sturgeonslawyer (sturgeonslawyer) wrote,

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn (2019-39)

Heinlein was notably intolerant of criticism about his work, claiming that the critics could not read what was right in front of them. I think he might have been reasonably tolerant of this book.

Armed with RAH's complete oeuvre, Patterson's biography, and a bunch of other stuff, Mendlesohn attempts to "tease out what I find fascinating about Heinlein, good, bad, and reprehensible, and to understand his work as a close-to-fifty-year-long argument with himself and those he admired." I have no idea whether she ended up teasing out what _she_ finds fascinating, but she certainly hit a lot of the spots for me, as well as teasing out a lot of good interpretation (if that's the word I want) new to em; and she certainly makes the case for the "argument".

This is no chronological study, for all it begins with a potted biography (heavily dependent upon Patterson). Rather than taking up Heinlein's texts individually, Mendlesohn identifies a set of characteristics (not exactly _themes_), gives each a chapter, and discusses the texts that contribute usefully to the argument for each characteristic. 

It is also no hagiography, nor a slam job, but a balanced consideration of Heinlein's work as a whole. Much (not all!) of what appears horrific in RAH, especially late RAH, is explained - not excused - in ways that bring insight into the work and the mind that created it. Mendlesohn even partially rehabilitates _Farnham's Freehold_, noting that its biggest problem is simply that it goes on beyond its proper end point.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me, is the one on "Technique". Without claiming that Heinlein is a brilliant stylist, she identifies several "features" that wind through the texts. Observing that Heinlein's second marriage (during which he began his writing career) was to "a noted script editor", Mendlesohn makes a strong case for Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein as Heinlein's writing coach and editor, bringing out a strongly "cinematic" flavor to much of his work. Similarly, she points out that Heinlein's focal characters are often sidekicks, while the true protagonist is someone else. 

Perhaps the strongest thread running through the book is Heinlein's attempt to discover and portray what is mature, responsible behavior. Throughout Heinlein's work there is the sense, not (as commonly thought, especially by the libertarian bunch) of the supreme value of the The Sovereign Individual, so much as the role of the individual, and especially the special individual, as a contributor to and shaper of civil/civic society. (Consider "Waldo" as the typecase for this.)

In all, Mendlesohn makes good arguments, and entertains while doing so. Her style is clear and generally demotic (though not "folksy": this is an academic book, after all) and her evidence clearly laid out.

More the pity then that the book desperately needed a copy editor familiar with the subject matter. It is riddled with small errors, which generally don't affect the quality of the anallysis, but which are _annoying_ to someone who _is_ familiar with the subject matter. They range from the petty - inconsistently naming Valentine Michael Smith as Michael Valentine Smith - to the egregious. 

Probably the worst of these is a passage which speaks of _I Will Fear No Evil_in great detail. On pp 376-8, Mendlesohn describes _The Passion of New Eve, an Angela Carter novel published in 1970 -  only it was really 1977. She then revers to IWFNE as being published 7 years earlier - which is true for the correct date - well, that _could_ be a typo, probably is, but should have been caught. What is _not_ a typo, however, is the placement on p 366: "'s worth remembering that this book was written in 1982, just as Americans were becoming aware of AIDS and before it changed the face of American gay life." That kind of thing could, and should, have been caught, as could-should the rather sloppy indexing. 

This is, of course, a quibble, though in places a rather large one. _The Pleasant Profession_ is a good book, an entertaining book, an informative book, and (to me at least) a valuable book.
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