I’ve eaten so much popcorn recently my stomach hurts. Actually, that’s a bit of a fib. I’ve actually been reading the internet a lot and doing this:
The reason for this is that at the weekend’s World Fantasy Awards it was announced that the award in its present form, a bust of the great author H.P. Lovecraft, will be being changed. The reason for this change is that Lovecraft held some odious views that were rather extreme -even for the early 20th Century- and it was felt that an award which seeks to honour the best in the fantastical writing of the “world” shouldn’t be an image of someone who detested quite so many of the world’s inhabitants. I’ve written about this a wee bit in the past, see here and here and here and here, and so in this post I am probably going to tread over some things that I have already discussed.
The decision to change the form of the award has, tiresomely and inevitably, led to some in the weird fiction/spec lit community losing their proverbial shit. Something that I have found deeply amusing -hence the popcorn.
The complaints about the change in form of the award have a number of common elements that I’ll discuss briefly here.
- Censorship: You’re trying to stop people reading Lovecraft!
- Political Correctness: It’s gone mad I tell ye!
- Chronobigotry: You can’t judge people of the past by our standards.
- Pseudotradtionalism: The award has always been the old racist from Providence!
- Generalised Historical Douchery: What about other problematic authors who have awards?
Once I’ve had a wee chat about the shit losing then I’ll talk about why the bust should have been changed, why it doesn’t matter that it’s changed, and the form I feel that it should take in the future.
This argument, and here I use the term extremely loosely, goes something along the lines of: “By having the form of this award changed you are trying to erase Lovecraft from the canon of literature and stop people reading him.” Now; I am sure that there are some people who would like to see Lovecraft erased from the canon and for people not to read him because of his virulent racism. These people are, however, extremely marginal voices: many of whom have probably read little, or any, Lovecraft and are simply reacting in classic internet style to things. The majority of people don’t want to stop people from reading Lovecraft -perish the thought- nor want to erase him from the canon. Even the most ardent of critics much surely agree that he has had a tremendous effect upon the writing of fantastic literature throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.
To censor something is to physically prevent someone from experiencing something: to prevent them from reading, watching, or hearing something. To have Lovecraft censored would mean to have his books pulled off the shelves, removed from libraries, not discussed in schools or universities. Something that is patently not happening, that is not going to happen, and that nobody wants to happen. Lovecraft’s books will continue to fill the shelves of bookstores, they will continue to be studied and taught, there will still be conventions inspired by and in honour of him. Even if censorship were truly possible at this moment in the 21st Century it is so palpably clear that there is no censorship going on with regards Lovecraft that this argument seems almost demented. Perhaps the works of old HPL were a little too effective on these particular fans?
Political correctness has long been a phantasm for the right wing to rail against and it is an accusation that is often closely tied to that of censorship. To the right ‘political correctness’ is a weapon used by liberals and the left to silence those who hold opposing views. So strident have the right been in their domination of the cultural discourse around political correctness that the term itself is now rendered almost meaningless.
In the case of the World Fantasy Award and the Lovecraft fanboys this term is often wheeled out in conjunction with the term “Social Justice Warrior”. Social Justice Warriorism being a very vocal trend within, mostly, American, mostly, liberalism that has seized upon radical and semi-radical ideas but attempts to apply them to situations in a manner that is completely bereft of any wider, or deeper, class analysis. They are more concerned with the appearance of a problem than with addressing the structural issues through actual workplace or community organising.
With the brouhaha over the World Fantasy Award I daresay that there has been a large element of this. However the drive to change the form of the award was mostly fuelled by people who think that an award such as the WFA should be inclusive rather than divisive. Not to exclude those who are fans of Lovecraft nor those who write in the fantastically horrible universe he shared with the world.
I think that the English comedian Stewart Lee has it covered when it comes to political correctness so I’ll leave it up to him to explain why it isn’t a bad thing.
I think that I just coined a word. Chronobigotry is what I’m going to call it when people make bigoted judgements of people and cultures of the past. An example of this could be those who refuse to accept that ancient peoples were capable of great feats of engineering and so it must have been aliens that built the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and so on. Chronobigotry is also what those who are upset over the change in the form of the WFA are accusing those who sought the change of. That they/we are guilty of not taking into account the time and culture that HP Lovecraft lived in and so are overreacting to his views on race, class, and so on.
I would actually like to turn this accusation on its head and point out that it is those who are making this claim who are misunderstanding the times in which Lovecraft lived. It is the blanket assumption of the chronobigots that everyone was a massive racist dick in the early 20th Century and before and that Lovecraft was merely expressing the commonly held views of the majority of the populace. This doesn’t take into account however that many of Lovecraft’s close personal friends were astounded by his beliefs and some even pulled him up on them as being beyond the pale. His views were so extreme that they even managed to make the racist, and good friend of HPL, Robert E. Howard soften his own views on the matter.
There’s also the fact that the early 20th Century was a time of great social flux and there were many people who were trying to use race, as they ever do, as a means to weaken working class struggles. Something vigorously resisted by unions such as The Industrial Workers of the World who sought to organise all workers regardless of race.
Lovecraft may very well have been a “man of his time” but so were all the people fighting against racism. Their existence, and their successes, put to lie the excuses made by those in the 21st Century about the acceptability of Lovecraft’s bigotry.
There are also those who have, as part of their complaint, the argument that the bust is “The Howie” and was always meant to be so. That it is an award in Lovecraft’s honour. This is simply not the case. The first meeting of the World Fantasy Convention was in Providence and so it was decided that the World Fantasy Award should, for that year, represent Providence’s most well known author of the fantastic: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. It was never the intention that the award should remain in that form and the form was chosen because of the place of the conference rather than because of Lovecraft’s massive contribution to the field.
I don’t know why it didn’t change the next year -I’m assuming that organising a conference is quite a stressful and time consuming endeavour. This being the case I can quite imaging a stressed out and overworked committee having a meeting and deciding: “Fuck it, let’s just use the same one as last year.” Which is a fantastic tribute to the legacy of the man: “Fuck it…”
There’s also the fact that traditions can, and do, change and that some, for better or worse, disappear. In Holland there’s a tradition of people wearing blackface and dressing up as Schwarz Pete -Santa Claus’ assistant. This is, obviously, unacceptable and is a tradition that is best relegated to museums and textbooks. So the argument from tradition is one that misunderstands the origin of the award, does a disservice to Lovecraft, and in general hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
Generalised Historical Douchery
This argument is similar to the chronobigotry argument but it is specific to the various authors who have awards named after them who also held vile views or partook in vile activities. It generally goes along the lines of: “But X author was a racist and they have an award named after them!” A prime example could be The Edgar Allen Poe award given out by the Mystery Writers of America. Poe was a nonce. He married his 13 year old cousin. Which is extremely icky, to say the least. However Poe did not write stories littered with references to pubescent girls.
This is the issue with Lovecraft. That he was so extreme in his prejudice, so strident in his racism, that it does seep into his work, overtly and covertly, time and time again. His racism reaches down the decades long after his death and smacks us about the face.
There’s also the matter that the awards named for other ‘problematic’* figures are, in general, in other fields. We are talking about the field of the fantastical which is, broadly speaking, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror and all the bits in between these categories. So why people not involved in these other fields should be wanting to clean up other people’s houses, as it were, is beyond me. We focus on the things that we care about and those people who have been pushing for the bust to be changed clearly care about the field of the fantastic.
There’s also the rather awkward matter that the World Fantasy Award isn’t *actually* named after Lovecraft… Just sayin’.
Why the bust should have been changed, why it doesn’t matter, and what form the award should take
This one should be a no brainer to be honest, even leaving aside Lovecraft’s vile beliefs. The award is supposed to be the World Fantasy Awards, the emphasis here being on the word “World”. If the award is to be signifying the achievements of authors from all across the world then why should it take the form of a long dead white Protestant American man? Why should it take the form of any individual person from any country or culture when it is supposed to signify a global field of literature? The Poe award, at least, is only focussed on work published in America. The award should never have remained as Lovecraft after that first convention in Providence and that it has taken decades to address this is a failing of the World Fantasy Convention.
The reason that the changing of the bust doesn’t really matter is that, at present, the World Fantasy Convention is an almost solely anglophone affair. It issues awards to books published in English in English speaking parts of the world. To call itself the World Fantasy Convention is a joke. In its 40 year history the convention has only taken place outside the USA five times -in England and in Canada. Until the convention takes into account the rest of the world then it doesn’t really matter what form the award takes as it has little to do with the majority of the world.
Should the convention spread out from the anglophone world however, something that I would love to see, then it would be rather important what form the award takes and the form of a dead, racist, white American would not be suitable in the slightest. The award would have to represent the deep history and global scope of fantastical storytelling. Because of this, and as I have said since the brouhaha kicked off last year, I feel that the award should take the form of a cuneiform tablet bearing the opening of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The world’s oldest recorded fantastical story. A story from the cradle of civilisation. Which just so happens to be the Middle East which will, no doubt, piss off all the racists and douchebags no end.
So; yay, the award is changing and meh, who cares really? Well, I possibly do as I’ve just written a bucketload of words about it…
*God, I hate how the word ‘problematic’ has been ruined by internet douchebags.