Friday, November 13, 2015

Lovecraft, His Goofy Likeness, and What it all Means

The offensive statue in question, designed by Gahan Wilson.
Few things get everyone up in the morning as the intersection of Fandom and Internet. On Monday, before anyone even had time to crank out a picture of their Red Starbuck's Cup, appropriately defaced, the news hit that The World Fantasy Award Committee was retiring the bust of H.P. Lovecraft they've been using for 40 years. If you don't know about this, you can check out this timely piece that explains the hubbub. This news has invaded my Facebook feed, freaked out a bunch of people, and divided many of my friends, who are now bandying around words like "social justice warriors" (they mean it as an insult) and "politically correct police" (which does sound bad), and other topical buzzwords that shut down the dialogue. I don't know if I'm going to be heard over the howling and kvetching, but here are my thoughts, in a nutshell.

On one hand, I completely understand the need to change the statue. Lovecraft isn't for everyone, and he sure doesn't represent the entire field of fantasy fiction. I mean, if you wanted an author for an award for fantasy writing, Lovecraft's name doesn't float to the top of the list.  It's worth noting that when the World Fantasy Convention first convened in 1975, the theme of the convention was "The Lovecraft Circle." Ah! Now this award makes perfect sense.

But times change and themes change. There are a number of images useful to conveying the scope of fantasy that would be appropriate for an award statue. This shouldn't be an issue. And, I understand if you as an author are uncomfortable with stuff that Lovecraft said in his letters and fiction when he wrote them down, ninety years ago or so. I can see how it's problematic for you. I can also imagine that such an image in your home might conflict with your strongly held beliefs and feelings. Cool beans. By all means, let's change the statue.

On the other hand, Lovecraft's racism never bothered me. I'm a doughy white guy in Texas. It never came up, not until years later, when I got ahold of some of Lovecraft's more racist writings. Mind you, I had to go looking for them. They weren't included in the fiction collections. Okay, yeah, some of the stories...if you're decoding them that way...feed into some of Lovecraft's fears and convictions about New York City. Which was full of immigrants. People of color. Yep, no question about it. "The Horror From Red Hook" is problematic.

What's the solution to that? Take it out of the "Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft?" Yeah, no, that's not going to make the story go away, any more than it's going to magically "fix" racism. I think it's better to include it, and then be prepared to discuss it openly and honestly. That's how you start to get a handle on racism. Not by removing things that are visible to your naked eyes, like a vampire avoiding a mirror.

Obviously, my take-away from Lovecraft, and so many other people I know, is the cosmic horror, the strange architecture, the ghosts, the ghouls and the gothic cosmeticsim. That's our Lovecraft. And you may well say, "It's easy for you to pick and choose. You're white. You're male. You're part of the problem. You represent the hegemony."

Yeah. I guess I do. And yet, I would never want to do anything, display anything, or say anything that would make my friends--any of my friends--uncomfortable. Not in my own house, nor in public, anywhere.

It's like this: supposed I had a framed piece of advertising art from the 1930s, depicting a young black girl, her eyes comically wide open, her mouth forming an "ooo" as she looks at the giant slice of watermelon in her hands. It's an ad for a fruit company, see? It's a piece of advertising Americana. Right? Right?

Now, what happens when a couple of my friends come over and see that hanging on the wall? Friends of color? Let's presume they give me the benefit of the doubt and ask me first, "What the hell, man?" And I explain to them why it's hanging up on my wall. I admire it as art, see? It's been in my family for years.

"Yeah," one of them says, "but it's still a pickaninny with a watermelon. This offends me deeply."

What would you do? Would you take it down and apologize? Or would you double down and explain to them why their feelings are wrong, why they shouldn't get offended about it, and why they are being a little too sensitive because, after all, this artist didn't just paint this image. He painted a lot of other images that weren't like this. So, really, who has the problem, here?

I like my friends. I want to keep them. I want more of them. So does the World Fantasy Award Committee. It's good for the field of fantasy writing, it's good for the award, and it's good for the participants all, who want to see a more austere award that encapsulates what they wrote, and not just what the group was talking about in 1975.

Finally, this: Lovecraft is in the canon of American authors, alongside Raymond Chandler, Phillip K. Dick, Dashiell Hammett and precious few others who have escaped the Pulp and Science Fiction Ghetto. This award has been given out to what, a hundred and fifty people in forty years? Maybe more? Maybe less? Some folks got it more than once. There is no possible cultural backlash that sets Lovecraft Studies back twenty five years that could possibly come from this. It's a non-issue, one that has only gotten larger attention because so many of you keep nattering on about it as if it were you personally who were attacked by all of this.

Meanwhile, all over the planet, more meaningful and interesting and wonderful and terrifying things are happening, just as "unfriend" buttons and "block" buttons are being clicked all over Facebook with the finality of a nuclear Armageddon first strike.

I keep saying it, but no one seems to be listening: if any of you who own WFC statues, and suddenly don't want to be considered a racist, or are getting rid of your statues as a form of protest, please send them to me. I'll purchase them for a modest sum, plus shipping, and then you can sleep easy at night.
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