Thunder in the black skies beating down the rain,
Thunder in the black cliffs, looming o'er the main,
Thunder on the black sea and thunder in my brain...
- "Red Thunder," Robert E. Howard
Crom, I have a thrice-murrained headache, my nose is a veritable Pheidippes, and perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but Leo's "Bankrupt Nihilism" post is all over the internet. While there are plenty who agree with Leo's point, there are a lot of people with a dissenting opinion. That's fine, of course, but a couple of them seem to disagree based on a misinterpretation of Leo's post.
Take this post from Magemanda. Here, she and other commentators seem to be of the opinion that Leo is decrying all modern fantasy as being "bankrupt nihilism," and thus offer their examples of female authors who do not conform to this archetype - alleging that Leo was purposefully leaving them out, so he could further his "all modern fantasy is bankrupt nihilism" position. All well and good... except nowhere in Leo's article did I get the impression that he was making such a sweeping generalization. All he was talking about was the trend for bankrupt nihilism, that the likes of Erikson, Abercrombie, Martin and Morgan are becoming popular, not that all fantasy was bankrupt nihilism, no exceptions. Thus I agree with both Leo and Magemanda, despite Magemanda thinking she's disagreeing with Leo.
Joe Abercrombie, one of the authors Leo decries, has written a response. As with Magemanda, Abercrombie seems to completely miss the point - that Leo wants all fantasy to be mere derivatives of Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien, which is as patently absurd as it is obfuscating. What Leo wants is for fantasy to have the sort of mythic undercurrent and multi-layered philosophical resonance both authors excel at to permeate fantasy, not that we should have legions of Hyborian and Middle-earth clones cluttering up the literary landscape. He just wants fantasy to be about more than just soap opera or historiography. And, of course, the fact that Joe thinks Leo's idea of LotR ending with Hobbits succumbing to cancer, Aragorn the puppet, and maniacal Gandalf sounds "kind of interesting" says it all, for me.
Also, I note that Abercrombie disagrees with Leo "lumping Tolkien and Howard together," as if he's saying they're one and the same. Again, Leo was saying both Tolkien and Howard were equally influential and important to the fantasy genre, not that they were the same kinds of writers. Ferchrissakes! So Abercrombie sets out to show how Howard and Tolkien are different, in that Howard wrote in the short-form, Tolkien long (fair enough), that Howard was about character and Tolkien about the world (arguable, but fair enough). But riddle me this: where in Leo's article does it even imply otherwise? In fact, I'd say the fact that Howard and Tolkien are so different in stylistic approach strengthens his argument.
James VanderMeer also comments, and actually claims that Howard is the originator of "the very gritty fantasy Grin hates." Yes, except no, considering Leo explains exactly why Howard isn't the originator of this sort of thing, really. He also notes the lack of mention of female fantasists - perhaps because said female fantasists aren't writing the sort of stuff Leo's criticizing, or if they are, they're either not particularly offensive examples, or just not very good.
In all the posts, are also a couple of comments from people who come to the mystifying conclusion that Leo hasn't read any Robert E. Howard. All I can conclude from such a state of affairs is that these people either misread Leo's argument, or have misread Howard himself. Some would say "just because Leo's a Howard scholar doesn't mean he hasn't misread Howard" is true. However, the fact that Leo is a widely regarded and highly considered Howard scholar indicates that if he's misreading Howard, then there are a hell of a lot of other Howard scholars misreading him too. Occam's razor, then, suggests that rather than people who have studied Howard all their lives and written award-winning journals on the author being somehow mistaken, it is the critics who are. But hey, that's just my take on it.
Still, some people get it. John C. Wright, whom I've previously criticized over his (since recanted) views on Howard, seems to have a grasp of what Leo's talking about. Regular Lost Soul Lagomorph Rex notes the political factor making things even more difficult, as well as the usual "REH the sexist/racist/taxidermist" nonsense rearing its ugly head. The fact that Leo's argument involves a lot of right-wing tangents certainly might make things difficult for left-wing readers. Still, even those with such leanings should be able to look beyond the politics to the relevant argument within (like Lagomorph and Kike have). I've come across some articles on Howard that have politics and ethics I disagree with, even some I find reprehensible, but it would be churlish and disingenuous for me to reject their arguments based on personal politics. My disagreement, if any, arise purely based on my interpretation of the material itself, not because the writer is an atheist/theist/right-wing/left-wing/man/woman/whatever.
But that's politics for you, and exactly why I rarely talk about them on the blog or elsewhere: two often it descends into yawping monkeys flinging unspeakable missiles in each other's general direction, which is where intelligent debate dies. No doubt Leo's revelling in the controversy, because it's doing exactly what I believe he wants: stirring up debate, reconsideration of literature, and confronting criticism. Better than resting on your laurels, I guess.