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.



This entry was posted in Blogging and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Martin says:

    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.

    Why? Priest’s intervention has clearly already been a catalyst for serious debate about the shortlist. Further serious debate will follow when more people have actually read all the books.

    This is one of a number of comments I’ve seen that has adopted a pose of standing outside the commentariat in judgement when really it is right in the middle of it. Look at the Strange Horizons round up of responses – it doesn’t bear much relation to your description. “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.” Where is this outrage? I haven’t seen it (I’ve seen more people taking offense at Walter). Instead I’ve seen lots of posts from people who haven’t read the books being excited that this sort of passionate criticism is possible and taking issue where Priest is perceived to have gone too far. I’ve also seen lots of posts from people who have read the books and agree with his assessment (albeit from differing perspectives). In other words, on balance the commentariat agrees with you.

    Similarly, if you haven’t seen “a single online response to Priest’s post that mentions the praise he heaps on a number of books ” then you haven’t been looking very hard. Several of the posts linked by SH contain mentions and the comments contain even more. I’ve seen people buying copies of Osama and Dead Water on the strength of his recommendation. I’ve seen people who had never heard of Priest vow to check out his fiction. I’ve even seen people expressing interest in reading The Waters Rising on the strength of his damning description of it. This is always about the books, it remains about the books; why pretend to stand outside, tutting?

  2. Chris Priest says:

    Yes — probably a mistake to start by slagging off Mark Billingham’s books, but when I began the post it was intended just to be an informal piece about what had happened when I was at the Oxford Festival with him. When the Clarke material became gripping in the same post (these things take on a life of their own), I left the Billingham stuff in place because with hindsight it seemed to be germane, as he and I had been discussing the pros and cons of genre writing. When you get down to it, the Clarke shortlist this year is a sort of installation on that exact subject. I suppose Mr Billingham did get caught in the crossfire. I don’t see Twitter, but I gather the wires up to his place were melting on Thursday.

    However, I hope you and other people will be pleased to learn that Mark B. and I have since exchanged friendly emails, no hurt exists, no harm has been done, ruffled feathers have de-ruffled, and we have gone our separate ways peaceably. The same is true, incidentally, of me and Charlie Stross. Charlie’s good-humoured magnanimity about having his work compared with an internet puppy is a lesson to us all. I have already ordered my own T-shirt with the slogan on. Go Charlie!

    As for Damien Walter — I don’t know. I found his piece difficult to follow and uninteresting to read. He knows less about me than most people. It felt like some ancient grudge was being exorcised, but if so, I’ve no idea what it could be. I’d never heard of him before that. Is he someone important?

  3. Rosie says:

    I feel like a lone voice in this debate… and let’s face it, it should be a debate even if some other people involved don’t act that way. Nevertheless I’m willing to stick my neck out in this instance…

    I recently completed an MA creative writing course at Bath Spa University and they, in their handbook, clearly state that there are two ways to gain marks for your fiction portfolio. One was of course good writing style. The other was good use of creative imagination.

    Now in an ideal world you would have award shortlisted books that scored heavily in both. However, I know from experience that one invariably suffers from concentrating on the other. I would go further and say that the limitations of our, albeit extensive, language actually inhibits putting creative ideas down. Yes, I’ve had to invent words to describe what I wanted to say, but only after I’ve scoured the dictionaries to make sure the word did not already exist. Yes, I’ve had to radically simplify the explanations of what I envisage because readers don’t naturally take in every word that’s written. It’s called taking the audience with you.

    If you go for more imagination, it means that the devices that more sophisticated writing can use are not available to you. They would only further add to the reader’s confusion. Yes, once that imaginative world exists in the public consciousness, those devices can be used, but until then the script has to be kept simple and straightforward as possible.

    In my view this Clarke Award debate reflects the divisiveness this creative imagination verses good writing style problem causes. And yes I do mean divisiveness, because one is inhibited by the other. What we really need is two awards, one for imaginative idea development in science fiction and the other for good exposition.

    But given the difficulties that Clarke Award has experienced in terms of financial support over the recent years, we know that this would not be practicable. So we are left with one award to cover both the creative imagination and good writing style camps.

    I personally would always prefer the creative imagination books, because as my tutor said, ‘You can’t teach creativity.’

  4. Colum Paget says:

    # However, I hope you and other people
    # will be pleased to learn that Mark B.
    # and I have since exchanged friendly
    # emails, no hurt exists, no harm has
    # been done, ruffled feathers have
    # de-ruffled, and we have gone our
    # separate ways peaceably. The same
    # is true, incidentally, of me and Charlie
    # Stross. Charlie’s good-humoured
    # magnanimity about having his work
    # compared with an internet puppy is a
    # lesson to us all.

    This impresses me, though I still think you went too far in calling the judges incompetent. But I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen people manage to patch things up after storm, or even try. Few other recent bust-ups in the spec-fic scene have ended with ‘no hard feelings’, so it’s something to applaud that this one apparently has.

    But then, perhaps this is a Very British Bust-up?

    # I have already ordered my own
    # T-shirt with the slogan on.

    Does this mean there are t-shirts with ‘Internet Puppy Army’ on them or something? Where?


  5. admin says:

    Sorry it has taken time to reply to these comments, I’ve been having difficulties connecting to the internet from home. I’ll try and answer some of the points.

    Martin, I don’t think I was sitting on the sidelines tutting. I made my positions clear on the things I wanted to comment on. When I wrote this post most of the comments you point to hadn’t been posted and I was commenting mostly on the response on Twitter and on Livejournal – a lot of which was pretty vitriolic and ignorant. By the time the post got online – because of the problems I’ve been having with my internet connection – the debate had moved on and, perhaps, I should have rewritten the post somewhat but I didn’t.

    Chris, I’m glad you’ve made up with some of those involved. Flames burn bright on the Internet and most people don’t often go back and try and mend fences (to egregiously mix metaphors). I’m not making any comment on how important Damien Walter is, that’s a minefield and I fancy keeping both my feet, for the time being.

    Rosie, I see where you’re coming from. I don’t think the division between good writing and creative imagination is as stark as you imagine. I think there were a number of books published this year that did (and did not) make the Clarke Award shortlist that were rich in both respects. I think it would be a shame if speculative fiction were to bifurcate along the lines you suggest.

    Colum, welcome to the site! You can pick up an internet puppy tee-shirt and other items from Charles Stross’s website – there’s a link on the right.