Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Monday, May 6, 2013

Judith Merril: Web Observations

Yesterday I grew curious about what biographical accounts of Judith Merril might have surfaced on the Internet. When I looked I found the usual plenitude of sources. While some accurate accounts exist out there——for instance Rob Sawyer's personal recollections——after a time I gave up the search for general ones.

People feel remarkably at ease trotting out for public view their insufficient knowledge of any subject. Does instant transmission mean that all such entries are to be viewed as ephemeral, so that today's posting has no special importance? That might explain the attitude. Tomorrow's error will take the place of today's, after all: how could that not solve everything? I suppose all who post to live by the hope that someone else will tidy up the confusion left by a billion Johnnies-on-the-spot. Whatever careful work has been done by those who have built up the Web, what we seem to see most of, and first, are parroting finger-peckings and cut-and-paste posturings——the expressions of people or their virtual equivalents who might like to appear in command in an infodense realm but who too often wear the infodunce cap. These key-tappers take pleasure, it seems, in perpetuating the easily available errors of those who came before them whose preference, too, is to take to a worldwide stage when factually stumbling.

It surprised me to find a quite recent piece in Kirkus Reviews written by Andrew Liptak, whose name is new to me. The posting, despite the venue, makes its share of mistakes, unfortunately; and these and the surrounding expressions of misunderstanding have appeared not only here at Kirkus but also, apparently, at the "75 Years of Science Fiction" conference at University of Vermont on April 27, to judge from this sentence from Liptak's first paraqraph, in which he promotes his impending appearance there: "The paper will be on the evolutionary roots of the genre, and draws heavily upon this column!" The phrase "evolutionary roots" seems less than happy, to me; and the notion of a paper about "roots of the genre" offering Merril as an example seems to reflect a misunderstanding of the genre's early development and maturation, which occurred before Merril became involved. Liptak's use of the phrase "The Golden Age of Science Fiction," immediately afterwards, may reflect a similar misunderstanding, insofar as the "Golden Age," for most observers, antedated Merril's major contributions.

Much of the information Liptak mentions seems drawn from the Merril memoir Better To Have Loved. His ordering of events strikes some off notes, perhaps the result of reading source materials not quite carefully enough. The errors in names reflect particularly poorly on scholarship, proofreading, or both. I puzzled over who "John Michael" was, for a moment; but I felt startled to find the column getting wrong not only the publication date but also the title for Merril's first novel. It also gets wrong the title of the first Cyril Judd serial. Fuzzy thinking and lazy writing flow on to the end.

No doubt Liptak's well-meant posting will become a source for future ones by others. Quite likely it will inspire "corrections" to existing infodense accounts, and provide fodder for all those infodunces——most of them probably virtual——who wait in the wings.

Liptak's list of sources led me to the New York Times obituary by Gerald Jonas, which is quite short but not error-free. Jonas makes a rather large misstatement——"During and just after World War II, Ms. Merril was the only woman associated with ... the Futurians." His listing of prominent Futurians may mislead readers, moreover, since of the four mentioned only James Blish was a member when Merril was. Jonas also perpetuates an error about her birth name.

I know Jonas is, and feel confident Liptak must be, capable of excellent work. Overwork and hurry may well account for much, here. Even Judy had trouble keeping her story utterly factual——as she forthrightly admitted.

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