The trophy for the World Fantasy Award is a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, a man who, it’s undeniable, was hugely influential on the body of fantastic literature. He was also an exceptionally hateful and unabashed racist. When Nnedi Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2011, she wrote a thoughtful blog post about winning an award bearing the image of a man who, in life, would have detested her based on her skin. Since then, discussion of the propriety of having Lovecraft on the award statue has grown. Today Daniel José Older (who recently made a great video about why he doesn’t italicize Spanish words in his fiction) put up a Change.org petition to change the World Fantasy Award to a bust of Octavia Butler.
My initial response to this idea was excitement. Octavia Butler is among my favorite writers, and the author of my all-time favorite short story. She was also a woman of color who wrote about issues of race with as much nuance as anyone ever has. So with regard to addressing the things that make Lovecraft a troublesome figure to have on the statue, it’s hard to imagine anyone better. With regard to representing the fantasy genre, though, Butler is an odd choice. She almost never wrote it.
Butler published, by my count, 21 pieces of fiction during her life: 12 novels and 9 shorter works. Of those, there are only two that seem to me to be works of fantasy. Her short story “The Book of Martha” is clearly fantasy; the story is all about the titular character having a conversation with god about how to construct an utopia, given a Rawlsian veil of ignorance. The rest of her short works are all either science fiction or realism. Of her novels, the only one that is arguably fantasy is Kindred,1 in which the main character jumps through time between the 1970s and pre-Civil War United States, for no reason that is ever explained. (Daniel José Older obliquely references the book in his petition.) While this fantastic premise is perhaps enough to qualify it as a work fantasy, this book itself is far more concerned with investigating the social structures of slavery than it is with the fantastic element. The time travel, for all that it powers the plot, gets very little focus. And in terms of tropes and rhetorical structures, the novel has much more in common with historical fiction than it does fantasy. In bookstores I’ve seen it shelved in “literature” or “African American fiction” more often than I’ve seen it in “science fiction and fantasy.” So even if Kindred is fantasy, it’s not very representative, or in-genre influential fantasy, wonderful book though it is. And that still puts Butler’s fantasy output at less than 10% of her oeuvre.
It the choice is between Lovecraft and Butler for the World Fantasy Award, then obviously I’m on Team Butler. But if the choice instead is Lovecraft or Not Lovecraft, then I think I lean toward a different sort of Not Lovecraft: I’m on Team Nobody. Why does the award have to be a person? It isn’t named for a person, it’s named for a genre. No one–not Lovecraft, or Dunsany, or Tolkien–encapsulates an entire genre. I think I’m with Nick Mamatas, who proposed that the award be changed to something symbolic of fantasy. His suggestion was a chimera, which I like. In discussion on Twitter, Kurt Busiek spitballed the idea of a globe with fantastic maps, which could be nice too. The convention could have a design competition, like there is every year for the base of the Hugo award (the trophy for which, it’s worth noting, isn’t a bust of Hugo Gernsback). Doing so would undoubtedly produce a great, artistic design, and it would nicely unify a family of closely related awards: the Hugo is a rocket ship, the Nebula is astral bodies, and the World Fantasy Award would be… something fantastic.