It’s that time of year once again where Britain’s booklovers (and others around the world) get to see and discuss the longlist of nominations for the prestigious Booker Prize. And, as is traditional, there’s a complete lack of genre fiction on it; cue much kvetching from the genre fiction scene. (Like we need an excuse, right?)
At the risk of sounding contrarian, I really don’t think it matters. Sure, there’s the argument that genre titles and authors would benefit from the prestige and exposure, but in response I’d say you can’t miss what you’ve never had, and Dan Brown’s certainly not suffering from lack of acclaim by juried prizes (more’s the pity).
What we love to read just isn’t widely appreciated; perhaps it could be (if we assume that the sort of person who consciously chooses “literary” fiction over any other sort is no more picky or prejudiced than someone who consciously expresses a preference for “genre” fiction, and that they would be influenced toward something they previously turned their noses up at because of an award nomination, which are pretty big assumptions, not to mention ones that probably wouldn’t wash if you reversed the polarity of the preferences in question), but it’s not. And while I’d love for the authors I most enjoy to be rich, successful and still cranking out great books, I really struggle to care that they’re not on that list.
As a cautionary parable, I’d point out that this reminds me of the way I and my fellow thrash metal fans at college used to bemoan the lack of mainstream exposure and appreciation for our chosen genres. If only people had the opportunity and encouragement give this stuff a chance, they’d be able to appreciate the musicianship, give the imagery and symbolism a chance to sink in properly, understand that there’s more to it than studs, leather and album covers with demons on them. Wind forward a decade an a half, and we got our wish: MTV and daytime radio is full of watered-down imitations and knock-offs of authentic and innovative rock and metal music, enthusiastically and uncritically consumed by people to whom it’s nothing more than three minute chunks of momentary audio diversion. And so the subgenres move on and progress, continuing to develop new ideas (or new takes on old ideas, perhaps), pushing at the boundaries of expectation and possibility, and selling their work to a handful of thousand people worldwide; meanwhile, mass-market cookie-cutter product makes millions for middlemen and elevates talentless hacks to superstar status, simultaneously providing a whole new bunch of tired cliches for everyone outside your fandom to assume must apply to everything within it.
Be careful what you wish for, in other words; an explosion of public recognition for the obscure cultural product you love rarely works out the way you want it to. And every time we moan that prizes like the Booker don’t recognise the genius that resides within our ghetto, we confirm the opinion we assume that they hold of us: provincial geeks with marginal interests and a persecution complex. We wear the bruised vanity of the snubbed underdog like sackcloth and ashes, and it does us a disservice far greater than being passed over by a prize that – by its own implications and history, if not outright admission – is just as focussed on a small (if ill-defined) set of aesthetic criteria as our own in-ghetto awards.
Let it go, people. Let it go.