What does the Newbery Award have against sci-fi?

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Tom Gauld

The Newbery Award is awarded “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” The award has named fewer science fiction winners recently than in the past, but has also been criticized for selections that are less appealing to children. We (my assignment partner, Andrew, and I) have developed theories for why many of the recent Newbery award winners are not science fiction authors.

Reason 1:  Literary bias has been around since well before the term sci-fi was coined in 1954, by Forrest J Ackerman (who also discovered Ray Bradbury).  Those genre fiction categories have been further defined for marketing purposes, thus cementing the literary bias as well. There have been times when a genre-fiction author has won an award for fiction, and been declared “not worthy” of that award because of the theme of their writing. Sven Birkerts’ review of Margret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake famously stated: “science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L’” (New York Times, 18 May, 2003). Science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin herself said (about those who are literary snobs) “If it was realistic it was inherently better than anything imaginative and therefore the silliest realist was better than Tolkien.”

A Newbery Award judge, John Mullan, also affirms this because he saw the science fiction genre as trivial. He was quoted as saying that it was part of a “self-enclosed world.” This mindset treats science fiction as a fringe interest, not worthy of literary acclaim usually preserved in minds of provincial judges as being of a wider popularity. The inability to see the merits in genres not typically part of one’s reading list affects the critique of the genre and compromises its possibility of being recognized.

Reason 2:  The number of awards specifically for science fiction writing have increased in the recent decades. An increase in specific genre literature awards might have started as a reaction to literary bias, in recognition of quality genre literature that was being overlooked, but the fact remains that genre literature has many awards to bestow on their authors and titles now. Exact causation and correlation are unclear in this case, but a relationship of some sort seems very likely.


References

Birkerts, S. (2003, May 17). Present at the Re-Creation. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/18/books/present-at-the-re-creation.html

Forrest J Ackerman, 92; Coined the Term ‘Sci-Fi’ (2008, December 07). Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/06/AR2008120602021.html

Gauld, T. (2013). You’re all just jealous of my jetpack [Cartoon]. In You’re all just jealous of my jetpack . Drawn and Quarterly.

Howell, J. (2016, October 06). Why science fiction authors can’t win. Retrieved from https://galacticbrain.com/why-science-fiction-authors-cant-win/

McKinnon, A. T. (n.d.). Valid Criticism or Literary Snobbery? Retrieved from http://www.indiesunlimited.com/2014/01/05/valid-criticism-or-literary-snobbery/

Science fiction awards database. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.sfadb.com/

Ursula Le Guin interview: sci-fi and fantasy snobbery, adaptations & trouble-making. (2015, April 07). Retrieved from http://www.denofgeek.com/books-comics/ursula-le-guin/34829/ursula-le-guin-interview-sci-fi-and-fantasy-snobbery-adaptations-trouble-making


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