A (belated) Look at the World Fantasy Awards and the controversy behind them

Last Sunday the World Fantasy Convention presented the 40th Annual World Fantasy Awards. Here is a rundown of the winners:

Acclaimed editor Ellen Datlow is one of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winners, for her work with such publishers as OMNI magazine and Tor.com.

Life Achievement Award

Ellen Datlow
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

samatar

Novel
Sofia SamatarA Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press)

Novella
Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages“Wakulla Springs” (Tor.com)

Short Story
Caitlín R. Kiernan“The Prayer of Ninety Cats” (Subterranean magazine)

Dangerous WomenAnthology
George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds. — Dangerous Women (Tor Books/Voyager UK)

The_Apes_Wife_by_Caitlin_R_Kiernan_Front_Cover_OnlyCollection
Caitlín R. Kiernan — The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories (Subterranean Press)

Artist
Charles Vess

Special Award—Professional
Irene Gallo for art direction of Tor.com
William K. Schafer, for Subterranean Press

Special Award—Non-professional

Kate Baker, Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace, for Clarkesworld

Congratulations to the winners. I will admit that I haven’t read any of these particular works (I had read a couple of the novel nominees though, and I know Caitlín Kiernan’s work from my comic book days), so I can’t offer opinions on them. A Stranger in Olondria is on my radar now, though.

howard

Gahan Wilson’s caricature of H.P. Lovecraft adorns the World Fantasy Award.

So I’ll just pivot to the other big story coming out of the ceremony, which wasn’t the winners, but the awards themselves. Designed by cartoonist and illustrator Gahan Wilson, the statuette, dubbed the “Howard”, is a caricature of acclaimed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who crafted such classic tales as The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror.

While this may seem appropriate given Lovecraft’s place in the fantasy canon, it has drawn fire in recent years because of Lovecraft’s unapologetic racism. I admit, when I discovered Lovecraft’s work as a teen I didn’t really notice the ugliness that underpinned his stories, but once I read about his beliefs years later, they practically leaped off the page.

His racism is that blatant. And it does taint my enjoyment of his work to some degree.

Now I don’t have a horse in this race – I’m white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and well-educated – Lovecraft would have no problem with me. It’s also doubtful that this humble blog will ever win a World Fantasy Award. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see how other writers are affected by this.

Like Sofia Samatar, a Sudanese-American. Or last year’s winner, G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim-American who lived in Egypt. Or Israeli writer Lavie Tidhar, who won in 2012. And Nnedi Okorafor, the 2011 winner from Nigeria whose blog about her victory sparked the debate. None of these writers would meet Lovecraft’s standards of purity and all have his likeness staring bug-eyed on their shelf.

Actually, there is a pretty cool statement in their recent victories — that the “Howard” is no longer the province of the white, Anglo-Saxon male.

So it is likely time to change the award’s statuette. One suggestion was replacing Lovecraft a bust of Octavia Butler, the groundbreaking African-American sci-fi writer who passed away in 2006. And while I think that is a nice sentiment and as much as I respect Butler’s writing, it feels too soon to be using her likeness for the award.

Ultimately I think some sort of dignified, neutral award would look best.

I’m sure some people will scream that changing the award is political correctness run amok. The bizarre defensiveness surrounding things like this (or the Washington football mascot for that matter) makes no sense to me. If people are offended, isn’t the proper course to engage in a dialogue, attempt to understand why they are offended and address their concerns, rather than tell them not to be offended?

At least the World Fantasy Awards judges is taking the concerns under serious consideration and actually entertaining the notion of changing the award, unlike, say, Dan Snyder.

But there is another important lesson in this. Artists can be deeply flawed human beings. That shouldn’t take away from their work, however.

Robert Heinlein had plenty of racism, misogyny and creepy fetishes in his novels — but he is still one of the finest sci-fi writers of the 20th Century. Joe Haldeman’s “Forever War” is tinged with homophobia. Lovecraft contemporaries like Robert E. Howard and John W. Campbell were also overt racists. T.S. Eliot is one of my favorite poets and he was practically a Nazi — and with Ezra Pound there wasn’t any doubt.

I’m not saying that their objectionable views should be ignored, or that they are irrelevant to any analysis of their work, indeed I think the writer’s views are integral to any discussion of their work. Lovecraft’s otherworldly horror wouldn’t have been so effective if he wasn’t terrified of immigrants and outsiders.

Does my enjoyment of Lovecraft’s work mean I approve of his beliefs, or that I am somehow a racist myself? Not in the least, just like my enjoyment of “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Stranglehold” doesn’t make me a reactionary gun-nut. I can separate my enjoyment of the work from the abhorrent beliefs of its creator.

But I wouldn’t want to have to look at Ted Nugent’s face on my mantelpiece either, even if it was designed by someone as talented as Gahan Wilson.

—Michael Senft

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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