I brought up the topic early and affably in the panel, and just a little later but also affably, Mr. Joshi shut it down with a familiar canard: Lovecraft's racism and xenophobia must be viewed in the context of Lovecraft's considerably less-enlightened time.
Nickle therefore concludes that it’s important for fantasy writers to acknowledge and deal with the racism of older works like those of Lovecraft, not just to push them under the carpet or pretend they don’t exist. Lovecraft’s fiction, he says, emerges from racism and takes much of its power from fear of the Other, and this simply cannot be excised from the stories as an inconvenient fact. He provides the example of Lovecraftian pastiches that mimic the style but lack the effect because they are missing the fear and loathing that animates the original work.
He was reacting specifically to S. T. Joshi’s apoplectic response to Older’s petition, and, also, to author China Miéville’s claim to have hidden the WFA statuette away to avoid looking at Lovecraft’s racist visage. (Joshi does not have linkable blog posts; I am referring to the August 16 and 23, 2014 entries .)
Joshi was outraged at the petition, and penned a horrible “satire” on August 16 making the faceitious case for replacing Lovecraft with himself on the World Fantasy Award, including such noxious lines as “I have a fatal predilection for blonde Caucasian females, a trait I share with Arabs engaged in the white slave trade.” (Joshi, a native of India, recently married Mary K. Wilson, a blonde white woman.)
Apparently Joshi discovered that not everyone appreciated his post (least of all Oder), so he offered a second, this time criticizing Older, an emerging writer, for not being famous enough to question Lovecraft, penning a massive blog post to challenge the paragraph-long petition: “What lofty literary achievements, I wondered, gave him the right to cast such Olympian moral judgments on a writer against whom, from an objective point of view, he would seem like a flea on the back of an elephant?” He objects that Older has published only two books and lacks a Wikipedia page. But it gets worse:
Has he made any attempt to understand the sources—intellectual, social, familial, cultural—of Lovecraft’s racism? Is he content to hand down facile condemnations on a figure who lived a century ago without the slightest attempt to grasp the reasons why that figure came to his views? That would seem to be the act of a partisan hack, not an informed critic or scholar. […] Does Mr. Older have any awareness of the nearly uniform opinion of Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues that he was one of the most admirable individuals—kind, courteous, dignified without pomposity, witty, immensely learned and aesthetically gifted—they had ever met?
Well, as it happens, Mr. Joshi, I am familiar with the source material, and I have conducted research in to the life and times of H. P. Lovecraft, published on the same, and have a Wikipedia entry on my work, so by your criteria I can therefore pronounce ex cathedra that Lovecraft was a racist, that his work is permeated with racist assumptions and ideas, and that it is impossible to understand Lovecraft’s fiction without significant engagement with his racist views. I will also assert that Lovecraft’s racism was an order of magnitude greater than the casual racism of the New England of the 1920s and more closely aligned to the Jim Crow South and to the Nazis, whom Lovecraft praised for promoting cultural purity. On Hitler, Lovecraft once wrote, “by God, I like the boy!”
Now I need to add a disclaimer since Joshi is rather quick to attack those who disagree: Joshi suggested the title for my first book, though to our shared publisher, not to me, and he has included positive references to my work in his own. He has also told me he never read my book, and he stopped talking to me after I asked for his assistance in developing my literary career. I haven’t spoken to him in at least seven years.
Let’s remind ourselves of Lovecraft’s racism. Consider some of Lovecraft’s work:
“… the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of Negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult.” (“The Call of Cthulhu”)
“…a frightful and clandestine system of assemblies and orgies descended from dark religions antedating the Aryan world, and appearing in popular legends as Black Masses and Witches’ Sabbaths. That these hellish vestiges of old Turanian-Asiatic magic and fertility-cults were even now wholly dead he could not for a moment suppose, and he frequently wondered how much older and how much blacker than the very worst of the muttered tales some of them might really be.” (“The Horror at Red Hook”)
“The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.” (“Herbert West—Reanimator”)
When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’ Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.
(“On the Creation of Niggers”)
Of course they can’t let niggers use the beach at a Southern resort – can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, & I wish they’d apply it in N.Y. both to niggers & to the more Asiatic type of puffy, rat-faced Jew. Either stow ’em out of sight or kill ’em off – anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea. (letter of February 1925)
The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! (letter of August 21, 1926)
The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists — eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. … All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end. (letter of January 1931)
Joshi explains that he devoted 2% of his biography of Lovecraft, I Am Providence, to racism, but that he considered atheism a much more important subject, superseding any need to devote more time to racism. He also notes that when he read that Lovecraft considered Joshi’s native India to be a nauseating place that made him want to “vomit,” Joshi immediately decided that it was a “perfectly natural” response born of love for the British Empire rather than hatred of India.
Joshi goes on to present several logical fallacies in absolving Lovecraft of responsibility for his racism, and the audience from the need to care about it. As noted above, Joshi expects us to take the esteem of Lovecraft’s friends as absolution, as though racists do not have friends and cannot be polite and even charming. He next presents an appeal to authority, arguing that Joyce Carol Oates’s praise of Lovecraft’s aesthetic style absolves the stories (and the man) of responsibility for their content, and that critical studies of the author justify the “intrinsic merits” of his work. But work can be meritorious while still containing repugnant ideas; Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is perhaps the most prominent example.
Here is the most problematic line in Joshi’s post: “The WFA bust acknowledges Lovecraft’s literary status in the field of weird fiction and nothing more.” On the one hand, this is strictly speaking true; the Edgar Award for mystery writing, for example, takes no position on alcoholism or child marriage despite taking its form from Edgar Allan Poe. But on the other hand, could we honestly give out an award in the shape of Arthur Conan Doyle for logic and reason? Sure, he invented Sherlock Holmes—his great contribution to literature—but he also was a crank who believed in fairies and psychics and actively tried to undermine science and reason in the real world. The personal and the political cannot be so easily separated, especially when the personal directly impacts the form and content of the work in question, as with Lovecraft and racism.
Joshi says “It would appear that Bram Stoker was a Christian (an Irish Protestant). I am an atheist. Would it be legitimate for me to feel uncomfortable accepting the BSA [the Bram Stoker Award for horror] because of my religious differences with Stoker?” But religious difference isn’t the same as racism. One can be religious without engaging in hatred, while one cannot be a racist without denigrating others. To equate them to is set up a false dichotomy. Racism involves the active hatred of the Other and the purposeful denigration of the same. Bram Stoker’s Dracula promotes Christianity to be sure, but it does not actively argue that people of other faiths are subhuman. Even if it did, religion is not an inherent quality of a human being; humans can and do change their faiths. Race, however, is an inherent characteristic, despite not being biological, because our culture has ascribed value to skin color, and (Michael Jackson aside), this cannot be changed.
I understand that Joshi has tied so much of his life and work to glorifying Lovecraft, but it does no one any good to minimize the man’s faults, especially when they play such a large role, paradoxically, in driving the very power that Joshi sees in Lovecraft’s mature fiction. There are fine arguments to be made for and against using Lovecraft on the World Fantasy Award, but arguing that those who are opposed to it are ignorant and/or not famous enough to take seriously are not among those arguments.