Award Snobbery and Genre Reader Baggage

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Thursday, January 23, the short lists for the Kitschies were announced. Many of the novels on the list were not shelved as science fiction or fantasy, including a Thomas Pynchon novel and one previously short listed for the Man Booker Prize. In other words, the Kitschies awards are full of novels no one in the genre communities have read and many have never heard of. Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed made this statement shortly after the announcement:

I think the Kitschies, like the WFAs, do great work. I just wish juried awards didn’t smack of subtle derision toward deep-genre readers.

— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) January 23, 2014

I’d like to introduce Ahmed to my 2012 self. That version of me wrote:

In recent years, SFF bloggers (myself included) have tried to convince mainstream readers that the things we read have merit.  Awards like The Kitschies seem created, almost exclusively, to serve this purpose.  It seems as if reviews like the ones written by Bourke are geared towards eradicating a certain type of incredibly popular genre fiction and posts like Walter’s almost shame (for lack of a better term) readers into reading those things accepted by the mainstream.  I believe we should demand better writing and better storytelling.  Where we differ, is that I believe in demonstrating value in the things that the mainstream rejects, not only those things they embrace.

[I'm going to riff on my own words at this point, inspired by Ahmed's Tweet. Nothing should be construed as me making any assumptions about Ahmed's points. I think by qualifying his statement as he did he groks this very conflict I'm going to describe.]

My opinions in 2012 advocated the notion that juried awards are predisposed to diminish the fiction that people (and by people I mean those who only read a handful of books a year) seek out, consume quickly, and remember with an affection comparable to a good buzz. They also imply that the vast majority of what we consider genre sits within that definition as opposed to say inaccessible, intellectually rigorous, and memorable in a gut wrenching soul shriveling way.

I was right, but also utterly wrong.

Such a position makes the assumption that juried awards by their nature are judging entertaining fiction and finding it unworthy of any merit. Implied in all of this is an accusation that we’re trying too hard to be something we’re not. Basically, don’t forget where you came from. This position is not only grossly unfair to those authors pushing the envelope, but one that, given its head, would be incredibly damaging to the future of genre fiction.

The phrase, don’t forget where you come from, is an interesting one. On the surface it supports the idea that success shouldn’t change anything. It’s often used in reference to athletes in the United States, many of whom are young black men from difficult backgrounds who find themselves overwhelmingly wealthy before they can legally drink a beer. Don’t forget where you come from is often levied to remind them that it took a lot of people to help them become millionaires and they ought to remember that in the form of hundred dollar bills.

To me, it’s always been an idea that completely devalues the hard work the athlete put it to achieve the pinnacle of their sport. It serves as a nagging suggestion that it could all come tumbling down at any moment and you ought to make sure you have someone to catch you should you fall. What it actually does is retard growth. It shames success. And it certainly isn’t restricted to athletes.

Bringing the discussion back to literature, authors who write in speculative terms, but appeal to an audience wider than the “deep-genres”, as Ahmed describes them, are just like athletes. They are writing something that dares to be great. It dares to ascend beyond the standard expectations and tropes laid down by the “deep-genres” and we resent them for it. We want to remind them that, if the mainstream rejects them, they better not forget who lifted them up in the first place, without whom they would be just another voice in the crowd of literary fiction (which is even more difficult to succeed in than genre).

When we talk about “genre awards” that recognize these kinds of works and make statements that imply they ignore the “deep-genre” we are functionally making this exact argument. We are demanding that fiction with genre trappings, but tries to be something more, must restrain itself for our own sense of importance. Just like the best friend of an athlete, left behind because of a knee injury or an over appreciation of Oreos, we want our most successful to come back to the block and let it be like old times.

I have some words that describe how that idea makes me feel. They start with F and in that.

I just finished reading a book that was published in 1984, Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin. It neither complex nor funny. It is fun though, in a sort of whimsical no nonsense way, but only because it’s inherently nostalgic. It reminded me of a kind of fiction that is mostly dead and gone. Today, we demand more from our fiction, even the deepest-genrest works. We want characters who change, prose that describes more than what is obvious, and structures that make us reconsider our place within our own narrative. And we get it! Even from novels like Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, whose cover could have been published in 1972, offer deep discussions of faith and aging amid sword fights and wizard battles.

The fact that deep-genre no longer means static characters and wooden dialogue is one-hundred percent a function of recognizing those who excel. It’s a function of not holding themselves back to make me feel better about my reading choices. While I may not always agree with the choices juried awards make, I will always (now) defend their importance. Do not change. Keep insisting on the most unique, compelling, and sometimes esoteric work for recognition. Because only by giving our best the freedom to grow and succeed and leave their old skin behind can we hope to lift everyone behind them.

Written by Justin Landon

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer’s Book Review. When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.