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The Tears of Christopher Priest
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The Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist came out. Christopher Priest, who you may remember from The Prestige, does not approve of it no way no how.

Now, I actually like his post. I’m not going to call it a rant because I don’t enjoy that word–it seems to downplay the possibility of Getting Mad on Your Blog having any style, craft, or critical merit and it’s not really a rant when it’s reasoned, clever, and passionate. Whether you agree with Priest or not, it is all of those things. In fact, “Have we lived and fought in vain?” his comment on Greg Bear’s latest, is one of the great oh-this-fallen-world zingers I’ve heard in lo these many years.

Way back in grad school, one of my professors said he felt quite fondly toward Harold Bloom, though he found many of the man’s ideas toxic and wrong-headed. “We need,” he said “somebody to go on TV in a leather jacket and cry about the death of literature. Somebody has to do that for us, as a culture.”

Well, it looks like Priest has taken up the leather for us this year. And I’m fine with that because someone has to do it. Someone has to move the Overton Window ever so slightly toward high art. High art gets crapped on all the time, and even the phrase is basically a self-reflexive accusation/admission of elitism. But things get shitty, 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.

Now. Do I agree with Priest? Not especially, on this score–I have only read two of the books on the list, and I like Internet puppies. (I do agree about the thing we’ve lived and fought in vain about, though. GOD I need an icon of that line.) Were those two my most specialist favorite Trapper Keeper books of all time? Nope. But honestly, the Clarke shortlist has never stood in for my to-read pile. I am not, as they say, the target demographic. The Clarke list has always, to my mind, been for the type of person who goes on the Internet to weep about the death of hard science fiction, and those people rarely hang out with me. Would I be less fine with it if I were one of the authors Priest shakes his finger at? Yep. I would be crushed. I am grateful he either doesn’t care about, has no problem with, or hasn’t seen the Nebula ballot. I’ve never met Priest, but I suffer under the common longing for the greats in my field to find me worthy, to look on my work and call it not a waste of paper, for Mommy and Daddy to be proud of me.

While Damien Walter is probably wrong about Priest’s motivations here (I think “he’s just jealous” as a way of discounting everything a person says does not become a critic) he’s right about the powerful desire of writers to be “…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays.”

Yeah, he’s got us on that one. It’s a big part of the reason award ballots cause us ulcers. Not because we want to be showered in rockets while bathing in perfumed Lovecraft heads while signing our new contracts on the crystalline surface of a nebula, but because we want to be in the room, we want to get called up to the big game, we want to be inside and not outside, acknowledged as someone who can be allowed to sit at the big kids table. And it can’t be a whole lot of fun to have someone whose seat is assured tell you at length why you don’t deserve to be there.

But on that point I don’t think you can argue that the Clarke list isn’t, in fact, representative of the field as it stands, of the giants in it, veterans, rock stars, and up and comers, of those who in fact are in the scene and in the know. The fact that so few books were submitted says more about peripheral issues than about the sins of the jury or the authors at hand: the tough-to-crack UK publishing scene and how much trouble science fiction as a genre is having right now, dominated by a few huge names (and therefore the style and ideas of those names), underselling as compared to fantasy, losing new blood to the enormous YA market which is all hopped up on SF dystopia right now (I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing), and torn between the desire to return to pulp roots and break new ground which might alienate the very vocal fans of those roots. It is hard out there for a space pimp, I tell you what.

Is it possible that a fourth Mieville win, no matter how awesome China is as a person or the relative quality of the book, might harm the award and the field by implying that it’s not so much the Arthur C. Clarke Award as the Annual China Mieville Award? Yep. That is a salient argument. The same guy always winning isn’t exciting or interesting nor does it encourage a lively field. This is why several major editors, writers, and venues pledged to take themselves out of the running for the Hugos this year–they always win. It’s not fair. And China looks to have a book coming out every year for the duration, so possibly it’s time to call someone else up to bat–if they wrote a better book than Embassytown. It’s up to China to decline if he feels it’s right to do that. The shortlist is a done deal and it’s not going to disappear in a puff of logic as Priest suggests/hopes. And while E-town was not to my taste, I’m hard pressed to think of another SF book that came out last year to more perfectly encapsulate what people say they want: cerebral novels of ideas that have interstellar scope, gravitas, and scientific weight. That bad boy is all gravitas.

But all of this is beside my main interest in Priest’s philippic against the Clarke ballot. Which is this: I am endlessly impressed when someone is august enough to be able to post something like that and have people not react with screaming and personalized rage, but with good-natured defenses, t-shirts, macros, and amused opposition.

Because let’s be honest, I couldn’t get away with it. If I posted that shit? I’d never hear the end of what a bitch I am. And Priest is friends with some of those writers, or at least friendly! I still get grief over saying that I didn’t like a popular subgenre of SF, (and at the time I got it from every conceivable corner) and suffer guilt over having torn into Yellow Blue Tibia as harshly as I did. I decided not to do any more negative reviews of anything because the satisfaction of stating my opinion was not worth the personal abuse I got every damn time–even for a stupid movie like Splice. I have a reputation and it starts with B. And I’ve never told a whole slate of award nominees to take a flying leap. Being part of a community as small and close-knit as the SFF world is a delicate thing. Hell, I didn’t even post about how hair-pulling insane the non-ending of The Prestige made me because Priest is a golden god and you don’t go poking them. More fool me, I guess.

Is it because he’s a dude and I’m a lady? For sure, blogs written by men can get away with a confrontational tone and stridency of opinions women can’t. Because he’s old and I’m young? I get that–I haven’t shown that I’m any better than anyone else. Priest is a genius (though again I’m with Walter in that: “His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, ‘extremely clever’ is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love.”) and you gotta listen when he talks. I envy the free license of the great and glorious elders to simply not give a shit and say whatever because fuck you, that’s why. It’s an amazing superpower. I hope someday to inherit it.

So, Christopher Priest: thank you for going on TV and crying about the death of literature. Literature needs that, to keep it going. The genre needs someone to exhort it to try harder, to keep it reaching for the heights. You had me (specifics of the novels aside–Daddy, you ain’t never gonna convince SF writers to quit it with the neologisms, that is what we call a lost damn cause) right up until you suggested throwing out an already-released ballot, which seems unnecessarily cruel to the real living and breathing authors who would be affected by it–I mean, seriously, that is some cold shit right there, to say oh hey, really, now that we’ve thought about it, you all suck to much to even let this go to a vote. Do over! Wow. Hardcore. That is not even tough love, it’s just tough. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, might as well suggest a drastic and unworkable solution. I appreciate any blogger who does over a solution rather than just snerking at the world, even the high-quality snerk going on over there.

No one is going to go: hey, you know, he’s right, I am terrible and Imma fix it! The whole nature of books is that they speak to some humans and not others. The point of shedding tears about literature is not to stage some kind of intervention that moves everyone over to your way of thinking. That trick never works. It’s to piss people off so that somewhere somebody–probably not the people he lit into–thinks to herself: I’m gonna write something so good even that Priest jerk will bow low before my might. And the world is made better by that unspoken challenge.

Whatever the ballot looks like next year, whatever trends and sales and celebrity and chance do to the state of the field, whatever cringing and wincing I have done this morning on behalf of the authors you have deemed unworthy, Mr. Priest, I can tell you one thing:

You have neither lived nor fought in vain. I promise.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.


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.

Indeed.

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.

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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?