This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
This article is, to an extent, old news. There has been a ridiculous amount of ink spilled on the subject of Conan ever since Robert E. Howard began writing about the guy. Over and over again, people have said some variation of what Jason Sanford says here – to paraphrase, that Howard was tediously and egregiously racist by our standards, and that perhaps we shouldn’t keep loudly recommending his work as being essential reading in the fantasy genre. And like clockwork, in come the weaksauce defences. At best, you get pieces like this, in which Jonathan Moeller at least acknowledges that Howard was a racist but tries to argue that what Sanford was proposing was censorship. (It isn’t. Shunning is not censorship. Sanford never argued that Howard’s works should be suppressed or banned from publication, but Moeller seems to regard refusing to positively promote Howard’s works as being the same thing as actively working to suppress them.) At worst, you have people proposing the most incredible arguments as to why, despite all appearances, Howard wasn’t that bad of a racist, and wasn’t even a sexist either. We’ve had some of that here in the past, and I suspect we’ll see more; certainly, it seems to be a law that if you criticise Howard on your SF/fantasy website, fanzine or other forum, his defenders will manifest to wheel out the same tired arguments in his defence.
But the fact remains that the Conan stories have been skewered before, repeatedly, and by people with far more standing to complain about them than I’ll ever have. What’s prompted me to step in here?
Well, first off, it seemed timely. Having reviewed the Conan movies fairly recently, and having had exchanges about Howard on here too, the subject was on my mind. It had been a while since I had reread the stories anyway. People might be interested in a review since there seem to be several reprints making their way onto the shelves in the wake of the movie remake. Why not?
Secondly, the series seems ideal subject matter for the Reading Canary, though in the reverse to the way I usually do these articles – rather than being an exercise in asking “where does this series end up losing what made it good in the first place?”, this has turned more into a “which Conan stories might almost have been OK if Howard had been able to shut up?” deal. A lot of the tales I simply cannot enjoy any more because of the racism and misogyny on display. On top of that, one has to confront the stark fact that Robert E. Howard just wasn’t that good of a writer a lot of the time – remember, these stories were cranked out quickly, for a market that was permanently hungry for new material, and aside from some of the longer stories there’s little sign of polish. Howard would regularly recycle plots or slap a new name on essentially the same supporting character (I lost count of the number of female leads who were Caucasian escapees from dark-skinned slavers), and generally cut corners in order to produce as much product as he could. When the stories are often shit, often bigoted, and fairly often both bigoted and shit, the question arises as to whether any of them are worthy of their reputation at all.
Thirdly, I did this because in another life I might have been one of those defenders. I can remember reading the stories as a teenager and simply failing to notice the bigotry involved; I can also remember reading them again when somewhat older, and being able to recognise the bigotry but willing to argue that people should read the stories anyway because they were so influential and the quality shone through. Both are positions I regard with some embarrassment.
So, basically I am tilting at a windmill which already has a small forest of lances poking out of its sails for the sake of self-flagellating about my former bad taste. It’s more fun than it sounds, which is good because the Conan material is much less fun than I remember it being.
Obvious caveat: I’m a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It’s entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don’t quite cut to the heart of what’s wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren’t actually that offensive in some places.
Oh, and trigger warning: racism and sexism aplenty in this stuff. Plus there’s one story which can be summarised as “Conan tries to rape someone and fails”, so yeah.
Continue reading “We Need To Talk About Conan”