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Literature, Bowling, and the Labor Day Group

Delivered at LASFS Showcase
Los Angeles, CA
May 2, 1981

I became a professional writer a little over ten years ago, when my first sale appeared in the pages of GALAXY. My initiation proceeded in jig time; no sooner had I published for the first time than I found myself being reviewed for the first time. But not, unfortunately, for the last time.

A writer has to become accustomed to dealing with reviews, and I think I’ve done a fair job of that. You get all sorts of notices in this business, and you have to be prepared for them. They run the gamut from incisive and brilliant to utterly moronic, from mealy-mouthed adulation to sheer vitriol. It would be tidy if the dumb ones were all negative, and the intelligent ones a-chock with praise, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. I’ve never been able to decide which is more depressing; the out-and-out pan or the glowing notice obviously written by an imbecile who has completely misunderstood your story.

However varied they may be, reviews do have one thing in common: a writer is better off ignoring them. It’s generally a waste of time and energy replying to them, no matter how much you have the urge, no matter what the cretin said. In my ten years in the field, I’ve fumed and clucked over dozens of reviews, and mouthed off to my friends about them, but it’s seldom that I’ve actually taken typewriter in hand in an effort to reply to a reviewer or critic.

Every rule has to have its exception, though. Every once in a good long while, a review comes along that is wrongheaded enough, yet also intelligent and perceptive enough, to require discussion and rebuttal.

Such a review appeared in the February Books column of F&SF, when Thomas M. Disch discussed the Labor Day Group.

This was one I heard coming long before it pounced upon me. At a New Year’s Party in Albuquerque, various F&SF subscribers who’d gotten the issue ahead of the rest of us kept coming up to me and offering condolences. All of them hastened to add that at least I hadn’t gotten it as bad as Ed Bryant. When the issue finally hit the stands, I picked it up with a considerable amount of apprehension, wondering what brand of mayhem had been wrought upon me this time.

Actually, it wasn’t so bad. Pretty mild, in fact, after the horrors I’d imagined from the scraps and outlines my subscriber friends had given me. Truthfully, I’ve gotten much worse reviews, although I’ll admit that poor Ed Bryant probably has not.

Some of you undoubtedly are familiar with the Disch column I’m speaking of; others may not be, however. Briefly, in the context of reviewing the three Best-of-the-Year anthologies, Disch passed beyond a simple discussion of the stories to a larger analysis of the work of a group of young writers he dubbed “the Labor Day Group,” because they could most often be found together at Worldcon. According to Disch, the membership of the Group included Vonda McIntyre, Tanith Lee, Jack Dann, Michael Bishop, Orson Scott Card, John Varley, and poor innocent me. This roster appears to have derived primarily from the contents pages of the three anthologies that Disch had to hand, which would seem to make him guilty of a slick bit of circular reasoning: first he chooses the Group membership from a look at these collections, then points out how the Labor Day Groupers seem to dominate the Best-of-the-Year books and the awards.

There are various other lapses one might point out in Disch’s essay. For example, Michael Bishop is a rather unlikely member for anything called the Labor Day Group. Bishop has never attended a Worldcon, and therefore has clearly missed all the meetings. However, Disch does say that Mike is “the least representative figure” in the Group, so . . . Disch also talks about Connie Willis’ “Daisy, In the Sun,” as being the writer’s first published story, which it is not. That’s a simple factual mistake, however. I could complain about the dumb joke he makes of Ed Bryant’s name, rendering it as “bryAnt” in parody of Ed’s Nebula-winning “giAnts,” but that’s probably understandable coming from a man who has undoubtedly been subjected to a lifetime of humor about plates and saucers. Were I of a mind to, I would gladly take issue with Disch’s suggestion about my own story, “The Way of Cross and Dragon.” Disch thinks the story might grow teeth were it set in 100 A.D. instead of the far future. Myself, I think that change would take what is intended as a universal statement about truth, falsehood, and all belief systems and render it into a simple-minded slap at Christianity. Nothing wrong with slapping Christianity from time to time, to be sure, especially as embodied by the Moral Majority . . . but that wasn’t what the story was about.

All that is minor, though, and not really to the point. A rather larger concern is Disch’s treatment of Ed Bryant’s “giAnts.” That’s also beside the point, actually, but I can’t resist talking about it. The truth is, condolences from my friends notwithstanding, Disch let me off rather easily, giving a mixed review to “The Way of Cross and Dragon” and a generally favorable one to “Sandkings.” Poor Ed, however, gets flayed and hung out to twist slowly, slowly in the wind. One could say that Tom Disch did not like “giAnts.” One could. In fact, what he says is, “For a writer’s organization to give an award to such a story as ‘giAnts’ is tantamount to erecting a sign at the airlock, saying: ‘Science Fiction – abandon taste, all ye who enter here.’”

Now, in fact, “giAnts” was not really the beat choice for the Nebula. As I’ve told Ed on countless occasions, “The Way of Cross and Dragon” is a much better story. Nor is “giAnts” by any means my favorite Ed Bryant story. . . still, Disch is a bit harsh. If he was heaping all this scorn on a writer worthy of it, that would be one thing, but in fact he is so far off base it’s ridiculous. Judging from his review, Disch seems to think that “giAnts” is about giant insects. This is a rather simple-minded view of the story, akin to saying that Disch’s own novel The Genocides is about horticulture. Bryant has big bugs in his story, and Disch has big plants, but in each case there is a bit more going on than that summary might indicate.

From the review, it would appear that Disch is not really familiar with the bulk of Bryant’s work. Over the years Ed has been one of the more subtle, tricky, and non-commercial of what Disch calls the Labor Day Group, and in literary terms certainly one of the most ambitious, but Disch reads Bryant as if he were reading Lin Carter, as if the surface was all there was to a story, and by so doing misreads “giAnts” completely.

That being said, let me add that this kind of thing is par for the course in all too many reviews. Despite all my cavils about Disch’s F&SF essay, I would never have bothered to reply to it if this were all there was to the piece. That is not the case. The thing that makes Disch’s column worthy of attention is his central thesis: the idea of the Labor Day Group, and the things he says about it. Disch is often unfair and often mistaken, but at the core of his review is a gritty bit of truth.

He says:

I don’t mean to suggest that anything like a cabal is at work, only that a coherent generational grouping exists . . . Further, I’d suggest that these writers have more in common as a group than those (myself among them) who were lumped together under the rubric “New Wave,” that they possess something approaching solidarity, as the Futurians did in their day.

Disch soons goes wrong again. in ways I’ll discuss shortly, but that statement is the heart of his thesis, and it is one that I find myself in surprising agreement with. The observation isn’t entirely original. In another F&SF column a few years back, Algis Budrys talked about a “school” of younger SF writers with certain things in common, and inducted me into the group, along with Greg Benford and a few others. I recall Benford particularly because Greg used to joke with me about collecting some tuition for our school.

Disch expands on the idea far more than Budrys did, however, and by giving these writers a collective he gives critics, fans, academics, and other troublemakers a convenient label to grab on to. The Labor Day Group. Doesn’t mean much, actually, but it has a nice ring to it. Like the New Wave, or the Futurians, it can be grasped easily, and then we can move on to discussing who is a member and who isn’t, and whether those in the Group are better or worse than those who aren’t, and what the members have in common, and similar fun pastimes. It has been a decade since the end of the Old Wave/New Wave battles; that war was dying even as I was making my first sale. Yet most of our genre histories end with the demise of the New Wave, and say almost nothing about what has transpired since, though they do customarily append a list of names, in which I sometimes appear (so I pay attention). The field has taken new directions since the days of Dangerous Visions and Stand on Zanzibar, and however wrong he might be in the details, Disch is to be commended for opening the discussion about what – and how desirable – those directions might be.

It’s there that I think Disch wanders afield again. He is correct is saying that a “coherent generational grouping” can be discerned among the younger writers in the field, those who have first published during the past decade. The comparison with the Futurians is not at all inappropriate, though there is no evidence that any of the Labor Day Group ever shared an apartment or hatched schemes for conquering all fandom. There are very important differences between my work and that of Ed Bryant, or John Varley, or Vonda McIntyre, or Greg Benford (who wasn’t in the Labor Day Group, but ought to have been), or Michael Bishop . . . yet there are important commonalities as well. Resonances. One can sense a certain amount of shared attitudes, a similarity of views on literature, SF, writing. Futurians like Pohl, Kornbluth, Knight, and Blish were by no means interchangeable, yet they did represent a coherent literary movement of sorts, an answer to Campbellian science fiction, and their work helped move the field in a different direction. I think the same is true of the Labor Day Group.

And that’s where Thomas M. Disch and I part company again.

Disch’s essay talks a lot about awards. He thinks the Labor Day Group takes the Hugos and Nebulas too seriously. He says so at sufficient length to convince me that Disch actually attaches more importance to awards than anybody in the Group. He even cites me to support his case.

The awards are a serious business. If there were any doubt of that, one need only listen to the testimony of the winners, one of whom, George Martin, in accepting his award this year, spoke of how he’d lusted after a Hugo when first he’d attended a world convention in the early days of his career . . . the work of this latest generation of SF writers . . . has been unduly and unnecessarily influenced by the clubhouse atmosphere of the SF world and its awards systems. A sense of personal vision is rare in their stories. while a sense of writing to please a particular audience, Fandom, is sometimes obtrusively present . . .

In other words, the charge that Disch is levelling at the members of the Labor Day Group is nothing less than literary whoring. He goes on to expand on this:

Having served their literary apprenticeships in the SF magazines during the ’70s (a decade otherwise notable for disillusionment and retrenchment), they were witness to the failure of the “New Wave” both as an esthetic program (art can’t be brought into existence by manifestos) and commercially. To a reasonably level-headed apprentice writer it became increasingly clear through the ’70s that art was a problematical commodity and most of what went by that name was claptrap anyhow. By contrast a competent entertainment engineer who could guarantee n-pages of fictionware might do very well for himself. Look at what happened to Star Wars. What the market rewards are simple problems clearly solved by wholesome, likeable characters . . . It was good enough for grandpa, it was good enough for grandma, and it’s good enough for the Labor Day Group. If Art’s to be part of it, it must be the kind that conceals art, and conceals it well; on the whole, it isn’t worth troubling about.

This is a rather extraordinary outburst, really. Clever and well-said, as might be expected of a writer of Disch’s calibre, but grotesquely wrongheaded. One wonders exactly how much Disch has read of the writers he inducts into the Labor Day Group. Very little beyond the stories in those three anthologies, one suspects. It is difficult to discern exactly who he is talking about. All this stuff about competent entertainment engineers guaranteeing n-pages of “fictionware” (God! what a term!) is scathing enough, but who does it apply to? Me? I published one novel during my first decade as a writer. Ed Bryant, who is still trying to do his first real novel, who agonizes to produce two or three marvelously crafted shorts each year? Vonda, who has two novels and a collection? Oh, to be sure, some of the Labor Day Group writers are fairly prolific, notably Varley and Card, but on the whole a less reliable bunch of entertainment engineers would be hard to find. If you really wanted n-pages of fictionware quickly, you’d be better off going to your friendly neighborhood New Waver, like Michael Moorcock f’rinstance. And wholesome, likeable characters? In Michael Bishop? In Ed Bryant? Disch can’t have read “Shark” or “Hibukusha Gallery” or anything much by Bishop. Simple problems clearly solved? Right. Simple problems like love, and death, and human sexuality, and existential loneliness, and Gods and morality and . . . as for the clear solutions, I had a character who solved a problem once. Think I wrote that story in ’73, or maybe it was ’72.

No, whoever Disch is castigating here, it can’t be the Labor Day Group. He paints with a broad brush indeed, but he’s painting a straw man. I’ve never met Tanith Lee, but I know the rest of those Disch lists as members of the Group: Jack and Herb and Ed and Mike Bishop and Vonda and so on. Some I know well, some not so well, but I know all of them well enough to say with a certainty that not a one has ever been guilty of the kind of literary whoring that Disch implies is their – our – stock in trade. Among the qualities that I would list as characteristic of the Group, in fact, is high literary ambitions and a devotion to art that is second to no one in the field, no, not even to Mr. Thomas M. Disch himself. Whether these ambitions are realized or not is another question. Some of those in the Group are better writers than others. Some stories succeed more than others. We all have off days, and some of us have off years. But to imply that the Labor Day Group is composed of a bunch of cynical hacks, churning out reams of crassly commercial fiction solely for money and awards while washing their hands of art, that is a base and empty accusation, one unworthy of a writer as talented as Disch, and one that shows he has neither consulted with the Group members about their views, nor read any significant portion of their work.

As to awards, when I accepted the Hugo for “The Way of Cross and Dragon” I did indeed talk about how I had lusted for such recognition when I attended my first Worldcon back in 1971. I submit, however, that this is a normal and natural sort of human desire, and I suspect that once upon a time, when he was a wee tad, Tom Disch probably dreamed similar dreams. For that matters Disch was also up for a Hugo last year at Noreascon II, and I wonder if, in his heart of hearts, Disch wasn’t just as lustful as I was.

His real error, though, is taking my simple declaration that I had dreamed of someday winning a Hugo, and standing it on its head in order to imply that I – and by extension, the rest of the Group – was deliberately writing in an effort to cop awards. Aiming at popularity, so to speak. There is a big difference.

Do I ever think of Hugos and Nebulas, scheme to win them? Well, yes and no. I like following our field’s literary awards, just as I like following the baseball standings. Both are games. and games can be fun. The comparison is pretty apt, actually. By and large, the award-winners are good stories, as pennant-winners are good teams. But I have no illusions that the best story always wins, no more than the best team always wins in baseball (The Brooklyn Dodgers were the best team in baseball in the early 50s, and I don’t care how many World Series they lost to the Yankees!). I am aware that the awards mean money too, and I take this into consideration when marketing my stories. I think that’s sensible, professional, ethical.

But I don’t write for awards, don’t warp my stories to suit any audience, no matter Disch may think. And that is the distinction. I am told that Ernest Hemingway once said, “While I’m writing, I’m an artist; as soon as I’ve finished, I’m a son-of-a-bitch.” I suspect that Is the attitude held by most of the Labor Day Group about awards, not the one Disch ascribes to us.

As for the other Group attitudes, my own theory is that this generation of writers, arising in the ’70s, represents a fusion of the two warring camps of the ’60s. We were the first children of the Space Age, postwar babies still in school when Sputnik was launched. We grew up loving the flying wing and horror movies and Muttnik, cut our literary teeth on Heinlein juveniles and Andre Norton and comic books. The pulps were before our time, but we mainlined Ace doubles. And so we had one foot firmly in the camp of traditional SF, the camp of high technology and high adventure and boundless optimism and tall bright dreams. Yet we were also the generation of Viet Nam, the flower children and anarchists and peaceniks of the ’60s, disillusioned, questioning, idealistic. The New Wave was part of that, a sign of the ferment of the times, and even when the stories were unreadable we identified with the effort, emotionally. Yes, as Disch says, we saw the New Wave fail. But he is wrong when he says that this failure turned us all into literary journeymen churning out the yardgoods. The real story is one of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The division between “popular” and “literary” fiction is a recent and heinous one. There is no reason that great art can’t be popular, or that popular fiction can’t be art. And that is really what I think the Labor Day Group is about, at heart. Combining the color and verve and unconscious power of the best of traditional SF with the literary concerns of the New Wave. Mating the poet with the rocketeer. Bridging the two cultures.

Some of us fail, of course. We’re only human. But I do think we try. I told you we were an idealistic bunch, didn’t I? Dreamers from the first.

Meanwhile the field goes on. I think there is already a post Labor Day grouping visible, writers more commercial than we ever were, younger and newer and different. more like Campbell’s stable than the Futurians since – unlike the Labor Day Group – they are tightly grouped around a single new magazine, in this case Asimov’s. This newer bunch worries me a lot, perhaps the way the Labor Day writers worry Disch. I think they are too shallow, too facile, too careless of art. That may change, as they’re still young, but it frightens me to realize that these are the children of the apathetic, hedonistic, cynical ’70s, and that maybe they’ll be the wave of the future.

Or maybe not. Maybe the future belongs to the Campbellians, or the surviving Futurians, or those mislabelled New Wavers . . . or maybe to all of us.

But if had to bet, I’d wager that the most exciting SF of the ’80s and the ’90s and maybe even the next century . . . the novels that will thrill us and move us and teach us and stay with us so long as we live . . . the stories that will break new ground and, yes, affirm that SF is part of literature in the highest and finest sense, that it is and should be art . . . those novels and stories will be written by folks named Varley, and Bryant, and McIntyre, and Benford . . . and maybe there will be one or two by me.

How do I react to being lumped with all these others in the Labor Day Group?, people have asked me. Well, Disch ends his essay by saying, “. . .for writers . . . to frame a standard of excellence based on purely intermural criteria, and to make it their conscious goal to win an award is to confuse literature with bowling.”

Among our other humble attributes, we in the Labor Day Group have a sense of humor. We’ve having team bowling shirts made up for Worldcon.

Shoe Inside
© 2014 George R.R. Martin. All rights reserved.