Authors draw their knives during literary awards season

This was first printed in the Globe & Mail, October 16, 2009.

This time of year, in France and Italy, hunters renew their licences and start cleaning rifles, not always carefully enough, preparing to go forth to destroy the peace of the countryside – and sometimes each other.

In the book world, a withering crossfire always seems to commence around now – because it is awards season and, in an increasingly challenging fiction market, awards can make a difference.

There have been several of these teapot-tempest affairs in the past week or three. Most hardly rate a raised eyebrow in the wider world, but book blogs are buzzing.

In one such brawl, Victoria Glendinning, a British writer serving as a judge for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, dissed CanLit in print, giggled at the word “eavestrough” and complained about the quality of the 100 books she had had to read. She did all this, rather tackily, before the award has been voted on, and even before the short list was picked. (It has been, since.)

Noah Richler, in these pages, dissed Glendinning and BritLit right back. Others weighed in, with one point or another, or sometimes no point at all, just to be heard. Book people are feisty and the times are troubled.

On the other hand, this sort of thing isn’t remotely new. A few years back, I received an e-mail from two baby-boomer authors. They were drafting a Boomer Manifesto to protest against what they saw as a trend toward the major awards ignoring older writers in favour of younger, trendier, next new things. They wanted other boomers to join in the drafting, and to sign on.

I wrote an urgent reply trying to talk them off that ledge. Others might have done the same, or the inner calm and judicious equipoise we boomers are widely known for may have kicked in, because the Manifesto never appeared.

It gets better: A few short awards seasons after that, Stephen Marche, one of those younger literary tigers, wrote a fierce piece of his own, and this one did appear in print. He complained that – wait for it – all the awards and nominations in this country went to tired, over-praised baby-boomer writers and that Canada would never rise in literary terms until it started, properly, to give awards (and sales) to next new thing, thirtysomethings.

I thought about these two expressions of indignation, and I shook my head. How can you not?

And right now, perhaps even more heatedly, there’s yet another spat in spate. This one is a battle over Britain’s own top literary award, the Man Booker Prize. The fine science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson just wrote a piece blasting how that prize utterly ignores SF, always has, and seems lately to be only about historical fiction … and, well, what’s with that?

A historical fiction novel did, indeed, receive the award last week, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But I have an academic, deeply knowledgeable about the, well, the history of historical fiction, who points out that until very recently it had no stature or esteem at all, that as a genre it was as ignored as SF and fantasy, dismissed as even more lowbrow.

In purely commercial terms, of course, Tudor-era novels these days about fetching heroines shown half-decapitated on the covers in elegant gowns have made the genre hot. (And how perfect is it to show beheaded women in a Tudor setting?)

One of this year’s Booker judges, John Mullan, replied to Robinson’s comments with an almost definitively asinine comment. It was Hall of Fame-quality idiocy. After first noting that he was “not aware of science fiction” (which might normally preclude going on to comment), he proceeded to declare, through the foot in his mouth, that it was “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.” I do admit to wondering what size shoe Professor Mullan wears, and how it fits between his teeth, and whether he teaches grammar.

Another spat, but this one may be a little bit more. There is an almost irrefutable case to be made that all “genre” fiction has to fight through lazy assumptions to find credibility. John Mullan’s shoe might be seen as Exhibit A.

Perhaps Exhibit B could be, closer to home, the aggressiveness with which someone as respected and admired as Margaret Atwood is busily denying that her new set-in-a-future book (or any of her similarly situated novels) can be called science fiction. Atwood’s position speaks to a shrewd awareness of marketing and of the dangers of the Mullan Shoe Effect, although her explanations as to why the books aren’t SF, the definitions she proposes to keep her work out of the ghetto, are increasingly strained.

Ursula Le Guin, one of the true grand dames of the speculative fiction field, was too genteel to turn this into another squabble in her review of the latest Atwood, The Year of the Flood, but there was no missing the bemused chiding as she discussed the SF-or-not-SF question.

So, where do we stand today on Mullan’s Shoe (as it were)?

I’m optimistic. I’ve had, for some time, a sense that demographics will (as so often) have their way with us, this time leading in a good direction. Speculative fiction (SF and fantasy) is simply embedded in the culture and world view of too many younger writers (from Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon to Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz). I have an sense that this is already eroding many of the barriers thrown up by prejudice and assumptions in the literary world.

We’ll find ourselves working away from category and genre debates and toward the question worth asking about any novel: Is it any good? Currently, cute labels like “magic realism” are attached to fantasy books in order for the Mullans of this era to safely declare literary worth and admit them into the sanctum, but this, too, shall pass, just as hunting season does in France.

Fashion has both new trends and trendy revivals. This applies to literature as much as to anything else. Here’s a prediction: One day soon enough, someone may wear double-pleat pants and a bow tie to accept the Man Booker Prize for a science fiction or a fantasy novel. It will start an uproar – among the fashionistas. This will take place in autumn, literary awards season. A number of French and Italians will be hunting. Some will shoot each other.

© Guy Gavriel Kay


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