Making Concessions in Writing

As you may see, I disagree totally & violently with your belief in making concessions in writing. One concession leads to another—& he who takes the easiest way never comes back. They all say they mean to come back some day—but they never do. Belknap is gone. If Sultan Malik ever pulls out of charlatanry it will be purely the individual & non-representative triumph of a singularly keen objective intellect. Abe Merritt—who could have been a Machen or Blackwood or Dunsany or de la Mare or M. R. James (they never gave in & truckled to the Golden Calf! . . . . why should one if he can get food & decent clothing & warmth & shelter in any less ignominious way?) if he had but chosen—is so badly sunk that he’s lost the critical faculty to realise it. And so on—& so on. The road does not lie through any magazines . . . . that is, the road for a fantastic writer. The “slicks” are just as tawdry & insincere as the “pulps”—with merely a different kind of tawdriness & insincerity—& the reputable magazines (Harpers, Scribners, Story &c.) virtually never handle fantasy. The road to print for the serious fantaisiste is through book-publication alone—save for those incidental magazine placements which lie along the way. And if one can’t make the book grade in the end, he is better off with his work largely unpublished—able to look himself in the face & know that he has never cringed nor truckled nor sold his intellectual & aesthetic integrity. He may go down, but he’ll go down like a free & unbroken gentleman with sword untarnished & colours defiantly flying. Britons never shall be slaves! Actually, all technical training for the popular magazines is in precisely the wrong direction so far as aesthetic expression is concerned. The better magazine hack one is, the less chance one has of ever doing anything worth doing. Every magazine trick & mannerism must be rigidly unlearned & banished even from one’s subconsciousness before one can write seriously for educated mental adults. That’s why Merritt is lost—he learned the trained-dog tricks too well, & now he can’t think & feel fictionally except in terms of the meaningless & artificial clichés of 2¢-a-word romance. Machen & Dunsany & James would not learn the tricks—& they have a record of genuine creative achievement beside which a whole library-full of cheap “Ships of Ishtar” & “Creep, Shadows” remains essentially negligible. It is much better never to have anything published than to cringe to cheap tradesmen—yet in practice the determined anti-concessionist often lands a story. True, he doesn’t land as many as the truckler lands—but that was never his object. He wrote what he wrote because he wanted to write it—& the feat of mood-crystallisation itself was its own reward. If he had merely written what some grasping editorial clown wanted, where would his satisfaction have been? When it comes to a question of industrial production to suit a market demand, it’s rather more dignified to let the commodity be something staple & useful—wheat, oranges, coal, furniture, & so on—than to let one’s production-programme mock & parody the basic human impulse of aesthetic creation.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft argues that writers should, for the sake of their artistic and intellectual integrity, remain true to their own aesthetic vision instead of making concessions to the demands of editors and the public they represent.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 7 Feb. 1937. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 205-23.

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The Ruthless Discouraging of True Merit

I recently took one phase of this subject—the influence of commercialism on art—up with young Finlay, the brilliant new WT artist, who thought Grandpa was too severe on the editorial rats who have gnawed most of the merit out of the coming crop of writers. Finlay thought that the obstacles put in the way of good writing form a stimulating “challenge” . . . . . God! As if the ruthless discouraging of true merit & systematic encouragement of cheap & tawdry charlatanism had anything beneficial in it! As I told Finlay, the “challenge” offered by commercialism is not the true challenge of harder conditions in the right line of development, but is simply a demand for aesthetically harmful departures from the right line of development. What is valued & insisted upon by commercial editors is precisely what has no place whatever in authentic literary expression. Whoever consents to aim for tawdry effects demanded by commerce, is deliberately checking & perhaps permanently injuring his ability in an effort to achieve certain cheap results alien & antagonistic to literature. The literary ruin of brilliant figures like Long, Quinn, Price, Merritt, & Wandrei speaks for itself. No really fine story would ever be accepted by a modern pulp editor if submitted without the name of a prominent author. I have no hesitancy in saying that “The Willows”, anonymously submitted, would draw a rejection slip from every penny-dreadful editor in England & America combined. When a half-decent story does get printed in a pulp magazine, it is generally because of some irrelevant element wholly unrelated to its real merit. The really best stories of the same author would be promptly rejected—as the experience of Klarkash-Ton eloquently proves. The one effect of commerce on the writer is to make him stop trying to write good stuff & begin trying to tailor trash to order in conformity with some cheap & anti-artistic formula. This is no proper challenge. The real challenges are those offered by the various problems of aesthetic expression—the problems of achieving this or that different effect in genuine artistry. Concrete embodiments of these real challenges are things like Nobel & Pulitzer Prizes, & the standards set by “quality” magazines & the more substantial & dignified publishing houses . . . standards based on intellectual reputation, not on sales. Those, of course, are a far cry from rampant commercialism. That, indeed, is an unmitigated evil which has ruined more potential authors than any other single influence. It is useless to point out that a few tremendously vigorous authors like Two-Gun Bob do somehow find a way to circumvent commercialism in part, & to get a few good stories published in spite of Mammon-standards. Even in this case a cruel waste of energy & ability—which might have gone into aesthetic creation—is involved, & the net output of the author is just so much less excellent than it would have been in the absence of commercial pressures. . . .


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft criticizes the commercialism of the publishing industry, which encourages writers to conform to a “cheap & anti-artistic formula.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 20 Oct. 1936. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 175-85.

The Oldest and Strongest Emotion

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.


DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft claims that the weird tale, despite the objections of its critics, is a legitimate form of artistic expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 82-125.

Repudiating the Pulps

… the popular magazine world is essentially an underworld or caricature-imitation-world so far as serious writing is concerned. Absolutely nothing about it is worthy of mature consideration or permanent preservation. That is why I am so absolutely unwilling to make any ‘concessions’ to its standards, & so much disposed to repudiate it entirely in an effort to achieve real aesthetic expression even on the humblest plane.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft criticizes the pulps, claiming that their reliance on formula stymies artistic expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 28 Sept. 1931. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 416-7.

Intolerable Restraint

A great part of religion is merely a childish and diluted pseudo-gratification of this perpetual gnawing toward the ultimate illimitable void. Superadded to this simple curiosity is the galling sense of intolerable restraint which all sensitive people (except self-blinded earth-gazers like little Augie DerlEth) feel as they survey their natural limitations in time and space as scaled against the freedoms and expansions and comprehensions and adventurous expectancies which the mind can formulate as abstract conceptions. Only a perfect clod can fail to discern these irritant feelings in the greater part of mankind—feelings so potent and imperious that, if denied symbolic outlets in aesthetics or religious fakery, they produce actual hallucinations of the supernatural, and drive half-responsible minds to the concoction of the most absurd hoaxes and the perpetuation of the most absurd specific myth-types.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft argues that many people, when contemplating the inflexibility of natural law, feel a sense of “intolerable restraint,” which often finds expression in either religious or artistic symbolism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long.” Feb. 1931. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 257-60.

How I Write a Story

As to how I write a story—there is no one way. Each one of my tales has a different history. Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen.


DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft claims that he writes fiction because he has a mood, idea, or image that he wishes to express.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 175-8.

Defending Poetry

Lack of appreciation of verse can be attributed to nothing save defective aesthetic perception. Poetry, with its delicate blend of imagination and melody, fulfils a natural and definite artistic function, and could not be replaced by any other species of expression. To cavil at the grammatical licence of the bard is to display much ignorance of the art in question; for the latitude allowed to versifiers is by no means considerable, and is governed by rules as rigid as those which govern prose composition.


 DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Poesy,” Lovecraft defends poetry from its critics, claiming that it cannot be replaced by any other mode of expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Poesy.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, p. 21.

The Serious Writing of Fantasy

Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.

These are the rules or standards which I have followed—consciously or unconsciously—ever since I first attempted the serious writing of fantasy. That my results are successful may well be disputed—but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored the considerations mentioned in the last few paragraphs, they would have been much worse than they are.


DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft describes the weird tale as a “vivid picture of a certain type of human mood” sustained by atmospheric writing and the subtle use of suggestion.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 175-8.

Romanticism

The one form of literary appeal which I consider absolutely unsound, charlatanic, and valueless—frivolous, insincere, irrelevant, and meaningless—is that mode of handling human events and values and motivations known as romanticism. Dumas, Scott, Stevenson—my gawd! Here is sheer puerility—the concoction of false glamours and enthusiasms and events out of an addled and distorted background which has no relation to anything in the genuine thoughts, feelings, and experiences of evolved and adult mankind. Its very essence is that one unforgivable disparity which forms the supreme crux of all cheapness and commonness—the investing of things and events with wholly disproportioned and inappropriate emotions. Heroic tales are not unsound so long as they adhere to the actual essentials of life and the human spirit; but when some sentimental poseur adopts their tone for artificial and trivial unrealities, the result is too nauseating and wearisome for words.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft derides romanticism, claiming that it is inherently unrealistic and inauthentic.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 17 Oct. 1930. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 210-13.