Fifty Years Agone

   I was trundling through the Interwebs, considering things to blog about, and reflected that although I had glanced at 1921 in search of things to commemorate, I had not looked to 1971. I do things like this.  I decide on the research, figuring “What’s the worst that could happen?”

   The worst that could happen was a trip into 1971, a little drama I watched on its first run in theaters, but about which I had forgotten much.  Mainly I had forgotten how convinced we were that the world as we knew it was about to crumble.  1971 was no light romantic comedy, but a turgid melodrama.

   William Calley and Charles Manson were found guilty of their respective massacres.  Idi Amin took charge in Uganda, Rolls Royce went bankrupt, and Ed Sullivan aired his last show.  Camden, New Jersey was nearly wiped off the map when riots broke out over the killing of a motorist (Puerto Rican) by police, the Weather Underground set off a bomb in a restroom in the U.S. Capitol, and the song “Stairway to heaven” was unleashed on us.  Not a laugh-a-minute year, 1971.

   In the world of literature, Agatha Christie’s last book was published, Ogden Nash died, and no Pulitzer Prize was awarded for fiction.  The bestseller lists maintained their essential dignity with its recognition of Xaviera Hollander’s classic The Happy Hooker.  1971: what a vintage!

   Still, no year is without its joys.  I remember being thrilled at the time, and still considering with wonder how Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1961, was able to complete the story arc in 1971 by stepping onto the surface of the moon, and becoming the first man to hit a golf ball across the lunar surface.  Agatha Christie’s last book was a good one, and there were other good books which came out that year (Look at the lists and choose your own favorites.  I’ve had most of them for sale, and probably the best seller of them all, among MY customers, was When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.)

   And 1971 saw the first publication of a book which was to make a major difference in my young life.

   Once I had read The Lord of the Rings, I was desperate for anything else along the same lines, a difficult thing in those days, as it was not yet QUITE popular enough to inspire dozens of spin-offs and rank imitations.  But somewhere along the line, I picked up a 1975 paperback edition of Robert Foster’s 1971 A Guide to Middle-Earth, a dictionary of characters and places in Tolkien’s world.  I was enchanted, and before I knew it, my entire future development had been warped.

   Who knew it could be so entertaining to sit down and read a reference book straight through?  I have since read others, starting with Webster’s International Dictionary (I gave up two thirds through—too hard to hold on your lap—but it had this great sub-dictionary of obsolete and dialectical words, and added to my vocabulary “oxter”, an obsolete term for “oxall”, itself an obsolete term for “armpit”).  I moved on to dictionaries of street names, and flower language dictionaries, and all manner of obscure lore.

   Meanwhile, people were imitating Foster with guides to other fictional universes.  (They had been doing this with Shakespeare and Dickens and suchlike before Foster, but he seems to have opened the floodgate.)  No fantasy universe was complete until someone had written a guide to place names and characters: DC and Marvel started bringing out regular guides to their superheroes, and guides to places like Oz and Narnia were on their way.

   When my resources did not extend to buying more of these, I decided to write my own.  I made what I thought was quite a generous offer to George Lucas to write a complete guide to his characters, if he would just give me a sneak peek at the script for Return of the Jedi, to make the book complete.  (Never did get an answer.)  And then I had another brilliant idea: why not write a guide to the places and people of a fantasy novel series that did not, in fact, exist?  It would save me a lot of reading, and there might be a market for such a thing.  The series would be vaguely based on the Poictesme novels of James Branch Cabell, but of course my 1930s author would be fictional, and the novels equally nonexistent.  It was the lazy writer’s dream: I could make up interesting plots and characters without ever having to produce completed books.

   My marketing plan, as I explained to a couple of editors chosen at random, was to produce this massive reference book to the novels in question, and then challenge current fantasy writers to produce authorized “sequels”.  With a setting and characters pre-fabricated, they could be spared the effort of world-building and just write stories set in the world provided.

   The editors, alas, dashed cold water in my face.  “Fantasy authors,” I was told, “Like to make up their OWN worlds; thank you very much.  There would be no interest from them, and less than none from the reading public.”  I shelved my guide to the novels of Bernard Sexsmith (It means Cobbler; I thought it was a fun name for a James Branch Cabell clone) and moved on to other things.

   Um, not long after that that a publisher started bringing out a series called Thieves’ World, which had a central core of places and characters devised for fantasy writers to pick up on and write about.  It inspired some other series of similar books for fantasy writers who didn’t mind using someone else’s world for stories.  The “Shared World” anthology saw a vogue, and never quite died off.  In fact, the concept goes back at least to the writers of the 1930s and 1940s who had continued H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos in stories of their own, and….

   So there was another fine idea some expert talked me out of.  If I could go back to 1971 and….  No, not even for that.  Anyway, I got good practice in writing short, glib entries on long, complex matters, and this led eventually to my highly lucrative blogging career (which will start to lucrate any moment now, I’m sure.)

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