This is meant as an answer to something Steven Erikson wrote about the choice to replace the H.P. Lovecraft bust for the World Fantasy Awards, with something else. On the speculation that Lovecraft was a racist:
I have something to say because I’m quite nitpicky about these matters and I feel it’s extremely important to pin down motivations in a way that is clear of ambiguity, otherwise, I think, all is lost and we fade into an endless war of factions and self-identity.
So, while I’m a huge fan of everything Erikson writes and not just for what’s on the surface, I also find a number of issues with this particular article. A few critical points that lead me to challenge that particular view in order to better define the “canon” we use to decide (or personally judge) these matters.
Symbols are potent things.
WFA’s philosophy of inclusiveness and diversity
Am I unique in ‘disrespecting’ Lovecraft (as a symbol of merit in Fantasy)
Adrian Cole chimes in to rail against political correctness and points out that the World Fantasy Award is not about racism, and he’s right. It’s not. So why symbolise it with the bust of a racist? We are then chided on getting ‘too soft’ and life’s too short to be ‘particular’ and ‘sensitive.’ In other words, this life, being so short, is better spent being insensitive, hard of countenance and dismissive of the particular.
(you read the original post for context, of course)
When I was a kid I was a big fan of Lovecraft. Without a doubt my favorite writer, closely followed by Clive Barker. And, especially, I was a fan of Lovecraft as a man, I read his biography and I bought with enthusiasm a book that collected some of his letters. I was an avid reader of the “writer behind the scenes” and interested to backtrack the origin of his imagination. Yet, not even for an instant I perceived or became aware of “Lovecraft as a racist”. Not because I was ALSO a racist, but simply because I didn’t detect anything that made me suspicious of that. For me Lovecraft, the man and the writer both, was an idol, but again it was an idol not colored by racist ideas or principles.
Nowadays Lovecraft has a huge cultural impact. A popular game like Bloodborne can come out, be played by millions of players, and universally recognized as deeply and explicitly “inspired by Lovecraft”. It drips with Lovecraft’s atmosphere and themes, and not superficially either. Yet again, neither the aesthetics nor the deep seated themes have anything to do with racism or other forms of prejudice.
My point? Erikson denounces Lovecraft “as a symbol”. He puts emphasis on this, saying that symbols are potent. But the thing is that Lovecraft was NEVER seen as a symbol of racism. I dare say that pretty much no one who worships Lovecraft, including me as a kid, does it recognizing Lovecraft as a racist. Or BECAUSE Lovecraft was a racist.
What I mean is that celebrating Lovecraft was NEVER a way to implicitly or explicitly celebrate racism. In our modern culture Lovecraft’s influence is completely absent of racist connotations. And now, to transform Lovecraft and denounce Lovecraft as a SYMBOL of racism is from my point of view a manipulation. An appropriation of a symbol, twisted to represent something that it didn’t represent up to this point. And part of a certain modern revisionism that can be quite pervasive with its ‘instrumentation’.
Yet now we know better. We have a poem, written when Lovecraft was 21 or 22 years old, and looking carefully in his private letters, and traces here and there in his stories. You can see enough evidence that, indeed, Lovecraft was likely a racist, and a fairly vicious one. Even if it seems he was also getting saner as time passed. Reading this I personally, definitely, have to reconsider Lovecraft. Yet this doesn’t automatically invalidates what I appreciated until now. Nor it replaces the symbol itself. Nor I will accept the re-framing of that symbol.
Some might raise the observation that Lovecraft was a man of his time, and therefore excusable for his objectionable views on race. Of course, there were other men (and women) of that time, who were not racists. Some of them, indeed, were neither white nor male. Accordingly, to those apologists attempting the ‘historical context’ argument, it just doesn’t fly, folks. The proof of that is plain enough and I’ll state it here: those who seek to apologise for the beliefs and attitudes of people in the past invariably do so in defense of the egregious and the objectionable. Nobody apologises for those people in the past who held virtuous views, do they? No, they laud such people and name them unusually enlightened.
Lovecraft had neighbours who were not racists. The historical context argument is bullshit.
I would turn around that stance. Being a man of his time doesn’t free Lovecraft of responsibilities, but from my point of view makes this problem intangible. We are alive and we judge, but what’s important is our actions.
The problem with Lovecraft being a man of his time is that you can’t face him. This is important. A “racist” is not simply some guy that needs to be judged and condemned, and be made into an example. A racist is someone that needs to be challenged. You have to confront these views, oppose them not as a “campaign”, but by going deep in this mentality, to understand it, expose it and then defuse it. But we can’t do anything like that with Lovecraft. Whether he was a racist or not, whether this deeply affected and nourished his fiction, these are all matters of speculation. We don’t have ways to probe the psyche of a dead man, only delusions that we can from our high moral perch.
This is Mieville:
“Yes, indeed, the depth and viciousness of Lovecraft’s racism is known to me …It goes further, in my opinion, than ‘merely’ *being* a racist – I follow Michel Houellebecq (in this and in no other arena!) in thinking that Lovecraft’s oeuvre, his work itself, is inspired by and deeply structured with race hatred. As Houellebecq said, it is racism itself that raises in Lovecraft a ‘poetic trance’. He was a bilious anti-semite (though one who married a Jew, because, if you please, he granted that she was ‘assimilated’), and if you read stories like ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, the bile you will see towards people of colour, of all kinds (with particular sneering contempt for African Americans unless they were suitably Polite and therefore were patricianly granted the soubriquet ‘Negro’) and the mixed communities of New York and, above all (surprise surprise – Public Enemy were right) ‘miscegenation’ are extended and toxic.”
This for me is comparable to fan-fiction. It’s purely speculation, whether plausible or not, a fictional interpretation of Lovecraft.
This modern certainty of being able to take some piece of fiction and SEIZE the deep psyche of its writer is nothing else but delusional and hubris. And, again, it’s a DELIBERATE manipulation used for personal ends.
Back to the WFA. I don’t see anything wrong in the choice of changing the “symbol” of the award, so I don’t find anything outrageous in the decision to use something else. The problem lies in the identity of that award, of course. One makes an award, and decides what it should ideally represent. An award isn’t a “thing”, it’s an agreement between people to symbolize a certain thing, so there isn’t any antecedent truth to appeal to.
It’s consequential that whatever the WFA people want the award to represent, it will represent. And that they should choose the symbol that better represents that value (and so even acknowledging that Lovecraft is ill suited for that role).
Yet, there lies the problem. Maybe those who already got the award didn’t consider the award to be characterized THAT way. Erikson writes as a premise that the values of WFA are: philosophy of inclusiveness and diversity. But was it always like that? There can be good fantasy even if it doesn’t celebrate diversity as its main purpose. This would be a specific angle to impose on a genre that is otherwise wider.
So it’s even possible that if the WFA, specifically, becomes a “philosophy of inclusiveness and diversity”, then it’s an award that is changing. That is being wielded for a different use. It gains more of a specific identity, but it also begins, if you want, to “discriminate”. To select fiction that is a possible candidate from fiction that won’t be.
A great piece of fantasy that doesn’t, specifically, celebrates diversity as its political point may not be anymore suited for WFA, because WFA acquires a specific slant and color. It embeds a political message that it wants to celebrate.
So, I put emphasis on that. The problem is not that there’s something wrong celebrating those positive values, but that the award might be seen as acquiring a different identity, and so the replacement of its symbol (the bust) follows a change that already happened about identity and purpose. And it is legitimate that some people who treasure “fiction”, don’t want fiction to be strictly caged within an imposed morality or political purpose. Because it’s fiction, and fiction isn’t required to follow political canons to be good. It can be great fiction that is about or includes politics, and is celebrated for that reason too, but it can be also without and still be vehicle of a completely different message.
But again, people change and institutions change. In the end the WFA award can change too, and celebrating inclusiveness and diversity is surely a worthy cause, if hopefully not totalitarian. All these “literary” prizes have very hazy identities and they matter very little, exactly because you can never see explicitly what makes one different from the other, and in the end it’s all more of a social game with its peculiar rules more than anything related to a literary value of any kind.
I’d only conclude with a suggestion. So Lovecraft isn’t exactly ideal if your goal is celebrating diversity. This should be evident to everyone, okay? That means that the decision to replace that symbol is understandable and well motivated. What do you change Lovecraft with, then? My suggestion is that you make a ‘bust’ of Cthulhu instead.
Which by the way would look fucking amazing.