Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Book Report: What's In A Head?

The people behind the World Fantasy Awards have lost their head.

Well, technically it's not THEIR head, but they have lost the head of long dead author H.P. Lovecraft, whose bust, designed by cartoonist Gahan Wilson, was used as their trophy for many years.
The reason for dropping the head of Lovecraft was that he was a racist person from a racist time and that sparked the usual online screaming match with terms like "racist," and "social justice warrior," being tossed around like grenades full of manure.

Some are campaigning to replace Lovecraft's head with the head of author Octavia Butler, who was a multi-award winning and groundbreaking fantasy and science-fiction author in her own right.

I disagree.

Now before you type out "you're a racist" in the comments, just let me make my case.

I don't think the award should be a bust of any one particular author.

Being a fantasy award, the temptation is to make it a bust of J.R.R. Tolkien who has been one of the most influential authors, but I disagree with even that.


Because if you use a human head, the award will end up being about that person, and if the award is about that person it will be about something about that person that offends one group or another.

Let's use Lovecraft as an example.

Yes, he was racist, maybe even more racist than the normal standards of the early 20th century. But even if he spent his short life campaigning for racial equality and love between all people, I still would oppose the use of his visage for the award.

He represented a very narrow sub-genre of fantasy, namely a specific brand of phantasmagoric cosmic-horror that we now know as "Lovecraftian." He doesn't truly represent the breadth and depth of the genre. No one author does.

Not even Octavia Butler, who despite the quality  or variety of her work, only represents a tiny corner of a very big tent, because she is only one author, with one author's interests and abilities. Plus, there will always be a nagging doubt hanging over her metallic head that she was chosen as some sort of token gesture of white-liberal-guilt atonement by those who allowed Lovecraft to linger for so long.

Plus, we don't know what some future biographer is going to discover about her. She might have secretly hunted the homeless for sport, for all we know.

Which brings me to what the trophy should be.

It should not be a person, it should be a symbol.

The fantasy genre is born from tales of adventure from mythology. So I suggest a classic fantasy symbol: the sword in the stone from Arthurian legend.

Now before you yell "you're not being inclusive" or that I'm being "Eurocentric" at your monitor, let me finish explaining my design idea.

Every culture has a sword.

That means that there can be a range of designs for the trophy, which can alternate. A classic European medieval sword one year, a katana the next, a scimitar after that, then maybe a jian sword, or an Ethiopian shotel, or an Indian Tulwar. You can pretty easily make a line of different trophies and rotate them among the various awards categories each year.

And to include the horror genre, maybe have the stone be carved in the shape of a sinister looking skull, marked with nonsensical arcane symbols.

Then you have a trophy that symbolizes the roots of the genre without really leaving anything out, and free from the baggage of any one person from the genre's history.

1 comment:

  1. Bumped into this on Twitter while composing something for my own blog. I think you're on to something here, but I would quibble on a few points:
    1. Lovecraft is more varied than phantasmagoric cosmic-horror. He's most famous for that, but he's got more in his toolbox. He's got more variety than Tolkien, even if Tolkien is, as you say, mostly straight up high fantasy. But I still agree with your overall point: fantasy awards should not be busts.
    2. It's not obvious that Arthurian legend is the proper basis of the genre either. It's certainly in the source material, but still too niche. And if you are going to change up the iconic sword, then you lose touch with Arthur and make the sword into the symbol of fantasy. I don't think that's right either.
    3. It's a tough problem to pick a good ur-symbol for the genre, which I suspect is what the WFA is running into now. I think you need something abstract or weird in itself. Maybe an open tome with an androgynous hero emerging, half human and the rest disintegrating into monster and machine or something bizarre. Or just go super-abstract, but I don't know what that would be.
    Anyway, thanks for the post.