COMMUNITY VOICES | Minnesota Book Awards need to be fixed

Several weeks ago, the finalists for the 26th annual Minnesota Book Awards were released. As with most other years, I wonder if this is going to be a year when the pattern is broken. But it’s not.

What is that pattern? There have been only two books of adult fiction nominated over the last decade that could be considered science fiction, fantasy or more broadly non-realistic: Alicia Conroy’s nontraditional short story collection Lives of Mapmakers in 2007, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s high fantasy novel Paladin of Souls in 2004.

That’s it. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because the Minnesota Book Awards presents a skewed version of  the literary culture in the state, and goes forth with events, celebrations and resources (such as grants to bring MBA winners to libraries) that ignore any books that aren’t in the here-and-now. Even the Popular Fiction/Genre category of the award, which should be a mix of (as the eligibility requirements note) “mystery, detective, fantasy, romance, graphic novel, and science fiction”, is almost every year composed strictly of mysteries and thrillers.

Of course, literary realism is its own genre, full of its own conventions and meta-structures. Which is not an indictment against it; however, seeing realism as the only game in town (or the state) is toxic for the literary health of a community. It privileges one form of storytelling as a default mode of expression against which all others should measure. And this is the case no matter what the publisher is: whether it’s a straight-up science fiction and fantasy press or a literary press offering something more cross-genre, experimental, or off-beat.

This annual ritual of proudly showcasing to the residents of the state a “completed” puzzle—even though a few of the pieces are missing—particularly hits hard because of the thriving and longstanding science fiction and fantasy community within the state. With active readers and fans attending conventions such as Minicon, CONvergence, Diversicon, and several others; two science fiction bookstores in town; and a host of writers plying their craft within the borders of the North Star State; there’s a deep disconnect at work here. Moreover, in the 21st century, teenagers and millenials aren’t really paying attention to rigid genre distinctions. They will read anything they can get their hands on. To only allow non-realistic fiction in young adult and children’s categories is to subtly highlight that such endeavors are “just for kids.” But as these people grow older, they aren’t going to migrate to reading fiction solely about the north woods, cabins, and prairies, however great they may be.

And what’s more, I’m sure writers and readers of romance novels and graphic novels could make a similar case with their own beloved books.

Some would say that all of this is a moot issue, that it’s better that these two worlds don’t mix. But I’m interested in seeing bridges created between the two, and to have different forms of literature in conversation with each other. If the purpose of the Minnesota Book Awards is to “showcase the tremendous literary talent and output of writers, illustrators and book artists in our state,” it should actually make an effort to be more inclusive of the types of books Minnesotans are actually writing and having published. If you’re going to have a $45 per ticket gala and “outreach” to the community with reading guides, posters and bookmarks, it’s helpful to not pretend that an entire mode of literature simply doesn’t exist. Otherwise, I’m not sure if the nonprofit that runs the Minnesota Book Awards is actually serving the readers of the entire state.

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Alan DeNiro lives in Oakdale. He is the author of Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead (2006, Small Beer Press), Total Oblivion, More or Less (2009, Ballantine), and Tyrannia (2013, Small Beer Press). His short fiction has appeared in One Story, Minnesota Monthly, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere, and has been shortlisted for the O. Henry Award. He tweets, too often for his own good, at @adeniro. 

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  • Alan raises some great points, and while I don't anticipate there being much change within the Minnesota literary culture in the immediate, I do believe it's important for us to consider broadening the space of discourse and recognizing the merits and contributions of speculative literature, be it fantasy, science fiction, horror and so forth. I've mentioned it in other forums, but for many of of Minnesota's refugee communities who are rebuilding in the aftermath of civil wars, we are seemingly faced with a scenario that pressures us to tell 'memoirs' and historical non-fiction or realistic fiction, which of course is problematic given that many were 'Secret Wars' or conflicts where truth and reconciliation efforts are still a work in progress. Some of us just don't get to speak very directly about our experiences. In this day and age, many Minnesotan refugees cannot write openly about the events they experienced because that can have 'unintended' or 'very intended' consequences for families and friends in their former homelands. There are many instances works of the fantastic can provide a protective layer for constructive discourse and help a community to sort out the tangle of its journey. In other instances we are seeing a strong level of soft and hard censorship emerging on genre fiction, especially work that suggests alternate history, romanticization of previous regimes, superstition, etc. and I cannot help but think that our refugees must now write to the very limits of our imagination. Taking on the imaginative MUST be prioritized with memoir and histories when an authoritarian system is trying to destroy hope and free thought. If the Minnesota Book Awards and other institutions cannot consider books of the fantastic and the futuristic for the impact and significance they can have for our local readers and those abroad, I think that would be tragic. - by Bryan Thao Worra on Thu, 03/06/2014 - 11:58am
  • I understand where you're coming from, but I beg to differ (at least for last year). Last year I was a judge for the genre fiction category, and for finalists we had mystery, romance and I guess what I would call science fiction represented - they were two by David Housewright, a romance by Julie Klassen (who publishes with a Christian publisher but who has broken into mainstream with her excellent stories) and the dystopian Ruth 3:5 by Michael Fridgen, who self-published this hard-to-categorize book which I would call sci-fi only because it takes place in the future. I agree, it is hard for our wonderful fantasy/sci-fi writers to be recognized outside of CONvergence (and the other cons), but I think that's more because of the incredibly strong and deep mystery writer community that we have in MN. I love our spec fiction community, and I agree it's really strong in talent. But in my experience, these writers have not done as good a job promoting themselves outside of that community as say, mystery. I understand why that might be, but it's something that could change. I would welcome a graphic novel or a fantasy title in the Finalists of the Genre category any time! And you have a really good point about the YA and Children's categories. Great article! See you at CONvergence! ;-) - by Linda White on Mon, 03/17/2014 - 1:56pm

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Alan DeNiro

Alan DeNiro lives in Oakdale. He is the author of Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead (2006, Small Beer Press), Total Oblivion, More or Less (2009, Ballantine), and Tyrannia (2013, Small Beer Press). His short fiction has appeared in One Story, Minnesota Monthly, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere, and has been shortlisted for the O. Henry Award. He tweets, too often for his own good, at @adeniro.