Fantasy writers’ award switches to new design; away from Lovecraft

And it’s about time. Since 1975, the World Fantasy Convention has awarded a statuette depicting horror writer H. P. Lovecraft to honor the best fantasy fiction of the year. Along with the Nebula and Hugo awards, the World Fantasy award (“the Howard”) has long been regarded as among the three most prestigious honors for speculative fiction, the “triple crown,” as George R. R. Martin and others have called them: http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/introduction-to-howard-who/.

It must have made sense at the time for the World Fantasy Convention to model its award statuette after Lovecraft, especially since beloved horror (and hilariously funny) cartoonist Gahan Wilson designed it.

For many, Lovecraft epitomizes everything eerie and gothically dark about fantasy fiction. Increasingly, however, winners of the award have raised concerns about certain Lovecraftian traits that are not so much creepy fun as simply creepy: rampant misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism. In 2011, for example, the great China Miéville (and winner of one of the awards) expressed his distaste, as have winners Daniel José Older, Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorofor, and others. At the inception of the award, when fantasy writing was more of a good old boys’ club, the bust of Lovecraft seemed satisfyingly appropriate. In the twenty-first century, not so much. (In 1984, though, Daniel Wandrei refused to accept his award because he thought the statuette was insufficiently flattering to Lovecraft.)

In 2015, the World Fantasy Convention voted to replace the statuette, according to published news sources such as this story in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/09/world-fantasy-award-drops-hp-lovecraft-as-prize-image

Now, the group has unveiled a new statuette designed by Vincent Villafranca. Villafranca, a noted designer of awards like these (the 2013 Hugo award trophy, for example, which changes designs every year) won out unanimously over all other entrants in a contest to re-design the trophy, according to the convention’s web site: http://wfc2017.org/wfc2017/ In the opinion of many, Villafranca’s depiction of a twisted tree highlighted against a full moon speaks more broadly to fantasy fiction’s present-day multicultural writers and readers, as well as to the much broader contemporary boundaries of the genre–and without the unpleasant baggage of the Lovecraft statue, which was awarded for the last time at the 2016 convention.

Many people deplore the switch. S. T. Joshi, a Lovecraft scholar, returned his two awards and urged a boycott of the convention over this slight to Lovecraft. I can imagine Cthulhu storming the convention at the head of outraged Lovecraft fans armed with torches and pitchforks. To be sure, the Lovecraft fans I know are not misogynist anti-Semitic racist pigs at all, but readers genuinely enthralled by Lovecraft’s creepy vibe. They’re the same people who love Edgar Allan Poe and love to point out the similarities. I don’t see it, myself, but there you go. De gustibus non est disputandum. Besides, Joshi argues that it’s unfair to visit contemporary attitudes on the head of Lovecraft, who died in 1937 and of course reflected the values of his time. If you’re interested, take a look at this interview he gave defending Lovecraft to SFFWorld.com as his book The Madness of Cthulhu Volume 2 was going to press: http://www.sffworld.com/2015/10/st-joshi-interview/

On the other hand. . . Misogyny. Anti-Semitism. Racism. And (de gustibus. . .) bad writing.

Despite the trophy switch (or because of it?), the Lovecraft controversy at the World Fantasy Convention rages on. Fantasy novelist and blogger Jim C. Hines gives a glimpse into the uproar that surrounded the 2016 convention, and it’s all about Lovecraft: http://www.jimchines.com/2016/08/world-fantasy-con-programming-mess/(To be fair, the convention is no stranger to controversy, Lovecraftian or otherwise.)

I’m certainly no World Fantasy Convention insider. I’ve never gone. But I admire the new statuette. It will be presented for the very first time at the World Fantasy Convention 2017, to be held in San Antonio on Nov. 2-5. (The convention is always held on one of the two weekends bracketing Halloween.) I wish it well, and the convention-goers, and the winners.

The new World Fantasy Convention trophy for the best fantasy fiction of the year, designed by Vincent Villafranca. http://www.vincentvillafrancasculpture.com

Source of World Fantasy Convention tree statuette photo: fair use through Wikipedia. Wikipedia notes the following: “This work is copyrighted (or assumed to be copyrighted) and unlicensed. . .  However, it is believed that the use of this work. . .to illustrate the subject in question . . . qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.”

Is today International Fairy Day?

I keep seeing this, as well as references to some mysterious “official fairy day web site.” Trying to track down its origins, I have come to the conclusion that “international fairy day” may have been an invention of fantasy artist Jessica Galbreth. For those who love such things, her book, The Enchanted World of Jessica Galbreth, is a classic:

But if you visit her web site, thevintageangel.com, you’ll see no fairies in evidence, only angels, and this statement: “In 2010, Jessica retired her old body of work, feeling it no longer fit with who she was.  As a Christian, she set out to shine her light with a new body of angel and inspirational art.”

Whether Galbreth did or didn’t invent an “international fairy day” in conjunction with her earlier, presumably pagan-themed work, Midsummer and the summer solstice have always been devoted to the fair folk. Many Northern cultures have celebrated the summer solstice under various names: St. John’s Day, Midsummer Eve, Litha, and others. In Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark especially, it is marked by festivities surrounding June 21, the longest day in the year. However, the celebration itself may take place any time between June 19 and June 25, so I’m happy to see I’m not behind-hand in noting this important event.

What does any of this have to do with fairies? Wiccans claim that the summer solstice is one of the days in the year when the veil between the spirit world and the human world is at its thinnest. It’s the day the fairies come out to play. http://wiccansage.hubpages.com/hub/Celebrating-the-Summer-Solstice-A-Fairy-Ritual-for-Midsummer

Here’s a link to history.com’s list of summer solstice celebrations worldwide: http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/summer-solstice-traditions

My own favorite summer solstice tradition is to re-read William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

In Act II, sc. 1, the mischievous fairy Puck arrives. He questions another fairy: “How now, spirit? Whither wander you?”

The response gives the perfect picture of the fairy life:

Over hill, over dale,

Thorough bush, thorough brier,

Over park, over pale,

Thorough flood, thorough fire,

I do wander everywhere,

Swifter than the moon’s sphere;

And I serve the fairy queen,

To dew her orbs upon the green.

The cowslips tall her pensioners be:

In their gold coats spots you see;

Those be rubies, fairy favours,

In those freckles live their savours:

I must go seek some dewdrops here

And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

Wherever it comes from, happy Fairy Day!

Midsummer_Night's_Dream_Henry_Fuseli

Henry Fuseli, 1796 (engraver, J. P. Simon). “Midsummer Nights Dream Act IV Scene I–A wood – Titiania [i.e., Titania], queen of the fairies, Bottom, fairies attending & etc.” housed in Library of Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Ishiguro, Murikami, and the Uses of Fantasy

Fantasy is an enduring genre with multitudes of fans, yet many literary types dismiss it. Why? To be honest, a lot of fantasy suffers from a problem that afflicts much speculative fiction (science fiction, dystopian fiction. . .a loose term). Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy is not well-written, or not particularly well-written. Many fans of speculative fiction are in it for the ideas or the plot, or both–not for the writing.

I’m reminded of the comment a friend of mine makes about tomatoes. When you bite into one, too often the reaction is merely meh. But when you bite into a good one–heaven! Poorly written fantasy: meh. When you bite into beautifully written fantasy–heaven!

Here’s an interesting post about this very topic, and from one of the masters of speculative fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro. (Wait a second. Let me rephrase that. One of the masterly writers of our time, in any genre.):

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150605-why-do-people-hate-fantasy

Ishiguro has just published a work of unblushing fantasy, The Buried Giant. His speculative-fiction novel, Never Let Me Go, skirted the boundaries of science fiction, but this new novel places itself squarely in the realm of fantasy.

Great literary fantasy may have come into its own in these early decades of the 21st century. I’m thinking especially of Haruki Murakami’s massive 2011 novel 1Q84.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some love it, or at least admire it, such as Charles Baxter of The New York Review of Books, who invented a whole new term, “Unrealism,” to describe the flavor of speculative fiction that it employs:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/dec/08/behind-murakamis-mirror/

Michael Dirda, of The Washington Post, calls Murikami “a brilliant practitioner of serious, yet irresistibly engaging, literary fantasy” and claimed he couldn’t put the book down:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/michael-dirda-reviews-1q84-by-haruki-murakami/2011/10/14/gIQAyyzwyL_story.html.

NPR’s Alan Cheuse loved it:

http://www.npr.org/2011/10/17/141434063/book-review-1q84

But plenty of respected reviewers disliked or even hated it. Janet Maslin, of The New York Times, panned it, calling anyone who reads every page of the massive thing a “sucker”:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/books/1q84-by-haruki-murakami-review.html?_r=0

The Guardian didn’t like it much, either, calling it an over-hyped “bleak fairy tale”:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/16/1q84-haruki-murakami-review

Allen Barra, the reviewer at The Atlantic, called it “disappointing” and “a flop”:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/12/how-murakamis-1q84-became-2011s-biggest-literary-letdown/250119/

In his BBC interview, Kazuo Ishiguro enters the debate about literary fantasy. He notes that “Most genre boundaries. . .were created by the book industry.” These artificial marketing distinctions, he thinks, account for much of the “sheer prejudice” against fantasy that he has experienced over the publication of The Buried Giant. He concludes with this statement: “I’m against all kinds of imagination police.”

What do you think? Were the imagination police at work on Murikami’s 1Q84? Are they at work, as Ishiguro charges, on his new novel, The Buried Giant? James Wood of The New Yorker despises it (but seems to despise other Ishiguro novels too):

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/the-uses-of-oblivion

Yet Wood claims to admire Ishiguro’s attempt: “Tastes differ, and Ishiguro is welcome to his Arthurian chain metal. (You can’t help admiring a writer who so courageously pleases himself, who writes so eccentrically against the norms.)” Wood goes on to enumerate novelists whom he thinks could have pulled such a story off, so perhaps he isn’t a perpetrator of the “sheer prejudice” that Ishiguro decries. Perhaps he just dislikes Ishiguro. (Wood loves William Golding’s matchless The Inheritors, so maybe I forgive him his snark at Ishiguro’s expense. Maybe.)

Ishiguro, for his part, claims he was just trying to tell a story, and that the fantasy setting came about almost by accident. He says he was actually trying to write a story that could resurrect “societal memory” and noted that such a story could have been set in Rwanda, or Northern Ireland during the Troubles, or Kosovo. For my own part, I’m thinking Ishiguro has nailed what fantasy is and does. “Societal memory” is exactly what fantasy is all about.

I haven’t read The Buried Giant yet, but now I’m eager to do so. More later. Stay tuned!

 

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