“My temper leads me to peace and harmony with all men; and it is peculiarly my wish to avoid any personal feuds or dissensions with those, who are embarked in the same great national interest with myself, as every difference of this kind in its consequence must be very injurious.” —George Washington
“We discern across the centuries a commanding and versatile intelligence, wielding with equal force the sword of war and of justice ; using in defence arms and policy; cherishing religion, learning, and art in the midst of adversity and danger; welding together a nation, and seeking always across the feuds and hatreds of the age a peace which would smile upon the land.” —Winston Churchill
I celebrated my 52nd birthday a few days ago. Actually, ‘celebrated’ probably isn’t the word for it. More accurate to say that I acknowledged it and then did my level best to ignore it as much as possible.
It’s rather odd for me to reach this age. For one thing, I never expected to get here for various and myriad reasons. Now that I have, I’ve the benefit of much more experience than I’ve ever thought I’ve have as well as having lived through a fair amount of history. I can honestly say that life is vastly different today than it was back in the 70’s and 80’s. Many of the things that are taken for granted today would have been considered science fiction back then. And don’t get me started on how much more expensive things are these days or I’ll start sounding like my father after Thanksgiving dinner.
So, you lucky people, you get to reap the benefit of my experience. Here’s what I’ve learned through all those fifty-two years, the knowledge that I’ve suffered and labored over all that time to achieve:
You’re all fucking nuts.
Sure, maybe that’s not exactly news to some of you. Many have probably figured that out yourselves a long time ago so screw you. I’m a slow learner.
Now, I mean this in the most kind and loving way possible. Your mother and I have struggled long and hard about the best way to explain this to you but you are all fucking nuts because the lot of you can’t agree on anything. Frankly, we may have to separate the lot of you if this doesn’t stop soon.
I hear your complaints. “They did it first,” or “I’m just standing up for what’s right.” Still others go on about how the others “deserve what they get”. But it all boils down to some little wanker somewhere who had their feelings hurt and wants to “take their ball back and go home”.
Feuds are as old as humanity if you believe certain creation myths. Even if you don’t, it’s a fair guess that somewhere in the distant past at the beginning of this world, some hairy hominid had a feud with the other hairy hominid over the hill because they had more water over there and their grass was just a slightly brighter shade of green. If there’s one thing that can be certain in this world, maybe even more than death and taxes, it’s that people aren’t going to get along.
And when they don’t get along, feuds happen. Sometimes they’re called wars and sometimes they’re just called “violent disagreements” and sometimes, in lieu of weapons or baseball bats or 2x4s, people use words. The world of literature has not been free from this type of sparring either.
Mark Twain so despised the work of Jane Austen that he once said, “Her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
The literary feud between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal was so legendary that, before an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Mailer reportedly ‘headbutted’ Vidal while the two were in the ‘greenroom’ waiting to go onstage. The feud allegedly began when Vidal wrote a scathing review of Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex in which he called the book “three days of menstrual flow,” compared Mailer to Charles Manson, and reminded readers that Mailer had ten years earlier stabbed his wife.
Years later, when confronting each other at a high society party, Mailer slugged Vidal and flattened him with one punch. At which point Vidal, still on the floor, flattened Mailer with the verbal response: “Once again, words have failed Norman Mailer.”
T.S. Eliot once said of Henry James that the then recently deceased writer “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” In later years, Eliot would face as much criticism over the remark as his intended subject did.
There are many such instances: Faulkner v Twain, Hemingway v Faulkner, Melville v Hawthorne, Rushdie v Updike, Capote v Vidal, Tom Wolfe v just about everyone, and many, many others. What compels these people to not only air their dirty laundry in public but to almost relish in the unveiling? But, after all, everyone loves a good fight, right? Especially when it’s being done by people who are perhaps more famous and powerful than they deserve and have no direct bearing on us anyway so let’s just settle in and let them have at it, shall we?
By now, many are probably wondering what the devil this has to do with weird literature or much of anything else for that matter? Well, our own little field has not been immune to this type of literary pandemic either.
There have been several feuds in the past in imaginative literature. Lovecraft had a famous feud with Forry Ackerman and Ackerman inspired a few of his own as well. Hugo Gernsback’s questionable treatment of his authors gave birth to several feuds and Stephen King has had less than favorable things to say about James Patterson and Stephanie Meyer. And, of course, Poe and Rufus Griswold’s feud resulted in Griswold’s slanderous ‘biography’ of Poe after the famous writer’s death.
As you may recall, loyal reader, I’ve been around for a little while now. In that time, I’ve seen many a literary feud in our own little garden of paradise and even contributed a bit to a few myself. The result, I painfully came to realize, was nothing. Feuds fought over literary slights (real and imagined), moral indignations, personal insults and creative jealousy all came to naught. Nothing was ever resolved. Nothing changed. Old feuds died off while new feuds took their place.
In short, these feuds are nothing more than a literary version of a Three Stooges movie.
Recently, there have been new feuds that have popped up and become amazingly widespread and virulent. One of these involves the use of H. P. Lovecraft as the model for the World Fantasy Awards. Some claim that because of Lovecraft’s racist views, he should not be honored in this way and even some recipients of the awards feel uncomfortable looking at his visage. To this I say, “so what?”
Lovecraft was racist. I’m not going to get into the fool’s argument of how much or how little he was because that’s irrevelent. He was. I wish he wasn’t but there’s nothing I can do about it much like there’s nothing I can do about the recent election results with which I disagree far more angrily than about the subject of an award statue. The award isn’t for his racism but for his writing and the impact that he has had on weird literature ever since. That impact is undeniable. The simple fact is that you can’t pick and choose what you like or don’t like about your literary idols or even the literary idols of others.
But here’s the thing, probably the most important thing about this entire essay: this feud doesn’t matter. Not one bit. Not one iota. Nada. Zilch. Zed and any other word you can think of that means “nothing”.
I lost three good friends to cancer this year. Three good men who still had so much more to give not only to our field but to their families and friends and society in general. When that happens, you tend to re-evaluate a few things and realize that, in the end, a lot of them don’t matter at all.
Instead of fighting over whether a long dead writer is racist and should be the face of an award, how about fighting the racism that exists out there today? The intolerance and rampant hatred that has taken over this country? I grew up in the 60s and 70s and saw this country grow through horrible events as it tried to mature towards a better society of tolerance and equality. A time when we waged war on poverty instead of poor people. We just faced a midterm election where we handed the country back to a party that is determined to drag our society back to, ironically, the 1920s of Lovecraft’s time when hatred, bigotry, misogyny, and corporate greed reigned supreme. With all this going on, you expect me to care because a bust of someone is on an award that the average person has never even heard of?
Give me a break.