On one hand, her career ticks off many of the major "canon" points that commonly help the reputation of speculative fiction writers:
- Signature series? Darkover -- check.
- Signature best-selling book? The Mists of Avalon -- check.
- Part of a literary circle? The Greyhaven writers (Diana L. Paxson, Paul Edwin Zimmer, Jon Decles, and a few more) -- check.
- Significant influence on other writers? Check. Bradley initiated the Swords and Sorceress anthology series, now in its 32nd volume (!!), and she lent her name to an important publishing venue for fantasy writers, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. In fact, you can tell just how proud MZB was to have provided the first publication to many important fantasy writers.
- Cornerstone themes? Check -- tons of feminism, a fair engagement (post-Stonewall) with homosexual themes and characters.
- Interesting personal views: Check. Although not my bag, MZB was heavily involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism and, more importantly, a major West Coast influence on neo-paganism / wiccanism, which tended to emphasize the Goddess figure.
Just about the only major checkpoint missing is a voluminous personal correspondence, but even that lessens in important as letter-writing gradually grows obsolete (although contemporaries like Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanne Rust had their share).
Yet there's no biography of Bradley -- or Paxson, for that matter. A MLA International Bibliography search on MZB pulls up a bare few dozens mentions, and only one short monograph devoted solely to her. (Paxson comes up with less than a dozen hits.)
This lack of attention just seem apart of how drastically fantasy criticism, historically, has lagged behind sf criticism. Although many MZB novels are relentlessly mediocre, that's hardly unusual for writer who grew up with and around the pulps. She's also not a stylistic experimentalist -- although, again, that's hardly a disqualifier among speculative fiction writers, especially those on the fantasy spectrum. She does seem orthogonal, however, to the SF New Wave.
I've often thought that writers are only as good as their critics, and literary reputations, especially posthumous ones, require really good critics. To put it simply, MZB simply hasn't "lucked out" to have found many such critics for her work. I haven't quite read enough of MZB yet to attribute her lack of attention solely to bad luck, but it's an intriguing hypothesis for now.
I also wonder if her lack of high-brow literary ambition might not have been a problem, either. In an afterword to The Spell Sword, she notes (1) she's not that worked up over world-building inconsistencies between her Darkover novels [Tolkien would have been horrified], and (2) she considers herself mostly an "entertainment" writer. Again, being an entertainment writer describes nearly everybody in the pulp tradition, but even good literary critics need clues from the writers themselves as to their own important. MZB's afterword ends with a telling passage:
"If the books have any message at all, which I personally doubt, it is simply that for a man nothing of mankind is alien" (158).Well, that's deflating. For the moment we'll ignore her clear humanism, a vast unpopular viewpoint in an age of politics-orientated criticism and postmodern/poststructuralist theory. Let's focus instead on her lack of a "message." Tolkien, too, disavowed any message. When writers say something like that (usually accompanied by a faint tone of scorn), they mean that they're not addressing some current situation in politics, life, or culture. Still, Tolkien's many interpretors have adequately uncovered the extent of his literary ambitions in regards to English literary history. MZB hasn't been as lucky in her disavowal, it seems to me. Rather than simply ignoring it, perhaps critics have simply thought, "Well, straight from the horse's mouth -- nothing to see here," and moved on to other writers.