On the Sidelines of an Uproar
Posted on November 13, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 70 Comments
E-mail the other day which said:
You’ve been quiet on the whole World Fantasy Award uproar. I’m surprised because it seems like your kind of thing.
(For those who need context on the World Fantasy Award uproar, here’s a good basic summation.)
Not sure what to make of this comment. I haven’t been quiet about it, actually; I’ve noted some thoughts on the matter on Twitter of the last several days. Also, I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by this being “my kind of thing.” Is it my kind of thing because I’m occasionally up for genre awards? Or my kind of thing because it’s about social issues? Or both?
I suppose it is true that I’ve been less noisy about it than other folks have, which comes down to a number of reasons, one of them being that I’ve been busy with my own things recently (see this to see what’s been occupying my time the last several days), and another being, well, again, I don’t have to elbow my way to the front of every single controversy on science fiction and fantasy, now, do I? I understand and support the idea that it’s not a great idea to have an unrepentant racist be the literal face of one of the most prestigious awards in the genre, but other people, like Daniel Jose Older, Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar among others, are rather more invested and have been more cogent in their discussions of it than I am or would have been. I don’t see what utility there would have been in my shoehorning myself into that discussion.
Also, there’s this: I don’t generally write fantasy (my entire fantasy output consists at this point of two novellas and a parody short story). I’ve been to exactly one World Fantasy Convention, and that because it was a convenient place for SFWA to hold a business meeting when the Worldcon was that year on another continent. I’ve never been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, nor do I find such a thing likely.
As for the award itself, I actually like the bust visually, but that’s almost solely because I’m a fan of the artist Gahan Wilson, and of his style. The bust is a grotesque, as a noun, and grotesque, as an adjective. My admiration for the artist’s work does not distract from my opinion that HP Lovecraft was always a curious selection for the award. While his work is obviously fantastical, it’s so much more typically horror in my mind that having him as an icon of fantasy as a whole never made much sense to me (by this same argument, I’m not 100% convinced having Lovecraft replaced by Octavia Butler, as has been suggested, makes sense, either, as she is in my mind strongly associated with science fiction rather than fantasy). With that said, I’ve never had any particular strong feeling for or against the statue, probably because it never especially applied to me as someone who doesn’t actively participate in the fantasy side of the genre. I was neutral on it until others pointed out problems with Lovecraft, unrepentant racist, as an icon for the field.
So, again: While I don’t think I’ve been silent about my support for the folks making the argument about changing the award statue, I’m not sure why I should have needed to try to insert myself into the front ranks of this particular argument, either. I’m happy to have been in the crowd for this one, lending support rather than leading the charge.
The aftermath noise from certain quarters to the change has been, well, predictable, hasn’t it, with the telltale furious ejaculations of “political correctness!” and “social justice warriors!” marking the words of people who can’t or won’t employ actual thought to the matter. I’m always embarrassed for the people who use these phrases thinking they’re cutting, when in fact what they signal to the rest of the world is that the utterer is dog-whistling to a low-wattage, bigoted rabble in lieu of making an actual argument.
It’s nonsense in any event. There is no real danger of Lovecraft being removed from the fantasy/horror canon, although maybe now there will be more discussion of how his personal bigotry shaped his tales. Along this line, nor are the arguments of Lovecraft being “of his time” particularly persuasive when it’s obvious and evident that even in his time, he was noxiously bigoted, and in any event, it’s not his time anymore. One of the privileges of being of our time (whichever time that is) is to decide who and what should represent a genre, and in this case a genre that is increasingly diverse and full of people that it seems likely Lovecraft himself would have been horrified to see clutching his likeness as a prize.
Which is to say that I expect of all the people who would vote to have Lovecraft’s likeness removed from the World Fantasy Award, he himself would be among the first. For his own bigoted reasons, mind you. But the end result would be the same.
It should be obvious, I would hope, that if you use phrases like “political correctness” and “social justice warrior” here with anything approaching seriousness, I will consider your comment of low contributory value and your comment may be a candidate for Malleting. If you were planning to toss off these or any similar dog-whistle phrases, try, as a refreshing intellectual challenge, to make an argument that doesn’t, in fact, rely on tired rhetorical tropes, and lazy shoving of entire swathes of people into boxes for the purpose of insulting them. Thanks.
Also, as a practical matter, the question of what should replace the Lovecraft grotesque as the actual award is been addressed exhaustively in other places and runs the risk of being both predictable and tiresome here. I’m not going to ban it as a topic of discussion, but please do ask yourself whether your opinion of what it should be (“It should be a dragon!” “No, a wizard!” “No, it should be a bust of Tolkien!” “A unicorn!” “A map!”) has not already been offered literally hundreds of times already, elsewhere.
Also, also: Remember that the decision has already been made to change the statue. If your argument proceeds from the idea that this is still an issue in debate, you are not adding anything useful to the discussion.
Finally, as always, be polite to each other. Thank you.
I generally hate the kind of controversies where someone is offended and demands you change something. However, in this case, the *winners* are demanding change seems like a no brainer. Change the damn statue.
How come no one suggests Tolkein? Shouldn’t he be the obvious choice? Would there even be an Epic Fantasy book market without him? I have trouble understanding how Lovecraft was picked over Tolkein in the first place. I think its in part because the people invested in the awards seem to look down their noses at popular fiction.
Guess, you didn’t even look at the first comment, did you. Specifically the second paragraph.
Who is this “Tolkein”? His fans keep talking about him and clearly adore him, but I know nothing of him or his work. I’ve heard of J. R. R. Tolkien, but not Tolkein. Is he any relation to “Samuel Delaney”?
I was entirely on the side of keeping the award as it was, until I started reading comments like those of Mr Joshi, which made me powerfully wonder just what kind of company I was keeping. My only real regret about the change is the dropping of Mr Gahan Wilson’s wonderful bust of Lovecraft.
I suppose this is off topic, but in response to Guess’ final sentence, I wonder why so many people think that popular fiction must be award worthy. After all, in many cases the most popular books in either the fantasy or SF genres are often TV and movie tie-ins (and I include GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones here, even though it was originally novels). Are the majority of people buying the new Star Wars novelization of the movie “SF Fans”, or are they mainstream non-fans that happen to follow that one movie series. Are the majority of Game of Thrones buyers buying any additional fantasy this year? Does buying a single fantasy novel make one a fantasy fan? Anyway, I keep hearing this argument whenever someone seems to get bent out of shape over our genre awards, and I think it’s a stupid argument.
I can’t understand the anger over this.
It’s not the HP Lovecraft award, and no one is suggesting that his books should be banned.
You would think that petition was demanding a human sacrifice, the way some people (of a certain political slant) are having a conniption fit.
If Joshi thinks this is “the worst sort of political correctness,” I wonder what he would describe as the best sort.
Everyone Knows you lead the mysterious order of the SJW’s. Plotting in an ivory tower, you and your cabal of lackeys obviously masterminded the removal of HP Lovecraft. Protestations are just more proof of this! How dare you insult our intelligence by not owning up to your empirically critical role.
MY TOWER IS NOT IVORY.
That is disrespectful to elephants.
My tower is made of the bones of all who oppose me.
IT IS VERY TALL.
Duncan says: November 13, 2015 at 11:29 am
Who is this “Tolkein”? His fans keep talking about him and clearly adore him, but I know nothing of him or his work. I’ve heard of J. R. R. Tolkien, but not Tolkein. Is he any relation to “Samuel Delaney”?
Tolkein is best known for the work he co-authored with Western writer Jane Austin.
I was not impressed with the characterization of Lovecraft as a “terrible wordsmith” in the petition to change the statue. That is wrong. He was a brilliant writer.
It is always fascinating to me comparing different cultural contexts. In the context I spend most of my time doing political/social debates, the term “social justice warrior” actually has a pretty reasonable referent. And when I see comments like yours about the dog-whistle phrase “social justice warrior”, I am always briefly confused. Then I remember that you’re much more likely to encounter the noxious people of reddit, et al., and in their context, “social justice warrior” is a derogatory term for anyone and everyone who thinks that maybe we could get away with as little as 92% of our media being produced by straight white males. Whereas in mine, it’s usually reserved for the people who, with apparent sincerity (if not lucidity) say things like “any time someone who isn’t a trans womyn dies, the world becomes a better place.”
I have ended up very curious about the overall history/etymology. So far as I can tell, the term originated as a derogatory-by-sarcasm term for people who claim to be “fighting for social justice” but who are mostly just finding marginalized people to bully even more. (The person referred to above, during the time I was interacting with them, tried to bully something like a dozen LGBT people into committing sucide, and completely ignored anyone not-LGBT.) And then the reddit people picked that up, and started using it as a generic attack on anyone they think is promoting “an agenda”, without any real regard to whether they have any actual arguments against the agenda.
… Which I guess is sort of a derail, but the assumption that “SJW” is always a dogwhistle term bugs me. There is an actual problem over in some parts of activism land for which that’s been one of the phrases in moderately common use, and the attempts to coopt it by ambush redditors are a sore point.
At this point “social justice warrior” is so far removed from its original context in common discourse that it might be worth it to think up another term for that particular use.
(and yes, a bit of a derail, which I am shamefully participating in, so let’s get back on topic!)
Eh, i’m with you. I’ve always thought Lovecraft was such a weird choice for the award. However, I feel like was never anyone’s first choice for it. It’s a lot more likely that Tolkien’s estate said ‘no’ and Poe already had an award with his likeness (for starters).
That said, I’m not sure making an award the likeness of a person is the best idea. I think it invites controversy like this one and places a certain flavor on the award based upon the person whose image is honored on the award.
My personal idea for the statuette would be a mass of tentacles holding a bell, book, candle, sword, ray gun, etc.
I am really conflicted about Lovecraft, because his writing is so very influential, but the guy was sort of horrible, and not just in a “product of his time” sense. Although I sort of like the death-of-the-author answer, which is to laugh at his idiocy and just let the award go to people he’d have been horrified by, because isn’t that the best horror-story ending? All the Lovecraft busts going to houses Lovecraft wouldn’t have been caught dead in, unless he was trapped forever in metal that cannot even scream.
(And I think the point which I did not actually articulate was that “common discourse” is very localized on the Internet, and people who spend a lot of time on tumblr are probably still seeing that other usage much more than any other. /derail)
I hadn’t ever seen the award before reading your post, and when I first saw it, my reaction was one of–perhaps appropriately–horror. I think it’s extraordinarily ugly, and anything else would be an improvement. Also, trying to shoehorn the entirety of the fantasy genre into one person seems ridiculous, and they’d be better off using something more abstract.
It’s so weird. A buddy of mine made an award-winning documentary that tackled Lovecraft’s racism head-on. But he’s upset about changing the award. I don’t understand his point of view, he doesn’t understand mine, and we’re never going to change each other’s minds. *shrug*
Hi, John. Longtime SJW, first time political correcter.
Let’s have support for a Pratchett statue. It’s fun to say and . . . um . . . Pratchett.
The first World Fantasy Convention was held in Providence and its theme was The Lovecraft Circle. When people hear “fantasy” they tend to think swords and sorcery when really the World Fantasy Awards cover a lot more ground including horror which is often part of the convention’s annual theme.
I think any award with a person’s likeness opens that award up to a similar charge as this. While the Guardian article put my initially dismissive thoughts about this into perspective, I’ll be hanged if I can think of another fantasy icon who won’t be similarly upsetting to one side of the issue or the other. Maybe some symbol that represents fantasy (as the Hugo has an old-style rocketship, and the Nebula has some form of stylized space nebula in amber), as has been suggested, really would be the better way to go?
OTOH, if Ms. Butler proves “unacceptable” to a certain subset of fans – Tamora Pierce is ready to pose for an award, Bad Red Hat and All! 3:)
@Cynical Jason – the late Sir Terry absolutely works.
http://the-toast.net/2015/08/24/texts-from-h-p-lovecraft/ seems relevant here. ;)
(As always, I also think of a conversation wherein we tried to find a way to rewrite Shadow over Innsmouth so that the central horror wasn’t “ZOMG racial mixing”, and ended up with middle age as a similarly horrifying and inescapable transformation. “And feeling sleepy, dear reader, I got to my feet and chanced to look at the clock–and it was *ten thirty at night*.)
Also, this seems like the geek version of the football-team-name arguments, where one side is arguing that, well, it’s 2015 and maybe we shouldn’t shove reminders of the horrible things we did/views we held into people’s face, while the other one argues that…I dunno, that we’ve had this name forever and everyone already has the t-shirts?
Just as a fan, I’m in favor of a more abstract award. Putting a face on the award makes that author the symbolic Face of Fantasy. Most of the authors in the running were people of strong opinions about what fantasy should be, and while those opinions usually helped to build strong individual bodies of work, applied across the entire genre they become stifling constraints, and eventually cliches.
Pratchett would work. It would also be interesting to watch the head explosions if the new choice was Samuel Delany, who is not only a great fantasy writer, but is also black and gay. And he writes porn, too.
Are there many other awards in the sf/fantasy space where the awards themselves are representations of real people? I know there’s a few named after people, but I didn’t think there as many so closely linked that you have to see the person the award is named after sitting on your shelf, judging you. The Eisner has a sort of doodle that has Eisner’s face in it but I can’t think of any others off the top of my head.
Having Lovecraft as the face of the award was suggesting other authors go forth and do as he did. Even if the problem wasn’t handing out a trophy of a racist author (we can separate the man from his work, can’t we?), there was still the problem of handing out a trophy of an author of racist fiction. As brilliant as many of Lovecraft’s contributions to the literature of the fantastic were, we are still left with Herbert West – Reanimator, and The Horror at Red Hook.
CS Clark: The only award (not just SFF or Horror) that I can think of that’s a depiction of an author is the Edgar, which is a sort of china or porcelain (I’m not sure) bust of Poe. Leaving aside the fact that the bust is extremely stylized–it makes the Lovecraft statuette look like pure realism, in my opinion–and rather resembles a teapot, I’d say that Poe’s association with the detective story is pretty profound. In any case, no African American detective/mystery writers have yet protested the Poe was racist–and given that Poe’s racism is a century older that Lovecraft’s and (again, my opinion only) seems to have been both more ambiguous and less extreme for his era, I suspect few would bother.
I could be wrong about that last, of course, on several levels. If I am, then I imagine that one of these days the MWA will face a decision similar to the one that the WFA faced last year. We’ll see what happens, if and when.
I am sympathetic to changing the statue. If the award isn’t the Lovecraft award, wasn’t endowed by Lovecraft, and doesn’t have any connection to Lovecraft beyond his stature as a fantasy/horror writer, there isn’t a compelling reason not to change it. Besides, the statue it is probably the most unattractive objective in whatever room happens to contain one.
On the other hand, I find the notion of replacing him with Octavia Butler, a successful SF writer with a considerable fan base, who had very little fantasy output, to be somewhat disturbing. I assume that her name came up because she was popular and conveniently black and female, and that really does sound like it could have come from the pages of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.
I’d argue that after going through this affair with Lovecraft, the last thing that we should do is remake the thing in the image of another individual, whose clay feet we can someday lament. Would Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard, two individuals who in the genre have similar stature to Lovecraft, be though of as good substitutes? If we had to go with an individual, I’d say that Pratchett would make a fine choice, but I still don’t think it’s a good idea.
Interesting article. Other than HP Lovecraft, the only names I recognized were Ramsey Campbell’s and Sherri Tepper’s. Agreed that Lovecraft, the most influential and potentially the greatest of all horror writers, wouldn’t have cared in the slightest.
At any rate it doesn’t seem a difficult question. By way of analogy, Wagner isn’t exactly the kind of guy you’d take to your bar mitzvah, but denying yourself his music because he was a vicious anti-Semite is your loss. Yet should you be happy to accept a musical award modeled on a bust of Wagner? I’d hope not.
If it just came down to a choice between Lovecraft and Octavia E. Butler, I’d vote for Butler because: “Octavia E. Butler is one of the finest voices in fiction–period. . . . A master storyteller, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty, and ignorance and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature.-“The Washington Post Book World”. In an open vote, Tolkein, obviously.
“MY TOWER IS NOT IVORY.
That is disrespectful to elephants.
My tower is made of the bones of all who oppose me.
IT IS VERY TALL.”
Adding this to my list of not-so-famous awesome quotes by famous people.
I had heard so much about the work of Lovecraft that I was excited to read his stuff. I was pretty disappointed, he did not live up to the billing. But I was totally unaware of his personal life and opinions and that is just s well. The older I get the more I find that I want to know less and less about people whose works I admire. I don’t care about the award itself so my opinion should be devalued. I feel after a time a persons failings can be noted without it harming their body of work, but that might just be my white male privileged so take that with some salt too.
Having said all that, if the award is a recognition of his work and not of his life I don’t see a problem, Hey! I got an award named for some racist bastard who happened to be, at least in a longevity and commercial sense, a successful writer. Don’t whitewash his ugly side but put the award in context of writing not humanity. My opinion of the value of that opinion is explained above.
As for the Butler thing, Lovecraft was a much better writer than Butler. Replacing him with her (or, really, pretty much any other identifiable writer) would in fact be regressive. There’s always A DRAGON, I guess.
Wasn’t Lovecraft chosen to be the award bust because the first WFC was held in his hometown or something? That doesn’t explain why it would become enshrined as the go-to image since, especially since he isn’t remembered primarily a fantasy writer. Maybe it was the path of least resistance. I personally think the bust is disturbingly ugly (actually, that’s appropriate, considering the person it represents), but no one can deny the skill that went into making it.
My preference is that awards not be images of real people, no matter how influential or illustrious as writers. While Lovecraft’s racism was extreme (and definitely well beyond the norm for his time, as noted in JS’s original post), nearly everyone has skeletons in their closets of one kind or another, and. It would be unpleasant to have to go through this sort of thing every few years. Plus, fantasy is an incredibly diverse genre, and it’s really hard to say who is the most influential or deserving author for such an honor. There are fantasy readers and writers who don’t care for Tolkien too.
But I’m content to let others argue about the particulars there. But I agree that Lovecraft had to go. Almost anyone else would be an improvement.
For the avoidance of doubt, Lovecraft the “racist bastard” wasn’t remotely commercially successful. He died in poverty at age 46, plying his trade for pennies in pulps like Weird Tales. Even today, his works have long been in the public domain so his estate (some maiden aunts and cats in Rhode Island, all now long dead) makes zippo. If someone had told him on his deathbed that he’d be forever remembered as one of the greatest fantasy and horror writers in history, he’d have had a good belly-laugh, I suspect. I suppose we can all cheer that such an evil bastard stewing in white privilege lived and died in wretched poverty.
Of course HP’s close correspondent Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, beneficiary of white privilege and a suicide at age 30, would have been equally surprised by the continuing impact of his own work.
If you read At the Mountains of Madness and are “pretty disappointed”… well, the problem with Shakespeare is that he’s so full of cliches.
I would actually argue the Lovecraft was hardly fantasy at all. There’s maybe a couple of his works that fall solidly in the category of fantasy, but for the most part, he was wrote science-fictional horror. Cthulhu was an alien with psychic powers, not a demon with magical ones. And whatever we may think about psychic powers today, at the time (and for many years after), they were considered the science-fictional alternative to magic.
So, whatever you may think about the appearance of the statue itself, or of HPL’s personal views on various topics, he seems like a poor choice for a fantasy award. Calling Lovecraft a fantasy author strikes me as as odd as calling Heinlein one. Or our gracious host.
If there’s not an award already shaped like a very thick tome, I suggest this would be an EXCELLENT design for a fantasy award (she says, remembering groaning book-store shelves laden down beneath The Wheel of Doorstops and other such fantasy tomes which appeared to be sold by the kilo).
I’d read a fair bit of fantasy and sci-fi before ever delving into the awards scene (a confusing place all around which I typically just avoid). Lovecraft never made sense to me, for a number of reasons well-articulated by other posters–he was primarily a horror writer, leaned toward science-fiction rather than fantasy, and so on. There’s also the reality that while his works might have some significant literary merit (I couldn’t say, having not read any myself) a large number of people–including many ardent fans of fantasy–have no idea who Lovecraft was. I certainly didn’t prior to discovering this horrifying bust of him. That he was an unapologetic racist really makes the whole package unappetizing. As for what should replace it, I couldn’t say, but I agree with many others here that another author–any other other author–would be a sub-par choice. Much as I love Tolkien, Fantasy already spends too much time laboring in his shadow. The genre is much too broad and diverse to be represented by any one author, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.
Mike said: “On the other hand, I find the notion of replacing him with Octavia Butler, a successful SF writer with a considerable fan base, who had very little fantasy output, to be somewhat disturbing. I assume that her name came up because she was popular and conveniently black and female, and that really does sound like it could have come from the pages of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.”
You haven’t read very much Butler if you think she didn’t write fantasy. Her last book was about VAMPIRES. I’d also argue a lot of her science fiction bordered that fine line with fantasy (e.g., time travel). She won the Hugo and the Nebula MULTIPLE times, and she was also “the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, which is nicknamed the “Genius Grant.” She was an amazing writer, and I’ll thank you not to denigrate her talent. It’s insulting for you to state that readers only proposed her name because of “political correctness.”
MRAL: I don’t think Lovecraft deserves the pedestal you’re placing him on. But taste is subjective, isn’t it? So I’ll just share my tastes as well. Butler is one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and I envy her ability to weave issues like race, gender, age, romance, disability, and otherness into gripping stories. And she even got accolades for writing mpreg. Truly, my hero.
Just a regular reminder that *popular* is not a functional equivalent to *containing expert construction and masterful work*
McDonalds is more popular than The French Laundry or Kanda in Tokyo. More people in the US and Japan will eat at McDonalds in a day than at either high cuisine place for a year.
Michael Bay gets more butts in seats than Spike Jonze. Transformers, Age of Extinction outsold Adaptation 10 to 1.
Please don’t assume that Bay is a better craftsman than Jonze just because he’s popular, or that Lovecraft was a better writer than Butler because he’s more popular.
Taste is subjective, yes. But we also have juried awards, and the WFA is one of them. We have scholars of literature and people who teach writing, as well as writers editors and publishers, just as the worlds of cooking and film have people who’re well suited to judge others.
Is Lovecraft influential? Certainly. No one is questioning that. But was his craft any good? That’s debatable. Personally, I find it to be brilliant in some areas and horrible in others. I find Butler to be unmistakably brilliant everywhere. Thematically, Lovecraft is a one trick pony. Prose, likewise (though he does have some gifted phrasing and a nice use of five dollar words for effect) he’s no genius. Butler’s work spans multiple themes in grand ways that ask interesting questions, and leave the reader profoundly affected. Her prose is stunning. Her characters multidimensional and compelling. I’ve never actually given a crap about a Lovecraft character, other than mild annoyance or exasperation. It’s not to say I don’t like his stories. I do. But I read them for the same reason I eat a big mac or watch a Transformers movie. Junk food and shit blowing up.
It’s not anger. It’s strategy. The award statue was inappropriate for the World Fantasy Award, in which many writers who are eligible and nominated are not white and/or American, and were considered inferior beings by Lovecraft, an author who influenced horror a bit more than the wider range of fantasy, and these authors were forced to deal with a bust in his honor as part of the award. It’s been a complaint about the award for a few decades now.
If you change the award because of that reality, you are acknowledging that reality, that non-white authors have an equal place at the table and that their concerns matter too. And if you acknowledge that reality, then you are supporting a world that is different from the one which has existed, in which non-white authors don’t have an equal place at the table and their concerns are unimportant and secondary to the concerns of white authors.
There are people who cannot deal with the fact that non-white authors and people in the Western world frequently do not shut up about their concerns, about discrimination, and about wanting an equal seat at the table that requires acknowledging the discrimination they’ve undergone and changing attitudes towards it. These people are uneasy about what is going to happen in a world that looks like that. Or sometimes they can get money or power by pretending to be uneasy about a world that looks like that.
So their strategy is to express extreme anger and concern at even small nods towards that reality, like changing an old award statue. That the concerns of non-white authors are not legitimate and the minority and too extreme; that they are trying to take over, that they actually have a virulent agenda to destroy white people culture that includes things like banning Lovecraft’s work from the world, with the changing of the statue just being the first step in the devious plan.
The drive to change the statue really had very little to do with Lovecraft himself or his work, but instead what using him to celebrate a major award represented. Changing it causes no harm to the legacy of Lovecraft’s work. I’d venture to say that quite a few winners of the World Fantasy Award didn’t even know the bust was a rendering of Lovecraft. Changing the statue was about acknowledging the horrendous racism in fiction publishing and SFF that is still going on, and striving for a field that is more international, inclusive, less discriminatory and more equal. Changing the statue challenges the notion of benevolent white supremacy in the U.S. culture and elsewhere. It means the non-white authors were right about what they’ve faced, and that is a truth that some people refuse to accept, or accept but don’t want to touch their particular world in any way.
So, Other Rick, perhaps you can present that to your documentary buddy, if you have not already, and it will make more sense to him. He’s upset about white culture being removed from the award. But the point of the change is that non-white culture has been routinely sacrificed and shut out of SFF, and it’s past time to include and welcome equality, to stop shutting out non-white authors from SFF, and to stop insisting that they not feel shut out when they hand them the head of a racist as an award for their work.
An aside about the bust of Lovecraft: many years ago I had lunch with Gahan Wilson in New York, and we got talking about the creation of the bust. He was worried about the back of the head, because he said there were a lot of photos of Lovecraft’s face but none that showed him from the back. So he made an educated guess and designed the bust. When the first WFC was held in Providence and the award unveiled, someone who had known Lovecraft told Wilson that he’d been remarkably accurate in his guesswork,
I’m fine with the decision to change the award, but it won’t make me take down or cover up the two World Fantasy Awards on my mantelpiece.
But you don’t have to cover them up, because A) you won them; B) odds are you’re white; and C) nobody fucking asked you to cover them up. The changing of the award has nothing to do with you or your awards won. It has to do with how the industry treats non-white authors and how they’re going to do so in the future.
And now, it being the older form of the award that features Wilson’s artwork, your award will also be a collectors item. Changing the award doesn’t lessen the value of the past awards as memorabilia — it increases them because there are no more like those statues past the change date.
For fantasy, shouldn’t it be a stack of three very thick tomes?
China Mieville did a great job of illustrating how Lovecraft’s bigotry helped shape his fiction — to the point that he claims HPL wouldn’t have been as good a writer (in the way he was, that is) if he were less racist.
It’s also worth pointing out, for anyone who cares about author bio in this particular sense, that HPL began to get less bigoted as he got older, met more people, and generally educated himself (remember, he couldn’t even finish high school because of health problems). His wife was Jewish (the minority he actually hated the most), though it’s not satisfying to say “obviously he wasn’t racist any longer, he married a Jewish lady.” That’s simply not true. But she was willing to knock some sense into his head when he uttered the sort of off-hand racist crap he probably inherited from his grandmother.
Also, he appeared to feel that his growing interest in socialism meant he couldn’t be quite as bigoted as he ever was.
Now, regarding the award. You know, cool. Years ago I felt sort of sad about the idea, but that was then. If we need another old white dude to put on it, put Dunsany on there. Or McDonald. They did more to shape what we consider fantasy than any other individual authors.
Sign Ahead – we do want the authors to be able to carry the award home.
That’s a nice fantasy. It just doesn’t happen to be true. A writer does not have to be racist, sexist, depressed, alcoholic, manic, abusive, a liar, or a general shit of a human being to be a brilliant writer. Ever. That’s a justification that is routinely used to excuse writers whose work we find interesting — that the crappy things they did personally built their art. But the crappy things they did, or mental illnesses they may have had, had very little to do with the construction of their art. They were beliefs that they held. If they didn’t hold them, they could have written just as interesting stories without them, as long as their ability to use language was the same.
Contrary to popular myth, written fiction is not borne of pathology or white guys being oppressive. And writing interesting art does not mean you don’t get condemned for being a shit in real life by others, long after you’re gone or not. The shitty things they did in their lives stand for their lives just as much as their art does. So if we’re going to separate the artist and their work — as we’re always being scolded to do — then the hypocritical flip that suddenly the artist’s work is not separate from shitty behavior doesn’t make a lot of sense. Lovecraft’s racism is in some of his work, but it doesn’t make his work better; it makes it weaker and less resonant. What people love about Lovecraft, what has lasted, is not his racism, but his monsters and his gloomy atmosphere of nihilistic paranoid destruction. And he could have just as well done the monsters and the atmosphere without the racism.
But again, it’s not Lovecraft who was the problem. He’s been dead for a long while. It was the people who believed that Lovecraft should continue to be the representation of the award. It was their beliefs, not Lovecraft’s, that non-white authors were unimportant and should shut up because Lovecraft’s bust doesn’t bother the white people, that were the pathology that reinforced larger problems in the field. And that has no justification either for the last thirty years.
The people clinging to the idea that the award must continue to be the Lovecraft bust are using the same rationale that those who want government buildings in the U.S. South to keep flying the Confederate battle flag because it’s “their heritage” are using. Changing the award does not banish Lovecraft or his work from the public square or mean that people can’t decorate their own homes with huge collections of Lovecraft statues. It does mean recognizing that the signal that is sent by having Lovecraft continue to represent the World Fantasy Award is one that we need to leave behind, because it represents the time when non-whites weren’t even allowed to write fiction most of the time, were kept even from being literate. It’s a heritage that we need to look at honestly, and then not use to celebrate a more inclusive present for one of the largest awards in the field.
Kat: I think it is easy to agree that people don’t need to be assholes to be good writers. “Mentally ill” is a bit more tricky, as what constitutes such is a moving target. Strangely enough, I think the concept of “asshole” is relatively stable. There might be more deference or tolerance shown to certain kinds in different times and eras, but I think most people still call them assholes, if only under their breath in some cases.
While it might not be absolutely necessary, I think you do have to be wired a little differently to have the drive to be a great writer, particularly if your writing is different from whatever is in fashion. Think about what a bunch of “weirdos” average modern people are: hunched over their shining screens obsessed with stuff that often does not quite exist. Think about the particular physiological problems they are more prone to and how these often affect mental states.
Also, in this more inclusive future you are building, could you avoid giving the impression that mental illnesses and being a shit human being naturally belong in the same list? I know you can parse the two out within your sentence, but it still gives a generally unpleasant impression of your feelings towards the former (which I assume you don’t want to give.)
Reading the article (and I don’t know if it’s because it is a UK article or because the Fantasy commune in general is more intelligent than I may be willing to give them credit for, mea culpa) it amuses me to see how singular commenters on there try to rise an uproar and totally fail doing so against the levelheaded argumentation of those in favour of the change.
Seebs wrote: “Although I sort of like the death-of-the-author answer, which is to laugh at his idiocy and just let the award go to people he’d have been horrified by, because isn’t that the best horror-story ending? All the Lovecraft busts going to houses Lovecraft wouldn’t have been caught dead in, unless he was trapped forever in metal that cannot even scream.”
This is my thinking also. Maybe someone could knit the trophy a little dashiki.
One good thing about it having been Lovecraft was that it was a subtle nudge away from thinking of Fantasy as all-hobbits-all-the-time, and towards a much broader conception of the genre.
Whatever replaces Lovecraft ought to try to do the same – so I’d suggest avoiding a dragon or an elf or a person in armor or a sword.
I’d challenge the claim that Lovecraft is not respected in literary or academic circles. That seems wrong, to say the least, and once we’ve dispensed with that appeal to authority, we’re left with subjective personal taste. And whatever his weaknesses, I contend that the power of Lovecraft’s imagination has very few equals in 20th-century fiction.
And it’s worth noting Lovecraft’s racism was in part a consequence of his unconventional upbringing, his extreme introversion and his apparent mental fragility. He was always suspicious of people outside a few intimates, and it’s easy to see how this dislike of others generalized to a hostility toward Others, if you know what I mean. The less you were like him, the warier he was. I’m not excusing his odious beliefs, but I am saying that it’s worth considering the context. Lovecraft was never influential during his lifetime; his personal idiosyncrasy precluded that. He did not enact racist legislature; he was not a right-wing pundit spreading bullshit for his own self-aggrandizement. He was a shy and lonely man who lived and died as a liminal figure, on the margins of society. In that, he may have had more in common with those Others than he realized.
I didn’t give that impression. The people who try to claim we cannot be critical of shitty behavior of authors put them together on the list. It has long been an apologist’s arguments that racism, et. al. must be excused because an author or other creative, althletic, etc. person was possibly or definitely mentally ill. I was refuting that argument. Try better reading, PI.
But again, it’s not the racism of Lovecraft that was the main issue of the drive of POC writers to get the bust changed. It is the racism and white supremacy of the SFF field insisting that the award remain the bust of an author with extreme racist views as its symbol, that the virtual white hegemony of the field not be challenged by the concerns and desire for change of POC authors.
The main upset to the change in the award is because it’s a challenge to the notion that white authors and fans get to decide everything and only what they care about counts. The idea that POC authors can insist that their concerns be addressed by the field as equal participants in it is hard for some folk to deal with.
It’s not Lovecraft’s racism that was tackled by this protest. It’s the racism of people in the current field and publishing of SFF. A lot of people want to pretend it’s not there, but that pretence means nothing changes. The POC authors called it out and argued for change and gathered numerous allies who also want to see change in the field. And it’s very cool that the WFA, especially after the convention debacle recently, were willing to move into the 21st century a little bit. I really did not think they were going to do it.
Kat, I have total respect for what you normally write and although you don’t know me I check your website regularly. But I have to agree with Privateiron on this occasion as your comments on mental illness read poorly to me as well. Please don’t mistake celebrity ‘excuses’ (and paid reports) of bad behaviour with mental illness. There is a vast body of scientific evidence that supports the fact that people with mental illness are most likely to harm their own selves not be assholes to other people.
I totally understand your ire around the racism etc but that doesn’t give you a free pass to conflate mental illness with bad behaviour. Racism and sexism are evil and you will get no argument from me there. But so is assuming mental illness equals bad behaviour. (which as private iron tried to say is not what I assume you were trying to say but the truth is, your post DID read that way)
Statistically, people with mental health issues are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of bad behaviour and I respectfully request you check the evidence rather than (as you apparently have done) accept the mainstream media definitions of excuses and accept them as evidence. There are definitely people who use mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, but the truth is that people struggling with real mental health issues are seldom organised enough to actually have PR campaigns to explain their own behaviour. The vast majority are usually too busy crawling back up through the cracks of life they fell through to be that organized.
Is it just me or there’s a lot of people out there looking for (internet) battles to be won to fullfill their egos and empty lives?
Kat: I was headed for the comment box to applaud your arguments about the problem being not the historical racism of Lovecraft et al., but the present willful refusal to see that making a bust of a massive racist the symbol of the best of the genre communicates that the opinions and contributions of the people he hated are not valued. As usual, your comments clarified my unarticulated feelings and conveyed them better than I could hope to.
But I’m going to have to side with PrivateIron and Tired on the mental illness thing. What I know about you is based almost entirely on your comments at Whatever, but I don’t have the impression that you’re someone who equates “crappy behavior” with “mental illness.” I assume that what you were taking aim at there was the myth of the Tortured Genius, where X could never have created Y without mental illness Z. However, I was only able to fill that in because the things you’ve said in other comments seem inconsistent with your rather jarring phrasing in this case.
Unrelatedly, I vote for the Deluge Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh as the new award.
Our niece found this on Cat Valente’s Facebook Page – a Far Right White Supremacist site, “CounterCurrents”, has started their own “HP Lovecraft Awards”.
It looks like Brad Torgersen, Larry Coreia, Theodore Beale and the rest of the Sad/Rabid Puppies have Found A Farm Upstate at last. ::halo::
All the cool, interesting SF I have read over the many years has come to me by ‘ol fashioned word of mouth. Awards simply don’t factor into my purchasing decisions. At. All.
Case in Point: Glenn Reynolds posted about Old Man’s War back in the day, and on the power of his recommendation alone, I purchased a copy and enjoyed it immensely, then went on to read Books 2 and 3. Then I lost track, thinking that the End of All Things was precisely that, the end of an entertaining trilogy.
Years later, controversy erupts over the Hugo awards, and lo and behold the author of Old Man’s War is caught up in it. Had it not been for this controversy, it’s doubtful I would have learned that Books 5 and 6 in the Old Man’s War series even existed. Pleasant surprise, that.
It’s sort of a historical fluke that the award took that form in the first place and that it stayed that way for so long. The theme of the first World Fantasy Convention was “The Lovecraft Circle.” In the mid 70’s a lot of people who knew or at least had corresponded with Lovecraft were still alive. And they had pretty good memories of the man. There was that contradiction of a genial person holding hateful opinions, and the former part still held sway. As for why they kept it so long, I’m sure the statuette being designed by Gahan Wilson didn’t hurt.
Anyone hear word on what the replacement might look like?
I think the interesting thing here is at what point does this type of thing end? The Hugo’s are named after a man named Hugo Gernsback who was an important editor and author in Science Fiction during its rise. He has some baggage as well:
1. Racism – In 1963 he published an article in one of his magazines on how to genetically alter African-Americans so that they produce white children.
2. Author Mistreatment – Hugo Gernsback was described by an author that worked for him this way: “Gernsback’s venality and corruption, his sleaziness and his utter disregard for the financial rights of authors, have been so well documented and discussed in critical and fan literature. That the founder of genre science fiction who gave his name to the field’s most prestigious award and who was the Guest of Honor at the 1952 Worldcon was pretty much a crook (and a contemptuous crook who stiffed his writers but paid himself $100K a year as President of Gernsback Publications) has been clearly established.”
Do these awards need to be modified as well? Does a crook and racist represent Worldcon Fandom’s biggest award or do we rather choose to remember his many positive contributions? The guy who started a bunch of Science Fiction magazines and brought the genre into the mainstream and the guy with the funny inventions.
>> Do these awards need to be modified as well? >>
Yes. I hereby propose that the Hugo Award no longer look like Hugo Gernsback’s face. His shiny, befinned, pointy-tipped face.
>> They were beliefs that they held. If they didn’t hold them, they could have written just as interesting stories without them, as long as their ability to use language was the same.>>
In Lovecraft’s case, I’m not sure that’s true. While his “ability to use language” was certainly very distinctive, I don’t think that’s what made his stories interesting. I think it was his overwhelming fear of The Other, which fueled both his racism and his stories.
Without it, would there have been something else he could have written about as powerfully? I don’t know, it depends what he’d have been like without it. But he wouldn’t have been Lovecraft.
He wrote compelling freakworks that grew from his freakiness. Take away his particular freakiness and there’s no guarantee he’d have written anything as compelling.
That doesn’t mean he should have his face on the World Fantasy Award. But I don’t think the idea that Lovecraft’s beliefs “had very little to do with the construction of [his] art” is a terribly well-founded position.
Seriously, do you people not know how to read? Again, for the third time, I am not the one saying that mental illness causes bad behavior and the two go together. I said that OTHER PEOPLE routinely argue that those artists who have nasty beliefs and/or nasty behavior did so because of mental illness and so that their bad behavior should be excused. And I am saying that the two DO NOT go together and other people claiming mental illness is the cause and excuse for bigoted beliefs and poor treatment of others is bogus. I am claiming that the myth of the tortured crazy artist is wrong, not correct.
In other words, I am saying the exact OPPOSITE of what you are worried I’m saying. But while this is weirdly exasperating, I’m not that angry. Because Private Iron is trolling with a derailment tactic he just used again in another thread. In this thread, it’s I’ve decided to accuse you of being bigoted against the mentally ill; spend time proving you’re not. And in the Paris thread, it’s I’ve decided you’re bigoted against Polish people; spend time proving you’re not. And in both cases, it neatly derails from the actual topic of the thread. Which is why I’m not going to be responding to Private Iron in the future.
Actually, I said I don’t need proof. Just stop staying stuff the way a bigot would say stuff. That’s it. I would tell you to get my name right, but you’re not going to respond anyway.
“I didn’t give that impression. ” Who the hell thinks they can dictate to people what impression they give others? I did not mean to sound like a troll to you, but that’s obviously the impression you took. It would be kind of pompous for me to claim that you did not get that impression. Right or wrong, intended or not, I don’t control how you react to my words.
Maybe you should consider that I was genuinely injured by your words and not just scoring points. But since you already understand our thoughts better than we do apparently, I could not possibly improve things by seeking to clarify.
How come no one ever suggests the late Abe Vigoda for an award statue?
Oh, I’m mistaken. http://www.abevigoda.com
Mr Scalzi, I could have easily been the one to write such an inquiry. Whenever I hear of some clusterfuck in the politics of SF, I always check Whatever within a day or two get your word on it. I first found your blog a few years ago through your commentary on harassment policy, and I have a deep respect for your views, even if you’re not as left-wing as I wish you were (but the fact you’re regarded as a political radical is a sad thing, even thought you’re really cool).
HPL’s fiction has two themes: the indifferent-to-hostile universe inhabited by ancient, unthinkably alien beings who do not give a damn about humanity ,and what happens when upstanding Anglo-Saxons mix it up with “inferior” races, which is always a horror story in HPL’s universe. At least, to him it was. “Shadow over Innsmouth” was “white guy visits the non-white part of town, panics and runs away.”
Take out the in-your-face racism from HPL, and what you have is Steven Baxter’s Xeelee Cycle. Cthulhu was a Photino Bird, but the cult that worshiped him was every racist cliche in the book. Photino Birds are cool, but the human-level part of Lovecraft’s stories was horribly tainted by his racism. The horror depends on othering intelligent, mostly human beings.
When it wasn’t, you got bittersweet stories like “At the Mountains of Madness”, “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, and “The Outsider” — stories where Lovecraft embraced the Other.