by Art Chantry
lit snobs abhor genre fiction. that’s why we all sniff at successful writers like stephen king and and john grisham and say things like, “yes, he’s good, but he’s “popular” ya know?” as if the idea that a book is actually read and enjoyed by non-intellectual folks, then it must be somehow “less”. in fact, charles dickens was so popular and so beloved by the magazine readers and other common folks of his era that he is still ‘sniffed’ at today as a sort of “not quite as good as he could have been if he hadn’t been so popular.”
this sort of attitude still affects all aspects of the ‘popular’ arts. the beatles never won grammies until they broke up (i seem to remember). the monkees are passed over for the rnr hall of fame forever even though they launched more ships than and even outsold even the beatles. the same goes for pop visuals, as well. today, old ‘original’ illustration art and repros like posters are being avidly collected at increasingly high prices by the new elite snobs of our time. but, back when they were originally created, it was all literally ‘throw-away’ stuff. they actually tossed all those originals into the garbage. the few that got saved of those famous pulp magazine covers were taken FROM the garbage by the odd casual passersby who simply thought “it was ‘pretty.’”
however, literature snobbery is in a class by itself – almost inflexible and concrete and rigid. ‘genre’ fiction (aka, sci-fi, horror, detective, romance, western, humor, etc. etc. etc.) is all thought of as unworthy of consideration for greatness. if a best selling author gets attention and ‘accepted’ as ‘true fine literature’, it’s always with an asterisk attached (denoting * “popular”). this creates a lot of problems in a culture where almost ALL fiction is genre fiction. it’s very very hard to name a writer who doesn’t work in a specific genre. there are no “classics” writers in american fiction, because ‘classics’ have become a genre as well (‘classics’ sections in book stores are stuffed with old popular genre fiction from the past.)
this leaves most american writing in a peculiar position. the nobel prize judges have been quoted as saying things like “there has been NO notable american literature in generations”. basically, everything we do is aimed at some sort of market place (we are an industrial merchant culture) and therefore everything we do is in a category. in other words, all we produce in america is genre fiction. for this we can blame edgar allan poe.
if you take lit classes in college, again and again you encounter references to poe. modern american writing starts with poe. he is credited with being the fist american writer of modern literature. his work spawned virtually every true american writer of the last 150 years. of course, the biggest problem (his gift AND his curse) is that everything he wrote was essentially genre fiction. he CREATED almost all the standard american genres in his brief career – gothic, horror, suspense, sci-fi, romance, detective, crime, on and on. it’s all there. he started all of them. to this day, we still deal with his legacy every time we start to write ANYTHING in america. he is truly the godfather of american pop fiction.
whenever i go trashing out there looking for cool junk, i ALWAYS keep my eye open for anything related to poe. since he’s been around so long, all of his work has entered the public domain. the result is that you can reprint his stories and not worry about royalties. so, just about every publisher out there has published a small volume of poe somewhere in their catalogs. and since poe is so common, the only way they can make THEIR edition of poe interesting or unique enough to not have anybody violate their copyright edition is to pepper it with with illustrations that are unique to their specific volume (you can’t copyright poe, but you can copyright the illustrations). there are probably more editions of illustrated poe out there than any single author that has ever lived.
most of these books you can find in the garbage bins in the goodwill stores. since there are so many books of poe in existence, they have very very low resale value on the open market. most of them just get pulped. but that doesn’t slow anybody down because there is truly so much of it that you could likely never run out of interesting new poe stuff to check out.
this cover i show you here is the ‘weathervane’ edition of poe’s works. it’s fairly easy to find and relatively cheap to buy (i got my copy for $12.00). what is so amazingly cool about this book is that it’s lavishly and beautifully illustrated by the great arthur rackham!! most people, even pros, don’t seem to know that rackham did an edition of poe illustrations. it’s originally from 1935, but unlike most poe materials, it has been reprinted several times. so, you really should find a copy of this. it’s really wonderful.
rackham is decide
one of the greatest illustrators of the last century. his work has been studied and memorialized and reprinted and collected for most of the 20th century. his poe images are every bit as stunning and wonderfully distraught and disturbing as anything you would ever hope from arthur rackham. seems he was very very capable of drawing much more than just fairies.
start looking for little poe books. even those crummy little ‘scholastic books services’ editions we bought in grade school have killer illustrations in them. you won’t be sorry.