I am, it turns out, a puritan.
This comes as something of a surprise to me. After a childhood brought up on The Children of the New Forest and its ilk (in my last year of primary school, when the class was told to write a story, I produced an 11-chapter, 22-page “novel” that was effectively a rewrite of The Children of the New Forest), I have always felt more inclined towards the wrong but wromantic Cavaliers than the right but repulsive Roundheads.
Nevertheless there it is: when it comes to science fiction, I would appear to be a puritan. Not, I hasten to add, in terms of what constitutes science fiction. On that issue I am decidedly catholic. But when it comes to criticism of, and commentary upon, science fiction, then I am most certainly a puritan.
By this I do not mean that science fiction is pure. It is not, it cannot be, it should not be. Science fiction is not something that any of us can define with any precision; it is a mishmash of tropes and reading protocols and borrowed ideas and so forth. Science fiction is far more in the eye of the beholder than it is in the text itself.
However, criticism of science fiction (indeed, criticism as an endeavour in any field) has to be pure. It has to be a pure expression of the knowledge and taste and values and understanding of the critic. It cannot be swayed by any external influence.
A critic cannot be influenced by whether other people damn or praise a particular work. If you are not prepared to be the only person to express an unpopular opinion, you are not prepared to be a critic.
A critic cannot be influenced by whether or not they know the author in question. If you are not prepared to say that your best friend’s book is a pile of shit, you are not much of a critic (and not much of a friend either). Similarly, if your sworn enemy, the most loathsome person in the entire world, writes a work of genius, then you must say so. If you do not, you are lying, to yourself and to your audience.
A critic cannot be influence by whether the entire moral or cultural or political future of the world depends upon this work. If it is good, you say so; if it is bad, you say so; and that considered truth is all that matters.
Notice that when I talk about criticism here I am not talking about unsupported assertions. “This book is a crock of shit” is not criticism; “This story is the best thing ever” is not criticism.
Criticism is an exercise in rational argument. If you believe that the book is a crock of shit, then it is incumbent upon you to explain why. The judgement that the critic expresses is only part, and indeed a small part, of the criticism. The bulk of any criticism should be an argument that, if followed properly, will lead the reader to understand how and why the critic arrived at that judgement.
That is a pretty austere approach to criticism. I know that. I understand that others may not be comfortable with such austerity. But as I say: I am a puritan.
I value criticism not as something that I do, but as something that makes me think, that encourages precision, that insists upon a close consideration of everything. Criticism, done well, is the most intellectually stimulating thing I know.
Unfortunately, I have come to feel over the last few years that, while criticism still is done well, it is less well valued than it used to be.
A few years ago a short story I had written was included in an anthology and I was invited to the book launch. It was, in the main, a very pleasant event, but at one point I found myself talking to a representative of the publisher. What do you do, he asked; and I explained that I wrote criticism for various magazines and journals. And what do you do, he asked, turning to someone who happened to be standing beside us. I write reviews for blogs, she said. Instantly, I was frozen out of the conversation; literally, he moved to turn his back on me. Now I don’t know whether he saw blogs as an easy touch, or as a better conduit to his desired audience, or whether he just thought I was boring. But it was just one of a number of incidents over recent years that have led me to feel that criticism is less understood, less valued, less desired than it used to be.
It’s something that I’ve talked about a number of times with Maureen Speller (she’s my wife, so she is contractually obliged to listen to me maundering on) and, on the occasions we’ve been able to get together, with Nina Allan. For different reasons, I think we’ve all been feeling the same.
So when Nina decided to launch the Shadow Clarke Award Jury, I was delighted to be invited to join.
Let me make it clear that as far as I was concerned the Clarke Award was the occasion for the Sharkes (as we quickly became known), it gave us the subject and the format, but it wasn’t the target. The target was science fiction criticism.
The links between the Clarke Award and criticism are various and obvious. It is not just the fact that critics were involved in establishing the award, and played a part in many of the juries, but also the way that Clarke Award shortlists typically generated debate and dissension. In recent years, however, this discussion has tailed off. In part this was because a change in the schedule meant that things like the Not The Clarke Award panels at Eastercon became impossible. But I reckon it is mostly because the award is now 30 years old, and it’s just not that easy to sustain such levels of engagement and controversy for so many years. Consequently, those Clarke Award shortlists that have generated critical debate (the all-male shortlist, for instance, or Christopher Priest’s intervention which in turn prompted Maureen Speller’s “Shortlist Project”) have become the exception rather than the rule.
But the Clarke Award should be an obvious focus for serious critical discussion on a regular basis. And that was what we wanted to stimulate. The Clarke Award itself is not immune to criticism, of course. It never has been, and should not be. Speaking personally, I believe there have been some books in recent years that have been shortlisted for the award or have even won the award that should not have come anywhere close; while other books that, to my mind, represent all of the virtues that the Clarke Award was established to celebrate did not even make the shortlist. But these are personal opinions, not corporate opinions: I would be criticising the Clarke Award in this way whether or not I was part of the Sharkes.
What we hoped was that providing a venue in which we could discuss at some length books that might be in contention for the Award, that should be in contention, and that actually were in contention, we might once again generate a serious critical discussion around the award. Some of this discussion might involve praising the Clarke Award (I use this as a deliberately imprecise catch-all that might relate to the juries, the structure, the administration, the public perception or anything else relating to the Clarke Award), some of it might involve criticising the Award. But in truth our aims might be achieved whether the result was all praise or all criticism. As I say, the Clarke Award wasn’t a specific target so much as a means to an end.
Did we hope to influence the decisions of the official jury? Well, yes, of course we did, to the extent that we are all keen readers, we are all enthusiasts for both the Clarke Award and for science fiction, and like anyone else we would all like to see our favourite come out on top. Did we set out to influence the jury? No, of course not, any enterprise that set out with that aim would be both wrong-headed and futile. Besides, our intention from the start was to broaden and deepen the conversation, and you simply cannot do that if you are also trying to subvert one part of that conversation. There is no point in having a shadow jury if the official jury is not independently working as intended. Like anyone, we wanted the official jury to pick the right winner (and I think most though not all of us felt it did), but we were emphatically not in the business of telling them what that winner should be. We were in the business of being critics, that is, discussing the pros and cons of the books under consideration and expressing our judgements about them. That is all.
Did the exercise work?
Honestly, I don’t know. For all of us involved, I am sure, it left us feeling energised and keen for more of the same. Though I wonder how much that effect was stimulated by the behind-the-scenes discussions rather than by anything actually made public. Personally, it introduced me to books I might well have missed (I was particularly taken by Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, a novel that, I am sure, I would otherwise have missed entirely). More generally, I think we encouraged more discussion and hence more awareness within the sf community of books like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and perhaps even Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, than had hitherto been the case. And I think we did help to create an awareness that the spectrum of potential Clarke books is much wider than is popularly assumed. Again speaking personally, I was made uncomfortable aware that, despite the Catholicism of my views as to what counts as science fiction, I was picking potential Clarke books from a far narrower range than most of my fellow Sharkes; which is a salutary but valuable realisation.
All of those are positives. But did we stimulate a wider critical discussion, which was, after all, our primary purpose? I am aware of some critical discussion that engaged with the Sharkes (Dan Hartland springs to mind), though those pieces might well have been written without the Sharkes. There were some people who responded regularly to our posts (thanks, particularly, to “PhilRM”), though not so many as I might have hoped. And some sites like File770 linked to every one of the posts (though many of the commentators there displayed a remarkable ignorance of the field in general, seemed not to grasp the concept of a Shadow Jury though this is far from a new idea, and were distressingly prone to equate the Sharkes with the Puppies). Is that positive? Should we have expected more? I am not aware of a sudden expansion in the amount of serious critical discussion out there, but maybe these things take time.
Besides, that was a first attempt. We were making it up as we went along. My first question, when I was invited to join the Sharkes, was what does a shadow jury do. I still don’t think I know the answer. There were missteps, clumsinesses, some things worked and others didn’t. It will take a while for the Sharkes to bed in, so it is likely to take a while before it has a wider influence.
As other people have said, there were too many reviews of the same few books. Particularly as the Sharkes proved to be so similar in our tastes: there was virtually no dissent in our liking of Central Station, for instance, or in our dislike of A Close and Common Orbit. I was rather surprised by this, given the differences in our ages, cultures, interests, tastes and so forth (and honestly, David, Jonathan, Maureen, Megan, Nick, Nina, Vajra and Victoria made a great, diverse, engaged and argumentative jury). But then, our differences came out most in what was also the most invigorating aspect of the whole enterprise, which was our ongoing and remarkably energetic discussion on our private Slack channel. And nobody saw this, except for the heavily edited highlights of a couple of discussions that were published as round tables. I think, in future, it might be worth thinking of putting more such discussions and debates into the public arena, if only to show the way critical thinking was batted back and forth, being deepened and enriched in the process.
The point is that even if the first iteration of the Sharkes was not a complete success, there is the potential there for something that could make an important contribution to critical discussion within the sf community. It may not involve being quite as puritanical as I am, though I suspect it takes a liking for serious and dispassionate argument aimed at getting to the truth on an issue. But at the end, if the Sharkes do work, if it does have an impact on the culture, it can only be to the good of science fiction.
Myself, I can’t take part in the Sharkes next year. I’ll be writing a book, and won’t have the time for that level of commitment and engagement. But I hope the Sharkes do go on, I hope they get better. I was proud to be one of the Sharkes, and I think it is something we all need.