History of Storyville by Jeff VanderMeer

'The History of Storyville' by Jeff VanderMeer

Seeing as there are so many new voices on Storyville, I thought I would pass on the history of Storyville for those individuals who were not here at its creation. Please see below. This will be old hat for some of you, so forgive me.


Storyville began not as a collection of cyberspace messages through onelist but in the basement of an obscure writer in the early 1970s. Harold Winegardner, a fan of fantastical literature, a tyro writer, and a resident of Chicago, Illinois, produced the first Storyville "message" when he wrote to his friend Nancy Smythe, editor of the fanzine "GvAoLyAaXgYe" (which, incidentally, used as its premise that it was edited from within a black hole that had jumbled its title) and proposed a kind of chain letter unique at that time. Specifically, Winegardner proposed that Smythe send a letter, setting out her views on fantastical literature, to a writer on her mailing list. That writer was to add his or her own comments to the letter and then send it on to a third writer--and so on, with instructions included that the 15th writer should return the annotated and "addendumed" letter to GvAoLyAaXgYe, whereupon Smythe would print the results.

After some complications and false starts--the letter was lost in the mail twice, meaning Smythe had to resend the original and begin the process anew--the experiment worked and the resulting "dialogue" published in GvAoLyAaXgYe. Smythe's fanzine had a circulation of only 200, but the letters became so popular that even after GvAoLyAaXgYe folded, Smythe and Winegardner continued the tradition. Discussions ranged from the ridiculous (cultural fashion statements in Dr. Who) to the sublimely ridiculous (detailed "soil analyses" from the planet Arrakis, or Dune) to the supremely sublime (discussion of the subjectivity displayed in Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus). Although most of the individuals who participated were relative unknowns or obscure writers, some participants came from the very first rank. When Smythe dared to send a series of such correspondences to Ray Bradbury, Bradbury provided thoughtful commentary on the, as he called it, "magic realism nature of space travel when considered as a poetic metaphor". Frederick Pohl produced a more pithy response when he scrawled simply "Very interesting! With your permission I will incorporate the psychological concept set out in your letter into I Am The Event Horizon (working title of my next book). Thankfully, F.P." Others, such as Pohl Anderson and Piers Anthony never responded, while, typically, Harlan Ellison called Smythe up to complain about the intrusion on his privacy. (Smythe actually had Winegardner take a photograph of her on the telephone with Ellison, although the photo has been lost to us, buried as it was with Smythe upon her death.)

By the time Smythe died in 1983, she and Winegardner had accumulated over 500 correspondences encompassing responses from over 900 writers on three continents. Winegardner's personal journals from the period indicate that, over the years, he and Smythe had become intimate, and that with her death he did not have the heart to continue what had become such a joint and personal project. In fact, Winegardner died soon after and the experiment might well have died with him.

For several years the bundled letters representing the most passionate and dispassionate literary thoughts of so many writers lay unread in the attic of Winegardner's house. However, in 1990 Paul Winegardner, Harold Winegardner's son (a computer and typewriter salesman) decided to sell the Winegardner house rather than continue to rent it to the many college students who often ruined the wallpaper, toilets, and electrical fixtures. In the process of cataloguing the last series of damages to the house, he came across a huge box labeled simply (and rather plaintively) "Storyville". Intrigued, he opened the box and began to read from the hundreds of typewritten, handwritten (in red, green, blue, and black ink), annotated letters, the envelopes from which, often with colorful stamps from Brazil, Ecuador, Czechoslovakia, Kenya, and elsewhere, were still attached by careful staples placed by his father's own hand.

Paul knew his father had been active in SF fandom (even attending the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention--an honor about which he waxed eloquent in The Fan Man's Journal, vol. 3, issue 4, out of Albuquerque, New Mexico) and had grown up surrounded by fantastical fiction and nonfiction. As an adult, he had never really returned to the genre, but the foundation had already been built for what was to become an amazing resurgence--both of his interest in the literature and in his father's long-dormant project. To his surprise, the letters not only served as a valuable historical record of the literary pulse of fantastical literature of 1970s and early 1980s, but it also presaged such movements as cyberpunk and the genetic engineering of the 1990s. For example, the Argentinian SF writer Francisco Albertino wrote in one correspondence dated March 18, 1974, "We must begin to think of technology in a new light--in a way which breaks with the past, which begins to take into account the fact that our children have adapted to it as if they are themselves mutations. It is a cyber future, and it demands a cyber literature wedded to noir of the past and the spontaneousness of youth."

Paul gave some paltry examination to the idea of publishing the letters in book form, but copies of his correspondence from the period reveal he only sent a rather poorly worded letter to the textbook division of McGraw-Hill, apparently because a cousin of his worked there, and, rebuffed, never tried again.

Paul was more interested in bringing the project back to life. He perceived a slightly different approach to the project. As a computer salesman, he traveled all across the country for conventions and to make individuals sales to corporations. He began, in his travels, to take portions of the original letters in which questions had been raised but not answered, and would post them on the bulletin boards of local writers' groups with his home address listed--or he would seek out local writers and ask them to contribute in some way. Once, in a fit of ambition, he even slid a letter under the gate to Harlan Ellison's house in Sherman Oaks, but did not receive a reply. (He also found that many of his computer customers were writers or read SF and these contacts too found themselves made into part of Storyville.)

Soon, Paul found himself at the hub of a series of "wheels" of correspondence that he added to the original Storyville correspondence. Over the years, he accumulated another 900 letters, on all sorts of topics related to fantastical literature--often, he spurred correspondents on by promising them he would publish the results in the Winegardner Journal--a journal that did not exist. In fact, all indications are that Paul simply wanted to read the letters himself--that he simply received great pleasure, in what was often a solitary occupation, from receiving the thoughts of all and sundry on subjects that had been dear to his father's heart. (Details of Paul's various travels and operations are sketchy as he did not keep a personal journal.)

Now Storyville lay dormant in Paul's house--and might have passed out of history altogether upon his death from colon cancer in 1996, if not for the intrepid decisions made by his distant cousin, Malinda Korej, a registered nurse to whom he left his earthly belongings (all closer relations having passed on). Korej, in 1997, unearthed the now gargantuan Storyville "community" and rather than attempt to publish it saw in the Internet a chance to both provide the world with the prior correspondence and start an entirely new dialogue using new technology.

Eventually, Korej started Storyville and began the task of imaging the over 1,400 letters onto the internet.

Although many scholars of fantastical fiction have scoffed at the idea that these documents, most from obscure or unpublished writers, hold any value to us today, the very existence of the vital Storyville listserv, and the fact that the imaged documents have been cited in no fewer than 75 published essays on fantastical and SF literature (see, for example, John Clute's Encyclopedia of SF, page 235) leads the ordinary reader to a different conclusion.

More importantly, the Internet, in a sense already envisioned by Harold Winegardner in the very foundation of his original idea, has brought to full fruition the vision of Harold Winegardner, Nancy Smythe, and GvAoLyAaXgYe.


See also:

The Storyville Photo Gallery
More Storyvillian Images (with an alien baby!)
Storyville home


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