Disgusted at Much of My Older Work

I am at a sort of standstill in writing—disgusted at much of my older work, and uncertain as to avenues of improvement. In recent weeks I have done a tremendous amount of experimenting in different styles and perspectives, but have destroyed most of the results. The one tale I have finished—“The Thing on the Doorstep”—is now starting on a circulation round which will include you. You’ll get it from Smith, and can forward it to Price. During the summer the Knopf firm broached the idea of issuing a book of my stuff, but it all fell through like the Putnam fiasco of 1931. More recently a man in Asotin, Wash.—one F. Lee Baldwin—has proposed the publication of my “Colour Out of Space” as a separate booklet. I have gladly acquiesced, though I doubt if much will come of the matter.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft expresses his dissatisfaction with his “older work” and laments his inability, despite his best efforts, to write anything better.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Robert E. Howard.” 2 Nov. 1933. A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Edited by S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2009, pp. 654-86.


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.

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.

The Hack

The modern bard restrains poetic rage,
To fit his couplets to a quarter-page.
Who now regards his skill, or taste, or strength,
When verse is writ and printed for its length?
His soaring sentiments he needs must pinch,
And sing his Amaryllis by the inch.
The art is easy when the artist tries
Not for Parnassus, but alone for size.
He wastes no care on polish, wit, or grace,
Who rhymes to fill an idle bit of space.
None heeds his worth; his listless lines are bought
Because some favour’d story is too short.
No critic’s sneer his honest ire incites,
For none, forsooth, peruses what he writes!

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “The Magazine Poet,” Lovecraft mocks the commercialism of modern magazines and the poets who write for them.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Magazine Poet.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 225-6.

Manifestly Inartistic

Now this is manifestly inartistic. To write to order, to drag one figure through a series of artificial episodes, involves the violation of all that spontaneity and singleness of impression which should characterise short story work. It reduces the unhappy author from art to the commonplace level of mechanical and unimaginative hack-work. Nevertheless, when one needs the money one is not scrupulous—so I have accepted the job!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft describes the writing of his story “Herbert West—Reanimator” as hackwork.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long.” 8 Oct. 1921. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 157-9.

Views on the Publishing Industry

As for New York—there is no question but that its overwhelming Semitism has totally removed it from the American stream. Regarding its influence on literary & dramatic expression—it is not so much that the country is flooded directly with Jewish authors, as that Jewish publishers determine just which of our Aryan writers shall achieve print & position. That means that those of us who least express our own people have the preference. Taste is insidiously moulded along non-Aryan lines—so that, no matter how intrinsically good the resulting body of literature may be, it is a special, rootless literature which does not represent us.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft claims that the Jewish community in New York controls the publishing industry in the United States.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 30 July 1933. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 229-32.