August 1, 2020

Shame on You, Robert M. Price: The Gospel According to Bob

On July 29th DMRBooks, a key publisher of new sword and sorcery, made a surprising announcement: Lin Carter's Flashing Swords! #6 Available Now

This was great news.

Flashing Swords was a sword and sorcery anthology series published by Dell from 1973-1981. It spanned five volumes and was an important part of what sword and sorcery historian Brian Murphy has termed the "sword and sorcery renaissance" of the 1960s and 70s. In Murphy's excellent history of sword and sorcery, Flame and Crimson (Pulp Hero Press 2019), he writes, "It was a true renaissance in every sense of the word: a time of experimentation, artists writing thrilling new stories of high adventure, pushing sword-and-sorcery in surprising new directions" (133). And the Flashing Swords anthology series was part of that period, an outgrowth of the informal Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America (S.A.G.A.), a loose and unofficial confederation of some of the great sword and sorcery writers of that renaissance (e.g. Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Poul Anderson,  John Jakes, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and more). 

In the literary history of sword and sorcery, the Flashing Swords anthologies are important for many reasons: not only were they edited by one of the great sword and sorcery writers, Lin Carter, the introduction to the first volume helped codify the genre's conventions, giving writers a blueprint to proceed and an artistic form to play with. Murphy points out how Flashing Swords #1 "contained one of the first definitions of the subgenre, a useful if lightly sketched introduction to the sword-and-sorcery, codifying it as a genre begun by Robert E. Howard and broadly comprised as the amalgamation of adventure story, imaginary world fantasy, and supernatural horror" (138). Put simply: Lin Carter's excellent introduction to Flashing Swords was an influential work of literary criticism that influenced and influences writers who seek to work in this tradition of storytelling.

There had been rumors on various online communities that Pulp Hero Press was resurrecting the Flashing Swords anthology series; information about the progress of Flashing Swords was only available through unofficial corridors: blogs, groups, authors' discussions, etc.. So, for many of us, this news, broadcast by DMRBooks, was the first official confirmation of the anthology's glorious return. It was exciting, another indicator of the new sword and sorcery renaissance that is happening right now.

I liked the colorful cover. I was intrigued by the back matter. And the list of writers included boded well. There were intriguingly-titled tales by celebrated and established sword and sorcery legends such as Charles R. Rutledge, David C. Smith, and Adrian Cole; and, there were tales by new and emerging sword and sorcery writers, like D.M. Ritzlin and Steve Dilks. Only one thing gave me pause: it was edited by Robert M. Price.

As a Lovecraft scholar, Lovecraft fan, writer, and editor of Crypt of Cthulhu, Price's wide-ranging influence and excellence in the field was known to me. I met him briefly during a Silver Key Lodge party at the NecronomiCon in August of 2015, where he was awarded the Robert Bloch Award (an awesome, self-luminous statue shaped to resemble Lovecraft's infamous "Shining Trapezohedron"). I was drinking a beer at the Red Fez Bar in Providence during his infamous keynote address that year, but I later learned about several of his controversial and politically-charged verbal lances: "Superstition, barbarism, and fanaticism will sooner or later devour us," "The bloodlust of jihadists threatens Western Civilization," "Our centers of learning have converted to power politics and an affirmative action epistemology," and don't forget that contemporary society is "the real life horror of Red Hook." 

In 2015, I didn't take his claims very seriously and kind of laughed them off. I shrugged my shoulders: more wingnut political nonsense from an out-of-touch old guy (I hear similar screeds from family during holidays). Pretty typical. At that Silver Key Lodge party in 2015, we even chatted a bit. I told Price about my scholarly book about Weird Tales and expressed how I was a fan of his writings on the historical Jesus. Interpersonally speaking, Price was a kind, scholarly man, with a sharp mind, who clearly knew a lot about ancient history and theology (and well-dressed!). I thought to myself: now that is a modern day gentleman scholar.

When I learned from that DMRBooks' post that Robert M. Price was editing the new Flashing Swords anthology, I didn't think much about it. If anything, I don't think Price's editorship of the anthology was very notable to me. His name is so ubiquitous, so comon in the pulp fiction fandom, convention culture, and scholarly field I work in,  that I took his presence for granted. Price undoubtedly has the credentials and clearly loves the genre. If anything, I may have thought that the anthology seemed to be in good hands, although the hands of a person who seemed to be obsessed sometimes with wingnut politics.

Let's fast forward to today when I learned that the anthology had been cancelled because several of the contributing authors withdrew their work because they didn't want to be associated with Price's introduction. My uninformed, gut reaction was to be angry at the authors. "Is this just another example of folks getting angry over some 'off color' humor? Could the introduction be that bad?" And then I read the introduction. And then I realized: yes, it could be that bad.

Let's look at just one page: commenting on the MeToo movement, Price states, "The continuous false rape accusations [are] seeking to make masculinity, even natural male interest in women, into a 'rape culture.'" He moves on to a penseƩ about pornography: "I have long puzzled at the feminist hatred of pornography. 'It reduces women to sex objects!' Absurd! It is simply highlighting an aspect of beautiful women." And he then moves on to the politics of gendered language: "Many 'progressives' want to replace 'he,' 'she,' 'his,' 'her,' 'him' with 'gender neutral' language so as to promote the illusion that gender is a matter of 'social construction.'" And this is only one page. At this point I was wondering: (excuse the harsh language): What the fuck does this have to with sword and sorcery?!

Some of my more reasonable conservative, apologist friends say, "He was just venting. He's an older guy from another time. Give him a break." No. This isn't "just someone venting." Price executed this tirade in a published anthology where the reputations of several authors were on the line. It wasn't the sword and sorcery readers who were offended; instead, it was several of the writers being published in the anthology. 

It gets worse: despite the fact that he loaded his introduction with hyper-political bullshit in the age of so-called "cancel culture," he didn't share his intentionally provocative introduction with his contributors.

Price self-indulgently chose to turn his introduction into a navel-gazing wingnut political rant. There were so many better options. Compare his nonsense with Lin Carter's introduction to Flashing Swords #1. It concludes as a paean to the works published therein: "You will [...] find all sorts of stories. Stories with verve and sparkle, wit and polish; stories frankly humorous and stories of sheer, headlong adventure and excitement; stories of action and stories of subtler mood. But all share one thing in common. They are all tales of swordsmen and sorcerers, in worlds or lands where magic works..." 

Some will say Lin Carter was writing in a different time; our hyper-political moment is different and demands a different approach. To them I ask: do you know what our country was like in the early 1970s, when Flashing Swords #1 was published? Vietnam War, Nixon, Second Wave Feminism, Kent State, Black Panthers, gas shortages, the Weather Underground, and more. Our country was a boiling cauldron of political unrest and Lin Carter didn't use his introduction to indulge in a political rant "against the hippies." Or, if you will, to "celebrate free love." Why? Because I believe Carter understood that the introduction to Flashing Swords wasn't the place to go on a political rant. He restrained. It's called the art of civility.

Instead of analyzing pornography, sharing thoughts about rape culture, and meditating on gender-neutral language, why didn't Price do a deep survey of the rich history of the anthology series? He's an academic so I know he has the intellectual capacity to write real scholarship.  

Instead of writing a good introduction that celebrated the works published, the authors, the enduring genre of sword and sorcery, Price did what he did at NecronomiCON 2015: he dishonestly used the occasion of a gathering of fans to force them to play auditor to his political obsessions, his rant. Here's an allegory: Price invited hungry people over to his house for dinner, sat them down at the table and let them enthrall to the smell of great food, and before even serving melon balls, said, "Thank you for coming, friends. I know you are hungry. But, first, do you mind if I share with you the Good News?" Except Price's "gospel" was a lecture about wingnut politics.

It's everyones' right to spew whatever intellectual sewage we want--in private, in print, online, etc.: BUT! why do it in the introduction to Flashing Swords #6

This could have been awesome. 

Pulp Hero Press cancelled Lin Carter's Flashing Swords #6. Why? Because Robert M. Price alienated his authors by irresponsibly writing his anthology introduction as a wingnut political screed (causing many writers to withdraw their work); worse, it seems Price did so clandestinely, without informing some or all of his authors about the controversial contents of his screed. 

Shame on you, Robert M. Price: if you are going to publish authors, and annoyingly use your editorial platform to navel-gaze, whine, and spittle-spray wingnut politics, at least be transparent. By contributing to your anthology project, authors have put their trust in you, tied their reputation to yours. This delicate relationship requires respect (for the artist, for the specific artwork, and for the tradition of art). What Price did disrespected the authors, their stories, and the great tradition of sword and sorcery. Price's inability to bite his tongue ruined what could have been an important episode in the history of sword and sorcery.

Keep your gospel to yourself. I'll take my sword and sorcery without it.