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.
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.