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
March 29, 2012 § 9 Comments
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.