It is Booker Prize season again, and therefore time for wailing and gnashing of teeth around the blogosphere.
First up, if you want to see the long list, it can be found here.
And now the controversy. Last year, you may remember, Kim Stanley Robinson complained about the lack of recognition for his type of novel, and Booker judge John Mullan made a complete ass of himself by saying that the award didn’t look at science fiction because SF is, “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.” Unsurprisingly, a few noses were put out of joint.
This year the chairman of the judges, Andrew Motion, has tried to head off any discussion by insisting that, despite the apparent lack of SF on the list, the jury did not “consciously” exclude it. That, of course, is exactly the same argument put forward by people defending all-white-male award lists. It is the “I’m not racist/sexist/etc., it is just that the books by white men are better than anything else” argument.
Motion compounds this with a foray into victim politics. According to The Guardian he said, “the Man Booker prize was an award for literary fiction and there were plenty of prizes for crime and sci-fi.”
That, of course, is as clear an admission as you can get that the Booker is not a general award for the “best” books of the year, but actually a very specific award for a very specific type of book: “literary fiction”.
Remember, the whole point of genre is that it is a marketing tool aimed at helping readers find “more like this”. Books are identified as belonging to a genre if they have common tropes, a small subset of expected plot structures, and generally are predictable. People whose reading is confined to a particular genre are people who don’t like reading outside of their comfort zone. Clearly Motion is one of those people.
Exactly how a “literary fiction” novel is identified is not clear, though I’m sure that Motion will know one when he sees one, just as Damon Knight did for SF. Anecdotally such books have been about middle-aged university professors with unhappy marriages who have affairs, and indeed sex seems to be an important trope as Motion bemoans the lack of it in this year’s potential nominees. The important point, however, is that “literary fiction” is not defined by being well written, it is defined by the fact that it conforms to the expectations of the literary fiction genre. A book that is well written, but does not conform to the expectations of “literary fiction” is, in Motion’s eyes, not a potential Booker candidate.
On the other side of the fence, Paul Graham Raven argues that we in the SF ghetto should not care if Motion and his pals don’t read our books. Indeed, we should worry if they did, because if they outside world ever finds out what we are up to, and starts to like it, our art will be horribly polluted by their attention.
This is exactly the same argument I am used to hearing from the crusties at Worldcon. “Don’t pay any attention to the likes of Dragon*Con and Comic-Con,” they wail, “if the sort of people who attend those events came to Worldcon our little club would be ruined, ruined I tell you!”
There’s a certain type of person who likes living in a ghetto, who likes having exclusive interests that few other people share. Often such people feel better if the outside world despises them, because it makes them feel even more special. And if that’s what they want to do, fine, but they shouldn’t expect everyone else with similar interests to want to stay in the ghetto with them. After all, for the writers (and publishers) there is money at stake; lots of it.
Of course popular culture has already invaded the science fiction ghetto. For the most part SF outsells literary fiction very nicely thank you. SF&F books can often be found on the NYT best seller lists. Sometimes they are by big names such as Rowling, Pratchett and Gaiman; in other cases they are franchised works such as the Star Wars novels (some of which are written by favorite authors of mine such as Karen Traviss and Sean Williams). So it is, I think, ridiculous to argue that SF would come to any further harm by being associated with the Booker.
What that association would do, however, is improve the sales prospects of some of the best writers in our field. Because while the Booker judges might think that their prize is only for that small subset of books that they identify as “literary”, the media and the book trade treat it as a prize for the best book of the year. Books that make the long list can expect a huge bump in sales, and the winner is guaranteed a print run in the millions.
That is why the Booker matters. If Motion and his pals want to have an award just for the sort of books that they like, that’s fine by me, but they have no right to claim that their little genre is any better than anyone else’s genre, and the media and book trade should not treat them as if it is.
The funny thing is, of course, that last year the Booker went to an historical novel, Wolf Hall, which is most definitely not a work in the literary fiction genre. Furthermore, this year there’s at least one other apparent historical fiction book on the long list. Except that, as I noted a few days ago, it is actually the first book in a trilogy of novels about immortality, with at least one immortal character in it. So despite Mr. Motion’s protestations, the Booker judges do have an SF novel on the list. It must have been the lack of talking squid that confused them.