Yesterday, we talked about the mess that American letters is in: thousands of journalists losing jobs, etc. I didn’t talk much about the loss of the American publishing industry to foreign overseers and mega-publishers, and to mega-media companies, in whose organizational chart the publishing arm became a mere appendage, anemic and carrying little status.
In the modern media economy, a HarperCollins, say, becomes a bargain movie property search mechanism for the much larger overhead of Fox Studios, and the News Corporation (whose wholly-owned subsidiaries HC and Fox Studios are), who can shill the novel and then the movie on their news, movie, sports and cable networks, and in their newspapers and magazines, all without ever having left the “in house” mega-corporation.
This alone was worth it to the movie studios (before they were gobbled up by even BIGGER media corporations) in economic terms. Generally speaking, the “screenplay” and literary rights portion of the movie costs less than 2% of the total cost of a motion picture, but Ghod forbid that any writer might earn a decent amount on the deal.
After all, the writers might get “uppity,” and the Hollywood system was specifically designed to prevent writers from attaining the sort of power that playwrights exercise on Broadway, the studios having originally been subsidiaries of the great theatrical families, the Schuberts, the Lammles, etc.
If the book made a little money, well, that wasn’t important in the Grand Scheme. The point was to obtain film properties cheap, and then to have a coordinated promotion machine that could follow the story from hardcover to paperback to film to reissue of the paperback with a still from the movie slapped on the cover. Better yet, a “novelization” of the original script, handed out to a hack writer who could have the paperback ready for simultaneous release to the drug store and supermarket racks on the selfsame weekend that the movie comes out.
Such is the “coordination” of the mega-media. (We will pass over the marketing of kiddie meal toys, “collectors cups” and other promotional gee-gaws at fast food joints, toys, etc.)
Authors were relegated to the back seat of the media bus. (We still await our Rosa Parks.)
Because, ultimately, what could one notoriously independent, cranky author hope to accomplish in a deal with a mega-corporation, heralded by a phalanx of corporate lawyers, all determined to see that the author donated as many rights as possible while receiving as little compensation as practible.
Perhaps it is this “brilliant” strategy that has debased American letters to near illiteracy, and American writers to penury and the contemplation of suicide. Our very profession seems like an Iron Maiden at every level. The outcome is assured, seemingly; the only question being how slowly the cask is closed.
The sad fact is that during the 1980s, movie studios realized that owning a publisher would save them gazillions, since they could make deals with authors for movie and television rights before publication, and BEFORE the writer’s agent (writers are no longer allowed to speak to publishers directly, making agents the gatekeepers of book publishing, giving them an unwarranted power over the world of authors, and buttering their bread on the side of the publisher and NOT on the side of the authors they purportedly represent).
And, by comparison, the publishers were easy, cheap pickings for the media conglomerates. Most had been founded in the XXth century by one or two businessmen — Simon & Schuster, for instance, (“notable for its position as one of the four largest English-language publishers in the world” – Wikipedia) was founded by two partners in 1924 to cash in on the crossword puzzle craze. (One guess what those partners’ names were.) Charles Scribner’s Sons was LITERALLY that, and they published Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Heinlein and Vonnegut, among others.
Within this structure of rot and cronyism, I determined to attend the Willamette Valley Writers Conference (which starts in earnest this morning).
Alas, it was not to be. But first, a pastoral interlude:
I am a bastard son of Kilgore Trout.
Seriously. I can document my mongrel pedigree and as Walter Brennan used to say in “The Real McCoys,” No brag, just fact.
I’ve noted elsewhere that I met Kilgore Trout at a science fiction convention on the Bicentennial in 1976. He wasn’t going by that name, of course, but I’ll let Kurt Vonnegut clear that up:
From freelance writer Hank Nuwer’s interview with Kurt Vonnegut:
1985 Galapagos (novel) publication tour (Dallas, Texas)
NUWER: I don’t think so; at least he didn’t comment if the thought so. But I thought it was funny. Let’s see–have you ever counted how many books and stories your fictional sci-fi writer, Kilgore Trout, has written in your novels?
VONNEGUT: The [Bob] Guccione science magazine–what is it?
VONNEGUT: Yeah. Omni sent me an essay on Kilgore Trout where they put it all together. Of course I don’t look back in my books to see what Trout was [like] in a previous book, or what I said about him, so he’s different in every book.
NUWER: Is it true that he was inspired by Theodore Sturgeon, the sci-fi writer?
VONNEGUT: Yeah. In fact, it said so in his obituary in [The New York] Times.
NUWER: I didn’t know that.
VONNEGUT: Yeah. I was so pleased. Sturgeon got a nice big obituary in the Times, eight-ten inches, something like that. I was just delighted that it said in the middle of it that he was the inspiration for the Kurt Vonnegut character of Kilgore Trout.
Sturgeon was to be my book critic at HUSTLER, or, rather, I was to be his editor. We became friends. He told me that he thought I was a good writer. That little bit of praise has taken me through three decades of a paucity of same. But this isn’t about dropping a name.
“Hart Williams” the writer is very much the son of “Kilgore Trout.” Trout, you will recall, was a sort of sad homage to Sturgeon, who Vonnegut met when he was trying to become a writer, selling Volvos and teaching high school English in Barnstable, Massachusetts on Cape Cod in the 1950s.
Kilgore Trout makes his debut in Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where Trout is eccentric zillionaire Eliot Rosewater’s favorite novelist. Since all of Trout’s novels are filler material in porno magazines*Rosewater’s collection represents an amazing act of tracking and detection.
(* Vonnegut explains what “beaver shots” are, which were then highly illegal, but are now in any “men’s magazine” one would care to purchase. One generation’s crime is another generation’s yawn. How else to explain the current rage for pubic topiary, at least among female models of the modern pornographic videation?)
This was based on a very real world reality of publishing at the time: The men’s magazines of the 1950s and 1960s walked a thin legal line. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision prior to “Miller v. California” in 1973 — which entrenched the “community standards” test that led to Harry Reems being prosecuted in Memphis, Tennessee for a movie he acted in in Florida — the standard of “without redeeming value” created a kind of Devil’s bridge: the men’s magazines published “serious” writing, articles, interviews, short stories, investigations, as the JUSTIFICATION for showing breastal shots. In 1969, PENTHOUSE shocked, SHOCKED the USA by showing (GASP!) female pubic hair. Etcetera.
At any event, Vonnegut was only stretching reality a big about Kilgore Trout being published between beaver shots. By the time I was making a living writing for men’s magazines, 1978-1988, my science fiction was LITERALLY published between beaver shots. The first appearance of “Hart Williams” as a pen name came in a quickie knockoff called “CHOICE,” which was a “big boob” magazine in the early 80s at a time that “big boobs” had vanished from men’s magazines altogether in favor of models with small breasts and pubic hair.
(The “big boobs” thing is a peculiarly American fixation, I think. Russ Meyer made a cinematic living off of this peculiar psychological quirk of masculine American fantasy. As they say, the market dictates this sort of thing. We get the fantasies we ask for.)
It was a tall tale called “Mountain Mary,” and begins with the lie “I wouldn’t lie to you. Honest.”
But it was still only in there to fulfill the old legal prescription “utterly without redeeming artistic, scientific, blah blah value.” My short stories, articles, interviews, investigative pieces, science fiction etc. were there to provide legal “value” to the beaver shots.
But that was the deal with a generation of authors. Theodore Sturgeon, “Kilgore Trout” put out a collection in the early 70s called Sturgeon Is Alive And Well, and virtually all the stories in it had originally appeared in a Knight Publications magazine, KNIGHT and ADAM, mostly.
He could sell them stories for “redeeming social value.” Kilgore Trout had stepped through the looking glass.
“Kilgore Trout, incidentally, is the sad hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, a frustrated SF writer reduced to using his work to pad out the space between pictures in pornographic books. It’s not strictly applicable here; but I like the name, and Trout’s angst – if not his solution – will be recognisable to all writers.”
But, Vonnegut was making ANOTHER criticism of American letters and publishing. The “beaver shots” context of Kilgore Trout’s science fiction novels was also a sly reference to how science fiction was treated by American publishing.
From the time that young Ted Sturgeon returned to find his secret stash of Hugo Gernsback’s THRILLING WONDER STORIES torn into “postage-stamp-sized pieces” to the advent of Kilgore Trout in the 1960s, Kurt Vonnegut, as a science fiction writer himself, knew of the shameful and abusive degradation of science fiction, its authors, publishers and readers. That’s right, kiddies: science fiction had been considered “pornography” by Argyl Sturgeon, Ted’s step-father, in the 1920s, and it was still essentially seen as such in 1965, When “Rosewater” was published.
In some ways, science fiction is still marginalized, but at least they’re used to it. Increasingly ALL authors are marginalized — forced to take a back seat whenever the more important publishing event of the memoirs of a transvestite basketball star require the intellectual focus of our Nation of Letters.
Here’s the capper: in and around 1986, it had become clear that nobody gave a damn about prosecuting magazines for pictures. Thus, there was no need for “redeeming social value,” and men’s magazine publishers, ever eager to prop up an ever-narrowing profit margin, eaten up almost entirely by paper costs, pretty much dumped the need for Kilgore Trouts to fill the spaces between the beaver shots. Beaver shots uber alles. Amen.
The postwar generation of writers who had been nurtured by the guilty tradeoff of “redeeming social value” was now S.O.L. And making a living became very tough.
About that time, I rented an office, wrote a fictionalized “memoir” of my time in the mini-Media of LA porn, covering the transition from film to video, and tried to sell it.
No. No one would even consider reading it … because of the subject.
And in a lot of ways that’s been the story for the past 21 years. This week marks the 21st anniversary of its completion (the book is now old enough to drink). There was a time in the early 1990s when an agent REALLY liked it and tried shopping it around New York City, but the same irrational bigotry (I won’t even READ it) held sway, and, it sat on a DELL editor’s desk for several months, while the editor tried to write a “marketing proposal” for the marketing department — marketing had taken over the publishing world in the early 1980s, and “editors” were reduced to writing proposals denoting WHO is the target audience? WHAT is the sales hook? etc. It was a far cry from Maxwell Perkins editing Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al. But then, so is “Bestselling Author” Paris Hilton.
Now, there is one more link in this Kilgore Trout chain that I think is justified, and I’ll bet on my career as a book critic and my track record in the good guesses department on it:
Kilgore Trout didn’t just write science fiction novels. His TITLES are absolutely outrageous, over the top, and remind one INEXTRICABLY of Philip K. Dick, who was utterly shunned during his life by the “bon ton literary” world — to quote Twain. He died between the filming and the release of the film “Blade Runner” (my second wife and I used to brown bag our lunch on the set at the Burbank Studios, but that’s another story). It’s such a damned shame that Philip K. Dick never lived long enough to garner any of the acclaim that was his due.
But “Kilgore Trout” fictional novel titles like Venus on the Half Shell, parallel such Dickian titles as Our Friends From Frolix 8, and the three Trout novels The Pan-Galactic Memory Bank, The Pan-Galactic Straw Boss, and The Pan-Galactic Three-Day Pass seem linked to Dick’s Galactic Pot Healer.
But then, Sturgeon never quite achieved the fame that was his due. He also “invented” the character of “Spock” in Star Trek — according to Leonard Nimoy — and the “Prime Directive” is said to have come from an unproduced script. The Vulcan greeting “Live Long And Prosper” is known all over the world. Its author, Theodore Sturgeon, is not.
Kilgore Trout — Vonnegut’s protest at the shabby treatment of more than one great writer — committed ‘suicide’ by drinking Drano in 2004, a final protest from Vonnegut. And perhaps an attempt to forestall the literary necrophilia that modern publishers would surely slither forward with: tempting family members with “free money” for licensing the character* to write a series of novels under the ‘Kilgore Trout’ trademark.
[*See James Bond novels, Dune novels, and the post-mortem Asimov ouevre for further illumination of the concept.]
I’ve written about it in “The Mark of Cain” which refers to Sturgeon’s complaint that without the “sf” label, no one was willing to look at anything else he had written. Well, allow me to bring it full circle:
I have seen a copy of the novel that Philip K. Dick wrote in the late 1950s, Confessions of a Crap Artist. He thought it was a great book*, but no publisher would touch it. Few would even bother looking at it. Dick finally had it privately printed himself, as a trade paperback, and he autographed a copy and gave it to Ted Sturgeon.
[* “Philip K. Dick longed to be known as a ‘serious’ writer, and worked on non-SF novels throughout the fifties, in addition to his science fiction novels and short stories. This is the only “straight” novel he wrote to have been published during his lifetime.” – Wikipedia]
I cannot think of it without feeling a bitter sorrow, both were marginalized in the world of letters in their lifetimes, eternally penned in a livestock enclosure marked “sci-fie” and not accorded “human” status by the publishers until AFTER their deaths. Philip K. Dick’s self-published non SF novel, autographed to fellow great and fellow sufferer Theodore Sturgeon is a testiment to the inhumanity that we heap upon our best writers.
Kilgore Trout speaks for them, with Vonnegut the puppeteer operating the controls. And now, it’s even worse than it was in the mid 1960s, when Trout first appeared. It was lousy then, but, by comparison, it was paradise compared to now.
“Trout is usually described as an unappreciated science fiction writer whose works are used only as filler material in pornographic magazines.”- Wikipedia
I didn’t ask for this fate, but I got stuck with it, nonetheless: I am a bastard son of Kilgore Trout.
And, remembering that, long ago day when I had started my writing career by meeting writers at WESTERCON 29 at the Los Angeles Airport — the aptly named LAX — I thought I’d attend a day at the Willamette Valley Writers Conference. I would meet some peers, agents, etc. I could slap together a CD with all the blurbs a kid could ask for, audio, video (Thanks Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent!!), and, say, three completed projects, like, say that book I wrote 21 years ago, and do some business.
The SURPRISE ending? This is NOT the ending. Tomorrow will be. I promise. I wouldn’t lie to you. Honest.
From the OBSCURE REFERENCE DESK: Richard Brautigan, author of Trout Fishing In America came from Eugene, Oregon, which is where Theodore Sturgeon passed away.
UPDATE, SUNDAY 7:05 PM PDT: NASA’s Phoenix Lander blasted off yesterday, carrying with it a DVD library of famous science fiction stories, art and radio shows about Mars (including Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel). It carried, in addition to a virtual Who’s Who of science fiction, one Vonnegut story and TWO Theodore Sturgeon stories. Only Bradbury (Martian Chronicles collection) and Isaac Asimov (three stories) were similarly honored. Details HERE and HERE. I had not been aware of this when I wrote the piece. Synchronicity. (That’s the pretentious term for ‘coincidence.’)