“How Many Psychiatrists Does it Take to Change a Genre?” Karl Edward Wagner in Fantasy 55
I need to spend less time on eBay. A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a collector selling significant lots of vintage fanzines and critical journals from the 70s and 80s — things like Science Fiction Review, The Alien Critic, Fantasy Review, SF Collector, Fantasy, and others.
Hard-to-find-stuff, as I later told my wife Alice, trying to explain why the postman had delivered a 16-pound package and why we were out over two-hundred bucks.
So now I’m in the doghouse. But keeping me company are 87 beautiful magazines packed with news, reviews, artwork, and opinion on the state of fantasy three decades ago, so really, things aren’t so bad. That was probably the height of my book collecting, so there’s lots here that’s of interest. The first one I opened was Fantasy 55, from January 1983, a Locus-like genre news magazine edited by Robert A. Collins. I’d never even heard of Fantasy, so it’s a little humbling to discover it’s clearly a major magazine (which published over 60 issues, apparently). It’s professionally laid out and designed, with lots of art and photos.
Two things I notice right off the bat. First, the cover verges on pornography, with a nude woman sprawled on a bed, getting pretty worked up while some guy with horns drools saliva on her. Eeeugh. Man, the 80s. What can I tell you.
(A lot of these fanzines feature naked women on the covers. Naked women piloting starships. Naked women battling monsters. Naked women in dungeons. This was the era when a lot of young women avoided conventions due to routine sexual harassment. Think there’s a connection?)
The second thing I notice is the fabulous line-up of contributors, including Fritz Leiber, Darrell Schweitzer, Mike Ashley, John Morressy, Somtow Sucharitkul, and many others. I still haven’t read a third of the articles, but the thing that really opened my eyes was Collins’s editorial, in which he quotes contributor Karl Edward Wagner’s thoughts on the expected fantasy boom following the release of Conan the Barbarian and the genesis of his Kane collection, Night Winds:
Last month… Wagner again attacked fantasy fans, writers, and publishers for their apparent inability to evolve intellectually and/or artistically, for constantly rewarming “the same simple plots and conflicts that were boring Robert Bloch back during Conan’s heyday in 1934.” Both writers and fans, he said, eventually “turn their backs on heroic fantasy,” leaving the field to a new crowd of adolescents. “One would hope for a new sophistication among the readers, and one may grow old hoping.”
Surprised at Karl’s bitterness, I wrote him about it. Part of his response went like this:
“It is a depressing state of affairs. Just after I posted the article I caught a TV ad for Atari promoting a new video game. The ad featured a Conan type complete with dragon. The rot runs deeper than I thought. Why read a book when you can play one?
“I came into this genre via horror rather than as a Howard graduate… Kane is modeled after the Gothic hero-villain instead of just-another-barbarian. I wrote Night Winds as a group of heroic fantasy stories for people who hate heroic fantasy stories; when it was on the World Fantasy Awards ballot, one of the five judges told me at the con that he had not read the collection, he never read barbarian fantasy.
“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a genre? More than one, evidently, and the genre really has to want to change.”
Wagner was a practicing psychiatrist before he gave it up to write full-time.
This was all rather timely, as we’ve been discussing Kane recently here in the Black Gate blog — including Fletcher Vredenburgh’s splendid review of Night Winds on September 17. Glancing over Fletcher’s article with Wagner’s comments in mind, I was impressed to note Fletcher picked up on Wagner’s primary identification with horror, rather than straight S&S:
While the Kane series was written as S&S, it’s been many years now that I’ve also considered it horror fiction, and it turns out I’m not the first person to recognize this. In my research for this post, I learned that Gerald Page included “Undertow” in The Years’ Best Horror Stories: VI and “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” in Vol. V… For all the blood and thunder action in the Kane series, Wagner uses hideous monsters, gruesome violence, and unease that rises to a crescendo of terror to, indeed, invoke “fear and dread” in his reader. Decay, loss, and betrayal build the stage on which all of Kane’s exploits unfold. There are no happy endings and few happy moments anywhere in the Kane stories…
I always liked the Kane stories, but it took me a while to understand why. When a friend suggested they were really horror stories, it made sense. Karl Edward Wagner, a master of two genres I love, took them and blended them with perfection.
There are lots more delights in this issue of Fantasy, including a lengthy interview with Roger Zelazny, a marvelous report on The British Scene by Mike Ashley, and much more. So far, my favorite articles are the 1982 World Fantasy Convention report by Robert Collins, accompanied by dozens of candid shots of many of my favorite fantasy writers, and the detailed checklist of January fantasy releases (with great little thumbnail pics of dozens of paperback covers… ah, all those images take me back. It’s like visiting a bookstore, circa 1983).
In fact, the only real critique I have of the issue — other than the cover, which has me schlepping the thing around the house in a paper bag — is the title. I mean… Fantasy? Could we be more generic? I’m delighted with the magazine, and I’d love to dig up a few more (don’t tell Alice I said that)… but do you know how many hits you get if you type FANTASY into eBay? Let alone Google?
It’s ridiculous. FANTASY FANZINE and FANTASY NEWSLETTER (its original name) don’t fare much better.
There’s got to be a way to find additional issues. So far, I haven’t stumbled on it, though. Until then, I have to be content with the seven I purchased, issues #55, 62, 65-69, cover dated 1983 or 1984.
Fantasy (originally Fantasy Newsletter) was founded by Paul C. Allen and edited by Robert A. Collins after issue 41. It was published monthly. I don’t really know when it started, or when it folded, but I’m working on finding out. The issues I have are 40 pages, with a cover price of $2.50.
I purchased the seven back issues below for $25 on eBay. Click for a full-size image.
Oh John. 16 lbs of 80s slag? The line between genius, obsession, and madness isn’t a line. More like competing gravity fields.
Ain’t that the truth.
Mind you, I’ve seen your collection, Mr. Knight, and you’re in a pretty low orbit yourself. 🙂
60s totty does it for me. What can I say.
I have to say, I’m quite surprised more readers don’t seem to pick up on KEW’s horror background. Heck, it’s not even really a background … the man was steeped in the horror genre, and wrote and edited horror much more than heroic fantasy.
Very true. But until recently, Wagner’s horror had been out of print for decades, and inaccessible to most readers.
Centipede Press released two deluxe collections of Wagner’s horror stories last May, but both are expensive hardcovers targeted at existing fans, and one is already out of print. So I think modern fans can be forgiven for not being familiar with the bulk of his horror.
“There’s got to be a way to find additional issues. So far I haven’t stumbled on it, though.”
How did you even find these to begin with? This stuff looks so cool. The cover art looks reminiscent of old Dragon magazines.
One of these days I hope to see your library firsthand.
> How did you even find these to begin with? This stuff looks so cool. The cover art looks reminiscent of old Dragon magazines.
I only found it because I have a saved search for lots of “Science Fiction Collector” on eBay. So I got a ping when a seller listed this set of 37 issues from 1978 – 1984:
I’ve barely managed to unpack this set. The covers are extraordinary, especially if you’re a Stephen Fabian fan (or a fan of ridiculously inappropriate nudity):
I have to admit my favorite is issue 23, Nude Piloting a Starship. Of course #42, Nude with Pumpkin, has its charms. #27, Nude Guy in Snow, made me cross my legs and shiver for 30 seconds.
I looked around at some of his other lots and found the FANTASY set — and this very tempting lot of FANTASY BOOKS from 1981 – 1987, which I bought for $38:
> One of these days I hope to see your library firsthand.
I think you’d be disappointed. There was a time when everything was accessible and on display. Now, most of the shelves have boxes of books and games piled in front of them. I look like a hoarder.
I’ll have to snap some pics to give you the general idea.
Also nice, um, candle on that Fantasy cover.
But I look at these (and the others posted) and I see the names of the authors featured within and my nostalgia gland kicks into overtime.
I feel a little vindicated by Wagner’s own words on Night Winds. 😉 Actually, he really hits on something I’ve been thinking about lately. I don’t know how much S&S can change before it becomes unrecognizable but I feel like stagnation won’t help either.
Information on Fantasy Newsletter/Fantasy Review is available at ISFDB. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/seriesgrid.cgi?25376 I have the complete run if there is something specific you are looking for.
Nude Piloting a Starship would make a great novel title!
@Joe H: “Also nice, um, candle on that Fantasy cover”:
Warning label on candle: “For candles lasting longer than four hours, please see your candlemaker. This may be a sign of a serious condition called waxy priapism.”
People really underestimate how difficult it would be to fly a starship naked. The seat-sticking factor ALONE…
Your comment on typing “Fantasy” into a search engine reminded me of when I was trying to complete my set of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and was looking for a complete list of the titles online. (This was during the early days of the internet.) Let’s just say typing the words “Adult Fantasy” into a search engine, especially at work, is not recommended. It was a learning experience.
@Elizabeth Cady: This is high-tech, futuristic stuff, y’know. Maybe she does have a suit on, but it’s invisible.
@westkeith: Lol. After I read this post, I went onto eBay to see if I could find me some old copies of Fantasy or similar vintage mags. As John noted, it’s largely fruitless, unless you get lucky. Maybe eBay has an advanced search function somewhere, but if you type “Fantasy Magazine” in the general search engine, even in quotation marks, what you mostly get is back issues of Heavy Metal.
> I look at these (and the others posted) and I see the names of the authors featured within and my nostalgia gland kicks into overtime.
My reaction exactly.
It’s not just the authors, though. As James mentioned, the cover art stirs a lot of memories as well. It reminds me of The Dragon, and the early days of many marvelous old genre magazines.
These magazines are a time machine, right back to the mid-80s. The ads alone make me glad I have a library of 80s paperback fantasy… They sure make me want to take a vacation and start reading books like LITTLE, BIG and the novels of Eric van Lustbader.
> I feel a little vindicated by Wagner’s own words on Night Winds.
And well you should. 🙂
> Actually, he really hits on something I’ve been thinking about lately. I don’t know how much S&S can change before it
> becomes unrecognizable but I feel like stagnation won’t help either.
Well, it’s tricky to compare genres… but I think science fiction and horror have both made huge strides since the 1930s. Certainly no one yearns for pulp potboilers the way E.E. “Doc” Smith or A.E. Merrit, or other top-selling writers of the era used to write them. The genre has moved on.
So why do S&S fans still yearn for pulp fiction, the way Robert E. Howard used to write it in 1933? Why hasn’t the genre progressed the way others have?
I don’t know, but I think it’s telling that KEW asked that question 30 years ago, and it’s STILL relevant today.
> Information on Fantasy Newsletter/Fantasy Review is available at ISFDB. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/seriesgrid.cgi?25376
Thanks bthom! I should have thought of checking ISFDB. I started by searching for it on Phil’s Big Magazine List at Galactic Central, but it wasn’t indexed there for some reason.
I notice the list you link to above ends at issue 63… a little odd, considering I bought issues 65, 66, 67, 68 and 69. I dug around a bit and found that ISFDB has a separate list for issues 64 – 103, here:
Apparently the magazine officially changed names with issue 64 (from FANTASY NEWSLETTER to FANTASY REVIEW) although that’s not obvious from the covers.
> I have the complete run if there is something specific you are looking for.
Ah! I am looking for a lifestyle like yours. 🙂
Those early issues look pretty hard to come buy. Did you buy them as they were released, or collect them later?
> Nude Piloting a Starship would make a great novel title!
But who should paint the cover, you think?
> People really underestimate how difficult it would be to fly a starship naked. The seat-sticking factor ALONE…
LOL! That would make it hard to reach the environmental controls, wouldn’t it?
She doesn’t look very comfortable on that cover, now that I think about it. I hope they’re not vinyl seats, like my old Chrysler…
> typing the words “Adult Fantasy” into a search engine, especially at work, is not recommended. It was a learning experience.
We’ve all made that mistake.
Reminds me of what happened when I tried to do an image search on the HBO show “Big Love.” That was… an error.
First, *i* do like the cover. Thanks for the high-res scan, John.
As for the genre progressing, that is something said about video games lately, too, although it’s called growing up there. But why? As long as it finds new fans with every generation, there is no need. And if someone feels dissatisfied, he or she should look somewhere else or get creative him or herself(yes, i know Wagner did) instead of crying about how a whole genre, s&s in this case, should change to accommodate his or her changed taste. Or move from Bioshock to To the moon or Hotline Miami…
Did Wagner really attack *fans* as the first text snipped implies? As in, attack potential customers?
Oh, and don’t try googling “mature fantasy” instead of “adult fantasy”. My eyes are still hurting…
Maybe “New wave fantasy”? But that would probably lead to Moorcock and Ballard.
> I went onto eBay to see if I could find me some old copies of Fantasy or similar vintage mags. As John noted, it’s largely fruitless
I suspect we might have more luck with “Fantasy Newsletter” or “Fantasy Review,” or perhaps a search that includes the year or the editor (Robert Collins).
And you know it’s all about the search for true collectors. 🙂
John – Sci-fi and horror’s progress has come without either entirely losing its original shape. Whatever else Iain Banks did, the Culture series remains space opera.
I think S&S demands a degree of action and adventure. It’s the storytelling that needs to become more sophisticated. I’m happy with a dose of blood and thunder, but to keep from withering away the genre needs to evolve.
> Did Wagner really attack *fans* as the first text snipped implies? As in, attack potential customers?
That’s exactly what he did, as far as I can see.
Mind you, his ire is directed as much at writers (and publishers) as fans. Without a complete change in the genre, he saw the era of (what he saw as) stagnation continuing.
> I’m happy with a dose of blood and thunder, but to keep from withering away the genre needs to evolve.
Sword & sorcery, in fact, DID wither away and die, from about 1940 to 1960, when it began a paperback resurgance led by Fritz Leiber and the Lancer/Ace editions of Conan, chiefly under L. Sprague de Camp.
You could argue that it died again after about 1980, when it largely vanished from book stores.
Kelly Link told me once she wanted to write a sword & sorcery story for Black Gate… I wish she had! I bet it would have been fun.
John, if you find the time, would you mind scanning those covers and drop’em at coverbrowser.com? I just checked and fantasy and science fiction review are unfourtunately unknown at that site.
If you’re looking online for the Carter edited series, “Ballantine Fantasy” usually does the trick.
Interesting you mention the Lancers, John. For the most part they were reprints of Howard’s stories from the 30s with a little new material by de Camp and Carter. Granted they led to the S&S boom of the 60s and 70s and the new works that were part of the boom. I will quibble, though, with your statement that S&S died away from 1940 to 1960. Wolheim reprinted a number of S&S stories in the Avon Fantasy Reader, plus Howard had some hardcover collections (mostly Conan) appear from small presses in the early 50s. S&S at this time was hard to find but not gone completely. I don’t know if you’re defining “wither away and die” as no new works or none at all. If the former, then I can agree with you; if the latter, I’m not sure you can make a conclusive case.
I think you could make the case that in the 1980s the flame was kept lit by D&D novels — a lot of the Forgotten Realms books were essentially S&S (in the classic “let’s go kill a bunch of icky things and take their stuff” mode), just with a few Tolkienesque trappings. And these days look how much crossover we get in terms of game novel writers branching out to create their own S&S series — Paul S. Kemp and William King being just the first two examples that happened to pop into my mind.
“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a genre?”
This sounds like the set-up to a lightbulb joke.
“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“Only one, but it takes nine years to make real progress.”
I was fortunate enough to be an original subscriber and got them as they were published.
It seem a bit unfair to compare Sci-Fi and Horror to sword and sorcery and say that S’n’S hasn’t advanced.
Sci-fi and Horror are huge genres while S’n’S is but a subgenre of Fantasy. It’s a bit like lamenting a lack of innovation in sword and planet fiction compared with changes going on in the whole Fantasy genre.
> John, if you find the time, would you mind scanning those covers and drop’em at coverbrowser.com?
I’d be glad to, although I don’t find that site very organized. I tend to use ISFDB to look for things (including covers).
And it will have to wait until I reduce my imposing to-do list, I’m afraid. 🙂
> I will quibble, though, with your statement that S&S died away from 1940 to 1960. Wolheim reprinted a number
> of S&S stories in the Avon Fantasy Reader, plus Howard had some hardcover collections (mostly Conan) appear from
> small presses in the early 50s. S&S at this time was hard to find but not gone completely. I don’t know if you’re
> defining “wither away and die” as no new works or none at all. If the former, then I can agree with you; if the latter,
> I’m not sure you can make a conclusive case.
You’re right of course. There were certainly valiant efforts to keep the genre alive during that period, especially by Don Wollheim at Avon, and Martin Greenberg, David Kyle, and Co at Gnome Press.
But I don’t really view reprints as evidence of a live genre, however. Maybe S&S wasn’t dead from 40-60… but it was certainly in a coma.
> I was fortunate enough to be an original subscriber and got them as they were published.
Ah! You’re just the person I want to talk to then. 🙂
Was there a particular golden age for the magazine? So far I’ve only read one issue, but I was quite delighted with it. The writing quality was quite high, it had clear journalistic standards, and there’s a tankerload of content crammed into those 40 pages.
Is this typical of the magazine? Or did it take a while to get to this level?
Thanks for commenting!
> It seem a bit unfair to compare Sci-Fi and Horror to sword and sorcery and say that S’n’S hasn’t advanced.
> Sci-fi and Horror are huge genres while S’n’S is but a subgenre of Fantasy. It’s a bit like lamenting a lack of innovation in
> sword and planet fiction compared with changes going on in the whole Fantasy genre.
I guess that’s true. Perhaps it’s more fair to compare S&S to other sub-genres, like cyberpunk, steampunk, or space opera.
But even so, I think S&S may suffer in comparison. Space Opera sure has come a long way since the days of E.E. Smith, and steampunk has grown massively as a genre since it first appeared in the late 80s.
Just to chime in late; the stories rarely lived up to the covers, did they?
Well, technically FANTASY REVIEW was a news mag, and it didn’t include any fiction (or rarely, anyway). But yeah, I concur with the sentiment. 🙂
[…] There’s also a host of intriguing articles. Darrell Schweitzer looks at Lovecraft’s influence on one of the most important pulp SF stories ever written, “Who Goes There?”, in “John W. Campbell’s Lovecraftian Tale,” and Bradley H. Sinor presents a previously-unpublished interview from 1994, in “Excellence Demanded, Whiners Piss Off: The Last Interview of Karl Edward Wagner” (which picks up several of the themes in Wagner’s letter to editor Robert A. Collins published in Fantasy 55.) […]
[…] discussed here; I started with The Fantasy Fan (1933-1935) and Robert A. Collins’ 1980-era Fantasy. Both were excellent, and I’m happy to add Fantasy Review to that esteemed […]