Discussion:
Nevala-Lee Reviews The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Hein­lein
Add Reply
a425couple
2019-05-13 23:37:45 UTC
Reply
Permalink
from
https://locusmag.com/2019/05/alec-nevala-lee-reviews-the-pleasant-profession-of-robert-a-heinlein-by-farah-mendlesohn/

Alec Nevala-Lee Reviews The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Hein­lein
by Farah Mendlesohn
May 12, 2019 Alec Nevala-Lee
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (Unbound
978-1-78352-678-9, £25.00, 480pp, hc) March 2019.

In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the critic David Thomson
arrives at “a major but very difficult realization” about Cary Grant:

As well as being a leading box-office draw for some thirty years, the
epitome of the man-about-town… as well as being the retired actor, still
handsome executive of a perfume company – as well as all these things,
he was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.

A similar moment of insight may well be over­due about Robert A.
Heinlein, who, in addition to being the most successful science fiction
writer of his time, a posthumous source of inspirational quotes, and the
intellectual icon of libertarians, patriots, and polyamorists, pres­ents
a strong case for being the best and most important author the genre has
ever produced.

If this statement feels at all controversial, it’s partially because the
qualities that make Heinlein so indispensable – his variety, his
productivity, his bewildering evolution over half a century – also
contribute to his elusiveness. A generational shift in his reception has
left him even harder to grasp. Fewer young fans these days have grown up
reading the Heinlein juveniles, which inspired many of their original
readers to become scientists or engineers. Their impressions are more
likely to be secondhand, or shaped by a few best­selling novels –
Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh
Mistress – that offer an incomplete picture when taken on their own. As
a result, Heinlein is in desperate need of informed critics who have
read everything and can put the result into a sensible order.

Heinlein has never lacked for critical attention, but many of his works
should be approached with caution. During his lifetime, the most
comprehen­sive treatments were by authors – Alexei Panshin, H. Bruce
Franklin, Leon Stover – who had met Heinlein and had passionate feelings
about him as a person, while the majority of the more recent surveys,
although often valuable, are labors of love by specialists with an
emotional stake in his legacy. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A.
Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn, by contrast, is the kind of book that a
writer of his stature deserves – an academic but readable overview from
a modern perspective, covering his full career, and written by a scholar
of wide interests and learning whose ideas have been shaped by something
more than reading Heinlein himself.

“As a historian, I am perfectly happy to know that I like Heinlein
without feeling that it is essen­tial that newcomers to science fiction
need to read him,” Mendlesohn writes, which is a statement that is hard
to imagine appearing in most earlier books on the subject. Yet
Mendlesohn’s even-handed approach – with its unhurried investigation of
ev­erything that seems important – amounts to a more persuasive argument
for Heinlein’s significance than any of the studies that take his
greatness for granted. Despite his abundance of “single-issue admirers,”
Heinlein demands to be seen in his en­tirety, and although this long
book may be daunting to novices, readers familiar with the overall scope
of his achievement will be rewarded with a trove of insights into what
Mendlesohn calls Heinlein’s lifelong “argument with himself.”

Mendlesohn does a commendable job of res­cuing Heinlein from both his
acolytes and his detractors. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A.
Heinlein quietly corrects many of the assump­tions of William H.
Patterson’s monumental but uncritical biography, and it recognizes the
influ­ence of his second wife, Leslyn, who has been badly mistreated
elsewhere. Mendlesohn notes that Heinlein’s insistence on reasoning from
facts was undermined by his “informational isolation” on many subjects,
and that his imaginative rigor was counterbalanced by a crucial streak
of senti­mentality. While acknowledging his shortcomings as a stylist,
they rightly praise the undervalued “playfulness and serviceability” of
Heinlein’s “lovely, loose, popular prose.”

When it comes to more difficult issues, Mendle­sohn neatly avoids the
simplifications that fre­quently appear on both sides: “With Heinlein
it’s always a case of being a little bit more complicated than it
initially seems.” Mendlesohn compares his vocal opposition to bigotry
with the limitations of his nonwhite characters – whose racial
identities are often reduced to “Easter eggs” in the text – and his lack
of sensitivity toward institutional oppression: “Heinlein understands
and opposes enslavement and colour prejudice, but he does not really see
that racism has a wider infrastructure. He does not understand what we
now frame as systemic racism.”

Elsewhere, Mendlesohn points out that Hein­lein’s most famous aphorism
on guns – “An armed society is a polite society” – falls apart in
context, while their discussion of Heinlein’s “intensely per­sonal”
fascination with gender may inspire many readers to see his portrayal of
women in a new light. Writing of his “yearning to get a real feeling for
what women think, feel and want,” Mendlesohn concludes: “Heinlein made a
conscious effort to think about what women were like, and how they
thought about themselves. He tried to create for them a voice that was
embodied and aware of be­ing female in a male world. In these stories he
also tried to make an argument about the possibilities for shifting that
sense of self.”

This willingness to view a writer through the lens of the critic’s own
time is just what we ought to expect from a serious evaluation of a
figure in the main line of American literature, which is precisely how
Heinlein is regarded by his fans. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A.
Heinlein pays him the compliment of holding him to his own high
standards. Of the strain of didacticism in his late novels, Mendlesohn
writes: “In another author this might have been disastrous, but
Heinlein’s inner self was sufficiently cranky, awkward and complex that
there was plenty of material to mine.” This is exactly right. His
mistakes were more instructive than the triumphs of most writers, and
his impor­tance needs no defending – but Mendlesohn’s calm recounting of
the evidence does something even more remarkable. It makes Heinlein seem
like the most interesting science fiction author around, not just of his
era, but of ours.

This review and more like it in the March 2019 issue of Locus.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyWhile you are here, please take a
moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely
on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like
to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to
continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
Quadibloc
2019-05-14 02:37:01 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by a425couple
In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the critic David Thomson
As well as being a leading box-office draw for some thirty years, the
epitome of the man-about-town… as well as being the retired actor, still
handsome executive of a perfume company – as well as all these things,
he was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.
I can see why that might be a "very difficult" thing to realize. He could be,
for all I know, the best actor in the history of the cinema. He certainly was
very popular, and since his films are old now, it's probably hard to do him
justice in a comparison.

But most important? Weren't his films light and fluffy?
Post by a425couple
A similar moment of insight may well be over­due about Robert A.
Heinlein, who, in addition to being the most successful science fiction
writer of his time, a posthumous source of inspirational quotes, and the
intellectual icon of libertarians, patriots, and polyamorists, pres­ents
a strong case for being the best and most important author the genre has
ever produced.
Heinlein was definitely the best in some ways, but his career left us with a
very limited oeuvre showing him at his best. Clarke, Bradbury, and even Wells
are likely to be ahead of him on most critics' short lists.

Maybe the criteria the critics use are flawed, in the case of Heinlein and Cary
Grant both. But that's a case that will need a long and complex argument to make
it.

John Savard
Quadibloc
2019-05-14 02:45:20 UTC
Reply
Permalink
I took a few moments to refresh myself on Cary Grant's career. It was varied, and
he was indeed very successful, and he was also significant in being one of the
early actors to escape the studio system. So the claim becomes more plausible.

John Savard
Richard Hershberger
2019-05-14 13:27:10 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by Quadibloc
I took a few moments to refresh myself on Cary Grant's career. It was varied, and
he was indeed very successful, and he was also significant in being one of the
early actors to escape the studio system. So the claim becomes more plausible.
John Savard
The claim to "most important" has the profound benefit of being undefined, and therefore beyond defending. That being said, if "actor" is used in its non-gendered sense, we should consider Mary Pickford. Even if it is gendered, Charlie Chaplin.

Richard R. Hershberger
Kevrob
2019-05-15 11:36:48 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by Richard Hershberger
Post by Quadibloc
I took a few moments to refresh myself on Cary Grant's career. It was varied, and
he was indeed very successful, and he was also significant in being one of the
early actors to escape the studio system. So the claim becomes more plausible.
John Savard
The claim to "most important" has the profound benefit of being undefined, and therefore beyond defending. That being said, if "actor" is used in its non-gendered sense, we should consider Mary Pickford. Even if it is gendered, Charlie Chaplin.
One could nominate that guy Al, as in, "Jolson Sings!"

Kevin R

J. Clarke
2019-05-14 02:54:08 UTC
Reply
Permalink
On Mon, 13 May 2019 19:37:01 -0700 (PDT), Quadibloc
Post by Quadibloc
Post by a425couple
In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the critic David Thomson
As well as being a leading box-office draw for some thirty years, the
epitome of the man-about-town… as well as being the retired actor, still
handsome executive of a perfume company – as well as all these things,
he was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.
I can see why that might be a "very difficult" thing to realize. He could be,
for all I know, the best actor in the history of the cinema. He certainly was
very popular, and since his films are old now, it's probably hard to do him
justice in a comparison.
But most important? Weren't his films light and fluffy?
That depends on whether you consider Hitchcock to be "light and
fluffy". He made more than 60 movies in a range of genres.
Post by Quadibloc
Post by a425couple
A similar moment of insight may well be over­due about Robert A.
Heinlein, who, in addition to being the most successful science fiction
writer of his time, a posthumous source of inspirational quotes, and the
intellectual icon of libertarians, patriots, and polyamorists, pres­ents
a strong case for being the best and most important author the genre has
ever produced.
Heinlein was definitely the best in some ways, but his career left us with a
very limited oeuvre showing him at his best. Clarke, Bradbury, and even Wells
are likely to be ahead of him on most critics' short lists.
Maybe the criteria the critics use are flawed, in the case of Heinlein and Cary
Grant both. But that's a case that will need a long and complex argument to make
it.
John Savard
Loading...