First, speaking personally, I think it’s fine for the World Fantasy Award to be something other than Gahan Wilson’s depiction of H.P. Lovecraft’s head. I say this as one whose shelves groan with H.P. Lovecraft, Gahan Wilson-illustrated work, and various bits of the Weird. Nick Mamatas’ suggestion of a chimera, a few years back, is the best thing I’ve heard thus far for a replacement. Unless plans are made to rotate the person who were to become The New Head, this debate would recur, and we do not have to have this fight again if we know we can avoid it.
Fantasy has changed in the almost 40 years since the first World Fantasy Convention, and having a WFA award that will sit reasonably well with the majority of recipients is a good thing. Lovecraft’s likeness was well-chosen in 1975, and he remains a viable candidate for the most influential 20th century U.S. writer of the fantastic… but he is divisive, and this is, in fact, the World Fantasy Award. Even if it were solely a U.S. award, it would be a poor choice in 2014 as we continue to confront the systematic racism that remains embedded in the fabric of the U.S., decades after the Civil Rights Era. In this context, holding onto Lovecraft sends a clear and unmistakable sign to writers and readers of color. Lovecraft will be no less excellent a writer if his face no longer graces the WFA statuette. If he fades from popularity over time, it will not be because of this brief tempest: it will be because readers no longer hold him in esteem. No amount of statuettes will change that.
S.T. Joshi’s vitriol in response to this affair is to be expected, his unfortunate “modest proposal” aside. As a critic, he does not generally hedge his judgments, nor is he shy with them, so his response isn’t a huge surprise to anyone who has followed his work. He is also a triple-threat: the pre-eminent editor of Lovecraft’s work, the most prominent scholar in the literature, and (especially lately) an editor of Lovecraftian fiction. He had a lead role in HPL’s move from the shadows into a place in the U.S. literary canon. Other early Weird authors haven’t made it, and may well not, because they have had no Joshi. HPL has nine times the amount of criticism indexed in the MLA International Bibliography as does Clark Ashton Smith, for instance, and the trend increases if you discount publications devoted to either author or to weird fiction generally. S.T. Joshi’s ox is probably being gored more than any other living person’s by the debate over The Head, with the possible exception of Gahan Wilson, or people who were instrumental in the original choice of author for the statuette.
Joshi also made a very good point in his most recent (September 18, 2014) blog post that deserves special attention, and it is so good that I wish, wish, wish his overall tone in this post were not so contemptuous: “No one from the past can stand such scrutiny.” Professional/academic critics may moan and groan about Author X’s personal life, and they may insert occasional asides into their criticism of the work, but they don’t so heavily concern themselves with whether Hemingway was 22% sexist or 96% sexist: they say he was sexist and (usually) move on. I’m not going to argue Lovecraft’s mores and attitudes on race, as I think it’s useless to estimate his level of racism by the standards of 2014, whether his views changed over time, how many people of color he had as friends (or spouse!). The argument doesn’t matter to me because he’s dead. There’s no changing the person he was, and he at times espoused views that most of us would consider racist, at times irredeemably and unforgivably so.
Nobody involved in this discussion knows the mores of 2100, and we can’t live our lives according to them, any more than Lovecraft could or should have lived his lives by our moral estimations. To take some obvious example, we currently do things as a species that may utterly repel our descendants. By any measure, we are carrying out ecosystem destruction that makes it impossible for countless species to survive. Whether we did this as a species in the past is immaterial; we know that we are doing it now, and the practice persists. We are eating animals with the ability to think and feel, by almost any measure. Our knowledge of this is increasing as we gradually pay greater attention to these questions as subjects, and yet I’m still going to eat tasty, tasty ham later today: meat from an animal that quite possibly screamed as it died, and knew fear, however briefly. You have probably done this, too. What would you say to your grandchildren, and how would you defend these practices, if we decide in fifty years that eating meat and ecosystem destruction are crimes? The answer is simple: you could say nothing. You would have acted indefensibly, and your grandchildren might say “they just didn’t know,” or “people were different then,” or “they were people of their time.” Perhaps, if you were lucky, they would simply remember the good that you had done, and try not to focus on the bad.
The same is true of Lovecraft. No one is perfect enough to be an idol, which–let’s face it–The Head pretty much is. This is why I think a change would be welcome. Should I one day be so successful as to write something WFA-worthy, I would love to take home the current statuette, but I would love Lovecraft’s work no less without his face gracing the award, and be no less grateful for it. I’ll never know what I’d think of Lovecraft if I met him, because I never will, but I can say that I do have friends who are readers and writers who endure disproportionate struggle and prejudice on account of their race, and I wish they did not face the prospect of winning an award that honored a man who would have considered them as less than human.