Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Weird Tales Controversy-Part Three

If I have my chronology worked out right, Ann VanderMeer resigned her position with Weird Tales on August 20, 2012--three years ago this week (and the 122nd anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft's birthday). On September 1, 2012, her husband, Jeff VanderMeer, issued a manifesto on the website of their co-creation, Weird Fiction Review: Your Non-Denominational Source for the Weird. Mr. VanderMeer's manifesto is called "Moving Past Lovecraft," and you can read it by clicking here.

"Moving Past Lovecraft" is an essay dense with thoughts and opinions. It's not easily quotable in mere snippets. The gist of is that Jeff VanderMeer objects to weird fiction "with Lovecraft at the center of it" and to:
"the continued adulation for and imitation of Lovecraft";
"[t]he commodification of Lovecraft"; and
the "wallow[ing] in Lovecraft [and the] fetishiz[ing of] Lovecraft."
You might say that Jeff VanderMeer has a bone to pick with Lovecraft and all of his numberless followers. He has a point. We can probably all agree that there is way too much adulation and imitation of H.P. Lovecraft and his works. I think we can agree, too, on Lovecraft's manifest flaws and failings as a writer. As an aside, Mr. Vandermeer is simply continuing a tradition in American literature, one that goes back at least as far as Mark Twain and his essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895). The point is that writers and artists of the current generation want to be heard. They want the present to belong to we who are living. They very often would like to put the writer from the past in his grave. Sometimes the writer in question doesn't even have to be in the past, as with Robert Bloch's opinion of Robert E. Howard, or Saul Bellow's opinion of Ernest Hemingway. But it is a legitimate desire on the part of the artist to express himself without being encumbered by the clanking chains of the long-dead.

Jeff VanderMeer begins his manifesto by commenting on the controversy over the World Fantasy Award and Lovecraft's supposed racism, writing:
In a sense, this entire conversation is surreal and strange to us because from our perspective the weird has never been something with Lovecraft at the center of it.
and adds parenthetically:
(When I first won a World Fantasy Award, I didn't know it was a bust of Lovecraft; I thought it was just a depiction of an ugly ghost.)
He sounds like Lovecraft's mother, who called her son "ugly." On top of that, I'm not sure how you can go very far in the world of fantasy without knowing what Lovecraft looked like. But those things are beside the point. The point is that Mr. VanderMeer wrote those words without a bit of irony, considering the following image:

That's Stephen H. Segal on the left and Ann VanderMeer on the right. They are holding their Hugo Awards, presented in 2009 for their work on Weird Tales during the previous year. (The award, for Best Semiprozine, was a first for Weird Tales.)

The Hugo Award is named for Hugo Gernsback, and though the award is not in his image, it recognizes his central place in science fiction, just as the World Fantasy Award, which is not named for Lovecraft but bears his image, recognizes his central place in the world of fantasy. I don't think anyone would say that Gernsback or Lovecraft is the only person who is central in his field, but we have to look somewhere, and so we have chosen these two men. They may have been flawed, but who in human history has not been flawed? Shall we make our awards in the name or image of only perfect people and thus have no awards at all? Or should awards be something else? As S.T. Joshi wrote, "[The World Fantasy Award] says nothing about Lovecraft's personality or character--just as the Hugo Award says nothing of the character . . . of Hugo Gernsback." (1) The World Fantasy Awards were first held in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft's native city. In the forty years since, three more conventions have been held there, more than in any other city. For forty years, the World Fantasy Convention has recognized H.P. Lovecraft as central to fantasy in America. Just because one person or another doesn't want it to be so doesn't mean that it's not so.

To continue:
This feeling has intensified with Weird Tales having gone from a modern expression of "the weird" under this site's co-founder Ann VanderMeer . . . to something that is clearly more conservative. The saddest part of this latter aspect is that Weird Tales often championed unclassifiable strange material; in other words, back in the day the cosmic horror of Lovecraft was something new. (Although let's also not gloss over the truth: a certain percentage of what they published ranged from competent to mediocre in terms of the execution, and one reason some Weird Tales writers aren't better known now is that their work was steeped in non-progressive attitudes toward race and other cultures.)
He makes a good point: In its time, Weird Tales was an innovation, the first American magazine devoted exclusively to fantasy. The sub-genre of weird fiction evolved more or less in its pages. The authors themselves were also innovative. Lovecraft created or synthesized a new kind of fantasy by combining supernatural horror with science fiction. Dark in mood and materialist in orientation, it nevertheless held back from complete nihilism. Robert E. Howard was also an innovator. The sub-genre of heroic fantasy as we know it today is more or less his invention. But all that was nearly eighty years ago. There is no reason why we today should slavishly follow writers of the past. But there also isn't any reason to throw off the past just for the sake of throwing it off. We can value what is valuable from the past while still living in the present and anticipating the future. That as much as anything might define the difference between the conservative and the progressive.

It's clear what side Jeff VanderMeer is on. I can't say what his wife's opinion might be as the words are his. However, he seems to be expressing their shared approach to fantasy. In any case, "conservative" and "non-progressive" are clearly disagreeable to the author. He expands on his ideas: 
Our bewilderment that this pull toward the fetishizing of and yearning for the dead past is still an issue for weird fiction in 2012 is matched only by our belief that this is indeed a golden age for weird fiction. But not in the sense of looking back to a Golden Age. A mode of fiction that eats itself, that becomes cannibalistic, cannot be said to be progressive or innovative in any real sense. [Emphasis in the original.]
There is the point and apparently the direction in which Mr. VanderMeer wants to take weird fiction: The past is dead; conservatism and non-progressivism are at the very least problematic. In their place there must be innovation and progress, away from the dead or cannibalistic past and towards a new Golden Age of--what? The present? How? Progress into the present doesn't make any sense. So the future instead? Must weird fiction be taken away from "conservative" and "non-progressive" readers, writers, and editors? Must it reside within the exclusive territory of the progressive, that is, in the future, or at the very least the present as a gateway into the Golden Age of the future? And what is the Golden Age of the future but Utopia, which is, as we know, merely a mask for Dystopia, the end point of progressivism?

Those are my extrapolations. They should not be taken as Mr. VanderMeer's words. But among his words are these: conservative, non-progressive, nostalgia, frustrating, "yearning for the dead past," cannibalistic, narrowness, "problematic past attitudes or prejudices." All are negative in denotation or connotation and all are used in reference to Lovecraft and his followers or to the traditional writer, reader, and fan of fantasy or weird fiction.

Here are more of Mr. VanderMeer's words, all used positively and in reference either to progressivism or to his preferred authors: modern, "Golden Age [of the present]", nuanced, complex, inclusiveness, "moved on [beyond Lovecraft]," "amazing writers of weird fiction [who] have been forgotten or marginalized," "those who have become invisible,"  international, "non-denominational," non-Anglo, edgy, transgressive, diverse. (2, 3) In his essay, the author claims a "position of not buying into cliché," yet he uses the clichéd language of the aggrieved and thoroughly academic progressive throughout. If only "social justice" were in there, Mr. VanderMeer's essay would be complete.

He closes with these words:
Our maps are always in the process of being rewritten, and we do not always know our course, or what we may discover in the process of the mapping . . . and that's how it should be. [Ellipses in the original.]
In other words, there will always be change and no resting place, nothing, I suppose that will have any enduring value or meaning. (Again, those are my words, not his.) And just in case you don't like it, you should know that Jeff VanderMeer, who writes "we have no emperor or king or queen," has already decided for you that "that's how it should be." 

Next: Marvin Kaye Will You Please Go Now?

Notes
(1) The Mystery Writers of America present every year their awards, the Edgars, named for Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was a flawed man, too. The politically correct of today could easily find offense in his life and works. They might start with "The Gold-Bug." Shall we do away the Edgars as well because of it?
(2) I suppose it was by some dark and terrible conspiracy that those writers have been forgotten, marginalized, and rendered invisible. If there is a conspiracy, we all know who must be responsible.
(3) I'll have more to say about those words later in this series. There is also some academic gobbledygook in the essay--"subtextually" is the best example of that--but thankfully the author keeps it to a minimum. 

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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