The OF Blog: Ideations, major book awards, and an apologia for non-speculative literatures

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ideations, major book awards, and an apologia for non-speculative literatures

Last week, I made a little post inquiring for others to provide their definitions of fantasy.  There were several excellent definitions provided (including one by Hal Duncan that he posted on his blog)  and I hope readers of this post will take the time to read each of the comments in both my original thread and Hal's post.  I added a little bit at the end noting that my definition of fantasy revolves around ideations, something I'll expound upon shortly.

However, I must confess that when I posted that, I had another thought in my head at the time, a thought that still hasn't worked its way through.  If it is so difficult to come up with a good, concise definition of "fantasy," then how hard it might be to define what might fall under what some would call "realist" or "mimetic" fiction, among other such titles that might be crafted to describe something equally slippery to those attempting to pin it down!

This morning (I woke up four hours earlier than I had planned, due to crashing the evening before and also due to chronic lower back pain), I was reading this post about some debate that China Miéville and John Mullan apparently had at some British lit festival about the merits of the Man Booker Prize.  Although the blog entry doesn't really give any specifics as to what Mullan said, I found myself being curiouser and curiouser about some of the issues surrounding some perspectives of major book awards.

I suppose the controversy, if there really is such beyond some spec fic fan corners, centers around "finest book" and the selection process.  It seems that the burden of proof has been placed on the Booker Prize selectors somehow to develop a criteria for selection that allows for more "genre" books to be considered.  But something tells me that trying to open up things to particular narrative styles might have some consequences.  First, I suspect there might be a sort of bias on the parts of those protesting the loudest in regards to the types of stories that are typically considered for awards such as the Booker Prize.  Perhaps some want to see cod-Wagnerian morality shows as being of paramount importance in a larger discussion of literatures that reflect societal conflicts, but to me, there seems to be something troubling about that.  I just don't quite get the shoehorning of commercial fictions that are deliberately marketed to the LCD reading market into an award that focuses on recognizing works that typically have something to say about societal and/or personal conflicts.

This is not to say that I endorse a segregation of idealized fictions (I do see fantasies of all stripes as ultimately representing facets of idealized forms, both positive and negative alike, of Self, Society, and Environment) from those fictions that largely eschew idealized presentations.  Rather, I wonder if the epistemological yardsticks being employed in these sorts of discussions vary too much for there to be more than the broadest of connections (such as each sort representing facets of a society's material culture, to be best analyzed by cultural historians, at least in regards to how each narrative type has a larger point to make than what is explicitly stated within its pages) between the so-called "fantasies" and the so-called "realist" fictions.

"Realist" fiction (I think I'll just employ that term for the remainder of this essay, even if there are other, similar terms that I also favor on occasion) has a lot to say to me.  I enjoy it greatly, even if I don't always review here as much as I perhaps should (something I might rectify in the very near future, even if it costs me some readers who would prefer that this post focus almost exclusively on recently-released speculative fictions.  To them, I will dedicate the refrain from Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name").  Often, I am much more troubled by what I read in those stories set in the here and now, starring those who could be a friend, a lover, a student, or any neighbor I happen to meet.  I do not read for "escape," but rather for engagement.  Sometimes, those engagements can be painful.  I am currently 50 pages into Emma Donoghue's Room (which I believe was shortlist for the Booker, coincidentally) and it is at times a very painful read.  The writing, for the most part, has captured my attention, despite my reservations about the narrator's voice (I don't know many five year-olds who can count into the hundreds or have some abstract perception, but this is not enough to break my suspension of disbelief).  The topic, dealing with incest/rape, is a brutal one, one that I've experienced secondhand through the lives of a very close friend of mine and some of my female students over the years.  Yet what Donoghue is describing is something worth considering, something worth reading, and it is the sort of reading that I rarely encounter in the fantasies that I have read over the years.  Sometimes, non-idealized fictions have a power and beauty of their own.

I suppose that some might argue that my apologia above misses a major point, that of access to wider public recognition.  I would have been willing to consider that, if I hadn't learned this past weekend that Grace Krilanovich (whose The Orange Eats Creeps I team-reviewed earlier this month) was selected as one of five National Book Foundation's Five Under 35 recipients.  But I'm guessing that because it isn't marketed as being anything approaching a market category fantasy that it "doesn't count" in the opinions of the most vociferous complainers?  Perhaps it might behoove all of us to figure out just what we mean by "fantasy" and "realist" fictions and understand their respective appeals to various people (often the same people, at different times) first before we start lambasting certain international book awards, no?


Adam Roberts said...

My thoughts on McCarthy's C and the winner, Howard Jacobson's Finkler Question.

Last year there was a big kerfuffle that the Man Booker doesn't shortlist SF. The judges complained that publishers don't submit it. This year, publishers submittedit. The Man Booker judges didn't shortlist it. The prize is biased against the genre, I'm afraid.

Adam Roberts said...

My comment got truncated! I meant to start off by linking to my thoughts on Room, which I liked a lot.

Larry said...

Point taken regarding the Jacobson. Currently reading the Donoghue and my early take seems to jibe with your review and I plan on reading C later this month.

I remember that kerfuffle with KSR last year. I just am not certain which books were submitted for consideration this year, as that might help me understand matters more. All I know is that some awards aren't designed for certain fictions. Much as I laud the Krilanovich debut, I just cannot see it ever getting major recognition in genre circles due to its thematic content. I do think it'd be the sort of book that you could have some fun reviewing, though, Adam.

Anonymous said...

Unless there's a list of what got submitted from genre and you then read those books and the ones shortlisted, and then believed some of the genre ones should've been on there, I don't know how you can reach that conclusion that quickly, Adam. And even if you did then reach that conclusion, doesn't the judging panel *change* every year? So...what's the point of generalizing in this way? Man, am I sick to death of SF tribalism. JeffV

Brian Lindenmuth said...

The Booker controversy is HUGE HUGE HUGE in the mystery/crime community.

The former chairman of the Booker Prize committee said “A mystery has as much chance of winning the Booker as a donkey winning the Derby.”

Larry said...

This just seems to come back to criteria and not necessarily a blanket negative bias. I know if I want to read "the best" work on "the human condition," I might be wary of reading a Dragonlance novel, for example. When I think about past Booker winners, such as David Mitchell and even Peter Carey to an extent, I wonder why there is such an antipathy from several genre fans. I just guess it's not good until their category is "the best."

Reading myopia certainly is an insidious thing and runs in several directions. All I know is that crime, SF, fantasy, romance, etc. have each had exemplary novels recognized in some form or fashion as "classics" that have something to say to generations of readers. I just can't summarily dismiss those awards which might point me toward excellent realist fiction.

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