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Weighing in on The Minnesota Book Awards

Alan DeNiro makes some good points and expresses some pretty legitimate frustrations in this piece on the Minnesota Book Award. I'd like to weigh in a bit, but I should first admit that I've been out of the book writing game for a while now, and my absence in that scene may affect my opinion of it.

Let's first acknowledge that sci-fi and fantasy books have been neglected by the broader industry for at least as long as I've been alive. Maybe less so now than, say, ten or twenty years ago, but they're still neglected, and you don't have to look hard to notice that neglect.

Every now and then, I'm giving a talk about Minnesota literature in front of a group of museum curators, fine arts supporters or other such cultured people. When I invariably get to the science fiction, eyes start to roll. When I mention that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his share of sci-fi and fantasy, I'm sometimes challenged. In a less formal environment, one might even say I'm heckled.

I was invited to a Minnesota Book Awards gala a few years back and I felt pretty out of place. My fellow attendees struck me as people more likely to be sitting in the audience arguing with me over just what genre Benjamin Button belongs in than actually opening that one unread copy of War for the Oaks every Minnesotan seems to keep on the bookshelf these days. (In all fairness, I've never finished War for the Oaks, so maybe I'm not one to judge.)

I think this all has to do with the way people who care about "serious literature" look down on stories about swords and spaceships, and I think that the sort of people who feel this way are the same sort of people who end up nominating and judging these sorts of awards.

I'm getting off track, though, so let's get back to the point.

The point isn't that the people behind these awards are wrong. It's just that they're part of a clique, and theirs is not a clique into which sci-fi writers fit with any frequency or ease. In many respects, they're no more credible than a clique of judges at a poetry slam, which is to say they're judging someone else's art based on... well, not really based on anything. It's not an objective process.

Books aren't apples-to-apples. If they were, there'd be no reason to read more than one. Since they aren't, though, you can't really compare them. Some win awards because they happen to resonate with individual judges. Others don't. While that doesn't necessarily diminish the award winner's accomplishment, it certainly doesn't diminish the overlooked writer's either.

Awards are fine and they look great on a CV, but I prefer not to write for awards. I write for my readers, for myself and for my employers. If my readers and employers happen to end up on an awards committee, and if I happen to have written something they like that year, great. If not, though, I really don't mind.

The Minnesota Book Awards are what they are. As much as I might like it if they took sci-fi and fantasy writers more seriously, they don't owe us anything. Their first obligation is to their donors, and as long as their donors see us as gutter authors, we shouldn't expect too much attention from them.

If I craved big awards and widespread recognition, I'd never have gone into genre writing in the first place. Sci-fi and fantasy, and fans of the genres, have been disenfranchised most of my life.

That's why we have cons. It's why we have the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Stokers, and so on... It's why we don't really need to worry about the Minnesota Book Awards. There are other cliques out there, and we'll find some of them far more welcoming.