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Creatures of their time: Shirley Jackson and John Campbell

I recently read two excellent biographies of literary figures:

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin,

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee.

Franklin’s is a traditional literary biography, going through Jackson’s life in fine detail and focusing on her writing, while Nevala-Lee offers more of a view from 30,000 feet, telling lots of great stories but in some places skipping quickly over decades of his subjects’ lives—unavoidable, I guess, given that he’s writing about four authors, not just one.

Both of these are books about cult figures in literature, and the biographers handle this in different ways. Franklin’s particularly interested in Jackson’s literary output; she writes a lot about Jackson’s style, content, and influences; and she’s a partisan, arguing that Jackson deserves respect and should not simply be considered as an upmarket horror writer. For me to understand this argument better, I’d like to see comparisons to some other authors such as V. C. Andrews or Steven King who have more of a mass-market feel, not to mention modern young-adult novels such as Twilight, Gone, etc. I’m curious if Franklin thinks that Jackson’s novels are serious and these others are mere pulp, of if she (Franklin) would argue in favor of the literary merits of the entire genre.

Nevala-Lee goes in the opposite direction, almost never considering the literary quality, or even the experience of reading, the short stories and novels that come up in his narrative. Nevala-Lee’s book is very readable and has lots of fascinating material on the life and times of his subjects, but I was kinda disappointed not to hear more about the science fiction stories themselves—what made them work or not work, how readable are they today, etc. I’m not just talking here about discussions of literary style; also I’d like to see more on the actual content of these stories. There was lots of fascinating stuff on the collaboration between editor and authors, just not so much on the final product. The other difference compared to Franklin is that Nevala-Lee is not a partisan of the authors he writes about; indeed, he spends a lot of time on their various personal and political flaws. Of course Nevala-Lee values these writers—otherwise he wouldn’t have written a book about them—but he doesn’t spend much time trying to bolster their status.

I recommend both books, even though they’re very different. We’ve talked before about the lack of overlap in the communities of literary and genre fiction, and you see that complete lack of overlap in these two books as well.

Shirley Jackson actually published a story in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, so I guess some connection could be made, but Nevala-Lee doesn’t really discuss the non-SF world at all, while Franklin mentions science fiction on only one page her biography, as a lead-in to the non-realistic elements of Jackson’s novel, The Sundial.

The most interesting thing I noticed when reading these two biographies, though, was something not explicitly mentioned in either book, and this is how much Jackson and Campbell et al. were people of their time.

Campbell was born in 1910, Jackson in 1916, and they both had success in their thirties and forties, smack in the middle of the twentieth century. And what charmingly mid-century people they were! They drank like John Cheever characters. Jackson and her husband were bohemians who listened to jazz records. As for Campbell et al. . . . I didn’t take notes when reading the book, and I can’t pick out any particular bits, but let me assure you that, when I was reading it, I kept thinking about Shirley Jackson. No similarities between the people, but they were just so “of their time” in how they lived and expressed themselves. I guess this struck me because, as authors, Jackson and Campbell etc. were writing stories that were not particularly time-bound. If you tell me John O’Hara was a man of his time, I’d say, sure, that’s what I’d expect, given that he was a sort of literary sociologist. But writers of parables or science fiction, that’s different.

One other thing. In the second half of his life, Campbell became an enthusiast for all sorts of pseudoscience. Regarding one particularly ridiculous idea, Campbell wrote, “I have a Campbell Machine, derived from the Hieronymus Machine, that works, too. Only it’s based on something so insane that it makes the Hieronymus Machine look as conventional as a shovel.”

“Something so insane,” indeed.

But here’s the kicker. According to Nevala-Lee, “There were inquiries from Bell Aircraft and the RAND Corporation, and Claude Shannon offered to test it, although the timing never worked out.”

People were such suckers back then! Now I understand why Martin Gardner felt the need to write that book. Back in the 1950s, educated people believed all sorts of ridiculous things that they wouldn’t believe today, unless they had some sort of political motivation.

The whole thing gives me a new take on those Heinlein stories where a genius builds a time machine in his basement. It’s like they thought this was a realistic scenario.

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