Every night, my wife and I listen to an old time radio program. In the twelve or thirteen years we’ve been doing it, we’ve heard literally thousands: everything from the complete — nineteen years — Jack Benny Show to all of Johnny Dollar, Damon Runyon Theater, Dragnet, and countless more.
As I write this, we’re nearing the end of X Minus 1, an anthology science fiction series broadcast on NBC during the mid-1950s and co-presented by Galaxy Magazine, one of the premier publications of the genre. The stories (which first appeared in Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction) were adapted to radio theatre; many of them were based on the stories of the shining stars of the fantastic. I read a lot of them as a child: Those writers were well known to me even then, and to tens of thousands of others who grew up devouring the delights provided by the luminaries of the pulp era: Clifford Simak, Robert Sheckley, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, among (so) many others.
But there are some X Minus 1 stories I don’t know at all, and they’re by authors whose names I don’t recall ever seeing in print, either: A Thousand Dollars a Plate by one Jack McKenty, and Frank Quattrocchi’s Sea Legs, for example. Also among (so) many others.
Being insatiably curious, I’ve scoured the Web in the hope of finding some of my unknowns online or even in an obscure print anthology. The surprise has been how few I can locate, especially in print. Most of those (admittedly disposable) stories, from the heart-rocking to the yawn-inducing, have simply disappeared, like the Western tales of the mid-1800s, the war stories that abounded for a decade after World War II and the humor, adventure and romance stories, of every age, which filled the pages of the multitude of magazines that proliferated before television, movies and the Web conspired to slash their number. Alas, I — who was raised on the printed page — find little pleasure in reading anything (for any reason, least of all for enjoyment) on a 27-inch computer monitor, a Kindle, or — worst of all — on the slightly larger-than-my-thumbnail screen of the average Smart Phone. My already-strained eyes are bad enough.
But I’m not here to bemoan progress, or fate. Not that fate, anyway.
I’m a writer. I write prose, stageplays and the occasional poem. Influenced by my mother, who wrote radio plays and short stories (and who was an avid reader, as I’ve always been: I learned to read when I was three, and reading falls right behind writing itself in the register of What Makes Me Tick Excitedly), I started writing when I was five or six. When I was seven, I think, Mom (unbeknownst to me) sent off a poem I’d written to a children’s magazine that actually published it. Paid me five bucks, too. I was astonished and exhilarated. I’ve been writing ever since. I still get exhilarated when a publisher says “Yes!” (And the checks, even though many of them aren’t much more than that first one, are still nice too.)
But I came to writing as a raison d’être much later in life. I’m fortunate: I’ve had some modest success and, because my wife makes a good living (and loves that I write), I can spend three, five, seven hours a day doing it, despite the distractions and obligations that make up my day (as they make up the days of most writers). I had my first trade paperback published about ten years ago (a play), I have two novels and a short story collection in print. And more work that is floating around the publishing universe like bond-paper and cyber fairies in search of some believer who will applaud them into life between covers.
In the process, I’ve come to terms with a few facts of literary life: If I’m lucky, I’ll make a little money but, alas, not enough to take that six-month tour of Japan I’ve always dreamed of. Twitter will never be abuzz with 140-character paeans to my literary virtue, nor will my picture be on the cover of Rolling Stone (or, for that matter, on the cover of The Star beside a photo of a distraught Angelina or JLo proclaiming I’ve abandoned her). My name won’t become a household word among a significant percentage of the reading public. In fact, it’s unlikely to be a household word anywhere, unless you count the three-bedroom ranch style my wife and I pay the mortgage on every month.
So, then, why (other than for love) do I bother?
Well. For many years, I said I wrote because I could. Later, my rationale was that, like breathing, it was easier for me to write than it was not to write. Those are both true, but they’re not the truth. That, I’ve come to realize, is — I write because it’s my way to be remembered.
I’m striving for immortality.
Most of what I write these days is what’s classified as “literary fiction” — stories about Things That Matter, written in a relatively dense style that creates demands on the reader. (Think Michael Cunningham and Toni Morrison, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Carson McCullers and Junot Díaz. I lack the hubris to think myself their equal, but we do write the same kind of stuff. And, just for the record, while I read and admire each of them, and a few thousand others, I also read — and enjoy — Michael Connelly and J. K. Rowling and Dickens and Phillip DePoy — good reads, maybe great reads, all, but not candidates for the label of “literary.”)
In other words, I try to write things that mean something now, and will retain meaning for generations to come. Literature.
Which brings me back to X Minus 1.
Galaxy and ASF, for all their merits as entertainment, and along with so many magazines of the last hundred years (the list is endless: It probably begins with the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s but certainly includes everything from Playboy and Smart Set to Redbook and Soldier of Fortune), published work that — for the most part — can be classified as “disposable art”: Popular fiction written for the moment, to the sensibilities and concerns of the audience of that moment. (Many of the X Minus 1 tales, written in the decade following World War II, deal with apocalyptic themes and are often set in a barren, post-nuclear-war world; they’re frequently less fantasy than cautionary.) That’s not a qualitative assessment: Popfic can be literary. (Bradbury, for example, is among the finest writers whose pages I have ever had the pleasure of hungering to turn; and his work, though “genre,” is no less “literary” than Nabokov’s or Richard Wright’s; it’s just more accessible to people — like me — who find Nabokov sometimes a bit too abstruse.)
But, so much of the time, this year’s popfic, even if it’s good popfic, becomes next year’s pet rock. It gets stuck in our drawer of forgetfulness, among other childhood (and sometimes adult) treasures, and remains there until it — or we — fades into oblivion. That makes me sad. Quattrocchi, and McKenty, and all the other men and women who wrote for Galaxy and ASF and the thousand and one other popular and pulp magazines, most of whose stories still exist only in their readers’ memories, probably also wrote stories about what they believed to be enduring things. Things That Mattered, more then than now, perhaps, but that mattered nonetheless.
At least, I’m sure they usually tried to. And, I’m equally sure, the current generation of writers, whose works are spread all over the Internet in countless e-zines that fifty or a hundred people a month actually read, also must, at one time or another, strive for immortality, too. I want to believe that each time Robert Heinlein or Zenna Henderson or, more recently, Dennis Etchison and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro — or any of the host of newer and accomplished writers of popular fiction whose names are known only to a handful — sat down, pen in hand or before the typewriter or at the computer, they thought: This time, this time, I’m going to write a story that will place my name in Authorial Valhalla, alongside Shakespeare and Austen and Joyce, Goethe and Langston Hughes and J. D. Salinger. I can’t imagine Frederick Brown or Clifford Simak ever thinking: Okay, they need something that’s 4,000 words about space travel, and I’ve got three days, so… (All right, I admit it: I’m sure they did that, too, on occasion. Dealing with high-flown concepts like immortality of the spirit tends to make me overlook where the rent comes from. I’d like to say I’ve never written just for the money. I’d like to say that — but I can’t.)
I suspect some of what appeared in Galaxy and ASF is in some forgotten-but-still-available anthologies and, I’d bet, there are treasured copies tucked away in the attics and archives of rare magazine aficionados. But I’ve looked for Sea Legs and A Thousand Dollars a Plate, among other X Minus 1 titles, all over the Internet and in more than a few libraries, both the real things and online; most of them are nowhere to be found. They’ve simply disappeared.
Vanished. Like dust in the stratosphere.
And like our own.
We mortals, fools that we are, seek a finer fate than evaporating into eternity. We want to Leave Something Behind: a building, a charitable foundation, a body of work. We want to be not merely tangential but integral to future generations: to inspire them, to move them, to remain a part of their lives — just as those who preceded us wanted to be part of ours.
But for writers, it’s harder: What we offer are ephemerons: In the vast room that is the universe our stories usually come and go, whether they talk of Michelangelo or of imaginary worlds. And when they go, too often we who wrote them go too. Even if our stories are our rage against the dying of our light, most of them, like all of us, will dissolve in forever’s fire.
Still… Tomorrow, again, I’ll get up, do the Things That Are Necessary to help pay the bills and keep the house in some kind of order, and then I’ll turn to Things That Matter. I’ll spend a few more hours of the dwindling number I have still available, striving to write something that, a millennium or ten millennia from now, some twenty or sixty or two hundred year old human, or other species currently unknown to this small planet, will know about because it’s still spoken of with reverence and exists in readily consumable form, be it paper, or Kindle or microscopic plastic lens that can be popped in and out of the eye. And that being will read it and think: Yes. I see.
That is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
(Perhaps not The End)