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.

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.

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Comments
  • Paul Weimer (@princejvstin) January 23, 2014 at 11:24 am

    I just finished reading a book that was published in 1984, Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin. It neither complex nor funny.

    I remember reading this, back, well, when it came out. I wonder if I re-read the novel, if I’d find it funny. This also dovetails to a book I recently read from the 80′s recently that didn’t work as well as I hoped. [It worked well, but not spectacularly].

    This does go to questions of *how* to read older works–not just genre, but any sort of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter)

  • Kathryn (@Loerwyn) January 23, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Eh. To be fair I half think “sod off” to people who look down on genre works. I also find it quite funny because one look at the most successful films/film franchises, TV dramas (including children’s programming), video games and – yes – even books results in one conclusion.

    Genre.
    Rules.
    All.

    No, really. The Twilight, Star Wars, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc. franchises have all pulled in major, major, major bucks. This is even more the case with CGI films like Shrek, where the field is almost entirely dominated by genre works. And those which come close to the top will probably have genre elements to them – I mean look at the later James Bond films. I wouldn’t call them science fiction as such, but the more recent films (Brosnan forwards) have embraced their science fiction elements and gone far (arguably too far in some cases) with them.

    I find it laughable that people deride genre fiction, yet will wax lyrical about Nineteen Eighty-Four (We was better) or Dracula or even The Iliad and other great works of fiction… which funnily enough are either genre or contain genre elements. Do we really want – or need – to be… legitimised by such people? I don’t think so, personally, but I recognise that awards like the Kitschies see it differently – and I think there is merit to that. Not all genre is guns and rockets and men in military uniforms riding dinosaurs, we have excellent works like Flowers for Algernon, Heart-Shaped Box, Cloud Atlas and so on, and if… something like the Kitschies gets more people reading that, then great.

    Yes.

    • Justin Landon January 23, 2014 at 11:33 am

      Right. And we have plenty of awards that do the opposite. Hugos, Compton Crook, Locus, etc. Non-juried awards tend to skew just the opposite.

      • Kathryn (@Loerwyn) January 23, 2014 at 11:40 am

        I guess. I mean I don’t pay too much attention to awards – I find them to be meaningless. I’m sure Ancillary Justice will get awards but it doesn’t change the fact that me and others think it’s, basically, nothing more than pretentious rambling dribble that thinks it’s really, really clever. So I don’t go by awards as an actual measure of quality – it’s perhaps more a measure of either the success of the marketing or a success of popularity.

        Juried awards, to me, tend to have the same issue as polled awards – if you have too many people of the same view or taste, you can get a very biased award. I’m thinking vaguely of LGBT awards as an example – if you don’t have the diversity of background, you may end up with a skew to gay and/or lesbian works.

        But then again I think a good book is a good book irrespective of any defining thing. Saying something is “a good science-fiction novel” sounds vaguely like saying “good fast food” – a kind of snobby bibliographic oxymoron, if you will. It’s a good book, dang it.

  • neth January 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Don’t forget that there’s a fair bit of selection bias in most juried awards. They typically only consider books that are submitted for consideration by their publishers (or others). Many of the ‘deep-genre’ books you discuss may never get submitted for consideration.

    • Justin Landon January 23, 2014 at 12:04 pm

      For sure. The Kitsches don’t reveal their submission list, so hard to know. But, the Clarkes do and judging by that they get plenty of it.

  • Doug January 23, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    If every genre fan was familiar with every title on the Kitschies’ short-list, they would have failed in their own self-proclaimed mission, I think. “Progressive” is the first word in their own description, and it ends with “elements of the speculative or fantastic”. Elements. I don’t really see the Kitschies as a true “genre” award, really. I see it as more of a mainstream award with a slight bent. And that’s OK. Just like “deep-genre” awards are OK. They’re all OK. Because books don’t need to “BE” anything (other than read by the people who fancy them).

  • WordTipping January 23, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Life already builds a box around you. Genre lets you step out of the box and into the un-boxed area. Why leave your box just to build another box around yourself? So yes, I like what the Kitschies’ try to do.

  • Herb January 23, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    We shouldn’t give up books just because people who are biased don’t want to label them Spec Fic or just because they were labeled otherwise as a marketing matter. If it has “elements of the speculative or fantastic” it’s Spec Fic. If it’s also really, really good, we should acknowledge both as being really, really good and as being, yes, Spec Fic notwithstanding (and more likely in part because of).

    I am a little turned off by how self-evidently pretentious the Kitschies want to be.

  • Ros Jackson January 23, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    The World Fantasy Award involves a whole lot of reading, some 300 books last year if I recall correctly, so they don’t exactly have a shortlist. Whereas the BFA Award is shortlisted by votes, so you get the biases of the membership, which is made up of a certain type of reader. Certain people tend to be asked to be on juries: heavy readers, writers, and reviewers, mostly. So what you end up with is recommendations that are great for some kinds of readers, and not necessarily useful for everyone else. You have to pick awards that tend to suit your tastes, and hope the way their juries are selected stays consistent from one year to the next.

  • Jon R. January 23, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    I was disappointed that I didn’t recognize most of the books on the list but with the explanation I’m okay with that. I’d rather be exposed to more than less. Speaking of awards, Last September you were talking about starting a new one, any updates on that?

    • Justin Landon January 24, 2014 at 9:18 am

      Still got some things in the hopper. Looking at 2015 though as opposed to 2014.

  • Django Wexler January 24, 2014 at 12:12 am

    I’m curious how we can generalize that juried awards have *any* particular tendency, towards “deep-genre” or away from it or anything else. Juried awards, almost by definition, reflect the preferences of the jury and by extension the organization that selects the jury. They’re potentially far more different from one another than are the popular-vote awards, which are always going to skew towards popular entrants. By contrast, it would be easy to create a juried award to suit any particular conception of what “best” means and what books should be considered.

  • Michael R. Underwood January 26, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    But then again I think a good book is a good book irrespective of any defining thing. Saying something is “a good science-fiction novel” sounds vaguely like saying “good fast food” – a kind of snobby bibliographic oxymoron, if you will. It’s a good book, dang it.

    But how does one shorthand a work that excels in a way that is particular to the genre conventions of science fiction. What if the most outstanding part of a book is what it does with SFinal matters (use of sociological speculation, the implications of the impact of space travel on the human body and/or kinship systems, etc.)? It’s ‘a good book,’ yes, but describing it as such may fail at specificity.

    And I believe that the equivalency between “good science fiction novel” and “good fast food,” is entirely a matter of position and perspective, one I do not share.

  • Anton January 30, 2014 at 12:55 am

    Nicely put.
    I read both ‘deep-genre’ books and books that considered to be more mainstream or at least ‘genre-bending’. I personally don’t mind Kitschies, because I would look to their list for stuff to put on my TBR (except for the new Pynchon — sorry, I tried already).

  • BaBOOMba February 21, 2014 at 6:37 am

    Would you like to see my tentacle?

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