When I was in 7th grade I met a boy who, like me, enjoyed writing stories and poems. He and I were awarded pens for our work on the school magazine. Later on, in high school, we worked together again on a couple issues of the school magazine. These items are among the few things (a collection of notebooks) I have carried with me from my childhood:
Unlike me, my friend also liked to read books. When in 7th grade he lent me Watership Down to read, it became the first great work of literature I had ever been exposed to, apart from the King James Bible and assorted children’s books. Watership Down so blew me away that I began my own story about talking animals that got to 70 or 80 pages before I laid down my prize pen.
Soon he had turned me on to the books of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake and many science fiction authors. By the time we got to high school we were into poetry, but the book that has stuck with me most through the years is a collection of science fiction short stories entitled Paradox Lost. The writer is Fredric Brown.
By the time I read Paradox Lost Brown’s career had already passed, as had the mortal hand that wrote the words. I didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared. The stories didn’t seem old-fashioned to me. If they do today it only adds an attractive patina to stories that I still find great pleasure in reading. Nostalgia could play a part in my enduring love of Fredric Brown, but if so only as an accent or a bit of spice. The fact is, with the exception of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, I’ve left every other childhood book behind. While I retain fond memories of them, and still think Watership Down and Charlotte’s Web, for example, are great books, I don’t revisit them, not feeling the need. Brown not only continues to bring pleasure, but he continues to teach me.
Not to underestimate the difficulty of earning a living as a pulp fiction writer during the last century, but it seems to me the golden age of this career has passed. Jack London came along at just the right time to do his kind of short story writing and earn a good living at it. Somewhat later, but also at the right time, Fredric Brown came along to make a decent go of selling his novels and stories. A “pulp” writer might be able to earn a living today, if they’re very good and completely committed and passionate (and really know how to work the social media). But it’s probably a lot harder to do than it was in decades past. And that’s why I don’t attempt it. The passion is lacking, and if I’m probably never going to make significant money writing “pulp” fiction then I’d rather write exactly what I want to. If Brown had felt this way he may never have turned away from poetry and to his fiction. The result is we have but a handful of Fredric Brown poems, but oh boy, the novels and stories!
Here we have a guy who, according to his wife, had to force himself to buckle down to finish a book and he did it simply because he had to—it was how he earned a living. He would probably have rather done what I do: push out poems and ramble on about whatever he happened to be reading that week. But that wouldn’t pay the bills. Mystery and science fiction stories did.
I’m sure by the time he locked himself in a room and got down to it he put himself into his work and did his damnedest. He couldn’t help but give his drunks, reporters and detectives good taste in literature and music, and he reveled in puns, Shakespearian allusions and literary folderol, but never in excess and never pretentiously.
What then am I learning from a 20th century writer who earned his living cranking out product for the mystery and science fiction pulps? First of all, as far as I can tell, he didn’t make mistakes. Fredric Brown knew how to write. After all, before he wrote for the pulps he was, for many years, an editor; he even wrote a book on it. I can read Brown the way I can Henry James—to see how correct writing in the English language is done. And because he is so good, he can make it look damn easy. That’s number 2: I’m endlessly impressed by Brown’s style. Three, his inventiveness. He doesn’t repeat himself. There is no formula to a Brown mystery novel. Some are told in the first person, some in the third, some have multiple narrators. Some take place in the space of a day (or less), others span weeks. Some are very dark; others are funny. Some of his primary characters are endearing; others are scumbags. Sometimes the element of surprise is so radically reduced it’s as if he deliberately tried to see how much he could give away at the beginning and still create suspense. If you reveal who was killed and who the killer is in the first two pages then how do you build narrative structure? Read The Far Cry and find out. What if Martians invaded the earth for no other reason than to annoy humans—not kill them, eat them or steal from them, just annoy them—could you make a whole novel out of that? Yeah. It’s called, Martians, Go Home and it’s hilarious. What would a sleuth obsessed with Lewis Carroll look like? You have only to read Night of the Jabberwock, one of my favorites. Brown’s astonishing inventiveness, his ostensibly effortless wit and cleverness, constantly inspires me.
Brown’s stories are dated, of course. We know that there aren’t any little green Martians. Reporters don’t gather in bars, smoking and drinking whiskey. Nobody has to wait by a phone anymore, or rush out to buy the morning paper. You don’t go to these stories for cutting edge technology. But you don’t watch a Bogart movie to learn about today’s world, either. You marvel at how this unhealthy, weird-looking, chimney-smoking guy can be so captivating, can so compel our sympathy. Brown is able to produce characters like this, over and over again. It’s some kind of magic. The guy drinks way too much, is in trouble with his wife and in some ways kind of a creep, but we care about him. We want him to capture the murderer, get back on his feet, and patch things up with his wife. Sometimes he does. Other times he’s dealt a few more low blows.
Is that enough? How about this: Fredric Brown had mastered the genre of microfiction (usually called “flash fiction” today) decades before it became popular. I’d say that he, along with Kafka, Robert Walser and Hemingway are the 20th century masters of the form. Anyone interested in getting good at it owes it to him or herself to read his collected science fiction stories, some of which are only a few hundred words long.
After graduation my friend went off to college and I stayed behind in our bankrupt household to work and help support the family. The following summer, guessing he was home for vacation, I called at his parents’ house and we talked on the phone. He had become cold. All his answers were curt. In an attempt to engage him with books and writing, I told him that I was now reading Dostoyevsky and Kafka. “Well,” he said, “you know how it is. You move on to other things.” It was the last time we spoke.