Literary Awards Round-Up: Checking on SFF Representation

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was given yesterday, to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s book is the epitome of prize-bait literary fiction: set in WWII, one protagonist a young blind girl, the other a German orphan, all wrapped up in Doerr’s shimmering/beautiful prose-style. How could it not win? I actually like Doerr; I read “The Shell Collector” a few years ago, about a blind collector of poisonous of cone snail shells. Doerr is a pretty mainstream/safe choice, but if you think the Hugo is controversial . . . check out some of the rage over various Pulitzer choices.

From my Chaos Horizon perspective, I’m very interested in how literary awards treat speculative fiction. That’s usually quite poorly, although a number of “literary” SFF works have garnered nominations in recent years. The Pulitzer marks the end of the 2014-2015 literary award season, so now’s a great time to check in on the what I see as the major literary awards and see how exactly speculative fiction stood in the broader fictional world.

I track 5 yearly “Best Novel” awards: the Pulitzer (the most prestigious American award), the Booker (the most prestigious British/Commonwealth award), the PEN/Faulkner (American), the National Book Award (another American award), and the National Book Critics Circle Award (more Americans!). Since I’m more interested in American literature than British literature (I’m an American lit professor for my day job; shockingly, Chaos Horizon doesn’t pay the bills), that explains the American bias. If there’s another big-time British award I should add to my list, let me know. Let’s look at the nominees (or short lists) and winners of those five awards, and then calculate the SFF %.

Pulitzer:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Winner)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates

No speculative novels in that group.

Booker:
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Winner)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
J by Howard Jacobson
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
How to Be Both by Ali Smith

One clear literary speculative novel here, with J being a dystopic take on England after a series of anti-Jewish pogroms. Jacobson is a well-known realist writer dipping into SF. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is borderline speculative; Fowler is a well-known SF author, and the book grabbed a 2014 Nebula nomination. Content is mostly realistic, about a young girl being raised alongside a chimpanzee. More of a “fiction about science” than “science fiction,” although I’ll count this as speculative based on the Nebula nom and Fowler’s long association with SFF.

PEN/Faulkner:
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish (Winner)
Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic literary SF novel, delving into a sudden world-shattering plague and giving us scenes both before and after the incident. Despite the speculation in the title, no speculative content in Dept. of Speculation.

National Book Award:
Redeployment by Phil Klay (Winner)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Another speculative notch for Mandel.

National Book Critics Circle:
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Winner)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddin
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Euphoria by Lily King
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

One speculative book in that bunch, Chang-Rae Lee’s post-apocalyptic On Such a Full Sea. Lee is another literary writer dipping briefly into SF; the book takes place in a ruined America with a heavily class-stratified society.

Final 2014-2015 Literary Report: Of the 25 literary nominations, 5 went to speculative novels of some stripe, for a respectable 20% nomination rate. No speculative novels won, for a disappointing 0% win rate.

To be fair, most of the nominations were for post-apocalyptic novels by literary fiction writers; ever since the resounding success of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, this has been a popular sub-genre. I know some SFF fans find this “hit-and-run” use of post-apocalyptic fiction (write one book in the sub-genre for literary acclaim, then never touch science fiction again) to be galling, particularly when such authors ignore or disparage the science fiction field.

Literary fiction writers have had carte-blanche over the past 10 or so years to dip into speculative fiction, whether or not they have much background in the genre. The reverse has been much dicier; rarely do outstanding novels from the speculative world receive literary acclaim. Even Fowler only gets acclaim when she steps away from speculative content. There were even a solid option this year: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer could have easily slid into any of these 5 awards. It wasn’t to be, and we may still be decades away from the mainstream literary awards rewarding a speculative novel by a SFF author.

Still, 20% is better than 0%, and the award are beginning to loosen up. China Mieville for the Booker in 2025? We should start campaigning.

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3 responses to “Literary Awards Round-Up: Checking on SFF Representation”

  1. keranih says :

    I know some SFF fans find this “hit-and-run” use of post-apocalyptic fiction (write one book in the sub-genre for literary acclaim, then never touch science fiction again) to be galling, particularly when such authors ignore or disparage the science fiction field.

    Eh. I’m not so cranky about that, as I am about the writing of poor-to-marginal SFF – which then colors what non-fans expect when they think about the field. (The Road was literary SF to the extreme of completely abandoning any science in its world building. Children of Men was a far better movie than novel, – the novel gave a very shallow treatment of what could have been a very interesting premise. Good books – at least The Road was – but subpar SFF.)

    As for what the authors say about the field – meh. The whole Hugo thing is doing a great deal to solidify my thought that authors should write, not opinionize. At baseline, I don’t care if the author *cough*Atwood*cough* thinks the story is SFF or not. They’re SFF if *I* say they’re SFF – what their authors say is beside the point. *G*

    Having said that – more books to check out, awesome.

  2. chaoshorizon says :

    A couple more borderline SFF works snuck onto the Booker Long List. I only went with Short Lists to have consistency across the 5 awards. Nonetheless, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a long novel that explodes into a horror/fantasy hybrid at certain points. I expected it to do better in the Nebulas this year than it did. Richard Powers’ Orfeo. Orfeo—which I haven’t read—also seems to deal with biotechnology and music. Powers has pushed in a SF direction in several of his other works, including Galatea 2.2, about computer intelligence.

  3. saintonge235 says :

            Mainstream authors are welcome to dip into speculative fiction, as long as what they produce is good.  Pat Frank did OK that way.

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