On the World Fantasy Awards and HPL

I wasn’t even going to write about the controversy about the World Fantasy Award no longer being represented by a Lovecraft bust, but I seem to keep doing it anyway on Facebook.  I might as well do it properly.

Lovecraft was a racist.  You can argue that other authors were racist (and they often were).  You can argue that Lovecraft was reflecting the attitudes of many people of his time (and you’d be right, despite how enlightened we think the past was – check out this Gallup poll on interracial marriage).  You can argue that attitudes change, and that modern perspectives may one day be considered offensive (quite right).  You can argue that most of his work isn’t that racist (you can certainly make a case for it).  And after you argue all this, guess what?  Lovecraft was still a racist.

As more people encounter Lovecraft’s writing, they also encounter his racism.  I think there are three responses to it.  The first is, “He was racist?  Great!”  We can and should ignore those people.  The second is, “Even though Lovecraft is racist, I think there’s enough here to make him worth reading, or even inspiring my own creations.”  The third is, “Lovecraft is racist, and I’d rather not have anything to do with him.”

Now, I clearly fall into the second category, but I get the third.  Life is short, and if you want to not read an author due to their political views, I can’t really tell you not to.  I can say that it’s not the criteria I hope you’d use, but I once stopped reading a book because it used the phrase “Abramelin yoga,” so I can understand not wanting to participate in some activity due to a visceral response to one issue or another.  And I don’t mind you trying to convince other people not to read that author.  It’s only when the option of doing so is taken away that we have a serious situation.

So, people in the third category, including winners of the World Fantasy Award, expressed their concern – and outrage, in some cases – that they were being awarded for their writing in the shape of the head of a guy whose views are highly distasteful at this time.  They certainly had a right to do so.  The committee no doubt balanced the idea that this was an award for writers against the fact that it was an award in the shape of some guy’s head, and decided in favor of making an award any writer would be proud to get.   They also had a right to do so.

Now we have people in the Lovecraft community who are incensed that this change was made.  They also have a right to make their voices known, to protest, and to spend their money as they see fit, but…

There’s one aspect of my life I don’t speak about on this blog:  my involvement in what people might call “social justice” issues, and what I call “trying to make the lives of the people around me better.”  This picked up a few years ago, and I’ve been involved in educating others, trying to help people with problems, participating in protests, and just listening to the stories of others.

I’ve found that there’s a disjunction between this activity and the various fandom controversies that we’ve been seeing lately.   As I’ve said, we can debate issues such as the WFA award, and advocate, and spend our money and time as we see fit… but damned if it doesn’t make us look entitled sometimes.

There is no fundamental right for someone to have an award shaped like his or her head.  There is no fundamental right to be allowed to speak in a particular place, or to have a particular store sell your product, or to have a library purchase your book, or to have a piece of art appear in the Louvre.  You may be given a particular venue, or you may not.  People may have all sorts of reasons for making that choice, and they may change their minds.  As long as you still have venues open – and today, they exist in abundance – everything is working as it should.

Thus, this decision is not “censorship.”  Censorship is the suppression of a creative work, not a decision to not use a particular creative work in a particular way.  Using it in this sense trivializes the work of many writers who have indeed seen their works destroyed or kept from the public, and who have even endured imprisonment or death for seeking to share their ideas.

No one is being made to pack up their Awards and mail them back.  You can still view pictures of them online.  I’m sure that one consequence of this decision will be attempts to actually market the sculpture in question to people.  And I’m just talking about the Gahan Wilson sculpture – not the works of Lovecraft, which can be found in many different formats and in many different languages and adaptations across the globe.  Lovecraft’s popularity has escalated over the years, and even if that is temporary, he is in no danger of being censored.  In fact, this whole controversy is based on the fact that HPL wasn’t censored, and that people can find even the minor and occasionally highly offensive verse he wrote.

I know there’s people talking about decisions being “p. c.” or being made by “SJWs,” and I think we should prize free expression over imposing or silencing particular views.  Nonetheless, I also see some of the same people insisting that the award should have simply been turned down by those who didn’t agree with HPL’s depiction.  As I’ve said, it’s a writing award, people.  Stating that a decision was made for ideological purity doesn’t mean you also can demand ideological purity from others.

I’ve also heard complaints that this change is an insult to Lovecraft fans, and that it tars all of them with the brush of racism.  To help understand why this itself is a problem, I’ll insert a quick comparison:

Problems for people of color:  Enduring centuries of slavery, violence, injustice, segregation, and discrimination.

Problems for Lovecraft fans:  Being denied award sculpture in shape of author’s head.  Some people might think they’re racist.   Bad movies.

Do these arguments make people want to read Lovecraft, or interact with their fans?  Certainly people can advocate on behalf of a Lovecraft-shaped award, but portraying fans as victims in this situation is going to play very badly.  It doesn’t make us look racist, but it sure as hell comes across as insensitive and trivial.

Let me end on this note:  If what makes you hopping mad, or compels you to write angry letters to all sorts of people, is anything having to do with a writing award, you need to seriously rethink your priorities.  There’s a number of ways to do that, one of which might be to put aside Lovecraft and read something along the lines of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for a little while.  After that, maybe we can start more of a dialogue about how we read and discuss Lovecraft and other authors who might not always have been the people we wish they were.

UPDATE:  … and in the morning, it looks even less relevant.  My deep sympathies to the people of Paris.

Published in: on November 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well-put Dan.

    I think Lovecraft is actually a useful tool for understanding prejudice, perhaps even our own. HPL imagined himself to be a materialist, rationalist, man of science – able to express in his fiction empathy for something as alien as the Elder Things in “At the Mountsins of Madness” – but unable to recognize the obvious common humanity of Africans, Asians, or really anyone beyond a very circumscribed set of northern Europeans. That the same writer who so cogently identified the primacy of fear in human emotion – and the central role of the fear of the unknown – but who remained stubbornly blind to how his own beliefs were nothing more than embodiment of this irrational fear, should make us all pause and wonder what “truths” we have built on the same flawed foundations.

  2. There is a “Lovecraft community”? I think that I should stop reading right there (joking, joking).

    But really, has the Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft distinction totally collapsed?

    • In my opinion, I think there certainly is a “Lovecraft community,” at least among some more prominent members. There’s more interaction among its members in terms of fora, whether the NecronomiCon convention or various Internet interactions. The extent to which the literature, fiction, gaming, etc. individuals interact and play off each other is sometimes quite fascinating.


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