Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sword & Sorcery: Literature or Junk?

I've been silent as of late, due to a high travel tempo for my career and now a case of the good old summer crud; however, as always, I have been reading and thinking about Conan, Robert Howard and the sword and sorcery genre in general. Lately, I have begun re-reading the L. Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter/Björn Nyberg pastiche. This has led to a spate of re-reading much of de Camp's non-fiction essays as they appear in The Spell of Conan and The Blade of Conan. This post won't be my opinion of de Camp, that is a complicated relationship that deserves its own post sometime in the future.

What I do want to talk about is the opinion of Sword & Sorcery in general. Sword & Sorcery, as a genre has been sneered at over the several decades since its unintentional inception by Bob Howard. The predominant opinion among the literati (my favorite term for those that consider themselves the prime, critical connoisseurs of all that should and could be considered Literature, with the capital "L") is that Sword & Sorcery is escapist literature at its best and unhealthy, pseudo-sexual, violent fantasy re-creation at its worst. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (and this is a generalization, not a direct quote) have both in various introductions and essays I have read, called Sword & Sorcery (or Sword-play and Sorcery--a de Camp preference) a guilty pleasure meant to help the reader escape to a simpler time.

I take umbrage with the term "guilty pleasure". A long time ago, in a galaxy far-far away, I was in an Introduction to Western Literature class. My professor gave us a lecture that the kernel of which was this: if you read junk, then your mind is full of junk; therefore, you should read the good stuff, so your brain will be full of the good stuff. She then assigned us to write a short essay, completed in class, in which we were to write a few short paragraphs about our favorite guilty pleasures; after all, as she told us, while we should predominantly read "the good stuff", like an athlete on a restrictive diet, it was good to cheat once in awhile, and read some "guilty pleasure" stuff -- perhaps during our Holiday break or during the summer, so that we didn't get the urge to pig-out on the "bad stuff". Take a taste, then get back to the regiment. It will make you more deeply appreciate "the good stuff" (all her opinion, quoted from memory as best as I can).

I wrote a paragraph, not very long as I remember. My thesis was simple. If I enjoy reading something, I have no reason to feel any guilt about it. If it brings me pleasure, and no laws are broken by my doing so, then who is she, or anyone else for that matter, to tell me what the good stuff is, or the bad stuff? I don't remember her exact reaction, but I don't think that she thought I was truly embracing the spirit of the lecture/exercise.

That is an opinion I will always stand-by. It holds true for all genre literature, comic books (another often attacked pleasure of mine) and movies. But it does not answer the question: is Sword & Sorcery Literature or Junk? How is it defended? Can it be defended? It's a good question and I don't feel I can adequately answer it in one short blog post. It's a topic in need of more research. I would ask the readers of this blog to help me answer it, and perhaps I will explore it more deeply in the future, after my summer crud is gone and I've had the time to investigate it at my local university library.

My short answer is I believe Sword & Sorcery is Literature and not Junk. My defense of this is a long-term project that I am itching to begin working upon.

However, food for thought: Science Fiction is often easily defensible as Literature (with the capital L) as it often serves as a commentary upon our recent society (or the society of its time); consider Stranger in a Strange Land, or even the various robot stories of Asimov (easily viewed as the fear a culture has of an ever increasing mechanized society). Please consider giving your opinions on these statements/questions either as a comment here, or if you prefer as an email (kilsern71 at gmail dot com):

  • Recent history often plays a role in the author's thought process. Consider the recent history of Howard's time. World War I ended in 1918, to what extent did that influence Howard's barbarous created world? 
  • Howard and Lovecraft exchanged letters over an extended time that argued the virtues of civilization versus barbarism, what are some examples of how Conan best stands for Howard's opinion that barbarism was mans natural state? 
  • A revival of sword and sorcery began in the 60's and 70's, the current political state of the U.S. at that time could be viewed as one in which many people believed that it was failing. How does Sword & Sorcery best exemplify this?


Mike D. said...

Well we’d need to define literature first. Then we’d need to question the credibility of fiction opposed to history. Just what exactly is literature?
Mere words on paper, poetry? It is all of the above in the form of text. So yes. Sword and sorcery is just as legit as Sci Fi and typical fiction…Mike Hammer, Sherlock Holmes , Jesse Stone , The Women’s murder club.
REH and his contemporaries and all the writers busting out tales of Dragons and creating their own folklore are just as much a part of what is defined as Literature as anyone else such as ERB…Bradbury …Heinlein and even the Father of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard. It is all literature and certainly as credible as Dickens, Mark Twain and Lewis Carol, Tolkien or even those Twilight books. ( As much as I could care less for them )
But Conan is indeed literature.
Literature may also be a flier or a brochure used to spread the word of a religion or even for a cause or to advertise. I don’t know how the literary scholars in those uppity high class educational institutions known as University’s treat the Genre of Sword and Sorcery but I know “The Lord of the rings” is required reading in some English curriculums in those High class circles so why not CONAN? “The Phoenix on the sword” was certainly as entertaining a tale as ( If not more so than) “The Hobbit”.
But on the literary circuit Conan and other pulp tales like Doc Savage or the Shadow or even Tarzan and John Carter are not particularly recognized as “GREAT” works.
They can treat the genre like a red headed step child all they like. It won’t go away. These stories have been the catalyst for everything that followed.
Yet the Hobbit and the Trilogy are treated like the best thing that was ever written. I being an REH/CONAN fan found myself in a conversation with a LOTR fanatic. He’d read the books and could not wait for the first film to be released and he scoffed at CONAN without even fully knowing or being aware of who Conan is or how he came to be. He just knew him as a comic book character.
I saw my chance to pounce. I quickly changed the course of that dim wits life and informed him of the information he needed to know.
Wouldn’t you know it two weeks later he purchased himself a couple of REH Conan books from a second hand paperback book store and read them and was then ready to come back to continue the conversation. Let me tell you…this LOTR/Tolkien freak admitted the writing and flow of the story was much more articulate and entertaining than that of JRRT.
Yes…REH was descript and precise with his colorful wording in order to paint the picture in your brain in an entertaining fashion. But Tolkien’s description of the valleys, trees, hills and caves was ….to say the least a drag. I persuaded this young man to look into reading REH and he was convinced.
Swords and sorcery novels, tales and stories are definitely not trash. 80 years of CONAN have proven that he stands aside all the others triumphant.
Pulp magazines were expected to be treated as disposable. But publishers at that time had no clue what was to transpire upon issuing said periodicals. People collected them….completely the opposite of what was expected.
If you threw it away…how else were you supposed to read the stories again? It’s in our nature to collect. Over the years this practice grew into researching about our favorite writers and our favorite characters. So …yeah…NO…It aint trash. Definitely not trash.

The Wasp said...

Michael Chabon has some good essays/interviews on the value of genre writing and provides a little of the history of how storytelling has been shunted aside by the literary cognoscenti in favor of introspective, supposedly psychologically penetrating works. He also at some point states, quite importantly, that while he agrees 90% of genre writing is crap, so is 90% of "literary" writing as well. S&S, like any other type of writing, rises or falls on the quality of the writing and the storytelling.

Do I think S&S is literature? In the broad sense, yes. It's got words strung into sentences then into paragraphs and finally into a whole story.

Sometimes it's literature because it's beautifully written, others its the power of the story that elevates it to that level. Some of it is informed by beliefs and insights as powerful as anything in Jack London or Hemingway. Much of what makes REH so potent a storyteller are the his views on man's state in the world.

Do I think I read it for "escape", sure, but in the sense JRRT said. To paraphrase, it helps free the mind to discover what it's for. Sometimes, I admit, I just want a jolt of adrenaline to my brain and it helps me do that too.

I like your questions about the rise of S&S in the post-WWI Depression era and the second coming in the wake of Vietnam and the 60's unrest. Perhaps the economic slough we've entered now explains the third wave we're experiencing right now. I wouldn't be surprised if societal instability has a part to play in wanting to read exciting stories with strong characters capable of cutting the Gordian knots binding them down. And I think it's more than mere wish fulfillment but a search for an image to emulate. Those were hard, brutal times and I think they raised levels of cynicism and the fear and expectation of violence lurking around the corner.

Finally, I don't view S&S (or any genre) as a guilty pleasure. If I like it I don't feel ashamed to admit it. Like I wrote earlier, most of it's not better or worse written than any other type of writing.

And even if it isn't it's got cool monsters and you're not going to get that in a some tale of middle-class ennui involving an English professor and his love affair with the provost's wife.

Grandmaster Athos said...

Homer's Oddyssey and the Iliad are kind of S&S if you think it. All the Hercules legends and myth, the Argonauts and most ancient greek texts, or from other cultures like norse mythology, egyptians etc. All this have the same princeples as a good SnS story could have, a brutal world, epic fights, mythical creatures, travels into exotic lands and the underworld and all those stories are set in a world not that different from ours. One could say SnS is just a continum of all this. sorry for the bad english, it's not my native language