by Steven Erikson
A commentary on the World Fantasy Awards Committee’s decision to replace the Gahan Wilson H. P. Lovecraft bust.
This past weekend I sat at a table during the banquet and awards ceremony at the Saratoga Hilton, as Guest of Honour for the 2015 World Fantasy Awards. This was where the announcement was made official: the WFA was bringing to an end the H.P. Lovecraft bust given annually in recognition of a host of exemplary accomplishments within the field of Fantasy literature and related media. The bust’s replacement is yet to be determined, and without doubt will be selected with the WFA’s philosophy of inclusiveness and diversity foremost in mind. The applause in response to this announcement was loud and effusive.
In a fit of contrariness I had elected to attend the convention without my laptop, and with my phone on the fritz I found myself essentially incommunicado with everyone but those whom I met and hung out with at the convention. Returning home, however, I found on my Facebook page a commentary on the WFA’s decision, written by the multiple WFA winner Steve Jones. Accompanying the commentary was a photo of three Lovecraft busts.
I quote his comment here:
“I am inordinately proud of my three World Fantasy Awards. I am proud of the work and the body of work that I won them for. I am proud that they are a stylised representation of H.P. Lovecraft – one of the most influential and creative writers of imaginative fiction the genre has ever known. I am proud that they are nicknamed the “Howie” award after that other influential giant of fantasy literature, Robert E. Howard. And I am proud that they were designed and sculpted by Gahan Wilson, a founding member of the World Fantasy Convention and one of our most talented artists and authors in the field of the macabre. It is an honour to own and display these awards in my home. What I am not proud of is the World Fantasy Convention Board and their cowardly response to a small but vocal minority of people who have no sense of history or tradition. Censorship – in all its malicious and insidious forms – is always reprehensible. Let him (or her) who is without sin cast the first stone . . .” (Steve Jones)
This statement earned plenty of ‘likes’ and the reply stream was extensive, with a mostly unanimous rendition of ‘hear hear’ and similar affirmatives. And among those replies I found the common list of such terms as ‘social justice warriors’ (and indeed, even ‘social justice bullies’) as well as ‘political correctness,’ both used in their modern pejorative meaning. The contempt and disdain veritably dripped.
Over my morning coffee, I sat at the desk, laptop open before me, and simply stared, dumbfounded. My wife took note (that in itself a miracle of sorts) and asked me what was wrong? I stumbled to answer, and in the end could only shake my head. It’s now a few days later, and Steve Jones has since added to the topic with a poem, further indicating his objection to the WFA’s decision, and yet more replies and ‘likes’ have piled up on that post.
Normally, it’s in my nature to let these debates slide past me, to leave people to their opinions. Most of what I have to say, I say first and foremost through my fiction, and even in that context, not in terms of opinions or agenda, or didactic polemics disguised as fiction. I am by nature inclined to question and hold to a deep-seated suspicion of certitude, especially when it comes to human affairs.
That said … holy crap.
Symbols are potent things. Before I expound on the relevance of that statement, let me first make the following distinction, because not only is it important, it is also essential to the point I am about to make. The past winners of the WFA are among a select few: their accomplishments in the field are exemplary and impressive. Steve Jones (and all the others) earned their awards for their extraordinary talent and effort to advance Fantasy (and related) literature – as writers, editors, publishers and as fans of the genre. This is not in question, and nothing related to the Lovecraft bust should in any way degrade or discount their exceptional merit as recipients.
But I will say it again: symbols are potent things. As the physical, durable manifestation of a community of peers’ recognition for achievement, they should in every way reflect the inclusiveness, the diversity, and the unmitigated adherence to merit above all other considerations.
Lovecraft was a poet and storyteller of the macabre. He was loyal to his friends and supportive of their efforts. He was also a white supremacist. This detail was not relegated to his private life, either, hidden away like a disreputable habit. In his poetry and in his fiction he evoked the racist creed, labelling people of colour as inferior versions of humanity.
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.
Among the replies to Steve Jones’ first post, a WFA winner was mentioned as being perhaps a principal advocate for change in voicing her offense at the Lovecraft bust, eventually leading to the WFA Committee’s decision to retire it. To which the venerable and Lifetime Achievement award winner (and friend) Ramsey Campbell chimed in to point out that this particular winner was unaware at the time of the racist fug surrounding Lovecraft the man, only later making her objections after being informed by someone else.
What a curious statement! I do adore you, Ramsey, and at the very real risk of burning a bridge I’d rather not burn, what on earth was the point of that observation? That her objection can be dismissed based on her ignorance of the man that bust portrayed?
Let’s indulge in a scenario here: a man is pulled out from some previously isolated, utterly unknown tribe in the depths of, oh, say the Congo. He is brought forward to receive the highest award possible for his achievements in whatever – let’s go for Genetic Purity: after all this guy’s got the oldest genetic sequence on the planet. Humbled and delighted he graciously accepts this strange bust portraying some strange man he knows nothing about. A short time later, he’s sitting at a café, sipping espresso, with the bust standing before him on the table. And he’s thinking, how lovely and generous and wonderful of those people at the Gene Sequencing Association, to think of me for something like this!’ At which point a fiercely frowning man walks up to his table and in a furious voice asks: “why do you have a bust of Adolf Hitler?” ‘Well,’ stammers the poor man, ‘he was big in the field of genetic purity. Wasn’t he?’
Culpability rests not with the unknowing recipient, but with those of us who know better.
In the shoes of that fictional man, I’d be stalking the hall of the Gene Sequencing Association, statue in hand and ready to bust some heads. Ramsay, would you blame me?
Steve, your objection seems misplaced, or at least the product of some strange misapprehension. You have the right to be proud to have thrice won the WFA. Nobody’s attacking your pride or sense of accomplishment: certainly not me. You have indeed earned it. My beef isn’t with any of that. It’s with Lovecraft as a symbol of the WFA’s appreciation and recognition of its peers. And this so-called ‘small but vocal minority of people who have no sense of history or tradition’ thing … really? Minority in what sense, exactly? Their objection to a white supremacist? No sense of history or tradition? Whose history? Whose tradition? Well, presumably, the correct one? The nineteenth and early Twentieth Century White Racist American one?
As for your objection (and poem) decrying censorship, I’m sorry, but who exactly is being censored here? Lovecraft’s more egregious writings are all available to be read by anyone. If you have the stomach for it.
I would humbly suggest that conflating the meritorious award with the bust that represents it is a mistake; to fuse your rightful pride in winning those awards with some sort of pride in the literary accomplishments of a talented but odious man, is a decision of dubious merit. Please reconsider. Your view of history and tradition (as inherently good things) is highly selective here, and it doesn’t wear well at all.
Before I leave this, I have to comment on three statements made (by people I don’t know) in the replies to Steve Jones’ post (acknowledging here that such replies do not necessarily reflect Mr. Jones’ own opinions or beliefs). I will quote them verbatim first:
David J. Schow It’s another cowardly cave-in to the PC police, who would gladly censor the writing as well, so long as some sensitive little snowflake doesn’t get all butt-hurt. It disrespects the award and insults everyone who ever adjudged it. Dostoyevsky wasn’t all that swell of a human being, either — where does it stop? Answer: It DOESN’T stop until everything is ashes and pabulum. The Mystery Writers of America award a trophy in the image of Poe; is that the next target? Now sit back and enjoy the feeding frenzy in this chum bucket, as folks fight to choose between (1) a bust of somebody who is totally, utterly inoffensive, and/or (2) a stylized safe-zone choice that will undoubtably [sic] resemble a dildo. Or a butt plug. Which would be (ahem) fitting.
Adrian Cole I agree wholeheartedly with you, Steve. I’m sick to death of all the recent political correctness for one reason or another. Bollocks! This award is not about racism. We’re getting too soft. Too particular, too sensitive. We don’t need to be. Life’s too fucking short.
I’ll address these in order. Schow’s opening line establishes the nature of the perceived enemy (to freedom, one supposes), invoking ‘cowardly’ and ‘cave-in’ and of course the ubiquitous ‘PC police,’ and then, having done so (said act of reading by yours truly implying a knowing nod and tsk tsk), proceeds to expound on the nefarious plans of these PC police in censoring ‘the writing’ (Lovecraft’s? I guess so), and things close out with the contemptuous dismissal of these ‘sensitive little snowflake(s).’ What follows is a highly contentious statement that eagerly invites the conflation of the award with the bust of Lovecraft, as if the two were one and the same. In effect, to disrespect Lovecraft is to disrespect every WFA award winner, and to insult everyone who adjudged it.
Uhm, who says so? Am I unique in ‘disrespecting’ Lovecraft (as a symbol of merit in Fantasy) while sincerely respecting all award winners? As for the insult to those adjudging that award, I have been one, and I’m not insulted in the least. Am I the only one?
We then move on to the bad habits of other writers in the past, leading to the outrageous notion that from now on every award should be symbolized by … what? Oh, ‘somebody who is totally, utterly inoffensive.’ Good grief, what a crime that would be! To think, an award symbol that doesn’t offend anybody! What will they think of next?
As for the dildo and butt comments … never mind. To each his own.
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.
Well, in the interest of fairness, if that’s your life, Mr Cole, you are welcome to it.
And now we come to Lawrence Person. Let me quote him again here: “Damn straight Stephen! This perpetual SJW culture war is driving people out of the field.”
I’m curious, who exactly is being driven out of the field? Please list names. Or never mind, it’s only Facebook, after all. What really interests me about this comment is the usage of this ‘perpetual SJW culture war,’ which appears as a lingering echo to the Sad/Rabid Puppy fiasco at the Hugos.
Clearly, there exists a group of people for whom Social Justice Warriors are the enemy. The descriptive is used pejoratively, demonstrably in tones of disdain, dismissal, disgust and a whole host of other disses. Similar to its antecedent, ‘political correctness,’ the common usage (as pejoratives) asserts the idea that such advocates have laid siege to freedom of expression.
But you see, I get hung up on the descriptive itself, because I am invariably led to ask myself: Who is against those who fight for social justice? For the moment, only two possibilities come to mind, and both are, at their core, idiotic.
- The self-avowed enemies of social justice are against social justice, and therefore for social injustice. Presumably, such people dream of some ideal fascistic state of tyranny in which they are the oppressors rather than the oppressed. You know, like how it used to be. Accordingly, they’re not interested in ‘freedom of expression’ at all. I assume we’re talking a serious minority here, but to use Steve Jones’ own phrase, they are a vocal minority.
- The self-avowed enemies of social justice are not enemies of social justice at all. Rather, they are enemies of a particular brand of social justice, one diametrically opposed to their own brand of social justice. In which case, their use of SJW as a descriptive of contempt is akin to unleashing a stream of sneering and invective at the (slightly altered) face in the mirror. Which makes their continued usage of the term sound, well, stupid.
Hey, the webscape is indeed a battlefield, and warriors patrol their ideological borders with zeal, and on each side there is a kind of amorphous sense of social justice. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. Have at it and let loose the dogs, etc. It’s all good fun, until somebody starts up with the threats and bullying and all those other defenses most eagerly employed by the losing side.
And let’s face it, one side is indeed losing. The world is moving on. It is discarding objectionable attitudes, prejudices and intolerance. All good things, yes?
The time was long past due on getting rid of that bust. And at the table at the banquet at the World Fantasy Awards, I made my applause loud and sustained. And as for the Lovecraft pin I wear to conventions, indicating a past nomination, I’d love to see a new version. In the meantime, however, I will continue to wear it, not in belligerent advocacy of H.P. Lovecraft, but to honour all past winners of the World Fantasy Award.
In my mind I can make that distinction. That I have to lies at the heart of the problem with having Lovecraft as our symbol of merit. To all future nominees and winners, you won’t have to face that awkward separation, and for that, you can thank that ‘vocal minority,’ who perhaps have not been vocal enough, and who are most certainly not a minority. Not in this field, not in any other.
Note: Edited to correct the name to Jones from Stone.