Using The Brain

The World Fantasy Award will no longer be a rather odd-looking statue of HP Lovecraft. This has incited enough illogic by both pro- and anti-Lovecraft statuists that I am minded to declare a plague on both their houses; and to suggest an award statue of my own.

The petition that incited the change called for the award statue to be replaced with one of Octavia Butler on the grounds Lovecraft was an avowed racist and terrible writer. Which breaks down into three things: using Octavia Butler, racism, and writing. I’ll take them in reverse order.

There is huge argument over whether Lovecraft was a good writer, or a suitable writer to represent fantasy. I don’t find his work perfect, but I do enjoy much of it; as do many other people. So by either the measure of personal taste or significant agreement, he might not be the best writer ever but he isn’t terrible either.

The question of whether he is too niche, that the statue should better show the diversity of fantasy, is more complex. On the one side, he is best known for the Cthulhu Mythos so he appears to be a horror writer. However, that wasn’t all he wrote (‘Walls of Eryx’ easily falls in science-fiction, ‘Ashes’ looks like social realism, ‘Kuranes’ would be called magical realism if written by an author fêted for literary merit). So, his opus does imply diversity if taken as a whole. The answer to whether he is niche or diverse depends on perception.

Which is where the second point in the petition comes in: racism. Was Lovecraft racist? Whether taking the stance that he was more prejudiced than his times, less prejudiced, or even following a scientific theory on the differences between the races, none of the sides is claiming Lovecraft didn’t consider some races better than others. Why Lovecraft held his beliefs does not change how they make people feel.

So, the incident that incited the petition (authors who weren’t white, Anglo-Saxon men saying they felt uncomfortable accepting an award that was shaped like a racist) raises a valid question: given the World Fantasy Award celebrates fantasy that includes all fantasy, should the award statue be changed to remove that discomfort?

My answer is a classic balancing of needs that occurs at the heart of civilised behaviour. Not changing the award excludes people. Whereas, if the award were a brass disc with the author’s name rather than the Lovecraft statue no one would face the same issue. So – while experiencing a knee jerk reaction to having an author you enjoy lose the status of ugly shelf clutter is a negative experience – the scales are firmly on the side of making a change.

And how do I know the impact of the change will be minor? ST Joshi, famed Lovecraft scholar and leading light of the protest against the change, says removing Lovecraft will do nothing to reduce his popularity. So the change doesn’t even, by its most fervent opponents own admission, de-privilege Lovecraft’s work.

However, on the third point, I do partly agree with those who accuse the change of being political correctness gone mad. Octavia Butler is a famous speculative fiction author and (based on what I believe she self-identifies as) a woman of colour. She is clearly as suitable as Lovecraft to represent a famous writer. However, if Lovecraft is unsuitable because (as a man of particular beliefs, works, and qualities) he does not represent all fantasy writers, then Butler is similarly unsuitable for being an instance of a different set of qualities rather than universal. There is no need for the award to be a person at all, so making the statue one author (however great we think they are at the moment) is saving up trouble for the future.

After all, the first Award was given out at a convention that devoted much of its time to celebrating Lovecraft’s immense contribution to fantasy literature.

Indeed, many non-human symbols also privilege a single type of fantasy: a dragon will either be Western or Eastern; a sword privileges fantasy that includes conflict; and so forth.

So my suggestion is a brain. Fantasy is about imagination, so it captures the essence of all fantasy to this point, or derived from it. And, if we cannot ever fully predict what will be considered narrow prejudice by future generations, at least privileging fantasy writers with minds over those without is actively seeking the least worst solution.

And, because having the result of this argument be the organ of thought might show that we all need to think more. Instead of treating the debate as:

EITHER {Lovecraft is a bad writer AND Lovecraft went out of his way to be racist AND Octavia Butler is a perfect symbol of diverse fantasy};

OR {Lovecraft is a great writer AND Lovecraft’s beliefs are irrelevant AND Octavia Butler is a symbol of everything fantasy shouldn’t be};

we might have an example that real life is more complex than the black-and-white of extremism.

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2 thoughts on “Using The Brain

  1. I agree — embodying an award in any one writer is a mistake. Something more universal is needed. The brain is a good symbol — although all writers have one, not just those who write speculative fiction — but I think it would be best if it were an artistic representation of a brain, not an anatomical model. Let’s face it, clutching a realistic looking brain as you make your acceptance speech is a bit macabre. Zombies come to mind. Maybe a set of intertwining shapes in a vaguely brain-like configuration around a starburst shape?

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    1. I did consider “brain” being too broad a symbol, but couldn’t think of anything narrower. Swirly shapes around a star is a good image, although the people who are currently saying Butler isn’t suitable because she is more sci-fi than fantasy might object.

      I also considered the possibility of AI authors (who wouldn’t have a brain that looked like a human brain), but decided if we have AI that writes fantasy, then we’ve probably advanced to the point ethically where we’re not having massive internet arguments over these things.

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