Good Art and the Posthumous Success of H.P. Lovecraft

When writing fiction, you can either write for now or forever. To become a successful bestseller you need to appeal to the masses, and the masses are, by definition, average. That is average intelligence, average creativity, average originality, average in taste and interests, etcetera. The masses don’t like the most creative, innovative, transgressive, and artistic works of art—and they never will. There’s only ever a small subset of the population with refined enough taste to find and appreciate the diamonds in the rough and discover a truly creative artist—someone like H.P. Lovecraft—during their lifetime.

“Good art means the ability of any one man to pin down in some permanent and intelligible medium a sort of idea of what he sees in Nature that nobody else sees. In other words, to make the other fellow grasp, through skilled selective care in interpretative reproduction or symbolism, some inkling of what only the artist himself could possibly see in the actual objective scene itself.”

— H.P. Lovecraft

The masses never read “good art” like that of Lovecraft’s. They will not understand or appreciate the originality, creativity, and innovativeness because good art is too different and jarring. The masses are often repelled by good art. Lovecraft’s now legendary short story, “The Rats in the Walls,” was initially rejected for being “too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured public.” Lovecraft struggled to sell his fiction throughout his short life (46 years) and died in poverty. His stories were only published in Weird Tales, a small pulp magazine at the time, and the most money he ever made from a story was $350 (“The Whisperer in Darkness” in 1931). It wasn’t until years after Lovecraft’s death that his writing attained any kind of widespread acclaim or success.

Lovecraft’s writing was termed “weird fiction” because it was just that—weird. His writing was utterly weird compared to anything else that had been published before, and that’s why so few people liked it or wanted to publish it. Lovecraft explained why he chose to write weird fiction: “There is no field other than the weird in which I have any aptitude or inclination for fictional composition. Life has never interested me so much as the escape from life.”

Creators of “good art” rarely see commercial success during their lifetimes because there’s simply not a large enough market to support them. There are not enough smart creative people to find and appreciate good art. But the true artist does not create art for now but forever. You can’t really judge a creative writer or any kind of artist until long after their deaths. True artists, or creators of good art like Lovecraft, ultimately win in the long run because although the population of smart creative people with good taste in art is small, over time that population can grow quite large.

Let’s say just 1% of the population has refined enough taste to appreciate smart innovative fiction like that of Lovecraft’s. (It’s probably even smaller than 1% of the world’s population.) Whatever the percentage is, while it’s small and constant across generations—the masses are always the masses—the net population amid that 1% grows across generations. People with good taste will appreciate great art, not just being made today, but before they were born, even 100 years ago or longer. Therefore, the fanbases of innovative artists grow over time and always will, as new generations of the 1% with taste discover and spread their work.

Often, over time, good artists break into the mainstream so that the masses actually learn to like their art. What was once original and innovative 100 years ago has been emulated and ripped off so many times that it’s not so transgressive anymore. That’s certainly the case with Lovecraft, as not only has weird fiction exploded in popularity, there is an entire sub-genre of books, movies, comics, and games defined as “Lovecraftian.” Once an artist or artwork reaches critical mass, the “masses” can finally appreciate it—or if not fully appreciate the work, they hear so many smart creative people say the author/artist is great that they’ll pretend to agree it in order to fit in. The irony being, the creators of that art never fit in with the masses of their time, nor would they dare try to, which is why their art was both so great and under-appreciated during their lifetimes.

“While my chosen form of story-writing is obviously a special and perhaps a narrow one, it is none the less a persistent and permanent type of expression, as old as literature itself. There will always be a small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us.”

— H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft was aware his appeal was small, but he persisted in writing weird fiction nevertheless because—again—he wasn’t writing for his time but all time. Lovecraft will live forever because he will be read forever within the population of readers with refined taste, whereas those writers who were popular during his lifetime—the popular bestsellers—came and went. The masses of today never like the same art as the masses of yesteryear. You probably haven’t heard of most of the best-selling books during Lovecraft’s life because those authors were merely writing for their time, not all time. Lovecraft himself knew this as evidenced by the following quote.

“American fiction is not an art but a trade—a thing to be learnt by rule by almost anybody, and demanding above all else a complete submergence of one’s own personality and thought in the general stream of conventional patterns which correspond to the bleakly uniform view of life forced on us by mediocre leadership. Success therefore comes not to the man of genius, but to the clever fellow who knows how to catch the public point of view and play up to it. Glittering tinsel reputations are built up, and dumb driven hundreds of otherwise honest and respectable plumbers take correspondence courses to crush their individuality and try to be like these scintillant ‘great ones’ whose achievements are really no more than mere charlatanry.”

— H.P. Lovecraft

Popular writers were trying to “fit in,” appealing to the masses who were interested in the current fads. But fads come and go. Sure, those writers made more money than Lovecraft during their lives, but if you’re aiming to make good art you cannot care about the profits because commerce is antithetical to art—truly creative and innovative “good art.” If you’re creating a product then you write what others want, but if you’re creating art then you write what you want. Hopefully the two align, but an artist cannot sacrifice the former for the latter.

“What a man does for pay is of little significance. What he is, as a sensitive instrument responsive to the world’s beauty, is everything!”

— H.P. Lovecraft

It would be remiss not to mention that Lovecraft held some despicable views that would surely get him cancelled today, yet his work persists because good art stands on its own. You can cancel Lovecraft, but you cannot cancel Cthulhu. Nor can you erase the countless works of weird fiction inspired by Lovecraft and his mythos, whether the creators were conscious of their influence or not. Even if you hate Lovecraft’s stories, don’t burn them, write a better one yourself. By writing what he alone wanted to, Lovecraft ultimately achieved what so many artists and writers aspire to: immortality through their art. Lovecraft’s work is free for all to read in the public domain and will be forever as long as the internet exists.

Lovecraft wasn’t writing for the average reader, he was writing for smart creative readers like himself—the upper echelon of readers. Only hundreds of them existed during his lifetime—nowhere near enough to support a career—but over the hundred years since his death, those hundreds have multiplied to millions. H.P. Lovecraft’s audience is now vastly larger than the most successful peer of his day. Good art always wins in the long run. The question for any artist is which run do you want to win: the marathon or the sprint?

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