Monday, September 28, 2009

Books, Awards, Oprah, etc., and Genre- Part Two

Last week's post on genre and literary awards garnered some great comments, a great response and even some attention elsewhere, so I want to revisit the issue with a guest post from Mr. Boston Bibliophile, a devoted reader of science fiction, to give a somewhat different point of view.

Sci-fi authors are, I think, justifiably upset about the lack of respect they are given. A lot of work goes into writing some very fine books that have to overcome a substantial stigma with readers; many sci-fi books are worthy of a larger audience but are never seen because they're stuck on the shelves next to gaudy covers showing badly drawn wizards and dragons. It's enough to fry anyone's fritters.

That said, the fact that there are excellent sci-fi books worthy of greater recognition does not mean that those same books qualify for "literary fiction" awards. I think sometimes the sci-fi community confuses books that are excellently written sci-fi with books that transcend genre. In fact, I think that those sci-fi books which transcend genre do get fair consideration -- the works of authors such as Atwood and Lessing being examples.

But why shouldn't excellent sci-fi be considered for literary awards on its own merits, regardless of whether it "transcends genre"? Isn't "genre" just a way to give short shrift to a huge category of work without due consideration? Well, whether you believe in "genre" or not, I think it is undeniable that what most of us think about as sci-fi appeals to some people and not to others. Over time I have come to believe that this is not an issue of "not having been exposed to the good stuff" -- I have given what I consider excellent sci-fi to people in the past, and they simply don't get it or appreciate it. Is this a problem with sci-fi? No. Is it a problem with the reader? Hard to accept, I know, but no. Sci-fi just isn't some people's cup of tea. They are simply looking for something different in their reading (let's call it Quality X) than what sci-fi readers look for (Quality Y). Unless a sci-fi book also contains Quality X -- thereby "transcending genre" -- it will never meet the standards of a non-sci-fi reader.

But what are Quality X and Quality Y? If you can't define them, are they really a basis for excluding certain works for consideration? I think, as frustrating as it may be, the answer is yes -- even if you can't define these qualities in anything but the most vague and subjective terms, there is nevertheless an objective difference in whether someone appreciates one category versus another.

Thus, if you have a panel giving an award for the novel that best encapsulates Quality X, there's no point in complaining that they've failed to consider your book as being the world's best example of Quality Y. It's like complaining that a dog show won't let you enter your prize-winning Siamese. If they did let your cat into the show, how on earth would they judge between them? It would boil down into whether you appreciate Quality X or Quality Y more, which is such a subjective standard that it's not worthy of a merit-based competition -- it's simply a popularity contest.

What I think truly and justifiably galls many sci-fi readers and authors is that literary fiction awards are often portrayed and marketed as being competitions for the "best book," full stop. The very title of "literary fiction" suggests that the category subsumes the whole of the written word. (Which begs the question of what the rest of us are using to write with; hieroglyphics, maybe? What I'd really like to see is someone start to call science fiction "published fiction" and give "pubfic" awards, to illustrate the absurdity.) To use the metaphor above, it's like a dog show promoting itself as being a competition to find the "best animal." Of course that's going to tick off cat lovers if they're not even allowed in the door -- but it's still just a dog show. The proper response is not to demand entry, but call out the competition for what it is: a contest that's just as limited and genre-specific as any other.

As for the issue of media coverage and the size of the award -- well, your cat is never going to win that prize, so why does it matter? Promote your own awards, find better sponsors if you want more money on the table, but don't look for validation from the dog crowd. Ultimately, Quality Y has to be popular (or not) on its own merits.