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bear by san

March 2017

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me at wfc

bring me the head of H. P. Lovecraft

So, I come to you tonight, on the evening of the World Fantasy Awards, to congratulate the winners--and to talk a little bit about Howie's Head.

First: Congratulations, winners! I'm thrilled for every one of you! And congratulations, nominees! You get to feel almost as smug. 

And now on to the controversy, and my completely personal take on it.

For those of you who don't know, the World Fantasy Award statuette is a wonderfully grotesque Gahan Wilson caricature sculpture of H. P. Lovecraft. It's fondly known as "the Easter Island Head," which should give you an idea of what it looks like, if you haven't seen one.

It definitely has a bit of the Innsmouth Look, if you know what I mean, which is probably only appropriate.

So, there are people in the community who would like to see the statuette changed, because it honors somebody (H. P. Lovecraft) who was in his work and his life undeniably racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic*. And not any garden-variety systemic racist, either: this was a person whose vicious and frankly nauseating racial determinism and belief in genetic "degeneracy" serves as a foundation for his entire body of work.

It's existential despair and visceral horror of "miscegenation" all the way down, like a stack of turtles descending into the abyss.

When it comes to the statue, I... have mixed emotions. I personally would love an ugly stumpy Howie head in my living room, whether it were to be me or that boy I like who were to bring it home. My reasons for this are personal and illogical and completely subjective:

First, frankly, I love Gahan Wilson. I have a complicated relationship with Lovecraft, but his work was formative for me back in the day, and arguing with his racism did win me a Hugo. More objectively, he is one of the people who created the foundations of fantastic fiction and the modern genre of fantasy.

And... the World Fantasy Award is something I've aspired to for decades. I'd love to create something that was found worthy of this recognition someday.

In short, I have a deep personal affection for the ugly old thing. I covet it, the way I once coveted a shiny rocket ship. (I kind of covet a cube of lucite with some planets in, too, but I've never been nominated for one of those.)

What other major genre award comes with a dead-serious warning not to put it in your fishtank? (It kills the fish. Which is, again, only appropriate.)

But...here's the thing. I consider Nnedi Okorafor a friend, and I also consider her to be one of the best writers in the genre today. And she's a recipient of this award. (Interestingly, the year she won, the best novel nominees included two other black female writers.) Her essay on the topic is here.

Go read it.

I'll wait.

Whatever my personal affection for the ugly little lump of fish-poisoning pewter is, my feelings can't compare with the conflict that people like Nnedi feel when honored for groundbreaking work like Who Fears Death (Go read that, too, but finish this first, there's not much left.) with a statuette that is a constant reminder of, in her words: "The fact that many of The Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us."

My attachment to the current statue can never be as important as that.

I understand from twitter that the WFA committee stated this year that changing the statuette is under consideration. scott_lynch and I had a conversation about this in the car not long ago, and one of the things we talked about is that one way to resolve some of these conflicts between tradition and attempting to be decent human beings would be to establish a rotating stable of heads, as it were.

I'm a huge fan of the brilliant Octavia Butler, but I'm not sure she's a good choice for this particular honor: not only was she predominately a science fiction writer, but she's a terribly recent loss to the field and remains a much-beloved and mourned friend of many.

But even if we continue to honor writers who have been gone for at least twenty years--or longer--there are a number of people who could be recognized: Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore, Scheherazade, J.R.R. Tolkien, T. H. White, Hope Mirrlees, and Sutton E. Griggs, to name a few.  

Gahan Wilson's still around, you know.


*He was also mentally ill, and I suspect some of his incredible churning fear of the Other stems from that mental illness. Which is not an excuse in any way for things like the poem Nnedi quotes.

Comments

Scheherazade! Brilliant.
That was Scott's. He's kinda smart.
The Nebula award is a 'nebula'.

The Hugo award incorporates a 'rocket'.

Why not have the WFC be embodied by an object? A ring? A unicorn? A dragon? Something else?

I've heard a lot of those ideas, but they kind of make me sad. I may of course be an old fart who is stuck in her ways.
I admit to having mixed feelings about Lovecraft's face being used as an award. Changing the award to an object would bypass the problem, and there are other ways to honour our literary forebears.
I've seen a lot of non-people type suggestions, like a dragon or a wizard's hat. Does it have to be a person? Is having the statue be a person a distinction that separates it from somewhat more abstract award statues, like a rocket ship?

A while back I read through a whole slew of the various arguments about Howie's Head. I've toyed with writing something up about it myself but keep starting and stopping and deleting because it's such a touchy area. There's liking something that's problematic, but having problematic Howie be the face of the award is something else, I think.
I like the fact that the caricature honors the actual writers who came before, and honestly the Gahan Wilson ingredient means something to me to.

Abstractions are very nice, but the idea leaves me with a kind of crushing well of sadness, as if we were abandoning something important.
I've seen some arguments with suggestions for alternative individuals, which seem to lead to more arguments. Although none of them gave the multiple individuals in rotation, which could ameliorate that problem. Getting people to agree on one person would probably be impossible. Getting people to agree on a group might be a lot easier!
The only thing about Howie's Head that I've been particularly taken with is the way some winners have decorated him. I think it was Ellen Klages who pointed out to me that the Baskin Robbins two-scoop sundae baseball helmets fit him perfectly. Other writers I know have decked him out in Groucho glasses/nose/moustache, or a Rasta tam with knitted dreadlocks.

All very good ways to embarrass H.P. in absentia, but not enough to make me want to preserve his likeness.

I'd love to see the award take the form of something non-representational. The Nebula is a nice model.
I really like it being a caricature, honestly. I would be sad if it were just a gargoyle or an axe or something. We already have several of those.

I may be wrong about this, of course.
Change it to an actual Moai? Unless that would offend Rapa Nui people. (If it were up to me, I'd change it to a rampant unicorn -- it's probably good thing that I don't get to make these decisions. ^_^ )
Thank you for offering good food for thought.
I've definitely thought that while obviously a bigot, Lovecraft wasn't particularly worse than many people of his era, but that excuse failed once I read that poem - he was only 22 when he wrote it, and it contains a whole lot of exactly the sort of casually amused loathing that represents the utter depths of racism. After reading that, I'd not be remotely surprised to learn that if Lovecraft ever witnessed a lynching his reaction was cheering and clapping. I don't think I'll ever be able to look at anything by Lovecraft again in the same way.
If Butler's not a good choice because she was primarily an SF author, then Lovecraft's a bad choice, too, since he wrote horror far more than fantasy. I understand attachment to the object, but HP wasn't a good choice to start with, and there's always new attachments to be made.

I like the rotating gallery idea, if we must have people.
The convention has changed a lot since the inception, when the award figure was chosen--it was de facto more of a horror con then. One reason I suggest a chimera is that the various oddly matched parts can represent various sub-genres. (Plus, "chimerical" means fantastic or impossible.)
Horror and fantasy and dark fantasy were, at the time, the same commercial category, historically speaking.

But that's neither here nor there.
He was also mentally ill,

with the Tentacles of his Deity wrapped about his brain... flexing..
I know plenty of people with varying forms mental illnesses who manage NOT to be racist, so that's totally not relevant. Mental illnesses don't make you racist. Acting racist makes you racist.
Xenophobia, paranoia, compulsion, and other mental illnesses do actually affect things people say and believe, and I think it would be a little ablist and erasing of Lovecraft's illness for me to pretend otherwise.

(and I have my own suite of mental illnesses and neural atypicalities, as I'm sure you know)

That doesn't mean his racism isn't an issue, or that he doesn't bear responsibility for it, as I said above, because obviously it is.

there is no one size fits all with mental illness, how it presents itself is unique for each person. What they focus on as bad, evil or "the problem" if its racism or aliens or the NSA tracking us through our implanted chips, its very real for the person experiancing it.

One case that comes to mind is the Son of Sam who was getting messages from the dog.

I'm freezing this thread because I do not have the emotional bandwidth to moderate currently. No foul on anybody.

I'm never going to be in the running for this award, so my response is as a reader and lover of fantasy.

H P Lovecraft was a racist, American, horror writer.

The award is the World Fantasy Award.

Even putting the issue of his racism to one side for a moment, an ugly representation of an American horror writer seems like a bad choice for an award open to fantasy writers all over the world.

We Brits have always preferred more abstract covers on our books and this is definitely a case where something abstract (therefore not a dragon or unicorn, because fantasy is much wider than that!) would be a better fit. Perhaps a different designer from a different country each year? I am partly thinking here of one of the main prizes at the Welsh National Eisteddfod. The poet gets a chair, the winning novelist gets a crown and each one is an individual design.

We have many craftspeople in SF fandom; I'm sure something like that would be doable.
Rotating or alternative statues probably isn't economically possible: award statues are expensive, and without economies of scale from buying many years' worth at a time, they'd be outrageous. (This applies to custom statues, not the Mythopoeic Award which is chosen for Aslan but is a NY Public Library lion statue that can be bought commercially.)

I do understand what you say about statues of people giving a sense of history to the field, but I think most awards are abstract for a reason, including that humans, no matter how great, are apt to leave embarrassing and upsetting legacies.

I like the idea of a chimera, for reasons outlined above.
Mmmm. Maybe if it was bound in iron bands and chain, encased in clear plastic, and then dropped in a fish tank. The plastic covering should protect the fish. And as they say, it's the thought that counts. ;-)
Keep the Lovecraft. Getting upset in the 21st century about the racist views of a writer who was born in the 19th century and had serious psychological issues that influenced his perception of the world (and are part of the reason he wrote his powerful and disturbing fantasy) seems rather absurd to me.

If that's not and option, change it to an object or animal. Really, the rotating stable of heads is a bad idea. We would just have a new controversy every few years.