At the very first World Fantasy Convention in 1975, the theme was “The Lovecraft Circle.” The guest of honor, toastmaster, chairman, and judges were esteemed members of the speculative-fiction community who all also happened to be white men. Judging by appearances, not much has changed on this front, but a decision announced at this year’s convention on Sunday suggests a shift is under way. Starting next year, the World Fantasy Award trophy will no longer be modeled after the massively influential horror-fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft.
The convention organizers didn’t offer a reason for the change, nor did they name a replacement, but the decision is notable nonetheless. Lovecraft’s rise to fame happened largely after his death, but as he received more attention, so too did his racist and xenophobic beliefs. His disassociation from the WFC after 40 years feels in line with a growing inclusiveness in the science-fiction and fantasy community of women and people of color. The author Daniel José Older, who started a petition last year to replace Lovecraft with Octavia Butler, praised the decision. “Writers of color have always had to struggle with the question of how to love a genre that seems so intent on proving it doesn’t love us back,” he said. “We raised our voices collectively, en masse, and the World Fantasy folks heard us.”
Not everyone agreed with this sentiment. In a letter to the co-chair of the WFC board, the Lovecraft biographer and author S.T. Joshi called the decision “a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness.” He argued that using the writer’s image on the award was simply an acknowledgment of the impact his work had on the genre—not an endorsement of his personal beliefs. He also noted that “social-justice warriors” haven’t aimed their ire equally at awards named after Bram Stoker or John W. Campbell Jr.
On some level, Joshi’s frustration is understandable. The nebulous field of weird fiction wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t imbued with the spirit of Lovecraft’s strange, dark creations. And the question of how much to separate a cultural figure from his or her personal beliefs has always been an uneasy one. But Joshi’s claims are myopic. Lovecraft’s removal is about more than just the writer himself; it’s not an indictment of his entire oeuvre. The change is symbolic but powerful—it’s a message to the next generation of writers, artists, and editors that they belong in the genre of science fiction and fantasy.
The symbolism of the WFA’s trophy for the last 40 years has inevitably meant that some recipients, like Sofia Samatar and Nnedi Okorafor, were expected to feel honored by an object shaped like a man who thought of them as lesser. After winning an award, Okorafor was horrified to learn that Lovecraft had written a poem called “On the Creation of Niggers.” (Sample lines: “A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure / Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.”) Another recipient of the award, China Miéville, has said he feels honored by it but keeps the physical statuette facing away from him. He views his continued work as an act of defiance of the genre’s past.
So what of various other writers and filmmakers and artists in the canon who held repulsive views or did disgusting things? Is it hypocritical, as Joshi says, to focus on Lovecraft in particular? Is Lovecraft’s legacy being unfairly tarnished thanks to the “shrill whining of a handful of social-justice warriors”? To be sure, history is filled with revered men (and women) who deserve scorn for their bigotry, or sexism, or homophobia—it would be impossible to scrub them from history. Nor should that be the end goal. Which means, as Okorafor wrote, that “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.”
It’s far easier to lobby a group of (apparently) sympathetic convention-board members for a symbolic change than it is to magically enact systemic reform in an entire genre, let alone throughout the literary world. Today, 89 percent of those working in publishing are white, and the vast majority of literary criticism focuses on works written by white authors. Against this backdrop, small, corrective steps matter, not for the past, but for the future. In the end, Lovecraft still wins—people who’ve never read a page of his work will still know who Cthulhu is for years to come, and his legacy lives on in the work of Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Neil Gaiman. But the convention organizers’ move means that the talented writers of color who break through, against the odds, will feel a little more emboldened as they go forward and create new worlds.