The OF Blog: Brief summary of thoughts of the 2012 World Fantasy Award finalists for Best Novel, plus some mention of the Anthology/Collection shortlists

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Brief summary of thoughts of the 2012 World Fantasy Award finalists for Best Novel, plus some mention of the Anthology/Collection shortlists

Compared to previous years, this year's World Fantasy Award novel shortlist was underwhelming.  Although I did not actively dislike any of the finalists, I could not help but wonder why other 2011 releases did not make the shortlist.  Then again, looking back at my Best of 2011 25 Most Notable Releases, there were very few genre-marketed works of speculative fiction listed.  Considering my relative antipathy toward the Clarke, Nebula, and Hugo shortlists, perhaps a case could be made that 2011 simply was a poor year for excellent SF/F works.

Maybe part of the problem is that the shortlists this year, with few exceptions, have fairly conservative with their selections.  While there are some smaller presses represented on the various shortlists (including the World Fantasy one), virtually all of the works that appear on them seem to be written in the mode of previous SF/F works.  Whether one wants to cite a combination of ode to fandom/fairy dreaming (Walton), epic fantasy mid-volume (Martin), noir/Philip K. Dick melange (Tidhar), generic Southern-tinged horror (Buehlman), run-of-the-mill alt-history (King), none of the World Fantasy Award finalists stands out as sui generis.  As noted above, this conservatism is rampant across virtually all of the Anglo-American SF/F shortlists, with the possible exception of the Shirley Jackson Awards, which included nominated works from Michael Cisco, Glen Duncan, and Donald Ray Pollock which do not fit snugly into pre-fab categories.

Perhaps that is the nature of the generic beast, as SF/F genre writing in particular appears, at least at the level of award shortlists, to have become more hidebound in recent years.  Books that kow-tow to the notion of fandom as being a wonderful nostalgic entity rather than a potentially problematic force that seeks to force ideological debates down through narrow, antiquated channels appear to be on the ascendent in these awards.  The joke some SF/F fans like to tell about literary fiction and their awards, that of it revolving around which adulterous professor most in mid-life crisis will win, is in danger of being turned into a mockery of "fandom" awards that celebrate one's ability to cite references to authors whose prime was before the PC began popular, as well as how well those narratives appear to be "in dialogue" with those works.

I heartily detest these sorts of works, as I noted in my otherwise fairly-positive review of Walton's Among Others.  It vitiates any sort of evolution in approach and outlook if the author (and subsequently, the reader) tries too much to be "in touch" with previously-established "standards" for particular stories.  I do not want yet another alt-history that contains references to how changing the past could be deleterious for future existence.  I have grown weary of noir-based fictions that do not push the narrative envelope and which fail to deconstruct the premises that underlie such narratives.  Another Southern Gothic/rural horror tale?  I yawn when such fail to say much about the locales/value systems, as "window dressing" for someone who is a native of the American South can be trite at best, irritating at worst.

So perhaps this is just a phase in the maturation of what at times has seemed to be a perpetually adolescent genre.  Perhaps.  But if the trends that I note above continue, it is hard to keep a pleasant demeanor and act like these finalists are worthy of praise.  As it stands, none of the finalists would have made my 2011 Top 25 (although Tidhar would have been close) because of the flaws and weaknesses that I noted in my reviews.  But for those of you who like "rankings" and who would prefer to eschew the review essays themselves, this is how I would "rank" the World Fantasy Award novel finalists:

1.  Lavie Tidhar, Osama
2.  Jo Walton, Among Others
3.  George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons
4.  Christopher Buehlman, Those Across the River
5.  Stephen King, 11/22/63

Now I have chosen not to review the finalists for the other categories, although I have read all or parts of two books in the Anthology category (Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Weird and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities) and three in the Collection category (Caitlín R. Kiernan's Two Worlds and In Between, Maureen McHugh's After the Apocalypse, and Tim Powers' The Bible Repairman and Other Stories).  In the case of the Anthology category, I am too biased to select a winner, as I have a translation that appears in The Weird and I am an irregular contributor to the associated Weird Fiction Review website.  I would like to say that I would almost certainly choose The Weird as the best in that category if I weren't involved slightly in work, but for propriety's sake, it is best to demur.

As for the Collection category, I do not have the desire to read the remaining two works at this time (although I have heard good things about Reggie Oliver before; I am totally unfamiliar with Lisa Hannett), in part due to time and in part due to budget constraints.  But out of the three, I liked McHugh's the best, as it was the most diverse of the three.  I thought the Kiernan retrospective contained some excellent stories, but also some very weak tales that lowered my opinion of the work somewhat.  The Powers was good, but with very few standout stories; it was also a bit on the brief side.

I have not read any of the novella and only one of the short stories, so no comments on those beyond this admission.  Just not that into genre short fiction these days, mainly for the reasons noted above.


Matthew Cheney said...

But the Booker Prize needs to go a science fiction writer! ;-)

Most awards are clubhouse decorations of some sort, and one of their important jobs is to congratulate not the nominees and winners so much as the nominators and observers. Look at the outcry when shortlists are full of works somehow considered "not us", whether because they're the wrong marketing category (Murakami's win of the World Fantasy Award a few years back) or the wrong size of publisher/distributor (whenever the National Book Award judges dare nominate books that haven't sold a bunch of copies and thus aren't "recognizable" to people taking a quick look at the shortlist). The offended cries aren't for aesthetic reasons, but rather they are the outraged howls from within the clubhouse, which requires first and foremost that the club and membership be most honored.

It's like the MacArthur "genius" grants -- if they were living up to their stated goal, they would go to writers who don't regularly publish in The New Yorker and their awards list would look more like that of, say, the Whiting Foundation. But no, the MacArthur needs first of all to get lots of press and appreciation, and so more often than not they give awards to writers who have considerable privilege and prestige within the publishing world.

It's a rare award that's fundamentally about the quality of its winners; most awards are about the perception of quality, appropriateness, and prestige of their winners. Awards are not windows, but mirrors.

Larry Nolen said...

Good points. Perhaps I'm a bit more acerbic than usual because I don't feel as though I belong to any of these "clubhouses, unless the Weirdists have their own (or maybe if the Squirrelists would build a clubhouse instead of a drey!). I don't mind the existence of these varied awards (if I did, I doubt I would give any positive or mixed coverage to them), but because I don't have anything really invested in any of them, I suppose that "frees" me to be critical with the hope that some day, those "mirrors" will reflect something worthy enough of mentioning inside all of the other (OK, a few other) "clubhouses."

With that being said, it shall be interesting reviewing four of this year's National Book Award finalists in Poetry these next few days (the Seibles has yet to ship and may not arrive before the awards ceremony). I may have quite a bit to say on some of the finalists there, but I do regret not being a regular reviewer of contemporary poetry, considering my love for the genre.

Anonymous said...

A bit off topic, but the mention of "Southern gothic/rural horror" caught my eye. Could you give any recs for books in this vein.

I ran a few searches on your site and Shepard's "Softpoken" looks like it may fit the bill. Any others?

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, Softspoken would be good.

I typically recommend Flannery O'Connor's short stories. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! contains a few elements in common with the subgenre. Those are what come to mind first, as most others (whose names slip me now) have struck me as being written in response to their tales.

Add to Technorati Favorites