Saturday, December 24, 2011

On the Subject of the World Fantasy Award Statue…

I’ve been watching the recent discussions over redoing the World Fantasy Award statue, scrapping the iconic Gahan Wilson-designed bust of H.P. Lovecraft for something or someone less…controversial. Less bad. Less racist-y.

Nnedi Okorafor got the ball rolling with this blog post wherein she states:
 Do I want “The Howard” (the nickname for the World Fantasy Award statuette.   Lovecraft’s full name is “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”) replaced with the head of   some other great writer? Maybe. Maybe it’s about that time. Maybe not. What I  know I want it to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or  bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s  deal with that... as opposed to never mention it or explain it away. If Lovecraft’s  likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented  racist.

The Outer Alliance had some prescient thoughts here as well. And while both of the above seem to be calling for some sort of moderated discussion, the majority of the responses seem to be of the “Yeah, I never liked this guy because he’s a racist and a misogynist anyway!” variety. It feels like a lot of people in the SF/F community want to tar and feather Lovecraft, and moreover, have wanted to do so for some time. And changing the design of the statue is exactly the right message to send to all racists…or something…

I’m not here to pile on, and I’m also not here to throw stones. I truly don’t have a horse in this particular race. But I am confused especially when so many of my fellow authors and colleagues seem to be of one mind on the subject. I cannot help but wonder aloud if Lovecraft’s views on race are really what you take away from a reading of his works?

I mean, seriously: when you read “The Dunwich Horror,” do you put the book down and think, “Man, Lovecraft hated black people”? Is that the take-away message from reading his Cthulhu Mythos stories? Wait, before you answer that, consider a couple of recent opinions by people not necessarily so mired in the F/SF world. A few years ago, when Lovecraft finally cracked the Library of America series with a collection of stories selected by Peter Straub (and curiously, he chose not to include the poem "On the Creation of Niggers" in his book), a couple of reviewers weighed in on Lovecraft in the most recent round of criticism and commentary.

Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, wrote a review of the book wherein he said:
While the notion of an unseen world is hardly unique to Lovecraft -- fantasists from Coleridge to Rowling have enjoyed peeking under earthly rocks -- one can hardly imagine a universe more removed from our own than that of Cthulhu. Biologically impossible, logistically unplumbable and linguistically unpronounceable, it's a world that makes you want to lock up all the wardrobes rather than venturing inside them. It is little wonder that the scarred witnesses of Cthulhan excursions talk to us in language as unspeakably florid as the universe they're attempting to describe. Lovecraft's narrators are all desperate with misery, and it is worth quoting several of these hysterics as they begin their tales, to approximate the accumulated tone of so much hand-wringing.
Around the same time,'s Laura Miller dropped this little nugget of wisdom on the site:
There are two camps on the subject of the haunted bard of Providence, R.I., and his strange tales of cosmic terror. One, led by the late genre skeptic Edmund Wilson, dismisses him as an overwriting “hack” who purveyed “bad taste and bad art.” The other, led by Lovecraft scholar and biographer S.T. Joshi, hotly rises to Lovecraft’s defense as an artist of “philosophical and literary substance.”
 Miller goes on to say:
Perhaps the most curious thing about Lovecraft is that much of what aficionados love about his work is exactly those things his detractors list as faults. Take, for example, the fact that while Lovecraft is usually described as a forefather of modern horror fiction, his stories are, to put it bluntly, not very scary. 
I’m not saying that Lovecraft didn’t have his problems, and I’m sure not saying that Lovecraft’s own fears and prejudices weren’t consciously or unconsciously included in his Weird Tale fiction. I’m just suggesting that we’ve moved away from being a culture that allows other—and even repellent—points of view a place in the greater discourse to being a culture that wants to label anyone who ever said the word “nigger” a racist and then quickly bury them in a forgotten tomb so that their poison cannot infect other people.

This, to me, is socially retarded thinking. It’s this kind of thinking that would have the unmitigated gall to censure the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn. If ever there was a book that merited the use of the word for no other reason than the discussion it brings forth (never mind the fact that you’re love-knifing Mark Twain), it’s Huckleberry Finn. And yet, earlier this year, that blasphemous tome hit the shelves, no doubt to the delight of people who genuinely felt that they made the world a better place.

But back to Lovecraft. I first read him when I was 13 years old—and may I suggest that the best time to first read Lovecraft is during your teenage years? At a time when you cannot contemplate a world past what Sally Jo Finklestein thinks of the joke you made in math class today, having an author get into your head who’s message is one of entropy, decay, and the fact that humanity is so much a flyspeck in an uncaring universe can be both terrifying and liberating.

What it didn’t make me want to do was go beat up black people. Neither did Robert E. Howard, another writer frequently thrown under the bus for his beliefs. Ditto Edgar Rice Burroughs. Again, the take away for me was very different. Or maybe it wasn’t so different from everyone else. Once it was pointed out to me that Lovecraft was xenophobic, “The Horror at Red Hook” suddenly made perfect sense. Hand in hand with that was the more ubiquitous fear of miscenegation. Now the Deep Ones in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” had a more sinister undertone—from Lovecraft’s point of view, that is.

Lovecraft was trying to scare us. And he tried to scare us with what scared him. But in the end, it wasn’t how he felt about blacks or Jews that lives on after his death. Don’t believe me? Google “Cthulhu merchandise.” Go on, I’ll wait. Now click on the “Images” tab. What just popped up on your screen? Plush, stuffed dolls? Dice bags? Games? Hats? Bumper stickers? Look closely at all of that merchandise and see if you can find the word “Nigger” on any of it. No, let me save you the trouble. You won’t.

Lovecraft’s legacy is not his views of anyone who was different from him. It was his magnum opus, “The Call of Cthulhu” and the pop culture juggernaut that it spawned. The word “Lovcraftian” has become synonymous with “a myriad of tentacles.”  Sure, we can read something into that, too, I suppose…but really, I find all of this knee-jerk tar and feathering a bit tedious, and moreover, a little insulting.

Jack London is still taught in schools across the country. White Fang and The Call of the Wild are standards in middle school. His short stories about boxing are considered classics.  And yet, Jack London was vocally and verbally opposed to a black heavyweight boxing champion, and wrote a number of articles that ran in Hearst newspapers across the country urging Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement and “wipe the golden smile off of Johnson’s face.”

And yet, no one is calling for London’s works to be pulled from the shelves. Wasn’t he, too, a racist? Of course, he wasn’t the only one, and certainly not in the first two decades of the twentieth century. He was merely stating in print what the vast majority of white men in this country already thought. He was, inarguably, of his time and place.  

Bottom line: the writers who survived the pulp jungles did so because there was something in their work that would not let it die. There was something about what they wrote that spoke to, and continues to speak to, new generations of people. There are bound to be some rough edges to the work. After all, we’re talking about material written before World War II, before the Nuremberg trials, before the introduction of The Great Society in 1964, before the inauguration of Barak Obama in 2008. It can seem far removed from our modern world, but it’s not. It was only 50 years ago that the Civil Rights Movement brought the idea of equal rights for blacks into the mainstream. In other words, my dad’s generation. We are not so far along as people think. But my question to you is this: will condemning pulp authors for racism move us further down that path?

I don’t know if this will add anything to the debate, or if I’m suddenly going to be called a racist for not agreeing that the statue needs to be changed. But if anyone wants to pile on, do so in the comments.


Brian Murphy said...

I agree with you completely, Mark. No one denies Howard and Lovecraft et. al. wrote racist things; no one denies by our 21st century standards they were racist. Does their racism render them valueless as authors? Heck no. I simply can't believe that people (especially smart authors and critics, reportedly) have such a hard time with the concept of context; i.e., evaluating these stories against the time and place and prevailing attitudes in which they were written.

If we start judging all literature by our enlightened 21st century standards (such as they now stand) and throwing out all that which we find offensive, the world is going to be a much emptier, grayer, and poorer place.

Adventuresfantastic said...

Yes, Mark, you're probably going to be called a racist, but that doesn't mean you aren't right. You are. Completely.

What I've noticed about most of the people I've read or heard on this and similar topics is they don't seem to grasp the concept that standards change. What is offensive now may not be in fifty or one hundred years, just like what wasn't offensive one hundred ago can be now. (Never mind that a society that favors free speech inherently favors the right to be offensive. You can't have one without the other.)

Context is everything. If we try to eliminate all the things we find offensive, we run the very real risk of forgetting the historical context in which these things occurred, whether they are ideas, events, or simply entertainment. And when we forget history, we often set ourselves up to repeat it.

Taranaich said...

I'm not surprised Laura Miller's throwing her hat in the ring, and I'm equally unsurprised she's made a hash of the argument.

The idea of changing the WFA statue to something less offensive is the height of intellectual cowardice to me. It says "we aren't intelligent enough to separate an artist's personal views from their art, and since they don't gel with what we consider acceptable, he's got to go." It isn't about political correctness, it's about settling their troubled conscience. Of course, rather than tackle the subject head on, they decide to just brush it under the rug. Easier that way. Look at what happened with the D.W. Griffiths Award.

Will Shetterly said...

Laura Miller's article is from 2005 and doesn't mention race.

Awards honor the best that people do, not the worst. Were it the latter, there would be no awards.

That said, much as I love Gahan Wilson's work in general, the Howard is the ugliest major award in our field, and Lovecraft's work only covers a small amount of what's now called fantasy. If I was choosing a design for the award, I'd go with a chimera or an angel or something non-representational.

Mark Finn said...


Now that's reasoning I can get behind and understand fully. A different image or icon to be far more inclusive to the whole of fantasy writing makes perfect sense (and yeah, I love me some Gahan Wilson, too).

Ah, well. I've got my nominee pin from 2007 (for Blood & Thunder). I have no doubt that by the time I'm eligible or nominated again, the award will have changed.