bellatrys (bellatrys) wrote,

Concluding Observations on the Mainstream Embrace of Gor

or, Get up on your pedestal, girl, so I can worship you - don't make me smack your ass back to Terra!

Having had the chance to see and judge for themselves, many readers are now asking questions concerning the judgment - nay, sanity - not just of Dark Horse's editors but also the editors of the past big name publishing companies which saw fit to inflict Norman's prose on the world in bulk, forever creating a low-water-mark in genre fic and shackling the dead albatross of Gor around the neck of fandom. It was Ballantine who started it, and bears the initial odium, but DAW which happily picked up the Gorean torch when they dropped it and carried it for the two decades.

Listing of original Gor novel publication dates and publishers
Ballantine/Del Rey (here be the original Boris Vallejo covers)
Tarnsman of Gor/1966
Outlaw of Gor/1967
Priest-Kings of Gor /1968
Nomads of Gor/1969
Assassin of Gor/1970
Raiders of Gor/1971
Captive of Gor/1972
Hunters of Gor/1974
Marauders of Gor/1975
Tribesmen of Gor/1976
Slave Girl of Gor/1977
Beasts of Gor/1978
Explorers of Gor/1979
Fighting Slave of Gor/1980
Rogue of Gor/1981
Guardsman of Gor/1981
Savages of Gor/1982
Blood Brothers of Gor/1982
Kajira of Gor/1983
Players of Gor/1984
Mercenaries of Gor/1985
Dancer of Gor/1985
Renegades of Gor/1986
Vagabonds of Gor/1987
Magicians of Gor/1988
New World
Witness of Gor/2002

Speculation about the historical and present use of recreational substances aside, I have made an effort to find out what I can of the publishing backstory from the internet. It's not easy - most of what comes up via google is just more copies of used Gor paperbacks for sale, which are a drug (as other commenters have noted) on the free market.

I don't know at whose doorstep the initial acquisition may be laid - whether the Ballantines themselves, or perhaps one Bernard Shir-Cliff, [an?] editor at BB in the 1960s, or someone else altogether - Lin Carter seems a likelier choice, but he didn't start there until 1969 from what I've read.

I did come across something which gives a clue as to why Ballantine dropped the series between 1972 and 1974, and that is that they were acquired by Random House in 1973 - my guess (I have no inside information as yet on it all) is that Random House's editors looked over the list of titles currently in print, hit Norman, said "Gyah! What is this glop?" and picking it up with the figurative tongs dropped it in the wastebasket, having as outsiders no irrational emotional attatchment to them.

The story of DAW's ultimate rejection I can only find in one place, and that being a Gorean partisan site, giving Norman's own version of events, must be taken with a full saltshaker; but if substantially correct, it explains why DAW picked them up, as well as why they were eventually dropped.

In the fourteen years between 1974 and 1988, John Norman had produced eighteen Gorean novels, which were all published by Donald A. Wollheims publishing company DAW. But during the coarse of 1985, Don Wollheim became seriously ill and in the first week of 1986, this is what he wrote in a letter to a friend.

"1985 was a very bad year for me insofar as I had been hospitalized for a long time. Four major operations - and just in December a fifth and I trust the last. My daughter - a very competent person with experience - is handling my desk at the office and she has determined to cut down on those authors and series which never quite justified their advances."

Donald Wollheim intended to overrule his daughter, Elisabeth (Betsy) Wollheim, on several occasions, but as his health deteriorated, so did his influence. The sales of the Gor series could not have been the issue; in March 1982, the DAW sales alone reached three million copies, a year later, in March of 1983, the figure came close to four million. Even so, in June, 1988, Magicians of Gor, was the last of the series published by DAW. Two years later, Donald Allen Wollheim, futurian and founding father, died of cancer, and John Norman decided to postpone his Gor series.

I also found a contemporary review of a Gor book, from a 1972 Vancouver student newspaper* from 1972 (p. 8), in which the reviewer (of course male) admits that the books stink stylistically, and points out that this one is getting worse in a lot of ways, but makes no remark about the antifeminism of them and glorification of the idea of "natural slaves" at all, save to claim that Norman seems to be "getting over" his hangups about Women's Lib (!), and that the "romance" (!!) is "not very convincing" even by the standards of previous series entries, but claims that they compare favorably to the John Carter books (!!!) - and closes by saying that he hopes Ballantine brings out more of them!

Raiders of Gor (Ballantine, 95c) — John Norman

Raiders is the sixth book in the Gor series, which I find myself unable to keep from reading, despite Norman's many errors — he seemed to be trying to make every error that an author could make.

On the positive side though, he seems capable of capturing much of the feeling, the romance and adventure of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian adventures. Norman's novels may be blundering but he captures more of the essence of the Barsoom novels than any other author.

This novel contain s relatively few of the errors that plagued Nomads and Assassin of Gor. He seems to have lost most of his Men's Lib adolescent hang up where he was out to establish that woman wants to be enslaved, that nothing captures the female heart like a good beating. He has also given up his tricked up method' of story telling used in Assassin of Gor which used too many flashbacks to cover the lack of real action in the story.

Raiders gives up the central theme of his stories recently — the alien invaders and Cabot's attempts to help the Priest Kings destroy them. Norman, possibly tired of a hero who was strong, valorous and determined, has Cabot given a choice between slavery and death choose slavery, a choice which his caste codes regard as being cowardly. This does give the story a new orientation but possibly due to the lack of any past guides in handling this technique, it fails. Cabot has no real basis for his choice, he just rapidly turns coward for a second. The scene itself lacks conviction — its too much like other scenes where Cabot did not turn coward. And in the end Cabot's discovery that any man may have moments of weakness without losing his hero status is too rapid, too unexplained to hold any conviction.

The main impression left by this story is that it drifts. It has few of Norman's earlier faults, but it also has none of his earlier drive. The romance and adventure mixed up in all of this is not convincing even by the very generous standards set by the earlier Gor stories.

But overall, this is a story that Gor(e) fans. will want to own. It retains the coloring of the earlier stories, and hopefully in losing his bad habits, Norman has put himself in good condition to continue the series — if not, let us hope that Ballantine waves a sufficiently large advance under his nose. Anyways, its faults aside, there is a lot of action and adventure for your money.

--Has anyone else yet considered the role and cultural influence the Vietnam War, then ongoing, and the inescapable fact of college deferments and "retreat from the world" mentalities of the time, on Dr. Lange's fervid hypermasculinity and valorization of violence as expressed in these books? Or, in short, raised the question of Sixties' chickenhawkery-- People have always been (and continue to be, with more accuracy and scholarship) trying to pigeonhole Tolkien's fantasy by contemporary chronology, but you don't really see critics doing it for anyone else in the genre: why not?

Sarcasm aside, the UBC review is interesting* because among other things, the reviewer admits that the books are just bad, and this one (per him) only marginally better than previous entries, but that he can't stop reading them - and doesn't want to. This, combined with the frequent - and false - defense made of them (see here for an example) that they compare favorably, or at least not unfavorably, to the rest of the pulp hack'n'hew genre of yore - says to me the answer is not so much that the editors at BB and DAW were dropping acid, but that the books themselves are, in the popular phrase, crackfic. Crackfic for the psychologically-stunted and grandiose temperament, to be sure; but the more honest fans will, like this guy, admit that the writing is awful any way you look at it.

That's not what they're reading it for, after all, any more than the "OMG i <3<3<3 this fic!!1! i <3 U2!1 this is soooo sad!!! plzwritemorekthxbai!!!1" fans of endless Tortured!Sue stores at the Pit of Voles are looking for poetry, coherent plotting, plausible action and believable characterization there.

And, clearly, not even Professional Editors at Big Name Publishing Companies are immune to the lure of the crackfic. David A. Wollheim being one apparent example - and Laurell K. Hamilton's editor at ACE being another.

The Crackfic Effect - and I should be sure to point out that most, if not all, fanficcers who use this term do so in full self-aware irony that what they are reading/writing is pure literary self-indulgence, nor meant to be anything else, any more than a box of truffles is meant to be a square meal - is to be seen most clearly in the frenzied defense and charges of Sinister Conspiracies to keep down The Man and Stifle Truth, Joy, Freedom and Beauty leveled by John Norman and his admirers alike.

The equation of the non-subsidization of anything by a commercial concern with censorship, the official banning of material by the state, is particularly rich coming from Free Market worshippers - but not uncommon at all, for all that.

The idea that perhaps the books just are that bad, and given the choice not to, these free fiscal agents would rather not be associated with them due to the embarrassment before their peers of being known as the publishers of A Boy's Own Wet Dream, vols. 1-27, even if they have to pass up on profits, is unfathomable to them.

Even more so is the possibility that maybe they aren't that great an investment any more - crackfic after all is faddish, and fads pass quickly, and (as many readers have pointed out) better erotica is available for free online. (Aha! it's those dastardly pixel-stained technopeasants again! Refusing to keep Caste and forgetting their place as Readers, thinking they can move themselves up to the noble Caste of Author just by, you know, writing stuff...) The biggest US publisher of erotica brought them back in the latter '90's under their Masquerade imprint, saying
"There are other books I've brought back. There's an author named John Norman, who wrote a series of about 30 science fiction books in the '60s called "The Gor Series." They've been out of print since the '60s. And I reprinted them because I felt there would be an audience, and there is an audience. He wasn't politically correct in the '60s, and he's not politically correct today. But there is a market."

These must have been the slightly-larger editions with the slick black covers which I saw on the shelves at our old B&N (this is how I date things, which bookstore did I see them in? because when area bookstores open/close/expand is very important in my personal calendar) and which, as I noted, sat there...and sat there...and sat SF, until they eventually went away.

New World Publishers brought out one new Gor book in 2002 - and nothing since. Apparently the number of people willing to pay US $25 plus shipping for an unpublished Gor novel was not enough to break even.

Now, you can try to blame it on a vast shadowy conspiracy of tyrannical Politically-Correct Left-Wing Publishers that the books didn't sell well when reprinted - or you can admit that they were freely available and had their chance to compete on the big chain shelves and Amazon pages, and were too unsuited for the present climate, like small-beaked Galapagos finches in a time of heavy rain, to thrive against their competition. Only one of these is the sane response.

But "sane" is not on when dealing with Gor partisans - and that isn't just limited to the lifestylers.

I find fascinating the rabid insistence on all quarters that the only reasons for loathing the books are 1) "Political Correctness" and 2) not having read (with implicit "dared to) the books themselves, but only taking the liberal zampolit's word for their badness. If you only gave them a chance, you'd see how beautiful and noble and wonderful and liberating they are! is the cry from the Gor fans.**

It seriously not only doesn't occur to them, but is apparently outside their comprehension that anyone could have actually read the damned things and made up their minds about them on their own. That maybe we are at least moderately familiar with the pulp genre as a whole, and are capable of doing compare/contrast on our own - and maybe, just maybe, we can make the judgment as to whether the worldview presented as "normal" in Norman's Counter-earth is dehumanizing and degrading to both women and men on our own, based on the primary texts...

I also find it fascinating that while there certainly are RL female Gor fans, there don't seem to be as many as are held up verbally like human shields by the Gorean fanboys. Part of this may just be that the Gor fangirls don't get out much; but what struck me strongly in the course of this ongoing debate is that there are a lot of people - mostly male - saying "But look! Lots of women LOVE Gor and being slaves, so that means it's all fine!" and a handful of Bingo-card women going "Oh, I read one of those books a long time ago and it didn't bother me, I don't know what you are so upset about, what about X?" and no "kajira" showing up to fervently defend the books to us at all.

--I cannot help but be reminded of all the men who show up at feminist political blogs to tell us that their wives and girlfriends (or mothers, as in the case of the Missionaries Who Wouldn't Stop) just LOVE their roles as Traditional Women serving them and being pretty and never complain and never want to do anything else, and we feminists want to force them to give that up, and gee isn't it funny that the number of guys saying this of absent, mute women outnumbers the handful of women who claim it for themselves? Not funny is the fact that as one commenter described from her personal experience, these lifestylers isolate their "slave girls" from the outside world, insisting that they break off friendships, just like mundane abusers.

Dominant/submissive, or sado-masochistic themes have always played a part in fantasy literature. The one thing that Gor does, is move this element to the center of the story. Norman's timing was fortunate. By the late sixties young women had begun to feel free to read, think, and feel as they chose, and the feminists had not yet nailed down their new set of "thou-shalt-not's". What many of them chose to read, think, and feel is what Mr. Norman had to offer. At times the later ones can also get just a little mean spirited; I presume that is a reflection of the growing controversy surrounding the books and the ideas expressed in them.
Pornography has been a common charge against the Gor books, but not one that that the average reader can take seriously. For one thing, back in the late sixties and early seventies, that more innocent time before the internet, the Playboy channel, and HBO specials these far tamer books recieved little special notice or comment. Apparently since that time a number of people have reverted to virginity. For another thing, pornography has become for the Anti-sex League of feminism a code word for any expression of sexual interest between male and female.

Pornograpy is readily identifiable by two traits: it celebrates the ugly, and it's normal direction is toward death, or at the least a sort of mechanical or non-human existence that is equivalent to death. Why are porn movies so bad?--bad in terms of plot, dialogue, and acting. Why do you feel dirty after seeing one? Couldn't someone make some "good" porn? No, "good porn" is a contradiction, for then the work would be merely erotic, and have a different, and less wide appeal. In porn everything is either dirty, or has to be made that way.

The Gor books are oriented quite differently. They continually celebrate beauty and vitality. Norman is not a particularly beautiful prose stylist--few are--but he is continually stressing the beauty not just of women, but of cities, of the landscape, of the day and night sky, of primal emotions, of craftsmanship, and so on. Vitality is also stressed, and many readers have been drawn to the books by the idea of a more vital and alive world, a world without hypocrisy, where one may be more in touch with one's real instincts and drives.

[..]The literary qualities of the Gor books are not particularly high, though on a par with the competition. It's not a field that has tended to draw the literary giants of the age. Oddly, many of the most impassioned Goreans have spoken very negatively about the readability of the books, while at the same time treating their content with the literalness and faith that fundamentalists do the Bible. I am not sure why this attitude; the Gor books are written clearly, in simple, straightforward prose. The latter ones have picked up a few annoying quirks of diction that earlier books did not have, and all the books do violate a number of basic creative writing commonplaces. The worst qualities, which are only apparent in the later books are repetitiveness and occassional flashes of mean-spiritedness, both the result*** of the increasingly heated debate with the feminists. It is a shame the author did not ignore them. Instead, he has allowed them to detract greatly from the appeal of the books.

[...]In fact, a very important theme in much of the Gor writing by women is that of freedom, that they have been bullied consistantly by society in general and feminists in particular to fit into an unnatural mold, and to be ashamed of their sexuality. For them, discovering the Gor books was a liberation. A typical example is a website I found recently that was a tribute to John Norman. The woman who created it desribes how in her early teens she slipped one of the books out of her brother's room and read it with both delight and amazement. Women were taken seriously, and were more real than in any fantasy books she had read before. This was better than Tolkein, where there were few women at all, and real women were clearly inferior to elf women. This is a close parallel to many, many statements by women on Gor pages and channels who have felt the need to be liberated from their self-proclaimed liberators. [And, of course, all of them really are women, he knows for a fact. Myself, I'm sure some certainly are...]

[...]I confess to having enjoyed all twenty-five books, and even to cheering the tirades before they became so many and so long. I am greatly interested in the development of Gor on-line, and in the various attempts to create a Gor lifestyle, though here I have a couple of reservations as well. On Gor most slavegirls were captured, and have virtually no chance of escape, or to change status by their own actions. And once the are slavegirls, they are a fully recognized and generally accepted part of the social fabric. That they adapt quickly agrees with something I once read about slavery on Earth. Africans captured by Arab slavers were understandably distraut at first, but as they got farther from home and closer to their destination, the women tended to become more cheerful and optimistic, [??!?!?] while the men grew even more sullen and despondant. Women are more adaptable than men. For an Earth woman on Gor, being on another planet would certainly give a sense of inevitability, while a Gorean woman woud already know the odds.

...or in plain English, Freedom IS slavery, dammit! At least if you're XX. And you totally brought the sexism on yourselves, bitches. (Let's just ignore all that about the Cité des Femmes Communistes in book II, otherwise my argument falls apart.) And I like it and feel ennobled by it, so it can't be porn, because porn is ugly and degrading, and there's nothing degrading in Gor, it's all about celebrating you ungrateful sluts. And you totally love it anyway. --And this guy is one of the saner ones - he doesn't believe in the Vast Shadowy Left-Wing Publishing Conspiracy, frex, and he finds some of the worldbuilding implausible.

Gor is a continent in science fiction. Many may wish it did not exist, but it is there.

It is not hard to find, really. Just look for a world that lies a thousand degrees north of monothink, a thousand degrees east of orthodoxy, a thousand degrees west of ideological conformity, a continent far from the placid waters of predictable mediocrity, a different world, one real, one like no other, one beyond the familiar world’s horizon, one emergent from far, tumultuous, untamed seas, a world alert to deep currents, which listens to secret whispers, which wears stars in her hair.

The maps of ideologically servile cartographers may choose not to show the Gorean world, but it is there, a wonderful, forbidden continent. Some of you know her, and have been there.
---J. Norman, Dec. 2000

--These are the people Dark Horse has chosen to align themselves with, and the caliber of the work they have chosen to invest in. Printing books in large quantities is not cheap, nor is distribution, even for an established publishing company with the infrastructure in place - and money spent on one project is money that cannot be spent on something else. The only person I know of active in feminist comics fandom who has the capacity to give inside info on this choice has declined to do so because she understandably wants to keep her job, but I don't think it's very difficult to explain why the big boys at Dark Horse are doing this. I mean, the of-course-male head of the company calls it "great" fiction, and dismisses the hatefilled ideological-ranting nature of it, so clearly demonstrated in the first two volumes, as merely "controversial"--

Crackfic - It's Not Just For Amateurs. And Never Was.

* The instructions on DIY dormroom vintnery, aka how to make your own hooch with some grape juice and a condom on page 6 are also interesting, at least to see it written out & published thus shamelessly in a school paper, instead of merely being furtive oral tradition.

**It reminds me a bit of those scenes in other old SF books which I read whilst working in the same library that I found Dancer of Gor on the new paperbacks shelf, where "plugged-in" junkies of the network, starving in squalor, insist that only cowardice and stodginess hold others back from getting a jack in their skull and experiencing the same joyous freedom...

***Funny how they all have to find ideological excuses for his repetitiveness - and it never occurs to them that maybe it's because Norman just didn't have anything else to say? That he'd exhausted his meager invention, and went to reruns? Nor is it just him - I'm not the only one who remembers Eddings recycling entire pages of chara description word for bleeding word in the Belgariad, right?
Tags: badfic, chauvinism, fandom, gor, misogyny, sex positive, sexism, worldbuilding, writing

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