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Re: Robert E. Howard

PostPosted: Tuesday, 08 September 2009, 5:23 am
by Taranaich
First of all, I apologise for bringing up this old chestnut, since I thought I setup an "email response" thing, and thus completely missed any further posts. Anyway.

owlcroft wrote: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.


I respect this idea, but given the nature of your site, surely you realise that there would result in such inquiries of this nature? Especially since this site purports to contain the greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy has to offer, yet also remains the opinion of one person. That incongruity, although addressed in the apologia, would naturally lead to posts such as this.

David has put the matter very generously, and aptly, but I should perhaps repeat something that I think gets lost sometimes.


I am not taking up Howard's case on the basis of popularity, influence or other secondary factors: I am taking them up because I truly believe that even without taking those considerations into account, he is worthy of inclusion in any site which claims to include "the best of SF&F", and am thus surprised to see this is not the case here. While I would not ask for you to compromise your integrity by including authors for the sake of shushing the masses or acknowledging influence, I do ask for a bit more detail beyond "he's a fun boy's writer with no literary depth", which is the impression I get from you.

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).


I understand your rating system: what I take issue with (evidently) is your classification of Robert E. Howard as being below the "minimum" of note worthy of mention on the site. Overall, the impression I get is that you consider Howard to be merely a fun read, with no literary merit worth considering: what I'd like to know is how you came to this conclusion. I asked which Howard works you had read which gave you this impression, and I would at least like to know what basis you have on Howard's status in "The Campy Stuff", even if you just admit you haven't read his work, or last read it in a heavily abridged, bowdlerized Lancers or Grant editions from the '70s. Some of these stories are so edited as to be unrecognizable: word substitutions and deletions, omissions or alterations of entire paragraphs or chapters, sometimes even re-arranging sentence structure.

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?


Why would I even inquire about your dismissal of Howard if I did not think "emphatically, yes"? It amazes me you cannot find anything worth "biting into and chewing" when it comes to Howard, as that is precisely what dozens if not hundreds of well-read, literary readers have been doing in scholarly magazines and anthologies for the better part of thirty years. What's more, the fact that you seem to be excluding Howard purely because he is "one of the old pulp writers" does not sit well with me: what happened to judging an author on his own merits, without taking the rest of the genre into account, and assessing its literary qualities independently of the medium and market it was published within? Perhaps I am misunderstanding this paragraph.

In any case, I would certainly consider Howard's best work of objectively greater literary merit than the likes of Clive Barker of all people. I'd even put him in the ***** plateau alongside Vance, Tolkien and Dunsany: while it might be too much to have hoped you put him in the top ten, even the top hundred, I certainly find it astonishing that among the literal hundreds upon hundreds of authors, there's no place for Howard. This is why I ask for more details: the fact that you could place hundreds, plural, of fantasy/SF authors above Howard is, frankly, baffling. The only explanations I can think of are that you read an early inferior edition of the stories, that the stories you did read were subpar and thus left you with a poor opinion of Howard's prose, or that you simply didn't read the tales particularly closely. The fact that you consider the stories an exercise in "nostalgie" implies that you haven't read any Howard since the heavily edited volumes of the 1970s. The fourth possibility, that you did read the stories very closely but found the contents unimpressive in some way, is so alien to me - considering the vast depth of allusion, commentary, metaphor and sheer brilliant prose in the best stories - that I can't quite get my head around it. It's just bizarre to my mind that a chap who loves Vance, Dunsany, Eddison and Tolkien could not also love Howard, barring one of the three aforementioned factors.

There's also the fact that you seem to be the only person I've read with such a broad reading experience who nonetheless dismisses Howard. The late Steven Tompkins was an incredibly well-read person, who read from every genre of every period: the world lost a truly amazing library in his mind. His essays on Howard - The Chants of Old Heroes; Grinning, Unappeasing, Aboriginal Demons; the introduction of The Black Stranger and Other American Tales; North by Southwest; Black Stone in a Red Setting; and many others - highlight the sheer depth and power of Howard's prose, making convincing and fascinating connections between myth, psychology and other literature. Certainly "plenty to chew into". And Tompkins is just one of many such scholars, who are hardly "fantasy fans" who love everything purely because it's of a genre: they have no time for that. They judge literature by its literary merits, and they judge Howard to be worthy of study and appraisal in a way the likes of Carter or Jakes or Brooks or Jordan isn't.

To top it all off, many of the authors who you do include on the site have a very high opinion of Howard's literary achievements. Jack Vance, for instance. Gene Wolfe considered a rhyming couplet in "The Pool of the Black One" to be one of the finest pieces of writing he ever read, in an essay about Tolkien, no less. Even Tolkien is claimed to have "rather liked" the Conan stories: although the veracity of that claim is disputed, if true, he's in good company: Vance, Wolfe, Cherryh, Gemmel, Leiber - all authors you put in the +* range. Even Moorcock, with his 20-year out-of-date information and steadfast refusal to get details right in his criticisms, gives Howard more credit than he does the likes of Tolkien and Milne.

And speaking of "nostalgie", how can you ignore original fiction like Howard, and yet see fit to include what amounts to Baum fan fiction by Ruth Plumley Thompson and others? Your vast appreciation of all things Oz is quite an intriguing quirk of yours.

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.


And again, I stress that I (and plenty of others) believe that Howard is not "just" a great SF/F author, but a great author, full stop. Any fantasy fan with a passing interest in the genre would eventually get around to Howard, he's practically standard issue for genre regulars. No point in preaching to them. It's the people who shy away from the interminable doorstoppers and lurid pulp fantasies who could do with being "sold" on Howard. The biggest praise I can think of when it comes to Howard is that Howard's non-fantasy writing is as superior as his fantasy. Larry D. Thomas, the current poet laureate of Texas, had high praise of Howard's poetry, and one can easily appreciate Howard's great westerns, crime thrillers, historical adventures and boxing stories as some of the finest work in those genres, without reading a single one of his Conan stories.

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.


Indeed. If I come across as a bit pushy, it's only because I'm bemused by the incongruity of Howard's absence. There are so many cases where I'm in agreement, and the idea of the website is so good, that this particular issue comes to my attention. I can (barely) understand the lack of Lovecraft or Smith, but Howard is especially potent with the very stuff you seem to relish. At most, I just feel sad that you're missing out on what and many others I consider to be one of the great authors, fantasy or otherwise, of the 20th Century: at least I can find solace in the fact that you're obviously not wanting for other reading material.