Award Short List Announced – No One Dead

I was planning to do a blog post last night, honest. Then I got distracted by a Twitter storm.

This is what happens when people take awards too seriously.

Yes, it is the Chris Priest thing. He’s unhappy about the short list for this year’s Clarke Award. In a nutshell:

We have a dreadful shortlist put together by a set of judges who were not fit for purpose. They were incompetent.

I should start by saying that I have a certain amount of sympathy for Priest’s categorization of the short list. I have by no means read all of the submitted works, or even all of the short list, but I did very much enjoy Priest’s The Islanders and Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. Had I been on the jury, I might well have argued strongly for the inclusion of those books. I liked Embassytown too, but despite being a big fan of China’s work I thought those two books were better in a number of interesting ways.

However, even if I had been involved, there’s no guarantee that either book would have made the list. Award juries work in mysterious ways, and by no means always the same ways. I remember listening to Nalo Hopkinson give a talk on how juries work once and it opened my eyes to the diversity of process. Some juries have a proper vote. Others talk and talk until they agree on a consensus. Yet others let each juror pick one book for the short list. There are probably other methods too.

I have no idea how this year’s Clarke Award jury worked, or even if the Clarke works the same way every year. That’s not important. What is important is that the process of coming up with a short list is fraught with complication. Priest’s suggestion that any juror who didn’t like what the others chose should storm out in a fit of pique is frankly silly. All it would do is ensure that person never got asked to be on a jury again.

Then there’s that vexed question of what you mean by a “good book”. Priest thinks he knows, and he has the track record as a successful and much-lauded writer to back up his opinions. But I’m guessing that if I locked him in a room with, say, M. John Harrison, Kelly Link, Gene Wolfe and Ursula K. Le Guin, and tasked them to come up with a short list, they would not all agree, despite all being great writers.

The members of this year’s Clarke jury have all been picked because they have some knowledge of books, mostly in a professional capacity. They have chosen the books they thought most suited the requirements of the Clarke. (And their opinion of what those requirements are can also change from year to year). I may not agree with them, but I respect their right to make their own decision. Provided they don’t go around telling other juries and award bodies that their choices are invalid, I’m perfectly happy to defend this jury’s right to its own view. Priest, however, says:

The present panel of judges should be fired, or forced to resign, immediately.

and

The 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award should be suspended forthwith, and the planned awards ceremony on 2nd May should be cancelled.

And so on …

Which basically amounts to, “The Clarke Award should stop giving out prizes until it agrees to give them to books that Christopher Priest approves of.”

You know what this reminds me of? Every year, it seems, someone, Mr. Angry, will respond to the Hugo results with an blog post or email complaining that the “Hugo jury” has “got it wrong”, that the “Hugo committee” should rescind the results and ensure that the trophies go to the correct winners, the names of which Mr. Angry is only too willing to supply. The very future of human civilization is at stake if this vital task is not undertaken forthwith!

Yeah, right. But there is no Hugo jury, there is no Hugo committee (at least Priest got those things right, there are people he can complain to about the Clarke), and as yet the world has not ended, despite the lamentable failure of WSFS to follow up on Mr. Angry’s instructions.

Look, awards are a lot of fun. They do, as I said in the recent SF Signal Mind Meld, give us a good excuse to talk about books. In particular they help bring good books by little-known authors, or from little-known publishers, into the spotlight. They also give intellectual snobs like Mr. Priest and myself the opportunity to argue endlessly over what makes a good book. But one of the delights of awards is that they are all decided by different groups of people in different ways. Inevitably they don’t often agree. And the fact that a jury happens to pick a group of books you don’t like is not a sign of massive moral turpitude on their part, let alone a sign of obvious corruption, as the more fanciful fannish complainers like to suggest.

I have no way of knowing what Priest’s motives were in writing that post. Yes, he may be upset that his book wasn’t listed. But he may feel that there’s a genuine issue of literary quality to be addressed. And maybe he just saw how much publicity Steve Jones got when he lambasted the British Fantasy Awards last year and thought he could follow suit. Certainly the whole fuss has kept the Clarke Award in the news.

Whatever his reasons, however, he sounds angry. He sounds like a man who thinks some great crime has been committed against the spirit of science fiction. He sounds like someone who is taking it all way too seriously. And by doing so he is encouraging everyone else who disagrees with the results of an award to follow suit and demand the jury’s heads be put on spikes and paraded around Eastercon as a warning to others. Well I exaggerate a little, but you get the point (pun intended). He’s given legitimacy to Mr. Angry and his mob of pitchfork-wielding complainers. And that, I venture to submit, is far more of a crime against science fiction than picking a short list that I might not agree with.

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16 Responses to Award Short List Announced – No One Dead

  1. I :Heart: you Cheryl!

    And yeah, when I saw this flare up, I thought “Wow, my Mind Meld from last week suddenly flared into extra relevance”. And that he is taking it way, way too hard.

    I can see that he thinks that the list of nominees are crap in his opinion. No problem with that. His tastes are not mine.

    The firebombing and slandering of the nominees and especially the judges? Yeah, that’s a good way to get me, no fan of confrontation, upset.

  2. Michelle Feltham says:

    Great post. Yours, that is! I read Chrisopher Priest’s comments earlier and most of all I was stunned at what a terrible tone he adopted. His novels may be very fine but that post was let down by an abundance of over-careful phrasing that a better writer would have discarded and rewritten until it felt more conversational and natural. And so on…

    I’m not being subtle, am I? He gives good prissy, though. And I admit he’s got some insight. There might be a genuinely interesting blog hiding away in there about what the Clarke award could and should be. A great blod without all that pettiness and overreaction.

  3. But I’m guessing that if I locked him in a room with, say, M. John Harrison, Kelly Link, Gene Wolfe and Ursula K. Le Guin,

    Now there is a “Big Brother” series I’d actually watch!

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  6. Good post Cheryl. Says what I would have liked to say but with the authority of someone who actually know what they are talking about :)

  7. David Greybeard says:

    Having looked at the list of judges, I suspect Priest is right. He is well spoken and well read and knows a thing or two about both. Those chosen to judge the competition are a poor lot to choose the best of science fiction. They are all second or third rate at best. It’s no small wonder that their short list is so unimaginative.

  8. Bob Blough says:

    I, too, was very surprised by the shortlist. I’d read three of the six and only Embassytown , in my opinion should have been on the list. Two of the suggestions by Priest I also agree should be there. But, it is a list chosen by the judges. I don’t think their choices were necessarily good or relevant, but.then, I often don’t agree with any award short list. That is a good thing each short list contains books which I would never read otherwise. I get a broader scope to my reading experience because of books I would not choose being chosen. Some of those books will be pleasurable reads while others will be hard to slog though. But, again, I gain breadth and depth. And That can’t all be bad.

  9. Colum Paget says:

    Great, calm, well-argued post.

    At the end of the day, people value things differently. It’s entirely possible for a jury to pick a different shortlist of stories to one that I or Mr Priest would select, without this being proof that the jury were incompetent, or biased or experimenting with hallucinogens.

    Mr Priest just wants what I, and everyone else, wants. He wants to pick the shortlist himself, according to his own personal measures of value. The only difference is that he thinks his value judgements are somehow in accord with some numinous objective standard of value, and I know that mine, and his, are just personal opinions, no more valuable than those of the people who were actually selected to do the job.

    However, as you recognize, he’s done us, and the clarke awards, a great service. He’s stirred up the waters, created some drama, and given us something to argue over/think about. When the dust settles and we all go back to our humdrum existences, we’ll at least be able to say “Remember the kerfuffle at the Clarke awards?”

    Indeed I don’t think he went far enough, if you’re going to make a scene, make it big. He should have gone the whole hog and recomended that the Clarke award judges be hung at tyburn for high treason! That’s what I’d have done.

    • Cheryl says:

      Actually I think he’s done us a great disservice. I appreciate the publicity, and I appreciate debate, but I think Chris has made us look stupid and dragged debate down to the level of name-calling.

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