Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Awards, Oprah, etc., and Genre

Today's edition of Shelf Awareness included a reference to an article published in the Guardian, a U.K. daily, about science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson in which he accused the Man Booker committee of "ignornance" for disregarding science fiction when it comes to choosing nominees and winners of the Man Booker Prize, arguably one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world. To quote,

"Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the greatest science fiction authors writing today, has hit out at the literary establishment, accusing the Man Booker judges of 'ignorance' in neglecting science fiction, which he called 'the best British literature of our time'.

"The winner of Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and author of the bestselling Mars trilogy, Robinson attacked the Booker for rewarding 'what usually turn out to be historical novels'. Five are shortlisted for this year's prize, from Hilary Mantel's retelling of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, to AS Byatt's The Children's Book, set at the turn of the 20th century.

"'[Historical novelists] tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways,' Robinson said in an article for the New Scientist, published today. 'A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is.'"

So in his view, it seems that speculative fiction is not just as deserving of recognition, but more so. He says that historical fiction is 'not about now'- a sweeping generalization indeed, and one that displays its own brand of ignorance about contemporary literature. A novel set in the past can have just as much to say about our own times as one set on a spaceship or another planet. I agree that science fiction is often socially informed and positioned to play with conventions and contemporary politics- but these traits are hardly limited to the genre.

Take the example he gives, Ford Madox Ford's masterful Parade's End. This isn't just some slight historical-novel fluff- it's a major masterpiece of 20th century English literature and its themes of love, war and chaos have much to tell us about today as it has to teach about the historical specifics of World War 1 and prewar England. A.S. Byatt's wonderful The Children's Book, shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, is also ostensibly about prewar England but it's about more than that- it's about families and class and politics and the status of women, and is just as deeply informed by the 21st century as it is by the 19th. A good writer can write about the past but make it feel modern and create empathy for the characters. People are people no matter what the era or setting. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens have as much to say now as ever; that's why they keep getting adapted and retold and that's why we keep reading them. Great literature is universal and eternal.

Having said that, what about his point that the Man Booker ignores science fiction, and the idea that there is something wrong with it? Certainly he's right that science fiction is ignored by mainstream awards, and that there is a lot of great writing out there in other genres. Maybe he should start his own awards to honor the literature he writes and loves, but honestly I don't have any problem at all with the Man Booker and the Prix Goncourt and the Pen/Faulkner and whatever other award you can name, focusing on literary fiction. Genres have built-in audiences; it's hard enough to draw attention to lit fic without naysayers saying it doesn't deserve the attention. Likewise I have no problem with, say, Oprah Winfrey's habit of choosing highbrow classics and literary fiction for her bookclub- why be satisfied with mediocrity? Why not encourage people to read challenging books? And why not recognize modern masterpieces with literary awards? If science fiction, or chick lit, or religious fiction, or whatever is important to you, advocate for an award or support the ones already out there- like the Nebula, the Hugo, the Sami Rohr Prize, and others. But let us lit fic nerds have our Booker Prize.