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H.P. Lovecraft’s racism & The World Fantasy Award statuette

Nnedi Okorafor, this year’s winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel (and a contributor to the upcoming Apex Book of World SF 2!), has a post up discussing the issue of the award statuette being shaped in the likeness of H.P. Lovecraft, a notorious racist (favourite quote – “ stunted brachycephalic South-Italians & rat-faced half-Mongoloid Russian & Polish Jews, & all that cursed scum!” – courtesy of Scott Edelman).

Nnedi writes:

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.

The first thing I did was consult the hive mind on facebook. And what a conversation ensued. Several authors (including Steve Barnes and Jeff VanderMeer) weighed in on the topic. See the conversation here. This discourse led me to ask the winner of last year’s World Fantasy Award for Best Novel China Miéville (he’s also written and lectured extensively on Lovecraft) what he thought. He had much to say on the matter:

“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.”

It’s not as if I haven’t encountered this issue before. One of my favorite authors is Stephen King. Yet, in several of his novels (including one of my all time favorites- The Talisman), he features Super Duper Magical Negros. That’s a very mild example. I certainly don’t feel that King hates black people.
Do I want “The Howard” (the nickname for the World Fantasy Award statuette. Lovecraft’s full name is “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”) replaced with the head of some other great writer? Maybe. Maybe it’s about that time. Maybe not. What Iknow I want it to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that… as opposed to never mention it or explain it away. If Lovecraft’s likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist. – read the full post.

December 15, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

9 Comments

  1. It should be changed.

    Brilliance in the service of prejudice is still brilliance, but that doesn’t mean we should glorify it. We’ve grown. Perhaps we should include more writers – a rolling set of them, randomly chosen, or a small group of them sitting around at a debate. Whatever, it should reflect fantasy as a whole, not just one man’s nightmare.

    It’s more than history. Will you hand a statue of this man to a black or hispanic of asian writer when they win?

    Comment by Anne | December 15, 2011

    • “Will you hand a statue of this man to a black or hispanic of asian writer when they win?”

      Check the links before you ask. Nnedi Okorafor IS black.

      Comment by Bill | December 15, 2011

  2. Perhaps consideration of the time period is in order to put the issue in perspective. Although leeches have made a comeback in the medical field, they were used quite often in early medicine to “cure” numerous ailments, a practice we would see as barbaric today, at one time they were not only quite common but were seen as a “proper” treatment. Racism today is not acceptable but during the time the author lived it was quite common. Am I saying that it should be accepted without reservation? No, but it is perhaps understandable given the time period.

    Comment by Terry T | December 15, 2011

  3. I agree w/ Terry T. If we eliminate all references to artists from the last 150 years who held some level of racist ideas, we won’t have much art to appreciate. That being said, neither should we gloss over such sentiments. For one thing, it demonstrates that society can change.

    Don C

    Comment by Don Calkins | December 16, 2011

    • Using a Lovecraft statuette to represent the World Fantasy Award virtually eliminates all references to POC, jewish and women writers, and references to writers who hold liberal, leftist or feminist ideas as well. In short, when I look at the list of this year’s nominees and winners, it eliminates references to a lot of people who get nominated and win World Fantasy Awards nowadays. So there definitely is some change in society, but do we really need a Lovecraft statuette to see that?

      Comment by Anubis | December 16, 2011

  4. There is a world of difference between the ‘casual’, unthinking racism of the period, and Lovecraft’s attitudes. It isn’t a question of eliminating all references to the general ideas of the time, but rather whether we couldn’t find someone (or something) a little less disgusting to represent one of the greatest honours of fantasy.

    Personally, I’d like to see something rather than someone, anyway. A dragon? A star? A shapeless lump onto which we could each project our own interpretation? Anyway, something with a little less unpleasant baggage attached to it.

    Comment by Milena Benini (@Milerama) | December 16, 2011

  5. It’s one of those areas where I almost wish I didn’t have information about the author.
    Like Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” was always on my “Why haven’t you read this yet?” list, but after reading his stance on gay marriage, I almost didn’t want to read anything of his any more. (I finally broke down and found a copy of Ender in a used bookstotre last month, and yes, it’s wonderful. Crap.)

    On another note, thank you for the “Super Duper” link and article, as it turned me on to “Dark Matter” for the first time, and just in time to get the last used copy from Amazon. ( I bought Volume two too, to make it so you got SOMETHING from the whole deal. You like that? using all three homonyms together like that?).

    Thank you for some brain exercise.

    Comment by wygit | December 16, 2011

  6. Saying that Lovecraft was “a man of his time” (which he wasn’t, as Milena points out) is to miss the point spectacularly: the real issue is whether to continue using his image as the highest honor in the fantasy writing field.

    Some traditions are best discarded. To name just a few: exhibiting bloody sheets after a wedding, burning widows, having slaves… using a bust of a virulent racist as a sign of honor.

    Wygit, you can find a particularly cogent analysis of Ender’s Game by John Kessel here: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi/Killer_000.htm

    Comment by Athena Andreadis | December 18, 2011

  7. Nnedi, your response to the HPL statuette is thought-provoking and sensitive, and interesting to read.

    I’ve always found Lovecraft’s “The Facts in the Case of Arthur Jermyn” (written in 1920, published 1924, I think) fascinating on the issue of HPL’s racism. It’s a story whose “shocking revelation” (that there can be *no such thing* as a reliably “pure” racial stock) absolutely undermines the cranky racial theories which Lovecraft subscribed to. I’ve no idea what might have been in Lovecraft’s mind when he wrote it, but it reminds me of his famous introduction to “The Call of Cthulhu”, to the effect that if we could piece together our fragments of “dissociated knowledge” about the universe, the discovery of what’s *really* going on would drive us mad – which is classic paranoia. It’s the racist realising that there really is no justification for his views and that his paranoia can’t be simply blamed upon others – but still not being able to overcome his world-view. Lovecraft’s racism seems to be much more general (and much more pathological) than simply hating different groups. He simply was deeply uneasy (on a collective level) about virtually everyone who wasn’t shabby-genteel Providence pseudo-aristocracy, and his fiction deliberately exaggerates the worst aspects of this unease. Hence the retreat into the antiquarian Englishness of his early letters, which he and everyone else knew was a pose and a joke, but was just about the only place he could go. (As ST Joshi and others have pointed out, this didn’t prevent him from being a kind and intelligent person who partly grew out of his early excesses, but that’s not an excuse.)

    Lovecraft’s always reminded me of the old Yorkshire habit (at least, my relatives used to do it; there are probably variants everywhere) of, after a session of putting the world to rights, ending with “Ah, but *all* folk’s queer save thee and me . . . “
    [significant pause]
    “. . . and ah’m not so sure about thee.”

    As for the award itself; well, Lovecraft is honoured because he brought a toolkit to the practice of fantasy writing which enabled himself and other 20th century fantasy writers to express their anxiety about the world. But this toolkit’s greatly flawed, and while modern fantasy is shaped by Lovecraft there’s no reason why it should keep that shape (and every reason why it should adapt and develop). But I don’t want to simply pillory the World fantasy Award. We’re all trapped by our history. I’m uneasily thinking of the Hugo award for sf (Hugo Gernsback certainly had character flaws, especially when it came to paying his writers on time). While Gernsback certainly shaped modern sf, there’s every argument that, if we were honouring achievement in science fiction by means of an award named after a famous founding figure, we should have called it a “Mary”. (Though it would be great fun to have awards for sf, detective fiction, and horror *all* called “Edgars”.)

    Comment by Andy Sawyer | December 20, 2011


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