Robert E. Howard

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Robert E. Howard

Postby Taranaich on Monday, 27 July 2009, 3:39 pm

Greetings all. I have only just discovered this marvelous site, and am very pleased to see many of my favourite authors well represented, as well as a desire to explore new names. However, as I suppose is often, there's always one omission that is met with much spluttering of beverages in perplexed disbelief (usually figuratively), and in my case it is the absence of Robert E. Howard.

Robert E. Howard has had a hard time of it. For much of his literary establishment he has been dismissed as an immature pulp hack, a puerile boy's author whose stories are fit for little more than adolescent escapism, drowning in a morass of period racism, misogyny and excessive violence. This perception was perpetuated by L. Sprague De Camp, who viewed not only Howard's work, but the man himself with little regard.

However, in recent decades Howard's worth as an author has been reconsidered. Beginning with Don Herron's The Dark Barbarian, critical analysis of Howard started to look beyond the surface. Soon literary journals such as The Dark Man, Robert E. Howard: Two Gun Raconteur, REHupa and The Cimmerian were being printed with articles from the emerging field of Howard scholarship. Following The Dark Barbarian were other critical anthologies: The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard, The Barbaric Triumph, The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Sword & Sorcery, and others. All these critical studies show tremendous depth to Howard's better work, of a poetic soul who had much to say about life, humanity, and the world. Beyond the pulp trappings of nubile women, mighty-thewed warriors and demonic sorcerers, there is much philosophy to ponder regarding civilization, barbarism, humanity, nature, the universe and time, and man's place in the whole shebang.

Which brings me to this site. I'm unaware of exactly why Howard is not present among the illustrious elite of fantasy, but I would at least like to know what the "party line" is. If it's because the site master has not read Howard, then I certainly recommend that he do so, preferably one of the recent publications by Del Rey, which provide unexpurgated texts and critical and historical analysis in essays, apocrypha and otherwise in the foreword and afterword. If, however, the site master has read Howard and found his material lacking or otherwise not worthy of inclusion, then I at least ask why he thinks that way. At the risk of making an argumentum ad verecundiam fallacy, I've provided some other sources which consider Howard one of the finest fantasy authors: while I will hold no ill will towards you either way, you'll forgive me if I just dismiss you as a crazy old coot, blow an infantile raspberry and go back and join the cool kids.

Whatever your reasons, I would very much like to hear them. This is a wonderful site, and I hope to understand why Howard is not present, and if there's any way I can suggest some of his work that you might find of interest.

Regards,

Al Harron

EDIT: I must apologize profusely for not seeing Robert E. Howard listed among the "campy authors", which naturally does not sit well with me. "Campy" is something one uses to describe the comics or pastiches, certainly not the greater examples of Howard's writing like "Beyond the Black River", "The Valley of the Worm", "Worms of the Earth", "The Shadow Kingdom" and others. Still, having read your apologia, I would like to know exactly which Howard books you have read leading to this opinion.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby RANDY101 on Saturday, 01 August 2009, 8:39 am

I have to agree with Al. In my humble opinion it is shortsighted to have a list of great SF and Fantasy authors without including REH. After all he pretty much founded the entire sub-genre of Sword and Sorcery fiction. Countless writers have followed in his footsteps and all of them owe Howard a much belated thank you. In addition he is much, much better than his literary reputation would have you believe. For instance, his humorous westerns are not only very entertaining but very well written as well. His historical adventure stories rank right up there with the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Raphael Sabatini, Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb amog others. If he had been born 30-40 years later Howard might have a become a bestselling novelist like Louis L'Amour or James Clavell. Or at the very least he might have become an important regional writer. As it is Howard is currently going through a major resurgence in both popularity and interest. So lets give good ol' Two-Gun Bob the credit that he's due.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby DavidTate on Saturday, 01 August 2009, 11:21 pm

I'm not Eric, and do not speak for him, but I think it would be hard for him to make it more clear that the site asserts his personal opinions about literary merit, according to his personal criteria. He has gone far beyond the call of duty to make those criteria explicit. I do not always agree with his conclusions, but I'm not going to assert that he is wrong about any of them -- they are his opinions, and better-supported that most any other critical opinions I've ever run across.

Quite explicitly, the criteria for inclusion at GSF&F have nothing to do with fame, influence, reputation, sales, or any other measure besides our host's critical assessment. Merely being influential is not relevant, so Asimov and Heinlein and Niven do not make the grade. Selling well is irrelevant, so Piers Anthony and David Weber are nowhere to be found. And reputation within the genre is irrelevant too, so Connie Willis and Theodore Sturgeon and Samuel R. Delany and Harlan Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Steven Brust don't make the list just because they are very highly regarded by many SF&F writers and fans.

As I said, there are writers I would have included that Eric did not, and writers I would have omitted that Eric has not. And I, too, have expressed my surprise and (veiled) outrage to him about them. But it's not my site, and while I will happily discuss (or even debate) the merits of various writers and works with our host, I no longer presume to tell him his list is wrong. It's his list, and intended to be both fame-blind and reputation-blind.

In a sense, I think it's a tribute to Eric's obvious discrimination, and to how well he makes his cases, that we want him to agree with us about our own favorite authors. In the particular case of Robert E. Howard, I have no opinion -- I have not read any of his works. I am aware of his early influence on Swords and Sorcery as a subgenre, though I think Dunsany was earlier, Clark Ashton Smith essentially contemporary, and C.L. Moore's "Jirel of Joiry" not much behind. When you compare him to both Sabatini and Dumas, I am intrigued -- I am a great admirer of Dumas, but the two Sabatini novels I've read (Scaramouche and Captain Blood) were relatively disappointing after all of the comparisons to Dumas that I had heard. I have heard of Mundy and Lamb, but I don't think I've ever even seen one of their books.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby owlcroft on Sunday, 02 August 2009, 7:42 am

I try not to post here very often, because I'd like these forums to develop a life of their own and not become merely a dialogue between the site owner and the site's visitors. But I look in from time to time, and I guess I should drop a few words in on this one.

David has put the matter very generously, and aptly, but I should perhaps repeat something that I think gets lost sometimes. The "5-star" ratings--which are crude at best anyway--are only the upper portion of a personal rating scale that runs from -5 to +5 (I'm not sure I can recall a -5, unless it was Brian Lumley). But the point is that a "zero-rated" author, while he or she will not show up on this site, is still a readable one; even a -1 can be. I sometimes think of it this way: a 0-star can be read once for modest pleasure if nothing better happens to be at hand; a -1 you might pick up in a doctor's waiting room and use to pass the time, with no great sense of loss when the nurse calls you; a -2 might avail if you're screamingly bored on a rainy day, your internet connection is out, and you're tired of re-reading the labels on the ketchup bottles; a -3 is embarrassing to the author and publisher, while -4 and -5 are not simply bad but in one or more ways toxic.

Also, the whole range is my estimation of the book's overall worth as I imagine a sufficiently large readership of the sort of reader I am aiming at would vote the work. That necessarily omits what are commonly called "guilty pleasures": books that one perceives as having little or no real merit but which, for one reason or another, tickle one's personal fancy (I myself get quite a kick out of old Shadow novels).

Now since I rarely mention any author not in the lists, because I don't get any joy from writing negatives, I should say that I have re-visited some of the "classics" in recent years and been largely disappointed, and confirmed in my views that they were good but not all that good. Obviously, since their books sold, and sometimes are still selling, others somewhere disagree. Ellison, Vonnegut, Saint Phil, and even Ted Sturgeon fall into that category. Sturgeon could write very well at times--"And Now the News" impressed me in childhood, even before I was into sf&f, and it still does--but far too often he wielded The Great Hammer of Obviousness, especially as to social positions.

(An example of an older author I frequently struggle with myself over is Algis Budrys, whose Who? and especially Rogue Moon cause him to sit at about 0.499 stars with me, and the needle quivers from time to time.)

I have to admit--kind of like the character in the old Jules Feiffer cartoon who finally admits he's never been to Europe--that I have not yet essayed Connie Wills; but what I've read about her work does not incite in me a fiery passion to run screaming out to my nearest bookstore.

Many of the old pulp writers are a kind of fun to read, but--at least to me--chiefly as an exercise in nostalgie, scarcely anything to bite into and chew. Again: that doesn't mean they can't be fun to read, at least for some. But if I'm running a web site on which I have announced to the world that skeptics about the merits of work done in speculative fiction can come here to be disabused of their prejudices, I can scarcely include Robert E. Howard (or C. L. Moore, or even Clark Ashton Smith), now can I? In fairness, can I?

Remember: this is not a web site for science-fiction and fantasy readers: it is a web site for readers who may happen to have a taste for science-fiction and fantasy. The difference is crucial: any book recommended here should be able to stand up to reading by a literate reader accustomed to better-quality mainstream work. As it says somewhere, no bonus points granted for being sf&f.

Incidentally, I haven't read any Sabatini since I was about knee-high to a Coke bottle, grade-school age or so, but as best I very, very dimly recall, it was indeed not to be compared to Dumas (whom I also barely remember these days). Talbot Mundy, on the other hand, as best I recall from a little later (say age 12 or 13, when I hit on Tros of Samothrace) was surprisingly readable--still not world-class literature, but with some touches of characterization well beyond the standard Thud The Barbarian level. (I still remember one scene in which Julius Caesar has just been captured while invading England, and is lying unconscious on his ship's deck; as he comes to, the first thing he does, instinctively, is tug down his skirt [or whatever the Romans called the garment], a detail described in a way that conveyed clearly both Caesar's innate dignity and his, ah, robust ego--a small touch, but--obviously--memorable.)

Anyway, Al, thank you for the kind words. I hope I have to some degree answered your questions without turning you off me or the site or these forums. Differences of opinion are why they race horses.
Cordially,
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby DavidTate on Sunday, 02 August 2009, 11:04 am

Tangent: Eric, if you ever do decide to give Connie Willis a try, my suggestion for the best information-to-effort ratio would be the novella "Fire Watch". If you like that, you could move on to the related novels Doomsday Book (if you're feeling serious), or To Say Nothing of the Dog (if you're feeling frivolous and/or are a fan of Jerome K. Jerome).

I urge you to avoid her short fiction unless you find you love her novels and wish to branch out. She is, in my limited experience, more bipolar than Ursula Le Guin, and "bad Connie" is (to use your word) toxic indeed. On no account read "All My Darling Daughters".

Semi-tangent: I understand your desire to have these forums be more than simply a conversation with the host. It might be, though, that a conversation (or series of conversations) with the host would do more to spin off independent discussion than reticence will, at least for the time being.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby owlcroft on Wednesday, 05 August 2009, 6:21 am

Oh dear: I just ordered a collection of some short stories; lessee . . . ah, Impossible Things. I was ordering another book, and the store had a lot of specfic, so--with the shipping cost minimized by the first purchase--I decided to pick up a number of odds and ends on spec. Well, we'll see; if I don't like the stories, I won't give up (unless I think them dreadful). It's remarkable how many novelists of ability falter on short stories (a form I am not deeply fond of in any event, unless it be of established, continuing characters).

You may, David, be quite right about participation, but it's the old "irons in the fire" issue. I am already overdue on an article for Deadspin on the so-called "death of moneyball", and I am way behind on the latest models on my induction-cooking-equipment site. (I am pissed about the Moneyball movie: I strongly suspect that my nice interview with Soderbergh, already long since in the can, will be dropped from the revised version, along with many other such interviews. Sic transit gloria mundis.)

But I'll try to look in more often. As Jan Holbert Vaenz LXII said, all in all, it beats digging a ditch.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby DavidTate on Wednesday, 05 August 2009, 10:52 pm

I see that Impossible Things contains the much-lauded "The Last of the Winnebagos", and does not contain any stories I have read. It may be that my warning is inapplicable.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Randy M. on Monday, 10 August 2009, 4:55 pm

DavidTate wrote:Tangent: Eric, if you ever do decide to give Connie Willis a try, my suggestion for the best information-to-effort ratio would be the novella "Fire Watch". If you like that, you could move on to the related novels Doomsday Book (if you're feeling serious), or To Say Nothing of the Dog (if you're feeling frivolous and/or are a fan of Jerome K. Jerome).

I urge you to avoid her short fiction unless you find you love her novels and wish to branch out. She is, in my limited experience, more bipolar than Ursula Le Guin, and "bad Connie" is (to use your word) toxic indeed. On no account read "All My Darling Daughters".

Semi-tangent: I understand your desire to have these forums be more than simply a conversation with the host. It might be, though, that a conversation (or series of conversations) with the host would do more to spin off independent discussion than reticence will, at least for the time being.


It's been awhile since I read it, but, David, in all fairness, I feel I should stand up for "All My Darling Daughters." I thought it a good mix of s.f. and horror.

Eric, I'm not sure Willis is the kind of stylist you lean toward but David's right about "Fire Watch"; it would be a good test.

And as for your lack of regard for the short story, Eric, :o (I don't see a smilie with bowed, shaking head or I'd use that one.)

But I'll save that argument for another forum.

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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby owlcroft on Tuesday, 11 August 2009, 6:14 am

And as for your lack of regard for the short story, Eric . . . .

No, no, Randy: not lack of regard: just not the preferred form ("not deeply fond of" probably overstates it a bit). I think it a difficult form, because by nature it cannot say very much, so what it says has to be--if it's to be any good--extraordinarily compressed, like a spring, in much the same way poetry is textualy dense. That's not easy to do well, and, at least in my experience, even may writers who are superb at novel length have trouble at short-story length.

(There's a nice little essay on the short story by Steven Millhauser, one of the definite masters of the form.)

The short story, I feel, when effective, strikes a single note, but that note is clear and resonant. But too often, I find, short stories are, oh, some sort of "slice of life" thing (even if the life being sliced in unusual, as it typically is in speculative fiction).

Looking over this site's "master list", I see a fair number of collections of short stories; but, without counting and calculating, I'd say that they are mainly (but by no means wholly) concentrated in the work of a few authors who frequently work in the form--Aiken, Bradbury, Borges, Davidson, and that sort. So it's by no means a blanket prejudice.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Randy M. on Tuesday, 11 August 2009, 10:48 am

owlcroft wrote:And as for your lack of regard for the short story, Eric . . . .

No, no, Randy: not lack of regard: just not the preferred form ("not deeply fond of" probably overstates it a bit). I think it a difficult form, because by nature it cannot say very much, so what it says has to be--if it's to be any good--extraordinarily compressed, like a spring, in much the same way poetry is textualy dense. That's not easy to do well, and, at least in my experience, even may writers who are superb at novel length have trouble at short-story length.


Oh, good. That makes more sense, especially since you have Bradbury listed and, really, his accomplishments as a novelist pale beside his massive output of quality short stories. I would agree, too, that when a novel fails it may still be readable, but when a short story fails it is too bad to bother with.

(There's a nice little essay on the short story by Steven Millhauser, one of the definite masters of the form.)


Thanks for this link. I admit, I have yet to read Millhauser. I have a couple of his collections, though, and will move them up the TBR mountain.

The short story, I feel, when effective, strikes a single note, but that note is clear and resonant. But too often, I find, short stories are, oh, some sort of "slice of life" thing (even if the life being sliced in unusual, as it typically is in speculative fiction).

Looking over this site's "master list", I see a fair number of collections of short stories; but, without counting and calculating, I'd say that they are mainly (but by no means wholly) concentrated in the work of a few authors who frequently work in the form--Aiken, Bradbury, Borges, Davidson, and that sort. So it's by no means a blanket prejudice.


Good, especially since the foundations of modern s.f. are built on the short form. And I think your comparison to poetry is apt -- Faulkner stated that he started out to be a poet then, failing at that, attempted to become short story writer then, failing at that, attempted novels, offering an implied hierarchy of the forms and being more modest than he needed to be since many of his short stories are extremely good.

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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Estraa on Tuesday, 11 August 2009, 12:59 pm

Randy M. wrote:And I think your comparison to poetry is apt -- Faulkner stated that he started out to be a poet then, failing at that, attempted to become short story writer then, failing at that, attempted novels, offering an implied hierarchy of the forms and being more modest than he needed to be since many of his short stories are extremely good.

I think the implied hierarchy is upside down. I was just scanning poetry collections at the local library the other day, and I kept thinking to myself, What a waste, all these clever phrases in isolation without any grand context to give them some lasting significance in the universe of phrases. Sometimes a poem would be literally one sentence on an otherwise empty page. It's as if someone was determined to copyright all clever phrases one by one so that real writers couldn't use them in their novels without paying a fee.

The thing is, Borges was right. Anyone can come up with a few clever phrases. And when that's all a writer does, he isn't by any means above writers of other types in the hierarchy of writers; he is at the very bottom, and more harmful than useful.

I may be parodying my position, but that is basically where I stand. Come to think of it, poetry has traditionally had other problems too. I believe Ezra Pound was the first poet who thought to himself, Well what's the point of rhyme and meter now that we no longer have to memorize stories? Did they ever have any point to them after Homer? Pound liberated poetry from habits that had become meaningless centuries ago. I think he should have gone much further, and written novels instead. I have my own term for poets: they are "lazy novelists".
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby DavidTate on Thursday, 13 August 2009, 9:57 pm

Estraa wrote:I think the implied hierarchy is upside down. I was just scanning poetry collections at the local library the other day, and I kept thinking to myself, What a waste, all these clever phrases in isolation without any grand context to give them some lasting significance in the universe of phrases. Sometimes a poem would be literally one sentence on an otherwise empty page. It's as if someone was determined to copyright all clever phrases one by one so that real writers couldn't use them in their novels without paying a fee.

That sounds like you're making the point for Randy -- that poetry is hard, so nearly all of it is crap. Only the existence of the few real jewels shows us just what the others are aspiring to, and how far short they fall. Really good novels are easier to find than really good poems, precisely because poems are harder.

I side with the sentiment in Pascal's rueful "I apologize that this letter is so long; I did not have the time to make it short." Great poems (or short fiction) have to imply the context, rather than ladle it out. When they succeed, the result has pith and poignancy that a novel cannot sustain, at least for me.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Estraa on Friday, 14 August 2009, 7:03 am

DavidTate wrote:That sounds like you're making the point for Randy -- that poetry is hard, so nearly all of it is crap.

Perhaps I was making his point for him, but I fail to see any coherent logic behind his point, if that is his point. Excessively hard to achieve doesn't necessarily mean worth achieving. It's not easy to compose a successful fugue; it is much easier to compose a successful sonata. Nevertheless, I believe that most musicians would say that even the best fugues aren't as powerful experiences as the best sonatas (which sometimes contain fugues, just as the best novels sometimes contain metered poetry).

DavidTate wrote:I side with the sentiment in Pascal's rueful "I apologize that this letter is so long; I did not have the time to make it short." .

Now now, that is not my experience with great novels. Have you read Figures of Earth by James Branch Cabell, to name just one example from these lists?

DavidTate wrote:Great poems (or short fiction) have to imply the context

And there's the rub. I have noticed when reading Harold Bloom's Western Canon that clearly the richness of apparent allusiveness, both in poetry and novels (does this spoil your point?), is dependent either (A) on how much relevant, in Bloom's case canonic, literature the reader has read (this, in fact, is what Bloom seems to believe), or is dependent on (B) his own personal experiences, which (if B is closer to the truth) would tend to deprive the author, whether of a poem or novel, of his achievement. Let me elaborate on the latter perspective: when I read a poem and perceive a context, is it the context that the author belabored to suggest? Now, I don't like postmodernism, not much anyway, but it seems to me that no matter how good the writer is, he won't be able to decide which experiences the reader has and, therefore, which experiences the reader will apply when imagining, creating with his own imagination, the allusive implications of the poem. So either the writer chooses to create a more solid context or take part in a sort of literary roulette.

Maybe it's difficult because it is rather random, and the statistics simply aren't beneficial to writers.

It may be that the best poems appeal even more than the best novels to the few people such as Bloom who have spent their whole life immersed in "relevant literature", reading it, teaching it, reading about it. (About it. That is another problem I have with Bloom: he relies too much on what other people say about the works which he should, if A is true, be able to appreciate better than anyone else because of his background - his immensely voracious and repeated reading of the relevant literature, the canon.) Even the best poems simply don't speak to most people as powerfully as do good novels. The same is true of novels that rely mostly on allusive power versus novels where passages rely mainly on the explicit context for power. None of that implies a hierarchy of quality or value, at least of the kind supposedly implied by Faulkner.

What would tend to put great novels above great poetry is that a great novel has both a solid explicit context and an allusive richness hardly matched by any individual poem.

P.S. I'm not quite happy with what I've written here (it could be clearer and things could be better categorized), but there are other things of more immediate concern to me.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Randy M. on Friday, 14 August 2009, 4:54 pm

Estraa wrote:
Randy M. wrote:And I think your comparison to poetry is apt -- Faulkner stated that he started out to be a poet then, failing at that, attempted to become short story writer then, failing at that, attempted novels, offering an implied hierarchy of the forms and being more modest than he needed to be since many of his short stories are extremely good.

I think the implied hierarchy is upside down.

Well, Estraa, you're certainly welcome to disagree with a few thousand years of cultural belief. Good luck convincing everyone.

I was just scanning poetry collections at the local library the other day, and I kept thinking to myself, What a waste, all these clever phrases in isolation without any grand context to give them some lasting significance in the universe of phrases. Sometimes a poem would be literally one sentence on an otherwise empty page. It's as if someone was determined to copyright all clever phrases one by one so that real writers couldn't use them in their novels without paying a fee.

The thing is, Borges was right. Anyone can come up with a few clever phrases. And when that's all a writer does, he isn't by any means above writers of other types in the hierarchy of writers; he is at the very bottom, and more harmful than useful.

I may be parodying my position, but that is basically where I stand. Come to think of it, poetry has traditionally had other problems too. I believe Ezra Pound was the first poet who thought to himself, Well what's the point of rhyme and meter now that we no longer have to memorize stories? Did they ever have any point to them after Homer? Pound liberated poetry from habits that had become meaningless centuries ago. I think he should have gone much further, and written novels instead. I have my own term for poets: they are "lazy novelists".


Seriously, poetry was still a relevant and vital form well into the 20th century with Yeats, Pound, and Eliot among many others, but it seems like poets started writing for a more and more constricted audience; except, maybe, briefly, for the Beats, poets stopped speaking to the common reader. Short stories and novels replaced it for most of the readers, and I think there's an argument to made that outside genre short story writers and novelists may be walking a similar path, forced by the growth and dominance of other media (first radio, then cinema, then TV, now Internet, among others) aiming at more specific audiences and maybe eventually becoming so in-grown they lose any relevance.

Then again, some would argue that all it takes is for the reader to apply him-/herself to come to appreciate poetry. But this is no longer a patient, scholarly society willing to put in that kind of effort.

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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Estraa on Friday, 14 August 2009, 5:27 pm

Randy M. wrote:Well, Estraa, you're certainly welcome to disagree with a few thousand years of cultural belief.

As I often do. I disagree that there exists a God, and I disagree that rhyme and meter make sense except as tools of memorization, which is the purpose for which they were developed when oral storytelling was the norm and writing anything down would have been exceedingly difficult or expensive. If they make sense otherwise, you are free to tell me how. If you cannot, it may be that rhyming metered poetry is, as a genre, yet another acquired taste like all dead traditions. Things become relics when they lose their original purpose or meaning. Similarly, aesthetic forms become obsolete when they no longer serve the purpose they were developed to serve. Not that I'm here to convince anyone. And I do enjoy poetry, though I have little respect for poetry as a form. I prefer translations that aim for semantic accuracy rather than to capture the meter or rhyme scheme. There exists real music for those who want music. And so on, and so forth. The best measure of the strength of a form or genre (poetry, the novel) is how well it takes advantage of the medium (written words) compared to other genres/forms and mediums (music, film). In my experience, music is better for a quick dose of emotion combined with a satisfying aesthetic experience than anything you can make from words (unless that anything causes you to remember a powerful personal experience, which takes us back to my previous post). Film is better for admiring scenery (taking a walk is even better, depending on where you live). But I'm rambling. I think the bottom line is, you want everyone to pay respect to the short story (and, now, poetry), because of ... something to do with tradition.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby DavidTate on Saturday, 15 August 2009, 8:41 pm

Estraa, you raise some valid points about the role of a shared canon (or other common experience) that an author may draw on for allusion. Perhaps we will have the chance to pursue that question later. For the moment, though, let me directly question an axiom in your reply.
Estraa wrote:Even the best poems simply don't speak to most people as powerfully as do good novels.
I disagree. I think the best poems do speak more powerfully than good novels, at least in the important sense of the intensity of the reader's response. The effect of a novel is diffuse, spread across hours or days of reading. A good poem hits hard and fast -- and more deeply, at least at the moment, than a comparably good novel. At least for me.

It is interesting to look at the many short stories and novellas that have later been expanded to novel length. Which of those novels are better than their ancestral work? Not many, in my experience. Indeed, I'm having trouble thinking of any examples. That doesn't say anything about poetry per se, but it does suggest that longer is not necessarily better, even holding many other things constant.

Of course, individual tastes figure prominently here. I had a roommate, an age ago, who loved to read but hated to finish things. His preferred mode was to be in the middle of 5 or 6 novels at a time, so as to get as much pleasure as possible from being in the midst of a work, before incurring the pain of running out of it. Interestingly, he loathed all poetry, at least until I found him a few classics that resonated with him personally.
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby DavidTate on Saturday, 15 August 2009, 8:51 pm

Estraa wrote:I disagree that rhyme and meter make sense except as tools of memorization, which is the purpose for which they were developed when oral storytelling was the norm and writing anything down would have been exceedingly difficult or expensive. [...]Things become relics when they lose their original purpose or meaning. Similarly, aesthetic forms become obsolete when they no longer serve the purpose they were developed to serve.
Do you feel the same way about music?

For what it's worth, I find that rhyme and meter, even if you set aside their aesthetic use as a sort of music, can have aesthetic value for me. In particular, the skill required to make a profound and artistic statement within a constrained form is clearly greater than that required to make a comparable statement without constraint. Given two poems of equal 'content', if one is free verse and the other a sonnet, I will always prefer the sonnet. Your mileage may vary; some people find that sort of artificial constraint self-indulgent, like writing a novel without using the letter 'e'.

Of course, we speak here only of the best each form can attain. I do not hold bad poets against poetry, any more than I hold bad musicians against music. Opera, fusing poetry with music and theater, should be the pinnacle of the arts -- and yet most opera is third-rate acting and fourth-rate verse set to second-rate music. Why bother, at that point?
David Tate
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Estraa on Saturday, 15 August 2009, 10:25 pm

DavidTate wrote:Do you feel the same way about music?

The sonata form is a form that developed as the natural large-scale form for movements composed in functional harmony. It is meaningless though often used in atonal works. The whole point of the sonata form was that the music begins by establishing a firm tonal center, then moves through the dominant* to the point of highest tonal tension (in the development section) - which wouldn't be possible if the tonal center hadn't been firmly established - and resolves back to the tonic and establishes the sense of resolution (in the recapitulation). Foundation, tension, release. What is left of it when used in atonal works is an empty habit of superficial organization (first theme group, second theme group, development, recapitulation).

DavidTate wrote:Given two poems of equal 'content', if one is free verse and the other a sonnet, I will always prefer the sonnet. Your mileage may vary; some people find that sort of artificial constraint self-indulgent, like writing a novel without using the letter 'e'.

So it's an acquired taste. Nothing wrong with that. But let's not pretend it's a higher form thereby. The sonnet I like the most is the last one written by John Milton, but I don't doubt he could have made it better in free verse. The thing about restrictions imposed by rhyme and meter is that they make writers, even the best ones, choose words they would not otherwise use. Sometimes I can see this clearly, sometimes it's just a vague feeling that the poem isn't as good as it could have been. The fugue, as a form, is interesting because it gives a clear structural function to every note. I suppose the sonnet is somewhat similar; however, unlike notes in music, words don't need constraints to have a structural function, so there is a distinctly unsatisfying tradeoff (worse word choices for no good reason).

*The modulation to the dominant often coincided with the appearance of a new theme (the "second theme group"). The 19th century codifiers overlooked the fact that the appearance was used to dramatize a tonal event, and that sometimes no new theme was used (such "exceptions" are now called "mono-thematic expositions"). Similarly, sometimes the development section, as the codifiers had identified and named one of the supposed sections of the sonata form, didn't contain development of exposition themes but a completely new theme. They overlooked the fact that the fundamental and only constant significance of the development section wasn't thematic development but a dramatization of a tonal event, the event being the return from the dominant to the tonic. The dramatization was accomplished by further increasing tonal tension before the resolution; sometimes the event was further dramatized by adding a completely new theme (but I suppose this was generally felt to make the work less organic and more episodic, so it wasn't often used; instead, already used material was used differently, "developed"). This dramatization of the return to the tonic was a new invention; Bach hadn't used it. Its invention wouldn't have made sense in an atonal context, and would never have been invented. Sometimes the "development section" was particularly adventurous and tonally disturbing, and sometimes, as a consequence, the final section (recapitulation) was extended so that the sense of resolution could be better established. The extension came to be called "coda". It was usually similar to the "development section" in that it didn't simply repeat old material. Sometimes the recapitulation didn't include the "first theme group". None of this would have made sense in an atonal context, where the superficial 19th century mis-codification of the 18th century form is supposed to have deep structural significance (exposition of two conflicting theme groups, development where the theme groups battle to find a ... resolution, where the sense of resolution is supposedly established by repeating the exposition).
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby DavidTate on Sunday, 16 August 2009, 11:06 am

Estraa wrote:
DavidTate wrote:Do you feel the same way about music?

The sonata form is a form that developed as the natural large-scale form for movements composed in functional harmony. It is meaningless though often used in atonal works.

I meant something much more general -- that music, in toto, is an "aesthetic form that no longer serves the purpose for which it was developed".

Estraa wrote:What is left of [sonata form] when used in atonal works is an empty habit of superficial organization (first theme group, second theme group, development, recapitulation).

I agree completely, but then I feel that way about atonal music overall -- it misses the point of being music. Or, at best, has the same relationship to music that nonsense verse has to poetry.
Estraa wrote:The fugue, as a form, is interesting because it gives a clear structural function to every note. I suppose the sonnet is somewhat similar; however, unlike notes in music, words don't need constraints to have a structural function, so there is a distinctly unsatisfying tradeoff (worse word choices for no good reason).

I don't see the distinction you're drawing. A fugue is satisfying in part simply because it is a fugue. The same melodies, harmonies, and polyphony would not be nearly as pleasing without the fugal structure of the counterpoint. Those melodies, harmonies, and polyphony don't 'need' the constraints of fugal form to "have a structural function" -- they are simply improved by it. The same is true for the words and prosody of the sonnet. Of course, there is a potential tradeoff between the perfection of the melodies, harmonies, and polyphony on the one hand, and the fugal structure on the other -- but I certainly think that sometimes the trade is worth it, and the resulting fugue is better than a non-fugue with slightly better individual components. And I feel the same way about sonnets, or villanelles, or blank verse, or other metric forms. (Though, to be sure, some forms add little enough to my enjoyment that I'm not willing to put up with much, if any, accomodation of the prosody to the form.)

Aside: Eric, this is a very interesting discussion, but it might best be moved to the "Speculative Fiction in General" or "Everything Else" forum. I'd suggest the former if we're going to pursue the analogy between metrical (or musical) form and genre conventions; the latter otherwise.
David Tate
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Re: Robert E. Howard

Postby Estraa on Sunday, 16 August 2009, 2:03 pm

DavidTate wrote:I meant something much more general -- that music, in toto, is an "aesthetic form that no longer serves the purpose for which it was developed".

Do you mean as background music to rituals? Certainly in the West, instrumental music eventually acquired wholly new meaning and significance, even if it didn't elsewhere in the world, at least to the same degree, until very recently as a consequence of Western influence (though I must say I know rather little about this particular subject).

DavidTate wrote:I don't see the distinction you're drawing. A fugue is satisfying in part simply because it is a fugue. The same melodies, harmonies, and polyphony would not be nearly as pleasing without the fugal structure of the counterpoint. Those melodies, harmonies, and polyphony don't 'need' the constraints of fugal form to "have a structural function" -- they are simply improved by it.

If you think of Alberti bass employed in a sonata-form movement, these are notes that are, structurally, decorations and lack any clear structural function. They rarely form motives; the Ablerti bass rarely derives from any motive essential to the structure. Composers simply use it to give the music textural variety. In contrast, the fugue doesn't allow for purely textural or decorative elements. (Performers sometimes decorate fugues as they sometimes decorate a Mozart melody, but I believe decorating fugues is not correct historical practice. I don't quite recall whether it is known to be incorrect or not. At any rate, I don't like it.)
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