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Friday, August 31, 2012

Robert Shea on Larry T. Shaw

[This is an essay from Issue No. 9 of Robert Shea's anarchist fanzine, No. Governor, which I am reprinting here to make it easier for people to find and read. Larry Shaw was a well-known science fiction editor and fan -- he was the first magazine editor to buy a short story by Harlan Ellison -- but I did not know he was a major influence on Robert Shea until I read this. He helped prepare the way for Shea's career as a magazine editor, his career as a writer and his interest in anarchism, as you are about to read. Intriguingly, Shaw also was an editor at Dell Books, according to this entry in the Science Fiction Encylopedia. -- The Mgt.]

Larry T. Shaw: An Appreciation

By Robert Shea

I met Larry Shaw at a gathering of the Hydra Club, a science fiction professionals' association, in 1959. I mentioned that I was looking for a magazine editorial job. He said there was an opening where he worked, a place called Magnum Publications, and suggested I apply for it. I did, and got hired to assist Larry with the two automotive hobby magazines he edited. So Larry gave me my start in the magazine business.

Larry was a soft-spoken, shy man who smoked a strong-smelling pipe and liked extra-dry martinis. He never finished college, but he had educated himself better than many a college graduate I've known. He said little unless he was feeling thoroughly comfortable, but behind those thick glasses his mind was always working, often brilliantly.

Larry was the first person to teach me anything substantial about magazine editing. What it came down to, for Larry, was giving the readers their money's worth. This was a pretty radical idea in the publishing industry. Still is. Most of the publishers and many of the editors we knew preferred to treat magazines as a racket, the idea being to separate the suckers from their money with a minimal investment of one's own. Larry's approach, which he practiced as much as his employers would allow him on the various magazines he edited -- Infinity, Custom Rodder, Car Speed and Style, Cars -- meant trying to create the best magazine his resources would permit.

A lot of publishers and editors don't like the magazines they work on. Some don't like magazines, period. Larry believed an editor should like magazines in general and especially his or her own magazine. Editors should also genuinely like the subject matter of their magazines. Larry edited a number of automotive magazines, and he really was interested in cars. He liked cars. Even though he wasn't anything like the Fonzie types who bored and stroked their engines and painted raging flames on their hoods, he could relate to them and respect them.

When I first went to work for him I knew nothing about cars and didn't care about them. By example as much as anything else Larry taught me to develop an appreciation for the complex and weird-looking machines that filled the pages we edited. I discovered that you can learn to care about a subject you've never thought of before, and I learned how to break through some of the intellectual barriers I'd been hiding behind.

Working together, Larry and I rather rapidly became good friends. We lunched together almost daily at the Mansfield restaurant on 43rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, where they made good hamburgers and decent drinks. It was a hangout for many people who worked in what we call called the schlock magazine business -- the poor man's Algonquin.

Larry also believed that magazines, even schlock magazines, were meant to be read, and that an editor's main job was to fill the magazine with good writing. Good writing, as Larry saw it, should be clear, entertaining, easy to read, grammatically sound, useful and honest.

"I work very  hard on transitions," he once told me, a remark typical of his craftman's approach. A lot of editors worry about leads and endings, but an editor who worries about transitions really cares about his readers. He thought that flashy, chic-looking artwork was secondary in importance to reading matter in magazines, that too much visual dazzlement might even detract from readability.

Honesty was central to his concept of good editing. He hated such common schlock magazine trickery as misleading cover lines, disguising articles that had nothing new to offer with extravagant promises, plugging shoddy products in editorial pages to attract advertising -- paying, in general, more attention to the package than to its contents. In line with that he believed a magazine's contributors, writers, artists, photographers, should be paid as much as the publisher could possible afford, thereby enabling the magazine to get the best available work into its pages. This was another radical idea. Since it's easier to find contributors who will work for next to nothing than it is to get bargain prices out of paper manufacturers, printers or typesetters, most publishers thought last of all about paying contributors.

Larry helped me, not just with my magazine writing, but with my fiction in general. As always, I was writing fiction on the side, and Larry gave me the benefit of  his advice and criticism. He lent me a copy of The Mystery Writer's Handbook. I still have it. Though it was compiled in the 50s, it's full of wisdom, particularly an article on plot construction by Lester Dent, one of the great pulp masters, every word of which is pure gold.

Through Larry I met another good friend, who also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to teach me to write better fiction, Algis Budrys -- A.J. A.J.'s home was in the wilds of New Jersey and he needed a place to stay to be close to the publishing action in New York. While he was a house guest of the Shaws he wrote his masterpiece, Rogue Moon, which is dedicated, in tribute to Larry's devotion to craft, "To Larry Shaw, Journeyman Editor."

Every so often Larry would come out with pithy utterances, which, with becoming lack of modesty, he would refer to as "Shaw's Laws." They were not the Oscar Wilde sort of one-liners, but they would state a useful observation in a clear and memorable way. Probably the noblest of these was, "People are all we have to work with." He said this in defense of anarchism, but the more I think about it the more profound and all-embracing it seems to me. Another, in reference to fanzines, was, "Short and frequent is better than long and infrequent." I still try to be guided by that one. One time in the early 60s after a rash of short-lived humor magazines, including Hugh Hefner's Trump, appeared and then quickly folded, Larry said flatly, "Humor magazines fail." Of course, that was before the National Lampoon. Indeed, there might be exceptions to a Shaw's Law, but you ignored it at your peril.

Besides Shaw's Laws, Larry knew all sorts of other important things. For instance,  it was he who first pointed out to me that the Green Hornet is the Lone Ranger's grandnephew.

Larry was the first person I ever met who called himself an anarchist. This came as a surprise, because a gentle, rational person like himself didn't fit the bomb-throwing stereotype at all. His anarchist grew out of his trust in people and his belief that most of the harm in institutions came when people were unwilling to trust one other.

He introduced me to other gentle, rational anarchists. It was from Larry that I learned about the Industrial Workers of the World. He was an I.W.W. member. He didn't convert me, or even try very hard, but he prepared the ground for my adopting anarchism some  years later. Another mental barrier breached. Again, by example as much as by argument.

Larry was a quintessential science fiction fan. He had come to New York City from Schenectady in the 1940s and had been a member of that legendary science fiction fan club, the Futurians. He was editor of Infinity, a respected magazine that flourished and perished along with the sf boom of the late 50s. He was always working on one fanzine or another.

Larry and his wife Noreen were among the members of the Fanoclasts, and with their encouragement I boldly went deeper into fannish realms than I'd ever gone before. He introduced me to the fascinating people who were active in New York fandom in the 60s and got me to read fanzines from the stacks he kept on his coffee table. He even inspired me to start a publication of my own, a mimeographed literary magazine called The Scene, ancestral to the journal you hold in your hands.

I spent a lot of time visiting with Larry and Noreen in their homes in and around New York City -- on the Lower East Side, on Staten Island, then Westchester, then Long Island. I watched their family grow with the birth of Mike and then Steve.

Our careers took us out of New York to different destinations, me moving first to Los Angeles, then to Chicago and the Shaws moving first to Chicago, then to Los Angeles.

Neither one of  us was all that great a letter writer, and when I heard from the Shaws it was most often a birthday card from Noreen. Sometimes even a St. Patrick's Day card. Then in 1984 I got a letter from Noreen telling me that Larry had cancer of the throat. I  started writing longer letters, more frequently. I thought of writing Larry to tell him what an influence he'd been on me -- something like what I'm writing here --but I felt such a letter might read too much like a farewell to a dying friend and be depressing or discouraging to him. Anyway, I was glad that Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg arranged for Larry to hear at the 1984 Worldcon in Los Angeles how much people appreciated his contributions to science fiction.

In April, 1985 Noreen called to tell me that Larry had died. Something of him lives on in the many people whose lives and minds he touched.

And I've thought many times since then how important it is never to miss a chance to tell people what they mean to you.


michael said...

Shaw was at Dell 1968-69, when RAW/Shea began writing Illuminatus! But it wasn't published until 1975.

It seems possible that Shaw got their hopes up about getting their wild book published, but it if Shaw had any play in convincing the people at Dell in 1975 it seems Shea would've surely noted this in this mid-1980s eulogy.

I truly appreciate your sleuthing though, Tom. I had no idea who Larry T. Shaw was until now.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


Yeah, I'm guessing you're right. I do think Dell bought the book quite a bit of time before it was published. I wonder if Shaw could have mentioned it to one of his successors?