In early August, the writer and editor Daniel José Older launched a petition on Change.org <www.change.org/p/the-world-fantasy-award-make-octavia-butler-the-wfa-statue-instead-of-lovecraft> to request that the World Fantasy Award administrators replace the current award statuette, a (haunting, grotesque, lovely) Gahan Wilson bust of H. P. Lovecraft, with a statuette of Octavia Butler. As of today, the petition has just short of 1400 signatures, including mine. I signed it because it identifies a serious problem; I signed it with reluctance because the proposed solution is not the right one.
Older’s petition offers a threefold argument: First, that Octavia Butler was an exemplary writer “across the imaginative genres from science fiction to historical fantasy to horror.” Second, that Lovecraft was an avowed racist and that his image on the award is deeply discomforting to recipients, especially those who are among the races that Lovecraft held in particular contempt (i.e., any skin color other than white). Third, that Lovecraft was a terrible wordsmith.
On the third point, I will go so far as to say that Older is flat-out wrong. Lovecraft’s position as a major figure in (the American strand of) fantasy is not accidental and not dismissible, and choosing to celebrate him as a major force for fantasy and horror was not accidental, either. Nick Mamatas has defended Lovecraft as a wordsmith in some depth on his Livejournal here <nihilistic-kid.livejournal.com/1893140.html>, which he tidily summarizes as “[HPL] had a pretty clear aesthetic and used polyphony well to build authority for the ineffable.” I recommend you to his article for more. Lovecraft’s place in the canons of both fantasy and American literature more broadly is secure, and deserved.
This is true even though Lovecraft’s racism is not seriously in doubt. It’s easy to focus on the astonishing, elaborately offensive, juvenile poem “On the Creation of N——s”, but beyond that his casual anti-black and anti-Asian racism are frequently on clear display in his fiction, from the Teeming Asian Masses imagery of “The Horror at Red Hook” and the minstrel-show caricature in “Herbert West, Reanimator” to the systematic othering of blacks in stories as wide-spread as “The Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Lovecraft’s racism is hardly unique in the world of letters, though it was pungent even by the standards of its time. And this matters. Nnedi Okorafor, a World Fantasy Award winner has written about how tiring and angering it is to learn, again and again, how many of the Elders of literature hated people like her and how, as a result, the honor that the Award is supposed to convey to its recipients is diminished by the ugly ghosts behind its visage (cf. <nnedi.blogspot.com/2011/12/lovecrafts-racism-world-fantasy-award.html>).
Hence the problem.
On the proposed solution: Octavia Butler was an exemplary writer, directly confronting issues of race, sexuality and gender, and institutional power when science fiction was reluctant to deal with any of them. However, she was never in her lifetime considered a fantasy writer. All of her novels, and all but one of her short stories, were published as science fiction. (Kindred, a time-slip novel, is arguably a fantasy, but was received as sf at the time.) Her memorial page on the SFWA site <www.archive.sfwa.org/members/Butler/> does not use the word. Fantasy simply is not part of her literary reputation.
I personally don’t have a great deal of concern for the sf/fantasy divide. But institutionally, the World Fantasy Awards do. The WFA was created, in large part, to direct critical attention to fantasy as a distinct literary tradition. It’s easy to forget, now, that in the 1970s fantasy was the poor cousin of science fiction, and it misses the point of celebrating fantasy to suggest giving its foremost award the face of a science fiction writer, no matter how brilliant the writer is. Given the diversity of fantasy, it’s hard to imagine any individual writer encompassing the whole field, actually.
So. I strongly support the idea of the petition. I urge the World Fantasy Convention to decide quickly on a replacement that can fairly represent all of fantasy and all of its audience and creators, whether it be a iconic creature such as a dragon or chimera (Mamatas’s suggestion); a map (my own preference) or a book; or something more abstract still. HPL’s head should be retired as soon as possible, not out of disrespect for Lovecraft as a writer or as a central figure in fantasy, but as a courtesy to generations of writers whom the WFA hopes to honor.
—Kevin J. Maroney
speaking for himself