Among the most culturally influential English-language fiction writers of the 20th century, a substantial portion wrote science fiction or fantasy -- "speculative fiction" (SF) broadly construed. H.G. Wells, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin, for starters. In the 21st century so far, speculative fiction remains culturally important. There's sometimes a feeling among speculative fiction writers that even the best recent work in the genre isn't taken seriously by academic scholars. I thought I'd look at a couple possible (imperfect!) measures of this.
(I'm doing this partly just for fun, 'cause I'm a dork and I find this kind of thing relaxing, if you'll believe it.)
Holdings of recent SF in academic libraries
I generated a list of critically acclaimed SF novels by considering Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy award winners from 2009-2013 plus any non-winning novels that were among the 5-6 finalists for at least two of the three awards. Nineteen novels met the criteria.
Then I looked at two of the largest Anglophone academic library holdings databases: COPAC and Melvyl, and counted how many different campuses (max 30-ish) had a print copy of the book [see endnote for details].
H = Hugo finalist, N = Nebula finalist, W = World Fantasy finalist; stars indicate winners.
The results, listed from most held to least:
16 campuses: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (H*W) 15: George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (HW) 15: China Mieville, The City & the City (H*NW*) 12: Cory Doctorow, Little Brother (HN) 12: Ursula K. Le Guin, Powers (N*) 12: China Mieville, Embassytown (HN) 12: Connie Willis, Blackout / All Clear (H*N*) 11: Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (HN*) 11: G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen (W*) 10: Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (HN*) 8: N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (HNW) 8: N.K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon (NW) 8: Jon Scalzi, Redshirts (H*) 8: Jeff VanderMeer, Finch (NW) 8: Jo Walton, Among Others (H*N*W) 7: Cherie Priest, Boneshaker (HN) 7: Caitlin Kiernan, The Drowning Girl (NW) 5: Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death (NW*) 3: Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon (HN)
Of the 25 PEN winners and finalists, 7 were held by more campuses than was any book on my SF list, though the difference was not extreme, with two at 24 (Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad; Joseph O'Neill, Netherland) and five ranging from 18-21 campuses. In the PEN group, just as in the SF group, there were nine books held by fewer than ten of the campuses (3, 5, 6, 7, 7, 7, 9, 9, 9) -- so the lower part of the lists looks pretty similar.
References in Google Scholar
Citation patterns in Google Scholar tell a similar story. Although citation rates are generally low by philosophy and psychology standards (assuming as a comparison group the most-praised philosophy and psychology books of the period), they are not very different between the SF and PEN lists. The SF books for which I could find five or more Google Scholar citations:
53 citations: Gaiman, The Graveyard Book 52: Doctorow, Little Brother 27: Martin, A Dance with Dragons 26: Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl 9: Priest, Boneshaker 8: Robinson, 2312 5: Okorafor, Who Fears Death
The top-cited PEN books were at 70 (O'Neill, Netherland) and 59 (Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad). After those two, there's a gap down to 17, 15, 12, 11, 10.
I continue to suspect that there is a bit of a perception difference between "highbrow" literary fiction and "middlebrow" SF, disadvantaging SF studies in some quarters of the university; but if so, perhaps that is compensated by recognition of SF's broader visibility in popular culture, so that in terms of overall scholarly attention, it appears to be approximately a tie.
So... hey! That makes me wonder about bestsellers. I've taken the four best selling fiction books each year from 2009-2013 (according to USA Today for 2009-2012, Nielsen Book Scan for 2013) and tried the same. (The catalogs are a bit messier since these books tend to have multiple editions, so the numbers are a little rougher.)
Top five by citations (# of campuses in parens):
431: Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (23) 333: Stephanie Meyer, Twilight (26) 162: Stephanie Meyer, Breaking Dawn (17) 132: Stephanie Meyer, New Moon (15) 130: Steig Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (12)
Only 4 of the 19 had fewer than 10 citations, and all were held by at least six campuses.
So by both of these measures, bestsellers are receiving more academic attention than either the top critically acclaimed SF or PEN. Notable: By my count, 8 of the 19 bestsellers are SF, including all of the top-four most cited.
Maybe that's as is should be: The Hunger Games and Twilight are major cultural phenomena, worthy of serious discussion for that sake alone, in addition to whatever merits they might have as literature.
Endnote: COPAC covers the major British and Irish academic libraries, Melvyl the ten University of California campuses. I counted up the total number of campuses in the two systems with at least one holding of each book, limiting myself to print holdings (electronic and audio holdings were a bit disorganized in the databases, and spot checking suggested they didn't add much to the overall results since most campuses with electronic or audio also had print of the same work).
As always, corrections welcome!