In 1970 I attended one of Damon Knight’s week-long writing workshops in Milford, Pennsylvania. This was an invitation-only event, and as I had published only one mediocre novel at the time, I felt honored to be there. Privileged, in fact. What I didn’t realize was that it would pretty much destroy me as a science-fiction writer.
Inside Knight’s living room, at least twenty people had gathered. A lot of them were middle-aged men, most of whom I didn’t know. Everyone sat in a circle, and after we introduced ourselves, the critiques began.
All of us had done our homework, reading copies of stories that would be dealt with during that day. Each story was now offered up for discussion, with participants talking about it in turn while the writer remained silent. Only after everyone else had their say did the writer have an opportunity to respond.
I was surprised to hear people talking a lot about the issue of plausibility. If there was a future scenario, could it really exist like that? If there was a character solving a problem, could he really accomplish it? If something had to happen within a fixed time, would the time be sufficient? To me this seemed rather pedantic and only marginally relevant, because as a reader, I tend to respect a writer’s authority. But pedantry, at Milford, was fundamental.
In addition to plausibility challenges, there were nitpicking jihads. Knight was the undisputed master in this area, prompting me to recall that he had made literally hundreds of tiny revisions to the manuscript of my unpretentious novel Garbage World, prior to its publication at Berkley Books, where he was the science-fiction editor at the time. It seemed as if he was worried that readers of a lightweight Leinsteresque space adventure might be concerned about the correct use of semicolons. Quibbling over details seemed to be his thing: When reviewing one manuscript at Milford, he even critiqued the margins and the style of pagination.
As for the content of the stories, I found them confusing. This event was officially named “The Milford Science-Fiction Writers’ Conference,” but I didn’t see any science fiction. I found myself trying to read a lot of self-referential fantasies and impressionistic mood pieces told in elliptical prose, as if the writers around me were hoping to get published in literary magazines. “I don’t know quite what to say about this,” I said when it was my turn to critique the first story. “I don’t normally read this kind of thing, so I’m not sure what to make of it.”
I felt the same way about the next story, and the next, and the one after that, and I noticed people giving me vexed looks. Was I being a smart-ass, playing some kind of game? What could I possibly mean when I said I “didn’t read this kind of thing”? I was from England! I worked on New Worlds magazine! I was an emissary from the New Wave in science fiction!
But really, I wasn’t. I admired the work of a few innovators such as J. G. Ballard, D. M. Thomas, and John Sladek, and I was a big fan of William Burroughs, but as the designer of the magazine, I didn’t read a lot of the stories. My deepest loyalty was to the type of adventure storytelling that John W. Campbell had published in Astounding Science Fiction in the late 1950s. This was also the kind of thing that I felt able to write.
Unknown to me, Knight had spent almost two decades on a personal mission to discredit the legacy of Campbell. In his book In Search of Wonder he wrote later that he had “looked for ways to counter Campbell’s overwhelming influence on the field, and found them first in book reviewing, then in the Milford Workshop, in Clarion, and in Orbit.” (Clarion was a workshop for new, young writers while Orbit was a biannual collection of new stories). The reviews that Knight wrote, the workshops that he ran, and the story collections that he edited were all part of a long-term, politically-motivated mission to change science fiction.
As I sat in his living room, I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was that as I listened to people quibbling about plausibility and punctuation in stories that I didn’t understand, I felt my sense of identity dissolving as if my brain was being bathed in Clorox.
On the third day of the conference, my own story came up for discussion. I had written it in 1969 for Harlan Ellison, hoping to sell it to his Again, Dangerous Visions collection. Knowing his tastes, I included some bloodsoaked melodrama – in fact, I styled it as much like his own writing as possible.
My strategy turned out to be successful, as Ellison bought the story and didn’t ask for any revisions. (It was later held over to The Last Dangerous Visions.) But as I sat in Knight’s living room, I wondered: Had I made a tactical error, bringing this gore-fest to a gathering of effete literati?
The plot was simple enough. A violent maniac was held in a totally secure facility where he would receive experimental therapy to assuage his criminal impulses. He played dumb, figured out how to game the system, and broke free, at which point he dismembered the compassionate social worker who had been trying to help him, and he escaped.
As the critiques began, there were the inevitable quibbles about plausibility. Could the maniac really escape like that? Could he really dismember a person with his bare hands? What about pulling an arm out of its socket – that would be quite a challenge, wouldn’t it?
This was just the starting point. My critics complained that my protagonist was a caricature, the violence was too bloody, it was really no better than a comic book, and overall it was a repugnant piece of trash which no one could take seriously.
Writer James Sallis had read the story a year previously, shortly after I finished writing it, and had given me a generally positive critique at that time. I thought I could count on him for some support at Milford – but my expectations turned out to be naïve. “You already know what I think of this story,” he said, with straight-faced look of total sincerity. “We talked about it.”
As a British immigrant who was still learning American slang, I suddenly understood the meaning of the phrase, “thrown under the bus.” Faced with the choice of sacrificing me to the lynch mob or being the lone voice pleading for leniency, Sallis didn’t hesitate to put his own interests first.
Finally I braced myself for Knight’s usual nitpicking jihad – but he didn’t go into any details at all. He seemed to feel my story wasn’t worth it. “In the whole history of Milford,” he said, “I have never had so much difficulty finishing a story, because it is so badly written.” He paused, then shrugged, seeming disinclined to say anything more.
In the entire history of Milford?
“Give me an example,” I said, feeling unwilling to let him get away with this.
He scowled and paged impatiently through the manuscript “Well, here. ‘The toes of his big feet’.”
“What’s wrong with that phrase?” I asked.
He threw the story down, and glared at me. “Where else would toes be, but on his feet?”
At this point, I should have stood up and delivered a table-thumping rant. I could have yelled something like, “You rabid claque of sanctimonious, quibbling poseurs! You make me want to puke! Sallis, you’re a cowardly hypocrite! Knight, you’re a pompous jerk with a stick up your ass! Fuck you and your failed attempts to emulate the New York literary bourgeoisie!”
But I had been beaten into submission, so I just sat there. Finally I said, “This story will be appearing in Again, Dangerous Visions.”
Some people literally gasped with shock.
Afterward, as we went to the lunch buffet, Sallis said to me, “They were after you.”
“Oh, really?” I said. “I’m glad to know that it wasn’t just my imagination. So why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because you already knew what I thought.” He gave me another straight-faced look of total sincerity.
At this point I’m going to provide a little background, as it seems relevant.
Knight was first recognized as a critic in 1945 when he was twenty-three years old. He wrote a uniquely unpleasant evaluation of A. E. van Vogt’s novel The World of Null-A, which had been serialized in Astounding Stories, edited by John W. Campbell.
Knight’s diatribe appeared only in his little fanzine, but negative reviews were rare back then, so he established a reputation as a kind of literary arbiter. He said that The World of Null-A was “one of the worst allegedly-adult science fiction stories ever published,” and he characterized van Vogt as “a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter.” These phrases were so memorable, they still survive today in van Vogt’s Wikipedia entry.
Van Vogt was so unhappy, he actually rewrote the book for a new edition, and added an introduction explaining what had happened.
Almost thirty years later Philip K. Dick voiced a rebuttal to Knight when he was interviewed in a little magazine named Vortex:
Damon [Knight] feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when you’re building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.
I think Phil got it right. Knight was like a fiction inspector reporting literary code violations.
After Milford, I experienced a condition that I think of as post-traumatic writing-workshop syndrome. I didn’t try to write real science fiction again for nine years. I wrote other kinds of books, usually on a formulaic basis, but I couldn’t go back to the fiction that I really loved. I had always suspected that I wasn’t very good at it, and Knight’s reference to the entire history of Milford suggested that my negative self-assessment was correct.
It didn’t matter that some of my books had been published, because I knew that a lot of bad books get published. I deferred to the judgment of the group in the same style as a Communist defector deferring to the group of prosecutors and judges in a Moscow purge trial, not only admitting the crime but asking to be punished for it.
In people such as myself, who have a relatively weak sense of identity, deference to a group led by an authority figure can happen far too easily, and writing workshops can be a very bad idea indeed.
This text is an excerpt from Volume 3 of Charles Platt’s reminiscences, published in book form under the title An Accidental Life.
Charles Platt is a Contributing Editor and regular columnist for Make magazine, where he writes about electronics. He is the author of the highly successful introductory hands-on book, Make: Electronics, and the sequel, Make: More Electronics.
His book Easy Electronics claims to be the easiest available introduction to the field. His Make: Tools provides a hands-on introduction to workshop tools.
Platt’s ambitious reference work, Encyclopedia of Electronic Components, consists of three volumes, two of which were coauthored with physicist Fredrik Jannson.
Platt was a Senior Writer for Wired magazine. As a prototype designer, he created semi-automated rapid cooling devices with medical applications, and air-deployable equipment for first responders. He was the sole author of four mathematical-graphics software packages, and has been fascinated by electronics since he put together a telephone answering machine from a tape recorder and military-surplus relays at age 15. He lives in a Northern Arizona wilderness area, where he has his own workshop for prototype fabrication and projects that he writes about for Make magazine.