Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Completely Unliterary Without Realizing It

No one thought I was being too hard on Aliette de Bodard the other day, but if you did… I want to point out that she has only read one Lovecraft story:

See… The only book of his I tried to read was The Shadow over Innsmouth. I was a kid at the time, not very well-versed in messages, and a lot of problematic stuff in fiction sailed right by me. But the entire novel is so clearly based on a deep, abiding horror of mixed-race people as eldritch abominations that I threw the book across the room–and trust me, that isn’t a thing that happened very often.

You know, when this thing with the Lovecraft trophies blew up, I wondered how many people on the bandwagon had even read his work. Given that this is the “skim until offended” crowd, I’m going to go with not very many.

Appendix N author Leigh Brackett provides a welcome glimpse of how the old fandom would have viewed him:

The only time a serious critic paid any attention to the science fiction magazines was in 1930. A famous British essayist of that time, William Balitho (sp) came to New York to write articles for The New York World about the American scene. He was absolutely fascinated by the pulp science fiction magazines and he wrote a beautiful article, on that long ago day, on the pulp science fiction magazines. He was probably the first serious critic to mention Lovecraft’s name. He said Mr. Lovecraft was a lot better than most of the serious novelists that they gave acclaim to. He added that a man who could read Galsworthy about society and Arnold Bennett about marriage and who can’t read these crude little magazines is completely unliterary, without realizing it. And he ended up predicting; he said someday these magazines, or the tattered copies of them that remain, will sell for more money than the first editions of our most famous novelists of today. And that is true.

There you go. The cool kids falling all over themselves to poo poo Lovecraft right now? According to the grandmistress of planetary romance, they are unliterary. (But now that you mention it, there’s also a grossly batrachian aspect to these people. Someone should look into that.)

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15 responses to “Completely Unliterary Without Realizing It

  1. jlv61560 November 30, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Wasn’t it Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes” who said; “Why bother to learn anything when ignorance is instantaneous?” I’m sure he was quoting or paraphrasing someone else….

  2. Twila Price November 30, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Jeffro,

    Hey! I keep wanting to engage with you, but I’m mostly reading on my phone, so it would be a huge pita to do so, so I haven’t. Before today.

    Some data about me — I’m an old school sf reader who still has all that pulpy goodness in her collection and who loved Lovecraft when she was in her teens. Hell, I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard when I was three and four (back when I was starting kindergarden). So you can see that I’m on the way other side of this divide you keep talking about — I have a great appreciation for the foundations of our field, and I think I probably have read most of it (I read one book a day, on average, and I definitely sought out all the big names as a young’un). However, I also like the new. I like books that aren’t re-shuffling all the old tropes (well, unless those old tropes are enlivened with great characters or amazing world-building — I mean, I will still read bog-standard fantasy/space opera/milSF if I like the characters well enough, but you have to catch me hard to get me to sit through the same boring quest I’ve read a hundred and more times one more time — I mean, I can reread the classics one more time if I really have a jones for classic pulpy goodness, and I know those books are fun) and so I actively seek out the young writers, the ones who try new things. I like that. I like seeing Imperial Radch and steampunk “seamstresses” and fallen angels in Paris, because they are making me think. Giving me new worlds to enjoy. I have all the classic worlds to revisit if I want to. I really do.

    And I don’t know about who you run with, who you talk to about books, but most of the folks I know (most of whom are younger than me) read any and everything — if it’s old school Heinlein, no worries. If it’s Aliette de Bodard, okay. Yes, it’s hard to walk into a Barnes and Noble (nostalgic sigh for the original Borders and the depth of their SF collection) and get anything but the flavor of the month. Hell, even the flavor of the month can be hard to find at Barnes and Noble — drowned out by the toys and the urban fantasy wasteland (DO NOT get me started on the abortion that is urban fantasy as written these days… ew!). But there are these things called libraries and used book stores and ABEbooks, for just three, that do in fact make such things as “The Best of Eric Frank Russell” available to anyone who cares to go out and look for it. Yes, you have to be proactive, but *shrugs*, it’s not like the information isn’t there if you look for it.

    I don’t think Ms. de Bodard is wrong for not liking Lovecraft — if you bounce off an author, you bounce off. It’s not like he’s some holy grail of “you must read this or you don’t know sf” — I mean, I like him, but I have a great fondness for books written from the late 1800s through the 1940s. Of course, being white and probably one of those “inbred country folks”, I could take offense with his Whatleys and his bad habit of fridging women (those who actually appear). I could. I do sometimes. But it’s not a deal breaker for me. I can see where it is for other people. And that’s totally fine. Maybe Ms. de Bodard would love Brackett or R. E. Howard instead. It’s not fair to say that she doesn’t like pulp or doesn’t know pulp because she bounced off Lovecraft.

    • jeffro November 30, 2015 at 3:13 pm

      Lovecraft really captures a very specific sense of what I call New England Redneck. The almost puritanical edge that shows through in The Dunwich Horror really is kind of scary because it’s so real. He does for the North what Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner did for the South…!

      • Cirsova November 30, 2015 at 4:02 pm

        Lovecraft makes a hell of a lot more sense if you look at what he’s doing in the context of the major modernist writers he was contemporary with. It’s like “No, he’s important because he was if Faulkner writing science fiction!” He’s also one of the only writers who was part of that movement that people go out of their way to read outside of college-level English classes (despite not being included in that canon himself), and that’s pretty damn significant.

        I think that part of the real Lovecraft hate is that he was overlooked by academia within a movement beloved and aggressively propounded by academia because of his status as a ‘pulp’ writer and now academia is mad that no one reads Joyce or Ezra Pound anymore while Lovecraft has been flying off the shelves for decades.

    • Cirsova November 30, 2015 at 4:11 pm

      Who would you say are today’s equivalents to Brackett, Howard, Leiber or Vance? I need to know who I should be soliciting stories from.

      • Sky November 30, 2015 at 7:26 pm

        John C. Wright is the only name I can think of. I’ve heard him described as a second rate Vance but that is unfair. He deserves a place in the pantheon near Vance, in the “wordy” section, but he has his own voice and at least equal powers of invention. There must be other authors out there.

        When I started to take writing seriously a few years ago I was really apprehensive that readers might think, “Hey, this guy writing about blood and sinews, he is just riffing off Howard, or “The rhythm of his prose makes me think he has read a lot of Vance.” Turns out that at this point in the genre those influences are so rare in the establishment that I may as well be writing in another language. I am going to do what I want to do regardless of whether or not I find my audience so whatever. I don’t really care that the genre has changed. I don’t care if people don’t read Vance or Howard in favor of empowering tales of plucky heroines. Read whatever you want. Doesn’t hurt me in the slightest. I just don’t like the snobbishness. Has the SFF scene always been so desperate to seem hip and important? I remember lazy summer afternoons as a young shaver, whiling away the hours with anything with a Frazetta cover, leaning against a tree at my pap’s place. Thats what its about for me. Am I hopelessly provincial?

      • Cirsova December 1, 2015 at 9:12 am

        I like what little Wright that I have read, but he’s really more a part of the previous generation of writers. I’m wondering what 20 and 30 somethings are hammering away in relative obscurity while crafting characters who rival the epic figures of the western canon.

      • Gordon December 1, 2015 at 8:49 pm

        I was going to say Jack McDevitt, but then you said 20 or 30something, so … not sure.

    • jeffro November 30, 2015 at 4:54 pm

      “Maybe Ms. de Bodard would love Brackett or R. E. Howard instead. It’s not fair to say that she doesn’t like pulp or doesn’t know pulp because she bounced off Lovecraft.”

      I don’t think she’s read much sff from before 1980. (Her comments indicate that she’s so far into the Appendix N generation gap that she doesn’t even know it’s a thing.) But if she has sung the praises of Brackett or Howard, I’m happy to boost the signal on that.

    • jeffro November 30, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      “It’s not like he’s some holy grail of ‘you must read this or you don’t know sf'”

      You cannot comment intelligently on the development and evolution of sff in the 20th century without having read Lovecraft. He is as influential as Tolkien and Howard. Any significant survey of the field would necessarily include him.

    • jeffro November 30, 2015 at 5:10 pm

      Okay… I actually had to check.

      According to this, she owns some Andre Norton. She does not own any Leigh Brackett or C. L. Moore. She is completely unfamiliar with Margaret St. Clair. (But then… St. Clair is incredibly obscure.)

      Of the women sf writers she’s read, most of the works are from the 80’s and 90’s. She says, “it’s dismaying (and it’s part of the point) that even though I’m a woman and a feminist, I’ve read so little.”

      She confesses to not having read Conan, so it’s likely she hasn’t read Robert E. Howard.

  3. Trimegistus December 1, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    If she hasn’t read much — and seems to know she hasn’t — why in hell is she pontificating about what people should and shouldn’t read?

    • jeffro December 2, 2015 at 6:43 am

      This is the part that that gets me::

      “The sense of existential dread, the terror that drives one mad–to me, it’s so very clearly and so deeply rooted in his racism that it makes trying to enjoy him [impossible]….”

      This is merely uninformed opinion. And yeah, that’s what blogs are for. This weakly stated assertion is of course debatable. But it carries no weight coming from someone that’s read a only one story by the guy.

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