Thursday, March 29, 2012

Essay: Christopher on Clarke: Critical or Crazy?

One of this week's controversies is Christopher Priest's reaction to 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist. It's polarized those who are passionate about the competition—some praising Priest, others deriding him for it—and I've had my fair share of deliberating, debating, and arguing with regards to the matter.

The Critical

Priest's blog entry is, of course, an opinion and subjective. Let's not attempt to portray it as if Priest was speaking in an objective manner.

Those who praise the rant share Priest's sentiment: that this year's shortlist are, at best, mediocre, or at its worst, terrible. This, to them, is the heart of his piece, and in that sense, the blog entry must be read.

Personally, I haven't read any of the books, so cannot state any preference on the matter (except for one of the recommendations, Osama by Lavie Tidhar). However, some critics that I admire have similar criticisms of the shortlist, such as James Nicoll and Larry Nolen. Not that they should have the final say in the matter, as there are also critics who do not share Priest's opinion.

Nonetheless, there is merit to Priest's complaints, and he does articulate why the various novels do not work for him. Similarly, when he does recommend novels, he gives ample reasons as to why they are wonderful books.

When it comes to Priest's criticisms, I only have two complaints:
  1. The first half of his rant against China Mieville should have been discarded. This year's awards is judging this year's work; does it matter if Mieville won in the past or not? Unless Priest is insinuating that the sole reason Mieville is on the ballot is due to legacy or popularity voting—which I don't think he is—then he does not need to state that the possibility of a fourth Clarke Award for Mieville should be grounds for him not to win the award. He should have dove straightly to his point, which is that Embassytown was a flawed novel that could have used more editing.
  2. Whereas other authors have several paragraphs (Mieville had six) devoted to analysis, Sheri S. Tepper simply got three sentences, one of which was a rhetorical question. "For fuck’s sake, it is a quest saga and it has a talking horse," alone is not grounds for disliking—or liking—a novel, unless we are stating a personal preference.
The Crazy

On the other hand, detractors of Priest—myself included—focus on the weakness of the blog entry: that his discourse unnecessarily attacks others.

Just take the opening paragraph, and how Mark Billingham's only crime (no pun intended) is to have been a co-panelist of Priest. Arguably it's seeding for the fifth paragraph where Priest criticizes the shortlist, but ultimately unnecessary collateral damage.

The second problem is his proposed solution, specifically "The present panel of judges should be fired, or forced to resign, immediately." Again, I want to reiterate that judging fiction is a subjective endeavor. Theoretically, the goal of having different judges is to cast a wide net, and to decide on the best of the best. Practically speaking, however, it could also result in judges settling on books that they do not mutually disagree upon—after much debate, horse trading, and deliberation—as opposed to the novels that they initially felt strongly about. If you believe in Priest's thesis that this was a disappointing shortlist, this could be one of the reasons why it felt insipid, safe, and dull. Which isn't necessarily the fault of the judges as individuals per se, but part and parcel of having a jury.

And perhaps that's one of the criticisms against Priest. Should we eliminate this year's judges from the competition, forever? Should this year's awards be disqualified in favor of Priest's proposals? My problem with this is that no matter who does the judging, it will be a subjective call, and there will always be dissenters. It begs the question: when is it warranted to void the competition, or rather, whose opinion matters more? When majority of the fandom disagree? If that's the case, why not simply a popular vote?


Personally, I find it interesting that the reactions find themselves in one of two camps: those that focus on Priest's criticisms, and those that focus on Priest's attacks. Not that it is a binary choice. It's possible to like one and dislike the other aspect, but most of the people I've chatted tend to feel strongly about one or the other, and excuse—or omit—the other aspect.

Playing devil's advocate, there was one person who asked me if people would have read the post if it was a considered treatise. To which I replied, so does the ends justify the means?

Looking on the positive side of things, there's gems in Priest's blog entry. For the critics, there's his sincere assessment of the various novels. For prospective readers, there's the list of recommended titles. And this can get lost in the vilification of Priest. But on the other hand, there are also parts of the piece that is arguably unreasonable, or for me, unethical (not that people should conform and agree to my standards of what is ethical).

Personally, my recommendation is to read those books, and judge for yourselves whether they are important books. But also bear in mind that this is all in the realm of subjectivity, and there are no accurate, empirical tests for what is "UK's premier prize for science fiction literature."


Dario said...

Excellent post, Charles. I entirely agree with you, with one small caveat: I think that contention and critical invective in artistic and literary circles is often
productive. Of course a blog is going to be subjective, and why on earth should anyone vilify Priest for having opinions and stating them? But of course, they will...
vilification is so much easier than reasoned argument and discussion.

James Davis Nicoll said...

However, some critics that I admire have similar criticisms of the shortlist, such as James Nicoll and Larry Nolen. Not that they should have the final say in the matter, as there are also critics who do not share Priest's opinion.

I would not say I share Priest's opinion, exactly, since I seem to be unusual in the "this is not a very good Clarke short-list" in that I despise The Testament of Jessie Lamb.

James Davis Nicoll said...

I wouldn't say I agree with Priest. We're miles apart on The Testament of Jessie Lamb, for example, so if that's the sort of thing he wants on the short list, it probably not possible to come up with a list that pleases us both.

Doug said...

With all due respect, I think you're fundamentally misapprehending part of Priest's point here. He is not just complaining that the books that were shortlisted are bad books. He also has a basically political point. The books are not just bad, they are unimportant, backwards-looking, or represent negative qualities of the genre. In other words, Priest is not only criticizing the books chosen; he's also making an argument about what the awards should be for, and ultimately what speculative fiction should be about. That's why he takes this as such a big deal. Priest clearly has certain ideas about the way the award should be chosen - the fiction should be good, but it should also be challenging and forward-looking and interesting, it should be fiction which does things that haven't been done in the genre before, it should be fiction that can be taken seriously. (I happen to agree with him).

This is the reason, for instance, he focuses so much on Mieville, and why it's so significant that Mieville has won 3 times previously. The award isn't just a recognition of a good book; it's also a statement about the field generally. And for Mieville to have won 3 times already, and win again, does say that, at least in the judgment of this group of people that no one else is doing what he is doing. It doesn't help that it's a flawed work; it bespeaks a certain kind of laziness on the part of the judges. Similarly, his dismissal of Sheri S Tepper is because of the kind of fiction she's writing - as enjoyable or pleasurable as it might be, it is stuff that has been done before. It is not exactly novel and it is not interesting in a forward-looking way. It's unoriginal. That's the facet of her writing that's relevant for him, its originality and quality, not whether he liked it or not. He's not saying he disliked the book although he probably did - he's saying that it doesn't merit the award it was given. Two different things. When he calls for the resignation of the judges, it's not because the shortlist is bad, it's because the shortlist displays a mentality about the award and the genre that is flawed. When he attacks Billingham, it's because Billingham writes a kind of fiction that is unoriginal and entirely entrenched in genre norms - it's the same kind of attitude towards genre that he's objecting to in the case of SF.

The problem isn't just that the books on the shortlist were weak, and that there were books off it which should have been on. The problem is the reasoning behind it. Science fiction and fantasy should be challenging and should be interested in doing new things, and awards for the field should take that into consideration. There's no reason to award fiction that's regurgitating genre formulas. Let's reward things that are new and exciting and different and good. Yes, aesthetic taste is ultimately subjective, but an award shouldn't be simply a decision about what you like the best. There's more going on there.

Or at least, Priest (and I) think there ought to be.

Charles said...

James: I agree. I meant that you were more-or-less not thrilled with the shortlist (at least the ones you've read).

Charles said...


It's been my experience that people talk over the other side's points. So you're missing some of my key beats.

Your first point is irrelevant. My point is Priest has made a criticism, for whatever reason. For all I care, mediocre books = regressive, nostalgic fiction. It's open to interpretation but for practical purposes, let's call it a criticism. And in that sense, I see no point in arguing with you regarding your paragraph.

Your second paragraph, however, I will argue. For Mieville, so now, judges don't simply have to judge the piece of fiction a nominee has written, but their previous awards and contribution to the field? And mind you, there have been different judges over the years.

I'm sorry, but for Sheri Tepper, that's unforgivable. He should have taken the time to explain his point, as you've done. But he didn't. What he did was a simple dismissal, the same way a non-genre critic might dismiss a story "oh, it's science fiction, so it must be bad." I'm not arguing whether Tepper's work is good or bad--I haven't read it so can't defend or agree with his choice--but that he didn't articulate why he didn't think it was worthy to be on the ballot, which he did for the rest.

Billingham is collateral damage. Your call whether including him in the piece was ethical or not (I mean I can theoretically just criticize Billingham in a separate post not related to the Clarke).

As for your third paragraph, I already addressed that in my blog entry. Everyone has a sense of what an award should represent, and the judges made their judgment call as a group. If you put Priest on the judging panel, one of two things will happen: a shortlist he is not wholly satisfied would crop up, or he would have resigned.

There's always work that will be left out. We're not against Priest criticizing the nominees and the award. It's his methodology. Like if he left out the part about firing all the judges, it would have been more acceptable to a lot more people. And arguably he could have left out the part about Billingham, who has nothing to do with the awards. And of course, the Tepper discourse (or the lack of it).