Preachifying

by Tom Ingram

I read Christopher Priest’s now infamous essay on the Clarke Award shortlist, though like many commentators I have not read any of the books on the list. Priest’s work is also unknown to me; I’ve seen the movie of The Prestige, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen his work in a Canadian bookshop. So I feel more or less qualified to throw in my two cents.

First, Priest’s piece itself. Others have noted that Christopher Priest is a prose stylist, and his priorities in criticism reflect that. This is pretty clear from a casual look through his site. There’s not a bumpy sentence to be found in any of his published articles or blog posts, and he gives more attention to pretty language in his one-off piece on independent movie theatres than many authors do in their main work.

He devotes six paragraphs to China Mieville and Embassytown. I can’t speak to this work in particular, but I have read novels by Mieville, and it seems to me that Priest’s criticisms are astute. Mieville’s books are marked by an odd linguistic whiplash between his eloquent descriptions and his characters’…less-than-eloquent speech, and I don’t think it’s entirely intentional.

He does seem pretty much uninterested in his characters: Billy Harrow of Kraken is a cipher, and while Isaac from Perdido Street Station at least has a personality, Mieville is careful not to let it get in the way of the rest of the book. In fact, as has been noted by many others, the main plot is often the least interesting thing about Mieville’s novels.

Whether or not Mieville is “under-achieving” in Embassytown, it’s always suspicious when the same person is nominated year after year for an award, especially after multiple wins. It’s unlikely that between 2001 and 2011, Mieville wrote one of the top six books of the year four times, and vanishingly unlikely that three of those times, he was number one. Compare this with Meryl Streep’s frankly shameful Oscar win this year, her seventeenth acting nomination and third win. Does anyone honestly think her role in The Iron Lady was worth even a nomination, let alone a win?

Streep is nominated for just about every role she has, whether it’s worthy of an award or not. The result for the Oscars is that a Streep nomination no longer means anything. The result for Streep is the kind of artistic complacency that leads one to star in movies like The Iron Lady. By putting Mieville on the Clarke shortlist five times since 2001, the Clarke people are turning him into science fiction’s Meryl Streep.

Again, I haven’t read Embassytown, so I honestly don’t know if it deserves to be on the shortlist. But there’s always more to an award than the merits of the individual work in question.

Priest spends rather less time on the rest of the shortlisted books, none of which seem particularly inspiring anyway. His criticisms are consistent with what I know of the authors in question, which leads me to suspect they’re probably accurate too. The closing bit, where he castigates the Clarke jury and chairman for “incompetence” and demands the withdrawal of this year’s slate and resignation of all responsible, is obviously a bit of only half-serious hyperbole. At the end, he says that in his hypothetical slate-withdrawing scenario, he would remove his novel The Islanders from eligibility to avoid accusations of impropriety.

The response to Priest’s article was admirable for its civility (in blog posts; I don’t follow Twitter, but I understand there was quite an uproar there). Almost no lynchings were demanded, and Priest received no worse than he dished out. However, the rhetorical ineptitude, critical wishy-washiness, and general intellectual cowardice of the responses made me instinctively take Priest’s side even after he crapped all over one of my favourite authors.

(Links to a lot of the responses can be found at John Scalzi’s summary)

I found out about Priest’s post from reading John Scalzi’s blog Whatever, and I read Scalzi’s response before the original post. Scalzi responds carefully, taking an uncharacteristically formal NYT-style “Mr. Priest” tone. I understand the reason for this: as a widely-read bestselling author and president of the SFWA, Scalzi carries a lot of weight and he needs to be careful when throwing it around.

Many fiction authors have doubled as critics at some point in their careers, and this can get problematic when they become popular for one or the other. A critic who writes fiction is likely to be scrutinized much more harshly than the average author (see: Roger Ebert’s forays into screenwriting and Pauline Kael’s tenure as a film consultant), and an author who writes reviews has to be careful to maintain intellectual freedom while not pissing off their fiction writer colleagues.

Very few people primarily known as critics have produced works of much value in the field where they do their criticism. More importantly, many well-known authors are not particularly good as critics of their field.* Scalzi is a good example. If he were to pan a new science fiction novel, it would probably have a dramatic effect on the novel’s sales. If the writer was perceived as a newcomer to the field, it would look especially bad for Scalzi, who would appear to be a bully. I can’t recall the last time he actually voiced any negative feelings toward a book in his genre, aside from noting that the Harry Potter series (which needs no help) “does nothing” for him.

Scalzi’s responses to this sort of thing (these complaints come rushing in every time an award announces its shortlist) always seem a little equivocal. He never states it outright, but always leaves readers with the implication that it’s not actually possible for a work of inferior quality to make its way onto the shortlist.

It’s not just popular writers who fall prey to this. Many critics have an instinct to be polite that is admirable in a friend’s living room but quite useless in a book review. This is a curse I see everywhere around me; the canard that all reviews are subjective and, therefore, there are no objective standards whatsoever and all points of view are equally valid has become ubiquitous in recent years.** By pointing out that some of the books on the Clarke shortlist are not as good as they could be while some are just shit and, even worse, doing so as a top-level author and colleague of many of the authors on the list, Christopher Priest has violated this sacred mantra.

This is part of the backlash against Priest. Another part is Priest’s perceived personal attacks or, as many commenters inaccurately labelled them, ad hominem arguments.*** In particular, Priest’s comments about Charles Stross (writes like “an internet puppy” who makes you “wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet.”) and the Clarke jury and chairman (“They were incompetent…They played what they saw as safe. They failed themselves, they failed the Clarke Award, and they failed anyone who takes a serious interest in speculative fiction.”) have been singled out.

The “incompetent” remark is more than a little bit nasty. You could contextualize it in the grand tradition of bitching about awards ceremonies, but singling out specific individuals by name gives it a personal bent. I think that by this point, Priest was on a roll and didn’t bother to ask himself if maybe he should rein it in a bit. Perhaps an apology is in order, but I guarantee you’ve said worse things in a moment of anger.

As for Stross, on this count Priest is well within his rights as a critic. The topic is constrained to Stross’s writing, and any personal comment is incidental to that. It’s difficult to avoid negative personal comment in an overwhelmingly negative review, just as it’s difficult to avoid hagiography in a positive review. As Chesterton said, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” The way an author writes, the details they choose to emphasize, and their treatment of their characters will inevitably reflect something of the author as a person. Criticizing these features will inevitably entail criticizing the person, if only by implication.

Many responders, including Scalzi, adopted a pose of being oh-so-weary of complaints over award shortlists, but a good argument could be made that this is a major (if not the major) function of awards. Scathing takedowns written with pure sadistic glee are part of the fun, and Christopher Priest’s entry into the genre reads as not only more entertaining, but much more intelligent than the grim moralizing of the responses. If certain modern trends continue, this sort of thing could become less common, and that would be a real shame.


* Luckily, as a nobody both in fiction and in criticism, I am eminently trustworthy. [return]

** Reviewers should be banned from using the word “opinion”. In fact, scratch that. Let’s have a one-year moratorium on “opinion” and see where that leaves us. [return]

*** Every intelligent, intellectually liberated person becomes obsessed with the Latin names for logical fallacies some time around the age of fifteen. The more unfortunate ones never stop.

The classification of the argumentum ad hominem as a logical fallacy is somewhat misleading and problematic. This is another term we’d be better off if we didn’t use, at least if we’re not scholars of formal logic. [return]

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