Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Heroic Visions takes a rather dim view of Howard

This past weekend I landed a major score at a local used bookstore, a haul that included no fewer than four works of swords and sorcery, a Weird Tales anthology, and a Year’s Best Fantasy collection. Needless to say I’ve got some good reading ahead of me. (Don’t ask me where this book store is: I won’t divulge my secrets until I’ve plundered the rest of its treasures).

Unfortunately, my excitement was dimmed upon discovering that the first book I opened, the Jessica Amanda Salmonson-edited Heroic Visions (1983, Ace Fantasy), begins with an essay that both exalts the S&S genre while managing to simultaneously land a swiping, drive-by broadsword blow on none other than Robert E. Howard.

Here’s the offending paragraph by Salmonson:

Heroic fantasy, in recent decades, has seemed too often to be epitomized by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, and this is a sad state of affairs. The millennia-old heritage of magical and heroic tales does not begin or culminate in the rather simplistic fictions of the pulp era or the current, slavish imitations thereof. Howard’s work is admirable; he was surprisingly well-read, and invested his stories with the hodge-podge of an amateur historian or Harold Lamb fan, creating something primal, evocative, intriguing. Stylistically, he was weak. The dozen-score imitators of Howard have tended to capture the weakness of his style, but not the primal thread of his limited though worthwhile heroic vision—his, shall we say, pathos. Without denying Howard’s genius or even qualifying it, it must be recognized that glorifying his rudimentary sword and sorcery as “ideal” heroic fantasy is akin to assuming Doc Smith’s old-fashioned space opera is “ideal” science fiction. No area of fantasy should be so stagnant and devoid of stylistic and conceptual growth or variety.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.


Anonymous said...

It's pretty funny that some of the tales in that tome are actually by Howard-inspired writers, so she's basically talking smack about the book she was paid to edit.

My guess is that Salmonson is part of that group of ladies who abhor characters like Conan because they believe them to be sexist. If you read any of her other critiques, you'll soon come to the conclusion that she's slightly overaggressive in her feminist views.

Atom Kid said...

Seems a bit strange to use a S&S anthology to rail against the father of S&S fiction. It's a lot like the time when Richard K. Morgan went on a rant about how much Tolkien sucks and people who read him are childish, but if you like Tolken you'll like my book.

In the end, nobody will remember the bashers.

Andy said...

IIRC, Salmonson was also the critic that referred to Charles Saunders's Imaro as a "chocolate covered Conan". She's also rather shrilly attacked Lovecraftian mythos writers, too. I do sometimes wonder if her own stories have any merit - those Tomoe Gozen stories - I've never come across anyone that's read them and I've got so much other stuff in my read pile that I can't work up the interest to try them first :)

Badmike said...

Do a bit of research...Salmonson is an awful writer (and not much better an editor), a classic over the top feminist who hasn't edited a major collection in 20 years. I remember purchasing tons of short story collections back in the 70s and 80s, including Salmonson, and hers always ended up in the "Bleh" pile after I finished reading them.

Brian Murphy said...

I think I understand Salmonson's larger point (that heroes aren't necessarily those with the mightiest thews or the largest sword--see Sam of the Lord of the Rings). It's a fine and worthwhile observation, and one Salmonson could have made without taking down REH in the process.

Howard had the skill and talent to write those types of heroes, had he chose to do so. But in the end his perogative was telling a cracking good story--which he did as well as any writer the genre has ever produced.

Badelaire said...

Not to set myself up to be lambasted as a defender of J.A. Salmonson, but her Tomoe Gozen stories aren't bad at all, in my opinion. There's little enough "oriental" Swords & Sorcery fiction, much less featuring a heroine, to completely dismiss it.

As for her comments, while I don't agree that Howard was a "weak" writer, I will agree that many of those who imitated him imitated the wrong aspects of his fiction. They imitated the skin, the fleshy exterior, but not the soul underneath.

I think Carter's Thongor and Fox's Kothar are just fine as back-pocket entertainment, but their imitation of Howard's work is a thin mockery of what really resounds with those who feel passionate about REH's writings. As she says, they're missing his pathos.

Take that interpretation of what she's saying (or part of what she's saying) however you like, but I don't dismiss her simply because she's dumping on "manly fiction".

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Badelaire, I agree. I haven't read anything by Salmonson so I can't vouch for the quality of her fiction. And I think her, and your, points about Howard's imitators are quite valid and correct. But I continue to maintain that her assessment of Howard is dead-wrong, and badly out of place in the introduction to Heroic Visions.

Taran said...

A bit late here, but Jessica Amanda Salmonson has actually praised Howard for his treatment of women (especially Dark Agnes). I don't think she's a very good writer on her own (and *especially* weak acoustically), but you can't really dismiss her on the grounds of being a wailing feminist when that's not even what she was talking about here.