On Garbage - Mongering

Clark Ashton Smith

I should like to say a few words anent one or two points which P. Schuyler Miller raises in his interesting letter in the June Wonder Stories.

Personally, I cannot see that science fiction is, as he puts it, is "unfortunately limited" in its range of expression. At least, I do not think that a type of literature so avowedly imaginative would benefit materially by invading, as so much modern fiction has done, the field of clinical analysis and sex-physiology. That sort of thing has been done ad infinitum and ad nauseum by non-imaginative writers, such as are favored by the professional "intelligentsia" of our sex-demented republic; and one of the most refreshing things about science fiction, and fantastic fiction in general, is the avoidance of such triteness.

To me, the best, if not the only function of imaginative writing, is to lead the human imagination outward, to take it into the vast external cosmos, and away from all that introversion and introspection, that morbidly exaggerated prying into one's own vitals—and the vitals of others—which Robinson Jeffers has so aptly symbolized as "incest." What we need is less "human interest," in the narrow sense of the term—not more. Physiological—and even psychological analysis—can be largely left to the writers of scientific monographs on such themes. Fiction, as I see it, is not the place for that sort of grubbing.

Certainly I do not think that H. C. Wells, in the tedious analytic novels of his later phase, would be a good model for an imaginative writer. Wells, in his earlier years, wrote some marvelous fantasies. But afterwards, he was more and more seduced into sociology, psychoanalysis, etc.,etc., till his stories became a truly awful example of everything that fiction should not be. No doubt, they are excellent treatises, but as tales they are simply unreadable.

What science fiction chiefly needs, I should say, is a rigorous raising of literary standards, an insistence on good English as opposed to the jargon of magazine hackwriting. Form and finish are all too often lacking in stories otherwise excellent.

As to gaining the recognition of the "highbrows"—well, I hope that science fiction will never gain it. if' the winning of this guerdon must involve an emulation of the squalors and tediosities, the highbrow pornography and general garbage- mongering of the current school of realistic novelists.

Re the celebrated strictures of one Mr. Schwartz, it appears to me that they hardly need refuting, since they are patently ridiculous. "Slack-mouthed" youths and mental subnormals in general are not likely to be interested in either science or imagination, such as is purveyed by Wonder Stories and other magazines of the same type.

Appendix from Planets and Dimensions Mirage Press 1973.

The two essays "On Garbage-Mongering" and "Realism and Fantasy" originated in a published debate CAS had with P. Schulyer Miller in the pages of Wonder Stories in 1932-1933. Though the statements by CAS are clear enough to stand by themselves, a complete account of their context—the debate-- may be necessary to understand every reference.

In the February 1932 issue of Wonder Stories Abbey A. Shwartz made an attack on the magazine and its readers, saying, among other things, that "your quality magazine does not cater to a quality public; in fact, it is read mostly by wide-mouthed (not wide-awake) youths." This attack brought a response from P. Schuyler Miller (published in the June, 1932 issue under the title "You See What You Want to See") in which he admitted that it was difficult to write for a mass-circulation magazine and please the wide variety of its readers; Freudian realism, for instance, could not be printed. Not so long ago, he continues, such realistic fiction could not be printed in anything for general circulation, but recently a new school of realistic literature has grown up that permits such things in novels. And until publishers and writers realize (as they are beginning to do) that science fiction has possibilities in directions other than romance, adventure, and melodrama, there will be no chance to work out certain important problems of future life and relations, and of life in space ships and space colonies. Until radical changes in taste have come about, science fiction can "only hint at the real major problems of past and future life, gloss them over with action and local color." But, Miller admits, science fiction will have to improve from what it now is if it is to ever be recognized by "highbrows." Though none of the writers today are of the level of Galsworthy, Conrad, or Hardy, nearly every science fiction story has a kernel of truth worth thinking about.

CAS, writing two months later, in the August issue of the magazine, responded to Miller's apparent call for realism in science fiction.

However, the debate did not end with this letter of CAS's. Four months later, in the December 1932 issue of Wonder Stories, Miller replied to Smith's letter. In this letter (published under the title, "A History of Science Fiction"), Miller's tone was conciliatory: he too shares Smith's disdain for realism, but argues that since realism seems the dominant mode of modern literature, the science fiction writer should be aware of it, if only as an expedient means to sell his wares. If realism will cause the literary mainstream to take science fiction seriously, let us by all means use it. Miller goes on to posit three stages in the development of literature: first, children's fairy tales; second, hero tales which border on or perhaps include realism; and third, a second fantasy stage, an "adult fantasy" stage, represented by writers like Lord Dunsany and CAS. Most readers, he argues, have not evolved to this third stage; they must painstakingly work their way through the earlier stages, including realism, in order to attain appreciation of the kind of work CAS is doing. In short, the work of CAS transcends realism, and is the most sophisticated genre of literature.

Two months later, in February 1933 Wonder Stories, CAS responded with a second letter, here presented under the title "Realism and Fantasy."

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