find small print publishers, POD publishers and those publishing direct to the web, few of whom can afford to pay an author a reasonable advance.

            In 1964, when NEW WORLDS began running under my editorship and Ballard had written our first guest editorial about William Burroughs and what his work meant, Stephen Spender was declaring that the Modern Movement was dead (cf The Struggle of the Moderns).

            Of course, the corpse of Modernism – a kind of pseudo-Modernism —  though no longer sparked with the vitality which gave us James, Ford, Lawrence, Pound, Eliot and Mann, among others, was still walking and talking and, because it now had the familiarity of established genre, worked to comfort the same reading public who bought country house murder mysteries, historical romances and westerns, but it offered little to writers, including a few remaining real Modernists,  and readers who wanted something which confronted and illuminated the world they experienced.

            At the time of the rise of the Modern Movement,  certain  Edwardians, like Wells or Bennett, continued to use the tropes of the Victorians but sharpened them up with style influenced by the New Journalism and looked with keener eyes at parts of the world previously overlooked by most major novelists. Wells, of coursel also introduced a new kind of subject matter married to an older form of realism.   Similarly, contemporary novelists offer new wrinkles on the old realist formulae – Indian family sagas rather than Welsh family sagas, for instance – just as detective writers come up with disabled detectives or ancient world detectives or minority detectives and so on.  This is mainly the work of those who have been trained or enculturated to work in existing modes and can only continue to work by finding novel methods of telling the same stories in the same way. All that changed are the superficial background props.

            Genre dictates the direction of a story, can distort certain kinds of observation and without doubt dilute the power of new experience.  The very best fiction always transcends genre.   That was the reason why the likes of Ballard and myself, later joined by Aldiss, Brunner, Disch and the rest, felt the need not merely to bring some of the virtues of Modernism to sf, not only to improve the ambition of style and language, but to invent fresh personal conventions which would not distort what we wanted to say.  These conventions were of course inspired by those we found in popular fiction, especially science fiction, but modified to suit our intentions.  This process – some of which involved fairly radical experiment – became tagged as the sf ‘New Wave’.  We didn’t apply the tag ourselves, of course,  any more than a mixed bag of fashionable British writers like Kingsley Amis, John Osbourne, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and Colin Wilson referred to themselves as the Angry Young Men. 

            We had no prescriptions and no plans to take the bread from the mouths of the genre writers who were still doing great work using the conventions to their own brilliant purposes, but we were answering the demands of personal experience.

            Out of this broad movement emerged a kind of fiction which some called post-modernist and others called ‘magic realism’ but which is now so thoroughly absorbed into the culture it is familiar and requires no identifying name.  In recent years many of our finest literary novelists have made use of science fiction’s best conventions.  Alternate world fiction, familiar in the sf magazines from the eighties on proved one of the most useful devices after Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo and was published in the UK by Penguin Books who had recently acquired several feisty new editors like Tony Godwin and Giles Gordon (who later became a NEW WORLDS regular).  Tom Maschler of Cape, encouraged by me and others,  began publishing Dick as a literary novelist, while Kingsley Amis gave us The Alteration, inspired by Keith Roberts’s Pavane.  In the U.S.  Nabokov offered us Ada, while Kurt Vonnegut was one of the first American writers regularly to make idiosyncratic use of sf tropes.  Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Michael Chabon are just a few of the ambitious and original literary novelists to have no difficulty finding readers who are perfectly comfortable with their alternate history stories.

            While all this is encouraging to those of us who in the sixties joined the pop artists like Paolozzi, Hamilton and Warhol in an effort to re-unite ‘high’ and popular art in all forms of creative expression and attempted to bring new scientific ideas into the sphere of literarature, there are still concerns that the majority of this recent work, excellent as it is, does not exactly advance the range of methods open to us – methods indicated by William Burroughs, Ballard (in his condensed novels collected as The Atrocity Exhibition) or even Pynchon (who has admittedly been himself inclined to borrow and synthesise rather than offer new methods).   

            Indeed, we’ve recently been through a period of  restoration and reconsideration rather than a period of experiment and I think there are real economic and social reasons why this is so.  While mainstream publishers have become more open to publishing synthetic work, including fantasy and science fiction, they have become less interested in encouraging or supporting experiment.  Always somewhat cautious, not to say feeble, about publishing new work, they are further discouraged by booksellers’ increasing reluctance to put genuinely idiosyncratic fiction on their shelves.  They are perfectly happy to stock hundreds of copies of bestsellers, like Susannah Clarke or Michael Chabon (both of whom are admittedly of a very high quality) but offer no space at all to writers like Steve Aylett, Stuart Hall, Samit Basu,  Sebastian Doubinsky, Zoran Zivkovic and scores of others who are not using so many familiar tropes from either  sf or literary fiction. What’s more, these corporate booksellers dictate increasingly to publishers what they can and can’t publish if they wish to stay in business. 

            To promote a new book in the years when I first began my career, publishers had only to find booksellers as ready as they were to give a new author a chance.  When in the late sixties the new publisher Clive Allison of Allison and Busby began his list with my Behold the Man he persuaded the major booksellers as well as major reviewers to give the book a chance, with the result that it sold very well as a non-genre title.  This experience was familiar to every dynamic new publisher, whether they were independent (and most of course were) and newly established or whether they worked for the larger forms like Gollancz, Cape or Secker and Warburg.  When independent risk-taking John Calder (or in the States, say, Grove Press)  published Beckett or Burroughs he could count on at least a few allies in the book trade.

            With the abolition of the Net Book Agreement and other regulatory systems which a number of us resisted since we could see what would happen in a totally deregulated market, booksellers began discounting titles.  The larger the bookselling chain, the larger their discount.  This almost immediately caused the demise of a large number of independent booksellers, very few of which now exist in the English-speaking world.  Often the discounts, on popular bestsellers as a rule, were loss leaders in the same way supermarkets offered brand-named sugar below cost. These practices put more and more power into the hands of  corporate booksellers (who bought up those shops which survived), and into the hands of supermarkets who began stocking the latest Jackie Collins or Thomas Harris, so that, as the booksellers felt forced to behave more like grocery chains.  Their stock was floated on the market (with the consequence that stockholders demanded bigger and bigger profits) and the individual taste of managers and assistants was actively discouraged. 

            Bit by bit through the nineties the booksellers began to assume the power once wielded by the Victorian private libraries in England and America when Mudies, for instance, could demand that books be published in multiple (usually three) volumes because subscribers had to pay to take out individual volumes, not whole novels.  Thus the majority of Victorian novelists were forced to produce what George Eliot called ‘the middle volume’, essentially the section which trod water between the beginning and the end of a book.  Dickens was the first literary writer to resist the power of the libraries by publishing in what was considered the vulgar method of shilling serial parts (though noting his success the stately Thackeray, who had advised him against it, soon followed his example) but generally   through the major part of the 19th century the working novelist was forced to bow to the rule of Mudies and Bentley, the publisher who supplied most of Mudies’ stock and dominated the age.  Publishers were even told how to price their books at 10/6d (half a guinea) a volume, which put, say, Middlemarch or Jude the Obscure well outside the pocket of the average reader.

            In 1895, encouraged by the increasing power of the free public library system, a few brave, mostly new, publishers decided to break Bentleys and Mudies’ stranglehold and publish six shilling single volume novels, making them cheaper for the public libraries to buy, enabling the publisher to print and distribute and sell through bookshops to a middle-class reader who could afford them.  The cheaper editions soon followed at 3/6d and eventually a shilling or even sixpence.  Mudies had to adapt to this revolution or go under and Bentley had soon disappeared completely.  

            Among those first ‘six shilling’ novels published in 1895 were Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly,  Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and H.G.Wells’s The Time Machine.   Within a year the three volume novel had all but disappeared and James, Hardy, Meredith and others all began to see their work appear in single volumes.  The revolution was swift, popular and profitable.  There followed what many see as the golden age of publishing from the eighteen nineties through to the nineteen thirties, which coincided almost to the day with the golden age of Modernism, with publication of Lord Jim, Ford’s The Good Soldier and late James like The Golden Bowl, soon to be followed by Proust, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Kafka,  Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and all the great names of the movement who were by no means celebrated immediately.  A glance at John Gross’s selection from THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, The Modern Movement, will show that reputations were not always as assured as they seem today.

            Thus the problem of how to promote Modern Movement authors in a market still dominated by generic Victorian writers like Ouida or Anthony Hope was solved with the help of enthusiastic booksellers and public libraries.  I read all my favourite moderns initially from the public library – Firbank, Mann, Huxley, Waugh, Eliot – while I indulged my taste for popular writers like Wodehouse, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clarence E. Mulford by taking out their work at tuppence a week from our still thriving commercial circulating libraries, both independent and attached to chains like Boots or W.H.Smith.   When my second hardcover novel, Stormbringer, was published I was asked to cut it because the economics were such that they had to sell a book at 12/6d to make it attractive to the circulating libraries.  As the economics of publishing and bookselling changed, as the paperback gradually took over from the borrowed hardback, we began to see intimations of our present predicament with the end of the commercial circulating library and public libraries increasingly stocking the big best-sellers which previously they had seen little point in purchasing for their borrowers.  Publishers who had depended upon the library trade, which would frequently take several thousand copies of any title, found themselves going out of business or needing to amalgamate with other firms.

            We find ourselves today in a somewhat similar situation, though it’s more expensive to buy new genre books and harder to find the cutting edge writers who stimulate us.  How do we break the power of Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, who take the lion’s share of profits and take the fewest risks ?   In 1970 the normal discount to publishers was 33%, considered pretty hefty at the time, and sometimes a little less (say 25%).  In 2007 publishers frequently demand and get 55%.  This means, as Allan Massie pointed out in a recent piece in The Spectator (if you don’t follow his thoughtful ‘Life and Letters’ column I recommend you try it), that the bookseller gets the lion’s share of the profit while taking the lowest risk and putting in the least work.  The writer, of course, gets the smallest share. 

            Given that this situation is antithetical to the publishing of good, risk-taking books, how are we to break that power and reverse the situation, paying the writer a fairer share for his investment and the bookseller a smaller (though equally fair) share.  The answer, of course, is clear to those of us who have worked for online publishers for some years, especially those who have paid   authors for their work or been paid.

            With retail outlets for POD publishers, where a reader can physically browse and order books if they are not yet ready to visit virtual bookstores, we should be able to offer a wider selection of books and magazines than ever before and, by cutting out middlemen, sell them at a cheaper price which will nonetheless ensure that the one who makes the largest investment in time and energy will receive the highest reward.  The more aggressively and enthusiastically electronic publishing promotes its wares, the more it challenges the conglomerates and offers the public a greater number of genuinely experimental titles.  All this makes for a far healthier literary life.

            It seems to me that authors as well as publishers will have to take the same risks Dickens took when he published his books as cheap part-works, the same risks authors took when they let their books be published at six shillings, instead of ₤1.10.6d, the same risks some of us took when we ignored the posher literary magazines of our day and preferred to see our work appear in vulgar newstand magazines with exotic and brightly coloured covers.  At present POD and other electronic publishing are considered by literary journalists and others to be an inferior form of delivering fiction to readers, on a par with vanity publishing.  This can only change rapidly if we make it change.  In my view we should not merely be seeking new markets for existing forms of fiction, such as the short story.  We should be seeking  personal forms of expression taking risks equal to those of electronic publishers who present us with the means of reaching a growing popular public.  It would make sense that among the first publications to achieve this revolution, and seriously threaten the power of the bookselling and publishing corporations, should be those with their roots in the genre which got its first start as an independent form when Hugo Gernsback, using his own money and the cheap and popular medium of the pulp magazine, launched AMAZING STORIES some eighty years ago.

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