Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. And Try Not to Roll Them While You Do It.

Stuart Kelly posted an interesting piece on the Guardian book blogs that got me to thinking about book awards. A lot of the major book awards–the Man Booker, the National Book Awards, and the big cahuna, the Nobel Prize for Literature–are dominated by literary fiction*. The last time I recognized the winner of the Nobel was in 2010, when Mario Vargas Llosa won.

There’s still an unfair stigma against genre fiction, but I think a lot of the most interesting and important fiction of the last few decades has been in science fiction. Is it because, as Kelly quotes Margaret Atwood, because of all the “talking squids from outer space”**? Even if there is an overabundance of weirdness and silliness in genre fiction, that doesn’t mean that only literary fiction writers should be the only writers under consideration.

I suspect that judges for the “serious” awards aren’t just trying to award the best book of the year. I suspect they’re looking for books to add to the canon, book that will be read in a century or so. But the problem is that readers’ tastes change, sometimes radically. I like how Jonathan Kelly over at puts it:

There’s a lesson here: Literary heroes of an age are often neglected by future times and tastes. If you’d asked most Italians in the 1930s to pick the greatest poet since Dante, they’d have named Gabriele d’Annunzio. (It helped that he was a Fascist.) In the ’40s and ’50s, many Americans deemed Pearl Buck the finest living novelist.

It’s nearly impossible to predict which books people will still be reading even in a few decades***. And sometimes not even other members of the literary community agree on the winners. Last year’s winner of the Nobel, Mo Yan, was incredibly controversial. Salman Rushdie called him a “patsy of the regime” for Mo’s support of censoring artists and writers.

I wish that judges of the literary prizes would expand their horizons. It would make the long and short lists so much more interesting. And I wouldn’t have to spend so much time on Wikipedia or digging through old book reviews to catch up on obscure writers and novels that I’ve never heard of before.

* This genre has a bad reputation among some. Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, said on Twitter that, “Too many folk are using the term ‘literary’ to mean ‘wholly unencumbered by plot’.”

** Honestly, how has Margaret Atwood not won the Nobel?

*** The blogger over at Kahn’s Corner has been working their way through the bestsellers of the twentieth century and reviewing them. It’s fascinating.

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