Each year, the speculative fiction author who wins the World Fantasy Award receives an awards statue that's a bust of author H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft, famous for his horror writing, was also known for his highly racist opinions, and this has created some controversy regarding the award that bears his likeness.
Laura Miller recently wrote about the backlash in a piece for Salon.com. She says that objections to the use of Lovecraft as the face of the award began to surface when Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor, who won the WFA for best novel in 2011 for Who Fears Death, wrote a blog post about her discomfort with the trophy after she read a racist poem that Lovecraft wrote in 1912.
"She saw it and she became completely dismayed and hurt that this professional honor, which she'd been so proud to receive, was in the shape of the head of someone who would think these kinds of things about her," Miller tells NPR's Arun Rath.
Miller says there was a petition to change the award to a bust of author Octavia Butler, but a lot of people would also prefer the award not be in the shape of any specific person.
The issue this raises for fans of Lovecraft or any other artist is how much you can separate the artist and their beliefs from their work. Miller says many fandoms struggle with this when something unflattering is revealed about someone they admire.
"Their reaction is ... to just have this sort of reflexive rejection of it," she says. Instead, Miller writes in her Salon piece, "You can acknowledge, contemplate and discuss ... without feeling obliged to reject the work as a whole."
This year, the WFA will present the Lovecraft-shaped awards, which were ordered back in March, as normal. But the WFA board of directors said they will have discussions about the situation at a series of meetings at this year's World Fantasy Convention, where the awards are presented.
"It's one thing for a person to decide to read something and to enjoy what they can enjoy about it and to be aware of problematic aspects of it," Miller says, "and it's another thing for a person who had certain beliefs to be the symbol for an entire community."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
For a writer who was pretty much ignored while he was alive, H.P. Lovecraft has done been pretty well posthumously. The writer of "Weird Tales" died in 1937. And it's hard to overstate his influence on fantasy and horror fiction.
Stephen King spoke for a lot of writers when he said Lovecraft opened the way for him. The trophy for writers at the annual World Fantasy Awards is a bust of Lovecraft.
But there's trouble in fantasyland. You see, H.P. Lovecraft was racist - really, really racist. While for decades most of his admirers were willing to look past that, recently the controversy came to a head, with a petition calling to find a new trophy for the World Fantasy Awards. Laura Miller, a senior writer for Salon, explains how the trouble started.
LAURA MILLER: Well, a writer, Nnedi Okorafor, who won the prize in 2011 - her book was called "Who Fears Death." Someone mentioned to her this poem that Lovecraft had written that was just incredibly racist. And she saw it and she became completely dismayed and hurt by the fact that this professional honor, which she had been so proud to receive, was in the shape of the head of a man who would think these kinds of things about someone like her.
RATH: Nnedi Okorafor being a Nigerian-American writer.
RATH: And this poem is noxious. We couldn't say the title of it on the radio.
RATH: It's awful.
MILLER: Yeah, it's really bad.
RATH: There's a petition going now to replace the Lovecraft likeness, right?
MILLER: Yeah, the petition was originally to change it to a bust of a writer named Octavia Butler, who died a few years ago. But there's been some objections raised to that because she's really identified more as a science fiction writer. And so I think there are a lot of people who would be happy if it just wasn't made in the shape of a bust at all, either nonrepresentational or representational of something different.
RATH: You know, one of the striking things about the controversy with this - and you wrote about this - it's become so nasty.
RATH: What's up with that?
MILLER: Well, I think that we have become in many ways the sort of culture of different fandoms. You know, it could be the people who read "Ulysses" aloud on Bloomsday, or the people who are really into "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" or whatever. They sort of, like, feed into each other. And they're not really used to questioning the person they admire. And their reaction when something unflattering or critical is voiced is to just have this kind of reflexive rejection of it, instead of being able to say, you know, that's true. I really love these things about this work. And this is really a problem with it. But I still love the work. You can do that. That's a grown up way to look at things.
RATH: Laura, once I learned the depth of Lovecraft's racism, it became impossible for me to read the stories the same way. They just seemed filled anxiety about WASPs losing control of the world.
MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think that when you recognize how entwined the racism is with the morbidness and the anxiety and the phobia and the dread that we think of as the signatures of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, in a weird way it gives you a certain element of insight into racism itself.
You know, one of the great things about Lovecraft is that this hot mess of his psyche is just, like, right there. It's like almost like an autopsy of a really, really messed up personality as well as a story. And I actually feel like it probably teaches us a lot about those attitudes for the next time that we encounter them.
RATH: We got in touch with a co-chair of the World Fantasy Organization board of directors and she told us that the H.P. Lovecraft statuette will be presented this year because the awards were ordered last March. They already have them. But she said that there will be discussions about the situation at this year's convention.
MILLER: Well, I think that's great. It's one thing for a person to decide to read something and to enjoy what they can enjoy about it and to be aware of problematic aspects of it. And it's another thing for a person who had certain beliefs to be the symbol of an entire community.
RATH: Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon and a fellow conflicted H.P. Lovecraft fan. Laura, pleasure speaking with you about this. Thank you.
MILLER: It was a pleasure for me, too. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.