Operation Clambake


The Washington Post

By Michele Slung

L. RON HUBBARD USED TO CHURN OUT pulp fiction at a furious rate. Detective stories, science fiction, fantasy, jungle dramas, westerns: You name the genre and he wrote in it, during pulp's golden age in the '30s and '40s. Once a public relations agent, he also toiled back then in Hollywood as a screenwriter; films he worked on included vehicles for Gary Cooper, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, cliffhanging serials, maybe even a Flash Gordon or two. But in 1950 his writing career gave way to something else, for Hubbard, in a variation on those people who change their lives when they find religion, founded his own religion, Scientology, to which he began to devote himself entirely.

It's been a profitable venture -- the reclusive Hubbard lives in self-imposed tax exile on a yacht called the Sea Org -- even if the respectability of Scientology is about what you'd expect for a sect organized by the author of Red Death Over China, Cattle King for a Day and The Case of the Friendly Corpse. (It's even been rumored since its inception that Scientology came to be because Hubbard, having told his fellow sf and fantasy writers that starting up a religion was one way to get rich quick, decided to follow his own advice.) However, you can't keep an old hack down, and Hubbard, it seems, despite his standing as a "spiritual leader," has always considered himself a writer first and foremost. Now, at the age of 71, to celebrate the 50th year of his writing career, Hubbard is publishing Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (St. Martin's).

An 819-page space opera ("The jolt knocked Numph sideways. Green blood began to pour from a wound that went all the way through his head.") that's down from a 1,800-page manuscript, it's "not Scientology propaganda," insists editor Michael Denneny. "It has the values of a UNICEF greeting card -- racial harmony, mutual respect, no centralized tyranny." Plus, of course, hairy-pawed monsters, small gray men evolved from sharks and a heroine dressed in tight doeskin that shows "her breasts and a lot of bare leg." Says Hubbard in his introduction, it's "the only one I ever wrote just to amuse myself."

Neither Denneny nor agent Ned Leavitt of William Morris has ever met Hubbard; both have worked with him through correspondence and intermediaries. For Leavitt, contacted by an L.A. firm to represent Hubbard on the East Coast to trade publishers, it was "rather remarkable that this man was back into fiction-writing. I had no idea what to expect." At the same time Battlefield Earth is being released, the official Scientology church press, Bridge Publications, is offering a new Hubbard self-help volume, Self Analysis. (The previous such book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, is touted as having sold over 5 million copies.) While Self-Analysis has a first printing of 100,000, St. Martin's is announcing an initial print run of 45,000 for Battlefield Earth.

It's hard, really, to know what to make of such a seemingly schizoid figure: on the one hand, the old-fashioned, rather jolly pulp writer, friend of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, who's written an old-fashioned intergalactic saga and, on the other, the modern cult leader. Explains Hubbard, again in his introduction to Battlefield Earth, "in the hard-driven times between 1930 and 1950, I was a professional writer . . . to finance more serious researches." And, "some of my readers may wonder that I did not include my own serious subjects in this book." Well, Hubbard goes on, it's not a problem because "I'm very proud of also being known as a science fiction writer." You've heard of the separation of church and state; I guess this is a case of the separation of church and space.


AGENT ESTHER NEWBERG of International Creative Management confirms that she is near closing on a contract for Ze'ev Chafetz, who quit late last month as the director of the Israeli government press office. But, she says, he "was doing the book before he resigned and it won't be about that." Its subject, however, is "how the Western press treats the Middle East." Chafetz, an American, moved to Israel in 1967,..Ancient Evenings is the current title of Norman Mailer's long-awaited novel set in the Egypt of the pharaohs; at least, it was long-awaited until it was read. Despite its having been taken by the Literary Guild, who've made it part of a dual selection, the paperback people, in these cautious times, couldn't work up enough enthusiasm (read money) to satisfy Little, Brown. "We're thumping our chests and crowing because we're revitalizing our (trade) paperback line," says that house's director of advertising and publicity Bill Guthrie, trying to put a good face on it. "Even though there was a tempting offer from one of the reprinters we will retain the rights. . . ."

Timing on books can be everything, and the best moment for bringing out Every Woman's Survival Guide to Football (1st and 10 Press, San Francisco) has so far not been the fall of 1982. Author Risha Golby, in her introduction, talks about her Sunday-widowhood and how her friend and now co-author Robbee Royce convinced her to find out what offsides, etc. really were. That information, plus a few recipes ("Gridiron Goulash") in case you start to feel too bogged down in point-spreads, are here, but football strikes, alas, are not explained . . . A little book with a growing underground reputation is Truly Tasteless Jokes (Ballantine), and you'd better believe that title means what it says. It's labeled humor, but what you'll hear from people flipping the pages are sick, shocked giggles or groans of revulsion. Almost none of the punchlines are repeatable here, so it's hard to convey the book's offensiveness. The pseudonymous author's called Blanche Knott, but a truly tasteless rumor is that she's actually an editor at a publishing house, perhaps St. Martin's . . .

In England copies were sent out by the publisher to every member of Parliament and in America Schocken has followed suit, by mailing 100 of Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows to each U.S. senator. Drawn in the popular British artist's familiar cartoon style, it details the effect of an nuclear attack on an ordinary family. There's no television, no traffic and no water for "a nice cup of tea," but there's "a terrible smell of burning," "red hot winds," slowly encroaching illness and, finally, silence. Already a best seller in England, the book was turned down by many American houses before being picked up by Schocken; now an animated version is being planned . . .

The Sierra Club is doing their first full-length novel in January; called The River Why, it's by James David Duncan, an Oregon writer who sent it to his future publishers, as it turns out, by mistake. Publicity manager Kathy Kouts explains, "A friend told him the Sierra Club was looking for fiction" -- which wasn't true. But editorial director Danny Moses became convinced, after reading it, that the book should be the one to break precedent for them. Does it have outdoors or environmental themes that cause it to blend in with the Sierra Club list? Definitely, says Kouts. "It's about a fly-fishing genius -- and also about the debate between bait-fishers and fly-fishers -- who learns that fishing isn't everything." But, for those who want their trout with a little something on the side, Kouts adds, "There's a love story, too."

GRAPHIC: Pictures 1 and 2, Jacket art with photograph of L. Ron Hubbard