So, by now everyone who cares knows that Christopher Priest hates the 2012 Arthur C Clarke shortlist; hates the judges’ perceived incompetence, hates China Miéville’s laziness and really doesn’t care for Charles Stross pissing on his intellectual carpet. For his own part, Priest has worked on wording his objections in such a way that their provocativeness ensures the man himself can be accused of neither a lazy response or of merely taking the piss.
He’s been roundly attacked for being rude, arrogant and just plain wrong, at least in the specifics: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, speaking to the Guardian newspaper, shares Priest’s opinions about what could have been included in the list, but discounts his negative judgements of Mieville’s grasp of vocabulary. But on the issue of his plain rudeness, of what writers should and should not do to one another, the condemnation seems largely unqualified, and I was immediately put in mind of master wit Stephen Fry on the subject of being offended,
“I am offended by that.” Well so fucking what?
And I imagine Christopher Priest will defend himself in much the same way today.
So, taking a breath, internet, and marshaling your indignation for five minutes, let’s ask instead whether Priest’s objections actually matter beyond our collective wounds-on-behalf-of-these-authors’-prides.
If Priest wants to set himself up a school of literary criticism, he’s welcome to the privilege, even if it’s unclear what kind of model he’s purporting to follow. He eschews neologism and is clearly prescriptive of ‘proper’ language, while all the while decrying the lack of innovation in the books chosen, which is a little bit oxymoronic to my thinking. Maybe I have one of these short attention spans that Greg Bear writes for, though; you know, when he’s writing about artificial universes or alien anthropology or accelerated evolution, all the shit dummies like to read.
Priest rejects works by defining the expectations of the genre, that it be “for the present, on the cutting edge, looking forward, not back.” This comes after criticising Miéville – the rumoured favourite, and chief target of the piece – for being restricted by the, yes folks, expectations of the genre. By this act of redefinition, of subtly changing the parameters of value and canon, Priest makes clear that his objections are subjective. He doesn’t like these books, for his reasons, and no matter how well thought out his reasons are, they remain his subjective view; no more valuable than yours, mine or the cat’s. But being entitled to his opinion as much as the next cat or rat or rant-infested twat, and being in no small company when it comes to internet trolls with an axe to grind, why are we so dismayed at any one man’s passing invective in the way we seem to be at Priest?
In the first instance, Priest has been seen to break ranks, I think – to denigrate his craft more than any individual crafter. He’s being unprofessional. But I don’t know how true that is. I think the sense in which he is imagined to denigrate his craft is by somehow spoiling the mystique that there is a love of all writing and all writers, crucial to any passion writers manifest when producing work for ourselves. And that’s an idea that’s speculative at best. Probably because his own works are so critically and popularly heralded, the sense in which some part of literature is spoiled by the revelation that great art is sometimes created by proper pricks, seems inherent in the thinking of some of the more vocal appalled. To this I say Hemmingway, or Ian Fleming, or insert-your-own-prick-here and leave it at that.
Beyond this level, though, I think there is an inescapable political issue, because Priest has chosen not simply to attack books he doesn’t like, but the award itself. And that’s what has stirred up such a response. His attack is inextricably linked not only to the individual value of any or all of the works involved, but with any scheme of rewarding some authors over others in a way that could be cynically viewed – as Priest does – as being more about marketing than the relative merits of books. More about wealth than worth. If this is true, then can Priest rightfully defend against his detractors by suggesting that ulterior motives now conspire against his brave, lone voice in the wilderness?
I don’t know if any or all of the Arthur C Clarke judges have been bribed into choosing the books they have. I suspect not, but I do follow Juliet E McKenna on Twitter, and as soon as she starts posting up pics of her new Ferrari, I’ll be the first to cry foul. What I do think about literary prizes in general echoes the opinion of the academic James English, who argues that
[the prize] is cultural practice in its quintessential contemporary form.
(James English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005.)
English argues that the function of such awards – in facilitating cultural transactions (even market ones); in enabling individual and institutional agents of culture of differing interests, preferences and dispositions; and in engaging us all in a collective project of value production – is the very stuff of cultural practice. Viewed through this lens, Priest’s calls for the disbanding of the judging panel and the shutting down of this year’s award are fundamentally wrong, whether or not he’s right about any of the various flaws he sees in the selection of works being honoured.
They have engaged you in the dialogue, Mr. Priest, they have revealed the cultural and economic trends that move literature in this time and place, and they have given you just as much of a platform for your values as those of the judges and the nominees. In this, they reveal – directly or inversely – what we like now. How more “of the present” can you get?
And we do – like them, I mean – otherwise we wouldn’t all be so personally pissed at you. The late, much beloved, but often critically judged Anne McCaffrey wrote a great, plain passage in her YA book Dragonsinger, which I took to heart as a boy and hold fast to still:
That is why, I, Domick, Composition Master know that your songs are as important [...] as my music. They are a fresh voice, fresh new ways of looking at things and people, with tunes no one can keep from humming.
Stuff you, Christopher Priest, to presume to tell me what to hum. I like it, and your presumption that the liking is somehow not enough speaks volumes about your quality as a person – that’s the personal attack.
But you’re also wrong about awards, and I wanted you to know that there are reasons to be impersonally pissed at you too.