Literary Fiction and Predicting the Hugos and Nebulas

Chaos Horizon, a website dedicated to predicting the eventual winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, largely ignores speculative novels that emerge from the world of “literary fiction.” Why?

Because such novels have, in general, not received past nominations. Let’s take a look at how these books are presented to the reading public:

In this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly (September 19), there were two reviews of works that can be loosely classified as “genre” fiction: one of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, presented here as a straightforward serial killer novel (although it has supernatural elements), and a review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, identified as a “post-apocalyptic” novel. What’s of interest is how these two authors are positioned: Mandel is from the world of literary fiction, having published three previous non-SFF novels; she gets the lead story and receives an “A.” Beukes, who is best known for two earlier speculative novels, gets a smaller review several pages later and walks away with a “B+.”

I point this out not because Entertainment Weekly is the be all and end all of reviews, but rather because it sums up the American “mainstream” approach to SFF. Over the last ten years, there have been an increasing number of “literary SFF” novels written by authors outside the SFF community. Think of novels like Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, or, from just this year, Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea. Add in slightly older books like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let You Go, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, Haruki Murakim’s 1Q84—the list of impressive and important novels goes on and on.

These books, particularly in publications like Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc., have been better reviewed and more prominently featured than what, for lack of a better term, we might think of as “traditional” SFF. By this, I mean authors that are publishing in SFF magazines and whose books appear from the SFF imprints. Since these literary books have received major pushes—and sold well, even winning major literary awards such as the Pulitzer prize for The Road—you might expect them to perform well in the Hugo and Nebula nominations. The Nebula, with its focus towards more experimental and literary books, seems an obvious landing spot for these authors.

Past analysis of nominations shows that these books perform very poorly. With the exception of Chabon—who won the Nebula and the Hugo—and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (a Nebula nom), these books have not received Hugo and Nebula noms. The Road, arguably the most highly acclaimed SFF novel of the past 10 years, placed 21st in the 2007 Hugo voting. 21st!

It’s clear that Hugo and Nebula voters have not, over the past 15 years, wanted to reward authors from the “literary” world who dip into speculative fiction. I think Chabon is the exception because he wrote a number of genre stories; his Lovecraftian “In the Black Mill,” as well to his nods to comic book culture in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, have won him fans in the SFF community. Otherwise, these books have been snubbed.

What’s interesting is that the opposite has not happened—when SFF authors like China Mieville, Karen Joy Fowler, Jo Walton, Nicola Griffith, and so on, all who have a long history of writing speculative fiction, move over into writing more literary fiction, they get Nebula noms. These gives the slates a slightly incoherent feel: why is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which only contains trace speculative elements, getting a nomination while The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel, getting ignored? Chaos Horizon can’t answer those questions; we can merely note the patterns and move on.

Since Chaos Horizon bases its predictions on data-mining past results, these kinds of novels will not make the final predictions until something changes in voting patterns.

So, despite glowing reviews of Station Eleven, it’s hard to consider it a true Nebula contender. I have Bone Clocks down as a possibility because of Mitchell’s prior nomination, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it misses the Nebula slate.

So, tldr;: over the past decade, the “literary” world has been producing an increasing number of books with strong speculative elements. While these books have done well in reviews and sales, they haven’t made the Nebula or Hugo slates. Because of this, Chaos Horizon will not be predicting such novels to make future Nebula or Hugo slates.

I’d love to hear any explanations of why such novels are ignored in the comments.

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One response to “Literary Fiction and Predicting the Hugos and Nebulas”

  1. P. S. Hoffman says :

    It strikes me as odd how the ‘genre’ world and the ‘literary’ world want to distance themselves from each other. It seems that one usually won’t touch the others’ works, and vice versa.

    But then you mentioned that “when SFF authors … move over into writing more literary fiction, they get Nebula noms” which disagrees with my theory. Perhaps it is just the authors maturing, and it just so happens that their later works are more popular?

    Or, more likely, it is how the awards are given out. Author writes SFF, author doesn’t get nominated, but book goes on to wide popularity. Then, author writes another book, and this time the Nominators HAVE to have them in their list, because it makes them look good. They want to leech off of previous successes.

    Very interesting read, thank you for sharing!

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