Nemesis Lost: the Passing of Harold Bloom and an Unpopular Era of Literary Criticism


Last month marks the passing of Literary Critic Harold Bloom, dead at 89, gone from the fray on Monday, October 14, 2019.

A long-time nemesis of our genre, Bloom was best known for his caustic, vicious attacks on Stephen King, for whom he had no affection or Critical respect. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect Bloom probably wished to impart to the pop-saturated American public – to educate us that there are certain accepted criteria involved in the making of and recognition of what we understand to be “Literature.” Instead, he got our hackles up and our mob-mentality fully activated… we made an art of despising him. He energized our base because he encapsulated everything we hated and thought we knew about the Literary Critic and the constant dangling of unattainable Literary acclaim out of reach of any genre writer where academia was concerned.

We convinced ourselves that it was the Harold Blooms of the world who kept us down and insulted us.

But we didn’t really know Harold Bloom, and we have in our own knee-jerk reactions underestimated the important, side-glancing impact he had on our genre.

Most of us had no idea that Harold Bloom was a rebel in his own time for attempting to bring an understanding of Literary Criticism to the American public, often criticized and ostracized himself by the Literary Critical Establishment for even attempting to speak to the common reader. Most of us still have no idea how much he made us think about Horror, about genre and speculative fiction, about what Literature is or should be…Yet Bloom fought the Literary Establishment to bring an understanding of Criticism to the masses.

Surprising, isn’t it? Harold Bloom… the people’s Critic….

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When Our Worst Critics Make Us Better

With so many unpleasant exchanges that come to mind, we in the Horror genre are not wont to think of the merits of a Critic like Harold Bloom. Yet it is precisely because of his disgust at the decline of great Literature being taught in schools and written in our garrets that he was the way he was. And if we take apart and try to understand his angst, what we find is a man who simply loved the Classics so much, that he wanted us to join in the appreciation if he had to beat it into us. Horror was one of his sticks. And while it is easy to surrender to tit-for-tat verbal insults, the most important thing Harold Bloom did for the Horror genre was to get us thinking about the Horror genre…

Because of Harold Bloom , we were united; we were analytical in our own way, looking at his critical comments and looking at the Horror he despised and trying to see why he might be right OR wrong… In other words, we had discussions – offered up in un-academic arguments, perhaps – but discussions. Essays, Critically-worthy essays and polemics were born, and writers and readers questioned just a little bit what they were reading and writing and how or why it might be equal or inferior. We were forced to become experts on our own writers and genre writing in order to defend the lot.

Because of Harold Bloom, we needed to understand Literature so we could argue Horror’s merits…

Yet we just could not abide the man. He was so…Critical….

We thought it was because he not only represented the Literary Critical Establishment, but because he so sounded like the caricature we had of it in our heads – the one that brutalized our best writers like Poe and Lovecraft – authors that are now (partly thanks to our own reaction to the Criticisms of Critics like Harold Bloom) considered canon material by New Critics…

This has so much to do with the stagnation of the field of Literary Criticism that happened during the Publishing Boom. Harold Bloom was a child and student of The Old School… the one abandoned by readers and many students in the 1970’s for being so out-of-touch and elitist.

Harold Bloom was born on July 11, 1930, in the East Bronx, into an Orthodox Jewish household. He was the youngest of five children of William and Paula (Lev) Bloom, struggling immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a garment worker…. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

What should we expect from a man born so far back from where we are now? Harold Bloom was not a loveable curmudgeon. For those of us in the Horror genre, he represented everything that is wrong about academia and Literary Criticism. He was rude, abrasive, and said things he obviously and passionately meant without a word of explanation that was not laced with academic snobbery.

The fact is Harold Bloom surprised most of us…especially perhaps those who he loved to criticize most – the genre-lovers, the genre writers, the de facto enemies of Real Literature… We were so often the targets of his angst, his unabated fury with what he perceived to be an American willingness to abdicate the whole of Literature for the cheap, dazzling trinkets of pop culture.

In an New York Times article on his death, writer Dinitia Smith says:

“Professor Bloom was frequently called the most notorious literary critic in America. From a vaunted perch at Yale, he flew in the face of almost every trend in the literary criticism of his day. Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and others whom he saw as betraying literature’s essential purpose.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

Harold Bloom (like most of his fellow Critics) made himself very difficult to like. It didn’t help that he so constantly went after our most prominent and beloved writer, Stephen King. However the closer we look, the more we see he was a product of his times and his profession. And perhaps because times were indeed changing rapidly during his lifetime, including how we viewed “other” peoples and ways of thinking, the rise of Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gay Rights, perhaps that is why there seemed such a generation gap of sorts between modern writers, their fans, and Literary Critics in general. They just seemed so out-of-step with the rest of us…

Yet sometimes it is that very conflict that becomes a catalyst for good changes. It is just not always easy getting there.

Lost in our own emotional blizzard of reactions to what Literary Critics said about our genre and our writers, what we never understood about those like Harold Bloom was that their fury was based in a much bigger frustration – both at the failure of academia to impart the “right kind” of education and our failure to “get” what seemed so blatantly obvious to himself and others of his field. And in truth, it was their presentation – their attitude – that made it easy to not really care.

This is the danger of ignorance: not understanding the criticism of a thing, and so attacking the messenger… And where Harold Bloom and Horror were concerned, the battle became both animated and amplified by ignorance on both sides.

Yes, both sides.

Critics have long assumed that full-of-themselves writers fancy their own work to be Literature because it sold well, someone said it was “good,” or because they themselves are convinced of it. In reality, most of us know what we write because we CHOOSE to write it…We simply disagree that genre writing has no value, place, or purpose in a Literate society.

Genre fans, on the other hand, have long assumed that Critics were a bunch of stuck-up, arrogant old white men who were Critics because they couldn’t write themselves, and who “made up” criteria for defining Literature (a theory that gained popularity because Critics refused to “explain” anything of their Craft) really disagreeing with our nonacademic measure of Literature because the secret truth is they actually have strict criteria designed to tame personal opinion. And it is apparently a secret.

All of our passions collided when publishing boomed and littered the literary landscape with all manner of writing starting in the late 1800’s and imploding in the 1990s. That’s about a hundred years of pulp and periodicals, paperbacks and bestseller lists. With abundant talk shows on radio and television, multiple newspapers in every city, and Hollywood trolling for new film material, the “modern era” was the first time the reading public had forums to read, watch and participate in where what we read became a topic of discussion. It was natural for us to ask the question what exactly IS Literature and who and how is that title decided upon?

When Nobody answered and the questions were met with highbrow eye-rolling and insults, when even teachers didn’t seem up to the task of explaining, the transformation of fandom into hordes of angry anti-Critics was a natural one.

On one side we had writers with bestselling works that “everyone” adored and their authors who secretly or publicly pondered why they were not considered Literature, and fans who tried to sort out the same question. On the other side we had a very old establishment of Literary Critics never before truly questioned about the process (even though many a Critic’s artistic vision and qualifications were routinely questioned by the same writers and fans). These Critics were used to operating in private ivory towers of academic setting, living in Shakespearean bubbles where all was Literarily right with the world, and where anything less than the Classics were vapid written renderings of cave paintings.

Bloom was no exception: “Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental “The Fairie Queen.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

To understand Harold Bloom, we have to understand that he (like authors he might Criticize) is himself a victim and product of his own times… He was a white male whose life’s work was studying what other white males declared Literary perfection…coincidentally, also largely written by still other white males. As we see today, there is a tendency by certain-aged people to cling to what they consider to be the “perfection of the past” when comparing it to contemporary times. With Critics, their angst is acutely measured by their obsession with Classic Literature—something (to our shame and detriment) fewer and fewer of us actually study, let alone read anymore. This has led to our communication gap and a generation gap with Critics. And Critics like Bloom were witnessing what to their way of thinking was and is an alarming change in our Literary capacity:

“Professor Bloom was ultimately both optimistic, in a narrow sense, and pessimistic, in a much broader one, about the durability of great literature. The books he loved would no doubt always find readers, he wrote, though their numbers might dwindle. But his great concern was that the books would no longer be taught, and thus become irrelevant.

“What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,’” he wrote in “The Western Canon,” “where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

It seems his fears are far too quickly becoming realized, what with the preferential treatment being given to Science, Math, Engineering and Technology at the literal expense of the Arts today. The Critics, it seems, were right to worry.

Yet not only did we really seem to be losing interest in reading Classic Literature, old Literary Critics had a new mantra…To Literary Critics of the past decades, we were largely no longer producing Literature. So what of the bestseller phenomenon? Could it be that any of those titles were in fact Literature too?

Critics like Bloom absolutely bristled.

But this was because that by merely asking we were exhibiting the very ignorance (read: miseducation or lacking education in this specific area) that appalled Literary Critics like himself. The interesting fact is that Bloom set out to do something about it – writing an enormous catalog of books explaining Literary Critical thinking (even though he still talked well above many of our heads, and even though he does this by ramming the same “perfect” works again and again down our ignorant throats)…

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The problem is the same vocabulary – whether whispered, shouted, or sang to us – is the same vocabulary. If academic Literary Critics refuse to show us Literary Critical Theory and how writing is expected to seat in the frame of it, we cannot understand the Critic’s argument: it just sounds like an arrogant opinion. It remains pointless to know that Shakespeare is Literature if we do not understand why. And if we do not understand why, we do not understand how, and we do not understand how to do more of it.

Bloom therefore, for all his good intentions, remained entrapped by his own engrained arrogances – ones his profession groomed in its practitioners. He could not abide the concept that we could even ask if Stephen King was or was ever Literature. The slight of the question seemed always to be met with an automatic default setting like those of most Critics: Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare is God,” he once said…Shakespeare is the perfection against which all others are measured. Bloom was a passionate defender of Classic Literature – it was genius in his mind, one of the highest achievements of humanity. How could so many of us simply not understand it? How could we confuse Literature with bestsellers? And how could we not adore the Classic writers as he did?

This has been the fatal flaw of Literary Critics for as long as there have been Literary Critics… The idea that genius is just something that should be understood when it is seen and that it is exclusive and that the realization is sufficient knowledge for “the rest of us” has made so many of us feel stupid and belittled that we have come to the conclusion that we don’t want to understand it.

Yet we still keep picking at the scab. We not only suspect there is a process: we are sure of it. And we are sure that someone has decided it should be a SECRET process…

When the field of Literary Criticism decided to make itself elitist and to feign insult when questioned, it signed its own death warrant. It didn’t matter that it was a victim of its own time, that professional academics in every field saw themselves as superior to the average person for many a century – largely because the rest of us were illiterate or less literate and tended to labor in manual trades… Literary Criticism – for all its alleged observational powers – failed to notice that times were changing. And in their exclusivity, they seemed to have forbidden teachers and professors from teaching any aspect of Literary Criticism – as though we might try to illegitimately do it without academic permission or authority…

They didn’t seem to be aware of the public’s hunger for reading, or our curiosity about Literature – but instead took our devouring of popular fiction as a sign and as proof that we were indeed ignorant, and hopelessly so. When the concept of the “Bestseller” burst forth, the Literary Critic bristled at questions the American public asked about why a popular work was not Literature when our educational system taught that the very definition of Classic Literature was framed in its endless and timeless popularity.

Ironically, Harold Bloom was one Critic who seemed to intuit that our ignorance was somehow attached to never being taught how to understand Literature. He spent his career laboring to educate us, to define Literature… becoming a champion of the Western Canon…enduring condemnation and criticism for attempting to decode the secrets of Literature. So why don’t we feel grateful?

I think it has to do with the fact that Literary Critics have always come across as aloof and elitist for most of us, let alone for those whose reading or writing passion is genre fiction. Speculative fiction has long been crowned the murderer of modern Literature, the spoiler, the probable reason Literature was seen as simply not-being written today. And writers like Stephen King have been the fly in the ointment: what did this mean that so many adore the man’s writing? How could something have such longevity with no merit?

It was clear this question was going to have to be answered, and that the answer could not be simply that we are all absolute Cretans (with apologies to Crete for the Literary insult). New Critics were starting to emerge who had grown up if not with King, then with other disdained writers like him, and they also wanted answers.

At the very moment Literary Criticism fell out of public favor, those New Critics started asking a very relevant question: was it possible that it wasn’t that we are not writing Literature today, but that the approved and established Theories were inadequate to the task of evaluating writing that had changed with the times? Was it possible that when working with living language that how we write and interpret our world might also be a living, evolutionary process?

It was a really good question.

The original Literary Critical Theories were designed for the purpose of studying Literature that was already to some degree or another Classic.

Those theories left no room to interpret modern problems and the way modern writers look at them. This was why (New Critics argued) it appeared that no Literature was being written – modern works did not neatly fit into those theories. So they began to come up with new ones.

And worse, Critics had begun to figure out that the modern world was delivering new complications to the field of Literary Criticism – like actually being a Literary Critic alive at the same time as the writer and their work, being privy to details Critics did not have with Classic authors, being able to encounter those authors in their own lifetimes, to have their fans cross swords in passionate disagreement. Like the boom in print publishing that unleashed all manner of writing to flood the coffers of Literary Criticism with new candidates – even bad ones – all clamoring for Literary attention and acclaim – using the Literary Critic for promotional blurbs instead of discussion and argument… All of a sudden the whole process seemed cheapened, adulterated…

The Literary Critic did not react well to the commercialization of fiction. It defied all things natural to the Critic’s sensibilities – offending him or her because until that time, Literature was more like fine wine… nurtured by the passage of time, sustained by the adoration and knowledge of experts. The publishing boom was anarchy. And then it was heresy.

Literary Critics like Harold Bloom looked more and more like dinosaurs to the rest of us, because the field of Literary Criticism saw itself as above explaining itself to mere commoners, and because the rest of us had no understanding of what Literary Critics actually do.

And even though in his own way and radically so to his own time Bloom was attempting to educate us on the matter, he still failed somewhat because he remained encased in that veneer of elitist Literary Critical superiority that had been carefully nurtured by the field for a good century.

People just don’t react well when talked down to. So even as he made converts among students who took his classes and those who braved reading his many written works on the matter of Criticism, he still managed to alienate the average American reader – the very audience he needed so desperately to reach and to educate.

Yet even in his provocative commentary, he managed to shake more of us out of complacency. We wanted to understand Literature and Literary Criticism – not to DO it…but to understand what makes a work Literature…

This is how you get Literary writers: you educate them early about Literature – what it is, why it is, how to read it, how it is written…

What we learned from Harold Bloom is that unless and until we all speak the same language, we are just yelling epithets at each other.

We can do better. We can be better. And what we need to take away from the long and storied career of Mr. Bloom is that we all have a lot of discussing to do.

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The Stephen King Debacle

Look, if we take away the poisonous words, we actually have important information that spills from the altercations with Bloom about Stephen King.

King is an anathema to most Critics. The American public absolutely cannot get enough of him. But what I find interesting is that today’s Critics cannot see why he is an anathema…

THIS is why:

Literary Critics do not belong in the same universe and time as the writer’s works they are criticizing. They just don’t. Just like time travelling versions of the same person, Critics and the authors they Criticize should never, ever meet. Bad things happen.

And neither do writers have a right to know they are writing Literature during their lifetimes. (Sure, it is nice to know one is thought of in that way, but we have no right to know we are “guaranteed” a place in the canon or immortality.)

Consider that the best Literary Criticism – and so much of it still ongoing – is about Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare. There is a reason for that and the whole Death of the Author argument is likely why – nobody is left to talk about Shakespeare and his private life and choices. It is all theory now. Pure theory. And the Critical work is phenomenal because most of what is left is just the work. The reason is the intellectual distance…

Work Critical Theory on Stephen King and you have a lot of mess, a lot of personal get-in-the-way-of-objectivity stuff that does not belong in Criticism. We should not know why King writes what he writes, where he gets his ideas, whether he is too commercialized. Nor should we know about the Critic and his or her personal likes or dislikes. We need to see King in a vacuum, far away from the 1970s and 1980s in particular. We need to see King in the context of other writers and writing styles of his time. And we can’t do that fairly when we are from the same time… Only distance will tell us if King writes Literature or ever writes Literature. Until then, all we have are inklings.

Until we get some object distance, we can only suspect things about a work. We can only reveal our own preferences, likes and dislikes.

When Bloom went after King, what we were witnessing was this personal preference stuff, all mixed in with what Bloom understood from his love of Classic Literature (like Shakespeare) and that which he believes actually is Literature. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be compared to Shakespeare. Or Poe, for that matter…

Do I think we are better off without Bloom’s criticism of King? No. There are probably some perks to having Old School meet New Writer. But we need to keep things in perspective.

King is no Shakespeare. Nor are most of us. So we should take Bloom’s angst for what it was – the despairing of a Critic for… more Shakespeare.

King is King. But what the rest of us need to take away from the whole debacle is that there are and should be differences of opinion and discussion about what makes a work Literature. And that we can and should be a peripheral part of that discussion. We need to ask Critics and get answers as to when and why a work might be considered Literary potential. How else can we appreciate the point of Literary Criticism? How else can we hope to write new Literature?

We need to know it is okay that we have questions.

Just like we need to know that it is more than okay to aspire to write Literature…

That it is okay to muck it up.

And while Critics may love to rag on Stephen King for not being (in their modern opinions) Literary…

What King has been responsible for is the fueling of curiosity of why Critics think he is not writing Literature… What Bloom has been responsible for is making us get off the fence and demand explanation.

When a Critic like Bloom attacks, if we can shake loose from the immediate gut-response to punch back, what we get is more curiosity about Literature.

Wasn’t that the point? What newer generations (including my own older generation) need, is Literary Critics willing to talk TO US, not DOWN TO US.

That was Bloom’s fatal flaw… and it brought out the worst in all of us in the genre.

Yet…Literary Criticism is changing. Isn’t it ironic that it is doing so because of the one man so many of us loved to hate – Harold Bloom?

Harold Bloom is the last well-known Critic of a much older way of thinking and doing Literary Criticism… With his passing, we are seeing a closing of the book on the worst part of this legacy – that old attitude of elitism. I think he tried to some degree to rise above that, but couldn’t really help himself, so lost in his passion as he was.

But I also think we owe him a huge debt. He has left behind a large body of work on the field of Literary Criticism, much of it designed for the layman. He has contributed to massive changes in the academic approach of Literary Critics. He has fired up a lot of Horror fans to defend our genre and to demand answers about Literature – to even go into the field of Literary Criticism as Horror fans (some even raised on reading King). He has got us thinking and talking, if not arguing…and in some cases becoming Literary Critics.

And that is a good thing. No matter how you might feel about his disdain for our genre, you have to admit he pushed us from our complacency, caused us to demand Literary Criticism – fairly assessed – be done upon our genre works. The result is not only New Literary Criticism, but actual Critics like S.T. Joshi and China Mieville rising from the battlefield… Horror is on its way to joining the Literary Canon… and not without some irony, we have Harold Bloom to thank.

So from our beleaguered, defensive and proud genre, thank you, Mr. Bloom. You have proven Shakespeare right:

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” William Shakespeare (As You Like it)

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The Protagonist Next Door: Where Horror’s Best Critic Says We’re Going Wrong


The question of how American Horror lost its scariness is a daunting one.

So if you are one of the many who are baffled by how we wound up in this unscary place, rest assured that even the Critics are mystified. There are speculations, of course; I myself have made several. But when it comes to really looking at the problem, we have to get into the technical issues – everything from tropes to convention and the literal execution of story.

Because Horror as a genre is just beginning its official Literary Critical journey, we are also at the beginning of the kind of intense excavations literary analysis will bring – along with its insights and – yes – opinions. So for those of us pondering the mystery of missing horror in Horror, we can and should look at the earliest of Critical argument as the hunt for the scary expands – in this case, an interesting theory put forth by one of our first and foremost Literary Critics in the genre, S.T. Joshi:

That our choice to write our protagonists as everyday people has undermined the potent power of Horror.

 

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Literary Critic, and imminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi

 

The Premise

In his absolute admiration for the fathers of Weird fiction – Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, James, Machan and Bierce in particular – S.T. Joshi has become a major authority on the subject of Weird fiction, especially where Lovecraft is concerned. His intense study has taken him interesting places, and as he has Critically begun to document the structure of Weird fiction (defining what makes Weird, Weird), he was quick to notice an interesting point about our protagonists: we have made them increasingly ordinary.

Is this, Joshi ponders, the vehicle by which we have lost our way? And are we simply writing bad Weird fiction (and not Horror at all) because we have broken a cardinal rule of it? Does great Horror require a certain type of protagonist?

There is one thing we can all agree upon: one of biggest differences separating contemporary Horror writing from that which up until now defined the irregular but interesting shape of the genre is the choices we make in characterization. Specifically, it is the rise of the “common” protagonist in modern fiction – our embrace of the everyman or woman who is just like us, caught doing nothing out of the ordinary, and who is suddenly faced with Horrors we are doing an equally bad or inconsistent job of revealing.

Joshi theorizes that this is in fact “a” (if not “the”) fatal flaw resulting in declining scariness.

The most easily recognized ring leader of this newer perspective has been Stephen King. And many would argue justifiably, that this is precisely why we like him. So it is ironic that at least for one Critic, the ordinariness of King’s characters is a pointed reason why Critics in general have developed an equally passionate and opposite opinion of his work.

This is also an example of our communication gap – revealing that fans, writers, and Critics often do not share the same values system.

Where Joshi’s position about the common-person-as-protagonist is clear, we often disagree about its importance in scaring. What, we wonder, is so bad about creating or reading about a main character based upon ourselves?

And aren’t we as writers creating a new, modern influence on writing conventions not so very different than the rise of the first person narrative?

Or are Critics right that we are (by creating ordinary protagonists) causing our own stories to flatline?

And what about style? Have we as readers and writers mistaken King’s style for a convention change – one we should not be imitating?

We tend to defend our choices: such characters have jobs and dysfunctions like us, speak like us, have the same nagging worries like us; we identify with them. In fact, we often pay a great deal of lip service to those carefully crafted similarities, mistakenly thinking we are showing our World View hand, creating a literary element that roots our fiction in this precise moment of time.

But what we are actually doing – according to Joshi – is making our Horror banal, our monsters underinflated, and our protagonists just plain boring…

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The Critic and Criticism (at Fifty Paces)

What is important is that we remember we are all on the same side, suffering the same frustrations when we curl up with a Horror story that promises us the kind of fright that will pry our eyelids open for endless nights of residual terror, only to find ourselves distracted by the promise made on yet another book cover blurb…

Critics are equally baffled at how precisely we got here. But there is little work actually having been done with regard to exploring the problem (in case you are interested) because of two major reasons: one is that older Critics never really looked at Horror as its own established genre – so there is a messy thing happening when works are compared with no set criteria – complicated by the constant repurposing of terms and ideology in the genre even by our own writers. And this subsequent lack of established and agreed upon rules for the genre is our inheritance because up until this point (second reason) in the field of Literary Criticism, we have had no cadre of dedicated Critics analyzing our genre.

Analyzing the genre means setting up agreed upon definitions and rules. Then arguing about them. Then deciding after all of the arguments, which argument was right and balances all future arguments…all before we can name our Canon works and authors.

(English majors wondering what you can do with your degree, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor of a once-in-a-lifetime event: the official establishment of a genre in Literary Criticism…from the bottom up. Have at it…)

We need our own Literary Critics dedicated specifically to the Horror genre, whose job it is to establish these perimeters and definitions that will set the accepted criteria for the genre…including what it should be rightfully CALLED.

Whenever a Critic tries to begin the Critical process on a work or an author today, he or she immediately collides with the kinds of contradictions in terms that happens when a genre has been growing wild like so many weeds – but with actual roots and flowers that are intrinsic to a real, established genre all mixed in. There is research, reading, study, sorting and discussion to be done. And all of that is going to lead to serious debate.

These include arguments over even what basic conventions and tropes will be deemed acceptable, expected execution of Craft, as well as deciding which authors and which works are seminal to the genre and therefore Canon works – establishing in turn our own very first actual genre Canon.

(Because yes, Virginia, we have NO HORROR CANON until the Literary Critics establish one – Because that is their job; that is what they DO. If you want in on that action, you need to get your BA, your Masters, and a Ph.D. Period. All other discussions are secular and moot.)

And there are some very interesting questions to be resolved….many of which come to light when we ask the simple question why isn’t modern Horror scary anymore?

Are we looking at different types of Horror? Is it about subgenre? Is it about modern times versus the past and our technological differences? About our religious ones? Our regional ones? Our geography? Our culture? Is it about short story versus novels and word counts? Is it about the narrative we now abbreviate? About word choice? The length of our sentences? The backstory we edit out? The monster we edit in? Or is it something as basic as the building blocks of perceived convention? Is it about the characters we design?

S.T. Joshi started his probing by comparing what he considers the most successful of Horror – Weird Fiction – with the stuff we write now. And what he found is thought-provoking, especially because his research is thus far more comprehensive and/or available for laypeople to read and contemplate. This is a contributing factor to my referring to him as the “best” Critic in the genre.

So I mean no disrespect to China Mieville (who I genuinely wish would write a Critical tome about the genre and his Critical interpretations, if only for the sake of comparison and contrast)… or to Noel Carroll, whose work in the area of philosophy within the genre is equally thought-provoking.

However, because Joshi (himself a former fiction writer in the genre) is a world-renowned authority on Lovecraft who has published at least four seminal Literary Critical works on Horror and Supernatural Fiction (The Weird Tale, The Modern Weird Tale, Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction in two volumes) which have made him a foundational Critic for the genre, there is more accessible information to study and consider with respect to the genre for future Critics, writers, and fans of Horror.

But I also appreciate his honesty, and his tendency to write for the layperson if not to the layperson.

Joshi has opened a window for those of us who always wondered what Critics do and how they do it, even if it means he disagrees with those of us who appreciate other facets of the genre; at least he explains his process.

Joshi readily admits to us a favoritism towards the Weird and Lovecraft, and to having a professional and personal aversion to most modern writers, of which Stephen King takes the brunt of his angst. And like all other Critics, his frustration about what is going wrong in modern Horror also remains ours: not only is Joshi perplexed at what is causing so thorough a failure of modern writing to produce actual horror, terror, dread, or fear in the manner to which readers of older genre works have become accustomed, but why is writing that is so much like King’s all that remains of our formerly vibrant genre? Where is the creative diversity?

Yet also, how is it that so many fans are adamantly enjoying King if King is doing something Critically wrong in his writing? Are we all simply uneducated or undereducated in the ways of Literature, or is King doing something not even Critics have figured out the value of yet? Are Critics biased? Or are we?

This brings us back to characterization – the most noticeable change in Horror since the Weird writers wowed us all. For Joshi, the first complaint is laid at the feet of the modern protagonist. And nobody does the modern protagonist as ordinarily as King.

(Keep in mind this is for the moment okay: it is by virtue of his success and popularity that Critics cannot choose to ignore King. But they do have to understand why whatever works with King works better with him than with anyone else writing modern Horror…Kind of a complement, really…)

 

P3

 

The Argument

In reading Joshi, one has always to remember that being among the first Literary Critics looking professionally at the Horror genre, he is overwhelmed with the need to constantly create definitions for terms he needs to use to do his job. One of those terms, for example, is the actual name of the genre, and the hierarchy of subgenres. Joshi admits that he is not certain yet as to whether what we call Horror is not just badly done Weird Fiction, or if one is a subgenre of the other. So when we read Joshi, we have to think laterally – accepting that he is also discussing Horror when he uses the term Weird, as he is sorting out criteria as he observes them. Naming the genre officially, then, could take a while.

But this has no effect on the point he makes about our newest interpretation of protagonists and the level of ordinariness we have layered them with. Keep in mind also, that commercial success is to most Critical thinking an anathema to all that is holy in Literature: sales figures simply do not correlate to the Literary “soundness” of a work. Commercial success is about the attractive outer clothing; Literature is about the hidden, academically derived technical soul of the work.

Says Joshi:

“One reason why the weird tale has become both commercially successful and, in my view, literarily problematical, is what Stephan Dziemianowicz has termed the ‘banalization’ of horror. This means the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (most of us are, after all, pretty ordinary) and to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.” (Joshi 6-7)

It is hard to not interpret this as Joshi thinking writers have become lazy in devising ways to create relevant fiction that should instead connect through its Weird I.V… over-relying on characterization and distracting details in the place of building a better “monster” or monstrous epiphany.

I get what he is saying here, and I agree but only up to a point, and this is why I say Weird fiction is in fact different… I agree that in Horror we are relying too heavily on extraneous details – complex relationships, distracting backstory…all in a strange attempt to disguise the elephant in the room we all paid to see… It does not make sense, it does seem superfluous and pointless – except in the writer’s desire to connect the story to the audience. By its proximity and our miseducation about the genre in general and the Weird in particular, our Horror “sins” have dirtied the face of all subgenres – including Weird fiction. Not seeing boundaries, not understanding boundaries, we have overrun them; we have contaminated Lovecraft’s perfect child.

But are we wrong in the rest of the genre – in the Petrie dish of new genre fiction – to be attempting to make our characters and our entry point of Horror ordinary?

And here I have to question the condemnation. Is this desire to connect more deeply with a modern audience we are told does not connect with old-style narrative reflected by a natural growth of the genre narrative?

In other words, are we legitimately responding to the needs of our audience in order to be read?

Is this as natural a “change” in narrative style as transitioning to the first person was in its day?

If not, why not?

Continues Joshi:

“In the end this technique is not so different in approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism. Although this dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife, and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction. This is not what Winfield Townley Scott meant by touching ‘the depths of human significance,” especially since most weird writers treat these issues superficially and sentimentally, and without sufficiently integrating them the weird scenario.” (7)

Well when you say it like that…

It would appear to me then that the issue is not ordinariness, but our ineptitude in turning that ordinariness into a vehicle to introduce, engage, and surrender to the Weird (or…Horror).

It implies that we are clumsy and do not thoroughly recognize the tool we have in our hands as a tool…we are chimpanzees at a canvas.

A little insulting, I know. But is it true?

Is underdeveloping the full complement of story why we are writing superficial Horror? Maybe we see the importance of the job loss, the World View impact of our modern Technology Revolution…but if we leave it a dangling modifier on the page…it is still bad grammar. It is still awkward usage. It is still lacking the full impact even we as writers wanted it to have…

So maybe Joshi is onto something here. Let’s go further. Joshi continues:

“Many modern weird writers do not appear to have taken much notice of Lovecraft’s words on this matter: ‘I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos – to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.’

“Weird fiction should never be about ordinary people. Even if one does not ‘adopt’ the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.” (7)

So Joshi reveals that it is not only our technical faults, but a misdirection of focus.

And this is true…we most certainly do retain the focus on our characters – not the monster or the monstrous. We seem to do this like babies reach for blankets – mistaking their soft warmth for mom. And that action is reinforced by the motivation for money and sequels. We don’t just leave the door open – we remove it from its hinges.

Yet It is so easy to hear arrogance in both the Critical voice and Lovecraft’s voice, we tend to react from the gut… it feels like classism – something that rattles us to our primal cores. We first interpret those words “ordinary people” as “common” in the vernacular of upper classes and inescapable caste systems, the concerns about family, food, and shelter as “incapable of captivating fancy” when most of us lose so much of our lives in the struggle to support those concerns, fancy never enters into it. It is a “how-dare-you” moment that prevents us from hearing what is being said. From hearing each other.

Lovecraft, for all his petty arrogances and bigotries, is saying something important about writing. About story.

Lovecraft is saying there is an elephant in the room and we are talking drapes and wallpaper.

Granted, in some cases that may be the Horror of it… But when we were clearly aiming for something else and didn’t deliver it, we have to admit it is time to take a hard look at how, where, and why we failed.

P4

A Rebuttal (Still Not Scary, Now Paranoid About Writing Protagonists)

Maybe we have to stop opening doors…maybe we need to let the monster – like Schrodinger’s cat – both be and not-be behind the door…to be dead and not-dead at the same time…

We can’t do that if the happy couple goes off thinking the Horror is over…even if we leave teasers suggesting it might be otherwise. I think we have to do more than suggest it: I think we have to communicate that because it is far bigger than us, older than us, more supernatural than us…we are blips on its radar, mere morsels to be snacked upon on the way to world domination, to the annihilation of humanity…Cthulhu sleeping at the bottom of the sea…

But I don’t think it means our protagonist cannot be the guy or gal next door. I don’t think it doesn’t mean we can have him get mugged, or laid off, or be a drug addict. But I do think that details that affirm those character supports cannot be left to overgrow the rest of the monster garden…they are backstory and must remain backstory; the monster must be front-and-center, even when he is just offstage.

Which makes me then ask…are we really talking about emphasizing the wrong character arc?

And if we choose the monster’s beginning, middle and end…will we be dinged for failing to show properly dimensional characters?

Of course this is a matter for Critics to discuss. That’s why we need more Critics.

We also cannot pretend that our religious orientations might not color our views of detail like what the differences are between Weird and nonWeird fiction and why we have lost the scary gene; indeed, both Joshi and Lovecraft come at Weird from atheistic angles. That in turn potentially colors Criticisms that Joshi might find a work as far too saccharine or silly for its author’s attempts to infuse religious messaging or morals into a work, yet too shallow if it didn’t offer something…but then it might also mean he has made a point. It might mean we have limited our audience and made our story trite instead of “touching the depths of the human experience…”

It might just mean that whether we are talking Horror as Weird or Weird as Horror that where we have gone wrong is not in how we see the protagonist at all…but how we see the monster.

Maybe Joshi and Lovecraft are right.

Maybe our modern Horror disappoints because we really want to think ourselves far more interesting than monsters dreamt of. Maybe we really do believe that Cthulhu can’t get us if we see him first; that we are smarter, and more worthy of survival.

Because after all, there really is nothing scary about that…

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.