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Rules for Anchorites

Letters from Proxima Thule

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He's not jealous, but he does cherish, like Brian Aldiss, Barry Malzberg and others, a vision of sf that is not congruent with reality, and every so often complains that iit Still Isn't Right Dammit. Sadly (or happily for those of us who like fun) it never will be.

Sf contains progressive elements, but also deeply small-c conservative ones. It looks forward, but it does it very often by looking backward. And while it may be an ideal field for books that are hard to read, leave you unsatisfied, uncomfortable or actively enraged, and engage on the deepest existential level with the ultimate pointlessness and despair of thingy, it's a fact that those are books for a (possibly sizeable) few, and Star Trek novels and such are books for the (much more sizeable) many, and most sf books published fall toward the latter extreme, because they're written to entertain. I think I'm on safe ground saying that.

Now, in presenting to "the world at large" what we regard as the best of our field, literary merit should play a part...but unless we're actually presenting to the Man Booker Prize committee, so should popularity. Priest doesn't get this, or maybe just wishes it weren't true. I feel for him, but no amount of sympathy is going to make me choose The Inverted World over Ringworld, for instance (and I have read both).

And no amount of semi-righteous indignation is going to make sf into a recondite subsection of intellectual literature. Nothing could ever be that that started with Hugo Gernsback and E E Smith. Sorry.

You know, fun and literary/intellectual merit are not actually incompatible. (Nor are popularity and same.) Just sayin'.

Importantly, no award bills itself as being for "the Most Fun Book of the Year" but for the best.


My best memory of Harold Bloom (who tended more toward tweed with elbow patches than full leather jacket) was the day he saw then-Yale Prez Bart Giamatti (Paul's dad, later Commissioner of Baseball--he was a fascinating man) at the length of the corridor in the English building on Campus, trilled: "Bart! My darling!" and went bounding down the hallway to clasp Bart in his arms and kiss him on both cheeks.

Consider that Harold was one of the Skylark-Shaped Jews (very powerful and brilliant tribe). It was a sight to behold. The dancing hippos in "Fantasia"--like that.

Harold never did anything in a small way.

Well, I agree Priest wants SF his way right away, but I'm going to have to disagree on a lot here.

If awards were not about seeking the best in the field, the books that will move us forward, then we'd just go down the bestseller lists and #1 would get an award in each category, for every award. Maybe some avant garde awards would give it to #2 or #3. Awards are about merit, not popularity, by their definition. They often feature books which are ALSO popular, but I don't want an award where the popularity of the book is a consideration, or else excellent books that didn't bust the block would never get any kind of recognition. That's a world where publishing and writing gets winnowed down to the very, very few.

Also, I don't think that fun should be the prime metric for good fiction, let alone SF. Yes, fun books are, well, fun. They sell very well. Star Trek novels do (though even when they are very good we don't give them the Hugo, because the authors did not create the worlds, it's a different kind of literature). But frankly, I too would like a genre that also applauds work that tries for something higher and better than fun. Or else I wouldn't bother writing in it, because how much fun is this for the reader is not on my list of super important stuff when writing a book. Maybe I'd sell better if it was, but I want to write books that are the equal of other great books, not take people to the Enterprise for a day, even though some people love that and get excited by it and that's awesome--we all choose what we write.

It doesn't have to be the Booker to have people care about something more than poppy fun. We take this stuff seriously because we want to reward excellence, not simply sales.

Now, I don't even think this is Priest's beef. Embassytown is a lot of things, but fun is not what I'd call it. Stross, while popular and fun, also has a lot of serious stuff to say. Bear sells well, but he's also not what the young folks are reading these days. I can't really speak to the rest of the list.

The fact is, we have an award for the most popular books. It's called the New York Times Bestseller list, and it matters a lot more than the Clarke award in the scheme of things. So everyone can be happy.


It's possible that by mentioning fun I have given the impression that I'm some kind of airhead, in which case it's probably too late to correct that, but I'm going to waffle on a bit more because I never know when to quit.

What does merit mean?

"Nothing could ever be that that started with Hugo Gernsback and E E Smith".

That neatly highlights part of the problem - SF has a dual heritage: one bloodline from the pulps, the other from Mary Shelley via Wells, Huxley, Orwell etc.

I think the role of awards should be to bring to wider attention books of particular merit - if they merely confirm popular opinion by rewarding books that are already flying off the shelves then they surely become a bit pointless?

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