I wasn’t going to comment on the Clarke Award kerfuffle caused by Chris Priest’s blog post about the shortcomings of the shortlist and his attack on the committee – but everyone else seems to be getting stuck in, so here is my somewhat late (I’m having internet connection problems) take on the situation.
I know Chris Priest a little – I was on a weeklong Arvon writing course that he tutored a few years ago, he’s written a series of articles for Focus, the BSFA magazine for writers that I edit, and I’ve said hello to him a few times at conferences. I admire Chris Priest’s books – I think he’s one of the most significant authors currently writing in and around the genre – and I would certainly have placed The Islanders in any list of my top six novels of the year.
From this, limited, perspective, I wasn’t surprised when I read his outburst on this year’s Clarke Awards shortlist. Anyone who has met Chris and spoken to him about writing, or anyone who has read his blog, his reviews and his non-fiction work, could hardly fail to be aware that he doesn’t hesitate to state his opinions with a blunt disregard for anything as insignificant as the feelings of others.
On the Arvon writing course I attended he read two of my short stories and thoroughly mauled both of them. Crudely, his response was to question why I was bothering to waste ink, paper and time putting these crappy words on pages. I didn’t write another word of fiction for almost 18 months.[i] It hurt.
But, at the same time, what came across in Chris Priest’s comments at that Arvon course (not just to me, but to all the participants) and in his writing about writing, is that he is someone who is genuinely concerned about making our genre better. He sets himself high standards and he expects others to do the same. Chris Priest, in my limited experience, has always been merciless towards those who he believes are willing to settle for churning out substandard works and rehashing the same old tropes (and the audience that is happy to buy and read that stuff). He regards genre as a trap, I think. One that has limited his own career and that traps writers and readers. It is, in his view, a wallow in which too many of us are happy to lie, uncritically smearing around the same old mud and shit. I don’t think he understands why others don’t share his urgency for what he believes to be better writing and his ambition to see better books created and read.
So, even though I still felt the pain of the mauling he gave my short stories, I saw (eventually) that his criticism wasn’t personal but that was driven by a relentless application of the logic of his views about what is good writing and what writers should aspire to achieve. I didn’t necessarily agree with every expression of that view point, but I did (and do) think that it is good to have someone with that agenda who is willing to fearlessly espouse it. It is good for the genre to have someone willing to remind us that we shouldn’t be content with the comforts of the familiar. We’re a small community, and we’re sometimes a little incestuous, and writing critically often means hurting the feelings of people we know and like and the normal human reaction is to avoid such conflict. A consequence of this is that reinforces a sort of conservatism that can mean that the genre is too tolerant of the inadequate. It’s good that someone is willing to shake that up, even if people get their feelings hurt.
I don’t have any problem with Priest’s response to the books on this year’s shortlist. The reviews are more robustly written and ruder than anything I would have done, but he’s entitled to his view and what Priest wrote was, in its own way, both funny and (mostly) insightful. The direct and hyperbolic style probably got in the way of the serious points he was trying to make rather than helped illuminate them, but as a reader I’d rather read one committed review like this than the dozens of bland things that usually pass for criticism online and in genre magazines (including many of those I’ve written myself). I think it is interesting that I’ve not read a single online response to Priest’s post that mentions the praise he heaps on a number of books – the focus has been almost entirely on the negative comments he’s made. What I’ve read of the from the authors whose work took a beating, it seems that they’ve responded with good (if sometimes slightly bewildered) grace – most professionals recognise that an occasional critical mauling comes with the territory. The outrage has generally come from the web’s commentariat, who are always quick to indulge their propensity for taking offence on behalf of others.
However, and for all that I admire him as a writer and for all that I think Chris is broadly right at least in his critical assessment of the books that were excluded from this year’s Clarke shortlist (my choices would have been closer to his than to the list produced by the judges), I think that his post was unnecessarily rude and ill thought through. I think it damages Priest’s reputation far more than it damages the Clarke Award or the judges.
First, I think that opening the piece with a rather unpleasant attack on Marc Billingham, which comes across as pissy and personal, was unnecessary and unhelpful. I’m not sure what Chris intended with these opening paragraphs, but whatever it was it doesn’t seem to contribute to the logic of his argument and it sets a tone from which the article never recovers.
Second, while Chris Priest is entitled to his view on the value of the Clarke shortlist, he was always on a hiding to nothing when he chose to express it in this way. It was always going to be too easy for those who disagreed with him to dismiss his position as sour grapes because The Islanders was one of the books that didn’t make the shortlist. Damien G Walter’s curious piece[ii] that implies that Chris Priest’s was motivated by simple jealousy doesn’t hold water. Priest doesn’t need a dog in the hunt to lay into a literary award, as anyone who read his demolition of the 2011 Man Booker can see for themselves. Priest’s blog is full of blisteringly rude reviews of any number of books that he isn’t competing against including biographies and history books. However, none of this is going to change the view of the majority of those who read his post (or read about it) and who will think that it is just another rant by a bad loser. The valid points he makes won’t strike home.
Finally, I think his direct attack on the judging panel was out of order – even allowing for his opinion of their competence (or lack of it). The Clarke judges are not in a position where they can defend their choices, collectively or individually, and this leaves them at an unfair disadvantage when attacked like this. Priest’s attack starts from the assumption that they should have picked the novels based on the criteria he sets for them, but we can’t and don’t know how they made their decisions. We don’t know the criteria individual judges brought to the job and we don’t know how they were transformed by the debates that went on in the judging room. Finally, the Clarke judges are volunteers who take on a complex, time-consuming job without reward – that doesn’t mean we have to accept their judgements without comment or criticism, but it does mean that they deserve to be treated with a basic level of respect, something that is entirely missing in Chris Priest’s post.
In the end no one has come out of this episode with much credit. I still believe that the Clarke judges have made decisions that bordered on the perverse – I’m most of the way through reading my fifth of the novels on the list and I’m finding their choices harder to understand. But I also believe that Chris Priest’s intervention has made it more difficult to have a serious debate about why their selections are flawed. People have retreated into their trenches, the discussion has become about personality and the conduct of debate, not the books and what they say about genre.
[i] Both stories were later published in small press outlets, Fortean Bureau and Jupiter respectively. Looking back, both are pretty seriously flawed.
[ii] Curious not least because he claims Chris Priest was a contemporary of JG Ballard. Ballard was 13 years older than Priest and published his first novel a decade before Priest. Ballard was already an established novelist (with four published novels) when Priest’s first short stories were appearing. When Granta placed Priest in their “best young novelists” back in 1983, they put him in a cohort with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and the like – they would seem to be his “contemporaries”, though I have no doubt Priest was influence by Ballard’s writing. Walters also classifies Priest as a “new wave” writer – I’m not sure this is accurate. Priest might have published some of his earliest short stories in Moorcock’s New Worlds, but his career as a professional writer didn’t really take off until the early 1970s by which time the UK new wave was already fading away. Priest’s work doesn’t share the fascination with linguistic experimentation that characterises much the New Wave, though it is plainly moved by the same desire to have a more literary approach to genre writing. It seems to me that Priest is primarily a post-new wave author. I think that Walters also underestimates the quality and influence of Priest’s work – but that’s a personal opinion.