Genre and The National Book Award

Laura Miller over on Salon wrote an interesting piece called “National Book Awards: Genre fiction dissed again” about the exclusion of genre fiction from the major book prizes, most notably this year’s big it book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. My widdle ears always perk when people get talking about genre fiction, and how the barriers are maintained between genre fiction – which, by even the most conservative definition, constitutes the vast and overwhelming number of books produced not just today, but forever – and literary fiction. Looked at a certain way, literary fiction is this funny little enclosure, narrowly defined and aggressive in its narrowness. See, for example, a recent statement by the Booker prize head judge:



Referring to last year’s Man Booker chair Stella Rimington’s much-criticised focus on finding “readable” books for the prize’s shortlist, Stothard said that while “readability can be a very interesting thing, great art for the most part resists it to a degree”.   

“If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed,” Stothard told the Independent. “Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”   

“Books bloggers are harming literature, warns Booker prize head judge” The Guardian, 25 Sept 2012 


 Maybe this isn’t to my point exactly, in that Stothard is mostly bellyaching about readers writing wrong about his precious books and somehow harming them in the process, but I think it goes to showing how narrow the parameters for quality can be defined in the literary fiction awards game. Readability – which, I kinda hate that mushy adjective – is contradictive of quality. There’s this vaunted art that resists its reader. Stothard plays the stereotype of the anti-populist, abstruse, literary wanker that genre readers sometimes use as a straw man, but apparently the straw man has legs, just to conflate two cliches into a straw monster. You can just see him manning the battlements of his little enclave, worried that all this wrong thinking and reading might crack his narrow definitions. Jesus, man, put the monocle away. We’re not going to hurt your books with our pedestrian taste. Part of it makes me think, bah, let ‘em have it. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of awards for the myriad of genre fictions. You can keep your battlements, and we’ll just continue on over here in the genre sections of the bookstore. 

But what bugs me is the the National Book Prize has as its mission “to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America.” Which, explain again how once a book gets tagged with a Scarlet G, it is neither culturally valuable nor good writing? We’re losing the war on reading. Year after year the number of readers and the number of books they read decline. There’s a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that reading must compete with plenty of other media. (Which I don’t count a bad thing, per se, and I don’t have a lot of patience with jeremiads about How Television Is Dumb when you’ve got Deadwood or The Wire or Breaking Bad out there blowing minds right and left.) But some of it is the sense, perpetuated by such fine fellows as Mr. Slothrop, that reading should be A Chore and No Fun. The inclusion of genre works into the literary fold can only be good for readers to expand their tastes and enhance their enjoyment. I’m guilty of hanging out in genre ghettos; it’s easy to beeline to the science fiction section of the bookstore and stay there. 

However, one of the more profoundly eye-opening reading projects I’ve undertaken in the past few years has been attempting to get a handle on the romance novel. I may have embraced my love of genre early on with geek things like science fiction or fantasy, but I would not have nudged with a barge pole anything directed at the market of romance readers. There was the occasional break-out, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, but that had a literary gloss – it’s an update of Pride and Prejudice! – that rendered it acceptable to read on the bus. (Also, I know Bridge isn’t strictly speaking a romance novel, but it does fall into the related category of chick-lit, which is mostly characterized by its female readership.) Setting aside the sticky business of taste, one of the reasons I eschewed the romance novel had to do with the same anti-populist notions about the genre of romance – if it is “readable” and “popular”, that is de facto an indicator of poor quality. 

My romance reading project did not end in a wholesale embrace of the genre – I still have a lot of issues with the conventions and expectations in the genre as a whole – but the process of figuring out those conventions and expectations has been immensely rewarding to me as a reader. And I have found some fine novels, and loosened up immensely about what I will be seen reading, and what section of the bookstore I’ll be caught dead in. Harkening back to my skiffy roots, I get a good laugh about this flow chart detailing the geek hierachy:

[from Brunching Shuttlecocks]

This hierarchy could be writ large over the literary genres, starting with literary fiction, and then branching down to genres with their varying cultural currency, ending in turtles. But it’s turtles all the way down, man. All kinds of turtles can be assessed with regards to merit, whether they have detectives or spaceships or love triangles in them, and I’m not just talking about a vague “grade on a curve” metric that often is invoked when genre comes up. Good writing is good writing is good writing. 

I really dug this line from Miller’s piece because I felt like it got at the ways that genre is often a definition NOT residing in the books themselves, but the community that self-identifies as the genre’s readership and therefore seeks to define that readership. “On the other side, aggrieved genre partisans feel justified in ignoring books they might otherwise enjoy simply because the people who like those books don’t respect the books that they like.” We read what we know, therefore we read who we know,  and we’ll barricade the genres against each other. And when anyone jumps the barriers we get uncomfortable. Much gnashing of teeth has gone in the sf community over Margaret Atwood’s assertions that she is not writing science fiction. Of course you are! Durr. But she was probably right in saying that she is not a science fiction writer, not active in the community process by which a genre defines itself. Genre is on some level also a marketing distinction, putting like with like, and the biggest fights seems to go down on the peripheries. Is The Road best shelved in science fiction, given its post-apocalyptic setting? Or does it reside with the rest on the McCarthy books in General Fiction? Probably the latter, McCarthy being known for what he is known. 

I feel like I’m coming back around to arguing that it’s okay for literary prizes to ignore genre fiction, by allowing that writers can self-define what kind of writers they are, but that isn’t where I want to end up. Of course writers can say anything they like about what they think they are writing. But, when we’re talking about awarding prizes on the basis of the amorphous basis of “literary quality”, I simply do not cede the field to cultural gate-keepers and authorial intent. Prizes, by definition, come down from on high, but they are meant for readers. They are there t
o celebrate the best of literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing. Wait, haven’t I heard something like this before? Oh, of course I have – it’s the very mission of the National Book Award. We are at your gates. We mean you no harm. Let us in. 

2 thoughts on “Genre and The National Book Award

  1. Mieville is definitely messing around with genre parameters all day and twice on Sunday. I did think it was funny that his publisher seemed to be positioning Embassytown for a general readership – not just scifi nerds – when it seemed to me it would have been baffling or just weird to someone who didn’t know the history of the the genre, etc. I should read Railsea, which appears to be based on Moby Dick, but with, like, sentient trains? Like you do.

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