NPR’s “Best” Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels–Dated and Sexist
I just read this interesting article in The New Statesman written by avid science fiction and fantasy reader, Liz Lutgendorff, who decided to read all 100 of NPR’s list of “best” science fiction and fantasy novels.
She writes in the article’s opening:
When it comes to the best of anything, what do you expect? If it’s science fiction and fantasy novels you want epic adventures and getting out of impossible situations. But what you often get is barely disguised sexism and inability to imagine any world where women are involved in the derring-do.
She goes on to detail some of the worst offenders on the list, both for science fiction and fantasy. From ubiquitous rape with no consequences to utter passivity to a lack of genuine emotions or relevance to the plot, the faults of these novels in their representation of women are numerous and sobering. She describes the disgust she felt by the time she finished the list and how it almost ruined her favorite genres for her.
It raised some questions for me:
- Who at NPR compiled this list and what criteria did they use? Did they think about the representation of women and minority groups? Or did they just go by “common wisdom” or nostalgia?
- Why are these novels considered the “best”? Lutgendorff mentions that several were considered ground-breaking or progressive for their times. In what way? Who decided that? How did they define “ground-breaking”?
- Along with that, why are there few recent books on the list? Have there been no ground-breaking science fiction or fantasy novels in the last fifteen years?
There isn’t just one definition of “best.” And that’s the biggest problem with NPR’s list. Along with that, NPR is hampered by their reputation of being a bit more high-brow than the general masses. One reason they probably didn’t include more recent books on the list is because science fiction and fantasy are popular fiction genres–meaning they aren’t seen as “literary” by academic or critical circles–the circles that are an important part of the NPR audience. NPR would face scorn if they placed current popular fiction on that list. The older books can be pointed to as “classic” now, which gives them a more refined sheen. They are less likely to be in the hands of teenagers or have movie adaptations or anything else that would point to widespread pop culture acceptance. So it’s more acceptable to put them on a “best” list.
But in terms of representation, there are far more ground-breaking science fiction and fantasy novels now than ever before. I would like to see “best” explored in more depth. What does it mean to be “best”–by whose criteria? A novel might be “best” in one area and utter rubbish in another. There are recent novels that most people generally agree are badly written but whose impact and reach are undeniable. There are others that are beautifully written and ground-breaking, but hardly anyone has heard of them. Fifty years from now, there will be science fiction and fantasy books from 2015 that will be considered classics. That won’t mean they were the “best”–it only means they managed to survive longer than other books that may have been equally good.
This is why, in spite of some of the things I really dislike about GoodReads, I love Goodreads Listopia. So what if Goodreads doesn’t have the literary snob appeal of NPR? (And I love NPR, for the record, okay? But let’s face it–literary snob appeal abounds.) Any list, anywhere, compiled by a wider array of readers will have a better chance of providing fairer representation than a list compiled by one (or even a few) people at an organization that has a high-brow reputation to uphold.
With something like Goodreads, I can narrow down how I’m defining “best” for my purposes. “Best Fantasy Books With Gay Main Characters” or “Non-Caucasian Protagonists In Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance” or “Best Strong Female Fantasy Novels” or “Best Steampunk Books.” These lists are moderated, but anyone can add to them, so there’s a better chance of a wide variety of reader perspectives being included. I may not agree with every inclusion on the list, but at least I know many voices–instead of only one or two–are being heard. And I know what criteria is being applied to define “best.”
I think the difference is in purpose. NPR’s list’s purpose seems to be for honor and recognition of science fiction and fantasy books they deemed to have made an important contribution to the genres–mainly in the past. I suppose that is a fine purpose, though it seems to be largely ignoring contributions made by women and minority writers. Goodreads’ Listopia purpose seems to be to connect readers with books they will have a good chance of enjoying right now–whether or not those books are considered classics fifty years from now.
As a reader, I know which list I’d rather try. As a writer, I’d love to find myself on an NPR list someday–it’s definitely an honor, but I’d much rather have my books on a Goodreads list where readers who will enjoy them can find them.