I can’t find a decent description of Herovit’s World online. But really there’s not much to know –
The novel tells the story of Jonathan Herovit, hack extraordinaire, whose written 92 pulp science fiction novels under the name Kirk Poland. Jonathan is a drunk, a misogynist, is in a loveless marriage with Janice and struggles with the responsibilities of fatherhood. He’s also just coming to terms with the fact that the books he writes are stinking piles of shit.
Some of you may know Barry Malzberg from such science fiction novels as Beyond Apollo and The Falling Astronauts. But most of you will know Malzberg from the recent kerfuffle over his and Mike Resnick’s column in the SFWA bulletin.
In his time (which seems to cover a ten year period between the late 60s and late 70s) Malzberg was a reasonably prolific Science Fiction author who wrote about 35 novels. Herovit’s World came out at the height of his career, a period where he published 11 books between 1973 and 1974. I note this because in Herovit’s World Jonathan talks about churning out 7 Survey Team books a year. And while Malzberg never reached this feat I do wonder whether Herovit’s World was as much a cautionary tale about his own career and output at it was a jab at the Science Fiction community.
Now, I’m no SF historian and my knowledge of what was going on in 1974 in the US is patchy at best. But going by what I’ve been told and what I’ve discovered through my stumbles on the internet, it seems that with the emergence of the New Wave in the early 1970s (imported from the UK) there was very much a shift from the old guard to the new. This is very much in evidence with the 1974 nominations for the Nebula Awards – the year this book was eligible - where New Wavey type novels like Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Disch’s 334, PKD’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and T.J. Bass’s very odd The GodWhale were nominated.
It’s possible that Herovit’s World is very much Malzberg’s attempt to shake up the old guard (writers and fans), to make them see that the golden age is over; that all this talk about SF predicting the future is bullshit; that no-one over the age of 12 takes the field seriously. As Janice says to Herovit while in the process of leaving him:
[Janice says] ‘God, how I hate science fiction. I hate everything about it. I hate the people who write it and the people who edit it, and don’t forget the idiots who read it. And the word rates and the conventions and what people say to you if you’re married to someone who writes this crap.”
‘It’s an honourable field. It foretold the splitting of the atom and the moon landing.’
‘Like hell it did. It was just a lot of crap, all of it, and a couple of lucky guesses.’
But it’s also possible that Malzberg, who would publish many more SF novels after this one, is simply reminding himself that his work isn’t high art.
What I can be sure of is that when I heard Malzberg speak about 1950s Science Fiction with Gary Wolfe on the Coode Street podcast it was clear to me that he loved and adored the genre. But then we all get nostalgic as we get older, disregarding those earlier times when we thought everything was shit and most of the books we read were worthless.
As a satire, though, Herovit’s World is a failure. Oh yes there’s the odd wink and nudge, especially when we get briefly introduced (through a flashback) to V.V. Vivaldi – the L Ron Hubbard analogue of the novel. I’m sure there are other nods and in jokes scattered throughout the book, most of them so out of date that only the crustiest of fans will recognise them. And of course the hackery that Herovit writes – of which we get a number of samples – is the worst type of pulp. But even back in 1974 I’m sure most readers would have recognised it as such.
It also doesn’t succeed as a portrait of a man who’s on the brink of total mental collapse. We hate Jonathan Herovit from the moment we’re introduced to him. He’s arrogant, has an ego the size of the planet and treats his wife and child like dirt. The fact that he has writers block and is only now dimly realising that he’s wasted his entire life on pulp novels doesn’t make me want to hug him. This is a man who will savagely rape his wife because he feels he’s entitled to sex. This is man who’s quite happy to go off and be a guest lecturer at a College on the pretext that he will get plenty of pussy in the bargain. This is a man who shies away from any responsibility, to the point where he mentally gives up and allow his pseudonym to take over.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no attempt on Malzberg’s part to make you feel sorry for Herovit. It’s clear that Malzberg hates him as well. But as a result I’m not sure what I meant to take away from this nasty screed. That Science Fiction writer’s of the mid 1970s were a bunch of misogynist, alcoholic and selfish bastards who were always on the lookout for tail? And if so, is Herovit’s World an angry critique of the men’s club that SF was – and still is? I’m not sure. Malzberg’s characterisation of Janice is anything but flattering but then we only see her through Herovit’s twisted world view.
No matter how I play it over in my head my feelings toward Herovit’s World are conflicted. I want to hate the book and love it and throw it away and make others read it. Maybe this is a sign of a great novel. Maybe this is a sign of confused critic reading a book 40 years past its sell by date.
Whatever the case I’m going to leave the final words to Janice, in my view the hero of the novel:
‘How can you all take yourselves so seriously? You really believe this garbage. You write about the problems of the universe and alien invasions and space flight and worlds being blown up and the fate of the galaxy, and you can’t even straighten out your own lives or make more than a penny a word. All you do on your own time is complain about the lousy pay and the lousy editors and get drunk at those conventions. I think you’re all insane… I’ve had a lot of time to think this out over the last few months, and I mean it. There’s craziness in the field; it’s just right into the middle. Once you start writing this stuff you’re out of your head already.’
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.