Sunday, January 22, 2012

Robert E. Howard's 106th birthday*

As someone who has now become somewhat inextricably tied to Robert E. Howard, the author from Texas who created Conan and so many other wonderful and engaging pulp stories, I feel like I should say something to mark the occasion of his birthday.

I've been involved in Howard Studies for a number of years and I frequently have to remind myself just how far REH (as we call him in print) has come as a popular culture figure. If you are wondering yourself what I'm talking about, go watch the REH mini-biography on the new Conan the Barbarian blu-ray. You'll probably watch it and go, "So? Yeah? Big deal. I know all of this stuff, Finn. What's your point?"

Then go watch the REH featurette on the FIRST Conan movie DVD, starring Schwarzenegger. Just compare the two and you'll see the differences, in shart contrast. You'll wonder why, for example, they let John Milius talk about Robert E. Howard as if he knew the man personally, when in fact he has had, and continues to not have, any ties to Howard or the Howard Studies community. He's just a ham hock of a director, flapping his big fat mouth, and getting it all wrong. 100% wrong.

That's not happening now. Paradox is maintaining Howard's image and biography, even as they continue to support the publishing effort. It's important to do both. There are millions of copies of the "Conan Saga," which is what we have come to call the 12-book paperback series that was put together by L. Sprague de Camp with the help of Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyborg. These books were the introduction to so many fans of REH, the character of Conan, and perhaps worst of all, de Camp's introductions regarding Howard from a biographical perspective. Oh, and of course, his assertion that there's no deep meaning to epic fantasy. It's all just good clean fun. Riiiiiiight.

Anyway, all of that junk is still out there. Those books get traded into Half-Price books and frequently don't last a week on the shelves before someone picks them up again. Gary Romeo, the greatest de Camp apologist of all, thinks it's funny that people like me keep bringing up de Camp. To be fair, he also complained that people weren't giving him enough credit when everyone was trying to freeze him out of the books. So, either way, he's going to kvetch.

But I want to be very clear here: the reason why I keep bringing him up is because I don't want people to forget what a horrible biographer de Camp was, and also what a petty little snark he could be whenever he talked about My Favorite Author. He never missed an opportunity whenever he had an audience to offer up a sideways kick or a backhanded compliment about Howard, usually a listing of all of Howard's faults as an author and as a human, followed with "but for all of that, he sure could write rousing action scenes, couldn't he?" This is the literary equivalent to telling your dance partner, "You know, for a fat chick, you sure don't sweat very much." It's damning with faint praise, and it has been the model for criticizing REH, well, ever since de Camp started doing it in the mid-1950s.

But that's changing now. The documentary on the new Conan dvd is huge. I know of at least two high profile anthologies coming out, one this year and one next year, with REH stories in them. It's only a matter of time before Howard becomes the next of the pulp-era authors to get folded into the American Literary Canon.It may take a few more years, and a few more people outside of the SF-F sub-culture to write favorable about him, but it's going to happen.

And there will always be a pop cultural, if not a cultural, presence for REH and his work. So the Conan movie didn't work out so good. Doesn't matter. Not really. The MMO is still going strong, and there's more and more publishing coming out. Another movie will get made. Hopefully closer to the source material. The message boards are active, and the fan base is healthy. As more and more of these fans discover or rediscover Howard's work, they are greeted with a very different picture of the author than merely "the brooding loner who wrote Conan."

I can't think of a better 106th* birthday present. Happy Birthday, Bob. Thanks for the words.

*Thanks to Damon over at the excellent Two-Gun Raconteur website for reminding me my count was off. It's 2012, not 2011, don't you know.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Advice for the 21st Century Virtual Critic

Last week, the Interwebs were aflame in a massive troll fight between some Young Adult authors and the people who read them--which can include thirteen year old girls, but doesn't always. The Book Pushers gave an amazingly succinct blow by blow recap of the entire kerfluffle as it played out across the social media platforms like a Jerry Springer stripper fight that meanders backstage and out across the audience before coming to rest in one of the chairs, held apart at arm's length by Steve.

What it basically boiled down to is this: a reader said some fairly insulting things about an author and his work. Other authors jumped in, saying to leave off the personal attacks, and oh yeah, yer mother, and it spiraled out of control from there.  But it touched upon something that I've had a serious problem with for some time now: there's no filter for the Internet. By that I mean that when some Mountain Dew-addled seventeen year old clicks through on a link to a movie trailer for a pop culture property they have no prior knowledge of, and right underneath the trailer is a blank space, fairly begging for a comment, there's nothing to prevent them, either internally or externally from typing "this sucks" and then going on their merry way. Nothing. When have seventeen year old kids ever had to be thoughtful and articulate?

But some of them have seen the value, or maybe just the cache, in being some kind of online presence or personality. And since everyone in cyberspace wants to participate in a global conversation, these Cyber-Pundits have popped up on places like You Tube, the Internet Movie Database, and Amazon. They are even called "reviewers" by some sites, and this may have lulled many of them into thinking that they are a critical voice that actually matters.

For every thoughtful, articulate, and cogent reviewer on Amazon, there are twenty sub-literate Howler monkeys with a grasp of English that can only be called Byzantine and not an iota of taste in their mouth, much less in their heads.

It's gotten so that I cannot even participate in these conversations anymore, if they ever were conversations in the first place. A conversation implies a give and take, back and forth. Website comment boxes are more like, "Step up to this line, and try to shout so that your voice is heard on the other side of the lake." As someone who has written reviews, and as someone who has been reviewed, I'm not trying to pick a new fight here. What I am saying is this: in a medium comprised entirely of words (emoticons have never counted), what you say and how you say it is everything. Period.

In other words, if you're just a reader who likes to say "It sucked" when you come across a book that didn't hold your interest with every sentence on the page, that's fine, I can't stop you. Just make it clear to me that you're that person, and not trying to influence other people with your post. Don't act like your screed is anything other than your subjective, biased, and scarcely nuanced opinion.  It's not a review. It's certainly not a review I can use, nor can anyone else--unless they feel like starting a little online slap-fight.

See, what makes a good reviewer good is his or her ability to write about a book, even one they didn't personally care for, in such a way that it doesn't scorch the Earth beneath it. Reviewers, like essayists, reporters, and even fiction writers, should have a viewpoint. That's how you not only connect with the people who want to know what you think (because they share your viewpoint) but you also make yourself useful to people who don't share your viewpoint by bringing up relevant criteria that can be used to make an informed opinion.

Example: Marc Savlov is a writer for the Austin Chronicle, and he's made it very clear throughout his decade and a half of movie reviews that he is a closet geek. He likes that stuff, but he's a little embarrassed to admit it. And so, he tends to be harder on X-Men movies than other people. Most genre movies, for that matter. So, when I read a Savlov review, I know I can automatically add one star to anything he writes about with lasers or dinosaurs or superheroes in it and that'll line up with my own tastes. Roger Ebert is another great example of someone whose tastes are out there, for everyone to see, and so you just know how to adjust whatever Ebert is saying to how you like your movies.

These guys have something else going for them: they are deeply knowledgeable. They don't talk about Blade Runner being the best film noir movie ever made because they've seen Out of the Past. When "new" film noir movies come out, Ebert weighs all of the other film noir movies against the new one and can talk about what worked and what didn't. And I trust him, because I've seen the books he's written.

If you're online, and you're not even using your real name, then guess what? You have to establish your credibility if you want to be a reviewer. It's okay to like weird movies, and it's even okay to champion new stuff as greater and better than everything before it. But you need to understand that classics are called classics because they are inarguably classics. I'm sorry if you haven't seen Raiders of the Lost Ark because it's like, 30 years old and stuff. But it's one of the most influential movies of the 20th century. If you haven't seen it, and can't spot the obvious swipes in some crummy action film, then guess what? You're not a credible reviewer, and anything else you say from that moment forward is suspect. In a nutshell, if you're going to wax intellectual, you'd better know your shit.

Finally, it is possible to say you hate a book without saying it sucks. It's actually pretty easy to do. All you have to do is add the phrase, "In my opinion," before you pronounce judgement, and then back up what you didn't like about the book--specifically. Was the language too garbled? Was the dialogue unbelievable? Was the plot contrived? Did it feel too much like "X" book or series? See, that's a valid thing to bring up. Some authors in fact make a point of trying to do their "Tolkien riff." If I'm a Tolkien fan, and I'm tired of re-reading The Hobbit, then your comments might actually help me, even as they are establishing your bona fides on your critical yardstick. But you shouldn't presume that the author is a terrible person, nor that the people that like their books are sub-literate chuckleheads. If you have that strong a reaction to a book, then clearly you were not the target audience. Moreover, how on Earth did you even think to pick up such a thing in the first place? You probably read an online review.

When I was a book seller (for years and years) I was called upon to give my opinion about books on a daily basis. Now, this can be tricky. If I tell someone about a book that I hated, that I think sucked, and I say it's the greatest thing ever, then that's a lie. And if they buy that book based on my lie, and hate the book, then guess what? I've lost all of my credibility.

Over the years, I learned the value of tact. It's perfectly okay to say to someone asking about, say, Henry Miller, that "I'm not the best person to ask for a recommendation. I don't personally care for him. I think he's a little too gimmicky." If they asked for more, I'd tell them what made Miller's writing more of a blog trick than actual prose. But I'd always end with, "But that's just me. Other folks here love Miller and can tell you why he's great." I'm not putting down anyone who likes Miller. I'm just explaining why I don't. See how that works? Let me say this out loud, so there can be no misunderstanding: if you're not capable of doing that every time you hit a movie, or book, or record that you don't like, then you're not going to be an effective critic. You're just going to be another nameless, faceless voice in an already crowded Internet yelling "IT SUCKS" from the other side of the lake.

Take a moment to decide if you're a reviewer, or if you're just a reader. If you want to be a reviewer, then you've got to be brilliant. Or gifted. Or both. But if you just want to be a reader, and just want to be able to say what you think, without all of that other stuff getting in the way, then make the effort to say what you mean and mean what you say. Use your words. You're a reader. You of all people should know the value of written communication.

For those of you who actually aspire to honing a critical reputation of some kind, well congratulations. You just became writers. And with that comes all of the things that every other writer on the planet needs to know. All of the rules. All of the perils and pitfalls. You are now just as accountable for the things you write (for little or no money) as the rest of us writers working for little or no money. Again, let me stress: choose your words carefully.

At least, that's what I think.

Friday, January 6, 2012

DAY THREE: The CWSB 30 Day Novel Challenge

I am on pace so far, but I feel I should warn some long time readers of me and San Cibola in general. Well, not warn, so much as explain.

I'm taking the San Cibola out of the Con-Dorks.

When I rework the first two books (with the intention of selling the three novels as a trilogy) I will be shortening the distance between the Con-Dorks and the Sisters by having all of the events take place in San Francisco and the Bay Area. So if some of the geography in this third book seems off, that's why.

But why am I doing this? It's simple, and a little sad, too. Without all of the other authors on hand to prop up San Cibola with their writing, the concept of a magical city with open secrets becomes harder for one book (or even a set of books) to maintain on its own. San Cib was a shared world, not just in that we were sharing the real estate as writers, but that you, as readers, were sharing the information about the place picked up from all of these stories. That's how the shared world operates.

So, for the purposes of, say, introducing the first Con-Dorks book, it's much easier as an author to say (and for you as a reader to buy into) "Okay, magic is real, and it's largely secret. Some folks know about it, and they are special. Most people don't know about it, and they are normal." If I don't have to further explain the world, this brand-new city, and how it all works to a new reader, then they can get involved in the story that much quicker.

So, If you have a copy of Gods New and Used, or if you liked the books when they were serialized on RevolutionSF, I recommend you hang on to them. When next they appear, they will be in a new form. It's almost as if the Blue Cutters got ahold of the books, but not really. I hope.

Oh, and for the rest of you following the contest: Insert obligatory Trash-Talk here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The CWSB 30 Day Novel Challenge, circa 2012

No, you didn't misread that. I'm currently on day one of a thirty day novel challenge. You can read the details about the contest here at Major Spoilers, where the contest will be held.  Why am I doing this? Because there is something wrong with me. I've got enough on my plate already, but dammit, I'm overdue for this. I need--no, I want--the kickstart that this contest inevitably produces in me. It's essential for 2012, and I'm going to create early momentum.

But what about my existing commitments? I'm working on two things right now for other people, including a long-running writing project I'm doing with another author. Well, never let it be said that I'm not barking mad. I'm going to do this contest IN ADDITION to upholding my existing commitments! Yeah. No sleep 'til Brooklyn.

That means I'll be sending chapters to my co-author, for we have a deadline to hit this year. Also, I'll be turning in comic book script pages for SCOUTS! as well. Plus my weekly column in the local paper, and anything else coming down the pipeline, like old time radio scripts.

Am I crazy? Is there something wrong with me? You bet there is. But the nice thing is, if I crack up and explode, it'll be live and on the web for everyone to see. So, please follow along and keep up with what we're doing over at Major Spoilers. I'll be posting chapters over there, and offering commentary here. Lots to see and do and read in January. Looks like the start of a great 2012.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Thoughts About Glenn Lord

Glenn Lord outside the REH House.
All of us in Howard fandom knew that this day was coming, of course. Glenn had just celebrated his 80th birthday. It was going to happen, but as usual, none of us were really prepared for it. The King of Howard fandom passed away yesterday, December 31st, 2011, and his death puts a sad period on the already bad year that was 2011.

I don't know that I'll be able to talk about Glenn more eloquently than my friends and colleagues Rusty Burke, or Dennis McHaney, or any of the other folks who worked with him over the years like Damon Sasser, or Paul Herman. Those guys knew him well. I never got that close to Glenn. When I first met him, it was in the 1980s, at a Dallas Fantasy Fair, and he was in attendance along with L. Sprague de Camp. No, they weren't together by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn't know that.

I was young, and it was my first or second convention, ever, and I didn't know ANYTHING about Howard Studies, the long-standing feud between Lord and de Camp, or any of their history. I was just a wide-eyed fan. And I went up to him in a hallway while he was talking to another professional and, in my nervous, excited embarrassment, just started blurting out questions for him.  He stopped his conversation to answer me, but I could tell I had interrupted him, and put my foot in it. I hurriedly thanked him and went my way, a little wiser, but no less intimidated.

And that was my first meeting with the man who arguably changed my life.

See, if you've read any Robert E. Howard, and it wasn't Conan the Cimmerian, you have Glenn to thank for that. As the agent for the Howard estate, Glenn published and put publishing deals together from the late 1950s up to the 1990s. He tracked down Howard's poems and letters. He found the original typescripts and tear sheets for Howard's entire writing career. As a collector, he owns the vast majority of everything that REH wrote. But in his role as Howard's agent, he generously granted access to his collection in order to get Howard's work out there, into the world, for all of us to read and enjoy. Even when he was no longer the agent, he continued to help with the ongoing publishing efforts. That's the kind of guy Glenn was. He was the Source. He was the guy with the inside track, the little scrap of info, that one thing that you needed, and he gave without thinking.

Glenn and the REHupans in 2006. I'm easy to spot.

Years after that first meeting--decades, even--I got a do-over in Cross Plains. I have no doubt in my mind that Glenn did not remember the sixteen year old me, and I never took the pains to re-introduce myself to the man. We spoke often, whenever I had the chance to see him, really, and he was always gracious, kind, and after 2006, loved to tease me about the title of "Blood & Thunder," always calling it "Thud and Blunder" after the Poul Anderson article of the same name. I was flattered that Glenn knew who I was through my involvement with REHupa before I had the chance to work with him, however briefly, while writing Blood & Thunder. We spoke on the phone, and exchanged some emails, and sure enough, blammo, four days afterward, I got some xeroxes in the mail that were exactly what I was looking for. He is thanked in the acknowledgements of the book. Hell, he's thanked in pretty much all of them, really.

Glenn's passing leaves a chasm in Howard Studies that may not ever be filled. We may just have to find a new way forward, as our world has just been turned upside down. He has been a friend, a mentor, a father figure, and a project adviser for so long that I honestly expect everyone to take some time and try to re-think a Glenn-less world and our place in it.

This book was my game-changer.
There is one thing of which I am certain--in the last fifteen years or so, Howard fandom has gone to great lengths to show our appreciation and give our thanks to Glenn for being the first one, for getting it all together, and for showing us the way. His family, too, knew what he meant to all of us, and I think it's important that they all realized that this wasn't just some hobby for him, or an obsession. He touched and changed a lot of people through his publishing efforts. He published a lot of Howard's poetry at a time when it was scattered to the four winds. His first pubishing effort was a collection of some of Howard's poetry. He put forth a number of stories including the boxing tales of Sailor Steve Costigan, and later a collection of "Dennis Dorgan" stories that hooked me like no other REH writing did before or since.

What was your favorite? Solomon Kane? Kull? Breck Elkins? Dark Agnes? Cormac Fitzgeoffreies? Was it the Berkeley books with the Ken Kelly covers that first caught your eye? Or was it the Zebra paperbacks with the spiffy Jeff Jones covers? Hey, if you came to Howard from the Conan comics...that was Glenn. You see? He propped up the whole of Howard's catalog and made it available to us. He changed my life.

All of Howard fandom mourns today. We lost a mentor and a friend.

Rest in Peace, Glenn.
The Lamp Expires, but the Fire Remains