Friday, October 10, 2014

Via Salon: It's OK to admit that H.P. Lovecraft was racist.

Image from The Royal Academy at Osyth

Also at Salon, I read this article from September about fans of H.P. Lovecraft and winners of the World Fantasy Award which is a caricatured bust of Lovecraft dealing with his racism.

By Laura Miller via Salon

The World Fantasy Awards, presented at the World Fantasy Convention every fall, have been around for almost 40 years. The trophy for such categories as Novel, Short Fiction and Anthology is a caricatured bust of H.P. Lovecraft, author of such classics of weird fiction as “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Lovecraft is a beloved figure in pop culture, and an influence on everyone from the Argentinian metafictionist Jorge Luis Borges to the film director Guillermo del Toro, as well as untold numbers of rock bands and game designers.

But not everyone who wins a “Howard” likes the idea of keeping Lovecraft’s face around the house. Nnedi Okorafor, who won the WFA for best novel in 2011 (“Who Fears Death”), wrote a blog post about her discomfort with the trophy after a friend showed her a racist poem that Lovecraft wrote in 1912. Enough dissatisfaction has accumulated to inspire another writer, Daniel Jose Older, to petition the WFA’s administrators to change the award to a bust of the late Octavia Butler, an African-American author more commonly identified with science fiction.

Whether or not Butler would be the right choice (other commenters have suggested a non-portrait design), what’s most surprising about the ensuing debate over the proposal is how defensive it has made some members of Lovecraft’s extensive following. The fuss has accentuated some of the shortcomings of our increasingly fan-driven culture.

I think this concept of "fan-driven culture" is something that I'll be thinking about and touching on for a while. I think I touched on it a bit in my last post in which I make the statement that we give too much weight to the things celebrities say.

We live in a culture increasingly dominated by fandoms, and while the enthusiasm of fans can be invigorating it’s not always conducive to critical thought. When we love a writer’s work — and I must confess that I do love Lovecraft’s, if not everything about it — we often have an attendant and childish desire to idolize its maker. In Lovecraft’s case, this impulse is particularly perverse because the power of his fiction derives from the hot mess of its creator’s psyche. Like Poe, Lovecraft speaks to a gnarled, doomy and phobic corner of human nature that all of us visit from time to time.

This is leavened by the undeniable camp appeal of his prose style, with all its wheezing, creaking, gibbering, florid and hilariously hyperbolic excesses: “I felt the strangling tendrils of a cancerous horror whose roots reached into illimitable pasts and fathomless abysms of the night that broods beyond time.” Some readers cannot tolerate such cavalcades of bossy adjectives; the critic Edmund Wilson once complained, “Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words — especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.” Which is a fair cop … and yet, and yet. For the Lovecraft buffs I know, the silliness is a significant part of the charm.

If there was ever a writer who should not be taken too seriously, it’s this one. Although Lovecraft’s stated theme — the terror of confronting the insignificance of humanity in an unfeeling, unthinking universe — is as heavy as it gets, the latent content of carnal, particularly sexual, revulsion often threatens to take over. The oozing goo, the primordial squids! Whatever Lovecraft thought he was doing, he wasn’t big on self-awareness, or else he’d have been Beckett. Freud and his theories of repression and sublimation become impossible to resist when you’re tracing this author’s energy to its source — that is, to all the stuff Lovecraft was avoiding thinking about while allegedly facing the unthinkable. This is what makes his fiction go.

[...]

Of all the people currently expressing their reservations about Lovecraft and the WFA trophy, I’ve yet to find one who’s telling others to stop reading him. In fact, most of these critics continue to enjoy his work for its imaginative scope, gothic sensibility and any number of other reasons. The World Fantasy Award, however, is another matter. It’s an expression of the values of a community, not a reader’s private choice. When Joshi writes, “If Nnedi Okorafor and China MiĆ©ville [another WFA winner who objects to the trophy] are so offended at owning the WFA, they should simply return it and be done with the matter,” he is essentially telling writers like Okorafor that they must accept an honor from that community in the form of a man who considered them to be “semi-human” and filled “with vice.” Suck it up, or get out. I’m pretty sure this is not the message the World Fantasy Convention meant to send when they gave Okorafor the prize in the first place.

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