Monday, 16 May 2011

The Conan Cronicles

Like most fantasy fans I have been through my Robert E Howard phase. It is a lot like the cider phase that a lot of teenagers go through; you get really into it, until the one night when you drink too much, vomit everywhere and then can never quite bring yourself to touch the stuff again. I never had that cider phase myself though - I still like to drink cider, but I only drink the beardy stuff that tastes like it's been smashed repeatedly in the face and gone home to try to sleep off the broken nose, and looks like diseased piss. I did have a Smirnoff Ice phase - which ended similarly after I opened a bottle outside a kebab shop in Tooting with my teeth, drank most of it, vomited all over the pavement and then proceeded to drank the rest, because it would be a shame to waste it.

Anyway, reading Robert E Howard is nothing like that, but you get the idea.

I don't think it's the racism and misogyny, as overt and off-putting as it is. Despite not having read any Lovecraft for a while I don't consider myself to have stopped reading Lovecraft - that's merely a function dependent on whether or not I'm in full time employment at any given moment. This matters because Lovecraft is on a par with Howard on the racism and misogyny front. Also, they were BFFs and were, with a bit of canny referencing between the two of them effectively writing in a shared universe. Also, everyone always writes about the two of them as if they were somehow equivalent, so I see no reason not to. No, there's something else that has stopped me reading on.

The thing is, I feel like I should probably focus on the racism and misogyny. Just because something was written in the past, at a time which didn't share our fancy modern values of not reducing individuals to mere instances of larger groups (each with their own implicit or explicit top trump card to tell you everything you need to know about them in a single glance), it doesn't mean that you should discard all of those values when you get round to reading it.

I saw the opera Cosi fan Tutte (the title alone of which roughly translates as 'Women, they're all the same') last year, and it really pissed me off precisely because by being old it was both unchallenged (because, you know, things were different back then, and anyway now it's just a bit of fluff) and yet more powerful because it had survived so long without being challenged. It is as if an iron core of misogyny runs through our culture that says, 'whatever arguments you may have about your fancy modern art, which isn't really art but I'll let you call it that for now, this Mozart chap is real culture and he tells it like it is.' It's the whole Art = Truth hypothesis. Because Mozart is often called timeless, a classic and so on, the timeless message seems to be that it's OK to emotionally blackmail women into having sex with you because they're all shallow bitches who have it coming to them anyway.  By not challenging it people accept that, even if they don't mean to, and the meme continues.

And fantasy really does suffer from a similar thing, which in a roundabout way I've written about before. Howard, Lovecraft, Tolkien - they wrote the timeless classics, and those timeless classics are really rather full of implicit and explicit racism and misogyny. Yet, because they are the classics they get read, and they get read for the most part uncritically (at least by fans, rather than academics), because to do otherwise would be to challenge the orthodoxy.  And the worst thing is that even when we do see the problems inherent we still read them, because to not do so would be incomplete, and would be the mark of the dilettante, the hipster or the newcomer - all of these not true fans.

What embarrasses me is that it was not the racism and the misogyny that stopped me reading Conan. I didn't like it, but I felt that as long as I was aware of it I could read critically and enjoy what there was to enjoy in the florid prose and the awesome bits where Conan kills everyone in the room. What stopped me reading was Elric.

Following on from a train of thought started after reading this post on Project NES, and eventually finished at around midnight after a number of hours spent drinking and talking about science fiction after a day trying to flog comics at a comic con this weekend, I finally worked this out. If I had read Conan first I think I would have been able to read all of it, but I didn't.

I would have made it through the hugely tedious descriptions to get to the really good bits because I wouldn't have known that there was anything else quite like it. In a way, it is true, no-one really writes like Howard did, not even Moorecock. The problem is, Moorecock, in writing Elric, skewered Conan so perfectly while still creating really enjoyable adventure and action stories that all reading Conan really did was make me appreciate Elric even more. The one needed to exist only so that the other could usurp him.

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