There may never have been a time in human history that lacked some type of literary controversy; no doubt someone objected to the ridiculous story told by a particular set of cave paintings back in the day. But the swiftness of the internet has allowed the modern version of such controversies, and the discussion of them, to reach critical mass in scant hours, eliciting reaction worldwide.
The latest blow-up concerns critically acclaimed and award-winning author Christopher Priest’s denunciation of the just-released Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist ballot. The Clarke Award rewards the best science fiction published in the United Kingdom, and Priest believes the judges did a bad job, citing Lavie Tidhar’s Osama and Simon Ings’ Dead Water as better possible choices (some would also include Priest’s novel The Islanders). But, further, Priest apparently believes this is a dereliction of duty so severe that the judges should be sacked immediately and the award retooled.
Who are these benighted finalists, ironically receiving so much more attention now that Priest has called them out?
- Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
- Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
- China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
- Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
- Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
- Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)
To the untrained eye it may appear to be a typical late-era Clarke Award list: a combination of genre writers well-respected in the field and some outliers better known outside of genre. According to Priest, however, it consists, in part, of an under-achiever (Mieville, a three-time winner of the award), a novel by Tepper dismissed as “a quest saga [with] a talking horse. There are puns on the word ‘neigh’”, and, in perhaps the most instantly twitter-viral part of his analysis/rant, this description of the writing of Charles Stross: “Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet.”
The reaction to this outburst has been fascinating, in that so little of it has devolved into calling Priest names or joining him in unthinking pillorying of the Clarke Award. (My own, humorous, response can be found here.)
John Scalzi weighed in with a long and reasonable post in which he wrote in part that “Mr. Priest’s contribution is the first this year in what is sure to be a lot of barking at clouds concerning science fiction award nomination slates, all of which will essentially boil down to ‘my tastes are different than yours, and your tastes are wrong.’…That said, as a representative of the format, it’s pretty good: Mr. Priest writes it with an engaging amount of piss and vinegar, varies his tone from target to target (more in sorrow than in anger for Mr. Mieville, blithe condescension for Mr. Stross, outright contempt for Ms. Tepper), and to his credit, offers viable suggestions for an alternative slate.” Scalzi goes on to suggest Priest’s punishment be to serve as a judge next year.
Fantasy writer Catherynne M. Valente’s post “The Tears of Christopher Priest” took an interesting and multi-faceted tact by expressing ambivalence about Priest’s conclusions while defending the necessity of defending literary standards: “…Sturgeon’s Law applies, the center cannot hold, and very occasionally, as high-maintenance lunch-to-literature conversion machines, we need Mommy and Daddy to not be proud of us to spur us on to write better books, to synthesize the high and the popular a little better every time. You will find a thousand authors arguing that what is popular is ipso facto good and anyone who says otherwise is a pseudo-intellectual heel. One guy should be able to say the opposite.”
Even a misfire from the usually capable Damien G. Walter (who writes for the Guardian online), in ascribing all kinds of envy-related motivations to Priest’s post, provoked some interesting discussion. The counter-argument to Walter’s assertion is not just that one may be both a curmudgeon and make a statement not influenced by personal resentments, but that precisely because Priest is a well-known author, with several awards and a movie made from The Prestige, he can afford to expend the good-will and political capital necessary to engage in this kind of searingly critical examination. (At the same time, it’s in part because Priest chose to rant-analyze rather than just analyze, including what could be considered personal attacks, that Walter was moved to write his piece in the first place.)
The best response, however, came from one of the finalists, Charles Stross. He immediately owned the “internet puppy” label, seemed to find the whole situation funny rather than insulting, and even created a T-shirt based on Priest’s attempt to insult him. The way he described Priest on twitter and elsewhere also showed a certain amount of respect that the initial post certainly did not require Stross to extend to Priest.
The upshot of all of this controversy and discussion may be a more heightened awareness of the stakes for next year’s judges (as if that were needed). But mostly, especially given the good-natured, non-trollish reactions, it appears the situation is a net win for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Certainly, more people now know about books like The Testament of Jessie Lamb than would have otherwise and take a look at books mentioned as worthy finalists but not on the list—including Priest’s own The Islanders. So, in the end, readers are the winners in the whole debate.
Is this what Priest wanted? Probably not, but in the ephemeral heat-lightning atmosphere of the blogosphere, it’s about the best result anyone can expect.