Saturday, August 6, 2016

Was Lin Carter a Tragic Figure or a Pulp Hack?

So, when reading Lupoff's book,* I was surprised to come across the following tribute to Lin Carter.
On page 33 Lupoff writes (emphasis mine)

'The late Lin Carter, himself a science-fiction author and one of the most perceptive critics of imaginative literature, stated in his classic study of epic fantasy (Notes on Tolkien, Xero magazine, 1961, 1962): "One such traditional plot device is to open your tale in surroundings, or among characters, familiar to your audience, and by degrees (once the reader has 'identified' and become 'comfortable' with them) to carry him further and further into your make-believe world." '[Nt1]**

At the bottom of this page, Lupoff has added the following note (again, emphasis mine):

[Nt1]'Carter's series of Xero articles served as the basis for his book-length study Tolkien: A Look behind the Lord of the Rings (1969), which in turn led to his stint as Consulting Editor on the fondly remembered Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (1969-1973). Carter was a talented and perceptive literary man who devoted the majority of his energies to producing a barrage of pastiches of the Burroughs and Robert E. Howard variety (touched on elsewhere in this book). He died in 1987, leaving his potential not merely unfulfilled but virtually untouched.'

Those passages I've boldfaced give me pause, because I've always looked on Carter as someone with enthusiasm but not talent or judgment. His A LOOK BEHIND THE LORD OF THE RINGS, filled with errors as it was, introduced me to a lot of writers I went on to read and enjoy, and I think his work writing those little Forewords to the Adult Fantasy Series volumes helped establish a sense of fantasy's having a coherent tradition running form Morris to Tolkien (with precursors before and heirs beyond). But I certainly wd never call him "perceptive" (as Lupoff does twice). And what I've read of his fiction was simply hopeless.

I'm curious: does Lupoff suggest he was a tragic figure because he thought he had it in him to write a novel better than the dreck he actually did write (and publish)? If so, upon what does he base this sense of Carter's "potential"?

Or was Carter able to recognize talent without being able to do more than imitate its outward forms? That wd be tragic indeed if the many books he wrote (nearly a hundred) were all more or less exercises in futility, aping the forms of better writers without being able to capture any of the spark that brings their work to life. But I see no sign anywhere that Carter himself thought that; instead, he seems to have been filled with admiration for his own work (e.g., regularly including it it Year's Best fantasy anthologies he edited).

So, Lupoff's comments suggest there was more to Lin Carter than comes across in his books. If anyone else has insights into what this might have been, I'd be interesting in hearing.

--John R.
current reading: INTO OTHER WORLDS by Roger Lancclyn Green (1958)


**Gary Hunnewell's invaluable TOLKIEN FANDOM REVIEW: FROM ITS BEGINNINGS TO 1964 volume provides the information that this appeared in three parts, in issues number 7, 8, and 9, respectively, taking up a total of just 21 pages.


grodog said...

I've not read deeply into Carter's corpus of his own fiction, but certainly his Conan pastiches were horrible, and I've not revisted his own stories sufficiently recently to have a good impression of their merit. My general inclination is negative.

IME (which is not exhaustive, so take it with a few pinches of salt), Carter's best works were his FGU games based on ERB and Flash Gordon, Imaginary Worlds, and his History of the Book of Eibon chapbook.

All that said, however, I think that we owe a lot to Carter as an editor, and that he helped to establish fantasy (and SF, to a lesser degree) as a mainstream genre worthy of public attention. Despite the irreparable harm done to my literary psyche, I don't think we would have ever seen the wonderful Del Rey editions of REH's own words and writings without the hackwork that Carter and De Camp seeded the market with decades earlier. In many ways, Carter and De Camp acted in a similar roles as Augsut Derleth did with HPL's works, in my mind---a necessary evil along the way to boost their literary recognition to where it is today.


David Bratman said...

Here's my take:

Lin Carter was a highly perceptive and educated reader of fantasy. He'd read almost everything in the history of the field up to his time, was appreciative of the qualities of what he'd read, and could correlate it all. That made him an ideal choice for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy editor, though other approaches to choosing and presenting this work would have been possible. (And he did have the taste to be appalled by much of what was taking over fantasy by the time of his death.)

Where Carter's talents hit a wall, however, was with criticism. Carter's mind was appreciative and not scholarly. He didn't have a systematic or thorough approach. His Tolkien notes are frustratingly random. But that's also because he was a pioneer, with no basis to work from. How many other people than Lin Carter could you imagine in 1962 randomly reading Voluspa for the fun of it, and then also having the knowledge to recognize that Tolkien's dwarf names were in there when he saw them? Not many.

Like many people, however, his creative talents occupied only a small spectrum of his appreciative talents. Tolkien was the opposite of this, and Lewis was as good a creator as an appreciator, so we may not be aware of how common this is. But he also had the capability of writing some interesting non-hack work that's not what you would expect of him. Check out a short story called "Uncollected Works" published in F&SF in 1965.

Lastly, re his Tolkien notes being "only" 21 pages: traditional fanzine layout is very word heavy. It'd be possible to have as much as a thousand words per page. I don't have the original Xero to look at, or a scan of it, but the articles could easily have contained the complete text of the subsequent book's three chapters on Tolkien's sources and names, and since there are three articles, they probably did.

Wurmbrand said...

Carter was the man on the spot when Ballantine was ready to reprint public domain or inexpensive works of fantasy, it seems. He deservedly is remembered for his association with many works worthy of recovery. However, I'm not sure a great majority of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy reprints -really- hold up well. Also, I don't know how much credit, if any, Carter deserves for the cover art, which I'm convinced is a key reason why so many of us remember the series fondly.

I don't know if carter pitched the BAF idea to the Ballantines or if they were already actively looking for someone to recommend such books, to capitalize on their phenomenally popular Tolkien books. If the latter, one might wonder who else, other than Carter, might have been prepared to edit the series.

It's interesting to compare the BAF reprints with the catalogue of C. S. Lewis's library. Lewis died in 1963 and the catalogue (Rogers) dates to 1969, by which time Lewis's books had been picked over to some extent. But it seems that rather a lot of the books in the Ballantine series were in Lewis's library, particularly if you leave out the American pulp reprints (Smith, Lovecraft) and the originals (Kurtz, Chant, etc.). It's also fair to remember that some of the books the BAF series printed originated when other people brought their mss. to Ballantine's attention or other people wrote to Carter.

That being the case, I wonder if there weren't a number of people around who could have nominated many of the remaining titles that Carter edited. What the BAF might have looked like if someone else edited it--who knows?

But Carter seems to have known modern (Victorian to the present) fantasy well. And his introductions were well suited to readers like me at the time the books were issued, people in their teens or earliest college years--enthusiastic, chatty, linking up in a "narrative" of modern fantasy's creation that has been easy to grasp and very influential.

Dale Nelson