Whatever the reasons

Whatever the reasons, and however interconnected, the fact remains that SF in the post-1960 period is produced and consumed on a larger scale than ever before. The demand of the market for an ever-increasing supply of new titles has imposed a disintegrating pressure on the writer, especially the young, intellectually ambitious writer (more so since his taskmaster is, typically, no longer the magazine editor-who might well take a pastoral interest-but the impersonal publisher). Novel for novel, SF does not sell spectacularly well. The Dune trilogy seems to be an all-time bestseller with a collective 2 million sales in paperback between 1965 and 1977. Dangerous Visions would seem to be something of a record-breaking hardback SF best-seller with some 60,000 copies sold before going out of print.One can contrast these figures with the regular 30,00 sales which Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann achieve in hardback, and the 10 million or more clocked up in paperback by Jaws or The Exorcist. But any kind of blockbuster, even on the relatively diminished scale of Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land, is rare in American Sf.
In present conditions the key to success in SF is Trollopian industry, rather than the long-matured single effort. Hence it is that the young luminaries of the genre have bio-bibliographies which would have made even Anthony Trollope blink with professional admiration. Barry Malzberg, for example, produced 22 novels and 250 short stories in ten years. Robert Silverberg claims to have made himself a dollar millionaire by the time he was thirty by writing ‘twenty to thirty pages on publishable copy’ every working day. At just over forty forty Harlan Ellison has 24 books and some 340 short stories and novellas credited to him (as well as a wealth of incidental writing). Even fiction as highly wrought as Samuel Delany’s has appeared at a sufficient rate to give him ten novels in print by the time that he was barely thirty years old. (Compare with his coeval Thomas Pynchon who has two novels and a novella; or the college-supported John Barth, ten years older, with four full-length novels.)
With such evidence it is not myopically materialistic to assume that the SF writer, more than other kinds of ambitious novelist with a largely educated public, is in danger of writing himself out prematurely. There is no principle of conservation in the genre, no allowance for the necessary creative pause between efforts. This, of course, is not new: as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us (perhaps tongue-in-cheek), it was the furiously overworked SF writer who made the electric typewriter commercial proposition. But it is anomalous that the modern SF novelist, who has, in general, higher artistic aspirations than his pre-decessor, should have to work at the same destructive pace, or even faster. The consequences were described, with only a little exaggeration, by Martin Amis in his final review of SF for The Observer newspaper (8 May 1977):