Octavia Butler and the Pimply, Pompous Publisher




SCIENCE FICTION WRITER Octavia Estelle Butler, who passed away 15 years ago, would have celebrated her 74th birthday on June 22 of this year. She was a prolific author of 15 novels and the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” I knew Octavia when I was a teenager. Although my behavior with her was appalling at times, the result of our brief interaction turned out to be more meaningful and enduring than I could have imagined.

In 1979, when I was 14, I was determined to publish a biweekly, 24-page magazine of and about science fiction entitled Transmission. I commissioned Octavia, who was 32, to write an essay. (I do not believe I ever told her my age.) On July 28 of that year, I had heard her speak at the Fantasy Faire convention in Pasadena, California, where she participated in a panel debating the topic “How Science Fiction Handles Social Change.” [1] Pasadena was Octavia’s hometown.

Photo by Dan Watson

As a first-generation Cuban American living with my divorced mother and two siblings in a small bungalow that few friends were invited to visit, perhaps I felt liberated from conventions. In any case, I was precocious.

I was a seasoned cold-caller, having organized a “Star Wars Seminar” in early 1978 at my junior high school in Glendale, California, when I was 12 or 13. My sole credential was that I had watched Star Wars 21 times at the cinema. As guest speakers, I corralled Star Trek scriptwriters D. C. Fontana, David Gerrold, and George Clayton Johnson, all compliant victims of my telephone skills.

I developed an early passion for journalism: when I was 13, my first article appeared in the January 1979 issue of the nationally distributed Future Magazine.

By the time I contacted Octavia, she boasted Doubleday, Signet/New American Library, and Avon among the publishers of her first novels. The bio she provided for the Fantasy Faire program read:

Octavia Butler is a hermit, living in the middle of Los Angeles, a pessimist (if she isn’t careful), a feminist, a quiet egotist, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive. She has written “Patternmasters,” “Mind of My Mind,” “Survivor,” “Kindred,” and “Wild Seed.” “Kindred,” among other things, is a rather shocking novel of slavery in early America, which probably should be read by every white American.

It was only in 1979 that Octavia made the leap to devote herself to writing full-time. In a letter in November 1980, she wrote, “I am the only black woman writing science fiction (there are three black men). I believe my work would be of interest to general readers as well as sf fans, but my problem has been reaching people outside the genre.” Octavia did not live to see one of her novels — Parable of the Sower — finally reach the New York Times Best Seller list in 2020, to witness NASA naming a landing site on Mars after her, or to learn that her novels Dawn and Wild Seed were being developed for Amazon Prime Video by Ava DuVernay and Viola Davis, respectively.

I had not saved any documents from that teenage venture. I still owned a single copy of the magazine only because my brother had offered me one decades later when he was cleaning out his garage. Fortunately, Octavia had kept our correspondence and the drafts of her essay, which I could access through her substantial archives at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. Coupled with additional research, this is how I reconstructed our more than 40-year-old exchange.

On August 3, 1979, I spoke and then wrote to Octavia, inviting her to contribute a 3,000-word essay to the inaugural (and ultimately only) issue of Transmission Magazine. (Earlier in the year, I had published a four-page preview [“Volume 1, Number 0”], financed for $200 by a full-page ad for Omni Magazine that I sold by cold-calling Bob Guccione Jr.)

Adopting a tone that, upon reflection, would have been shocking even at the time, I wrote,

After hearing you speak at the Fantasy Faire convention, I wondered if you would be willing to write … an article giving the reader an insight on the who, what, where, when, why, and how of minorities in science fiction, with emphasis on blacks. I would like you to discuss things on the line of [sic] how writers can write believable characters into their stories, why they tend to ignore minorities, how they ignore minorities, why they tend to write unbelievable minority characters, etc. Possibly you want to use your novels as contrasting examples, since they excel all others in their manipulation of minorities, especially blacks (I found “Survivor” quite intriguing in that sense) … A minority (in this case, a black) is insulted when a writer introduces a black character in his/her story who is not believable and is based solely on infuriating stereotypes molded by the prejudiced society of the ’50s and ’60s. And I also think you’re the only person qualified (at this time) to write a definitive article on this subject.

Although I own up to everything I wrote back then, my language today about racialized groups or Black people in particular would not be so blindly insensitive. Nor would I have suggested such a disgraceful title for the article, which Octavia gracefully ignored.

I offered her $50, which she accepted on the condition that she retain the copyright and the right to resell the essay three months after publication. “Since I am the only black woman writing sf, I have a feeling I’ll be needing this article again,” she explained.

At the end of the month, Octavia sent me her first draft, titled “Lost Races of Science Fiction.” We spoke over the phone, following which this cocky, 14-year-old editor sent his comments to an established and revered writer.

After I spoke with you about changes in the manuscript, I sat down and read the article, I think, about five times. The first seven-and-one-fourth pages are excellent, for you present a strong and interesting argument. On the other hand, the last two-and-three-fourths pages (or there-abouts) do not belong in this article in the manner you included them. I tried a hundred times over (believe me!) to swallow your reason for its inclusion in the “me-to-you” fashion (that most readers are writing or have “that” desire to write and would appreciate being offered worthy advise [sic] by a pro). Sorry. TRANSMISSION will not speak to its readers directly ever (except in special cases, like my INTRO or in any special pieces involving the necessary attention by readers) [Octavia highlights the sentence up to this point and writes “Ass!” in the left margin]; on the other hand, I will allow use of the “first person” article structure. My reason for this is that I fear losing non-writers when the magazine (even if only a small portion of it) speaks to writers or would-be writers. I fear boring the reader who doesn’t give a damn about what writers can do to introduce minority characters. What I would like [sic] is how YOU would go about using minority characters in your stories using the hypothetical situation that you’re a white writer faced with the task of introducing a believable black character into her story (I’m holding my breath to see how you figure this one out!).

I could not hold back, so I continued: 

Doing this, I know, would bring your article to the point of excellence. Another thing: don’t end with the paragraph, “Get a feel for the character…” It doesn’t work. (Any pertinent information in that paragraph can come earlier.) I want the article to end differently. Have you ever heard the theory on article writing that goes, “Tell the reader what you’re going to tell him; tell him; then tell him what you told him”? You’re [sic] article ends as if you are going to say more, but you don’t and the reader mentally trips. That’s a no-no. Use the theory. Tell an anecdote that captures the flavor of your article; a final note of hope — something like that. I would appreciate your calling me if any questions arise. If none, I need the rewrite by September 18. Thanks a bunch!

“Ass!” indeed.

On September 12, well before my random deadline (the unique issue of the magazine would not be published until the following year), Octavia wrote back. Not to give me the dressing down I deserved, but to send a revised and final version. She wrote:

Enclosed are the changes in “Lost Races…” that you requested. I’ve gotten rid of the offending “yous” in the last three pages and added an anecdote at the end of the article. The anecdote I used, by the way, was one I had planned to use in the original version. I even went to the library and hunted out the novel in which Uncle appears, but for some reason (dislike?) I did not use him. I wish you the best of luck with TRANSMISSION. I can understand your eagerness to do the best job you can on it (though I think you must be a masochist to want to bring it out biweekly).

I spent the summer of 1980 working full-time as a typist to raise the $1,200 necessary to professionally typeset and print 1,000 copies. A few specialized bookstores agreed to carry the publication, but sales were dismal despite a cover price of $1. This explains why I sounded so depressed in an interview on KPFK’s Hour 25, the long-running, popular radio show devoted to science and science fiction. At the end of my segment, host Mike Hodel read Octavia’s entire essay, closing with this: “It appears in the first issue of Transmission Magazine. And if for no other reason than that article, I recommend that you think seriously about purchasing this magazine.” (Hodel had also contributed a short article to Transmission.)

After sending her a copy of the magazine, I do not recall having contact with Octavia ever again.

Fast forward to 2018, when a childhood friend who had helped me with my teenage enterprises sent me a link to an article about Octavia. Appearing in the online edition of The New Yorker, it contained a non-assuming, subordinate clause that few readers would have noticed: “As she wrote in a 1980 essay for the magazine Transmission, titled ‘Lost Races of Science Fiction…’”

Octavia’s essay had been reprinted for the first time in over 35 years in Gerry Canavan’s 2016 book, Octavia E. Butler (University of Illinois Press). Canavan writes,

In 1980 Butler published a short essay in the science fiction magazine Transmission titled “Lost Races of Science Fiction.” The essay did not make an especially large splash, but it was very important to Butler — she often included copies of it in her letters to interviewers and to her fans as a way of explaining her attitude toward race and racism both within SF texts and within the real-world SF community.

It “did not make an especially large splash” because seemingly no one had bought the publication in which it had originally appeared. And now, in a review of Canavan’s tome, Publishers Weekly called the essay “groundbreaking.” In her review for the Women’s Review of Books, Nisi Shawl writes about

Butler’s long out-of-circulation 1980 essay, “Lost Races of Science Fiction.” A manifesto about the erroneousness of excluding black characters from SF because of the “messiness” involved in depicting nonwhites, “Lost Races” ends with a half-jubilant, half-deploring assessment of science fiction’s attitudes toward inclusivity and prejudice. “Times have changed,” Butler decrees. In the next sentence, though, she admonishes the field that “it still has a long way to go.” That her pronouncements on this matter hold true nearly forty years after they were first published speaks volumes about the slow rate of social change and Butler’s continuing centrality to our understanding of the fantastic genres.

Octavia’s essay was reprinted this year in Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories (edited by Canavan and Shawl, Library of America). A review in Bookforum calls it “a blunt 1980 essay on the absence of nonwhite characters in the genre.” Excerpts from the essay are included in a review in Harper’s Magazine.

Over 40 years after the fact, I realized that something to which I contributed during my mid-teens had, quietly and consistently, lived on to arguably become an influential piece in this amazing writer’s oeuvre. As I reread my letters to Octavia, I came face-to-face with my 14-year-old self. It was painful to rediscover much of what I had written to her. It was remarkable to observe how Octavia filtered out everything that made me such an “Ass!” and did not let it prevent her from writing an incisive essay that still resonates today. I feel proud of the role I played in bringing “Lost Races of Science Fiction” to life.

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Miguel Esteban has diverse and worldwide experience in the production and promotion of live events, including West End musicals, opera gala concerts and exhibitions. His teenage passion for nonfiction writing has never subsided.

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Featured image: “Butler signing portrait” by Nikolas Coukouma is licensed under CC BY 2.5.

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[1] Interview with Charlie Rose on June 1, 2000:

OB: When I was just getting started — around ’79, I guess it was — my books were just starting to do reasonably well — I was on a science fiction convention panel and in order to start trouble — I think — I hope — the guy next to me — science fiction panels are known for, you know, start an argument and then you can, you know, mix it up and something interesting might happen — the guy next to me was an editor [David Houston] and he said that he thought it wasn’t really necessary to have black characters in science fiction because you could always make any racial statement you needed to make by way of extraterrestrials. And if he was trying to start trouble, he certainly succeeded.

CR: You took it as trouble, didn’t you?

OB: Oh yeah.

CR: Or you made trouble.

OB: Well, I wound up writing an article about it and about the idea of writing science fiction as if it were happening in your neighborhood.

 

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