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Thursday, December 11, 2014

On the World Fantasy Award and H.P. Lovecraft

(Correction:  a previous version of this post attributed the Guardian article to Damien G. Walter rather than Daniel José Older.  That has been corrected below.  My apologies for the mix-up.)

We're still talking about the World Fantasy Award and H.P. Lovecraft's bizarrely shaped award-specific head.  Daniel José Older, who created the original petition to replace Lovecraft's bust with that of Octavia Butler, recently revisited the discussion in his Guardian column, remarking that "the fantasy community cannot embrace its growing fanbase of color with one hand while deifying a writer who happily advocated for our extermination with the other."

I won't rehash the whole discussion here.  If you don't already know the happenings, then you can use the links I've provided here to fill in the blanks.  As for Lovecraft:  his racism is infamous enough that it required its own section on his Wikipedia page (albeit, a somewhat sanitized section).  I won't go into all the nitty gritty details about Lovecraft's views on race; rather, I'll point you to this post from Slate (which is hardly an extensive or thorough analysis of Lovecraft, but it'll get you on the right track).

My personal view on this subject is fairly basic:

  1. It's almost impossible for anyone in our community to stand up to the scrutiny of future generations.  Our social values evolve, and what might be considered acceptable for one generation could very well become taboo, immoral, or offensive in the next.  There are certainly exceptions, but the farther back you go, the less likely that person would stand up to the values of the present.
  2. If individuals are unlikely to stand up to scrutiny, it makes little sense to choose a person as the "face" of an award, no matter how great they might look today.  Again, exceptions may exist.
  3. I agree with Carrie Cuinn that a person is not representative of an entire field.  Fantasy, after all, is global in scale and encompasses a wide range of identities.  There is no single individual who represents fantasy as a genre, nor is there a single individual who by any stretch of the imagination represents the people who participate in fantasy in any capacity.  There is no such thing as a single fantasy fan who is all nationalities, all races, all genders, all sexualities, etc. etc.  If the problem with Lovecraft is that he doesn't represent the fantasy field today, then how can we say that anyone else represents that field?
In light of that, I can see why many would like the award to be changed.  Indeed, I think it should be changed for reasons that have nothing to with whether Lovecraft was a racist (though that's valid, too, and should not be discounted).  I don't understand how Lovecraft can remain as the figurehead of the World Fantasy Award when he is a) not a universal figure, and b) hardly a writer of fantasy at large.  Yes, he wrote fantasy, but he is recognized for a particular brand of fantasy.  He wasn't an epic fantasy writer.  He didn't write fantasy for young adults.  He didn't write urban fantasy.  He didn't write whatever weird fantasy might exist.  He wrote his particular form of fantasy and had a profound influence on the field as a whole.  That makes him important from a historical standpoint, but it doesn't make him, in my mind, a valid figurehead for an all-encompassing award.

The World Fantasy Award needs to account for all of fantasy.  Not just the fantasy of the one particular form.  Not just the fantasy written by one particular author identity.  Not just Octavia Butler or H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin or N.K. Jemisin or Nalo Hopkinson or John Chu or Laura Anne Gilman or whomever. 

ALL of fantasy.  Anything less would be exclusionary by default.  And that's no good.

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  1. A quick note that, while Damien Walter does write for the Guardian, that piece in particular and the petition itself were written by Daniel J. Older.

    1. Thank you for bringing the error to my attention. Idiot mistake. Issuing a correction right now.