A Long Word on HPL and the World Fantasy Awards – Part 1

Posted: November 24, 2015 in Blog, Controversy, News
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Originally I thought to write a piece regarding the change of the WFA from a bust of Lovecraft to something different, but I realised there just so much to talk about that it can’t be tackled in just a few hundred words, hence the “Part 1” in the title.  In coming days, I hope to post a follow up to delve into things a little further. I think this is a worthy and timely topic for discussion and hope that I have something of value to add to that discussion.

A couple of weeks back,  folks that run the World Fantasy Convention came out and stated that they’re no longer going to use the a bust of author Howard Philips Lovecraft, designed by artist Gahan Wilson, for the World Fantasy Award.

As first reported by Locus Magazine:

David G. Hartwell, co-chair of the World Fantasy Convention board, announced during the 2015 World Fantasy Awards that the current award trophy is being retired after this year.

The trophy, known informally as the “Howard,” is a bust of author H.P. Lovecraft designed by Gahan Wilson. In recent years, many writers, editors, and readers in the field (notably World Fantasy Award winner Nnedi Okorafor and nominee Daniel José Older) have called for the trophy to be changed, considering Lovecraft an inappropriate choice for the award due to his racist views. A design for the new trophy has not yet been announced.

Indeed, on November 10, Lovecraft biographer and editor, ST Joshi released the text of an letter he sent to David G. Hartwell, Co-chair of the World Fantasy Convention board:

I was deeply disappointed with the decision of the World Fantasy Convention to discard the bust of H. P. Lovecraft as the emblem of the World Fantasy Award. The decision seems to me a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness and an explicit acceptance of the crude, ignorant, and tendentious slanders against Lovecraft propagated by a small but noisy band of agitators.

I feel I have no alternative but to return my two World Fantasy Awards, as they now strike me as irremediably tainted. Please find them enclosed. You can dispose of them as you see fit.

Many authors have spoken, some more vociferously than others, about the need to change this award in several years.. including WFA winners Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar and others.

In the field of literary criticism there is a device known as the Implied Author (as opposed to the Author).  This Implied Author v.s Author relationship was referred to by T.S Eliot in his essay Tradition and Individual Talent, as “The Man Who Suffers and The Mind which Creates“.  The Man Who Suffers (i.e the Author)is the real life human being, the guy out there paying the bills and buying his hayfever medication from the pharmacy, raising his kids and working a day job.   The Mind Which Creates (i.e the Implied Author)  is the sense that we as readers get of the author and their personality,  or perhaps their views, or even their hopes and dreams.  This is a giant bone of contention between formalists of which T.S Eliot was one (i.e literary theorists and critics concerned with the form of a text) and those who seek to view the text through a more wider biographical lense and to take into account the time and place and the circumstances of the author before and during the time the work was written.

Ever the formalist, T.S Eliot wrote:

The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

What Eliot is getting at here is that there is, particularly in the best of writers, a separation between the person of the writer and his creative mind, so that an author who might be a miser, or a complete jerk, or recluse can write stories and characters that are generous, and loving and outgoing. And vice versa!  Sure there are obvious exceptions to any rule, … a writer who is a jerk might write a mean story full of jerk characters, which mirrors his own life and experiences completely, but there is enough truth here that we can rationally recognise it.

Notwithstanding its lack of scholarly fides, I’m using wikipedia’s definition of the implied author here because, frankly, I like it.

The implied author is a concept of literary criticism developed in the 20th century. Distinct from the author and the narrator, the term refers to the character a reader may attribute to an author based on the way a literary work is written, which may differ considerably from the author’s true personality.

Author Saul Bellow once observed that it was not surprising, with all the revision that goes into a work, that an author might appear better on the page than in real life.

I love that last part. It’s so true. It’s like reading Orson Scott Card fiction and then reading his political views. Or listening to Eric Clapton play, before you find out he’s a big racist jerk.

Anyway,  lets take a look at HPL, shall we? Who was the Implied Author presented to us on HPL’s page?  Who was Lovecraft “the man”?

Lovecraft, the man, was a nervous recluse who, after his father died of syphilis in an insane asylyum, was raised by his mentally ill mother in Providence, Rhode Island.  He had extended periods of mental breakdown. He was an atheist and enamoured with science although was unable to pursue science as a serious academic study when he dropped out of highschool before graduation (on account of his poor mental health). He was a racist and held a lot of objectionable views. He briefly married a Jewish woman who later left him and he moved back to providence to live with his Aunts.  His views, which I personally find completely puerile and repulsive, are well known and extremely well documented owing to the fact that HPL was an amazingly prolific letter writer. He exchanged correspondence with a wide variety of figures, including notable writers of his time and those who would come along to be greats in their own right, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch etc. You can read more of his biography here and here.

Lovecraft viewed the Anglo-German (Teutonic) race as the pinnacle of evolution. He viewed southern Europeans and Asians as inferior races.  He held the deepest contempt for Blacks and Australian Aboriginals which he considered little more than animals, incapable of creating their own civilised societies and civilizations.  He considered America to be the Anglo-Saxon civilization transported to another continent and improved through a more democratic political environment, but sharing the same values, qualities and roots as that of its Western European forebears. HPL hated multiculturalism and insisted that only a small number of non-whites be admitted into the United States or the nation would come to ruin, although, interestingly, he held there to be some value in other non-white cultures as long as their people stayed in their own countries and separate from white civilization so as not to retard the progress of Anglo-saxon/teutonic civilization.  In various of his letters he foresaw the need to “get rid” of non-whites from America should they ever come to threaten the stability and Anglo-Saxon fabric of  the nation. One or two comments that he made were very close to, if not actually, calls for ethnic cleansing. For the purposes of brevity I’m not going to post all the text from his letters, but if you’re unaccustomed to his views, you can read about his views and read discussion of his views herehere, here, here, here, and all over the internet.

Now that we’ve examined The Man Who Suffers/Author… let’s inspect The Mind Which Creates/Implied Author.

One need only make a close reading of his works to see his xenophobic loathing for any non-white and non-western European people in fact permeate the content and form of his written work.  The Shadow Over Innsmouth, is a tale of degenerate creatures crawling out of the sea and mating with human beings, was basically just a projection of his fears about immigration, inter-racial breeding,  multiculturalism etc. In which the narrator is exposed to the degenerate invaders and, at the end of the story, learns that he has their blood too and lapses into an almost religious kind of ecstasy, in just the same way that Lovecraft accuses non-whites of in many of his tales.  See here for a close reading of some of the text.  Lovecraft almost always introduces non-white characters, multiculuralism generally, inter-racial marriage and inter-racial sex, non-English languages ,etc… in terms of scorn, derision and in a wholly dehumanising fashion.

Charles Baxter rightly comments:

Racism is not incidental to Lovecraft’s vision but is persistent and essential to it. Ethnic minorities and monsters are, for him, often interchangeable. In his stories it is not unusual for a character to undergo a transformation into a creature from whom all humanity has been leached out, turning him into a foreign-seeming thing, an immigrant, whose attributes are both unpredictable and repellent.

A classic example of this is from  The Horror At Redhook, with its descriptions  of  New York’s multicultural society and the obvious implication that non-whites are destroying the city:

The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing. The houses are generally in solid blocks, and now and then a many-windowed cupola arises to tell of days when the households of captains and ship-owners watched the sea.
From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion.

Other examples from his fiction compound the impression we get of his racist views.    Take the description of the black boxer in Herbert West: Reanimator as one example:

The negro had been knocked out, and moment’s examination showed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which 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.

There is no doubt that Lovecraft was a racist of the highest order and that his personal views he held influenced his fiction writing to the point that they (fear of the other/unknown/etc) are one of its central aspects.   He certainly fails T.S Eliot’s test for who is “the most perfect artist”, because it would seem that here was very little or no separation between his personal and creative spheres.  In Lovecraft’s case, The Man Who Suffered WAS the Mind Which Created. 

So what do I think?

I’m honestly so damn tired of people being outraged about everything all the time. So sick of everyone having some cause to champion. It sets my teeth on edge, even when I agree with why they’re outraged. (Largely because I don’t like people generally, and I’ve got enough of my own problems and can rarely handle worrying about the problems of others). My inner misanthrope, who may also be my inner privileged white misogynist, sometimes wishes everyone would just shut the the hell up. I try very hard, however, to recognise this as a character flaw and as objectionable and pray the better part of myself and logic prevails.  Therefore, I understand that things that don’t affect me or that I could care less about, do affect others and they do care about those things.  I can put myself in someone else’s shoes.

I’m white (anglo-celtic stock with a spattering of Western European)  but my lovely wife is of an arab background. Our inter-racial marriage and our three beautiful daughters would probably be the kind of “hybrid filth” that Lovecraft mentioned in The Horror at Red Hook.  So I can sympathise with Nnedi Okorafor when she said:

Anyway, a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head  is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color). I’m conflicted.

I can also relate to Usman Tanveer Malik who mentioned in one Facebook comment words to the effect that Lovecraft is hardly representative of “World Fantasy” and that awards should be something that is inclusive of people if wants to market itself as the “World Fantasy” award.  Which, ultimately, is probably the most important aspect here. In my opinion, the World Fantasy Award should be an award that should not be anglo-american centric.

Indeed, as Lenika Cruz mentions in The Atlantic:

On some level, Joshi’s frustration is understandable. The nebulous field of weird fiction wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t imbued with the spirit of Lovecraft’s strange, dark creations. And the question of how much to separate a cultural figure from his or her personal beliefs has always been an uneasy one. But Joshi’s claims are myopic. Lovecraft’s removal is about more than just the writer himself; it’s not an indictment of his entire oeuvre. The change is symbolic but powerful—it’s a message to the next generation of writers, artists, and editors that they belong in the genre of science fiction and fantasy.

With this in mind, I largely support the move to change the WFA from a bust of Lovecraft to something different. I don’t think Lovecraft is representative of world fantasy, even if I do love his stories ..(if not for him, Jack Ketchum [who’s mentor Robert Bloch was actually the protege of HPL] and Stephen King, I may not even be a writer). If Lovecraft’s bust had been the World Horror Award, I may (tentatively!) have been less supportive as he’s clearly a towering figure in horror genre, even if he was an odious racist. But fantasy? No way.  As the shit-stirrer par excellence (yet amazingly talented and knowledgeable author and editor) Nick Mamatas mentioned recently, while we view Horror as a distinct genre (which leads many of us to question HPL’s suitability to be linked to the award), if anything, it is more appropriately  a sub-genre of Fantasy in general. I can’t help but feel that if we follow this line of logic and view HPL’s work as part of a Fantasy sub genre, he’s still a just single author from a sub-genre and hardly, in my opinion, representative of the genre as a whole.

I suggest we all take a collective chill pill. Whether you think the so-called “Social Justice Warriors” are not worth Lovecraft’s literary fingernail or not (like Vox Day), changing the appearance of the award doesn’t take away from the achievements of Lovecraft.  Nor, does it change his effect and stature in fiction. Nor will it mean less people will read Lovecraft.  It doesn’t take away from fans, authors or editors who like Lovecraft of write or edit Lovecraftian fiction — most of you are great people and those writers and editors amongst you are extremely talented individuals. Beyond that, you can’t insult the dead. HPL seriously doesn’t care (he’s dead) and his place in literary history is assured.  Those who want the change have their opinion (which is a legit concern to them and many others), and you have yours. You can lobby the World Fantasy Convention with your own views on the matter if you want, as can authors or fans of any other persuasion.

So, I say, let’s just make the award an elf, or a dragon, or a unicorn or make it a plaque and not a bust or idol of something at all — and then can we just get on with the business of writing, reading and enjoying new fiction. 

Update:

Since I drafted this post a whole bunch of stuff has gone down, including ST Joshi’s wife yelling at an author and saying he’s now blacklisted from any press where Joshi works, not to be over-shadowed by Joshi coming out and saying Ellen Datlow is immoral and that she’s opportunistically released lovecraftian works while backstabbing his corpse by seeking to get the “Howie” replaced as the WFA bust.    You can find some of this on Joshi’s website.  As far as I’m concerned, this is beyond the pale and I think ST Joshi owes Ellen a public apology.  Wow. You crossed the line, dude. Sit down.

I am writing a supplementary post delving into greater detail regarding some of the issues surrounding this current furor which I believe to be quite pertinent to the discussion, namely that of free speech, tradition, privilege and his legacy and effect on current race discourse.

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