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Rilke vs. Resnick & Malzberg, or, No, It’s Not Just a Dinosaur Thing…

You know, I’ve been trying for a few days to figure out a way of saying something useful about the Resnick/Malzberg/SFWA thing that’s the talk of the ghetto these days.

The thing is, it’s all obvious. What E. Catherine Tobler Said, basically. Others have said useful things too. Jim Hines has compiled many links. Or this is also a good run-down of things, if you prefer.

My thoughts? Actually, my reaction is much like Benjamin Rosenbaum‘s, but I prefer to share what me wife said to me when I brought the situation up to her, because she pretty much nailed what’s embarrassing, sad, and, in Rosenbaum’s words, disgusting about this.

But first, to be clear, I’m not just talking about the laughable “censorship” rebuttal from Issue 202 (there are links to all six pages of that that drivel up here), but but also copy like this crap in Issue 200 (which I found here, since I don’t receive the SFWA Bulletin anymore; my membership lapsed a while back and I’ve just not gotten around to renewing):

[Barry Malzberg]

Almost synchronous with her [Catherine Tarrant’s] entrance was that of Beatrice Mahaffey as Raymond Palmer’s assistant editor when Palmer left Amazing to originate a series of his own magazines (beginning with Other Worlds) and I will leave it to you to introduce her; you knew her from the SF community of your early years and were, with so many, an admirer. She was competent, unpretentious, and beauty pageant gorgeous … as photographs make quite clear. Tell succeeding generations all about her, please.


Ah, Bea Mahaffey…

She was the only pro I knew in Cincinnati when we moved here from the Chicago area more than a third of a century ago. She was incredibly generous with her time and reminiscences, and I spent a lot of time with her, on the phone and in person, duting the first few months when I was learning my way around town.

Anyone who’s seen photos of Bea from the 1950s knows she was a knockout as a young woman.


Another story is from nonagenarian Margaret Keiffer, who lives just a couple of miles from us. She’s the widow of super-fan Don Ford, who ran the 1949 Worldcon, and founded both Midwestcon and First Fandom. Don also created CFG (the Cincinnati Fantasy Group), the venerable local club to which Carol and I belong. According to Margaret, during its first few years of existence CFG was populated exclusively by men. Then Bea joined. Then the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon. Then the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.

Har, har.

When I told my wife about this garbage (basically right after reading up on it), she made a face and without missing a beat she commented at how SF writers are supposed to be forward-thinking and imaginative…

… but how even Rilke, a Christian mystic poet who died just less than a century ago, had ’em beat when it came to respect for women. Then she quoted back this passage to me from memory (from this letter):

Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

You could say she cherry-picked that quote, that Rilke wasn’t perfect, and you might be right: in fact, in the very lines immediately preceding that passage, Rilke problematically puts women on a pedestal of elevated humanity and vibrancy, to which men can only be lesser. My wife is quite aware of this, of course–she knows her Rilke–and agreed with me that Rilke’s attitude is complex and problematically nuanced.

But she very rightly pointed out that it’s still better than what’s on display in Resnick/Malzberg pieces being discussed. Rilke evinces a clear sympathetic willingness to listen in those lines of his quoted above; a willingness to engage in utopian imagination, a striking courage and humility, and an unmistakable yearning to properly respect women, and to see that respect for women universalized. None of these things are in evidence in the pathetic performance of Malzberg and Resnick so far as I’ve seen.

Humility and respect for women being the things most troublingly absent: one can forgive a poverty of imagination, a weariness with utopianism, and even, perhaps, a failure of courage. But I can’t see why we should excuse a lack of respect–sustained not just through the first offense, but also into the refusal to apologie for it–nor should we excuse the lack of humility–the arrogance–in Malzberg’s and Resnick’s retreat into paroxysms of horror over “anonymous criticism” and “censorship.” And I think Ferrett Steinmetz is wrong to throw them a bone on the basis of them being dinosaurs (albeit amid criticisms) for that same reason: The Letters to a Young Poet were written between 1902 and 1908, after all!

Is Mary Robinette Kowal right to worry how this will reflect on SFWA? Maybe, but the public reaction seems to show signs that most people don’t think this really says much about the whole organization.

But maybe we ought collectively to be reflecting on whether it says something discomfiting about our whole community–if that’s what we SF people are, a community. The fact anyone in the SF world would think that this is acceptable–that we actually have to get up in arms and point out that it isn’t–is frankly somewhat embarrassing. We let them get away with that crap? For how long, now? 

The outcry is heartening, mind: it suggests maybe we’re not as backwards as it may seem. Except, is “not as backwards as it may seem” something to be proud of? In this day and age, what’s wrong with what happened should simply be plainly obvious to anyone of good will, including the dinosaurs, and if it isn’t, that means we’ve been indulging people on spurious grounds for waaaay too long.

After all, we should, collectively, be somewhere further along than Rilke was in 1908, should we not? The story of social change, of moving forward, is central to SF. The myth of traveling to the stars is about that, fundamentally–about moving forward, collectively. And yet, the drag… our rocketships are firing, but how slowly they ascend.


It brings another line of Rilke’s to mind–the last one of his “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which is about precisely what the title says, though he could be talking quite directly of complicity and apathy to all of us:

… for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

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