A little over a year ago our occasional Guest Blogger Brian Leno managed to slug his way through the collection of litcrit on Robert E. Howard, all by academics: Conan Meets the Academy, edited by Jonas Prida. And not too long after that he jabbed his way through a review. . . .
I’ve had the review keeping cool in the icehouse for a few months, but with the anniversary of Howard’s suicide coming up on June 11th, it’s no doubt time for it to clamber out on the mat. I’m presenting it in three rounds, each with some ringside commentary by me. Brian could have gone more savage on this book than he did (as when he muttered “My god. You’d have to be one dusty son-of-a-bitch sitting in a study somewhere to want to read something like this. . . .”), but Brian’s such a nice guy, he just couldn’t take off the gloves and go bare knuck.
It takes something truly rancid, such as the Joshi “novel” The Assaults of Chaos, to get Brian really swinging from the ropes.
And now, in this corner, Brian Leno:
I’ve been labeled a Howard completist, and while I think I no longer qualify for that appellation, at one time I couldn’t help myself. I bought — excepting the comics and the paperback pastiches — damn near everything.
Because of this compulsion I’ve made a few bad purchases in my time — volumes such as the Darrell Schweitzer edited The Robert E. Howard Reader and Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard, compiled by Benjamin Szumskyj. These two books of “literary criticism” only serve to remind me that not all tomes on Howard are good, something other fans of the Texan and his writing also should have discovered by now.
I don’t even know where my copies are of these two anthologies — tools for use in future research they most certainly are not.
So when my copy of Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian arrived I wondered how this book would fare. Would it end up as just another bad Howardian purchase or could it possibly merit being stacked next to Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian or Leo Grin’s literary journal The Cimmerian? — publications which are undoubted highlights of Robert E. Howard studies.
The first couple paragraphs of Jonas Prida’s introduction gave me some slight hope; it seemed that he and I shared a few similarities. Prida writes he first met Conan through “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s well-oiled, muscle bound version in Conan the Barbarian” and he adds that to see it his father drove him to the nearest theater, which was an hour and a half away. He was eleven at that time. I quickly realized that we had something in common; I had also discovered Conan when I was about eleven, except my first meeting came via the Lancer paperbacks. Added to this somewhat coincidental start was the fact that my parents had also driven many miles to take me to a Howard destination — Cross Plains, Texas, where I was able to see the home of my literary idol.
While Prida and I came to Conan at about the same time in our lives there’s a world of difference when he starts discussing Robert E. Howard. I discovered Conan through the art of Howard — I just tossed the de Camp and Carter rubbish aside — so when I saw the Schwarzenegger movie I realized it was a pale imitation of Howard’s barbarian; Prida didn’t have the reading base to understand that. Perhaps that is why to his “adolescent mind” Robert Jordan’s Conan the Invincible was as good as “Red Nails” because, as he phrases it, “it was all Conan.” Prida states in the preface that “as editor he took it upon [himself] to read every Conan story, rewrite, pastiche, and novel available, leaving out only the comics.”
While I suppose I should give him credit for perseverance, I still wonder how he could possibly have so much time to waste.
Before we get much more into this review it should be noted that I am a Conan purist — if it wasn’t written by Howard it’s not really Conan. So when Prida stresses that his book is about Conan “as a cultural product” I have reservations about how the writers might handle the legacy of Robert E. Howard.
And reading a sentence where Prida states he “paid little attention” to the de Camp introductions (where de Camp comes off as jealous of Howard and just downright insensitive) and then adds that there “is certainly a difference in the flavor of Howard’s writing that is not found in the slightly tamer [emphasis mine] versions of de Camp” not only makes me angry but also a bit uneasy.
If the writers in this book have as much trouble as Prida in recognizing the superiority of Howard’s Conan to the dilution of the character as brought about by his appearances in popular culture, I knew I was going to be in for a long haul. The realization that I, by doing a little math, have been reading Howard for more years than Prida has been alive didn’t put my fears safely to bed either.
I know the title tells me it’s going to be Conan meeting the academy — but what’s wrong with Howard meeting the academy?
If I was having this many problems, and questions, with just the introduction what would the rest of the book be like?
First Round down.
Time for Brian to take breather and for me to do some commentary, get some weigh-in statistics and so forth into the mix:
Brian was telling me on the side that he was really nervous about Prida’s seeming fondness for de Camp. You’ve got a younger fighter coming into the ring. Could an academic have a longer reach? Is it possible that someone like Prida could punch de Camp back into the good graces of Howard fandom, if he keeps at it — and doesn’t even understand that there’s a problem?
My answer to Brian: Don’t worry about it. Prida could make it his life’s goal to boost de Camp in Howardian circles and get nowhere. De Camp is no longer a contender.
Sure, if you search out info on de Camp related to his role as one of the writers in the Campbellian Golden Age of Science Fiction, he looks good on paper. All buddy-buddy with Heinlein, Asimov, and company. The sf critical crowd doesn’t even seem to understand that by the end of his career he was making most of his money off Conan, all the while knocking REH as some crazy, primitive pulp writer — a stance that most in Howard fandom dislike intensely.
No Howard to create the barbarian icon, de Camp’s career would have trickled off into nothing much by the end.
When REH’s reputation becomes the focus, de Camp doesn’t look good at all. (And we won’t even begin the discussion of how de Camp’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft made him the target of Lovecraftians, as passionate about it to this day as are Howardians. Ah, I remember those early years, when the assembled Lovecraft scholars, led by Dirk Mosig, began their charge — and I was on an adjacent field with a Pure Robert E. Howard banner flying high, sword drawn. . . .)
I told Brian: Look at it this way. Yes, de Camp was a mover behind the Lancer paperbacks which catapulted REH into worldwide awareness. But by adding his own crappy material into the mix, he undid the good he did — to the point that when Lifetime Achievement Awards began in REH circles de Camp couldn’t even get a toehold.
The first awards were handed out in 2001 — the Cleos — that one year only. Check the people who made the cut. De Camp’s name doesn’t appear for either Lifetime Achievement or Biography. He had died as recently as November 6, 2000, but already was a non-entity in Howard Studies.
Then Leo Grin started up The Cimmerian Awards in 2005. First Lifetime Achievement — the Black Circle Award — went to Glenn Lord. Of course. In 2006 Rusty Burke and I duked it out, with neither getting a clear majority. In 2007 Rusty and I were both given the Black Circle, since otherwise it appeared our respective voting blocks would just go toe-to-toe forever. In 2008 Novalyne Price Ellis was the first posthumous winner, so you didn’t have to be alive to nab the glory.
All that time de Camp’s name was in the hopper, but he couldn’t muster enough votes to get on a final ballot.
In 2009 the Robert E. Howard Foundation took over the awards — no one made the cut for Black Circle consideration that year. In 2010 Indy Cavalier, longtime Official Editor of REHupa, made the cut for nomination and got the plaque in the 2011 voting. That same year longtime Howardian fanzine editors Dennis McHaney and Damon Sasser made the qualifying numbers — Dennis took it in 2012 and Damon in 2013.
Still think de Camp has a chance at redemption, when fans have been kicking his butt in the voting for thirteen years? If the awards keep going on in some form maybe in another twenty or thirty years when they’ve given a nod to everyone who has ever done anything at all on Howard, then maybe de Camp might get the honor.
Hell, I can see Jonas Prida taking home the trophy before de Camp! — simply for finally getting out a book on REH by academics. I almost feel sorry for de Camp, except he wanted the money and didn’t really care how he got it.
If he wanted any kind of posthumous regard, de Camp can find that in kinder gentler sf circles, not in the unforgiving arena of Howardom.