Friday, 11 March 2011

We Are the Mainstream!

We've seen many posts and discussion over my first year of blogging dealing with the fact that genre fiction - namely, fantasy and science fiction - is the poorer cousin of literary fiction.

But, dare I say it, I'm starting to feel massively sorry for poor old literary fiction. I was doing some research earlier on fantasy and science fiction literary prizes (mostly to see how many awards Lauren Beukes can possibly win this year for Zoo City *grins*) and these are the awards I could find without delving too hard:

- Arthur C Clarke
- John W Campbell Award
- Philip K Dick Award
- Gaylactic Spectrum Award
- Hugo Award
- Nebula Award
- Prometheus Award
- World Fantasy Awards
- David Gemmell Legend Award
- BSFA Award
- Locus Award

Without searching hard, I have found eleven ways in which we lavish praise on our brilliant authors and celebrate all manner of speculative fiction. We shout from the rafters about how excellent our science fiction and fantasy is!

On the literary side, the main award they have is.... the Man Booker Prize. And we're trying to get in on that too! One of the recent complaints is that genre fiction is not recognised by the "mainstream". Based on the above, I would say that we have quite the glut of awards right now and have no need to muscle in on the Booker Prize, thank you very much. We are the mainstream.

Some people are getting their knickers in a twist about the fact World Book Night did not highlight any fantasy and science fiction authors. Umm, I saw David Mitchell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, and Philip Pullman. They might not get shelved in "our" section all the time, but they all write speculative fiction. Out of 25 authors, that is a fair proportion, I'd say, considering that crime took a relative back seat and chick lit - although deemed to be a profitable part of the book shelves - only had one representative.

This week we have seen a prominant fantasy novel hit #1 on the New York Times list The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. A lot of people were saying 'Boo yah literary fiction!' and nudging each other about the fact that people would have to sit up and take notice now!

I think that they have been taking notice, guys. They know that The Lord of the Rings, C S Lewis, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games - many of the massive phenomena in the literary field over the last few decades have been speculative fiction. Two huge classics are Dracula and Frankenstein - beloved by millions. We have never been the poor cousin. We are dominant and powerful and have a voice heard by many.

This is why I say... poor old literary fiction! Let's allow them the Man Booker Prize, it's all they have!


  1. There's the BFAs as well, which I don't think you've got on there - not just the BFSAs. So there's even *more* love for genre writers out there ;)

  2. One could also say, however, that the prizes for literary fiction are more exclusive and therefore more prestigious. I wouldn't say that, but there are some who would and their arguments would be sound.

    Also there are several other major awards handed out primarily to literary fiction. The National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the BBA's, the Faulkner Award, etc...

    I don't feel bad for literary fiction, it's a different genre and one that has born some of the most compelling stories ever told. There's definitely room for both.

  3. I agree that we shouldn't be worried about the relative status of various types of fiction. But the comparison you are making is pretty false. The Booker is the big literary prize in the UK and the Clarke is the big SF prize in the UK. The US has the PEN/Faulkner and the Pulitzer which are huge literary awards whereas many of those SF awards are very, very minor. But awards aren't the be all and end all.

  4. I agree with Martin - awards aren't the be all and end all, and we shouldn't worry about the relative status, but there are a LOT of literary awards out there, just in the UK:

    And that's not counting things like R&J's Book Club and other forms of recognition. Think of what genre sales would be if all that started happening!

  5. Worth chiming in on the sales front: a Man Booker or Costa Award brings a huge amount of sales to an author compared to before, depending on the book and the associated impacts (TV coverage, interviews across all medias, newspaper coverage). This can make a difference because literary fiction has a fairly transient readership on the whole; scoring big changes a career (and, as Jared says, this can mean R&J book club etc too).

    On the other hand, a few years ago I remember asking the SFF buyer at a major book chain how many copies he'd expect to shift across the chain of a major SF award winner - the answer was maybe 50 or so, if that. They make shockingly little difference to sales, which is a shame, but that's how it goes.

  6. I suppose I reject the assumption that literary fiction and SF&F are opposed. It always confuses me and marks a very artificial divide (it also means that I sometimes can't find my favourite authors because some marketeer thought they shouldn't be shelved with the plebs in SF&F!). We're not trying to 'muscle in' on the Man Booker - that assumes the Man Booker isn't for us in the first place. In saying the Man Booker is for excellent literary fiction, I see it as a prize for the very best of all fiction, and feel people are missing out if they are assuming genre can't be literary and excellent. 'Our' awards are genre specific - the books rewarded only compete against other genre works. Why shouldn't they compete with with non-SF&F works to show that they are excellent even outside the genre specific field? The problem is that too often all those awards are dismissed because it is assumed that the book that won those awards was 'only' good in comparison to other SF&F works, and the non-SF&F fan assumes that there isn't really a lot of stiff competition in that field. They're wrong, but they'll never know it if spec fic works never directly compete with 'lit fic' works.

  7. In some ways, we've already claimed the Booker prize as our own. Midnight's Children, which is referred to as "The Booker of all Bookers" falls into the "magic realism" category, which is basically fantasy.

  8. Don't forget to add the Fourth-day Universe Awards, Literature Edition, to your list. There's not an official date set for the awards show (as this is our first year holding them), but you can check the Movie Edition of the Unis at our YouTube channel. *smiles*