Literary and Speculative Fiction: A Brief Follow-Up

In relation to our discussion of literary fiction and the Hugo and Nebula awards, try this little thought experiment:

If The City and the City, China Mieville’s post-modern tale about a mysterious dual city and ways of seeing, had been written by Cormac McCarthy, would it have won the Hugo Award?

If The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-violent post-apocalyptic tale, had been written by China Mieville, would it have placed 21st in the Hugo voting?

Your results may vary. Personally, I don’t think a Cormac McCarthy authored novel, no matter how speculative, would ever win the Hugo or Nebula. Likewise, I think if an author like China Mieville wrote a novel similar to The Road, with that level of emotional impact and that kind of memorable prose, he’d have a good shot of at least getting nominated.

In Hugo and Nebula voting, reputation matters as much as the content of an individual novel. This make sense: the awards are a popularity contest, and SFF authors are more popular with these voters than literary authors. This gives the Hugos and the Nebulas an inconsistent appearance, as speculative novels by “literary ” authors, no matter how well written, rarely make the final slates, while literary novels (and stories) by SFF authors do.

Ironically, this doesn’t make it harder to predict the Hugos and the Nebulas, but rather easier. Chaos Horizon can eliminate authors from contention based on literary reputation alone: that’s what the last 15 years of Hugo and Nebula voting reveal. Is this fair? Do you think it will change?

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One response to “Literary and Speculative Fiction: A Brief Follow-Up”

  1. Cat says :

    Speaking purely for myself, if a book isn’t marketed as SF or Fantasy, chances are I never see it. When I go into Barnes and Noble I head straight for the SF/Fantasy section. When I browse Amazon, I do the same. I read LiveJournal and Facebook and sometimes my friends –who often *are* my friends because we met through filk, which is to say music about science fiction and fantasy subjects–recommend books. The taste we share in common means the books they recommend were probably marketed as SFF.

    I don’t have anything *against* literary fiction but I have so many books to read and new SFF coming out every day. If I was snowed in at a cabin that had only literary fiction (I guess I forgot my Kindle or something) I’d read it and probably be very happy with mainstream works that included SFFnal elements (provided they treated them respectfully.) It’s just not on my radar.

    When it comes nomination time I will be nominating books I read–which will probably mean books marketed as SFF that I came across in the bookstore or saw one of my friends enthusing about. Add in to that that I don’t much like horror and apparently a lot of the mainstream literary fiction with SFFnal elements tends in that direction, and you get a result as if I were biased against mainstream.

    In the meantime the Sad Puppies are whining because I like stories with diverse well-developed characters whose relationships matter to the plot and who grow and change over time. Apparently my tastes are far *too* literary to suit some people.

    Is it fair? Well, I suppose ideally everyone would have read every book and rate them all on their merits regardless of past works of, or behavior by, the author that would put those books in context. I just don’t see how that is practical; I already read as much as I have time and money to support.

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