October 25, 2019
By Alex Ness
I recently read a high brow writer's article wherein the writer said that while Robert E. Howard had written many characters and had a great imagination, he was nothing more than a hack. His works were evidence of a writer creating a high volume of work, but the writing was performed with a rather modest level of quality. I possess a book titled "And Their Memory Was a Bitter Tree" with stories by Robert E. Howard and art from Gerard Brom, Frank Frazetta and numerous other fine artists. The introduction written by Arnie Fenner for the book gives a similar assessment of Robert E. Howard's writing.
"The blare of the trumpets grew louder, like a deep golden tide surge, like
the soft booming of the evening tides against the silver beaches of Valusia.
The throng shouted, women flung roses from the roofs as the rhythmic
chiming of silver hoofs came clearer and the first of the mighty array
swung into view in the broad white street that curved round the golden
-spired Tower of Splendor" Robert E. Howard
There is a remarkable gulf between the opinion of actual writers and those writers who write about writing, and write about other works. A greater gulf can be found in the readers who vote with their dollars who is actually effective when it comes to writing. I am not suggesting anyone is wrong for having an opinion. I am relatively certain the writers about writing would suggest what I just said is wrong. It isn't. It is an opinion. My overall opinion is, when I read I have a great many reasons to do so, but due to hours spent writing and researching, I tend to not have time to read for pleasure, though it is something I enjoy doing and I enjoy reading Robert E. Howard. When I read Robert E. Howard, or Alan Dean Foster, or Clark Ashton Smith or H.P. Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany, I get to enjoy what it is I am reading, I moved by it, and I am restored by it. It is more than comforting, it is refreshing. I read high brow works, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard and even Friedrich Nietzsche, or Yukio Mishima, while these edify me, make me mentally grow, I don't read them for pleasure, I read them as an intellectual medium for growth. I think Robert E. Howard was rather brilliant, and his words on paper move me. Those who see his work as being unpolished, or, ineffective, or dull, must really have such active imaginations that they are constantly seeking stimulus from various sources. Or they are lying. I am not suggesting they are doing one or the other, just that, Robert E. Howard's work defies their opinion.
Now, an entirely different avenue would be to say, he wrote in genres that are not respected by the high brow culture as serious genres. That would be entirely true. It has nothing to do with the quality of work in that genre. As such, my main argument about those who dislike or give feint praise to Robert E. Howard is this, because he didn't write in serious genres, and because he wrote in genres and sales formats that appealed to every day buyers rather than high brow academics, he was not given fair treatment by those in the more educated realm of readership. I've often said Stephen King would be seen as a great writer, even academia had he chosen to write "serious" fiction. As such we need wonder if 50 years plus passed his death, will King ever receive praise for being a great writer, or will he forever be viewed as, a good horror author.
Robert E. Howard sold work at a time when few could afford to buy works. His works sold well. In retrospect, there is an odd manner in which a myth has risen. Due to his complaining about not getting paid, it is perceived as his not having sold works. But that is false. He sold many, but the buyers of fiction in his day, were crushed by the Great Depression. And they didn't always follow through to pay for what it was they had purchased. But even with the measure of partial payments, he sold works far more often than most other similar writers of the day. Anyone reading my commentary over the last fifteen years knows I do not equate sales to quality. Those are different beasts. But I am absolutely saying, in times of financial disaster, when people pay money to read your work, instead of eating well, or paying bills, it makes a statement.
"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank
Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the
Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining
kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath
the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyberborea, Zamora with
its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery,
Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands
of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose
riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of
the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming
west." Robert E. Howard
And I do buy Robert E. Howard books. I make precious little money, but when I have it to spend I do spend it on authors I like.