It seems that the issue of the World Fantasy Award being a bust of H.P. Lovecraft is continuing to weave its way across the magical interwebs of the Fantasy/SF/Horror communities. Tor.com have an article about the discussion, and indeed there are 80+ comments on that article alone, and the discussion continues on Facebook and elsewhere (Tor.com are also having a re-read of HPL which will be running for months to come, you should definitely check it out). I recently commented on the blog of Daniel José Older who started the petition to have the award changed to a bust of Octavia Butler and blogged about this myself a couple of weeks ago. Whilst I can understand the reaction of some of HPLs fans, among whom I count myself, to the idea of changing the award to something else. It must seem to some that changing the award’s physical form would be somehow stripping HPL of his well deserved status as a giant in the world of fantastic literature. I don’t, personally, feel that this is the case. I do however think that changing the form of the award is rather important for a number of reasons. Primarily I don’t think that it is right that an author who would have been despised by HPL, be they Black, Jewish, Portuguese, Eastern European, or any of the other non-WASPs that Lovecraft expressed contempt for – both in his writing and in his personal communications, that they should be offered a likeness of him as an award. This goes beyond a lack of sensitivity and into seemingly mocking these great authors who are bestowed with the award. Secondly Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a white middle class American man. He is not representative of either the creators nor fans of fantastic literature as a whole. Equally Octavia Butler, as a black American working class woman, isn’t representative of the community. No individual author could be as the community is, despite protestations to the contrary, extremely diverse. This is the World Fantasy Award that we are talking about here remember. Not the American Fantasy Award. To be honest I think that it is a bit of a joke calling it the World Fantasy Award as it would be better named the ‘English Speaking World’ Fantasy Award but that’s for another blog post.
One of the points that I have seen raised recently against the changing of the bust was that, with regards Lovecraft’s racism, he was ‘of his time’ and that his opinions were the norm. As I have pointed out in my earlier post about his racism this is simply not the case. In my earlier post I point out that the radical worker’s organisation the Industrial Workers of the World were busy organising against racists like the Ku Klux Klan and breaking down the barriers of racism (for a good example of this see the film Matewan which is based on actual events). I would like to add to this that it wasn’t just groups like the IWW that weren’t racists, and that actively combated racism, but also writers – Lovecraft’s literary peers, who were not racist. At least not to the extent that HPL was. John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller were both strident anti-racists. As was George Orwell – to the point that he took up arms against fascism in Spain during the 1930s. I’m sure that, were I to take a short amount of time, I could probably name a hell of a lot more writers who expressed views completely counter to HPL who were living and writing at the same time and in the same, or a similar, culture.
It may be raised that Lovecraft felt himself a man out of time, that he was born into the wrong generation and, given his racist views, I would probably agree. However I was recently reading a collection of short stories by Ambrose Bierce and I encountered none of the racism that can be easily detected in HPLs works. Bierce may use words that shock today – references to niggers or negroes, casual references to slaves and so on. But with Bierce we can say that he most definitely was a man of his time, he was writing in the mid-1800s. His language may have been racist but in it we detect none of the viciousness that comes through in HPL’s work. This is the rub for me. When I encounter certain sections of his writing the shock at what he has just said can drop me out of the story in a way that it doesn’t in the writing of someone like Bierce.
“ He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms that I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life – but the world holds many ugly things. ”
HPL describing the body of an African American man in Herbert West – Reanimator
“the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattos, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetishism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with suprising consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.”
Description of the “mongrel” cultists in The Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories, it is a masterful piece of modernist pulp writing and his narrative style in the piece is utterly fantastic, as is his prose. Which is probably why the pieces of the text such as the one quoted above are so jarring. It’s like reading a work by Virginia Woolf only to have her all of a sudden have a paragraph long rant about the darkies before getting back to telling her tale. It may be true that HPL’s bigotry lessened as he got older, this is certainly the case according to Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, and so it is a real shame that he died early. It is a shame as we will never see how he would have developed his mythos and I really do think that his writing, for a modern reader at least, would certainly have benefited from a softening of his views on race and genetics.
If you want a more in depth look at the ‘man-of-his-time’ defence of Lovecraft you should head over to Nicole Cushing’s blog and read this piece which goes into much greater detail than I am willing to here. (And while you’re there you should pick up her novellas Children of No One and I am the New God. They’re frickin awesome.)
HP’s racism then was not of its time and it does stand in the way of him gaining wider appreciation for the genius that he was in his fashioning of tales of the fantastic. That, to me, is reason enough for the World Fantasy Award to be changed. If we add to that the fact that the bust of any writer is not going to be representative of either the current community or the tradition of fantastical tale telling then there is really no way that it can not be changed.
PS: I don’t think that I really have to state that I am a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft and regard him as a ground breaking genius, a giant in the world of the fantastic and macabre. I don’t want to run him down or sully his name. I just think that the World Fantasy Award should be inclusive of everyone within the weird and wonderful community of fantastical and speculative literature.
ETA: David Nickle has also written about this today.