The OF Blog: Christopher Priest's recent post on the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist serves as a reminder why strong, snark dissension has its place in literary discussion

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Christopher Priest's recent post on the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist serves as a reminder why strong, snark dissension has its place in literary discussion

Yesterday, there was somewhat of an uproar from some SF bloggers and critics on Twitter (and maybe on their own blogs; I haven't checked) regarding what author Christopher Priest wrote on his site about the recently-announced Clarke Award shortlist.  Take a few minutes to read carefully what he wrote there, as there is a lot to unpack.

When the shortlist was announced earlier this week, my initial reaction was mild dismay.  I saw there a heterogeneous listing of works that few could ever justify as being the best works of two-thirds of the authors on the shortlist.  I was disappointed to see that there were few "new" names (with the exception of debut novelist Drew Magary's The Postmortal/The End Specialist and the initial SFish novel by Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb – it was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, incidentally) on this shortlist.  Instead, we see the appearance of a relatively weak novel by China Miéville (Embassytown), yet another Charles Stross novel (Rule 34), and works by Greg Bear (Hull Zero Three) and Sheri Tepper (The Waters Rising) that have attracted relatively little attention and about as much praise from the SF blogosphere.  This year's shortlist did not spark any outrage from me, however.  It felt like a safe, stolid affair, as if one had put a damper on any potential sparks that could arise from reading the works in question (I will read and possibly review all but the Stross – I detest his prose so heartily that I cannot stomach the thought of trying to read another novel of his – and Rogers – her novel will not be released in the US until May 15, although I will read it soon after – before May 2; Miéville I reviewed last year).

That is about all I could say at the time about the books because I had so little invested in this award that is based in a country whose general tastes in literature, speculative and realist modes alike, differ in some degree from North American preferences.  Yet Priest is perturbed, if not outright outraged, by what the Clarke Award judges chose.  Although the fact that his novel, The Islanders, being snubbed may be a factor (he discounts this), I think what is important about his screed is that in discussing the deficiencies of the novels in question (as well as praising the merits of three novels he believes are superior – having read Lavie Tidhar's excellent Osama, I agree that it would have made for a really good alt-shortlist entry), he is participating in a discourse on SF works and their awards that too often SF fans are reluctant to engage.

To me, the true worth of an award, especially if it is chosen by a panel of judges or by peers, is how well the titles in question can withstanding the rigors of dissenting criticism.  When Miéville's Embassytown was published a year ago, the majority of the initial reactions, particularly from UK bloggers/reviewers, was more akin to a treacly squee! than to any real substantive engagement with the novel.  When I read it, I had problems with the central premise and how the language conceit was Swiss cheese-like with all of its holes and inconsistencies.  Priest touches upon the vagaries of characterization and particular character/environment interaction, which I didn't mention in my review last year, but with which I agree.  These are not momentary or occasional issues with Miéville's writings; they are a recurring flaw that negatively impacts the quality of his stories.  Like many, I think Miéville is capable of writing much better, but if he (or any writer) hears 95% uncritical praise, then who but the most demanding of self-critics is going to strive to improve those weak, sloppy areas?

That is why it can be refreshing to read such bracing criticism about works, particularly those that garner fairly prestigious awards nomination.  Question Priest's motives all you want (there may be ulterior motives that are uglier than critiquing the quality of the actual shortlisted titles; I think it was hyberbole at best and pettiness at worst when it comes to the issue of the judges, although they too should not be immune from criticism), but I do believe he does raise issues about this particular shortlist that should be considered.  As I said above, I am reading the majority of the shortlisted titles.  If I have the time, I may review them here before May 2 on this blog (I also have the Tiptree Award winner Andrea Hairston's Redwood and Wildfire and the remaining Nebula Award novel nominees to read/review here, along with several other reviews and commentaries at Gogol's Overcoat and Weird Fiction Review).  When I am done reading all but one of them (again, I highly doubt Stross could ever make a positive impression on me after I've suffered through a few of his earlier novels, so it is pointless to read something that already suffers the burden of such antipathy), I may write a short post listing my thoughts about the quality of the shortlist after having read most of the works in question.  My opinion may change from my initial one; it may grow even more negative.  But if I do so, it too will be an engagement with the meanings associated with this particular award.  Hopefully others will do the same if they intend on reading some or all of the shortlisted titles.  To do otherwise would demean the intent behind having literary awards much more than any negative blasting of the books/judges ever could.


Alex said...

I think what is important about his screed is that in discussing the deficiencies of the novels in question ... he is participating in a discourse on SF works and their awards that too often SF fans are reluctant to engage.

YES! I really don't understand the reactions of many people to critical - and snarky - reviews. There really is no requirement that all criticism be balanced or politely worded - a reader can and should engage with works in whatever way suits the reader best. Having to step carefully around people's delicate fee-fees gets so, so tiresome. It's like dealing with five-year-olds, sometimes, the way I have been defriended by people for not liking their book.

Larry Nolen said...

True. If I had been made to be nice when I was in college and especially in grad school, I never would have learned how to be a critic (or to take criticism). Sometimes, it is best to just accept that there might be something worth considering behind that acerbic comment. I remember a professor flat out telling me when I was working on a paper that his main problem with my writing is that I never really put my own wit into the writing and that the paper suffered because there was no real commentary being made, only a collection of other people's thoughts. That's stuck with me for over 15 years now and while harsh at the time, it was just what I needed to become a better writer/historian. Maybe those hurt by Priest's comment can take something away from it other than just petulant outrage, as there is much more to his writing than just that.

Neth said...

I loved Priest's article. It was thought-provoking, appropriately angry and hilarious. All in all, good stuff, and stuff I'd like to see more of (even if he clearly reads novels at a 'higher' level than I do).

I'm not much of a fan of awards, so to see such a well-written and damning look at one of the best known SFF awards was brilliant.

Magemanda said...

I completely agree with your post, Larry, and I have to say that I read Priest's article with a feeling of appreciation for someone finally talking about the mediocrity and insipidness of the shortlist. I have read the shortlist the past two years - two years ago I found the list to be very strong, last year it felt honest and direct. This year it interest at all in picking up any of the books.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it unfair to judge Rule 34 based on your previous experience with Stross? Or do I misunderstand and you've read at least a chapter or two.

Larry Nolen said...


I've had enough bad experiences having struggled through three Stross novels that rather than spend money and attempt to read something toward which I would already have a negative stance due to past experiences, which would be unfair to the author, I would rather note this and move on.

Tim said...

There's nothing wrong with being rude and inflammatory. There isn't even anything wrong with baying for the dismissal of people who simply have different taste to your own.

There is also nothing wrong with swathes of people finding your stance objectionable, offensive, or childish -- and judging you on it.

The joys of a free world...

Ellestra said...

I was OK with the whole thing (de gustibus non est disputandum)and it was quite funny at first but then I got to the points listing how to deal with the shortlist he didn't like and I facepalmed.

Mihai A. said...

I liked Christopher Priest's take on the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist and I don't understand the reactions it started. Well, maybe I do a bit, but in the way criticism is such an uncomfortable thing to digest by the criticised. OK, Priest's opinion might be a little bit harsh, but it rings quite true. Over the years I learned that going around me when trying to judge my work, whatever that is, it doesn't lead to progress, while straight critics although make me unhappy and are very hard to swallow might hold more truth and help me progress more. Of course if they are made in a pertinent way and not a mean and personal one. Good criticism is welcomed in such cases.
As for awards, I narrowed my interest to a minimum, but I still feel that it is a long list. I do expect from an award to point me towards works of exceptional or at least very good quality. After all I am a slow reader and I have difficulties catching up on all the titles I wish to read. That's why a good shortlist comes in handy. But there are awards that disappointed me over the years and I lost my interest in them.

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