Looking at Striver's Row

BART LANDRY'S 14 years of investigation into the black middle class left the University of Maryland sociologist with a little encouraging and a lot of discouraging news. On the positive side, as he points out in The New Black Middle Class (University of California Press), the number of black Americans who could be considered middle class more than doubled in the 1960s, rising from 13 percent to 27 percent. Forty-five percent of the black population is now middle class, compared with 56 percent of the white.

The depressing part is that the black middle class is currently "struggling to maintain a middle-class living standard. It's hard pressed; the white middle class is doing far better," says Landry. Just compare the incomes of middle-class black males with their white counterparts: "Ten to 15 years ago, the average income gap was $5,000. It's now expanded to $10,000."

Landry's study, the first of its kind, began germinating in 1973, after he noticed in a census table that nearly all the black families with incomes exceeding $10,000 had two earners. "We were still in the Great Society programs," he remembers, "and I wondered how successful they had been in helping some blacks reach economic security. So I started a search for economically successful blacks. I read the literature and found phrases like 'black elite,' 'black aristocracy,' 'black middle class,' but without anyone agreeing on the definitions."

If the literature was fuzzy -- Landry eventually defined the black middle class as comprising those with white-collar occupations -- he still had no idea how many people fitted into this group. There had been no representative studies of the black middle class, just impressionistic ones -- including Black Bourgeoisie, E. Franklin Frazier's pathbreaking 1955 work. So with, money from the Twentieth Century Fund, he did surveys in 21 metropolitan areas across the country to see just who was out there.

"The big question that I sought to answer was, were the living standards of middle class blacks and whites comparable? In general, the answer was no. It took greater effort for blacks to achieve the same living standards as whites. In the mid-'70s, two-thirds of all black middle class wives worked full time, but only one-quarter of middle-class white wives did so. We know that far more of the white wives work today, but that simply helps them keep up with the rising cost of living. The black wives were already working, so many families experienced an absolute erosion of living standards."

The black middle class had been able to double in the '60s as the result of two significant factors: a thriving economy and the civil rights movement. "It was a period of optimism, and it was easy for blacks to be included in this growth," says Landry. "The '70s and '80s have turned the tide, and we're now living in a period of economic uncertainty -- and discrimination has reasserted itself."

The Winner's No Secret

SHORTLY AFTER every presidential election, books are published that purport either to interpret or to give the inside story on what has just happened. This is a once-grand tradition that began back with Theodore White and his best-selling The Making of the President, 1960. In the November Washington Journalism Review, William A. Henry III explains how he came to understand that the public really doesn't care that much anymore about the whole enterprise.

Henry says that his Visions of America: How We Saw the 1984 Election was prominently and well reviewed and aggressively promoted, but still managed to sell only a third of the 19,000 copies the publisher sent out to stores -- a devastating failure. In seeking to analyze the commercial failure of his and similar books, the author concludes that "readers think there is not much new left to tell them, and readers are by and large right."

Send in the Clones

SCIENCE FICTION has always had a weakness for sequels. The most popular writers are usually those who choose to reexplore worlds they have already created, including Isaac Asimov, who recently has been spending his time writing new volumes in his classic Robot and Foundation series, and Roger Zelazny, with his eight-book Amber saga.

Besides vast popularity and a fondness for multi-volume adventures, these two authors have something else in common: new series have just been started that use their names and the universes they've created. The books, however, are actually being written by others. At least a half-dozen such efforts are now being published, and more are in the pipeline.

Alien Speedway, for instance, is described as "an entire solar system designed as the most awesome racetrack in the history of the sport." Zelazny developed the general concept and provided some narrative ideas. Vol. 1, Clypsis, was written by Jeffrey Carver; Vol. 2, due in January, is by another young writer, Thomas Wylde. There will be at least three books, and if it catches on with the intended audience -- young stock car racing fans -- you can bet there'll be many more.

"These writers are getting their names and their talents brought before the public in a way that, with only their own names on the book, might not happen otherwise. They're also getting an opportunity to explore a universe created by one of the masters of science fiction," says David M. Harris, senior editor at Byron Preiss Visual Publications. Preiss is a packager responsible for putting together not only the Zelazny series, but also the Asimov and one using the name and input of Arthur C. Clarke.

Not everyone in the sf field seems to feel these series are a good idea. Noting that some "may feel they cheapen the purity of the author's oeuvre," agent Richard Curtis says, "people feel it's a form of sharecropping."

Curtis says he was approached "by a packager who wanted a client of mine to create a world very much like Alien Speedway. There was more than one reason for my turning it down, but one was that I felt it would dilute the value of the author's name. He should come out once a year with a book of his own, rather than six times a year with books under his name that might eventually turn off his fans."

And then there's the effect on the reader to consider. Gardner Dozois, editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, says: "I suppose {this phenomenon} doesn't do any harm -- it's no worse than television shows. But in an ideal world, I would prefer to see writers writing their own material, developing their own worlds, and using their own imaginations, rather than slavishly producing something that someone has already worked up. It's part of the trend toward lazy creativity."

In the Margin

THE BRITISH scholar Peter Opie was as dedicated a book collector as there ever was. According to one account, after he walked around the garden of his new house, he said: "Well, that's enough of that," and never bothered with the garden again. His collection of children's books was unrivaled, and included such rarities as the copy of The Wind in the Willows that Kenneth Grahame had inscribed for his son Alastair. Opie died several years ago; his wife and fellow scholar Iona is willing to sell the 17,000-item collection to the Bodleian Library at Oxford for half its estimated value. Not only would this keep the collection intact, but it could then be accessible to scholars. The appeal looks as if it will be successful, with the necessary money being raised by Easter . . .

On the front of Yakov Smirnoff's America on Six Rubles a Day (Vintage), the Russian expatriate comedian is seen holding up a "Russian Express" card. The slogan: "Don't Leave Home." Harmless fun, perhaps, but American Express didn't laugh. On the back cover of the book is a disclaimer that "Don't Leave Home Without It" is a registered service mark of American Express, and that Smirnoff's book "is neither authorized nor endorsed by that company." "The subtitle of the book is 'How to Become a Capitalist Pig,' " notes its editor, David Rosenthal, "and I guess Yakov just learned a lesson about that" . . .

Scott Donaldson's eagerly awaited biography of John Cheever, which was initially due to appear from Random House last year, is now slated to appear late next spring. The delay was caused by the necessity of making sure all copyrighted material or letters fit the guidelines established in the wake of J.D. Salinger's successful infringement case against the publisher. "I think it lost some Cheever flavor," says the book's editor, Robert Loomis, "but it caused the author to work harder to say what he was trying to say himself. It's a better book, but it's a mixed blessing."