This weekend, 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.