Should the World Fantasy Award be Changed?

Daniel José Older, author and editor of Long Hidden, recently started a petition to redesign the World Fantasy Award. This has led to signatures and celebration, as well as some controversy. His petition’s immediate request is that the WFAC change the award to resemble Octavia Butler. The current WFA statuette (shown here) is a stylized bust of H.P. Lovecraft. Designed by the great Gahan Wilson, it is a striking piece of sculpture—but it is also a reminder of the community’s contentious past.

So there is also a larger question that needs to be heard: who is SFF’s audience? Who is this community for?

I think it’s safe to say that most people would reply that the community includes everyone with an appreciation of speculative fiction—smart science fiction, fantastical stories, thought-provoking horror. So what does it say when one of the most prestigious awards you can win as a writer within that community honors a man with a complicated relationship to race and gender? It’s a reminder that many of the writers whom we revere as the founders of speculative fiction held beliefs that are damaging, and frankly repellent.

This might seem like an academic argument, but for Nnedi Okorafor, who won the award in 2011, it was anything but. She wrote a moving essay about how much the award meant to her, and having to balance her happiness with learning more about some of Lovecraft’s views on race:

“This is something people of color, women, minorities must deal with more than most when striving to be the greatest that they can be in the arts: The fact that many of The Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us.”

She asked China Miéville about his response to the award, and he said that he turned the statuette around:

“I have turned it to face the wall. […] I can look at it and remember the honour, and above all I am writing behind Lovecraft’s back.”

Nalo Hopkinson came into the comments on the essay to give her solution:

“Like you and China, I was happy to accept the award itself. As to what I’ve done with the bust? I’ve turned Lovecraft’s face outwards. I want him to see me Breathing While Black.”

Lovecraft’s stature in the community is rightfully huge. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi has critiqued the petition, deriding the criticism of Lovecraft’s unique style. He also raises the more relevant question of whether Butler, as a primarily sci-fi writer, is the right choice for an award that is given largely for fantasy and horror. (Older has also written a response to Joshi, which you can read on his blog.) Others have also mentioned this, and there have been some calls to replace the award with something more abstract. Comic writer Kurt Busiek suggested a globe covered in fantasy maps, for instance.

And at the same time, we can’t simply erase the past. H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, John W. Campbell, and many others held views that many of us today find alienating, old-fashioned, and off-putting. But editing them out of our community entirely won’t work, either. In some cases these people created entire subgenres that younger writers still get to play in today. And trying to scrub our community’s history of all reminders of past wrongs doesn’t help anything. To quote Okorafor again:

Do I want “The Howard” (the nickname for the World Fantasy Award statuette. Lovecraft’s full name is “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”) replaced with the head of some other great writer? Maybe. Maybe it’s about that time. Maybe not. What I know I want it to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that… as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.

What would it say about our community if we chose to redesign the WFA in honor of Butler? As Older says:

[W]e can embrace a writer that changed the genre with the depth of her humanity, the sharpness of her power analysis, the ferocity of her words and stories. Let’s do what our genre asks of us and imagine this world the way it could possibly be while being honest about the way it is.

Check out the petition here, and voice your opinions in the comments.

Leah Schnelbach thinks this discussion is a long time coming. She also really likes the word “eldritch.” Tweet at her!


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