Saturday, May 21, 2022

A rant on the practice of maddening literalism

I’m not one for rants these days… I try to keep things positive, always, because life is short, and walking around angry is no way to live it.

But … (and you knew the “but” was coming) … when I get comments like this on a celebration of 40 years of Conan it’s hard not to see a bit of red. See below, and my polite response on the website of DMR Books. I wanted to write something a lot worse, but decided to save the rant for here.

Some people are so maddeningly literal, that they, to use a tired cliché, can’t see the forest for the trees.

Imagine if you will watching a stirring film like Conan the Barbarian, in 1982 on the big screen, with an audience cheering around you. As the credits roll they rise to their feet, cheering, in celebration of the operatic grandeur. And, as the lights come up, uttering out loud “why did Conan have an Austrian accent when his father did not?” 

You’d be the turd in the punch bowl. I’d be throwing boxes of popcorn at you. And you’d deserve it.

You get a dude who says “Carter did not contribute much to the novelization, or so I have read somewhere.” First of all, an attempted correction better come with an attribution. Second of all, read what I wrote. I said the novel feels like Carter may have written it in a weekend, soaked in cognac and wreathed in cigarette smoke, cribbing off the manuscript. This is obviously not an attempt by me at scholarship on the manuscript of the novelization, which should be evident by anyone reading it. I was being a bit cheeky. Were I writing scholarship on the novelization, and not a celebration of 40 years of Conan, I would have put the time in to dig up as much detail on that crappy novel as I could. Moreover, what I wrote is a perfectly valid observation; the novelization, which I just read, feels that way to me. Slapdash, and Carter-ian.

Aside: If you are going to allow your name to be listed as co-author of the book, and receive remuneration, as Carter did, the responsibility for said content is yours. Anything in that book is Carter’s responsibility.

Likewise, IDGAF if Von Sydow is “Swedish, not German.” Oh by the way he is of German ancestry. But I don’t care; again if I’m reading a biography of Von Sydow I’d love to see all that spelled out in detail. But not in a post like the one I wrote. 

You’ve gotta understand time and place and intent, man. Context.

You know who another maddeningly literal person was? L. Sprague de Camp, who admitted to utterly abandoning Robert E. Howard for years, after discovering a historical anachronism, a reference to a stirrup prior to their purported invention, in one of Howard’s historical stories. 

Can you imagine doing that? And potentially missing out on Kull and Solomon Kane and Conan and everything that came after? It certainly did not stop de Camp from later returning to milk as much as he could from the property. By writing shitty novelizations like Conan the Barbarian, among other things. Maybe the dude should have walked. 

Now I’m being petty. 

But, this is why Howard stopped writing historical fiction, because idiot nit-pickers who cannot see the forest for the trees focus on minor, inconsequential details, and lose the entire plot as a result, and miss out on things like poetry, and beauty, which De Camp utterly lacked (which is why he was incapable of writing convincing Howard pastiche). That’s actually a fault and a deficiency on the part of the critic. Not on Howard’s part, but De Camp’s. It’s called a contextual error.

Now, for the nitpickers reading this, am I saying that accuracy and attention to detail are irrelevant? 

Not in the slightest. But, there is a time and place for it. 

Detailed histories (and I take fault for any errors in Flame and Crimson) and biographies should be accurate. Even then, they must focus on certain things to the exclusion of others, unless you enjoy reading encyclopedias—something else altogether. If you are working in a pharmacy compounding life-saving prescriptions, or in a hospital laboratory, or precision machining, you better be accurate. But this is not the way to approach reading or watching fucking Conan the Barbarian 1982, or reading someone’s nostalgia-fueled recollections of it. Conan is, to be technical for a moment, from a dim and remote part of our own history, but a fabricated pseudo-history, pulled from pseudo “historical” fragments like the Book of Skelos and ghostly recollections, the voices of spirits at Howard’s shoulder. Most read this stuff for the story, the characters, the magic and wonder, the vivid atmosphere, the visceral action, the plotting. If you read it for detailed accuracy in a timeline, or exact 1:1 historical correlations, and get tripped up on why Howard said “bascinet” or something in an out of context manner, odds are you’ll be disappointed. But this is precisely the mindset Howard was trying to get away from.

If that’s your jam, fine, but I think you’re missing something amazing by engaging in this practice, all the time.

TL;DR, nitpicking details is an obnoxious practice. 

I’m sure I’m being thin-skinned about this, and possibly picking on someone who may be being earnest, and not a know-it-all. But there you have it.

Now I’ll try to be a good boy again.


Anonymous said...

Brian, this post made me smile. Not as much as your recent appreciation of the 1982 Conan the Barbarian that you took the time to compose and share, but it was amusing and light-hearted, all while communicating your frustration at the utter ridiculousness of what we all encounter on the Internet all day long.

I've been a follower for years (ever since I discovered you on Black Gate back in the day) and I appreciate all the work you put in to your writing. It's clear that Conan and pulp and sword and sorcery played as large a role in your early years as it did in mine. It's a joy to read the musings of a fellow fan and it cheers me to think you've found the time and energy to put into works like Flame and Crimson. These aren't just empty musings, they add depth and dimension to works that deserve the kind of attention and thoughtfulness that you devote to them.

Keep up the great work and keep smiling at the drive-by clueless that don't quite get it. There are plenty of us watching from the balcony that appreciate all you do. Even the rants.


Scott Oden said...

As a sometimes writer of historical fiction, I feel SEEN :) The nitpickers drive me nuts.

Brian Murphy said...

Anonymous: I don't know who you are (hence, anonymous), but God bless you man. I appreciate that comment more than you know. Thanks for following and reading my stuff.

Scott: I hear and feel you, man. Keep up the excellent work, and don't let the bastards grind you down.

Andy said...

For all the idealism that people used to have about the internet, I don't think anyone ever predicted that it would become such a bastion for overly nitpicky people (many of whom are likely suffering from some degree of mental illness).