A reader asks a fascinating question. He speaks of a recent history of science fiction he’d read, and says the editors “laid the blame of ghetto-izing science fiction at John W. Campbell’s feet. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the matter.”
If the editors made the claim that science fiction was popular and mainstream before Campbell, and ghettoized after, I scorn this opinion as not merely ahistorical, but absurd.
The first fathers of science fiction, Wells, Verne, and the now-forgotten Olaf Stabledon, wrote for a general audience and were admired and respected as much (or as little) as any other writers. However, the next generation of science fiction writers, including figures like Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, and Robert E. Howard, wrote boy’s adventure fiction. Beloved as these stories are to fans like myself, they were comicbookish, aimed at children, and dealt with their themes in a childish way.
These stories are, in my fanboy opinion, simply great, but simply not great art.
Fantasy does not have a figure comparable to John W. Campbell, Junior, or, at least, not on the editorial side. Perhaps we could name Lin Carter during his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series: however, even Mr. Carter would admit that he was merely skateboarding the wake of that eighteen-wheeler of the fantasy field, Tolkien’s trilogy.
Tolkien singlehandedly brought fantasy back from its exile in the Victorian days to the nursery. Gary Gygax brought Tolkien’s version of the mythic world, peopled with Robert E. Howardian characters, into the tabletops of fandom worldwide. The Elves in Gygax are full-sized Tolkienian elves, not diminutive Shakespearean elves. it is safe to say that even folk who have not read Tolkien, if they have read modern fantasy, have read Tolkien. Perhaps there are readers who only read China Mieville, Phillip Pullman, and Michael Moorcock or the like, and studiously avoid anything smelling of elvish leaves from Lothlorian: but I will boldly say that even such rebellions against Tolkien, or explorations into the seas farthest from the waters of Narnia or Middle Earth, are influenced by what they react against.
Fantasy was not merely scorned by the Literary Establishment, it was hated. For this I have no explanation, only a hunch.
There is a worthwhile comment by Michael Flynn as well:
I would suggest that Orwell and Huxley were not SF writers, but were mainstream writers who happened to write a couple of books that appealed to Skiffidom. Just as it takes more than a lot of people living real close together to make a “city,” it takes more than the use of certain themes and tropes to make “SF.”
What marks “genre SF” is that the SF tropes are central to the story itself. In the earliest SF, the stories were largely “about” some scientific [actually, engineering] marvel] and we skiffians read story after story simply for the marvelous gadgets and settings.