And so the culture wars rage on.
In the latest instalment, the World Fantasy Award has decided to retire the bust of HP Lovecraft, traditionally used for the award. The new image for the award is yet to be decided. This has happened hot on the heels of the Hugo Awards controversy and Gamergate, and the world of speculative fiction has once again erupted into acrimony.
For those unaware of Lovecraft’s work, he is perhaps the most famous and influential of writers of ‘weird fiction’. His invention of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ – a group of ancient beings who lurk behind our mundane reality, ready to plunge the world into a new dark age – has proved to be remarkably fertile ground. Almost all writers of the weird owe at least some debt to Lovecraft. Writers who have worked in his tradition include China Miéville, Neil Gaiman, recent World Fantasy award winner and Australian Angela Slatter, Charles Stross, and in the world of film, Guillermo Del Torro, who was set at one point to film At The Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft was, it must be said, a true original. In the words of Stephen King, he was ‘the twentieth century horror story’s dark and baroque prince.’
Yet Lovecraft was also a notorious and virulent racist. His fiction is filled with representations of batrachian sub-humans, originating from Africa or the Pacific Islands, who are dedicated to bringing back the rule of the alien gods and plunging the world into this new barbarism. This goes well beyond a kind of semi-enlightened ‘Orientalism’ straight into fascism. The black barbarians are at the gates; they are polluting our ‘white’ culture and threatening our bloodlines; they are living in their stinking fetid ghettoes filled with disease. In the ‘Horror at Red Hook’ he writes of the area in Brooklyn, where the horror takes place:
The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another … From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky … Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion.
If this kind of passage, common enough in Lovecraft, is bad enough, the real depths of his reactionary views are to be found in his letters. He wrote to a friend that:
I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas – giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears…. )
It is little surprise that at one stage in his life, Lovecraft was a supporter of Mussolini. (To be fair – and to complicate the issue – Lovecraft later renounced many of his views and ended his life as a left-leaning socialist, though it’s not clear how this affected his views on race. In any case, this is not the Lovecraft who is remembered or appears in his fiction.)
Predictably, the right wings of science fiction and fantasy have decried the decision to retire the statuette, blaming ‘social justice warriors’ for degrading ‘our’ culture. One group have set up a so-called ‘Counter-Currents HP Lovecraft Prize for Literature’. Of those worth taking most seriously, Lovecraft scholar and biographer ST Joshi, who has decided to return his own World Fantasy Awards in protest. In his letter explaining his decision, he wrote that, ‘The decision seems to me a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness and an explicit acceptance of the crude, ignorant, and tendentious slanders against Lovecraft propagated by a small but noisy band of agitators.’
Supporting the retirement of the Lovecraft statuette should be no issue for progressives, just as we might support the removal of many kinds of reactionary symbols: particular flags flying on public buildings, say or statues of Mussolini or Stalin from public squares. More importantly, for a genre that has traditionally had difficulty attracting writers of colour, it’s a fundamentally inclusive gesture.
Having said that, there are a number of problems here. On the one side, progressives claim that Lovecraft was a racist. On the other, conservatives insist on his artistic achievement. One of the difficulties is that it’s perfectly possible for someone to be a great or original writer and also racist, sexist or homophobic. Shakespeare is a case in point. Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice – each of these is questionable in some way.
Quite what follows from all this, then, is not at all simple.
Part of the weakness of the progressive side is that far too often the debate is couched in the terms of the identity politics so prevalent today. As with Shakespeare, it’s easy to trawl through any number of authors and find questionable passages or representations. Writers of SF before the 1960s were routinely questionable in regards to gender and race –if only by the sin of omission. Even Ursula K Le Guin – generally considered to be unimpeachable for those on the left – has been critiqued by the great black, gay science fiction writer Samuel R Delany for a heteronormative view of sexuality in her book The Dispossessed. It’s a slippery slope to go down, ending in the same kind of political cul-de-sac that focuses on differences between oppressed groups – ‘Only person X can speak for group X!’ – rather than the things that unite them: a common culture which justifies marginalisation or oppression.
None of this is to say the retirement of the Lovecraft statuette shouldn’t be supported. Rather it’s that the terms of the debate should be widened. Yes, retiring the Lovecraft bust is a useful symbolic and inclusive gesture. This is so because it occurs in the context of a collective campaign that allows us to highlight the issues at hand: a campaign that allows us, together, to point out the history of the genre (and social history in general). It allows us to discuss how views like Lovecraft’s helped justify the systematic violence against minorities, especially African Americans. It’s part of a broader social struggle, currently taking place the US against, for example, the ongoing killing of black men and women, most particularly by the state – Black Lives Matter. It’s part of a broader struggle against the right-wing backlash against refugees. It’s into that context that we should place the World Fantasy Award decision. If we do so, no longer is it just a matter of the merits or otherwise Lovecraft as an individual – his ‘identity’ – but rather a contribution to an entire social debate. Such decisions are made all the time: at different times there have been campaigns against particular companies – Nestlé or BP – even though other companies have also perpetuated various injustices.
What this suggests, in the end, is that we can’t simply consider the retirement of the Lovecraft bust as the beginning or the end of the matter. It’s a small, symbolic step in a wider collective battle. As it turns out, this battle has been raging on the cultural field for some time. The retirement is also a relatively safe action, for Lovecraft died close to 80 years ago. While the retirement is a small good thing, the pressing matters of the day are more obviously political. I’ve mentioned the Black Lives Matter campaign and the issue of refugees – if the speculative fiction community has something to say about the racism of the Lovecraft statue, perhaps its time we set our minds to these contemporary issues too?