Thursday, November 5, 2009

Alan Moore on Hodgson (and Others)

The player of Pike in my Dwimmermount campaign passed along something interesting to me: Richard Corben did a graphic novel adaptation of William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. I don't (yet) own this, but, having now read its introduction by Alan Moore, I plan to do so. Here's a particularly piquant part of it:
This book, along with its author and some of his equally illustrious contemporaries or near-contemporaries, represents a buried treasure-seam of literature which might immeasurably enrich our currently moribund cultural landscape, if only it were not buried, had not been ruthlessly buried alive in the first instance.

For "buried," read forgotten, marginalized, disqualified. It seems as if, with the arrival of Jane Austen on the literary map, there was a sudden and unanimous consensus reached within the critical fraternity to the effect that socially realistic parlor-dramas and sparkling comedies of manners were not merely the most lofty point to which all writings might aspire, they were the only form of writing that could be considered genuine, serious literature. Thus, at a sweep, all genre fiction and all fantasy were ruled unclean, consigned to the outlying slums and ghettos past the ivory battlements of literary respectability.

There are a few names, it is true, that have somehow survived the purge: Poe. Lovecraft (just). Maybe Bram Stoker, simply based on Dracula's enduring success. Possibly another one or two whose names evade the memory at present, which, if anything, just serves to underline the basic point: Buried. Disqualified. Forgotten.

What about Lord Dunsany, with his perfect little one- or two-page fables? What about Clark Ashton Smith, his opulent prose style, his retirement partly spent in carving pebbles into leering and fantastic demon-heads then throwing them away, perhaps to be found decades later by some stranger, who would surely marvel all their lives? What about Arthur Machen, with The Three Impostors or The Great God Pan, who joined the legendary magic brotherhood, the Golden Dawn; who saw visions of Sion rise above the wind-scoured squares and terraces of Holborn? What of M.P. Shiel, "the gem-encrusted magus," overweight and running from his health through London's twilight streets, wearing a vest of battery-driven lights to alert coachmen and pedestrians to his approaching presence? What about William Hope Hodgson?
As they say on the Internet, quoted for truth.

27 comments:

  1. Great quote! Happily, there are enough of us who do not feel bound by the constraints of the pompous literature-elite!

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  2. Wow, Allan Moore threw quite a pity-party there.

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  3. I must have read that before -- it all seems too familiar -- although I know I haven't seen Corben's take on "House on the Borderland".

    I don't think Moore's expressing pity so much as irritation. The Literature/Genrepap dichotomy needs to die. Horribly.

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  4. I don't think Moore's expressing pity so much as irritation.

    Indeed. I have some difficulty even imagining what Alan Moore feeling sorry for himself would sound like.

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  5. Moore's reference to Jane Austen doesn't make any sense.

    What came to be known as genre-literature (specifically the Gothic) was held in low esteem prior to her life or later, lasting fame. The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Radcliffe, even going back to 'adventure' stories by Defoe, etc--- that was all low stuff. Critical opinion didn't solidify to exclude that stuff "with the arrival of Jane Austen on the literary map" (whatever the hell that means.) It always excluded it.

    He's also wrong about critical opinion holding parlor dramas, etc, as the highest form of literature. Are Moby Dick, Gravity's Rainbow, Ulysses, Beloved, etc, parlor dramas? And it took Austen's work a long time to really be read seriously, because unlike the sci-fi/horror writers Moore is discussing, her work was genuinely marginalized in a meaningful way--- published anonymously, critically ignored till the 20th century--- all for being written by a woman.

    In short, his opinions about criticism and the literary establishment appear to be entirely formed by Masterpiece Theatre and BBC costume dramas. The piece reeks of ressentiment.

    And how can one not read "ruthlessly buried" literature as a completely maudlin phrase? Please. That whole opening paragraph is borderline hysterical--- it brings tears to my eyes, thinking about the poor oppressed white man writing for Weird Tales.

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  6. This just doesn’t ring true at all. Yes, Jane Austen was hostile to the “Gothic” craze of her time and in her own writing did a good job of promoting the case for realistic fiction. But not only does the idea that one (very good writer) could exile all fantastic elements from fiction for all time defy logic, it’s not borne out by the facts. I don’t know that there is any consensus as to what good literature is, but two ways to approach it might be: 1) what sells or 2) what gets assigned in English class

    Here is the current NY Times best seller list:
    1. THE LOST SYMBOL, by Dan Brown
    2. THE SCARPETTA FACTOR, by Patricia Cornwell
    3. PURSUIT OF HONOR, by Vince Flynn
    4. NINE DRAGONS, by Michael Connelly
    5. THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett


    I haven’t read any of these authors, but from what little I know they have more in common with Poe than with Austen and are informed more by a fascination with mystery than with “sparkling comedies of manners.”

    But is this a populist revolt to the “Serious” fiction forced on students in English class? Again, I don’t think so. What was I assigned to read Junior year of high school? Light in August, Hamlet, Moby Dick, Scarlet Letter, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Huck Finn. Maybe these don’t have wizards and dragons, but none of them are parlor dramas, and most are good adventure stories. If Fantasy and Science Fiction writing exists in a ghetto (and I’d agree that it does), much of the damage is self-inflicted, the problem of the serpent eating its own tail, a refusal by Fan/Sci-fi writers and readers to look outside.

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  7. Two brief points in response to FASERIP:
    1. I think that when Moore speaks of Jane Austen's arrival on the literary map, he means exactly what you referred to: that point in the 20th century when she got critical recognition.
    2. Moore, like Michael Moorcock, often takes extreme stances to provoke and irritate; looks like it worked.

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  8. "1. I think that when Moore speaks of Jane Austen's arrival on the literary map, he means exactly what you referred to: that point in the 20th century when she got critical recognition."

    The phrase is deliberately vague, I suspect, because he doesn't actually know when her fame came about or how. He just knows about the Emma Thompson and Gwyneth Paltrow movies. Certainly the rest of his straw-man argument about parlor drama is evidence of such ignorance.

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  9. After all the nits are picked, I think the point of Moore's argument can best be summed up as: "These guys deserve recognition. And screw Jane Austen." But by all means, let's continue to speculate on the man's knowledge of Victorian literature. Zzzzz

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  10. In any case, Hodgson is a footnote to literature. Even weird literature.

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  11. Two brief points in response to FASERIP:

    1. I think that when Moore speaks of Jane Austen's arrival on the literary map, he means exactly what you referred to: that point in the 20th century when she got critical recognition.

    2. Moore, like Michael Moorcock, often takes extreme stances to provoke and irritate; looks like it worked.


    3. ...and he is not only a genius and a master writer but an insane fucking person who holds onto beliefs about the world that would get Austen disqualified in an instant from literary respectability. That doesn't invalidate his opinions - and maybe acceptance of hermetic lunatics like Moore is a point in favour of left-field lit - but I think it bears mentioning.

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  12. After all the nits are picked, I think the point of Moore's argument can best be summed up as: "These guys deserve recognition. And screw Jane Austen."

    there should be better ways of making this argument than blaming these guys' obscurity on the demonic power of someone who wrote 200 years ago when no one was looking?

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  13. Brian, you're totally right. I make no excuses for Alan Moore's behavior. He can be an obnoxious cur, but that's part of his charm.

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  14. sure fine, I know I should just give it a rest.

    but it's depressing to hear a self-exiled revolutionary spouting the same tiresome victim-politics that I hear around every seminar table about that person's favorite "marginalized group." writing is always hard and every writer who's any good writes alone and creates their own audience.

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  16. Just to pointlessly pour more fuel on this fire:

    FASERIP--
    Some of what you say may be true, but it's simply factually inaccurate to say Alan Moore doesn't know his history of english lit. As inaccurate as blaming the marginalization of the weird tale on Jane Austen directly.

    Everybody else:

    It may be worth noting that Austen herself, like Edgar Allen Poe, is a no-longer-critically-ignored writer who kicked off a (perhaps deservedly) criticaly-ignored marginal genre: the romance novel.

    Now, I will defend to the death the idea that somehow in some way Jack Vance is a better writer than any romance novelist ever, but if you all insist on arguing about this quote then the whole gender issue should probably be thrown out there right where everybody can see it.

    You've got:

    1) Proto-Weird Tales (all early epic poems ever and much early lit, from the bible and the Odyssey to the Inferno on down)--these people aren't marginalized.

    2) Then you've got People Who Are Considered Mere Genre Writers (all the people Moore discusses).

    3) Then you've got Modern People Who Are Considered Real Literature but use Weird-Tale-Type Ideas (Borges, Pynchon, etc.)--these people aren't marginalized.

    Now, you can do exactly the same thing for romance novels.

    4) Proto-Romance (the Tale of Genji, Madame Bovary) is taken seriously.

    5) Mere Genre Romance Novels aren't taken seriously--Jackie Collins, etc.

    6) And then there are Modern People Who Are Considered Real Literature Who Use Romance-Novel-Type Ideas (Anne Tyler etc.)

    Fans of the Weird Tale and Adventure Tale (this goup is mostly men) almost universally dislike Group 5 ("Mere Genre Romance Novels") and think it genuinely should be ignored and do their best to simply ignore the obvious genre elements in group 6 if indeed they read those books at all. These people don't understand why anybody would like romance-ish novels and explain their popularity on the grounds that they appeal to what's worst in people.

    Fans of the Romance Novel (this group is mostly women--and represents the plurality of the book-buying public) almost universally dislike Group 2 ("Mere Genre Weird Tales") and think it genuinely should be ignored and do their best to simply ignore the obvious genre elements in group 3 if indeed they read those books at all. These people don't understand why anybody would like Weird Tale-ish novels and explain their popularity on the grounds that they appeal to what's worst in people.

    In order to move a book "up" in the hierarchy, you have to first prove to a bunch of universtiy profs that your favorite genre novel deserves a promotion. These profs have their own prejudices. As in all things that have to do with art and money, it's a war that will never end.

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  17. Oh, also:

    If your yard stick is academic acceptability then the Weird Tale-influenced books have a slight edge, if your yard stick is commercial acceptability then the Romance Novel-influenced books have a slight edge.

    If all you want is money, the obvious choice is Weird Romance--thus: True Blood, Buffy, etc.

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  18. The lady who runs one of the used bookshops I frequent is an avid reader of romance and f/sf, so we really are dealing with generalities. I don't know enough about the tropes, structure, and themes of romance novels to say anything about them, but I certainly don't have anything against Danielle Steele.

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  19. "Some of what you say may be true, but it's simply factually inaccurate to say Alan Moore doesn't know his history of english lit."

    He doesn't evince much knowledge of it here, particularly with his 'parlor drama' strawman.

    Also, I don't at all agree with confining Jane Austen's influence to the romance novel. She certainly didn't 'kick it off'. That is erroneous. I would say earlier sentimental and even gothic novels are much more directly influential (Richardson, Radcliffe.) Austen is too arch for that.

    Oh, and she and Fanny Burney were big influences on Patrick O'Brien. I don't see how his work fits your schema.

    Lastly, literary criticism is some seriously useless, irrelevant crap. I don't understand the pining for the attention of professors and other intellectual goldbrickers. It doesn't matter whether Hodgson (to use the example here, and a writer whom I like a good deal) gets recognition from those academic parasites or not, because he still is not going to breakthrough to the mainstream audience. The audience does know what it wants, and no amount of university accolades will change the marginality of his work.

    At least that's how I see it.

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  20. I never said everyone fits a "schema". I'm making a point.

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  21. FASE, it ain't about the accolades. It's about whether I get to see "The Night Land" made into a series of big budget feature films. Let's start pimping those Hodgson books, people. I smell a grassroots movement coming on. ...Or maybe that's just grass I smell?

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  22. "Thus, at a sweep, all genre fiction and all fantasy were ruled unclean, consigned to the outlying slums and ghettos past the ivory battlements of literary respectability."

    That's where they belong. Respectable fiction is dead fiction. All genres are ghettos, where society's rules do not apply.

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  23. He just knows about the Emma Thompson and Gwyneth Paltrow movies.
    I have a difficult time imagining Alan Moore sitting in the Northampton Odeon watching Paltrow's Emma! Amusing image though.

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  24. >>It's about whether I get to see "The Night Land" made into a series of big budget feature films.

    I'm for whatever prevents this.

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  25. Moore's quote reminds me of China Mieville's somewhat infamous "wen on the arse of fantasy" screed against J.R.R. Tolkien. Under the fury and poorly stated arguments, there's a kernel of a good point in there. (That some very good authors are now overlooked due to mistaken current critical views on genre.)

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  26. >> I'm for whatever prevents this.

    Oh, sure, Jim. Next you'll tell us you don't want Uwe Boll directing.

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  27. James Branch Cabell!

    Just pimping for my favorite forgotten author. Although Jack Vance almost qualifies - it's amazing how many people play D&D but have never read "Eyes of the Overworld."

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