Don’t be modest!

“Thesiphone, thow helpe me for t’endite

These woful vers, that wepen as I write!”

(Geoffrey Chaucer: Troylus and Criseyde, v. 6-7)

“The best policy for my nerves, it seems to me, would be to forget all about editors – writing whatever I write solely for my own pleasure […] . Some time the results may find a niche to fit in-but if not, it does not matter.”

(HP Lovecraft in a letter to Clark A. Smith, February 1932)

The topos of modesty that I’ve picked out these two quotes as examples for always implies a measure of playfulness, a lack of seriousness that’s coying the reader into a mood of acceptance and anticipation – authors are never serious,if he/she is warning me against reading the text, it’s got to have some interest in it. In Chaucer’s epic poem, the topos thrives on the court setting that the poem assumes, invoking the minnesong tradition even in the first verses (v. 15-16: For I, that god of Loves servauntz serve,/Ne dar to Love, for myn unliklynesse): whatever the story might be, you’d better believe the narrator’s gonna deliver it, come what come may. His appeals to modesty are simple examples of rhetorical courtesy, bows to the reader granting the speaker his or her attention.

In Lovecraft, then, it’s no longer so much a topos as a pathos, a gesture of despair rather than of confidence. Countless of his letters furnish his own personal “niche” in literature – a curious thing for an author to do that receives plain rejection from all corners of the “canon”. Instead of vying for more attention and devotion, he retreats into the darkest of corners, where he hopes to be seen by the chosen few that constituted his ideal audience. Detesting the pulp outfit of Weird Tales and its incessant efforts to find the loudest and smallest common denominator to fish for readers, he makes it clear again and again that his particular kind of prose requires a “sensitivity” that, alas, is available only to those few readers that know to appreciate the outré in literature. Of course, success does matter. Lovecraft’s publishing ventures were a continous exchange between blows that editors bashed into his face (in 1931, At the Mountains of Madness, his grandest achievement so far, had been rejected outright, for example) and assurances that, really, he didn’t give a damn about it.

In come the readers. Early Lovecraft critics, if one goes by their writings, never quite believed in his version of a niche. As early as 1945, eight years after the man’s death, Derleth seems to be dragging him out of there – “To some of us, his place in American literature, and especially in what is called ‘The Gothic Tradition’, was always secure, and it has become increasingly evident to a growing number of literate people that H.P. Lovecraft’s untimely death at forty-seven was a great loss to American letters[…].” (In Derleth’s foreword to The best supernatural Stories of H.P. Lovecraft. )

I wouldn’t want to push the point too far, but, in a sense, Lovecraft scholars form an apocalyptic community in expectance of better times to come in which the works of Lovecraft, and the man himself, will – finally! – be received into wide public and academic acclaim. For the latter to happen, academic criticism, so it goes, will have to change drastically, and academic scholars will have to drop their elitist attitudes towards writers like Lovecraft. You never get the feeling that the responsibility, or at least parts of it, may rest with Lovecraft critics, most of who have obviously never arrived at the conclusion that, just possibly, academe demands to be fed properly by those who seek cover under its wings. It’s a lot easier to defend the niche, of course, and occasional claims that there is no such niche notwithstanding, it is now more stable than ever before.

The challenge is not so much to move Lovecraft’s works toward the mainstream, whatever that is – it’s much rather to move him out of the niche created by himself and perpetuated by his disciples in Lovecraft scholarship. The challenge is to relate him to literary traditions that do not include names like Clark A. Smith (however much I like the man), and other members of the 1920s-1930s Lovecraft cortege, who shared in his whiny certainty of being misunderstood. There’s plenty material in his works to make that an easy move.

Before I go on to run the gamut, I’ll do a short post on why it’s appropriate to insinuate that Lovecraft scholarship is exercising a cult function.

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