Lovecraft, Joshi, The Head, and Fantasy in 2014 (and 2100)

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.

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When Worlds Collide: Writing, Art, Academe, and the Story at the Heart of It All

Writers, in 5x5 Format

Writers in Plain Sight

The plan to rekindle my writing flame proceeds apace. I’m returning to writing and reading more steadily, with all the concomitant gains you’d expect. I downloaded Scrivener, am using it in turn with Dragon Naturally Speaking for dictation, or Sound Pilot (Smith-Corona scheme) when typing, or I’m writing by hand. I’ve had one co-written short story sale, I have another story in progress, and I’m getting the first chapter of Knife Fighting with Mondrian into shape, a novel I prematurely abandoned last year. And last night I finally re-hung my inspiration board, which has been sitting in a corner for far too long.

A funny thing happened, though, between now and my writerly productivity peak of a few years ago. When I got into the visual arts, I kept making analogies to writing, thinking about how one affected the other, etc.. All that time, however, I still thought of each as one thing affecting another. This is pretty much in keeping with how my life has often gone: on parallel tracks only occasionally overlapping.

Lately, I see story everywhere. It’s tempting to think this is part of the leveling-up process of writing, and that it’s an aspect of my personal teleology, but whether or no, I think it’s accurate to say that I’m thinking about story more than I have at any other time in my life. Not just plots for stories or scraps of prose running through my head (they’re still there), but everywhere I look, ties that feed into narrative. Different parts of my life seem to be usefully intersecting in ways that they didn’t previously. I’ve written about why librarians should write, and I’ve written about how librarianship informs my thinking about SF, but this seems to be a new strain of intermingling.

As such, I’ve added the category “whenworldscollide” to my blog. I may have more to write about this down the road, but for instance:

  • Back in February I attended the College Art Association conference in Chicago in order to co-present a poster. I attended an excellent panel there about finding common ground among museums, artists, and art historians, and many of the speakers framed their experience in terms of the overall story of the institution.
  • A couple weeks back, a symposium on the digital humanities was held by my university’s interdisciplinary program in media, art, and text. One of the presenters, Amanda Phillips, spoke about teaching literature majors to design games, and what everyone learned in the process, from social justice to the technical aspects of building games.
  • My work with James River Writers is expressly connected to story-land, but what I didn’t anticipate was how many RVA folks would talk to me about JRW and their interest in writing, the broad range of types of writing that my fellow members of JRW do, or how strongly some of the membership would respond to my work as a librarian.
  • Last weekend I helped run an unconference about the New South, social justice, and technology. One of the threads that ran through it was new ways of telling stories, and while I did have a part in weaving in that particular thread, I didn’t do so for creative writing reasons: it just fit.
  • And, of course, I work at James Branch Cabell Library. This wasn’t the reason I applied for the job, but it’s an ineluctable part of my daily existence, as is the extent to which we construct narratives around our collections, whether circulating, archival, or otherwise.

Examples could be multiplied. These days it seems like storytelling flows through just about everything I do. My avocation shows up in unlikely places at work, and my thinking about libraries shows up in association with my writing. That kind of interaction used to seem strange to me, but these days I tend to expect it, and it feels only natural.