After all that heavy emotional lifting Germaine does, it's time to send you into the weekend on a slightly lighter note. Here's comedian Stewart Lee with a selection of his favourite books, most of which appear to be out of print - should that tell us something?
- Kirsty Wark's condescending lead-in to Stewart Lee's discussion of Robert E. Howard, Arthur Machen and Nina Hamnett on The Review Show, and yes, it should tell us that The Review Show needs to learn how to use %&$@ing Google
The more I think things are getting better, that people are finally starting to let go of the old myths, the more angry I get when something like this comes up. Mike Chivers of Necronomania sent me this, and I simply have to discuss it.
Warning: I am seriously ticked off by this.
I rarely watch The Review Show, mostly because it's the kind of simpering, simplistic pandering I've come to expect from the BBC: no teeth, no bite, no willingness to challenge its own preconceptions. On every occasion I tuned in, hoping to find something interesting, I'm disappointed. It perpetuates everything I dislike about mainstream literature, and this episode is no different.
I'm not going to talk about the first 40 minutes: I don't think I could keep my head from exploding, and in any case there's little point. But I am going to talk about what happens around the 42 minute mark, where Stewart Lee bumbles his way through the most preposterously ill-informed Show and Tell I've seen.
Robert E. Howard, who wrote Conan, was brilliant: he was a mad bloke from Texas who committed suicide at the age of 30, but in the 12 years he was writing wrote more stuff than you'd be able to read in a lifetime. Because he was insane, he maintained that he didn't write any (of the stories) - these characters stood over his shoulder, and dictated to him.
This is The Green Rounds by Arthur Machen, who was a Welsh writer of mystery and horror and weird tales from the late 19th/early 20th century. Most of his stuff's been out of print for years. This is about a guy who goes on holiday to Wales, has a weird experience, and goes home to Islington, North London, and feels that he's being perpetually stalked by a small, sinister dwarf. And the whole thing just totally changes the way you look at London - I have to pass my way through that bit of London every day on the bus, and it's much more exciting after I read this book.
This is a book called The Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett, an artist and writer from Fitzrovia: basically, all the writers and artists in Fitzrovia, North Roxford Street and west of Tottencourt Road, were on pints of bitter and cannabis, and everyone east of it, in Bloomsbury, was on champagne and cocaine. So this is a kind of catalogue of the lives of those fantastically interesting drunks in the '20s and '30s.
I think you could guess that my chief problems lie with what he says about Robert E. Howard. And indeed, I have problems with this. It is absolutely unacceptable that a completely preposterous, libellous misconception about Howard which paints him as insane and completely deluded is trotted out on a major BBC television as if the last thirty years of Howard scholarship and biography didn't happen. It's one thing for Howard not to be lauded as a visionary writer, or to discuss him critically: it's quite another to perpetuate known myths and misconceptions as facts. If Stewart just said "they're not high literature, they're just great stories," that would be one thing. If he said "I loved these as a boy, but they don't stand up to adult scrutiny," it would at least be an opinion to disagree with. But he didn't: he asserted, as fact, that Howard was hallucinating the ghost of dead fictional characters who compelled him to write the stories, extending this beyond the Conan anecdote to all his characters. It's the difference between saying "Shakespeare is overrated" and "Shakespeare actually didn't write any of his stories": one is opinion, the other is falsehood masquerading as fact.
But there's something just as insidious going on: not only does Stewart come up with the same old myths and misconceptions about Howard's life, but the context of Kirsty Wark's lead in seems to suggest that Steward thinks the stories have been out of print for years. While it may be redundant to point out that the Conan stories have, in fact, been published sometime since the 1960s, actually listing them shows how profoundly preposterous the idea is. Here is a list of all the major Conan publications, which include Howard stories collected in the Sphere paperbacks, published this century:
The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle - August 2000
The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon - April 2001
Complete Conan of Cimmeria Volume 1 - 2002
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian - December 2003
Complete Conan of Cimmeria Volume 2 - 2003
The Bloody Crown of Conan - December 2004
The Conquering Sword of Conan - November 2005
The Complete Chronicles of Conan - Centenary Edition - January 2006
The Conan Chronicles Volume 1 - April 2008
Hours of the Dragon: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 8 - July 2008
"...and their memory was a bitter tree ..." - August 2008
The Hour of the Dragon: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard Volume 4 - September 2008
Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan - September 2009
Conan the Barbarian - January 2010
Complete Conan of Cimmeria Volume 3 - March 2010
Conan the Barbarian: The Original Unabridged Adventures- November 2010
Conan the Barbarian: The Classic Original Stories That Inspired The Film - July 2011
Conan the Barbarian: The Stories that Inspired the Movie - August 2011
Conan the Destroyer - October 2011
And that's not even including the phenomenal Del Rey "Best of Robert E. Howard" dualogy, or the many collections that include one or two Conan stories (like the Weird Works series from Wildside, or non-Howard collections like The Big Book of Adventure Stories), or the single-story publications from Dodo Press and others, or the print-on-demand cash grabs, or any collections I'm forgetting, or the upcoming Conan the Berserker and Conan the Dominator due for release later this year. The latest one on the list was published last month. Last month! And most of them even have Conan in the title! "Out of print for years" my eye.
Now, one could argue that Stewart's talking about the Ace/Lancer/Sphere/Whatever Conan books, not the Conan stories specifically, and that if one considers the stories written by De Camp, Nieberg, Carter and others, those stories are indeed largely out of print. Stewart is holding a copy of the Sphere Conan of Cimmeria, which might give support to that idea. But Stewart Lee didn't mention any other authors, he only talked about Howard. And Howard's Conan stories have seen nothing short of a boom in recent years.
I could accept this from a sheltered schoolboy in the 1980s, back when we didn't have the internet to check things. But a 43-year-old man in 2011? Inexcusable. Is it really any wonder he comes up with the old "REH was a nutcase who actually believed the ghost of a warrior king was forcing him to write" when he seems blissfully unaware that the Conan stories have been enjoying a spectacular renaissance?
Lest you think I'm only concerned about Howard, I'm also perplexed that Stewart thinks that "most of Machen's work is out of print." Well, to pull the old Rashōmon, that's not the way I remember it.
The Green Round - August 2000
The Three Impostors and Other Stories - 2001
The White People and Other Tales - 2003
The Great God Pan - 2003
Ritual: Expanded - 2004
The Terror and Other Stories - 2005
The Great God Pan - Apr 2005
The Great God Pan and The Hill of Dreams -2006
'The Red Hand' and 'The White People' - 2006
The Great God Pan and The Hill of Dreams - Jan 2006
The Great God Pan - Aug 2006
The Great God Pan - 2007
The Great God Pan - Nov 2009
The Great God Pan - 2010
N - May 2010
The Terror - July 2011
There are countless others, but we'd be here all day, and I think you get the point. And we can look forward to The White People and Other Weird Stories from no less than Penguin Classics in December of this year. Long overdue, if you ask me. You know what? Looking up Arthur Machen's work at his page on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database shows that a hell of a lot of the short stories, far from being out of print, have actually been collected in multiple publications within the last decade! Be it famed masterworks like The White People, The Shining Pyramid, The Novel of the Black Seal, The Great God Pan, The Three Imposters, or less prominent ones like The Green Round - which Stewart specifically mentions in the program - Machen's work has been very prolific in the last ten years. For Crom's sake, you can even find new ones in a canny search on Amazon!
Unlike Howard and Machen, I'm entirely unfamiliar with Nina Hamnett. However, I'm going to do what someone on this bloody show should've done, and do a quick search to see if The Laughing Torso is out of print. And lo and behold:
Laughing Torso - October 2004
Laughing Torso: Reminisces of Nina Hamnett - March 2007
Laughing Torso: Reminisces of Nina Hamnett - November 2008
The Laughing Torso - September 2010
The Laughing Torso - February 2011
The Laughing Torso - August 2011
But this isn't all on Stewart's head. A person has the right to be mistaken, even when they're going on national television and figured "what could possibly have changed in the past 30 years to justify me spending five minutes on an internet search engine to ascertain everything I learned as a lad is so today?" What bothers me most is this: did nobody on a program called THE REVIEW SHOW think to double-check what their talking heads were saying? Aren't they concerned that broadcasting inaccurate information in regards to books might be somewhat counterproductive to their aims?
The Review Show is one of the premier arts discussion shows in the United Kingdom, broadcast on BBC2, one of the major terrestrial channels. It has a fairly high profile with many guests from the world of culture and celebrity, drawing in many viewers who wouldn't necessarily go for reading. As such, anything said about any given author carries a lot of impact. It's telling that while Stewart goes into detail about the story of The Green Round and Laughing Torso, he says nothing about Conan of Cimmeria: everything he says is about Robert E. Howard, parroting the old nonsense that should've been left in the 1980s. It gives the distinct impression that the life of the author is more interesting than the stories within, leading one to wonder why they should bother reading the stories when the biography sounds better...
And when Howard is painted as a hallucinating madman and Machen is presented as languishing out of print, that does nobody any good: it tarnishes the legacy of Howard and ignores the continued relevance of Machen.
*After posting this, I decided to have a look around to see if Stewart Lee's brought up Howard before. It turns out he has: Howard is mentioned on his official website, and I can't believe I forgot this interview, linked in my "In Praise of Robert E. Howard" post. At least one blogger also claims to have sold him some Howard books, noting that Lee was eyeing his pile of Howard paperbacks.
I'm pretty sure Lee isn't being malicious in describing Howard as being mad or insane, but he is perpetuating long-discredited falsehoods, and it would be nice if he read a book about Howard that wasn't written in the shadow of De Camp or "Conan Unchained." I can sympathise: it can be tough being told long-held beliefs were wrong, and one can be resistant to such changes. But that doesn't stop falsehoods from being wrong.