Donald E. Westlake’s farewell to science fiction: responses by Frederik Pohl, Westlake, and others

This, I’m sure we’ll all be relieved to hear, will be my final Violent World of Parker post for the year. Fear not, however (or, possibly, fear greatly): there’s plenty more to come from me in the new year, not just on Westlake but also on some other writers whose work intersects with the Great Man’s. But let’s round off this year’s run of posts (on my part, anyway; I’m sure Trent will be along before too long) by returning to Donald E. Westlake’s science fiction stories one last time, and in particular to his controversial farewell to SF in Pat and Dick Lupoff’s early-1960s fanzine Xero—reprinted in The Best of Xero“Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You.”

Last time out I detailed the content of that essay, but what’s perhaps most striking about it is the effect it had on SF fandom and on Westlake’s fellow professionals. The repercussions of “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” would reverberate through the remainder of Xero‘s run, with letter after letter either agreeing with or dissenting from Westlake’s negative view of the SF field. One of the more notable responses came from one of the targets of Westlake’s opprobrium, Frederik Pohl. Westlake had related the following story:

. . . when Frederik Pohl took over Galaxy, my agent suggested that I aim a story at him . . . So I researched. I read the introductions to all the Pohl-edited Star Science Fiction series, and I reread the first and last sentence of every Frederik Pohl story I had around the house . . . and then I wrote a Frederik Pohl story. “The Spy in the Elevator.”

A Pohl title and a Pohl story, and a very silly inspid story it was, but by that time I was getting cynical. Pohl bought it.

Frederik Pohl, however, offers a contrasting take on this episode. According to Pohl, Westlake’s agent, Scott Meredith, sent Pohl a different story, which Pohl wanted to buy for a different SF magazine. Meredith insisted that the tale should appear in Galaxy, so Pohl offered to, if he could, buy another story of Westlake’s for Galaxy instead, “up to and including working with him on revisions if necessary (something I seldom do, on principle; I don’t believe in editorially dictated revisions in most cases).” Shortly after, Meredith submitted “The Spy in the Elevator,” which Pohl read, “discovered it was harmless confetti, shrugged over and bought. It wasn’t particularly good, but it wouldn’t actually stink up the magazine, and there certainly was little hope of making any great improvements in it through revision.”

Remember that one of Westlake’s major complaints in “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” was that the editorial policies of the SF magazines of the era—and consequent requested revisions—meant that, as he put it, “I cannot sell good science fiction” (although it was Analog‘s John W. Campbell who was the chief target of his ire, not Pohl). Pohl’s version of the genesis of “The Spy in the Elevator” suggests that matters weren’t so clear cut. Pohl pulls Westlake up on the notion that Pohl would automatically buy a Pohl-like story, and points out that “the story was all but sold before it was written, so if ever [Westlake] had a chance to write For Art, this was the chance.” He adds, “If what turned out was a ‘silly insipid story’—as Westlake puts it—this may reveal something about the author himself, then, but I assure you it says nothing about the editorial policy of Galaxy,” before noting: “To write good science fiction requires a certain amount of gutsiness; those without it are probably better off in other fields, where the standards are lower anyway.”

Straight after Pohl’s rebuttal comes a note from L. Sprague de Camp. In “Don’t Call Us . . .,” Westlake had asserted that many writers had left the SF field out of frustration, de Camp among them, and that furthermore de Camp wasn’t “doing much of anything.” De Camp refutes this, and lists the various books and magazine articles he’s working on. But more interesting is the next response, which comes from Avram Davidson. Davidson suggests that Westlake’s issues with science fiction might have more to do with Westlake not being a science fiction writer in the first place, but rather “a mystery writer who wandered into sf by error”—Westlake having stated in his original article that he was now “a full time mystery writer.”

Further rebuttals follow, including another from Frederik Pohl and a letter from Richard Kyle, reasoning that Westlake’s storytelling in the Analog short “Look Before You Leap”—which Westlake had used as an example of John W. Campbell’s egomaniacal interference—was already shonky and that Campbell’s requested revision probably made it more readable.

Finally, Westlake himself wades back in to the fray. Addressing Frederik Pohl’s points first, Westlake explains that he hadn’t intended to suggest he was attempting to imitate anyone’s style, merely that he was “aiming at the market and nothing more. In other words, the story I had written had no merits other than as an example of aiming at a particular market. And so, a lousy story.” He then moves on to Avram Davidson’s notion that he isn’t actually a science fiction writer at all. “This idea had never occurred to me before,” he writes, “but now that it has been suggested, I must admit it might be true.” He reveals that he “gave up Perry Mason for science fiction when I was fourteen, and read science fiction voluminously for the next six years” (I’d always figured that Westlake must have been, at some stage, a fan of SF, so it’s good to see that confirmed), and so when he decided to become a professional writer, SF was naturally what he turned to.

Here we reach a more personal admission as to why Westlake stopped writing SF. He states that the initial stories he sold in both the science fiction and mystery markets were “drab droll dreck,” but that he eventually improved—at least in mysteries. His sense is that he never got past the “slanting for the market” stage of SF writing, and that therefore, even though he “was more interested in science fiction,” henceforth it would be mysteries he’d concentrate on. And addressing Frederik Pohl’s remark about standards being lower in other fields, Westlake calls the idea “balderdash” and lists the non-SF editors “so obtuse as to buy stories and/or books from me,” such as Random House’s Lee Wright, Pocket Books’ Bucklin Moon, and Ed McBain.

There’s plenty more to read in Westlake’s follow-up letter, and indeed in the various responses to Westlake’s original piece (not to mention the non-Westlake material in The Best of Xero; I’d strongly recommend getting a copy if you have an interest in SF), all of which paint a picture of a writer at a turning point in his creative life: moving on from science fiction, finding his feet in the mystery and crime field. But more than that, Westlake’s two articles afford a glimpse into his motivations for writing in those early days; how he developed and grew as an author; and how willing he was to forcefully argue his corner when he cared passionately about something. And what he cared about most passionately was, quite simply, good writing.