Tuesday, 9 December 2014
Black Static #43
There's also a host of other fiction, like Ralph Robert Moore's novelette Drown Town, Andrew Hook's Black Lung, Annie Neugebauer's Hide, Aliya Whiteley's Many Eyed Monsters and - my personal favourite - Usman Tanveer Malik's Ishq. All the stories are good, Drown Town is excellent, but Ishq is one of my favourite stories this year.
Also book reviews by Peter Tennant, including an interview with James Cooper, and movie reviews by Tony Lee.
The two columns are Coffinmaker's Blues by Stephen Volk and Blood Pudding by Lynda E. Rucker - two of the finest practising writers of dark fiction, and two consistently intelligent and interesting commentators on the field. Volk's piece is about writer's block, which is something I'd thought I never got. You're having problems with the writing, you turn up and you write and you keep trying till you get somewhere. But as Volk points out, writer's block isn't having no stories to tell, but the constant, insidious dread that you can't do it, you aren't up to it, that you're used up or burnt out or that even your best achievements are really just gimcrack, poor quality shadows of far better writers' work. It's a painfully honest and illuminating piece.
Rucker offers a piece on the use of H.P. Lovecraft as the face of the World Fantasy Award, in a peace showing the balance and nuance that has been lacking in too many commentaries. I saw Daniel Older's petition to remove HPL's likeness from the award, and a counter-petition to keep it. I didn't sign the petition demanding HPL's removal, not least because it described him as a 'terrible wordsmith', which is PC asshattery of the worst kind - 'he was a racist, so he must be a bad writer!' But I wasn't signing the one to keep him, either, since that descended into a cretinous anti-feminist rant that like the flowers that bloom in the spring, (tra-la) had nothing to do with the case.
The conversation about this started when Nnedi Okorafor won the WFA for her novel Who Fears Death. If you haven't read Who Fears Death, then I highly recommend that you do. It is a superb novel - visionary, beautiful, brilliant, and different. Whether you call it SF or Fantasy, it adds something new and fascinating to the field. When idiots bitch about women, or people of colour, coming to play in the SF/F/H sandpit, I think about books like this. The fiction we love is better for having those different voices in it; we might actually learn to be better people from it.
Okorafor, incidentally, didn't explicitly call for HPL's head to be taken off the award. You can - and should - read her blog on the subject here. And - I'll say it again - you should also read Who Fears Death, because it's great.
What she said about the award, though, was this:
"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.
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. If Lovecraft’s likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist."
That's the kind of nuance that is needed (and that Lynda's Black Static article brings to the debate.) . Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a brilliant, important writer in our field. He was also a hateful and poisonous racist. He was not 'a man of his time' or any such hogwash; even by the standards of his day he had a virulent and uncompromising hatred of black people (and most other non-white, or non-'Nordic' ethnicities and cultures.) Also, the 1920s and 1930s, when Lovecraft wrote, was a period of great social change; the great civil rights struggles of the '60s were far off but the NAACP had been around since 1909 and had begun to make significant progress, to say nothing of the Tuskegee Institute. Many of the NAACP's early prime movers were white. Whites in the US no longer had the excuse of ignorance.
The problem with Lovecraft, I suggest, is not that he was a racist, nor that his racism erupts spectacularly and vilely in many of his stories. It isn't even that you will, try as you might, search his stories in vain for a single black character who isn't portrayed as a subhuman near-animal (his prose might have evolved since he wrote the poem quoted in Okorafor's blog, but his views didn't - letters from Sonia Greene, his ex-wife, indicated that his racism - in particular his anti-Semtism - was in fact one of the main reasons for their marriage's failure.) I suggest the problem is that without the racism - or without the mindset from which his racism inevitably sprang - he wouldn't have been able to write his fiction.
Consider: Lovecraft grew up in genteel poverty; while not rich, he was surrounded by the extensive Whipple Phillips library. He became deeply erudite and spent much of his childhood alone, in self-constructed fantasy worlds. And then he found himself in the real world, forced to try and make a living - a loud, crude, different place.
I recall Lovecraft being once described as 'omniphobic' - he feared virtually everything that wasn't himself, that was outside his own narrow comfort zone. It's not a bad description, and xenophobia and racism are well-nigh inevitable products of such a mindset. Such a person might not be someone you'd want to meet (although Lovecraft in person was apparently a gentle and amiable character), but who better to convey - to viscerally feel - the concept of humankind as very alone and very small and vulnerable and helpless, in a universe at best indifferent and at worst hostile?
Complex. But so is life. The sooner we accept that - and that it isn't a choice between acquitting Lovecraft of racism on the one hand, or subjecting him to a literary damnatio memoriae on the other - then I suspect the happier we'll be.