I read again for the Paul Harland Prize this year.
The Paul Harland Prize is a yearly competition for the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror short story in the Dutch language. Originally called the King Kong Prize, it was first organized in 1976 by Rob Vooren. In 2003, the name of the prize was changed in honor of Dutch SF author Paul Harland, who died that year.
Wikipedia carries a listing of prize winners for each year starting from 1976, when Bert Vos won the competition. It's an interesting list, but it's probably quite telling of the state of Dutch genre that most bookstores hardly carry any science fiction or fantasy written by Dutch authors. Let me qualify that statement: there is no shortage of children's literature by Dutch authors in the Dutch language, but there is a definite dearth when it comes to SF for adult readers written in the Dutch language by Dutch authors.
I've often wondered if Dutch people indulge children in imagination and play only to divest them of these things once they achieve adulthood.
In a discussion on the state of Dutch SF, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, one of the most successful winners of the Paul Harland Prize, spoke of the incestuous nature of the Dutch SF scene. This is understandable considering the size of the SF community in the Netherlands. But while fantasy fairs and festivals bring in authors from the US and the UK, and while there is no lack of awareness when it comes to the work of G. R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb, and Neil Gaiman, one can't help but wonder about Dutch authors. Do Dutch readers read work put out in the Dutch language by their own countrymen?
Tiemen Zwaan, SF buyer for the American Book Center in Amsterdam, says that most Dutch SF readers prefer to read in English. In fact, a look around the American Book Center's genre section shows a huge diversity of titles and authors, but no Dutch names. (This is likely change once Dutch author Corinne Duyvis’s YA novel, Otherbound, comes out in print.)
On twitter, Paul Evanby once mourned the difficulty of getting his books into brick-and-mortar bookshops. Because I am a hands-on, make-your-feet-do-the-walking kind of curious person, I thought I'd visit a number of brick-and-mortar bookshops. I was dismayed to find that most of these bookshops didn't stock the authors I thought they would stock. One shop owner told me they could order the books, but they didn't stock them because moving Dutch-authored SF was difficult.
What these bookshops did carry were English copies of popular science fiction work from outside of the Netherlands. Reflecting on this, I wondered how much of what was on the shelves was reflective of the pragmatic nature of the business. After all, you can only make money off of things that you can sell.
It's a rather depressing thought since I've always believed that a healthy local scene would translate into better and more challenging works for the reading public. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for those who love the genre and for those who want to write for a Dutch reading public.
I want to note here that while the bookshops didn't stock Dutch-authored science fiction and fantasy, they did stock work classified as Dutch literature. Harry Mulisch, for instance, is stocked as Dutch literature, and his Discovery of Heaven, which is as fantastic and speculative as it gets, is also classified as “literary” work. Thomas Olde Heuvelt's recent work is shelved as magical realism and is therefore “literary.”
According to Dutch author Floris Kleijne, Harry Mulisch refused to be associated in any way with science fiction and fantasy. Thomas Olde Heuvelt, on the other hand, embraces genre and openly identifies as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Dutch writer Bo Balder says that Dutch readers tend to look at work written by Dutch SF writers as being immature and mimetic.
I wonder if it is this conception of the genre that necessitates this kind of labelling and the hesitance of Dutch writers to engage in the field unless they are writing children's or young adult literature.
Certainly, when I was reading for the Paul Harland Prize last year, I found it worth noting that a good number of the entries were Tolkienesque or Martinesque in nature. It was also interesting to note the abundance of Americanisms and American settings. Few of these stories were written in a Dutch setting and even fewer were hard science fiction. That last is particularly interesting considering how the Netherlands is one of those countries that we look to as being progressive when it comes to scientific and technological matters.
Jurgen Snoeren, Dutch author and editor, spoke of the difficulty Dutch writers have with writing the big story. It's not that Dutch writers can't write well, but the problem seems to lie in a lack of exposure to more challenging work and the absence of criticism. One Dutch writer commented on how self-publishing has given rise to a sense of complacency which can be deadly to growth.
Again, we return to the fact that most Dutch readers can only read what is on the shelves, and not everyone reads English fluently or fluidly. Let's not even talk about how the existing publications for short fiction are not at the level of professional publications outside of the Netherlands. If a publication does not pay for work it wants to publish, can it even make demands on the writer?
Can authors hope to improve in the absence of criticism?
Reading through various articles, I gain the impression that there used to be a wider and more thriving literary genre scene, but at some point the genre got stuck in some sort of lull. It wasn't until Martijn Lindeboom took over the organization of the Paul Harland Prize in 2011 that fresh life was blown into the competition and by extension into the Dutch public's interest in Dutch SF.
Last year, my fellow first readers and I read a total of 104 submissions. This year, the prize received a record entry of 203 submissions. If numbers are a trustworthy indication, I can only assume that Lindeboom's efforts are bearing fruit.
In the conversations I've had with Lindeboom, I find myself impressed by his vision for Dutch SF. It's hard to overlook the work and the campaigning that he does for the genre, as well as his desire for the Dutch SF scene to be more reflective of the multicultural and diverse landscape that is Dutch society.
My involvement with the Paul Harland Prize stems from my love for the genre. One of the biggest challenges facing Dutch genre writers is that of breaking down the preconceptions of a Dutch reading public. For the genre to keep on growing and thriving, it must engage a younger and more diverse population and it must cultivate a platform for criticism and debate.
*A.N. I have to note that since the writing of this article, I’ve sighted Dutch author Marcel Van Driel’s Superhelden in several brick-and-mortar bookshops. It’s still worth noting that the Dutch-language SF that you’ll find on shelves tend to be YA or MG.