If anyone says something to your face that you know is unfair or untrue or scandalous, what can you do? You can deny hotly what is being alleged, or go into long explanations of what you know is the truth. But maybe the best thing to do is to suggest mildly that the comment might be unworthy of the person making it.
I believe rather a lot of unworthy comments have been made recently, and had I the luxury of people saying them to my face that is the unaggressive answer I would have offered.
However, most of the negative criticism made of my long essay about the Clarke shortlist last month came via the internet. As we all know, a sizeable number of comments made on blogs or Facebook or Twitter are anonymous, or pseudonymous, or in some way disguised. Not all, though: other people known to me personally, and in many cases people I thought of as friends, or at least friendly or admired acquaintances, rushed to make their voices heard on the internet with comments based on unworthy assumptions.
So let’s have a look at some of these unworthy comments.
The first, and for me perhaps the most important, is the matter that was variously described as my sour grapes, or anger, or resentment, which presumably arose because The Islanders had been left off the Clarke shortlist. Naturally, I knew that this connection between the two would be instantly made – I also assumed that the sheer openness of the connection would speak for itself, that the obviousness would indicate to anyone of reasonable intelligence that something else was going on.
Well, it was. I never think of awards when I’m writing – I know this is true of just about every serious writer I’ve ever met. Awards come along and if a group of people decides you merit one then it’s neither sane nor gracious to decline it. But for most writers awards are pretty irrelevant as motivators, not least because they invariably happen long after the main event. In this case, I finished work on The Islanders more than 18 months ago, and I’ve moved on since: I’ve written two short stories, a stage play, and the first draft of a new novel called The Adjacent, some 130,000 words. I’m currently working on the second draft of that. The Islanders feels a long way behind me. Although I am still creatively close to it, that particular novel is no longer my main concern.
When the Clarke shortlist was announced, it is true I felt slightly disappointed – you want your work to be appreciated. But because I never presume that anything I write will automatically be a candidate for an award, the disappointment soon faded.
In any event, I had been making a quiet assumption in the opposite direction. The Islanders is nothing like conventional science fiction – its fantastic element works deviously and indirectly. I could easily foresee any panel of judges deciding the book wasn’t SF or simply didn’t come into their remit. I know a lot of people were tipping The Islanders as a contender for the Clarke, but I had nothing to do with that.
Then there is a wider matter that could be described (slightly grandiosely) as a freedom of speech issue. A total of 60 books were submitted to the award judges; of those, 6 were selected as the shortlist. The Islanders and I therefore joined the majority: 90% of the submissions were not chosen, and my book was among them.
Who then is free to comment on the shortlist? For obvious reasons it’s difficult for any of the 6 shortlisted authors to make their views public. But what about the other 54, the 90% majority? Are they now bound in all eternity by an expectation of silence, simply because their latest book happened to be submitted by their publisher, and happened not to be chosen by a group of judges? Silencing them doesn’t make sense to me – my instinct when I wrote the essay was the liberating one that I had nothing to gain or lose by speaking my mind.
With an award as high profile as the Clarke, where a significant sum of money is handed out, and which often makes news outside the confines of the sf world, it is axiomatic that everything that goes on must be open to examination and discussion, and critically too. There is more at stake than just the choice of one novel a few people think is the ‘best’ of a given year.
Do we not seek to improve the image of the books we write? Don’t we wish to elevate science fiction and similar forms so they won’t forever be dismissed by the unthinking majority as pulp or hack books, part of a genre where the writers can safely rely on cliché’d assumptions and where the readership is made up of adolescents and thrill-seekers? It seemed to me that in the quarter-century the Clarke Award has existed it has more often than not highlighted novels at the progressive end of the spectrum, books that make some intellectual or emotional demands on their readers, books which are adult, radical and thought-provoking – refreshingly different, in other words, from the dull complacency of the establishment of literary fiction.
That is one of the reasons I take a serious interest in all this.
Moving on: In a variety of different ways, and by a number of different people, my essay was accused of revealing a fit of the sulks because the books I ‘wanted to win’ were omitted from the shortlist, and this pique made me savage the books that were on the list.
In fact, it was the other way around. This year, unusually, I took an interest in what was coming out and I had read many of the new books that were being thought of as likely candidates. When I saw the actual shortlist I was astonished by what was on it. I won’t go over the same ground as before, but of the six only two were at all radical or challenging (The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, and Embassytown by China Miéville). The other four were, to put it as neutrally as possible, reworkings of familiar SF tropes with no particular distinction of style. I had read the Rogers and the Miéville novels, and thought they were both lacking in the outstanding quality that one instinctively expects in a winner, for different reasons in each case.
So, what else was there? What had the jury passed over in favour of the final six? I suggested four alternatives (by Ian R. MacLeod, Simon Ings, Adam Roberts and Lavie Tidhar). I might have added Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi or The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood … both of them worthwhile exercises in serious slipstream or fantastic literature.
None of these books was a ‘favourite’ of mine, but I felt (and still feel) that a good case could be made out for each one: Tidhar is a fresh and emerging writer, MacLeod is a great stylist, The Godless Boys is a first novel by a young writer showing real promise, Roberts is experimenting in an interesting way with different modes of storytelling … and so on.
It’s not for me to say that any one of these (or any other novel) should be the winner. The real point here was not the individual titles, but what the function of the shortlist might be.
In some respects the Clarke shortlist is as important as the choice of the eventual winner. It represents an interim stage, the six ‘best’ books as arrived at by the jury, but it is also a sort of showcase. It receives publicity, and many booksellers set up a separate stand or table for the shortlisted titles. Because of this, we hope and expect the shortlist will be varied and excellent. The eventual winner should be primus inter pares, a well selected and defensible leader of a strong pack.
An interesting example of how not to build a shortlist came last year, in the six finalists for the Man Booker Prize. Five weak choices were in ‘competition’ with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Although Barnes’s novel was itself a poor effort (my review of it can be found on the Recent page on this site), it was perceived to be in a different league from the others. Barnes was presented with an open goal, he took a feeble kick and the ball wobbled unconvincingly into the net. His win gave him a cash prize and best-selling status, but it did nothing at all for the cause of literature.
I don’t suppose that this year’s Clarke Award will attract the same amount of derision and hostile publicity as last year’s Booker, but it presents a similar problem. The stand-out novel on the Clarke shortlist is Embassytown by China Miéville, and Miéville has an open goal before him. It seems likely to me that if this panel of judges makes a structured decision they will opt for Embassytown as winner.
What sort of message would be sent out by that? Miéville has won three Clarkes already – does this mean he is the best the genre can offer? Is he the only writer in the English language who can consistently produce the best SF novel in a year? That reasoning alone would make his novel a poor choice, but as I argued in my earlier essay Embassytown is a problem. Miéville is gifted, imaginative and talented, and seems capable of producing some truly spectacular and ground-breaking books. Those novels must be for the future, because Embassytown is not one of them. It has too much wrong with it: genre assumptions, poor characterization, flat descriptive values. It is idea-driven from the top of the head, not wrought from the bottom of the heart.
Let’s turn to the problem of personal attacks, something I was accused of to the point where I began to wonder about the nature of reality.
There is as far as I can see only one personal remark in the whole essay. That is about China Miéville, and this is what I said: I like China as a person, and in his unsought role of media-friendly spokesperson for the SF world he has done well and has not aroused controversy. He is obviously serious about writing, believes in the weird or the speculative novel as a genuine force in literature, and aims high. He is an enterprising writer who comes up with some excellent ideas, and many of his images are memorable and effective.
Every other remark in the essay was about either books or events. I was concerned with the writing found in a book, or the type of book that was being written, or the overall performance of the panel of judges.
A couple of thoughts on this, that might explain what happened. Books are often personified. People say ‘I love Anne McCaffrey’, or ‘I can’t stand J. G. Ballard’, when what they really mean is that they love McCaffrey’s books or dislike Ballard’s work. We all fall into this. We say ‘there’s a new Aldiss out’, or ‘M. John Harrison has been attacked in a review’. We connect the work with the person of the writer – I assume that people who said my comments were ad hominem were subconsciously making this kind of connection.
I present as the only thing I am, which is a writer. If one writer criticizes another there is an assumption of what lawyers call ‘parity of arms’. In other words, I hold no ground higher than any other writer, and if I say I like or dislike any particular book (and by extension, any particular writer’s work), then the ground rules are clear. I am as vulnerable to this sort of thing as any other writer. (It might be worth noting that of all the writers whose work I ‘attacked’, not a single one has so far complained. Charlie Stross, indeed, took the whole thing in good part, and embraced the term ‘internet puppy’ with cries of happiness. The phrase was used of the way he wrote, not the person he is.) None of the writers whose books are shortlisted is to blame for the situation. To paraphrase myself from above, their latest book happened to be submitted by their publisher, and happened to be chosen by a group of judges.
The responsibility for the duff shortlist remains entirely with the judges.
My essay was variously described as a ‘rant’ (the most common word used), a ‘tantrum’, a ‘tirade’, a ‘savaging’, and more. One writer even complained on Twitter that I must have written it while drunk. (In fact I rarely touch alcohol – you see what I mean about unworthy remarks?) Those who objected to the style of the essay seemed to be saying that it was all very well commenting on the books, and the judges’ decision, but there was no need to go ranting on so hysterically.
All I can say (sincerely) is sorry if the tone offended, because offence was not intended.
Reaction certainly was. Books matter; literature matters; speculative fiction matters more than anything, because that is where I work. The Clarke Award is not a negligible thing. I wanted to provoke a response, get people to discuss these issues, talk about the books, think hard about what we want an award like the Clarke to stand for. The essay went viral soon after it appeared, so I suppose that wish was granted. I was sorry so much of that comment was focused on me and my presumed motives, but in the first place I didn’t really mind, and secondly once people got that off their chests a good number of them did get down to the issues I had raised.
I saw the original essay as a polemic, a pamphlet. It took an intemperate tone because I felt intemperate about the subject. Rhetorical flourishes abounded, which some found cheap. When I discovered that The Waters Rising was a long-winded quest saga with a talking horse (and later, a talking chipmunk), I said aloud, ‘For fuck’s sake!’ When I came to write my essay, no other phrase seemed capable of rising to the occasion. It’s not a measured, rational or literary response, it’s a cry of heartfelt despair, not at the author, nor even the publisher who submitted it, but at the apparently experienced and supposedly reasonable judges who singled it out of a field of 60 books and nominated it as one of the best of the year.
The conclusion I came to was that the judges this year had failed. How deep that failure really was is something they are going to have to deal with on 2nd May this year. They have made a rod for their own backs: they are going to have to select one title from their six deficient choices and declare it the winner. Which one will it be?
If they make a rational choice by discounting other books, it will probably be Embassytown by China Miéville.
If they choose the book which I like best (a strictly qualified description, as although there is much to admire in it the small scope of the book does not make it a natural winner) it will be The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers.
But if you ask me which book is really going to win, then I say Rule 34 by Charles Stross. Just because.