A campaign against H. P. Lovecraft took advantage of his 125th birthday on August 20th to rear its head again, and it ticked me off, so I’m going to vent.

Julius Schwartz, who represented H. P. Lovecraft as a literary agent for a short time. More about their relationship below.

Julius Schwartz, who represented H. P. Lovecraft as a literary agent for a short time. More about their relationship below.

This campaign stems from Lovecraft’s racism, and there’s no two ways about it, HPL was a racist, although, to be fair to Lovecraft and the campaigners, HPL is not the only pulp writer having his literary status reappraised because of racism. For one example, see this article on Edgar Rice Burroughs.

That said, it’s one thing for a group like the one behind the World Fantasy Awards to consider changing its statuettes, which look like Lovecraft, because at least one recipient and other authors have made it clear they cannot bring themselves to forgive Lovecraft’s “fundamental racism.” Whether or not you agree with this protest, the awards belong to the group, so what they do with the statuettes is their business. It’s another thing, however, to write an article like “The Unlikely Reanimation of H. P. Lovecraft” that appeared on Lovecraft’s birthday on The Atlantic website. The writer, Philip Eil, does a nice job of summarizing HPL’s rise from obscure writer of weird tales to current literary and culture phenomenon, but he also twists himself into knots trying and failing to rectify his admiration for Lovecraft:

“My feelings on Lovecraft—as a bibliophile, a lover of Providence history, a Jew, a fan of his writing, a teacher who assigns his stories—are complicated … [M]y admiration is always coupled with the knowledge that Lovecraft would have found my Jewish heritage repugnant, and that he saw our shared hometown as a haven from the waves of immigrants he saw as infecting cities … I haven’t made peace with this tension, and I’m not sure I ever will.”

I have a suggestion for Eil and anyone else suffering from such tension: get over yourself.

Yes, Lovecraft was a racist, but articles like Eil’s are more about Eil than Lovecraft, but even that isn’t what ticked me off.

HPL’s racism is not a new criticism of the gentleman author from Rhode Island. It was public knowledge during his lifetime, and Robert Bloch acknowledges it in his 1982 introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft. Until recently, however, Bloch’s “product of its time” explanation for Lovecraft’s racism may not have been a satisfying excuse but it was acceptable to most folks, especially those who lived during the pulp era.

If reading racist remarks makes you uncomfortable, I believe that is evidence you have a healthy conscience; but I pray I never become so enlightened that I forget that reading racist remarks is not the same as accepting them, and, when it comes to Lovecraft, it’s impossible for me to read even his most detestable remarks and not remember that he was a bit of a blowhard. Maurice Levy explains this better than I ever could in Lovecraft, A Study in the Fantastic:

“[Lovecraft] declared himself essentially a ‘Teuton and a barbarian,’ a Nordic son of Odin, brother of Hengist and Horsa, ready to drink the hot blood of his enemies in the freshly hollowed-out skull of a Celt. If we are to believe this, we have to forget the New York episode of his life when he threw away the mousetraps after each use to avoid touching the corpus delicti! … He is to be more pitied than blamed. His racism, like his political extremism, was a direct consequence of his philosophical views, which were totally nihilistic. We are astonished that he even took the time and trouble to express his distaste so vigorously, for he felt nothing ultimately is of any great importance [p. 30].”

I am a Lovecraft fan, but that doesn’t mean I ignore the ugly and reprehensible comments in his stories. I acknowledge them, and in this way I make sure not to overlook that the world we live in today is very different, and, in many important ways, so much better than it was only a few decades ago.

H. P. Lovecraft and his wife Sonia Green.

H. P. Lovecraft and his wife Sonia Green

Getting back to Eil’s article and his tension, I found a couple of facts about Lovecraft interesting by their absence.

Lovecraft’s racist remarks in his stories and letters tended to be directed in the aggregate and not individuals. By all accounts, Lovecraft was gracious and courteous to everyone he met, regardless of race. Lovecraft also married a Jewess, Sonia Greene, and retained a Jewish literary agent, Julius Schwartz. (Yes, comic fans, that Julius Schwartz.) And, for what it’s worth, Lovecraft’s racism softened as he matured, until, as Bloch points out, “the racist element of earlier efforts is muted or absent in later tales.”

None of this excuses HPL’s racism, but nothing excuses oversights like Eil’s, either. What has me ticked off is, berate Lovecraft if you must, but be fair about it, and realistic.

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Black and White meas it's artsy, right?

“Tradition needs storytellers.”

– Dave Kindred

People often ask me for advice about how to become a prose writer or a comics writer, and over the years I have recommended the following books and passed on the following pearls of wisdom.

Books on Writing and Comics Writing (in no particular order):

Actually let me recommend that you read any article or interview that you can find where King discusses the craft of writing. Besides being a bestselling author and one of the most influential writers of the past half century, King is a former high school English teacher. The man knows his stuff and knows how to communicate what he knows.

Ueland, a notable author in her own right, taught writing for several years with the philosophy that, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.”

Not your usual how-to book. Unparallel advice about the craft of writing from one of the grandmasters.

The basics of filmic writing by a former script reader. Simple and straight forward. Field’s lessons are applicable to fiction writing in all media.

This series features interviews with screenwriters beginning with Hollywood’s golden era up through the Seventies. While some interviews spend too much time painting blacklisted screenwriters as persecuted victims, this is an excellent and enlightening series for writers or anyone who enjoys good movies.

Since sometime back in the Thirties (I believe) “The Writer” magazine has reprinted selected articles from the previous year’s issues in an annual compendium called “The Writer’s Handbook.” The magazine is notorious for publishing cookie-cutter articles, but it does also publish the odd insightful piece by a bestselling author or some lesser-known writer respected in his particular genre or medium, and these pieces are the ones that tend to end up in “The Writer’s Handbook” each year. This makes going down to the library and reading the annual Handbook more cost- and time-effective than subscribing to “The Writer.” And for what it is worth, of all the “Handbooks” I have read, far and away the best edition is the one copyrighted in 1987. Stephen King’s introduction and the articles by Clive Cussler, John Jakes, John D. McDonald, B.J. Chute, and Elizabeth Peters are invaluable reads.

For anyone who wants to learn about writing for comics, you cannot do better than kicking off your research with these two books. McKenzie’s book is the best nuts and bolts book about creating comics that I have found. He gives you the big picture. After reading McKenzie, move on to Harvey, who has been analyzing comic book communication better than almost anyone else for decades. Any book or article by Harvey is worth reading, but this 1996 book is as good as any place to start. One caveat, though, and that is Harvey’s books tend to be difficult to find (this one is published by the University of Mississippi Press). In case you come a cropper, I suggest you then go to any retailer bookstore or comic shop and buy a copy of Scott McLoud’s excellent “Understanding Comics.” You might also want to check out my book “Comics Writing: Communicating with Comic Books.”

Read “Basic Formulas” first and then read “Basic Patterns” before plotting anything. Just do it.

Read this book before reading either of Harris’ books. And if you do not own a copy of this book already… why not?

Put this beside your dictionary, thesaurus, and music collection.

Put this beside “The Chicago Manual of Style” for balance. Essential guidebook for any journalist or any writer who wants to go Hemingway and write like a journalist. Also includes a short but helpful “Briefing on Media Law”.

Steve’s Pearls of Wisdom

Steven Philip Jones black and white photo

Black and White means it’s artsy, right?

Practice. Practice. Practice. But learn about the craft of writing before you begin practicing.

Reading one or more of the books I suggest is a good place to start. You do not need to be an expert, just familiarize yourself with the basics. Otherwise all the practice in the world will just be wasted effort.

Besides practicing and reading about writing, the best advice for any beginning writer comes from Clive Cussler and Robert Louis Stevenson:

  1. Cussler: “Copy.”
  2. Stevenson: “Damn it, it’s the only way.”

Writing teachers howl at this advice. They insist that new writers avoid imitating other writers and develop an unique voice (i.e., style). Well, you do need to develop an unique voice, but not right away.

I am not suggesting you plagiarize. But I do encourage you to imitate. Imitation is one of the best ways to learn how to do anything. As time goes by your own unique voice will develop.

What far too many writing teachers fail to realize is that young writers are usually drawn to authors whose styles are similar to the voice the young writer will develop as he becomes more experienced. This was the case, for example, with H. P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany (see T.E.D. Klein’s introduction for the Arkham House edition of Lovecraft’s “Dagon and Other Macabre Tales.”) And if your favorite author happens to be a New York Times bestselling writer … well … he must be doing something right! If you’re going to imitate anyone, I say imitate a winner.

Besides Cussler and Stevenson’s advice, I would also suggest you read as many books as you can about writers. I highly recommend any selection from the Twayne Author Series. There is really no more pleasurable way to learn the craft of writing than reading about an author’s life along with how and why an author wrote what he wrote.

I would also add that you should not listen to advice from people who say, “You can’t do that.” These naysayers may have logical reasons for being negative, but no one succeeds by not trying. For good advice, talk to writers who have succeeded. The best advice comes from winners. Remember Sean Connery in The Rock: “Losers whine about doing their best while winners [become better acquainted with] the homecoming queen.”

Finally, if any of this prep work sounds like drudgery to you then don’t do it. Writing is not fun unless you love to write and sometimes not even then, but the love of writing is the sole reason to become a writer. Now you can ignore my suggestion and plug at it anyway, but in the words of Edward Van Sloan from James Whale’s Frankenstein, “Well, you’ve been warned.”

Good luck!

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