Tag Archives: hugo awards

Reading off-piste – the Hugo shortlists 2014

Yes, I have another project; reading the shortlists for the Hugo Awards 2014.

Last week I read an article in the New Yorker by Christine Smallwood. It’s a review of The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, by Phyllis Rose. Smallwood describes it as a ‘stunt book’, in which Rose ‘reads through a more or less random shelf of library books’. That someone might undertake such an exercise, Smallwood suggests (and one has the impression that Smallwood isn’t actually that impressed by this feat – and I can’t say I am, either) is a reflection of the ‘embattled climate of bibliophilia’ in which ‘authors undertake reading stunts to prove that reading–anything– still matters’.

Apparently, the number of Americans who read has been declining for thirty years, and Smallwood suggests that those who do read ‘have become proud of, even a bit overidentified with, the enterprise’. This overidentification seems to find its expression in merchandising. ‘Alongside the tote bags you can find T-shirts, magnets and buttons emblazoned with covers of classic novels; the Web site Etsy sells tights printed with poems by Emily Dickinson’. Why??? Meanwhile we’ll draw a veil over the paint colours inspired by literature. Smallwood comments that the ‘merchandising of reading has a curiously undifferentiated flavour, as if what you read mattered less than that you read.’ Except that this seems to me to be less about reading than about advertising that you read.

Rose describes her own ‘adventure’ as ‘Off Road or Extreme Reading’, and draws comparisons between her reading and Ernest Shackleton’s explorations of the Antarctic (though presumably not the one where his men had to overwinter while he and a small crew sailed over 1000kms and then trekked across South Georgia to fetch help). The brief pause here … is me rearranging my face to avoid an expression of utter incredulity at Rose’s comparison. I didn’t do very well.

Because obviously, Rose carefully selecting a suitable random shelf (no, really – this is a whole new definition of random) in the New York Society Library is absolutely analagous to Shackleton and his crew heading for the Antarctic. Apparently, there is a whole subgenre of books in which readers conduct such armchair expeditions. I’d been dimly aware of such books existing but hadn’t felt moved to read any of them, perhaps because I’ve always got my own reading projects on the go and am associated with online communities where other people are similarly engaged. And I’d argue my reading projects are rather more directed than Rose’s. Of course I’d argue that.

And I suppose I’m feeling just a little bit unsettled about this as I have another reading project getting underway right now: a read through some of the Hugo Award shortlists for 2014. And there’s the rub. I have this whole project set up in my head, the reading loaded onto my tablet … and yet, isn’t this all just another performance? Am I really any better than Rose with her ridiculous analogies? I have form, after all – see The Shortlist Project.

And the answer is, of course, both yes and no. To read through a series of shortlists is a feat in itself, one made more complicated by the fact that one nomination is in fact eighteen volumes (needless to say, the one question on everyone’s lips has been, ‘Are you going to read the whole Wheel of Time, to which my response has been ‘yes, if I can’) but whereas Rose’s project is mainly notable for its sheer randomness (well, its highly structured, with an eye to publication, randomness), coupled with a strong sense of ‘no one else has ever done this before’, I would like to think mine contrbutes to the community endeavour of determining which nominations deserve to win. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In fact, as I’ve started preparing for this project, it’s begun to turn into a personal enquiry into the politics and practice of reading and criticism, or rather, my practice and my take on the politics of reading. I could try to explain that in detail now, but I think it will be better, more effective even, to discuss the issues as they arise and let the picture unfold gradually. And the first issue is whether this is mere grandstanding or a serious critical endeavour. Possibly that can only be judged at the end of the project

Oddly, Smallwood’s article picks up on similar issues. Moving on from Rose’s enterprise, Smallwood provides a thumbnail sketch of different approaches to reading over the last century – close reading, theory, the wrenching open of the canon to include ‘women and people of colour’, ‘surface reading’ (which apparently describes rather than decodes) which is also ‘just reading’, which apparently focuses simply on what is manifest in a text. I linger momentarily on that because, to me, it is impossible to ‘just read’ when ‘just reading’ brings so many other things into play. That may be my academic training intruding, but ‘just reading’ suggests the words fly past one’s eyes and somehow sidestep the brain, whereas I’d argue that there is always some sort of judgement, however rudimentary, involved.

Rose’s book, apparently, engages mostly in plot summary, which is fine so far as it goes, but in my view it doesn’t really go that far. Most people could read a book and provide some sort of summary of its content and I have very little patience with the sort of criticism that does nothing other than recapitulate the story. Rose is also what Smallwood calls ‘a social reader’; that is, she sees her reading as encounters with the authors. She ‘meets’ her authors, and in a couple of instances does actually meet them. To me, this is anathema. Not the meeting authors in the flesh (authors are, for the most part, people too, and some of them are excellent company) but the assumption that one can ‘meet’ authors by reading their books. I may no longer be a thorough-going Barthesian (it’s all far more complicated than the mere death of the author) but neither do I believe that what is on the page is, on the whole, the sum of the person who wrote it. Which is not to say either that the author’s personal presence never intrudes either, but I’ll come to that later. Having said that, I’m interested that Rose came across the work of Rhoda Lerman and indeed tracked her down, even if Lerman turned out not to be quite what Rose expected. But that’s kind of incidental to anything I’m attempting here.

So, I start on my own extreme, or more accurately endurance, reading project with an uncomfortable feeling that yes, I am ‘performing’, though I hasten to reassure everyone I’m not planning on comparing my endeavours to Shackleton’s expeditions because, well, because that’s silly. But yes, in a way I am performing. I’d like to feel the world is hanging on my words of wisdom as I offer my opinions, because I’m not so bad at being a critic, but I have a strong suspicion it will boil down to whether I can make it through the entire Wheel of Time. Game on.

deep linking – 5/3/2014

I gave up the battle to keep track of the ebb and flow (and it was mostly flow) of  discussions surrounding this year’s Hugo nominations very early on. However, Stefan Raets has performed a Herculean task in gathering together as many links as he possibly can so I shall send you to his blog to read through them. Link here.

Having said that, I will pull out a small group of links, beginning with Larry Correia explaining how and why sf shouldn’t be all about the politics, which was followed by an article in that bastion of ‘journalism’, USA Today, by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, confirming that Larry Correia was just so correct about that (I was going to say ‘right’ but obviously I’d want to keep the politics out of it), and balanced by a contribution by Foz Meadows to the Huffington Post, arguing (correctly, in my view) that you really can’t separate politics and science fiction (or any other kind of fiction for that matter.

I’ve a vague notion to review the contents of the Hugo voter’s packet when it finally crashes into my inbox (I’m envisaging a world pixel shortage, given it includes the entire Wheel of Time sequence). If I do, I’ll be coming back to what is discussed above.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Magazine has published a piece by Eileen Gunn, How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors are Shaping Your Future. I should note (with no disrespect to Eileen, who was obviosly following a brief) that non-US science fiction authors are also doing this.

In The Atlantic Noah Berlatsky used Eileen’s article as a springboard for pondering Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People. A good question …

Weekend round-up – some links

First, the Hugo shortlists have been announced. amid some controversy; in particular the presence of Vox Day, Larry Correia and one or two others, not to mention the complete Wheel of Time saga, in their various categories. There’s plenty of commentary about all of this across the web right now, and I’m not adding to it for now.  I’m happy, though, to see the fan categories looking a lot livelier than they’ve done in some years.

Link to the complete list of nominees is here, to save me typing it out again.

The 1939 Retro Hugos shortlist was also announced: the list of nominees is here.

And while I’m about it, more posts about genre, lit fic, the usual.

Chris Beckett, winner of last year’s Clarke Award, in The Atlantic

Juliet McKenna in The Guardian

Making an Emotional Investment – surviving the announcement of the Hugo Award shortlists

I’ve spent most of the week stewing on thoughts of award shortlists, or more precisely on thoughts of reactions to award shortlists. While I wasn’t writing them down because I was busy elsewhere, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Kincaid seized the day and both wrote fascinating posts about sf awards (Jonathan here and Paul here), and the Hugos in particular. Initially, I felt their posts would make mine redundant but, on reflection, I think there’s room for this post as well, particularly as I believe I’m coming at the topic from a slightly different angle.

I first properly paid attention to the Booker Prize in 1984, the year that J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was shortlisted, and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won. Indeed I paid attention because Empire of the Sunwas shortlisted. Insofar as I can now reconstruct what my younger self thought about it, it was probably something along the lines of myself as a rather earnest sf fan, a bit fed up with people being rude about science fiction, believing that Ballard’s being shortlisted in some way demonstrated the worth of sf because he was after all ‘one of us’.

Without actually reading Empire of the Sun, I was already fairly sure that the Ballard was the best novel (probably basing my opinion on book reviews I’d read and on discussions on tv and radio). I recall being incredibly disappointed that Ballard hadn’t won, as indeed were many people I knew at the time. There was a sense somehow that we, along with Ballard, had been rejected; that Empire of the Sun, although not science fiction, was considered somehow tainted because of Ballard’s connection to the genre, and therefore not good enough.

Some years later, by this time having read both the Ballard and the Brookner, I was now genuinely baffled that Hotel du Lac had won because, to my mind, it was and remains a pallid little book, limp and uninteresting, in terms of technique and subject matter, whereas the Ballard was clearly the better-written book and far more interesting as well.

In fact, only as recently as last year, when letters between Richard J Cobb, chair of the Booker judges, and friends including Hugh Trevor-Roper were published, was it revealed that Ballard was almost certainly robbed, and effectively so were several other people. Keith Jeffery reviewed My Dear Hugh: Letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and others edited by Tim Heald and, among other things, made this observation about Cobb’s handing of the Booker Prize: ‘he claimed to have done “a little NEGATIVE good” by keeping Martin Amis and Angela Carter off the shortlist, “and manoeuvred so that Ballard did not get the prize”.’

On the one hand, this confirms that instinctive sense I had then, and when I read the Brookner, that something was critically wrong with the award that year. On the other hand, viewed at this distance, I find myself less surprised than I might have been in, say, 1990, had I learned then that Cobb had been machinating, not because it appears to have been the kind of thing that Cobb did, but because I understand now that judges, juries, chairs of awards, often have hidden agendas, sometimes so hidden that they don’t even realise themselves that they have them. The only thing that is unusual here is that Cobb boasted openly about his actions to close friends. I’ve not see the letters so have no idea what his grounds were for keeping Amis and Carter off the shortlist, any more than I know why he manoeuvred to avoid the award going to Ballard, though that he did so clearly indicates that some of the judges that year thought Ballard should get it. Having said that, the great tragedy here is the fate of Flaubert’s Parrot which many think should have been the novel for which Barnes won the Booker rather than The Sense of an Ending in 2011.

But let’s unpick this situation a little further and think not about Richard Cobb’s actions, despicable as they may now seem, but about my response, then and now. What we can see from my response then is that it exhibited a considerable amount of emotional investment in the award because J.G. Ballard was an sf writer, ‘one of us’. Had I known then, as I know now, that Ballard saw himself as having long since moved on from sf, I might well have thought rather differently. I might not have actually been that interested in the Booker at the time, although I would probably have read both novels later and still been somewhat surprised that the Brookner won.

Going back to Ballard, I suspect I’d have been upset had someone told me then that he did not see himself as an sf writer, and hadn’t done for a long time, and I might well have regarded it as a betrayal – because, of course, I also had a heavy emotional investment in sf, and would have found it difficult then to imagine why anyone might abandon it, not least because, to my eye at least, Ballard was still writing things that looked science-fictional. And Empire of the Sun did seem science-fictional to me in terms of the alienating effects of Jim’s experiences, still does. I suppose I might even have been pleased that he’d lost, a suitable punishment for losing one’s faith, but I suspect that I would have rather he had won anyway, so that people paid attention to the novel.

Because, of course, what I was most upset about was the perceived snub to us, the ‘science fiction’ community, and to me as a science-fiction reader. While I was not then aware of the artistic struggle to place sf firmly in the literary mainstream I was only too aware that many people thought that sf and fantasy were rubbish, childish, whatever. At that stage I couldn’t adequately articulate why this was not the case but I could and already did annoy people by pointing out elements of the fantastic where they surfaced in realist writing. I’d clearly already identified the idea of a science-fictional or fantastic sensibility in apparently realist writing although I couldn’t yet put it in quite those terms. Empire of the Sun winning the Booker would have given me more ammunition for the argument with (as, indeed would Flaubert’s Parrot, had it won, though from entirely the other standpoint) but Hotel du Lac’s victory crushed that hope – and yes, I probably did take it that personally. So even as I discovered the Booker, I was already disillusioned by it. I followed it religiously for a number of years, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still follow it after a fashion, but I lost my sense of personal investment in it almost in the process of discovering it. Nowadays, I view it cynically, waiting to see which novel possessing clearly fantastical elements is proclaimed as ‘literary’ or ‘mainstream’ because it is too well-written to be sf or fantasy. Clearly, I still haven’t quite got over my original disappointment.

However, the Booker doesn’t interest me in the way it once did. I don’t have a personal stake in it at all, not even when there is something that is clearly fantastical in the running. It is little more than a snapshot of what a particular group of people think about a particular group of books that they were sent to read during a particular year. They probably do a conscientious job of looking at them all and doubtless give careful consideration to what goes on the longlist and the shortlist. And I know that in the same way as I know that it is a snapshot of people’s tastes, drawn from a particular pool of books, and also a marketing exercise. What I write about the longlisted or shortlisted books makes no difference whatsoever except insofar as if I rave about a particular book, maybe two or three readers of this blog, whose tastes tend to chime with mine, might decide to give it a whirl.

It is easy enough to disengage oneself from the Booker because it is so remote. For a few years when I was young I had a kind of investment in it because I felt that familiarity with the shortlist would make me look cultured in the eyes of some but as time has gone on, I have realised that there is more to being knowledgeable about literature than having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Booker nominees, winners and their novels.

This theoretically should hold true even for awards closer to home, such as the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Tiptree, the Clarke Award, the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies, especially the juried ones, where most of us have no actual input. And yet, as we saw last year with the Clarke Award shortlist, the furore surrounding it was extraordinary, probably way out of proportion to the award’s actual significance in the wider literary world. It seemed like everyone I knew had an opinion … and expressed it forcefully.

What seemed to be at stake was that ‘we’, a shadowy innumerable group of sf readers, or stakeholders if you like, felt that the judges, the people we saw as representing us, had somehow let us down by being less ‘expert’ than we perhaps felt they should have been. Although we had no involvement in their becoming judges (this is the prerogative of the committees of those organisations who nominate judges) we nonetheless saw them as embodying our tastes and shaping the award we saw as representative of our tastes in sf, and in this instance failing us by not including the novels we felt they should. This is clearly nonsensical when viewed dispassionately, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we tend to view the juried award as a more accurate barometer of what is good, significant, award-worthy, whatever, than the popular award. Until, of course, it doesn’t yield the kind of result we think it should, at which point it somehow becomes flawed.

And yet, what else can it be but flawed, albeit often in small, almost invisible ways? Because, as with an award like the Booker, judges have their prejudices and biases, ones they may not even be aware of. In fact, I’m prepared to argue that to some extent at least this is actually a necessary part of the process. Without disagreement it is difficult to reach agreement. The Clarke Award has the same non-voting jury chair from year to year, lending a greater neutrality to the business of facilitating discussion among the judges, but even so it must be up to the judges to make the decision as to what they are going to look for in a worthy Clarke Award winner, and that must inevitably vary each year as the membership of the jury changes.

In which case, I must ask what it achieves to become as exercised as so many of ‘us’ did over the shortlist last year if we cannot actually do anything about it? It is a question that troubles me because I cannot find a sensible answer to it. Indeed, I’m not sure there is one. On the one side, such an intense level of debate demonstrates that the Clarke Award is an important part of the intellectual landscape of sf, and that it is seen as a significant index of what is happening in the field in the UK. However, on the other, are we so emotionally engaged that we are unable to step back and reflect more soberly on what the shortlist is saying?

Having said that, I tried to do this with the Shortlist Project last year; in the process I realised that I also had certain expectations of the award and the shortlisting process. They weren’t necessarily unreasonable but it became clear to me that I needed to question my own assumptions about the award. At the end of the project, I still felt the shortlist was almost wilfully aberrant in its inclusions and exclusions but at the same time I did at least feel I’d tested my own perception of the award, and that it wasn’t quite what I’d thought it was.

In fact, I think the Clarke Award is probably as transparent as it can be, given its particular structure. Publishing the full list of submissions demonstrates clearly what the jury had available to it to work with, which eliminates certain criticisms. If they haven’t already thought about it, I think providing a formal mechanism for people to draw attention to the novels the jury might have missed when calling in submissions would be a useful thing, if this is not already under consideration. The Tiptree Award does this and it strikes me as a useful way to enable ‘us’ to engage productively with the Clarke Award, satisfying us that the Award did know about this title or that, and removing a certain element of post-shortlist argument that invariably seems to surface.

For my own part, I have been thinking about how to engage with the shortlist, given that by the time it is announced, it is pretty much futile to spend too much time asking why X or Y was left off when really, the only question that can be asked is ‘why were these books shortlisted?’ Sometimes, the answer, as in the case of the infamous Tepper novel, must remain ‘I have no idea why’ but at least extends to the jury the courtesy of supposing they must have had a good reason even if it remains opaque to the outside observer.

This year the response to the shortlist has been more muted, whether because we are all still taken aback by last year or because the shortlist doesn’t seem to have set people on fire, I am not sure. There are seemingly obvious omissions – Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass is not included, and nor is M John Harrison’s Empty Spaces, both of which would have seemed to be shoo-ins. However, again I am reserving judgement until I have read the entire shortlist.

But if I can only address the Clarke Award as a done deal, wondering why they did that, the Hugos are a whole different kettle of fish. My emotional investment in the Hugos probably died in 1995, the year that David Gerrold’s ‘The Martian Boy’ won the Best Novelette category. If you were in the Glasgow YMCA the morning after the ceremony and saw a young woman kneeling on the floor of the foyer, banging her head against the floor, that was me, in despair, and none too particular who knew about it.

Having looked back at the shortlist I cannot for the life of me think now what it was I wanted to win, though probably Le Guin’s ‘The Matter of Seggri’ but I do know I thought Gerrold’s story was not only cloyingly sentimental, it was cynically eliciting a particular response from his audience when it was well known that he had himself adopted a boy and the story was based in part on their relationship. I suspected that this was in turn why the story won the Hugo. We’re almost all of us suckers for a happy ever after. However, whereas I accepted that the Booker had some fierce politics going on under the surface, I suppose I still hoped that the Hugo voting was based mostly on literary merit. And clearly it wasn’t. After that, while I didn’t exactly ignore the Hugos, I found myself less and less certain what they were for. I’d tended to regard them as representing a benchmark for good sf writing but by this time I felt I could no longer rely on them to serve that purpose and I wasn’t sure where to go next with them. Mostly, I ignored them.

Given that I now find myself as part of a loose online community that regularly discusses sf, including topics such as the Hugo awards, I’ve found myself thinking about them again. The arguments go back and forth about the point of the Hugos, especially whether they’re a popular vote for the author rather than a recognition of a story’s intrinsic merit. It is probably impossible to provide empirical data to show that, for the novel at least, it is an author-driven rather than text-driven award, but my sense is that this seems to be so, not least because the same authors so often seem to appear on the shortlists.

Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont both discuss the nature of the Hugo voting constituency as well as the structure of the awards themselves, not to mention the problems of trying to change them, so I shan’t bother recapitulating that yet again. Instead, I want to think again from the point of the emotional investment and how, rather than looking at the shortlists and thinking ‘jesus christ’, I can usefully engage with the Hugos as a stakeholder of some sort. Again, Jonathan McCalmont outlines some possibilities, the most important of which is actually nominating. I can’t deny the sense of what he is saying and I’m as guilty as the next person in this respect. I’ve not bought a supporting membership in recent years because, bluntly, however important I might now consider the Hugos to be, a supporting membership is a luxury I haven’t been able to afford, not as a self-funding postgraduate student with a small debt mountain to my name (though I hope this may change in the next year or so).

On the other hand, I also have the impression that Hugo nominators are drawing on a very limited set of resources for their nominations (except perhaps in the short story category this year, which is just bizarre) which is why the same names seem to resurface so much, especially in the novel. Last year I noticed one or two people flagging up interesting things that ought to be nominated for Hugos, though less so this year (although I have been rather distracted these last few months so many have missed it this year).

On the other hand most activity of this sort seems to be people drawing attention to the eligibility of their own work, again as Jonathan noted, rather than to that of other people. It seems to me that one thing I can at least do is to flag up material I come across, not just before the nomination process closes, but all through the year, to keep the issue firmly in people’s minds. If there is to be a genuine investment in making the Hugos ‘our’ awards, the way so many people seem to think they should be then this also needs to be part of the process. It may not achieve immediate results, and it’s certainly not enough on its own but it might help to push the argument beyond the usual expressions of horror at this time of year. And frankly, that would be welcome.

Award announcements

And the final post of this weekend session of blogging features assorted links and announcements.

First, congratulations to all the winners of the 2012 BSFA Awards, announced at Eastercon in Bradford last night.

NOVEL – Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

SHORT FICTION – ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

NON-FICTION – The World SF Blog, Lavie Tidhar, chief editor

ARTWORK – Blacksheep for Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Also, the winner of the Philip K Dick Award was announced on March 29th, at Norwescon.

Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery (Tor Books)

Special citation – Lovestar by Andri Snær Magnason (Seven Stories Press)

The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States. The award is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and the Philip K. Dick Trust.

And, to round things off, the Hugo Award shortlists were announced over the weekend. Rather than my listing them all, I suggest you follow the link and read the full details here.

Coming soon: reviews of the Kitschies Red and Golden Tentacle shortlists.

Contesting the canon

picture by nikkorsnapper

In the Guardian last Wednesday, Damien G. Walter posed a question: Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? The article’s subtitle wondered whether 2011 would be the year the Booker Prize judges ‘acknowledge the flowering of British SF and fantasy’. Given the fact they’ve shown scant interest in it up until now, let me speculate a little in turn and suggest that, in 2011, the Booker judges will pay as much attention to sf and fantasy (and here I am eschewing Walter’s apparently preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ – all fiction is speculative, mainly because it is fiction, and I like to be clear what I’m talking about) as they ever have done before. They might put an identifiably sf or fantasy novel on the long list or the shortlist, or they might not. Most likely, they won’t. Will sf and fantasy publishing collapse in a heap as a result? I doubt it. Does it honestly and truly matter if the Booker doesn’t acknowledge the existence of sf and fantasy? I don’t think so.

Walter comments on the “narrowness of the award’s perspective” but this is hardly surprising. As Adam Roberts concluded recently, in Crunching the Booker Numbers, an elegant piece of analysis, “The Booker is not hospitable to genre – or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize – the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.” The Booker Prize has been inhospitable to genre for forty years, so there is very little likelihood that the 2011 judges will experience a collective rush of blood to the head and see the error of their predecessors’ ways. As Adam shows, it’s just not that kind of award. And it is not as though the sf/fantasy world is short of awards, from the popular votes of the Hugos and BSFA Awards to the juried Clarke Award, the Philip K Dick Award and so on, awards which derive from the community itself, and which are surely more informed as a result.

Given there are so few articles in which ‘literary’ commentators worry about whether borderline genre works might make the breakthrough this year and get a stab at the Hugos or the Clarke, one wonders why it is so imperative that genre novels need to be recognised by the Booker. Or, indeed, by the ‘literary’ world, as personified by the Booker. I think ‘recognised’ is a significant word here. I’ve been involved in the SF community one way or another for something over thirty years and it feels as though there has always been some sort of tussle going on between those who think that sf and fantasy should remain outside the mainstream literary community (or as Brian Aldiss so memorably put it, “Let’s get sf back in the gutter where it belongs”) and those who demand recognition from the mainstream, like needy children desperately seeking attention from unheeding parents. This article feels like yet one more expression of the latter.

What sort of recognition is Walter seeking? A Booker Prize-winner, obviously, but what will that do for science fiction and fantasy? There will be acclamation from within the community, naturally, and doubtless bafflement expressed by the ‘literary’ community, probably accompanied by yet more foolish and ignorant comments along the lines of “it can’t be sf/fantasy, it’s good”. More perceptive commentators, probably someone like Michael Dirda, will doubtless observe that it is perfectly possible to produce well-written narratives within a genre framework, and there will be a lot of foot-shuffling and throat-clearing as other commentators set out to show how the winning novel is not really that much of a genre piece and how, in the right light, it looks almost literary.

Let us be clear about one thing: it will be the novel that has won the Booker, not the genre. The author will become a Booker-winning author and may experience more interest from publishers as a result, and possibly a certain amount of pressure to produce more books of a kind likely to appeal to people who buy Booker Prize-winning novels. I do not believe there will be a rush to the genre shelves as the scales fall from people’s eyes and they embrace science fiction and fantasy as long-lost prodigal children. The winning novel will probably remain as one of the more wilful jury choices, to be joked over in future years or discussed by people who actually take an interest in the history of the Booker but I do not think science fiction and fantasy will be taken into the bosom of the literary mainstream as a result.

Something else that struck me about this article was its confusion over what this much-craved recognition ought to look like. Alongside the desire for a Booker Prize there is a lot of talk about the literary canon and “SF’s canonical works”. Indeed, Walter himself admits that “the number of SF authors being retrospectively rolled in to the literary canon seems to grow exponentially year on year”. If that were so, I can’t see the problem, but putting aside the misuse of “exponentially”, let us instead address this idea of sf being brought into the canon “retrospectively”. Because, after all, isn’t the inclusion of any author in a canon retrospective, the point being that they have to earn the right to their place by demonstrating the enduring qualities that distinguish them as being in some way “good” literature.

For my own part, I have little patience with the concept of “the literary canon”. At its dubious best, it’s little more than a convenience for teachers, a gathering together of titles which someone somewhere thought that everyone ought to have read (and the canon arose, as much as anything, as a way of providing a blueprint for literary self-improvement), a list from which to compile a syllabus. At worst, it has represented, and to some extent I think it still does, a spurious privileging and legitimising of certain texts, almost invariably those written by dead white males. We can attempt to update the canon or even construct counter-canons, but the canon itself continues to sit there obstinately, accusingly, defying us to mess around with the literary status quo, a reminder that someone somewhere once compiled a list by which people’s reading choices are still being judged.

How exactly are sf and fantasy to break into the canon if, on the one hand, they are already there anyway (not forgetting that many of the ur-texts of fantasy and sf already appear on university syllabuses, beginning with various Gothic romances and Frankenstein, there is at least one MA in Science Fiction Studies in the UK, and goodness knows how many academics writing about science fiction and fantasy in academic journals) and, on the other, canon-building is perforce a retrospective pastime? Or is Walter perhaps proposing something slightly different, namely a shortening of the period required to become canon-fodder in order to get more recent sf and fantasy onto the golden list and lend them some of this spurious authority. Because, brutally, the authority of the canon is spurious, and constraining too. A few authors and titles will be singled out for greater attention, as with the Booker, but again, it will do nothing for the genre as a whole, and possibly not even for an individual author’s complete oeuvre.

As I said earlier, I’ve seen various iterations of this tussle being fought over thirty years. It’s not new. Indeed, at various times I’ve fought on each side of the argument. However, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realise that the whole idea of science fiction and fantasy needing the imprimatur of the “literary” mainstream is a load of rubbish. Are we honestly so insecure about sf and fantasy that we need the blessing of another genre’s prize in order to feel that we have somehow arrived? Do we really need to participate in a flawed academic exercise in order to convince ourselves of our own worth?

What this demand for ‘recognition’ suggests, in fact, is that we don’t trust the genre to stand or fall according to its innate qualities. We know there is well-written material and poorly crafted hackwork within the genre, but it’s not a situation unique to fantasy or sf. All areas of literary production suffer from it but I don’t recall any of the others demanding greater recognition from the Booker for the “good” stuff.

This is not to say that I am in any way advocating a rejection of the mainstream and a retreat to the teenage bedroom of the genre heartland, accompanied by a fading wail of “you just don’t understand”. Genre has its uses as a down-and-dirty taxonomic shorthand on occasion but I don’t believe these terms and definitions should be used to construct barriers, especially not in order to provide a platform from which to complain that people aren’t willing to make the journey through the barricade. It’s ridiculous and, dare I say, just a little childish.

For my own part, I read “genre” fiction, I read “contemporary” fiction, I read “canonical” fiction, interchangeably and with equal pleasure. I do not need the approval of the academy, the Booker Prize judges or the sf and fantasy community when I make my choices about the books I am going to read. With everything I read, I read critically, and am happy to defend my opinions as required. Awards shortlists can be a talking-point, the canon is a useful jumping-off point and I value the cut and thrust of discussion with my fellow reading fans, but in the end I honestly don’t care a jot whether anyone else approves of what I read, and I certainly don’t feel I need to have my choices sanctioned by the awarding of a Booker Prize.