Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Heinlein and The Saturday Evening Post

Every student of Heinlein knows that among the number of things he did during his career, one of the more significant events was selling four science fiction short stories to The Saturday Evening Post in the late 40s, thus becoming the first writer of the genre to graduate from “the pulps,” as the science fiction magazines of the time were known, to writing fiction for “the slicks,” the name for the higher-end, general interest magazines. And among those magazines the Post was at the top of the heap, having the highest circulation of any magazine in America at the time.

Why had Heinlein tried placing the story in a magazine that hadn’t published science fiction before? One obvious reason was for the money: The Saturday Evening post paid a multiple of what Heinlein could have earned from John Campbell and Astounding, and that of course was reason enough in itself, especially for a man who, as I noted in my earlier entry about Heinlein, wasn’t always flush with cash. Another reason was because Street & Smith, the publisher of Astounding, where Heinlein placed much of his fiction, had declared it was buying “all rights” to work it published, and Heinlein, who had an eye toward reprints and adaptations, refused to sell his work under such terms.

But Learning Curve points out another reason, which is of interest to me: Heinlein felt that there was a need to propagandize and popularize the idea of space travel and exploration, for a number of reasons, not a few related to the already-chilling cold war between the US and the Soviets. Writing for the pulps in that regard would be preaching to the converted; placing science fiction in the Post, on the other hand, would be putting it into the laps of people who had never read science fiction before, or who avoided it as something for the eggheads and misfits.

And to do that, Heinlein was more than willing to meet his audience halfway, as this bit from Learning Curve notes, describing Heinlein’s second story for the Post, “Space Jockey”:

[It was] a story about a space pilot whose job took him away from home, to his wife’s distress. It was the kind of perennial human story that might have featured a long-distance trucker or railway engineer—the kind of story most familiar to readers of the Post—and this allowed Heinlein to portray the inexpressibly exotic professions of the new frontier in very comfortable human terms. This exactly fit into the propaganda purposes he started writing with more than a year ago.

This pinged quite a bit for me as a writer, because while science fiction as a genre does very well with the general public in the film and television media, there’s still resistance to getting a mainstream fiction reader to allow themselves to be seen with a science fiction book that’s explicitly presented as science fiction (as opposed to the camouflaged science fiction of The Road or Never Let Me Go).

As a science fiction writer, I don’t have the sort of overt sociopolitical agenda that Heinlein felt obliged to promote, but where he and I link up is on the idea that science fiction needs to find ways out of its own comfortable market settings, and that it’s perfectly all right to meet new readers halfway. This is a position that will sometimes get you ribbed—Heinlein got some criticism by friends and fellow writers who accused him good-naturedly or otherwise of selling out by writing for the Post—or dismissed as lightweight. Fair enough, but on the other hand, one of the reasons Robert Heinlein is Robert Heinlein is because he recognized the value of bringing new readers into the genre, and making it easy for them to get through the door.

One of the things I’m fond of telling people is that when I was writing Old Man’s War, the reader I kept in mind was my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law is an avid reader but she doesn’t read science fiction; she reads Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood and other writers like them. Nevertheless I knew she was going to read my book, because she actually likes me, you see, and I wanted to make sure than when she read the book, she wouldn’t get lost on page one. My mother-in-law was not the target audience for Old Man’s War, but I wanted to include her in the audience too. I also figured that if my mom-in-law to enjoy the book, then pretty much anyone could as well, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I didn’t know it explicitly at the time, but it turns out my thinking on the matter was close to Heinlein’s thinking when he was writing for the Post. He wasn’t writing with my mother-in-law in mind, of course. But he was writing with people like her in mind. It worked out well for him, and not trivially, it wasn’t a bad break for the science fiction genre of writing, either.

John Scalzi’s first published novel Old Man’s War was a finalist for the Hugo Award and won him 2006’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; since then, he has published five more novels. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008, a collection of essays from his popular weblog The Whatever, won the Hugo for Best Related Work in 2009. He is currently serving as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.


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