Those of us who write, whether fiction or non-fiction, in a literary or popular vein, are following some kind of tradition. It’s inescapable. But you have to decide what your tradition is, or if you’re blending things together–which may be the best way to go in my opinion. I am all about the hybrid, adapting to new situations, and letting go of what is no longer working. John Scalzi has written recently on how The Canon becomes irrelevant to new generations. That’s for us each to decide, who is worth our time.
And let no one take that choice away from you.
But generally speaking, we’re following in the footsteps of other fiction writers. There are no idols, no gods and goddesses, in the science fiction genre that should not be taken off their pedestals and looked over carefully. Just human beings, some alive, some dead whose stories struck a chord and inspired others.
Ask questions, especially if something doesn’t seem quite right or you get a bad feeling when you read a book or story that’s supposed to part of The Canon.
I write this in the aftermath of the World Fantasy Awards, of course, and the decision to do away with the graven image of Howard Phillips Lovecraft given to the winners for the past few decades. A man’s whose work is fueled by anxieties over racial degeneracy. A lot of science fiction is grounded in the author’s anxieties, but we must be suspicious when what fears gave an author the inspiration to write is abhorrent to our own sense of what is right. I personally have a strong distaste to anyone whose work defends (implicitly or explicitly) cultural, racial, gender, and/or class hierarchy.
That’s my politics, that’s who I am.
At the same time, I don’t think that influential figures in the genre like Lovecraft should be dismissed or thrown out completely (and I don’t think anyone’s really arguing that they should be). Lovecraft’s anxieties over racial degeneracy need to be held up to the light and understood within the context in which they arose. Some readers may find this topic too close to home, and I sympathize with them. If you want to brave the dark depths, however, I think there’s something to be gained. It’s an individual decision whether it’s worth the trouble.
I’m approaching Lovecraft through the lens of intellectual history, that is, to consider where ideas came from, in space and time, if we are to come to terms with them. A defining moment seems to have been his immigrant experience (some context here)–leaving his sheltered, insular Rhode Island upbringing for the vibrant, polyglot, cosmopolitan world of turn of the twentieth century Brooklyn. Where many transplants found excitement and opportunity, the young Lovecraft was horrified and traumatized.
Plenty of influential writers come out of traumatic experiences. Writing in part to make sense of what they went through. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Hemingway, Mary Shelley, the list goes on. Lovecraft was likely not all that different, but what matters is what we make of those experiences that shake us up, that are alien to our previous way of life. In his case, the whole world seemed to be going to Hell, and racial degeneracy was at the heart of it. I should note too that he lived in the heyday of so-called “scientific racism,” eugenics, and imperialism. His upper-class snobbery bothers me as much as his racism.
I’m not trying to romanticize him, just trying to have empathy for and come to terms with what he experienced. He strikes me as a pathetic figure, whom I really don’t want to emulate.
But what is left when we strip away the racist babbling and anxiety and psychosis? What can Lovecraft still tell us about writing science fiction and fantasy?
Lots of writers whom I admire have come out to say there’s nothing worth salvaging. That his racism was at the heart of his project, it was the turning engine that drove him, not something that can be pieced out.
So what do I see amid the wreckage that might be worth saving?
Lovecraft gave us Cthulhu (rising from the depths of the unconscious to kill us all) and the whole alien-god mythos. I see lingering shadows of his mythos all over fantasy fiction, that there are wholly alien entities *out there* that are not benevolent, or just the idea that the universe is not made for humanity and does not have our best interests at heart. (Not that he absolutely invented that idea. I just associate it with him.) Different universes where different laws of physics are at play. I don’t really assume that everyone in fandom who has a Cthulhu doll or references Lovecraft’s work in some playful fashion drags his baggage behind them.
But for me, it’s problematic. Tainted. Handle with caution. Do not blink.
And so the pragmatic answer is this: take the genre’s idols off the shelf, dust them thoroughly, and look them over. Take the good with the bad or if you can’t do that (and no one says you have to) toss them in the bin and move on with your life.
Go write words that are true and speak to your own experience. Reading from The Canon may help you find your way, but it’s only a rough guide. If you find it disgusting or traumatizing just to read their work, throw it against the wall, aiming for the spot right above the recycling bin.
Until next time, take care of yourself, and happy writing.