Lafferty in New York: The Impure Science of Publishing by Matthew Keeley
This was a hard talk to begin. The problem is not that I’m new to this literary conference speaking thing — though I am — it’s that I can’t begin this talk about Lafferty in the usual way that talks about Lafferty begin. If I weren’t the preacher and you weren’t the choir, I would begin by explaining what that ‘R’ and that ‘A’ stand for, cite Dangerous Visions, dredge up a Neil Gaiman or Harlan Ellison or Gene Wolfe quote, briefly explain Lafferty’s tragicomic Catholic vision, and conclude that really you just have to read him for yourself.
Of course this is entirely the wrong audience for the Lafferty 101 talk, and so I am presenting a topic that I’m sure has vexed many of you, just as it’s frustrated me. Why oh why is a writer this good so very obscure and so very underpublished?
In 1992, Michael Swanwick, one of Lafferty’s greatest supporters and, incidentally, a longtime friend of this conference, wrote an introduction, equal parts admiring and despondent, to Lafferty’s Iron Tears. I quote:
First, Lafferty is one of the best writers ever to work in the science fiction and fantasy genre.
Second, he is the single most original writer the field has seen.
Third, he is – except for small press publications such as this one – unpublishable.
More than twenty-five years later, does this judgment hold? Does Lafferty remain unpublishable outside the “gallant band” of small publishers who sacrifice their time and burn their money on the Lafferty altar?
Or might things be changing?
At this point, you may be wondering just who I am to give an opinion on Lafferty’s prospects in contemporary publishing. I’m a copywriter by trade — I write 700-to-1000-word hymns to “emerging technologies” for a PR firm — but until last November I was a book scout.
What’s a book scout? I’m glad you didn’t ask. If you have ever heard of book scouts, you’ve probably heard about the bookseller book scouts: These are the scruffy disreputable folks with monkeys on their backs and murder in their souls who haunt used bookstores and estate sales in search of rare books they can pick up cheap and unload dear. The Welsh writer Iain Sinclair writes about these scouts and used to be one; anyone who’d like to learn more is advised to read his White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings.
But I wasn’t one of those. The publishing book scouts, to my knowledge at least, count no writers in their ranks. A book scout in the publishing industry is responsible for reading manuscripts and advising international publishers on whether they should attempt to acquire those manuscripts for their markets. These manuscripts, I should clarify, belong to books that will be coming out in nine or twelve months, so scouts spend their workdays in the future. As to what those workdays entail? Scouts lunch with agents, drink with editors, and phone subsidiary rights managers at all hours. Then they go home, read a few hundred pages. In the morning they write their clients — in the U.K., China, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, China, and so on — about the books they just read. It’s an exhausting job, and scouts very rarely have the chance to read or recommend backlist books for work.
There are exceptions, however. I was assigned to “cover” JABberwocky Literary Agency, which represents R.A. Lafferty on behalf of the Locus Foundation. Whenever I visited them, I would dutifully listen to their highlighted new titles, and then politely ask about Lafferty. He’s not an easy client: it was a challenge, they told me, just to track down copies of some of the rarer books. Since they’ve managed to issue most of the backlist in U.K. ebook and since their office bookshelves now hold more Lafferty books than I’ve ever seen gathered together, they clearly succeeded.
I’d like to report that, on the happy day the manuscript for The Best of R.A. Lafferty was finally emailed to this scout, I immediately emailed every international publisher I knew, proclaiming they simply must acquire, translate, and publish Lafferty.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. We had a grand total of one client I could imagine taking a look at Lafferty. I won’t name this person, but he has discerning taste, a reputation for picking unlikely successes, and a love for the offbeat, literary corners of science fiction. I recommended him backlist titles by authors like Harlan Ellison and David Bunch. Given the number of books I was assigned per week, I couldn’t justify reading a collection front to back if it were only of potential interest to one client, but I could enthuse at length in a recommendation email.
Being lazy, I’m going to quote myself now. Here’s what I wrote, in my professional, not my fan, capacity:
This may well be the most bizarre book I ever send you. R.A. Lafferty, an electrician from Oklahoma who only turned to writing later in his life, was a sort of visionary outsider artist of science fiction: his stories, often compared to tall tales, operate on dream logic, literary allusion and not a small bit of madness. I don’t know that I could call him “grounded,” but what he wrote is unlike anything else, in the genre or outside of it, that I know of. After resolving some complications with his estate, his books—long out of print and sometimes fetching hundreds on the secondary market—are finally relaunching. Next year, Gollancz will publish THE BEST OF R.A. LAFFERTY, an anthology featuring his best short stories and a star-studded array of contributors.
Each story includes its own introduction, and the editors have managed to secure some very big names: Neil Gaiman writes the introduction to the volume as a whole and also introduces several individual stories. Other introducers include Michelle McNamara’s husband Patton Oswalt [I referred to Patton Oswalt this way because the publisher I was writing to published McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark], plus Jeff VanderMeer, Samuel R. Delany, the late Harlan Ellison and Michael Dirda, the Washington Post critic who seems to have read everything.
Full disclosure: I’m a true believer when it comes to Lafferty. I’ve spent more money than I’d like to admit tracking down out-of-print editions of his books, and I even wrote an enthusiastic introduction to his work for Macmillan’s Tor.com.
I’m sorry to say that my appeal didn’t connect, and that this editor passed on Lafferty. I was a little disappointed and not at all surprised.
After all, though I knew that Lafferty was one of the most praised and most original of science fiction writers; I also knew that he was a long shot for republication in his home country and a longer shot for republication abroad.
I know you didn’t come out to the Lawrenceville Public Library on a nice June day to study a bibliography, but I promise you two things. First, that this portion of my talk will be brief. Second, that it will be interesting. There are even pictures.
Let’s take a look at some early Lafferty publications.
Here’s Past Master, published as an Ace paperback in 1968. It’s a paperback, but a classy one, with a restrained but suggestive cover by the great sf artists Leo and Diane Dillon, whose sixties and seventies illustrations alone could probably inspire several talks.
[Slide of Space Chantey/Pity About Earth Ace Double]
And here’s Space Chantey, 1968 again, an Ace Double with a cartoony cover illustration appropriate to Lafferty’s tall tale. As I’m sure most of you know, Ace Doubles were two-in-one affairs; you finish your book, which only takes up half the volume, flip the book upside down and back to front, and begin an entirely new story. So I’ve included a picture of Pity About Earth as well; it accompanied Space Chantey’s first printing.
[Slide of The Reefs of Earth]
One more from 1968: The Reefs of Earth, which we’ve heard a lot about today.
[Slide of Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?]
Now let’s move forward a few years, lest we be stuck in 1968 all day. Here’s Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? from 1974. It’s a hardback, and, unlike the previous few books, wasn’t published by a genre-focused press. Lafferty seems to have moved up in the world. After all, Charles Scribner’s Sons is one of the great names in American publishing history. Maxwell Perkins, the one editor non-book people may have heard of, was a Scribner’s editor.
[Slide of Sephora + Scribner’s Building]
They used to have a bookstore and office on Fifth Avenue. The bookstore is now a Sephora, and I have no idea who occupies the floors above. Their name remains on the building, but they’re not there any more.
[Slide of S&S Offices]
So where are they? Scribner — they dropped the “Charles” and the “Sons” parts — is now an imprint of Simon & Schuster, one block to the west on Sixth Avenue. Scribner remains Simon & Schuster’s foremost “literary” imprint. If you’re a Scribner author, you can expect to be taken seriously.
Now, back to books...
[Slide of Aurelia]
Here’s Aurelia, from 1982. It’s from Starblaze / Donning Editions, a small press about which I know very little. They published a few well-known authors, but usually relatively minor works. They’re not much remembered; I had to double-check to confirm they published any titles beyond this book.
[Slide of East of Laughter]
And East of Laughter, from 1988. Morrigan Publications was a very small press; it only ever published four or five writers over four or five years of operation.
[Slide of Iron Tears]
And last, here is Iron Tears from Edgewood Press. This is the one with the great Swanwick introduction I quoted at the start of this talk. And Leo and Diane Dillon return for the cover. Iron Tears cost ten dollars when it appeared in 1992; I was five then and not in the market; today copies will cost you much more.
I think the trajectory here is pretty clear: Lafferty moved from big publishers — Ace, Berkley, and Scribner all exist today as imprints of Big Five publishers — to smaller and smaller presses. Those first few editors deserve credit for their work bringing a rare original voice to the public, but the later editors — proprietors of one- or two-person ventures — may warrant greater praise from Lafferty fans. Though the prices for used copies on eBay or Amazon or Biblio might suggest otherwise, no one ever got rich from East of Laughter or Iron Tears or Aurelia or The Flame Is Green or the chapbook publication of My Heart Leaps Up or… I could go on, but you get the point. These last titles were published for love, not money.
So, is this the end? No, it’s not.
[Slides of Three Great Novels Omnibus and The Best of R.A. Lafferty]
As many of you know, U.K. science fiction publisher Gollancz has led the way in reissuing Lafferty. Most of the previously published corpus is available in region-locked ebooks, and they’ve also published an omnibus of three novels and a new Best of collection that includes twenty-two stories, each of which receives its own introduction from one or another bright star in the science fiction firmament. If our cranky Tulsan’s readership is small, it’s also illustrious.
There’s no U.S. publisher as yet for The Best of; it’s hard to imagine the Tors or Orbits or Aces of today publishing a book by an artist who is a) difficult, b) dead, and c) best known for short stories. An sf editor friend tells me that she expects science fiction or fantasy books to be 100,000-word novels: That’s what the market likes and expects at this juncture. Story collections, sad to say, rarely come out with Big Five publishers: I can name exceptions, of course, but more often than not, the stories go to independent presses and the novels go to Big Five houses. Of course, there are very few (by which I mean there are probably none) Lafferty novels that are long enough and approachable enough to meet the publication needs of today’s editors.
So is all lost for R.A. Lafferty’s American readers? Will we still have to pay forty dollars for used paperbacks, scour specialist booksellers for chapbooks, beg fellow fans for pirated copies, crack DRM on UK ebooks, and abuse interlibrary loan? Will our hearts live in hope and our bank live in dread of new volumes in the Centipede Press collected stories?
My tentative answer is “no.” First, the American book market now supports a large number of small presses with literary aspirations and a taste for the weird. In the science fiction genre, of course, you have Small Beer Press, Tachyon, ChiZine, and probably a few more I’m forgetting, You also have more literary presses that publish “genre-adjacent” books. You might remember, for example, that the New York Review of Books recently reissued David R. Bunch’s Moderan stories.
Bunch’s entry in the Science Fiction Encylopedia notes that “Bunch's style at its best conveys resembles R A Lafferty's at his best, though it is far more exclamatory, and rhetorically pixilated, than Lafferty's work.” In Bunch, we have an author so little known that a comparison to Lafferty constitutes a clarification. And he’s been republished!
Finally, I want to take a minute to talk about another reason for hope: Lafferty’s literary canonization, which the Library of America has set for September.
[Brief digression on Library of America; with reference to HPL, PKD; Le Guin, etc. as well as to crime authors like Chandler]
Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s includes Past Master. Since Lafferty shares billing with seven other authors, perhaps it’s more accurate to call the LOA publication a beatification rather than a canonization, but in any case we should all be excited. This September, for the first time in decades, you will be able to buy an R.A. Lafferty title at any decent American bookstore.
That is cause for celebration.
Let us hope we soon have cause for more.