For those outside the SF and Fantasy community the current strife within SF and Fantasy fandom might seem ludicrous. With names like Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, terms like Social Justice Warriors, and the increasing levels of online harassment, vitriol, hatred, and threats of violence, it can seem like a bad soap opera in which stakes are raised ever higher over insignificant things.
For those outside fandom, the ink spilled on these issues seems a waste given all the other things the media could be covering, although whether or not Actor A is dating Actor B has never really struck me as an important news story anyway.
But for those of us within SF and Fantasy fandom, academia, and publishing, these incidents are not insignificant, they are not mountains made out of mole-hills, but are very real arguments. The threats of violence are real. The online harassment is real. The hatred is real. And the behaviour of some people, who I am sure are nice people once you get to know them, is about as disgusting and reprehensible as you can get.
This all seems to be happening as SF and Fantasy try to make their way into the 21st Century. To attempt to recognise that the literary landscape of the new millennium is broader, wider, deeper and far more diverse than it was before. That fandom crosses genders, politics, sexualities and interests. That authors are coming from more and more diverse backgrounds and trying to articulate ever greater points of view. And there are those who would prefer to have the genres remain static, never changing, trapped in perfect amber, and coloured by nostalgic (and at times fairly racist and misogynist) rose-tinted glasses.
The latest/current kerfuffle arises over the decision to no longer use a bust of renowned horror writer, and racist, H.P Lovecraft, as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award.
I know, I know, it is hard to believe that anyone would be upset that the bust of a long deceased horror writer is no longer going to be used for a fantasy award in the 21st Century, but apparently some people feel pretty strongly that this is a snub to H.P Lovecraft. Unfortunately, due to the fact that he is long dead, he wasn’t available to comment. However S.T. Joshi, a prominent advocate, editor and scholar of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, was quick to announce his displeasure at this decision to stop using the bust of an author to represent achievement in the entire field of fantasy in the modern era, and announced that he would be returning his two World Fantasy awards. Given that he is such a fan of Lovecraft, and that now he will no longer be able to get new ones, you would think that he would want to hold on to them. But apparently even he doesn’t really want them in his house.
Nnedi Okorafor eloquently wrote about her discomfort over the award (to put it mildly) nearly four years ago (http://nnedi.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/lovecrafts-racism-world-fantasy-award.html) and Jason Sanford (http://www.jasonsanford.com/blog/2015/11/of-their-times) recently outlined why a bust of Lovecraft is not really the kind of symbol any self-respecting fan of SF or Fantasy would want as an award. So I recommend you read those blogs if you want further details.
And, to be honest, there is not really much more that can be added to their observations. Lovecraft was racist. Yes, he wrote a load of books that many of us have devoured and enjoyed, or at the very least interrogated and examined. But just because he wrote a load of horror stories in the early 20th century, and was a significant pulp author, doesn’t really answer the question as to why he should continue to be the symbol for a fantasy award in the modern day when, quite frankly, he represents a deeply troubling aspect of our culture that upsets a significant number of fans and authors.
I am fairly sure we can come up with a better award statue that doesn’t piss people off. And, if people so desire, I am sure they can set up a HP Lovecraft Award and use the bust design for that. I am not sure what the criteria would be though… racist, homophobic horror literature that belongs in the past?
So that brings us on to what the new award should look like. The World Fantasy award should probably reflect two major things. Firstly ‘World’ and secondly, ‘Fantasy’. There is a third aspect that might have some bearing and that is that most of the categories are literary, so some aspect of literature might be nice to work in there.
So here are a few ideas and comments.
Avoid using the bust of any other author, no matter how popular or influential. It isn’t worth the hassle, and no one author can truly represent the breadth and depth of fantasy writing in the modern day. It also has the problem that some people will think that author is awesome, while others won’t be as impressed. You can’t please everyone. Plus, linking the award to a physical person will run the risk of real life intruding, once again, into what should be an award for current work, not what the award is modelled on.
Suggestions like a ‘sword in the stone’, while iconic fantasy, are really only representative of a particular type of fantasy, and that myth is located firmly in the Western Anglo tradition. If we want an award that represents the world then we might have to think a little harder about it.
The iconic nature of dragons could also be a sticking point for some given that Eastern Dragons, Western Dragons, Feathered Serpents and so on, have ties to specific cultures. So having one might, and I say might, be seen as excluding the others.
I did see a suggestion that the award take the form of the discworld from Terry Pratchett’s work. As much as I am a fan of his books, I don’t think that tying the award to a specific author’s work is the way forward. By all means have a Terry Pratchett award and use it there, but for World Fantasy can we possibly have something that is not tied to any one work or author?
We could have the globe as the major aspect of the award with a crack forming in it as if it is an egg with the snout of a draconic thing emerging. That would tie into the World aspect, as well as represent the fantastic element as the fantastic emerges from the world. Given that only the snout would be visible it would be hard to say if the creature was from one specific culture.
A globe held in a fantastic talon. Hard to tie talons to specific cultural stories, and if the globe spun on an axle the winner could decide what countries faced out.
A book with a wand lying across the pages. The book could have the word fantasy written in multiple languages across its pages.
A wizard’s staff lying across a spell book.
A book with claws, tentacles and such escaping the pages.
A tree with fantastic symbols and icons hanging from its branches. The symbols could be taken from different mythologies and cultures. The tree could be stylised or completely unreal to avoid promoting any one specific mythology (I am looking at you Norse Mythology).
A map scroll partially rolled with an adventurer’s pack with potions and a spell book. Throw in a wand, a staff, or anything else you want for good measure.
The more I think about it the more I realise that even if Lovecraft wasn’t a racist, his bust was completely inappropriate for the award anyway. There are so many different symbols, icons, and aspects of fantasy that can be used that it is ridiculous that we used his head for so long anyway.