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Poking at Awards: "Literary Authors Slumming in Genre"

Last week, Juliet McKenna wrote this (rather stunning) post that set the (most) recent genre sexism disaster in the context of the industry, and spelling out why the 'shoutback' matters. A brilliant piece, and I couldn't agree more. The impact of this post, encouraging people to highlight female fantasy authors, has spilled across the genre-related interwebs and out into the mainstream media (the Guardian, amongst others). Great stuff.*

Ms. McKenna's post also had a small - non-gender-related - addendum that I thought was worth exploring in more detail. That is:

I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. 

Previously, Ms. McKenna cites her experience as a Clarke judge - "200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge" - as evidence that there was:

absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas

The combination of these two statements is a little shocking: are literary authors turning their hands to genre more likely to write sexist, tedious, reactive - "bad" - books? The accusation that literary authors "slum" in genre isn't a new one, in fact, it is a statement I've made myself on more than one occasion in the past. So, with this as the prompt, I've decided to look into the hypothesis that "literary authors write 'bad' genre fiction".

I'm going to leave aside the issue of authorial intent. What "literary authors slumming in genre" (LASIGs) mean to do - be it 'tickle the fancy' to get quick sales or write the book they've always dreamed of writing - isn't something we can predict.**

Accordingly, we can only define what a LASIG is through their actions - someone who was first published as a literary author but now writing in genre. That is, their first book or books were not categorised as science fiction, fantasy or horror. Again, intent can't factor here: an author may have meant their book to be SF, but it got shelved in general fiction or crime or whatever. (This also means, by definition, a debut author can't be a LASIG. They never knew the heady heights of literature, so how can they be slumming?) 

An author's pre-publication writing background isn't a factor (also, it gets boring to research) e.g. if they're a "literature professor" or MFA, that's not enough to qualify them as a LASIG, just as being a rocket scientist won't automatically disqualify them. The only fair metric is to look at their published work.

I've also only looked at their publication history with novels and fiction. If an author, for example, had previously published non-fiction or short stories, I didn't take that into consideration. (That means that folks with published PhD's published wouldn't get automatically branded LASIG).

Taking all of the above into account, I looked at the submissions lists for the 2012 and 2013 Clarke Awards. I've done the best research I could, but I'm sure I've mis-labelled a few. All my work is visible here as a CSV file.

Here we go...

In 2013, there were 83 books submitted.

  • 15 were from LASIGs, including 2 of the finalists. (13.3% of LASIGs were selected finalists.)
  • 67 were from non-LASIGs, including 3 of the finalists (and the winner). (4.5% of non-LASIGs were finalists.)
  • The 13 non-finalist LASIGs included Juli Zeh (whose submission was a Kitschies finalist) and Ned Beauman (whose submission was a Booker finalist). The other 11 were Chris Adrian, Iain Banks, Alden Bell, Justin Cronin, Jasper Fforde, Glen Duncan, S.L. Grey, Richard Milward, Ben Marcus and James Smythe (twice). 

Subjectively, it is difficult to qualify "tedious... resorting to sex and violence", and then compare it to the incidence of the same amongst the larger set. As someone that actually read (almost) 83 of these books (I was a Kitschies judge this year), my gut response is to disagree.

In fact, only a few of the books above (those by Banks, Bell, Cronin and Duncan) even used "traditional" genre tropes (space opera, zombies, vampires, werewolves, respectively). If this group is composed of authors slumming in genre, they're, on the whole, not making it very easy for themselves. The important qualification is whether or not LASIGs are more likely to write tedious and pandering books than non-LASIGs. It is hard to be definite, but, based on my experience: no.

2012 is just as interesting. There were 60 books submitted.

  • 7 were from LASIGs. Only 1 was as finalist, but it was Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jesse Lamb, which won the award. (11.6% of LASIGs were finalists.)
  • 53 were not from LASIG, including 4 of the finalists. (7.5% of non-LASIGs were finalists.)
  • The 6 non-finalist LASIGs included Glen Duncan, Helen Oyeyemi, Jeremy Reed, Nicholas Royle, Neal Stephenson and Colson Whitehead.

Of those six, only Duncan (werewolves) and Whitehead (zombies) were using traditional genre tropes. (And The Last Werewolf was selected as a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.) 

Even with the wibbliness about trying to define the 'tedious pandering' metric, it is difficult to support the hypothesis that "literary authors slumming in genre are more likely to write 'bad'" books. There are two primary reasons for this, both supported by the dataset of the 143 Clarke Award submissions over these two years:

Books by LASIG are actually more likely to be recognised by the judges and jury. 3 of 16 LASIG submissions were shortlisted (including 1 of the two winners). The 16 LASIG books represent 10% of the submission pool and 30% of the finalists. From this fact alone, it is easier to draw the opposite conclusion - literary authors aren't lowering their game when they come to genre, they're raising it. What's the reverse of slumming? Condoing?

It is actually difficult to find much tedious pandering at all amongst the the 16 LASIG submissions. Moreover, as a set of 16, this is actually a really strong group. There's plenty of reactionary tedious pandering going on amongst the 143 submissions overall, but if we resort to finger-pointing, the LASIG authors aren't going to be the first ones called out.

From the data we've got, the LASIG hypothesis is utterly untenable.

Which, despite my own initial belief in LASIGism, is a good thing, as the LASIG position is dangerous for genre as a whole. Again, a few reasons:

Some of our best and brightest authors are LASIGs. In 2012 and 2013, the pool of literary-authors-turned-to-genre included submissions from notorious literary elitests Neal Stephenson and Iain M. Banks. If we'd drawn some sort of LASIG hardline early in their careers. Looking past the 2012 and 2013 dataset, the the "LASIG" argument becomes increasingly ridiculous - take a moment review the list of past Clarke finalists and winners - this year's numbers are no fluke. If anything, they're low.

Other notorious LASIGs include David Eddings, Margaret Atwood, H.G. Wells, Robert Howard, Mary Stewart, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Discouraging LASIGs is shortsighted. It is also worth noting that at least three of the 15 individual LASIGs*** are people of colour, a low-but-still-much higher proportion than the rest of the submission pool. And the LASIGs that submitted include three Man Booker finalists, a MacArthur Grant recipient and one of Granta's Best Young Novelists. Aren't these the people we should be encouraging to write our science fiction and fantasy stories? 

I used to subscribe to the LASIG hypothesis myself, which is why I'm glad for the excuse to go at this with a (small) bit of analytic rigour. We're in an era where "our" tastes (Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, Avengers) have gone mainstream. Even in critical niches, such as the Man Booker, we're seeing (and delighted by) genre-inflected books fare well. 

But cultural transmission works both ways: we need to be open-minded as well. But, looking at the numbers, this isn't about literary authors slumming in genre, it is about literary authors excelling at it. We shouldn't be defensive, we should be learning.

*Emma Newman's blog post is particularly good - when it comes to describing genre as an ecosystem. We need every link in the chain to work.

**The LASIG hypothesis also relies on the assumption that writing genre fiction is also the best route to commercial success. I'll let someone with Nielsen access look into that one, but, based on Iain (M.) Banks alone, I'd say that's bollocks. Sorry genre: we aren't as big as we think we are.

***15 individuals = 16 books, but two are by Smythe, 2 are by Duncan and S.L. Grey is two people