On Butler and Lovecraft: A Response


Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi posted a rebuttal to my petition to change the World Fantasy Award statue to Octavia Butler and I want to respond to a few points in it. Joshi begins by dismissing my claim that Lovecraft was a terrible craftsman: “I believe it is now sufficiently well established that Lovecraft was in fact one of the great prose stylists of the English language.” I was surprised to read that statement because I’ve never seen anyone praise Lovecraft for his prose. Even his fans admit he’s a pretty wretched wordsmith, an overwriter. And while one can certainly overwrite and make it worthwhile to the reader – Poe for instance, who Lovecraft admired, was a helluvan overwriter – Lovecraft’s constant strings of adjectives and adverbs were both arhythmic and redundant. Butler on the other hand, came with curt, careful sentences that told us exactly what we needed to know. Her economy of prose was precise, confident, sharp.

And let’s discuss character and storycraft, since all of these come into play within the larger question of craft. Lovecraft peopled his stories with a slew of mostly middle-aged white men with the emotional bandwidth of hamsters; they felt uneasy, terrified…anguished. And that’s about it. They were intellectuals and sometimes random townsfolk, but not much else. They ran for their lives, occasionally fought off giant monsters, did some research. They existed primarily as a foil for the comparatively well-developed creatures. Butler’s characters were, in a word, alive. They struggled, loved, laughed, cried and we cried with them, for all their chaotic flaws and desperation. They were people we knew, people we’ve loved and hated.

Lovecraft’s stories often weren’t even stories, just ideas floating glumly along through paragraph after paragraph of wordiness. The ones that do have an actual plot tended to be scattered and leave us wondering why: Why should we care about the character? Why was the story even written? What…even…happened? Butler’s narratives brought us deftly along through the treacherous highs and lows of each protagonist’s struggles with a complicated array of power imbalances. She showed us many forms of violence and survival. The internal and external conflicts blend seamlessly and force us to interrogate our own relationship to power and privilege, all while avoiding simple didacticism or preaching. Butler gave great story.

Finally, Joshi raises the point that Butler wrote science fiction, not fantasy. Lovecraft wrote mostly about beings from outer space and other dimensions that infringed on this world. He’s considered a father more of the subgenre weird fiction than fantasy. His tale The Horror at Red Hook could be considered a precursor to the still-gentrified category of urban fantasy, but he wrote more science fiction-tinged  horror than fantasy. Butler did write science fiction. And she wrote about immortal shapeshifters, vampires, time travel, humans with magic powers. She wrote fantasy and horror. She influenced a generation of fantasy and horror writers. And anyone who hasn’t figured out that genre is a messy slipstream with no clear borders isn’t paying attention.

Mr. Joshi spends the majority of his essay arguing against a point that I never raised – the idea that Lovecraft’s race and gender somehow disqualify him. Joshi also wonders aloud why no one gets mad about Lovecraft’s atheism, as it was “equally obnoxious” to his virulent racism. Neither point merits a response, except to say that their inclusion in the post makes painfully clear the need for writers and scholars alike to do our homework when it comes to race, gender and power, lest we one day want to say something about them and not sound desperately ridiculous. Of course, it’s easy to make up points to argue against, which explains why Mr. Joshi so quickly swept past the crucial question of craft.

I absolutely don’t think someone as hateful as HP Lovecraft should hold such a symbolic place in the genre. Beyond that though, it matters that his writing suffered for it. His already stale protagonists defended themselves from sweltering masses of dull clichés: the same stupid, evil brown and black folks that white writers have been conjuring up for centuries to justify imperialism and institutional racism. A craft failure and human failure of epic proportions.

We can appreciate Lovecraft’s worldbuilding brilliance and imagination and still see him for what he was: a hateful human and a crappy wordsmith. And we can embrace a writer that changed the genre with the depth of her humanity, the sharpness of her power analysis, the ferocity of her words and stories. Let’s do what our genre asks of us and imagine this world the way it could possibly be while being honest about the way it is.

Butler Lovecraft

38 thoughts on “On Butler and Lovecraft: A Response”

  1. You prove yet again that you are wrong about Lovecraft (I begin to wonder how much of his excellent fiction you have actually perused)and utterly clueless about the vast amount of literary criticism Lovecraft’s superb stories have received in published form, in which his genius and excellence as a writer are investigated by those who (unlike yourself) understand that which constitutes good writing.

    1. If you think Lovecraft is a genius writer…There’s no hope for you. Your only defense here is that others agree with you. You haven’t made a case, you’re just being snide. Keep it moving, nobody here’s interested in your opinion.

  2. Whilst I agree that the bust of HPL should be dispensed with on account of his racism I don’t think that his contribution to the world of fantastical/speculative literature should be dismissed as readily. He is a giant in the field and that can not be denied.

    I agree with ST that Butler would be an ill fitting replacement on account of her being an SF author – albeit one of the greatest SF authors of the 20th Century. I personally don’t think that it should be a bust of any one individual but should be a symbol of the tradition of the fantastical. I have elsewhere suggested a tablet featuring the cuneiform opening of the Epic of Gilgamesh as this represents the millennia long tradition of the fantastical.

    With regards HPL’s writing, you say:

    “His tale The Horror at Red Hook could be considered a precursor to the still-gentrified category of urban fantasy, but that’s about as close to fantasy as he gets.”

    That’s simply not the case. The majority of HPL’s stories could easily be placed within the fantasy genre were they produced today. His Dream Cycle stories for example or works such as The Moon-Bog, Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, The Terrible Old Man, and so on are not concerning the Elder Gods or extraterrestrial creatures.

    That aside the WFA is not as genre specific as other awards and often includes work from outwith the ‘fantasy’ genre which is, imo, a good thing as it recognises that genre is a creation of the marketing departments at publishing houses/book sellers rather than a reflection of the art itself.

    With regards his writing style I’m afraid I have to disagree that he was a crappy writer. It is *only* because he wrote weird/genre fiction that his prose was ever criticised as being ‘purple’. Had he been writing mainstream literary fiction it would never have been an issue.

    Still, having a bust of someone with such reprehensible opinions as HPL as an award in a community which is trying its best to do become as inclusive as possible is ridiculous.

    1. Interesting points AW, and I agree a statue with no face at all could be an excellent solution. As for his prose, seems we’ll just have to agree to disagree – I find them almost unreadable. I think of Jermyn and the Dream Cycle stories much more within the realm of horror than fantasy, but I think the distinctions become almost useless at a certain point. Both authors straddled the lines and that’s in part what has made their legacy endure. Thanks for the comments.

  3. Oops, should clarify. When I said:

    “I agree with ST that Butler would be an ill fitting replacement on account of her being an SF author”

    I meant that whilst she was almost exclusively an SF author HPL at least straddled the various fantastic genres as they exist today – SF/Fantasy/Horror.

  4. In my Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Rhode Island (reprinted as Out of the Shadows, Wildside Press, 2011) I made the claim that HPL is an important part of the “canon”; and I was able to defend the thesis using accepted literary theory–Roland Barthes, Gerard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov and others–and earn my Ph.D. in literature, which does give me some qualifications in the area of literary criticism. Remember, he was writing in the early part of the centure before most modern SF and Fantasy was even “born,” and he was writing in a style that was more appropriate to that time. Much writing of that time would be considered “ourple prose” today–Hemingway and the naturalists changed the way we look at prose. So Lovecraft’s stories are “worthy” of study, at least according to my dissertation committee. People may not “like” his “purple prose” but liking ain’t literary theory.

    1. Absolutely worthy of study. I’m not sure where from this piece you take that I don’t think they’re worthy of study. Or where I make claims to literary theory. And yes, early part of the century, different times literarily, I am well aware, but again, Poe, Doyle, many others who were writing genre lit, even if it wouldn’t have been called that then, and overwriting, and they did it with style, with grace, with some sense of rhythm and craft. Lovecraft’s overwriting is mundane and tedious. As I say above, we can honor worthwhile parts of his legacy. His prose wasn’t one of them. Congrats on your PhD.

  5. Joshi’s post was embarrassing and pompous, no more dignified or insightful than ‘damn those SJWs’ rants made on reddit. Butler and Lovecraft both skirted across the lines of genre enough to dismiss the idea that Butler isn’t fantasy enough while Lovecraft is.

  6. “I was surprised to read that statement because I’ve never seen anyone praise Lovecraft for his prose.”

    The essays by Professor Christopher Frayling and Angela Carter in ‘The Necronomicon’ (Neville Spearman, 1978) have many positive things to say about Lovecraft’s prose and his qualities of description. Carter’s piece attends to landscape while Frayling discusses at some length those aspects generally regarded as flaws which he sees as being analogues for the conveyance of overheated dream-states (I’m paraphrasing, and probably doing his argument no favours). I’ve worked in the past with Alan Moore on some Lovecraft-related projects; Alan has always praised Lovecraft’s writing, and defended it against the standard criticisms which, over the years, have come to seem more like unexamined prejudices. You’ll have to take my word on Alan’s opinion but he may say something to the effect in his intro to ‘The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft’ (Liveright) which I’ve not yet seen.

    Regarding the matter of the World Fantasy Award, I was the recipient of one of those awards a couple of years ago, and still find it odd that the head of an American writer is supposed to somehow represent the entirety of world fantasy. And I say this as someone who’s produced a fair amount of Lovecraft-related artwork.

    Given that, I fail to see how swapping one American writer for another American writer does any justice to the wide range of fantasy or to the nature of the award as representing the world as a whole (I’m British, as it happens). Awards in other media with an equally broad scope tend to have designs that are either symbolic or abstract. So the question then would be what symbol (or symbols) best suits the scope of world fantasy.

  7. You have failed to prove your theory. Plenty of people have praised Lovecraft’s prose. Why do you think the man has such a sprawling fanbase? I admit, his piling on the adjectives can get a bit over the top at times, but he is a devil with atmosphere. Even his first real story, “The Beast in the Cave”, is deeply effective and will elicit shudders to this day. This was his JUVENILE FICTION: written before he was yet fifteen. I admit, his characters aren’t the most developed in literature (except for in his later work and an earlier story, “The Rats in the Walls”). But he delivers memorable works of literature that have endured.

    He was known for combining fantasy, horror, and science fiction into a unique and unheard of genre. The borderlines of this genre are thin: you yourself stated so, and prove my point. Science and magic existed in the same universe. If you want his stunning blend, go to the Cthulhu Mythos. If you really need more fantasy, then just go to the Dreamlands, which has beautiful prose and fantastical stories.

    BRIAN

    P.S. “And she wrote about immortal shapeshifters, vampires, time travel, humans with magic powers.” So did Lovecraft. In order: Nyarlathotep (immortal shapeshifter); star vampires and Joseph Curwen (vampires); “The Shadow Out of Time” (time travel); “The Dreams in the Witch House”, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, et cetera (humans with magic powers). Not that Butler is a bad writer, oh no. I’m just proving a point.

    1. My theory was not that no one has praised Lovecraft’s writing craft or that he didn’t write any fantasy at all. So you have succeeded in disproving a theory I didn’t state. We agree about the borderlines being thin, and I do enjoy how he blended genres, among other things about his work. This post is specifically and clearly about his prose and responding to points Joshi raised.

  8. Sheesh. If Butler is so important, I fail to understand why SFWA isn’t honoring her? She was primarily a science fiction writer, which is great, so why pick on World Fantasy? The WFC was SET UP to honor the legacy of HPL’s impact. And why bother with this now? Because it’s fashionable? Because it’s PC? Those are silly reasons that disrespect Butler as an artist.

    1. Hi Jason. You made up two reasons, ignoring the ones I stated and then said they’re silly. Congrats. Also, read up on the history of the WFA and SFWA. Your ignorance is showing. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Daniel Jose, while I applaud your taking a stand for oppressed minorities within writing – a cause Octavia Butler has certainly championed – your argument against Lovecraft’s style seems to boil down to the fact you personally find it “crappy” which is not terribly sophisticated lit crit. You seem unaware of such seminal articles in Lovecraft criticism as Steven J. Mariconda’s “H.P. Lovecraft: Consummate Prose Stylist” (published as long ago as 1982 in LOVECRAFT STUDIES)and recently collected in Mariconda’s excellent essay collection HH.P. LOVECRAFT: ART, ARTIFACT AND REALITY (Hippocampus Press 2013) in which Mariconda shows how Lovecraft utilised an array of rhetorical techniques to generate maximum power and effectiveness in the writing of weird fiction. Mariconda’s intro to this volume refers to “the dwindling number of uninformed Internet pundits [who] still parrot the received wisdom that Lovecraft was not a good writer”; I’m afraid you appear to be one of these. Graham Harman’s philosophical volume WEIRD REALISM: LOVECAFT AND PHILOSOPHY (Washington Zero Books, 2012) concludes of Lovecraft: “I am happy to risk calling him one of the 20th century’s greatest writers of fiction”, largely based on close reading of 100 passages from the tales. That said, no-one can dictate your personal taste, and if you don’t care for Lovecraft’s style, that’s well and good – there are thousands who will disagree with you. On the subject of the statuette for the World Fantasy Award, if for some reason it had to be changed, a more logical candidate for a woman fantasy writer would be someone like Ursula K. LeGuin or Tananarive Due or Nalo Hopkinson (the latter two written horror and sf as well as fantasy). Samuel R. Delany or Charles R. Saunders would, in my view, be deserving male candidates of colour. Other 19th century masters and mistresses, from Poe to Amelia B. Edwards might be suggested as seminal fantasy figures. But frankly I see no reason for doing with Lovecraft’s visage as the statuette; he is a titan in the world of fantasy. Butler’s writing in her Patternist and Xenogenesis series is commendably non-Eurocentric but is unmistakably science-fictional rather than fantastic, for which reason she receives an entry in John Clute’s ENCYCLOPEDA OF SCIENCE FICTION but nary a mention in his ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASY.

  10. Thank you for saying what always needs to be said. Lovecraft was tiresome and redundant, and the continued praise of his work by those who claim to be so familiar with it tells me that there’s something else at stake here for them: what is being protected is more than just the legacy of a single writer, but what he stands for.
    All that aside, Joshi should be embarrassed for that article. It’s more like something I would see on Reddit than a serious critique. You don’t have a Wikipedia entry, therefore you are no one? Please. This childish attempt to erase you is as transparent as it is obnoxious.

  11. Brian O’Connell says

    “You have failed to prove your theory. Plenty of people have praised Lovecraft’s prose. Why do you think the man has such a sprawling fanbase?”

    I can’t speak for Lovecraft’s whole fanbase, but what makes his work compelling, to me, is the willingness to expand his imagined world/mythos so as to make it and its creatures almost beyond human conception, something that is very hard to do but when he does it well, gives a hint of the horror he was striving to convey. I’d say his strength as a SFF writer was in conceiving and building a mythos over successive stories, and it was very different from other fantastic worlds/mythologies being created at the same time (eg. Tolkien’s).
    That said, the glaring racism in his stories, as well as the overwrought prose, may have been accepted (or not even noticed?) by some readers in the time he wrote them, but nowadays can be rightly called, at minimum, failures of craft; and the racism alone should be reason to call into question why he should be given a “pass” as an icon of this award. How can someone who only portrays a small demographic of the world in his writing and at times seems to disregard the other demographics be emblematic of “world fantasy”?

  12. Butler is a fantastically important and talented author… of science fiction. What business have we putting her on an award for a genre of which she kept well clear? What’s next, the Einstein Prize for Biological Innovation? The Euclid, to celebrate perfectly-drawn curves? How about the Yes Award, given to exceptionally good uses of the word No?

  13. Literary greatness cannot be determined on ideological grounds, end of. You may not like him but he is clearly a great writer, who has had a tremendous impact on a wide variety of genres over a long period. That sounds appropriate for a bust.

    This argument diminishes you, and contributes to the all too common view that any attempt to addres racism is ‘political correctness’.

    Please can you do something more constructive instead?

  14. Yes, yes, and more yes. While a faceless statue is more to my liking, if there has to be a face, I’d rather it not be the face of a racist. I’d rather it not be the face of someone whose writing doesn’t hold up over time. I understand that we all write in the context of whatever time we live in, but writing that continues to work decades and centuries after first publication has to be more worthy of statuary than writing that feels overburdened and dated.

  15. I am not knowledgeable about these busts and their symbolic importance but I have to say that I’ve never been able to read more than a few pages of Lovecraft at a sitting. He’s an awful writer. On the other hand I have read many (most, all?) of Butler’s books and stories. Read ’em by the hour. Couldn’t put ’em down. I’ve devoured her prose and sat in awe of her imagination and the care that went behind her shaping of story. Arguably Lovecraft cared deeply about his ideas. It’s just sad that they were such miserable ideas.

  16. To state the obvious fact that Lovecraft is an author of genius is not being snide. If you have read the books that discuss his work, many of which are available, you may come to understand why so many see your protest as a manifestation of ignorance and bigotry.

  17. Have to agree with Olivia. The latest post by Mr. Joshi is truly embarrassing. He is certainly not helping his case by making such idiotic personal attacks.
    I’ve seen this nasty streak of his displayed in a few of his other posts but never to such a degree. If he continues in this vein it is only going to provide fuel for those wishing to replace Lovecraft’s bust.

  18. If one has not yet read the superb fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, there is a stunning new edition of his work forthcoming in October, THE NEW ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT, edited by Leslie S. Klinger. I have the advance reading copy of this edition, and it is stunning, quite worthy of the pre-publication praise that it has received from Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, and Peter Cannon (all of whom understand why H. P. Lovecraft’s writing is so excellent and original). In his comment on the edition, Peter Straub has said that it “…opens up a breathtaking, authoritative, affectionate vision of this cherished but often misunderstood genius of weird fiction.” (I am not alone, therefore, in declaring Lovecraft’s writing the work of a genius, although Mr. Straub has a far firmer understanding of the qualities of good writing than I cou’d ever pretend to possess.) This magnificent new edition, together with S. T. Joshi’s THE VARIORUM LOVECRAFT (to be published in several volumes) will solidify H. P. Lovecraft’s standing as a classic of American Literature, as a writer quite worthy of being represented on the World Fantasy Award, a writer of mammoth importance and influence in the genre.

  19. “To state the obvious fact that Lovecraft is an author of genius is not being snide.”

    To claim to be able to definitively assert an ‘obvious fact’ when it is no such thing is foolishness defined.

  20. The entire issue about Lovecraft’s opinions on races other than his seems to be pretty obviously worthless when the purpose of using his image for the World Fantasy Award is because he represents one of the major, original branches of the tree of fantasy literature from whose ideas and inspiration has grown countless other fantastical writers for many decades. He is one of the pivotal sources of modern speculative fiction, and therefore is an obvious choice for an award for Fantasy writing.

    The criticisms against using him (other than the terribly subjective “I don’t like his writing” jabs) seem to center on two very modern lines of thought that are, at least in my opinion, wholly unworthy of rational consideration.

    The first is the tendency to hold on to one’s own subjective, emotional dislike of a person’s work and then to use that energy to mine through a person’s entire body of thought and discussion to find any intellectual complaint that could be held up to modern criticism in the form of a convenient diminutive label. I.e. that person is a racist, that person hates women, that person is of a particular political or religious background that is extreme, etc. As if a person’s efforts throughout their life should be weighed against one facet of their personality and deemed useless if a newer set of beliefs disagrees.

    The second is often a reaction to the first and the constant concern that “someone might be upset by the choice”. So someone whose views on race are more modern will be less likely to draw complaints than someone whose views weren’t. Of course this is a fruitless pursuit because, due to the first issue, there will always be someone who can find something they find “offensive” in another person’s existence. This is obvious with the Butler suggestion as you will then have a string of people pointing out that you’re advocating using a writer who did not write Fantasy fiction to be an award for authors who are writing Fantasy fiction.

    No human being is above the mindless reproach of at least a healthy chunk of humanity (especially on the Internet). So if you are going to leave a person’s face on any award statue, it seems fitting to pick a person who is an early inspiration for the genre of the award that is easily recognized by followers of it. Clearly Lovecraft fits the bill. Clearly Butler doesn’t.

    1. You seem really hung up on the Lovecraft is racist argument and while that is relevant, it’s really not what this blog is about. This is about his prose craft, which is awful even if other elements of his craft are great, and the fact that Butler also writes fantasy. Most of your argument here goes back to the assumption that this whole thing is about Lovecraft’s racism, since you can’t get past that, I don’t know how to respond to you except read the post again and try arguing against things actually said.

      Thanks for the comment.

  21. “…the continued praise of his work by those who claim to be so familiar with it tells me that there’s something else at stake here for them: what is being protected is more than just the legacy of a single writer, but what he stands for.”

    Forgive me, but what am I and others like me being accused of here?

  22. Closing comments because folks insist on arguing against points not made. Do better. For those that agreed or disagreed with honest engagement, thank you for your thoughtfulness.

    #

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