Monday, August 25, 2014

Nerds and their toys; or, The thing you like is not your ego

The World Fantasy Award is--and I hope this isn't too big of a shock--an award for best fantasy in the usual major categories (novel, novella, short fiction, anthology, etc.). The award statue is a caricature of Lovecraft--or, if we're being honest, a pretty faithful view of Lovecraft.

Now, Lovecraft is a guy with a spotty legacy in a few areas. Some people today think he's a bad writer because he occasionally used odd words ("squamous") and his mad narrators can be a little completely insane in their descriptions.

But where Lovecraft really shines for people who don't like him is in his racism, which is very real. Though it's also more complex than some people seem to understand: when looking at historical racism, it's important to understand that their racism is not our racism. So, Lovecraft has some things to say about Africans and Asians--and also Eastern, Southern, and Northern Europeans. Also the British at times. Also: Yankees. Or put it this way: Lovecraft has some really mean things to say about the Jews--or at least, Eastern European Jews. He has no problems with Portuguese Jews. And his hatred of blacks in NYC is pretty clearly a hatred of southern culture. And for all the evil mixed race people--whether that mix is human or monstrous--there's no real notion that there are some completely clean people in those encounters.

But put that to the side for a moment, because, however complex and nuanced Lovecraft's racism can be, he's also just a racist.

So now we come to the main issue that's rocking a very tiny corner of the nerdosphere these days: should we change the statue for the World Fantasy Award so that it doesn't look like we're honoring Lovecraft? Why don't we honor someone else, like respected author, Octavia Butler? That, at least, is what the petition going around now asks for.

I have to say, at first, I was not influenced by the anti-Lovecraft petition, largely because (a) I like Lovecraft's work; (b) I think the statue--designed by Gahan Wilson--is neat; and (c) it was easy to get into the weeds of the argument that the statue should be changed. About that last point, the argument should simply just be that Lovecraft's racism makes him a bad choice for a statue honoring fantasy. That's a pretty persuasive argument, to me. Instead, some of the anti-Lovecraft bloggers and writers have pointed out that he's not a great writer or didn't write fantasy--neither of which are really true. And when Butler got proposed, I think many people scratched their heads: she has far less fantasy in her works than Lovecraft does.

If I were for changing the statue, my argument would simply be: because of his racism, he's a bad emblem for fantasy; and rather than all pick our favorite authors, we should choose something more abstract or symbolic to represent the award.

(For comparison, the science fiction awards are symbolic: the Hugo Award's statue is a rocket, while the Nebula Award's statue is a... nebula. Sure, those symbols harken to a time when science fiction was synonymous with space, but everyone understands that they are symbols. Even if you don't have a rocket in your novel, you can enjoy your Hugo. So it's perfectly reasonable for the World Fantasy Award to be something like a dragon or a sword or something similarly symbolic of fantasy.)

But now that I've seen all the pro-Lovecraft arguments--mostly in the form of whining about political correctness--I'm really coming around to the idea that we should change the statue. Maybe this happens in all sorts of genres and hobbies, but people who love Lovecraft--among whom I usually include myself, except in this occasion--sure can't tell the difference between an attack on Lovecraft and an attack on themselves. It's like any negative comment about Lovecraft is aimed at their own ego.

I don't want to single out Lovecraft fans, especially after listening to a podcast discussion about the Game of Thrones tv show vs. the books where one nerd talked about how the show was threatening to ruin his reading experience. On one hand, I get where he's coming from, since the books are very plot-heavy and surprising. On the other hand, oh brother--discussing this particular media property in the hushed tones of romantic and religious exaltation seems a little overdone. I've had movies and books "spoiled" for me and you know what? I still enjoyed those books and movies. Demanding that no one else gets to enjoy something because their enjoyment threatens yours, that's not any way to go through life.

This seems to be something that nerds in particular are given over to: the adoption of some particular works as central to their identity. And again, one hand: I get it, because when most culture is set up in a way that doesn't excite you and then you discover something that does--something that no one else is excited about--of course you're likely to take that on as a part of yourself. Everyone else cares about football and you're the only one reading Dragonlance books? Then you may think of yourself as the person who reads Dragonlance books. But seriously, we nerds do ourselves no favors when we calcify our identities and associate our egos with some particular person or work.

Or for the bumper sticker: No matter how much you love Lovecraft, he does not love you back.

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