Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

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

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughts Written after Frederik Pohl's Death

(I wrote the following on September 2, 2013. I chose not to post them in my blog at the time. Whatever my opinions of Pohl as a man or a writer, I feel respect and affection for certain members of his extended family——in one case deceased, and in another, living. A long moment of quiet——even if after two years of quiet already, on my part——seemed appropriate.)

The news of Frederik Pohl's death has felt strange, settling in: for I have known it would happen soon——whatever "soon" may be. I have been out of touch with news of Pohl's condition; but the thought kept reappearing in my mind, in recent months, that I should prepare myself with some short essay about him, against the eventuality. Not that I did——perhaps because that same notion had been intruding on my thoughts, now and then, for years.

At the point in writing C.M. Kornbluth when I was ready to speak to Fred, and to see whether or not he would turn me down a second time for an interview about Cyril, I called his house and learned that he was in the hospital, due not to illness but frailty. The family feared death might well come for him. I would have been acting rudely, had I kept calling to see if he had come home: for what frail man would want to answer tough questions about events of half a century past? I left that phone number unused, afterwards. My book focused on Cyril, after all; and I doubted Fred remembered anything that he had not put down in print already that he would feel willing to share with me. I knew in addition that his memory, even before this hospitalization, was unreliable.

The questions being left unasked will remain so, of course. Pohl's comments on matters concerning events in the 1930a, 1940s and 1950s, however, will continue to reverberate——for he has left us correspondence from these times——the archived correspondence that allowed me to write about matters that beforehand I had feared would find no place in my study. As the book's few readers know, it rests upon a sturdy backbone of documentation.

It stands because I based its structure upon fact.

At the time I was finishing CMK, knowing of Pohl's frailty, it did enter my mind that my book, which tells quite a different story from the ones he had told over the years, might affect him to the point of altering the balance between his health and his frailty. I felt it might be best if the book slipped quietly into the world, without my making the normal efforts at publicity that might help make it a success. Pohl, if indeed so frail, might never know the book existed. His protective family might shield him, should the news of publication came out sufficiently quietly.

Two other reasons urged me toward my avoiding publicity. The book's writing had put me into debt: so I had a purely practical reason, nearly a necessity, to avoid even convention appearances. Another reason, however, some might call irrational. To me it carried real weight, all the same. I had lived with it since the mid-1990s, when several senior writers advised me to tread with extreme care around Pohl. He exerted tremendous power within the field in which, at the time, I newly ranked as a professional. Many of my questions even at that time concerned Pohl's actions; and his looming presence made it seem impossible to ask those questions in public. In effect my wariness of Pohl silenced me——and the tensions surrounding those questions, and my being haunted by them, made it nearly impossible for me to continue pursuing the writing career that I had begun to establish. It amounted to madness, to allow such questions to overthrow my fiction career. Yet I did, and they did.

I have written of being at sea for many years——constantly achieving in minor ways, at this, at that——but at sea: and the derailment of my soul from its fiction-writing mode of expressing itself fell at the beginning of that long period. I was haunted. I was insane, even if in the quietest possible manner. One or the other, or both.

The warnings to me about Pohl had been meant genuinely; and in 2010 they proved of more relevance than my fears of causing apoplexy in a frail elder. Pohl, after a time, learned of my book——but grew incensed enough at it that, according to his blog, he never finished reading it. In an e-mail to me he raised the issue of a lawsuit. In his blog he began a campaign against me——effectively, so far as I could see. Quite a number of individuals leapt to his defense, with academics writing "reviews" for professional journals making odd assertions, such as the one that my book contains no literary criticism. Non-academics posted pathetically negative noises on Amazon, while fellow science fiction writers made comments at his blog site, including a surprisingly scatological one, in closing ranks with Pohl against me. Pohl himself used the words "forces of evil," linking this phrase to one of his postings about Mark Rich.

I took this in silence, by and large——even though I had faith that the integrity of my work stood effectively against Pohl's threat of lawsuit. A non-provocatory stance suited the situation, to my mind.

My silence did establish for me, however, a vivid picture of Pohl's power within the field. For no one, to my knowledge, stood up for me, in public, against him.

Some, however, stood up for the book.

Most importantly, the book itself continued standing.

Would I have given so willingly of myself, and so fully, to create it as an edifice, had I meant it to fall? I could remain silent; others would remain silent: yet what I built would continue as I built it.

After a time, Pohl, too, fell silent about the matter——at least in public.

Did his e-mailed threat of a lawsuit still ring in my mind?

Yes. It did.

For all these intervening months.

The night after his death's announcement, the memorial comments began. "Death of a giant." "Last of the greats." "I knew him when."

Many, many will have heartfelt, wonderful thoughts and memories to share, as is fitting and proper. Their Fred Pohl had passed away.

As for me, sometime that night I felt a lightening sensation——a shifting and lifting of a weight I had borne long enough to ignore and nearly forget about.

For a threat made against me was ceasing its constant pressure downwards upon my shoulders.

For my Fred Pohl, too, had passed away.

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