In sf/f there’s always one or more teapot tempests at simmer, waiting to come to a boil when the previous one, so to speak, runs out of steam. Every now and then, however, the tempest turns out to be a typhoon too big for that metaphorical pot, and it’s time to sort out where one stands.
Why? Greater or lesser, don’t these things always blow over eventually?
Sure they do. The question is, how much wrack and damage do they leave behind? How many reputations tarnished, friendships weakened or destroyed? How completely does our sense of sf/f as our “tribe” fail in the face of the latest reality check? None of these are good things, and standing idly by while it all happens is to share in the blame, whatever does happen. Certainly, it’s one thing to throw gas on the fire, but it’s not so very different to pretend that the fire doesn’t exist. Either way, the house burns down.
So here I am contemplating a lapel pin I received at World Fantasy Con in Washington, D.C., way back in 2003. It’s a copy of the World Fantasy Award in miniature handed out to the nominees and based, as is the WFA itself, on Gahan Wilson’s caricature of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. It’s the public face of the award and has been so as long as I can remember. And, as others have pointed out, H.P. Lovecraft was a virulent racist.
There are certainly those who dispute that fact, or try to diminish its importance, and say that Lovecraft was just a man of his time, no more racist than, well, pretty much everyone was in the mainstream society—meaning mostly Anglo Caucasians—of the time. Sorry, no. Lovecraft’s racism wasn’t the casual, unthinking sort that permeated the cultural assumptions of his time and place, bad as that was. Lovecraft wasn’t the unthinking kind, and he did think about it. He proclaimed it. He wrote essays defending the intellectual(?) and moral basis for it. He was an admitted fan of Adolph Hitler, for pity’s sake. That’s a strain of racism that goes above and beyond what was considered normal for a “gentleman or lady” of the time. Lovecraft’s fear and hatred of “the other” reached right into the core of his being. He was, to belabor the point, serious about his racism.
Granted, as HPL was a human being, he was full of contradictions. While his anti-semitism was every bit as strong as his hatred of black people, he really did have Jewish friends and his one and only marriage was to a Jewish woman. That doesn’t mean he was any less the bigot. It just means that, as has been pointed out by others, he “hated humanity in the abstract.” One can respect, even like one, two, or even several member of a group one fears and hates—those two usually go together–without changing your opinion of the group one whit. People are strange like that. To be fair, Lovecraft died before the full horrors of Hitler’s Germany were commonly known. One wonders if Lovecraft would have changed his opinion of the man then. Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know.
I’m not one of those who go on to say that HPL was a terrible writer in the first place and should be removed from the pantheon. Lovecraft was a unique voice in science fiction and fantasy in the early years of the genre and his influence as a writer is felt to this day. As those who know better than I have stated, Lovecraft channeled his fear of the Other into his work and it was his own fear, for better or worse, that gives his work its power. While the artist may not always be able to separate themselves from their work, we can, even as we see the person standing behind it. One doesn’t ignore the person, and the person certainly informs the work, but the person is not the work, otherwise most of us are in deep trouble.
All that said, and despite the fact that I’ve gone on about him a bit, this isn’t really about Howard Phillips Lovecraft in the first place. It’s not even about the World Fantasy Award. It is about what we, as a genre and tribe, choose as the public face of our greatest award for fantasy writing. There was a time in this country when the members of the sf/f field and culture were more homogenous. That’s changing rapidly, with an influx of writers from different cultures and perspectives, and I call that a good thing. Like any other living creature—be it an animal or a culture—it grows and changes or it starts to decay. Simply put–grow and evolve, or die. “We got two things, pick one” as George Carlin used to say. What does it say to those new voices joining us that the face of fantasy’s highest honor is that of a person who would not approve and likely vigorously oppose their very presence? How welcome would you feel?
I still like Lovecraft’s work and I remember it fondly. That doesn’t mean his likeness or anyone else’s should be on the World Fantasy Award. Dig down far enough and everyone’s feet has some clay in them. The WFA is predicated on an ideal that none of us meet, even the ones who have won the award multiple times. That’s the point of an ideal–You don’t reach it, but you do strive for it, and that’s the important part.
Let the face of the World Fantasy Award better reflect that ideal.