By the time Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren came along, I had pretty well accomplished my main purpose in going to work for Bantam — to get the taste of my brief but horrid experience at Ace Books out of my mouth — and was happily writing some quite good science fiction of my own. I really had done all I wanted to do at Bantam, but it took me a while to get myself out of there, partly because it didn’t seem sensible of me to leave the easiest job I had ever had, and partly for winding up some loose ends and partly just out of inertia.
And then, just when I was beginning to see daylight, the mail boy brought me a manuscript from somebody named Gustav Hasford, who said that we had spent some time together at a Milford Writers’ Conference, and so he was asking me to be absolutely candid about the novel ms. he was enclosing.
I’ve never believed in the doctrine of letting submissions sit for some weeks or months before getting around to reading them, so I began reading the story right away. I don’t know how far I got. I don’t know what the story was about anymore, either, but I remember what I wrote Hasford.
I said, “One of the things I don’t like about Milford is that you guys have to write stories on the spot, and so what you write is almost always lightweight fluff, playing games with words, without really having anything to say. This you do pretty well, but it isn’t worth doing. If you ever have a novel you really care about, I’d like to see it.”
(You may wonder why I said that when I was seriously considering getting out of the editing business quite soon. I don’t know the answer, but that’s what I said. I guess that was on one of the days that I was having second thoughts about leaving Bantam.)
And, anyway, within the week another novel ms. came from Hasford, along with a note that said, “Here it is. This one I care about.”
It was about the Vietnam War. It was called The Short-Timers. And it was good.
This gave me a tough decision. I wanted to see that this book got out to an audience — I mean, honest, that’s the only reason anybody should ever be an editor. But I didn’t want to stick around to do it.
What I did do was order a contract for Hasford. That way he would definitely get his excellent (oh, if still a little rough, but that’s the other thing that editors are for) book published. And then I began thinking about who, among the large Bantam team, would be the right one to take over from me.
And right about then Marc Jaffe, the man who had hired me in the first place, strolled into my office. “I just wanted to tell you, Fred,” he said, “that right now, with Dhalgren, your credibility is very high with us. Is there anything you need?”
That’s a sentence employees of any kind dream of hearing but seldom do, because it translates as “Can we give you more money? How much more? And maybe a full-time secretary of your own?” But then I told him that what I really wanted was to quit, and that was the end of it. He was regretful, and he hoped that if I ever wanted to come back I’d let him know, and he picked out another editor. Who took over, doubled the rather mingy advance I had put in the contract, made some useful editorial suggestions and got the book out in quick time.
And that’s enough of editorial actions for one lifetime. I do have a good idea for a new magazine, but I’m not telling anyone what it is. They might persuade me to try actually bringing it out. And I really don’t want to get involved again.
I didn’t keep up with Hasford’s later publications, but a few years after the movie, I did hear something else about his interest in books, because everybody who read a newspaper did.
It seems he had some overdue library books.
Now, understand that here I’m not talking about maybe a couple of Isaac Asimov books, Asimov’s Guide to Everything and Asimov’s Guide to Everything Else and maybe one science-fiction anthology edited by my favorite anthologist (the one I’m married to, dope). No, this was an operation on a larger scale.
What seemed to have happened was that Hasford moved around a lot, and whenever he struck a new place, he’d take out a library card and pick up some reading material to take home. That, of course, was just about what the library people wanted him to do, except that he omitted an important final step. He checked the books out. He just didn’t bring them back. By the time the authorities visited his home, he had thousands of books from public libraries all over the United States and assorted other countries.
Surprised? Don’t be. It’s a matter of public record that a few science-fiction writers do have some small eccentricities. Most sf writers, though, have much huger ones.