12 November 2015

The World Fantasy Award: A Proposal In Two Parts

Fornit THIS Fornus, motherfuckers.

Part The First: A Note To Lovecraft Fanboys -or- The Shadow Out Of A Man Of His Time

So by now most people in fandom know what's happened: the World Fantasy Awards will no longer be using their statuette of Howard Phillips Lovecraft--sorry, their frankly ugly as sin statuette of Lovecraft--as their award. The reason is because Lovecraft is rightly seen as a virulent, hopeless racist and changing times dictate a change is necessary, especially now that more and more people of color--such as Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar--are becoming eligible for, and winning, the award. Thus, starting next year, something new will take Lovecraft's place. This has some fans of the late Mr. Lovecraft in a bit of a  . . . well, tizzy is probably too weak a word. It's more like an epic, childish shit fit of Brobdingnagian proportions.

Example #1:  Lovecraft biographer S T Joshi's petulant, foot-stomping rant in which he called the charges of racism against Lovecraft "slander." Which is hilarious, because there is example after example of Lovecraft's racism in his stories and in his letters. Joshi's frothing denialism of same speaks ill of him as an honest biographer and journalist. 

Example #2: The unbelievable example of Poe's Law that follows, screencapped from a Lovecraft fan group on Facebook by the always awesome Natalie Luhrs. Names have been blocked out to protect identities.


I cannot tell you how many times I have lost my shit over this and how much "MY HEAD IS FULL OF FUCK" this has produced in me. I cannot even describe the incredible lack of self-regard it takes to write guff like this.  

A couple of things I would like to point out here: First of all, pointing out someone's racism is pretty much the opposite of "whitewashing." Second, the initial complaints about the "Howard" award came from Nnedi Okorafor, who won it for her novel Who Fears Death, a critical and fan favorite in recent years. Likewise Sofia Samatar's win for "Selkie Stories Are For Losers." So these are people actually doing meaningful work in the field . . . which is more than one can say about dudes on Facebook who think calling out and then ending the association between a racist, insular New Englander and an organization that purports to represent the Fantasy genre worldwide is somehow "sad and pathetic." Methinks a glance in yonder mirror may be in order.

A few points, in no particular order: Lovecraft fans like to note that Lovecraft became less racist as he got older, and point out a few lone passages in his voluminous letters to illustrate this. However, Lovecraft never recanted his earlier racism--and even if he had, it still exists and is still ticking away much louder than any quiet admissions that "the liberals . . . were right," as he once said. More racists quote "On the Creation of Niggers" than NAACP members quote his later, nonspecific realizations that he maybe didn't know everything about everything. So please don't come at me with his gradual softening on race. The case against that is a lot bigger than the case for it. 

Likewise, please don't come at me with the "product of his time" argument. Because you know who else was a man of his time? Mark Twain. Mark Twain who, as Adam-Troy Castro so rightly noted this morning, "raged against discriminatory laws, had Huck Finn realize Jim was a person, crusaded against lynching, condemned our military actions against indigenous people, paid for the college education of the black man who became the mentor of Thurgood Marshall, was the first major American white to posit that black is beautiful, and wrote 'The War Prayer.' The thing is, there is a difference in being of your time, as we all are, and being for your time, let alone for all time." So please don't come at me with that load of mule muffins, either.

And so finally we come to the main argument: Lovecraft's influence on the fantasy genre. To which I say: whaHUH? Lovecraft is by everyone's admission--even the relentless fuck-knuckles in the screencap above--a writer of horror, and the macabre, and the weird. He did write some fantasy tales, notably "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," which is nowhere near as well remembered as his horror work. So since by everyone's metric Lovecraft is not really the most influential fantasist of all time, or even of the last century (an honor which surely must fall to either Tolkien or C. S. Lewis), can someone please for the almighty love of fuck tell me why the hell you're pissed off about this?! Quite honestly, the fantasy genre would be better served with an award that is actually representative of the damn genre, and of the genre as a worldwide phenomenon rather than as just a narrow, absurdly reductive slice of it.

Also, as an aside, please please please for the love of all that is holy and good PLEASE stop acting as if this is the end of Lovecraft ever being read ever again, anywhere. I assure you that there are no PC Thugs about to storm your house looking to confiscate your treasured Arkham House first edition of The Dunwich Horror and Others. Trust me, we simply do not give a fuck. Nobody is calling for publishers to stop releasing new editions of Lovecraft. So please stop acting like that's what's happening. You just look frickin' silly.

. . . WHAT.

As to Lovecraft being a "master" of the writer's art that we all imitate: well, don't make me fuckin' laugh, man. I can name you five contemporaries of Lovecraft off the top of my head--Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, and Jack Williamson--who were far better writers than Lovecraft would ever be. That is not to say Lovecraft was a terrible writer--at his best, he could be very good indeed. But in his innumerable troughs he was mediocre, prone to endless repetition of the same words, images and concepts, and especially to overwritten prose of the type that would make Theodore Dreiser cough and tug his collar. Better stories than Lovecraft's can and have been written; just because he is the progenitor of a certain style of cosmic weirdness does not (and should not) make him the be-all and end-all of fantasy writing. If you're honestly going to tell me that Tolkien, Lewis, Okorafor, Pratchett, VanderMeer, or Samatar, or Angela Carter, or Amos Tutola, or Karin Tidbeck, and so on and so on and Scooby Dooby Doo) owes a stylistic debt to Lovecraft, I'm going to laugh at you until I pitch over and die. (In fact if anyone does it's Stephen King, and that's a whoooole other blog post.) Now, before I get into clothes-have-no-emperor territory here, I want to say that Lovecraft did write some absolutely champion short works. "Cool Air" is one; "The Call of Cthulhu" is another. And "Pickman's Model" is to my mind one of the finest tales of terror ever written. Notably, it is the least "Lovecraftian" of Lovecraft's stories, in that it contains little of his signature prose style, and is not related to the fabled Cthulhu Mythos. And while I'm on that subject . . . 

We can't even count Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos as being an example of one writer's world-building being influential, because the Mythos was gangbanged into existence by Lovecraft, Long, Smith, Bloch, August Derleth, and a few others, and then added to by still more writers decades later. Lovecraft did invent quite a bit of the Mythos, to be sure, but he was never responsible for all of it. Again, Tolkien and Lewis take the prize if you want to talk about pure, single-writer world-building in fantastic fiction.

So the case for Lovecraft to be the epitome of worldwide fantasy is perilously thin on the ground, it would seem. Joshi and the fanboy contingent can make all the noise they want, return all the awards they want, and organize all the boycotts they care to organize. None of this will change the fact that their arguments are as thin as the paper on which Lovecraft's work was originally printed. Lovecraft is not the be-all and end-all of fantastic literature and Lovecraft's work occupies a much smaller niche in the field of the fantastic than it does in its more natural home of horror fiction. Too bad that field already has the Stoker Awards or he'd be a shoe-in there.

So, having dispensed with the obvious and easy, now we go on to the more complicated, tougher issue.

Part the Second: Root To Leaf -or- How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Branch Out A Little

So, with Gahan Wilson's rawther creepy bust of Mr. Lovecraft no longer an issue (except in the minds of certain small minded people who would rather everything remain forever unchanging, like Jeffty in the Harlan Ellison story), the question then remains: What should take its place?

This question is fraught, at least to a thinking person, because in this day and age, hearing as we do the oft repeated mantra that representation matters, what can WFC do to present an award that will truly represent fantasy fiction and fantasists worldwide?

A number of people have presented a number of suggestions. The most common have involved the familiar: a sword in a stone, a chimera, a wardrobe, a ring with Elvish script printed on it (presumably saying One award to rule them all), a dragon--the best variant on that last I saw was a notion to combine western and eastern dragons together into a single statuette embodying both traditions, which is more in the spirit. 

A discussion I saw on David Gerrold's Facebook page (and no, I'm not having that conversation again, thank you very much, chtorr chtorr) illustrated to me the pitfalls of this discussion. There were suggestions for a bust of Tolkien and Baum and Terry Pratchett--nice gestures, but they run the risk of appealing to the extremely loyal fans of a single author and nobody else, and even the great Pterry is, sadly, not universally loved. Aside form that, if you make an individual's face the award, then it becomes all about that individual and what he or she or zie stands for, and what they represent--and didn't we just go through all that? Do we really want to go through it again?

Other suggested more abstract images--a pegasus, a door in a hedge, a phoenix, a door with a funhouse mirror in it. I went into Gerrold's thread and suggested Aladdin's lamp or Anansi the Spider. (My suggestion got one like exactly, but that's my issue.) And there were several votes for Cthulhu, which misses the point from the other direction completely.


Some of the ideas were purposefully silly--Julie Newmar in her Catwoman outfit was one I liked--and thank goodness for that, because if we start taking ourselves too seriously in this fandom, we're fuckin' cooked. But one thing I notced about almost all of the suggestions was that while they were images and/or people universally known to fantasy fans, they were not representative of world fantasy as a whole . . . just its western, European-American traditions.  

One remark from the Gerrold thread emphasizes my point: the commenter suggested Dorothy's silver shoes from Baum's original Oz novel, noting that WFA was an American idea anyway. 

The level of facepalm needed for this would shove my hand out the back of my damn skull.  

This is exactly the kind of thinking that is diametrically opposed to inclusion and representation. It suggests that American fantasy is all that really matters, and ignores the excellent work being produced in other countries and other languages. It's a hidebound, blinkered view--and one I held myself for far too long. Just as Lovecraft is not the be-all/end-all of fantastic fiction, American fantasy shouldn't be the be-all/end-all of the World Fantasy Awards. This is one of the reasons the Tempest Challenge was important to me; it encouraged me to read outside the narrow confines of a fairly narrow literary diet, and it reminded me of something I knew all along but let myself forget: there's a whole world of great stories out there, and there is no good reason on Earth to ignore them, or to make their tellers feel as if they don't matter--or worse, are somehow alien. This fails to take into account the virtually infinite permutations that fantasy can take the world over. And it fails to hold us accountable for not including them.

So I thought about this all morning, and wondered to myself if there was something that was a bit more universal that could be used, either as an engraved plaque or as a statuette, that might represent World Fantasy, not just Anglo-Euro-American Fantasy.

And then I thought: What about the World Tree?

So I went and looked that up, and you know, it's not a half bad notion, even if it is mine. The World Tree appears in various permutations in myths the world over, not just in European traditions but in South Asian and meso-American myth as well. There are ancient myths about the baobab in Africa, and about spirits residing in trees in Thailand. Sacred grove myths abound across the world. And any number of fantasy stories center on trees or involve them deeply in the telling.

Plus, it's a symbolic image. What better symbol could there be for the many branchings of the stories we tell, the many ways we tell them, the roots that lie in myth and how they take hold in us and grow, and spread, and bear leaf and fruit, and nourish us, and give us shade and comfort? Our stories give us so much--what else could symbolize them but the tree that grows and becomes the roof of the world?

And so, fellow fantasy fans, I propose to you: The World Tree Award. It can be Yggdrasil or a baobab, or a sequoia, or an oak--or even an Ent. It can be a different tree every year, commissioned from a different artist much like each year's Hugo. With trees, the sky is pretty much the limit. And with the whole world held in those boughs, think how much richer the stories will be. And how enriched we will become as a result.

Just remember that the mighty oak was once a nut like you.

I hope this will be considered, somewhere, but someone. Our stories have spread so wide, so far--they deserve a symbol that honors them. I hope this can be the one.

Remain In Light.