Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril Paperback – April 19, 2002
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From the Author
in conversation with Steve Izma
STEVE IZMA: Who was Judith Merril?
EMILY POHL-WEARY: Judith Merril was my grandmother -- a science fiction writer and editor, feminist, cultural theorist, and anti-war activist. She grew up among the Jewish intelligentsia in Boston and then moved to New York City to become a writer. Her mother, Ethel Grossman, was a suffragette, who ran the Bronx House, a halfway house for homeless kids. Judith believed that her mother raised her to be a man, to be intelligent, not pretty. She didn't teach her how to use makeup, but rather how to engage people intellectually. Ethel wanted her to be a writer of great literature, just as her father, Shlomo Grossman, had been. Shlomo was a writer who translated the works of Sholem Aleichem and committed suicide during the Depression (Judith was seven) by jumping out the window of his publisher's building.
During the 1940s, 50s and 60s Judith wrote three novels, dozens of short stories, and edited twelve years of 'Best Of' anthologies, which acted catalytically and launched the careers of many important science fiction writers. England proclaimed her the American prophet of the avant-garde, helping foster a British new wave in science fiction. Canadians may remember the documentaries she made for CBC Radio, and Dr Who fans will likely recall the mini-documentaries she did for TVOntario, which followed Dr. Who and featured her social and cultural discussions.
Her relationship with SF was described in 1992 by J. G. Ballard (author of Crash and Empire of the Sun):
'Science fiction, I suspect, is now dead, and probably died about the time that Judy closed her anthology and left to found her memorial library to the genre in Toronto. I remember my last sight of her, surrounded by her friends and all the books she loved, shouting me down whenever I tried to argue with her, the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men.'
Judith Merril was also an influential public figure and cultural critic, who wrote non-fiction articles and frequently spoke for current affairs shows. Her life story not only chronicles the birth of science fiction, but many of the important radical cultural and political movements spanning three-quarters of a century: the Depression, the Second World War, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, emerging feminism, and corporatization and globalization of the late twentieth century.
SI: What were her major works of science fiction and why were they important?
EPW: Judith's most significant contributions to the genre were: Daughters of Earth, That Only a Mother, and Shadow on the Hearth. The last two were written during the McCarthy era in the U.S. They explore the unknown and the terror of nuclear holocaust, and they reflect the oppressive weight that American citizens carried under that political regime.
The alien in her work often represents the other from the point of view of American culture: those who don't fit into the mainstream, or into the conventional American "dream'' of what is good or what is right. In fact, growing up Jewish in America with a Zionist suffragette mother and no father, Judith said that when she was writing her stories she connected with the alien.
SI: What brought Judith to Toronto in the late 1960s?
EPW: In 1968, Judith moved to Canada partly because she could no longer accept the realpolitik of the American citizen; and partly because she needed to escape her power role in New York's literary ghetto of science fiction. She came to Toronto to join Rochdale College, an experimental student-run university, where she became a resource person in writing and publishing. Also influencing her move was Chandler Davis, a science fiction writer and a mathematician; and Dennis Lee, a poet, who was involved with Rochdale at the time.
Better To Have Loved includes a chapter entitled 'Toronto, Tulips, Traffic, and Grass," which is essentially her impressions of Toronto in the early 1970s. Here she discusses why she decided to co
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Although Merril takes an early pop at sanitised SF autobiographies (presumably referring to ex-husband Fred Pohl's The Way the Future Was), editor Emily openly admits to cutting some of her juicier revelations; yesterday's ex-husbands are still today's cherished grandfathers. Instead, she tips reams of cliquey, fannish correspondence into the text, while neglecting all but the briefest glimpse of the inner workings of Merril's mind as an author or editor.
I was open to the possibility that Merril was an influential SF author, or even, like Gardner Dozois, a talented writer who sacrificed her own career to help others. It was this possibility that led me to buy this book, since Merril was conspicuous in her absence from Fred Pohl's own memoirs, and I suspected something untoward was going on. However, in a book that seems to spend more time singing the praises of Toronto as a tourist destination, there is only one point at which the text devotes any significant amount of space to Merril's craft, and that only succeeds in making her look like a naïve buffoon. Her muddled musings on Japanese linguistics left me aghast, as did the realisation that this darling of the SF world had taken several months to stumble upon the realisation that a good translator should speak both the source and target language. In layman's terms, this is akin to discovering that the words you're reading are best approached from left to right.
Emily Pohl-Weary's rescue job appears to have been a heroic effort, but ultimately self-defeating. I can only assume that there was so little of the true Merril left to work with, that the best Emily could hope for was a basic chronology of her grandmother's life, with a couple of asides on the way. I don't doubt that Merril is worthy of a book-length study, but this volume failed to provide any evidence of why. More about why her writings were so highly thought-of would have helped greatly.