Friday, March 23, 2012

Anthologies and a Defense of Roger Elwood

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and that was an incredibly fertile time for genre anthologies in all media; short stories could readily be found on supermarket bookshelves, at the movies or on TV, even between the covers of comic books (I've blogged about it previously here). Perusing the spinner rack of paperbacks resulted in volume after volume of collected stories, both previously-published and original. It was easy to find anthologies edited by such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Terry Carr, Peter Haining, Hugh Lamb, August Derleth. But one name roused controversy, both for the sheer volume of books that bore his name and for the purported quality of said books - or lack thereof. That man was Roger Elwood, and for the better part of a decade, if you were a genre fan, it was all but impossible to escape his name.

Elwood was a New Jersey native who started off the 70s writing for wrestling magazines before turning his attention to compilations of SF and Horror, often working in conjunction with fellow editor Vic Ghidalia (when the latter didn't ghost-edit the volumes outright). During 1964-72 Elwood produced a relatively-few 13 titles, but 1973 & '74 saw a remarkable 39 books bearing his name, for a wide variety of publishers. The titles rapidly dropped off after that, and after 12 more volumes spread out over the next three years, books with the Elwood imprimatur disappeared. After about a decade of silence, Elwood, an avowed Christian, began producing novels with an evangelical focus. His writing ceased with the turn of the century, and he died in 2007.

Now I'll be blunt: I write the following to clear up some misconceptions about Elwood's work that have been allowed to foster on the internet, with several assertions having gone unchecked for the better part of a decade. I did not know Mr. Elwood nor any of his detractors, but a few claims need to be corrected (and, with a handful of exceptions, I own almost every title from the period in question bearing Elwood's name);

1) Elwood published no-name writers of questionable worth - A cursory glance of the contents of Elwood's titles does not bear this out. Considering his titles which were aimed at an adult audience, each book boasts 65-75% or more material from authors who well either well-established at the time or were readily creating names for themselves within the field. We may quibble over whether this material represented the authors at their best, but it is entirely disingenuous to insinuate that Elwood purchased stories from hacks.

2) Elwood flooded the market - It's difficult to explain away 39 books in only two calendar years, but here goes -

- The books were not all speculative fiction. At least six or seven of the titles are best described as appealing to a Horror audience; again, most of these are edited in conjunction with Vic Ghidalia.

- The books were not all meant to appeal to adults. In 1974 eight titles appeared from Lerner as part of a young adult "intro to SF" series that sported four stories apiece. Interestingly these are the books most often cited by his critics that Elwood published work from unknowns; yes, but for a very different audience.

- The books were published by a variety of publishing houses in both hard- and softcover formats. In 1973 three publishers released two Elwood books apiece (Avon, Macmillan, Rand McNally), Berkley/Putnam published three in 1974 (the experimental Continuum series; stories that continued from volume to volume like a pulp magazine), but apart from those exceptions, no publisher released more than one a year. It is also worth recalling that the markets for hard and softcover books could be quite separate; SF has always been a genre of cheap paperbacks stuffed into back pockets. Trade paperbacks that bridged the gap had yet to come into existence. Purchasers of the cheaper books were often completely unaware of what was being printed between hard covers.

To cite as merely one example, Robert Silverberg was editing yearly installments of two anthologies (Alpha and the original New Dimensions) and standalone titles as well, in addition to maintaining a yearly pace of one or two novels and dozens of short stories, many to Elwood's anthologies. It was not uncommon to find as many as 6-8 Silverberg titles on the shelf at once, yet one would never accuse the Grand Master of "flooding the market."

So while 22 books in 1974 seems like an intimidating number, readers would have only encountered about half of those, assuming they perused both the hard- and softcover departments of both the SF and Dark Fantasy sections - that is, if they didn't buy most of their books from either the new agency, drugstore or supermarket.

3) The books were of poor quality - Leaving aside the issues of "eye of the beholder" and the ability of the contributors, several of Elwood's titles were spotlighted by the Science Fiction Book Club, including paperback books that were granted a Book Club version. Since the SFBC would only highlight 4-6 books per month, quality was the determining factor. Their editors would review a number of titles from a variety of publishers (not merely Doubleday, SFBC's parent company), and so I'll defer to them. And stories from the books were nominated for awards and cited in various "best of" collections. Elwood's track record for exceptional stories was about on par with the monthly magazines.

4) Elwood sold all his anthologies to publishers during a spate in the early 70s - Quite likely. Keep in mind that the industry was on the lookout for original collections following the success of Harlan Ellison's groundbreaking Dangerous Visions in 1967, as well as he subsequent series it inspired (the aforementioned New Dimensions, Terry Carr's Universe, Damon Knight's Orbit, Harry Harrison's Nova, Samuel Delany's Quark, to name a few). The publishing industry was identifying a need, and Elwood was servicing it. Elwood would have been very unsuccessful had not the demand from almost every publisher been there.

5) Elwood's "theme" anthologies were too restrictive to produce material of worth. - Theme anthologies are a staple of SF, with volumes dedicated to robots, time travel, mutants, other dimensions, etc. Elwood's volumes were no more or less circumscribed than titles that came before or after. In fact, anthologies of "shared worlds" or ultra-specific themes are now normative; SF collections were far more inclusive of theme in decades hence.

6) Elwood's books collapsed the anthology market. - Not hardly; as an obsessive collector, a simple glance at post-1975 titles on my bookshelf confirms that. Original anthos could still be had. Knight's Orbit series lasted until 1977, but the final volumes were met with less than enthusiastic reviews. Silverberg kept New Dimensions going until 1981, while Carr edited Universe titles until his death in 1987. New series such as Stellar and Continuum were launched, but they were concurrent with a general contraction of the entire SF field for shorter fiction, including the magazines. Post-Star Wars inspired readers sought out galaxy-spanning novels, not the experimental and avant garde short stories that examined social and psychological conditions. And with the advent of Stephen King in the late 70s, Horror was becoming the hot genre. Even at the venerable SFBC, Fantasy titles were outnumbering SF. It seems absurd to blame the downturn of the early 80s on books that were published in 1973; the publishing industry, even in those pre-internet days, moved more quickly than that.

And SF readers are a discriminating but fair lot; if they felt burned by an editor, they certainly would not punish all anthologies and more than they would spurn all novels after encountering bad ones - and there have been, and will always be, bad novels of SF.

7) Elwood made a fast buck and got out of the field. - Not immediately. Sensing the genre was turning to novels - and it was - he launched Laser Books, an effort from Harlequin to apply their monthly format of releases to the SF market. Starting in 1975 and ongoing for 16 months, three new titles were released every 30 days, all from fledgling authors. Ultimately the experiment was a failure, with some authors complaining that Elwood edited out sex and violence to conform to Harlequin's restrictions and his own sense of Christian rectitude. Elwood would embrace idiosyncrasy - his anthologies were a regular home for quirky cult author R.A. Lafferty - he did not push the content envelope like an Ellison.

Elwood releas
ed the mammoth collection Epoch (with Silverberg as co-editor) in 1975, perhaps viewing the title as a capstone to his anthologies before turning his attention to longer fiction. He also briefly attached his name to the short-lived SF magazine Odyssey, but it was gone after only two issues. And with it Elwood was as well. He was no fixture of the conventions, he did not travel in SF circles; indeed, it is difficult to come by a simple photo of this man of mystery. For one decade he was with the genre but not of it, a man who came and went to the surprise of many in the field. There are stories of authors who claim he stiffed them for a story, or displayed a heavy hand when editing their work. And there are those who claim he was merely a figurehead, with collaborators such as Ghidalia, Silverberg or Virginia Kidd doing all the heavy lifting. But for better or worse, in many ways Roger Elwood sat astride the genre in the 1970s, and while the collections remain, the man whose name was emblazoned on so many books is all but a forgotten memory.


Albie The Good said...

Hey thanks for this! I have never understood all the whining about Elwood. Near as I can figure a bunch of SF insiders never forgave him for hustling and making savvy money!

I thought you presented the basic absurdities of the "controversy" well. If you want to add another truth, Elwood is actually to be commended for introducing so many young people to quality SF. I came to his book WAY OUT and the comic anthology STARSTREAM with no experience with real genre SF outside of TV shows. I went away with a respect i have never lost.

Good job, friend :)

Todd Mason said...

Most definitions of specuolative fiction, the inclusive ones, anyway, include horror as well as fantasy and science fiction.

While pulp magazines didn't all carry serialized stories, a la CONTINUUM, nor were pulp magazines the only magazines that have done so...

Otherwise, well-put post, I'd say...