Frederik Pohl v. Mark Rich

Ever since Frederik Pohl started blogging about his experience reading Mark Rich’s biography of Cyril Kornbluth, the hits on my review of said biography have gone up.  I thought the book was phenomenal and fascinating.  It’s one of those rare books that I rated at 5-stars.  But in my review, I also said:

The book does not paint a pretty picture of Frederik Pohl, which came as a surprise to me, considering their collaboration history as well as what Pohl had to say about Kornbluth in his memoir.

Today, Fred posted about some correspondence he had with Mark Rich earlier in the week in which he proposes offering rebuttals to much of what Rich had to say about him, and in which Rich responded that he was pleased that Fred would be “correcting” any mistakes.

I find this both fascinating and sad.  I enjoyed Mark Rich’s book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the field of science fiction and in particular, as a guide to one of the most remarkable writers the field has ever seen.  At the time I read the book, I felt that it was well sourced, and Rich seemed to have compelling evidence backing the things in which he said.  But as I said in my review, the picture Rich painted of Pohl came as a surprise to me, and now Pohl is crying foul and as someone who admires Pohl’s writing and Rich’s book, I’m not sure where to come down on this.  The fact is: I wasn’t there.  I don’t know what happened.  Rich wasn’t there either, but got his information from sources that were there.  Or from correspondence from those sources.  But Pohl was there and he knows what happened.

One might argue that as the last man standing from those halcyon days, Pohl almost got away with writing the history of that time the way he wanted it to be remembered, but that Mark Rich came along and called him on it.  I think this argument has merit, but at the same time, I feel sad that this is unfolding the way it is.  Mark Rich wrote a terrific book, but his attack on Pohl might come across as beating up on an old man.  Pohl, on the other hand, may have done some of the things Rich attributes to him, which would be sad and which would diminish the man (but not his work) in my eyes.  However, Pohl may not have done these things but find it difficult to defend himself from attacks where evidence to the contrary no longer exists.  It then becomes his word against Rich’s word.

Ultimately, this is a sad, though perhaps not unexpected side-effect of an otherwise terrific book.  If there are errors, I hope that Pohl has a chance to correct them and I hope that Rich accepts those corrections gracefully, or refutes them with equal grace.  It is a delicate situation and I don’t envy either party.

4 thoughts on “Frederik Pohl v. Mark Rich

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful followup to your book review. I’ll confess that I initially learned about Rich’s Kornbluth biography from Pohl’s blog. On the one hand, I was happy to learn that such a detailed biography of Kornbluth existed. I’ve now read part of the book and several thoughtful online reviews (including yours). Near as I can tell, Rich spent a lot of time and effort making it as good as he could. His love of his biographical subject certainly shines through. On the other hand, it strikes me as very odd that he didn’t interview Pohl (which I am inferring is the case, from the back-and-forth between them). Pohl is one of my boyhood heroes, and someone for whom my respect and admiration has only grown with both adulthood and the several interactions I’ve had with him over the years. So it’s heartbreaking to see him so clearly upset by his portrayal in the biography of his friend, not to mention the rather negative portrayal itself. Biographies –even autobiographies — are tricky affairs, like histories, and I’ve often wondered if any of them can lay claim to truly being nonfiction.

  2. I feel the same way, as I mentioned in the post. I loved Gateway, to say nothing of The Way The Future Was. And Asimov speaks so highly of Pohl in his autobiographies. That was my entire perception of Pohl until I read Rich’s book. I hope they manage to clear up any “mistakes” in an amicable way, but I’m not sure that will happen.

  3. Two points:

    1. I think we have to wait to see what specific issues Mr. Pohl raises about inaccuracies before reaching a full judgment on this issue.

    2. Having said that, if Mr. Rich did not try to interview Mr. Pohl during the research for his book, and at least consider his side of the story, then I don’t see how his book can be taken as a serious attempt at historical biography. How can you write a biography of a writer and not attempt to interview one of his frequent co-authors?

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