Thoughts on Christopher Priest & the Arthur C Clarke Award

Three statements:

1. I love Priest’s novels
2. I hate awards (book, music, film)
3. I take a lot of interest in the Arthur C Clarke Award

Maybe that’s a contradiction, but it’s not a personal bias. I love independent film but hold no truck with Sundance or Cannes. I’m never influenced to listen to any music because it’s won a Mercury or a Grammy. I’m interested in the Booker, but only because I feel its not representative of what people read and oddly, I’ve no time for the BSFA award. Yet every year I try to read all the Clarke Award shortlist titles that I’ve not already read. I don’t know why.

Priest’s novels (those that I’ve read), are intelligent, original, well written and engaging. I’ve always thought of him as a progressive champion of speculative fiction.

Then I read his blog post. Harumph.
Pat Cardigan suggests on Twitter that it is tantamount to bullying and has sent a letter to The Guardian on the matter.

His argument, in my opinion, is disingenuous, and has led to a personal conflict. As mentioned in my previous piece, I was delighted that Lauren Beukes won in 2011 as I thought she was original and progressive. I was also disappointed that Priest’s The Islanders wasn’t included and Mieville’s Embassytown was. My argument was that the shortlist this year was less progressive. On reflection, however, I should have made more of the point that Embassytown just isn’t that good of a story and while clever, not so well written. From the shortlisted titles, The End Specialist was a decent story with entertaining characters.

Priest has condemned and criticized the authors represented on the shortlist. His argument is that 2011 was a poor year generally because of ‘genre orthodoxies’ and unambitious fantasies. I think that might be a fair criticism from someone like Priest about the general state of fiction, but I’m not so convinced, on reflection, that it matters in this case. Some of the most enjoyable books I’ve read over recent years have been full of clichés and genre orthodoxies. The Matthew Swift books by Kate Griffin spring to mind. How many books before these have a magical London hidden from view of the public? I’m guessing Priest would find them tedious, but they are, in my opinion, the best urban fantasy out there. He suggests that we want the best writer to win. Do we? I don’t think so. I think we want the best novel. The best story. The best book, regardless of all other considerations.

I’m not going to dally over his childish and frankly ludicrous assassination of other writers and, worse, his abuse of the Clarke Award panel. Pat Cardigan does that with greater dignity than I could ever manage. What I would say, however, is that I’m not convinced it’s sour grapes. The vitriol seems too harsh. I would welcome an explanation of his comments, however, as I’m not sure. He is known as a highly opinionated individual. Maybe his novels are only possible with that personality? In my opinion, The Islanders was the best books released in 2011 that I’ve read.

Surely, however, the point of an award such is this is not to promote new and progressive authors and novels just for the sake of it. Of this I’m changed my mind. It should be a simple case of the 6 (and then the 1) best and most enjoyable reads of the years. I don’t think that the shortlist for the year represents that, but hey, this in an opinion of mine. The opinion of the panel is different. I’m not alone in my thoughts either. Nina Allan’s well written piece has a similar point made by Priest and some others, but without the undue personal attacks. I think she is right, but for some wrong reasons. Or maybe I’m missing the point, and maybe that’s why I don’t like awards in general and should keep my nose out of this one too. Maybe its not for the best book, but it is for the most progressive or original or politically prudent book (although if that were the case, surely The Islanders would have been shortlisted?). Whatever the reason, it sure has stirred up a lot of comment, debate and publicity. Maybe that’s what the Arthur C Clarke Award is for?

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