Literary Fiction and the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, 2001-2014

A sub-category of my broader genre study, this post addresses the increasing influence of “literary fiction” on the contemporary Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, 2001-2014. I think the general perception is that the awards, particularly the Nebula, have begun nominating novels that include minimal speculative elements. Rather than simply trust the general perception, let’s look to see if this assumption lines up with the data.

Methodology: I looked at the Hugo and Nebula nominees from 2001-2014 and ranked the books as either primarily “speculative” or “literary.” Simple enough, right?

Defining “literary” is a substantial and significant problem. While most readers would likely acknowledge that Cloud Atlas is a fundamentally different book than Rendezvous with Rama, articulating that difference in a consistent manner is complicated. The Hugos and Nebulas offer no help themselves. Their by-laws are written in an incredibly vague fashion that does not define what “Science Fiction or Fantasy” actually means. Here’s the Hugo’s definition:

Unless otherwise specified, Hugo Awards are given for work in the field of science fiction or fantasy appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year.

Without a clear definition of “science fiction or fantasy,” it’s left up to WorldCon or SFWA voters to set genre parameters, and they are free to do so in any way they wish.

All well and interesting, but that doesn’t help me categorize texts. I see three types of literary fiction entering into the awards:
1. Books by literary fiction authors (defined as having achieved fame before their Hugo/Nebula nominated book in the literary fiction space) that use speculative elements. Examples: Cloud Atlas, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
2. Books by authors in SFF-adjacent fields (primarily horror and weird fiction) that have moved into the Hugo/Nebulas. These books often allow readers to see the “horror” elements as either being real or imagined. Examples: The Drowning Girl, Perfect Circle, The Girl in the Glass.
3. Books by already well-known SFF authors who are utilizing the techniques/styles more commonplace to literary fiction. Examples: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, Among Others.

That’s a broad set of different texts. To cover all those texts—remember, at any point you may push back against my methodology—I came up with a broad definition:

I will classify a book as “literary” if a reader could pick the book up, read a random 50 page section, and not notice any clear “speculative” (i.e. non-realistic) elements.

That’s not perfect, but there’s no authority we can appeal to make these classifications for us. Let’s see how it works:

Try applying this to Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s novel consists of a series of entirely realistic novellas set throughout various ages of history and one speculative novella set in the future. If you just picked the book up and started reading, chances are you’d land in one of the realistic sections, and you wouldn’t know it could be considered a SFF book.

Consider We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler’s reach meditation on science, childhood, and memory. Told in realistic fashion, it follows the story of a young woman whose parents raised a chimpanzee alongside her, and how this early childhood relationship shapes her college years. While this isn’t the place to decide if Fowler deserved a Nebula nomination—she won the National Book Award and was nominated for the Booker for this same book, so quality isn’t much of a question—the styles, techniques, and focus of Fowler’s book are intensely realistic. Unless you’re told it could be considered a SF novel, you’d likely consider it plain old realistic fiction.

With this admittedly imperfect definition in place, I went through the nominees. For the Nebula, I counted 13 out of 87 nominees (15%) that met my definition of “literary.” While a different statistician would classify books differently, I imagine most of us would be in the same ball park. I struggled with The City & The City, which takes place in a fictional dual-city and that utilizes a noir plot; I eventually saw it as being more Pychonesque than speculative, so I counted it as “literary.” I placed The Yiddish Policeman’s Union as literary fiction because of Chabon’s earlier fame as a literary author. After he establishes the “Jews in Alaska” premise, large portions of the book are straightly realistic. Other books could be read either as speculative or not, such as The Drowning Girl. Borderline cases all went into the “literary” category for this study.

Given that I like the Chabon and Mieville novels a great deal, I’ll emphasize I don’t think being “literary” is a problem. Since these kinds of books are not forbidden by the Hugo/Nebula by-laws, they are fair game to nominate. These books certainly change the nature of the award, and there are real inconsistencies—no Haruki Murakami nominations, no The Road nomination—in which literary SFF books get nominated.

As for the Hugos, only 4 out of 72 nominees met my “literary” definition. Since the list is small, let me name them here: The Years of Rice and Salt (Robinson’s realistically told alternative history), The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The City & The City, and Among Others. Each of those pushes the genre definitions of speculative fiction. Two are flat out alternative histories, which has traditionally been considered a SFF category, although I think the techniques used by Robinson and Chabon are very reminiscent of literary fiction. Mieville is an experimental book, and the Walton is a book as much “about SFF” as SFF. I’d note that 3 of those 4 (all but the Robinson) received Nebula nominations first, and that Nebula noms have a huge influence on the Hugo noms.

Let’s look at this visually:

LitFic Nominees

Even with my relatively generous definition of “literary,” that’s not a huge encroachment. Roughly 1 in 6 of the Nebula noms have been from the literary borderlands, which is lower than what I’d expected. While 2014 had 3 such novels (the Folwer, Hild, and The Golem and the Jinni), the rest of the 2010s had about 1 borderline novel a year.

The Hugos have been much less receptive to these borderline texts, usually only nominating once the Nebula awards have done. We should note that both Chabon and Walton won, once again reflecting the results of the Nebula.

So what can we make of this? The Nebula nominates “literary” books about 1/6 times, or once per year. The Hugo does this much more infrequently, and usually when a book catches fire in the Nebula process. While this represent a change in the awards, particularly the Nebula, this is nowhere as rapid or significant as the changes regarding fantasy (which are around 50% Nebula and 30% Hugo). I know some readers think “literary” stories are creeping into the short story categories; I’m not an expert on those categories, so I can’t meaningfully comment.

I’m going to use the 15% Nebula and 5% Hugo “literary” number to help shape my predictions. I may have been overestimating the receptiveness of the Nebula to literary fiction; this study suggests we’d see either Mitchell or Mandel in 2015, not both. Here’s the full list of categorizations. I placed a 1 by a text if it met the “literary” definition: Lit Fic Study.

Questions? Comments?

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5 responses to “Literary Fiction and the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, 2001-2014”

  1. Jo Walton says :

    I’d be amazed if AO met that definition. The whole book is only 320 pages. I’m also sure that the Chabon doesn’t — the alternate history isn’t incidental at all, and it’s constantly mentioned.

    It’s a terrible definition. But I’m not sure what you could use, because what you’re talking about is the “feel” of a book, whether it subjectively “feels” literary to you. I’d just go with a flat assertion of your feelings rather than trying something like this, which is clearly disprovable. I’m not about to waste time going through either AO or YPU proving you wrong, but the world is full of nitpicky people who would.

    (I’m not even slightly bothered by you saying my book feels literary to you, but I am miffed at your flat out incorrect assertion that it has less than 7 mentions of magic or fairies.)

    • chaoshorizon says :

      Glad to see some spirited disagreement! An essential problem of statistical analysis is that once you put a chart up, some readers invest that chart with an authority that it doesn’t (and can’t) possess. By presenting a methodology that is testable (no matter how flawed), you give readers the intellectual tools to reject (and improve) a statistical analysis. If you don’t allow your readers that testability, I think putting up a chart is irresponsible. I’m actually glad you don’t like the definition—too many people come to Chaos Horizon and accept my data analysis too readily. Always question! In my defense, I’ll say that me clearly defining my terms at least facilitated your rejection of that analysis. If I’d just presented my opinion, would you have been able to do that as easily or as compellingly?

      I snuck the word “clear” into my definition: “not notice any clear ‘speculative’ elements.” I should have defined “clear” more carefully: I meant unambiguous. While I may have done a lousy job of reading Among Others (always a risk when a book heads out into the wild!), in my experience there was some ambiguity as to whether or not I was to take the fairy elements as “real,” particularly through the first 2/3rds of the book. So, for me, it failed the “clear” part of my definition, not the # of references aspect. This doesn’t mean Among Others can’t be read in a fully speculative way, or as a deep engagement with genre traditions; I suspect many readers encountered it entirely as a speculative work. Other readers I’ve talked to felt it was a coming-of-age story with some ambiguous speculative elements. That duality was enough for me to push it into the literary category.

      I feel the same way about the Chabon; it’s fully readable as an extension of the alternative history sub-genre of speculative fiction, in the long line of The Man in the High Castle, etc. It’s also readable as an extension of post-modern Jewish literature, with numerous references to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife (a book no one would consider SFF . . . maybe. I guess My Real Children could have been influenced by Roth’s novel). Chabon uses the kind of extended metaphors common to Roth, Malamud, Bellow, or even Kafka, and it’s perfectly possible to experience that book completely apart from a SF context. In fact, that’s the most common way I’ve heard people talk about it, stripped of any sense of science fiction-ness. So, once again, it failed the “clear” aspect. Some readers might consider it SF; others might not. That’s how I’m using the “literary” term.

      This kind of study pushes us to the limits of how useful genre classifications might be. What’s more useful than those categorizations is the conversations we can have about these issues. Thanks for your comments, and keep the doubts coming!

  2. reading SFF says :

    As always, I find your analysis very interesting.

    Are you planning to analyze the short fiction categories? I suspect (but I might be totally wrong) that the percentage of “literary” speculative fiction nominees might be a bit higher in the short fiction categories as compared to the novel category. At least for the Hugos.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      I don’t know the short fiction well enough to even try. Since there are 3 short fiction categories, that makes 3 times the data set! I wonder, though, if it would be higher than 5%. In any data set, it’s the exceptions that often stand out. So, for the last 15 years, that makes 5 stories per category * 3 categories * 15 years = 225 total stories. If 10% were “literary,” that would make around 22-23 stories. That seems like a lot to me, but, then again, I don’t know the short fiction very well.

      • reading SFF says :

        It sounds like that would be a lot of work. Also, it probably wouldn’t be easy to objectively define “literary” for short fiction. So I guess, while I think it would be interesting to take a look at the short fiction categories, I see why it’s not really feasible to actually do it.

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