The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE WOMEN OF GNOME PRESS
From New York Review of Science Fiction, #326, October 2015
Left to Right: Leigh Brackett; C. L. Moore, Andre Norton, Wilmar H. Shiras
Science Fiction became literature in the half decade after World War II. Not because of any intrinsic rise in the quality of the works, not even because rockets and atomic energy had moved from the pages of fiction to the front pages of newspapers. Science fiction became literature purely and simply because it began being offered in hardcovers rather than being confined to pulp magazines. The availability of a book in hardback meant everything to 1940s cultural standards. Bookstores now could carry them and give them the imprimatur of class. Libraries could now purchase and place them on shelves next to the most respected authors. Newspapers could review them, which by their mere presence meant that they must be taken seriously and judged by the same standards as other fiction. The New York Times started a semi-regular column called "Realm of the Spacemen" in 1950. The era of Wells and Verne was long past, and from a time before the very term science fiction had been coined; their aura of respectability was now resurrected for an Atomic Age that cried out for chroniclers.
The mainstream publishing industry knew nothing and cared less about science fiction (a term then starting to encompass fantasy for marketing purposes, which I’ll shorten to the more modern f&sf). It had to be proven to them that such books could sell. A multitude of f&sf fans saw an opportunity and started an equal multitude of small presses. One stands out.
Gnome Press lasted longer, produced more titles, and sold more copies than any of the other small presses. It published 32 books by SFWA Grand Masters: the first eight - Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Williamson, Clifford D. Simak, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, plus an additional six - Frederik Pohl, A. E. van Vogt, Poul Anderson, Hal Clement, Robert Silverberg, and James Gunn. (One other, Harry Harrison, drew a cover for a book jacket, proving mostly that his future lay as a writer.) These names define what we think of today as classic f&sf and the Golden Age. Martin Greenberg and David A. Kyle founded Gnome in 1948. Kyle, who concentrated on the production end, left in the early 1950s; Greenberg always handled authors and decided what got printed. As with every editor he had his personal tastes and predilections; he plundered the pages of John W. Campbell’s Astoundings and Unknowns for dozens of stories and novels but found material in lesser publications, inside the field and out. More, he understood both the power of a well-respected name and the need to build for the future with those just starting out: several of those Grand Masters were published in the dawns of their careers. A few gambles did not pay off: Nat Schachner and William Grey Beyer are forgotten Golden Agers; Arthur K. Barnes and H. Chandler Elliott followed them as obscurities. Overall, therefore, Gnome can be seen as a reasonably representative microcosm of the field, not merely a greatest hits retrospective. Looking at the authors Gnome published reflects the 1940s and 1950s to a remarkable degree.
What does it say about Golden Age f&sf (or about SFWA) that all the names I’ve mentioned, with one exception, are male? Eighteen of the first 19 Grand Masters were, in fact. Does it make a difference if I reveal that Gnome’s overall percentage of female authors is far higher? Of 73 fiction titles in its 14-year lifespan, it published nine written or co-written by four woman: C. L. Moore (under her own name and in collaboration with Henry Kuttner under the pseudonym of Lewis Padgett), Leigh Brackett, Wilmar H. Shiras, and Andrew North (a pseudonym of Andre Norton). Is that, therefore, a high percentage of female representation? Or perhaps that raises another question. Since none of the four (or six) names are immediately recognizable as female, and two are indisputably (and intended to be) male, is Gnome to be commended for disproportionately publishing women or condemned because it hid woman from an audience that seemingly catered only to males? Or is our entire current appraisal of the Golden Age skewed by nostalgia, biases, and faulty memory?
Gnome is a small enough universe to look at in its entirety; trying to answer these questions about the field as a whole would require a book. That book is entitled Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965. Written by Eric Leif Davin and published in 2006, it is a masterpiece of scholarly fieldwork. He went through, page by page, literally every professional science fiction magazine published in America during those 40 years, recorded the name of every listed author of fiction, did as much digging as possible to determine their true name and sex, and checked every title page, introduction, letters section, and coming soon page to see if the female authors were referred to by their gender by either editors or readers and if those references were positive.
His findings, spread throughout a dense 315 pages and summarized in a long series of tables, belie any claims that women were excluded from the f&sf magazines. In fact, he found 203 female authors of 988 stories, and that does not include a few dozen names that simply cannot be traced to individuals. He separates his tables into the years 1926-1949, 1950-1960, and 1961-1965. In 1926-1949, a fortuitous grouping I’m calling the pre-Gnome era, the period from which the vast majority of Gnome authors emerged, the numbers are smaller though still far from zero: 68 authors of 288 stories, including five stories given female pseudonyms by male writers. Numbers are meaningless without context just as words are. Unfortunately, Davin does not provide the total number of stories published, but an estimate can be made by looking at the number of magazine issues published each year, which peaks at around 100 in 1941. Given the problems caused by the Depression and WWII, probably no more than 50 magazines appeared in an a typical year with an average of eight stories per issue. That’s 400 stories a year of which women contributed about ten, or 2½%.
Gnome’s numbers look pretty good against this background, and even better if you dive deeper into the data set. Four of the 46 authors whose fiction Gnome published in book form were women. Of individual titles, 64 were by men, 7 by women, and two by the man/woman team Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, writing as Lewis Padgett. One of the three fiction anthologists Gnome published, Judith Merril, was a woman. (Neither of the two non-fiction anthologists were women, nor was the one non-fiction author.) Greenberg himself edited six fiction anthologies, with 63 total stories. Of those, 58 were by men, 3 by women (E. Mayne Hull as E. M. Hull, C. L. Moore, and Judith Merril), and 2 by Lewis Padgett. As a control, we can check the other anthologists. Groff Conklin included one woman, Margaret St. Clair, in his 14-story anthology. Judith Merril did four best of the year anthologies from 1956-1959 so her choices had to be contemporary rather than from the pre-Gnome era. Her totals are 55 stories by men, 1 by a team, again Kuttner and Moore, and 6 by women: 3 by Zenna Henderson and one each by Shirley Jackson, Mildred Clingerman, and Carol Emshwiller. Her 7 of 62 (11%) is a bit higher than Greenberg’s 5 of 63 (8%). Overall, Gnome runs consistently around 10% female written. This is a far higher percentage than any of its small press contemporaries. Counting just fiction titles, Fantasy Press published 52 books by men and one by Gertrude Bennett; FPCI published 27 by men and one by the man/woman team of A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull; Prime Press published 16 books by men and one by Mary Griffiths; and Shasta: Publishers published 17 books by men and none by women.
The problem with Davin’s book is that it is a screed in a good cause, that of showing women did write f&sf. To do so it is required to take statements like Sheldon’s literally rather than metaphorically. No one else to my knowledge asserted that women were truly completely excluded from f&sf, either among writers, readers, or editors. Davin presents the necessary numbers; readers must supply the necessary context. When he cites a long list of men and women claiming that women writers were excluded from f&sf, our reading must that they remember a time when women were not merely a low percentage of total authors; they were an almost certainly lower percentage of important and memorable writers. They existed, they were praised, but only a handful cast the long shadows that made them come instantly to mind decades later as exemplars of the field. Out of all the 68 entries in Davin's pre-Gnome era list of women, Moore’s is the single name which can be considered for inclusion among that handful, a true star of the field.
A common taxonomy is almost universally deployed, by fans, by editors, and by other writers. On top are the stars, the major figures who define the field, whose names sell magazines, whose stories both adulating fans and envious competitors look forward to. On the next level are the journeymen (even the name is historically indicative), with solid work, known readability, and some immediate name recognition. And then there are everybody else: the one-shots, the short-timers, the fast-faders, the wannabes, the slumming mainstreamers, the occasionals, the oddities, the accidents. As I hope should be obvious, “everybody else” is not a euphemism for dismal. Their stories ranged from brilliant to awful; they are lumped solely by lack of prolificness.
Davin’s prodigious listing reveals that of the 67 women not named Moore in his 1926-1949 listing, only a literal handful, five, published more than ten stories, a very low bar considering that Moore has 55 credits.(Serializations count as one credit, but would have brought the name into more tables of contents.) Leigh Brackett, a top journeyman, is a distant second at 34. The others are the team of Dorothy and John De Courcy, Margaret St. Clair, Leslie F. Stone, and E. Mayne Hull. (No surprise, therefore, that four of those six appeared in Gnome’s pages.) None of those last four names were notable in the pre-Gnome era as women writers. As a side note, it’s possible that Hull must be excluded under any criteria. Isaac Walwyn has made a strong case on his van Vogt website (http://www.icshi.net/sevagram/articles/hull.php) that Hull was merely an alternate name John W. Campbell invented for A. E. van Vogt's overflow, just as he required Robert A. Heinlein to write as Anson MacDonald and the Kuttner/Moore team to be Lawrence O'Donnell. Hull was van Vogt's wife's name, but a study of John W. Campbell’s letters shows that the pseudonym was intended to be Dean M. Hull and actually ran as E. M. Hull on the first few stories, including the one selected by Greenberg. The evidence is not conclusive, and Hull was not only credited as a co-writer on that FPCI book but was the co-Guest of Honor with van Vogt at the 1946 Worldcon. Still, even Davin calls her “forgotten.”
This dominance in terms of number and reputation pops out of the Gnome data; women would be a much lower set of percentages if it were not for C. L. Moore. She accounts for five of the nine books by women, three of the five stories in Greenberg’s anthologies, and one more in Merril’s. She was a star and f&sf is not different from any other field of entertainment. It is star-driven. Publishers were more likely to put out titles by stars, anthologists were more likely to include stories by stars, and Grand Master Awards are more likely to be a listing of stars. Stars dominate contemporary perceptions and perhaps disproportionately dominate memory.
And the audience wants to know more about stars. In the 1930s-1940s world of multiple pseudonyms, few fan get-togethers, and a near total lack of book jacket information, could readers know who the person behind a story was and did they care whether it was a man or a women? Davin insists his research proves that readers knew and didn’t care.
[Moore’s] gender became publicly known to fandom only a few months after her debut, “Shambleau,” appeared [in the November 1933 Weird Tales]. Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger revealed it in the May 1934 issue of their fan magazine, The Fantasy Fan. Weird Tales itself explicitly referred to her as female in its September 1935 issue. And when Moore herself published a letter in its reader column, she made no attempt at concealment, signing herself, “Miss Catherine Moore.”
Reader reaction to Moore’s debut in Astounding [in November 1934] was warmly receptive. Among those writing letters to praise her first story were Robert A. Lowndes … and E. E. Smith, both explicitly referring to Moore as a woman. … Similar letters praising Moore and referring to her as a woman can be found in the Astounding issues of February, April, and December 1935; February, 1936; and February 1937.
Insiders clearly could know, but not every fan read every letter column in every magazine – even those fans who sent letters to magazines. On the archive site efanzines.com I found a 2004 reminiscence by A. Langley Searles, whose name pops up in the letter columns of Startling Stories and Unknown in 1939, admitting that “For a very long time I thought Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore were men, and then I met them. Similarly the fan writer P.H. Economou… I corresponded with her for over a year before I met her, and discovered she was Phyllis. In those days it was commonplace to make those mistakes.” [SaFari, Vol. 3 No. 2, FAPA 266, February 2004]
What of those who might be fans without being insiders? The best evidence we have that not everyone knew comes from Henry Kuttner himself. Kuttner was a budding writer: his first published story appeared in the March 1936 Weird Tales. Nevertheless, he was such an outsider that he sent his fan letter to the Weird Tales offices to be forwarded; moreover he addressed it to “Mr. C. L. Moore.” The date of the letter is unknown for certain, though one source gives it as 1938. If so, things moved fast from there: they were married in 1940 and their Lewis Padgett joint pseudonym started appearing in 1941. According to Sam Moskowitz in Seekers of Tomorrow, this wasn’t to hide Moore’s name but Kuttner’s. His early writing had such a “tarnished reputation” that a new name was thought to be essential. Davin quotes Marion Zimmer Bradley as saying that Moore used initials to disguise her work not from chauvinist editors but from her bosses at the bank where she worked as a teller. Fiction writing and most especially weird fiction writing could certainly led to unemployment by association during the Depression. A pseudonym might have been safer but the mere use of initials connoted a man. Many male authors used initials – Davin cites dozens – and very few women did, making a male identity the default assumption. Oddly, Davin uses this argument in reverse, asking “Were they [males] discriminated against and had to hide their male gender?” The answer is a strong no — males could use any naming convention that didn’t include a culturally female first name and automatically remain a male identity, with the result that any woman who wanted to hide her identity had an easy out that would still preserve her name and ego.
Yet Gnome’s ambiguous name oddity lingers. Did its readership know that Gnome published women authors? Could they confidently look to Gnome for their works or identify them when they appeared? More to the point: publishing f&sf in hardcovers created an entirely new audience for the genre over and above the fan community that had developed around the magazines, many of whom would encounter f&sf for the first time through libraries rather than newsstands, drug stores, and booksellers. How much could this new world of outsiders know? The conventional wisdom would have it that Gnome concealed this information. In fact, it trumpeted the news.
No observant reader could miss the fact that Gnome’s first book by Moore, Judgment Night, had been written by a woman; the front cover flap forthrightly refers to the author as “her” twice. So does the advertising copy in the Gnome 1953 catalog. Her name apparently was still the draw it was in the 1930s even though Moore had almost stopped publishing under her own name since the August and September 1943 appearances of “Judgment Night” in Astounding; almost everything thereafter was as by Lewis Padgett except the few as by Lawrence O’Donnell. This was known to insiders. At efanzines.com, the April-May 1947 issue of Fantasy Review references matter-of-factly “Henry Kuttner and wife C. L. Moore, writing as Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell.” Indeed, the other four stories in Judgment Night had appeared as by O’Donnell and according to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB.org) are the only stories under that name not in collaborations with Kuttner. But Lawrence O’Donnell is never mentioned at all in Judgment Night, not even in copyright credits. Some readers must have been blindsided by the revelation. Moore’s gender is even more pointedly stated on the flaps of her next Gnome collection, Shambleau and Others. There she is called Miss Moore twice as well as “the wife and collaborator of Henry Kuttner,” mentioning all their Gnome titles but not the Lewis Padgett name. That must also be considered a revelation to non-insiders. The previous three books as by Padgett each had an “other books by” page that listed Fury by Henry Kuttner but never mentioned Moore’s name at all. Her last collection, Northwest of Earth, again has her as Miss Moore on the flaps. Why Gnome wouldn’t take that final small step and forthrightly say she was half of Lewis Padgett is a mystery.
Similarly, Leigh Brackett is referred to as “Miss Brackett” on the front cover flap of The Starmen and Wilmar H. Shiras is “Mrs. Shiras” in the About the Author section on Children of the Atom’s rear flap. Both used their birth names; there is no evidence that either sought to confuse anyone. Brackett was part of the Los Angeles fan and writing scene from 1939; she left only when she married fellow writer Edward Hamilton in 1946. They shared similar tastes in f&sf, with both writing swift-paced planetary romances of a sort that didn’t appeal to John W. Campbell and went out of style in the 1950s. Her one Gnome novel, The Starmen, received mixed reviews, reviewers finding the space opera routine at best. She was known for writing hard “masculine” prose. Gardner Dozois, in The Good Old Stuff, cites the “legend” that her first novel, a hard-boiled mystery called No Good From a Corpse, drew a call from Hollywood after director Howard Hawks told his assistant to “get me that guy Brackett.” No quote from Hollywood can ever be assumed to be true and not the invention of some clever writer, but the source of the legend can be pinned down as John Leonard Carr does in his dissertation, Leigh Brackett: American Science Fiction Writer – Her Life and Work:
Hawk’s surprise – and one wonders, his discomfort – at discovering Brackett to be a woman was widely reported at the time, and became an item in a Hollywood gossip column. Hedda Hopper, Hollywood’s professional gossip, informed readers that Hawks told his agent, “This fellow would make a good screenwriter for The Big Sleep; get Mr. Brackett for me.” In spite of his astonishment at being confronted by a fresh-faced young woman, not yet thirty, he stuck by his decision. Brackett, naturally, told the story of her original interview with Hawks many times; it was as stapel [sic] of her interviews. [p. 60]
Brackett was not quite the flower naively waiting to be plucked as this makes her out to be. Carr also notes that she had had a credit on a Republic quickie in 1944 and that Hawks contacted her through her agent, indicating she was actively pursuing more screen work. The anecdote does serve to emphasize her ambiguous name and the vast gulf between the insider fans and the outside world even within Los Angeles.
Wilmar H. Shiras – the H stands for House, her maiden name – was as quintessentially an outsider oddity as Brackett was an insider’s insider. She published a mere three stories in Astounding to which she would add two more when Gnome published Children, comprising almost the totality of her career in the field. Her identity as a woman was apparently not known even inside fan ranks. The fanzine Fantasy Review, so quick to reveal insider pseudonyms, didn’t have a clue. In the April-May 1949 issue, reviewer Kenneth Slater looks at the issue of Astounding with “Opening Doors,” the sequel to “In Hiding,” and calls the author “he.” Conversely, the Reno Evening Gazette on October 29, 1953, reported that a book group had reviewed a book by “Wilma H. Shiras.” Her hometown newspaper in Oakland ran a feature story on her next to their review of Children, revealing that she had married at 18, and now struggled at home with “two boys, three girls, five cats (four Siamese, one ‘plain’), two dogs, and two large aviaries in the back yard.” Shiras, who was 45 at the time, also had returned to college to complete the degree she had abandoned for marriage, and was doing translation for a New York publisher “on the side.” When asked “How do you cope with all this?” she responded “By not doing housework.” Tropes are tropes for a reason. The reporter noted that the original story, “In Hiding,” had caused a “furore [sic] in the science fiction circles.” Not given is the background, with the story closely following the appearance in Astounding of Judith Merril’s first story “That Only a Mother,” also about a mutated child, and also different in tone and subject from the usual run of male space stories.
If Moore, Brackett, and Shiras are forthrightly announced as women, what are we to make of the two Gnome young adult (YA) books subtitled “A Dane Thorson – Solar Queen Adventure”? Both Plague Ship and Sargasso of Space are credited to Andrew North. Neither have an About the Author section. Indeed, not a single word is said about the author. Greenberg absolutely knew the author’s identity: Andre Norton was his editorial assistant at the time. For the first time, a marketing strategy may have been involved and justified. Whatever the attitude about female writers or protagonists in the world of f&sf might been, the YA world was fixed and locked. Everybody in it, from editors and publishers to the librarians who were the most important buyers of the books, believed beyond any doubt that boys read books by men about boys. The other five YA books Gnome published – Mel Oliver and Space Rover on Mars, by William Morrison; Starman’s Quest by Robert Silverberg; and the series Undersea Quest, Undersea City, and Undersea Fleet, by Frederick Pohl and Jack Williamson – had male protagonists as well.. It is only very recently that publishers have dared buck this trend to any degree. It is as certain as anything about Gnome can be that these YA books were deliberately hidden behind a male name.
Why Andrew North, though? She could logically have used Andre Norton, a name that already sounded male, that was the author’s legal name, that was picked precisely because it appeared to be male, and that she adopted because she “expected to be writing for young boys, and the male name was expected to increase her marketability,” according to her biography on her tribute website, andre-norton.org. The answer is prosaic. She had already done three novels and three anthologies for World Publishing Company. It’s always been common for prolific authors to adopt pseudonyms when they worked for competitors and that appears to be the simple answer here.
Only a small nagging fact remains. Norton’s first three science fiction short stories were published under the name of Andrew North before she became affiliated with World. The first two, “The People of the Crater” and “The Gifts of Asti” were in Fantasy Book’s first issue (late 1946 or 1947) and third issue (1948), and “All Cats are Gray” appeared in Fantastic Universe, August-September 1953. Fantasy Book was a fanzine put out by William Crawford, who was also responsible for the FPCI (Fantasy Publishing Company Incorporated) press I mentioned above. Although Fantasy Book has terrific cachet today as the first magazine to publish a Cordwainer Smith f&sf story, it was created to publish Crawford’s friends in Los Angeles, then figuratively even more distant from the New York center of publishing than it was literally. Crawford knew Norton from back in the 1930s when she submitted a story to his Marvel Tales, which died before he could publish it. (The story he got for that first Fantasy Book issue was another Garan tale, and in a brief flicker of life FPCI published all the Garan stories under the title Garan the Eternal in 1972, not included in the above counts.) Norton perhaps wanted a separate name for her genre stories or perhaps didn’t think this piece up to her standards. Whatever the case, the North name lived on to be placed on a third Solar Queen volume, 1959’s Voodoo Planet. When the fourth book, Postmarked the Stars, appeared in 1969, her real name was too valuable to leave off and later printings of all the titles have prominently featured the Norton name.
Plague Ship was the 56th Gnome book and the last to be written by a woman. That fact is also odd. The four Judith Merril anthologies would follow, but Gnome’s last 25 fiction titles were by men. Again, coincidence or a deeper meaning? No pattern appears in the authors who did see publication. They were writers of long experience and 50s newcomers, of fantasy and science fiction, of adult and teen-oriented works. One possible, if far-fetched, cause merits mention. Norton, who couldn’t work because she suffered from attacks of vertigo, was for a time Greenberg’s reader. Perhaps without her nudging, books by females were not as highly considered. That assumes without any evidence that Norton would push for more women writers than Greenberg would in the first place, and also ignores the fact that she didn’t see every manuscript because he didn’t always have enough money to send them to her. We also don’t know for sure when she worked there. Sources often give the dates as 1950-1958 but in an interview she claimed it was three years. If 1958 was her end date, then her non-presence has little meaning as Gnome published only a handful of original books afterward.
Gnome finally died in 1962, when the prospects for f&sf as a genre were so gloomy that writers were fleeing the field. None of the prophets of the future saw the paperback revolution about to take off, or the New Wave changing the preferred subject from outer to inner space, or female editors like Cele Goldsmith welcoming a new crop of woman writers into Amazing and Fantastic. Gnome died because Greenberg was a poor businessman, but semi-amateur insider presses couldn’t hope to battle with mainstream publishers who almost universally created f&sf lines and printed up paperbacks by the millions. Golden Age writers felt extremely dated by the 1970s; to many it seemed like f&sf had rebooted and history started with SFWA and the Nebulas in 1965.
Two factual truths emerge from the Golden Age. The field was predominantly male; writers, editors, readers, publishers, fans, artists, every possible grouping was probably 90% men. Yet that remaining 10% was small but significant, not blocked by their gender, not unwelcomed, not rejected out of hand. They faced the obstacle of low numbers and the low level of support and encouragement that resulted, but they received credit and approbation proportional to their numbers. The larger society, the one that so many insiders felt alienated from, had more to do with the infrequency of a female name in a table of contents than blackballing by the club. An equivocal victory, perhaps, but not a shameful one.