There’s the beginnings of a discussion about the future of the Clarke Award with excellent posts by Nina Allan here Jonathan McCalmont here and Martin Petto here and here. [I'd definitely endorse Niall Harrison’s all-female lists and David Hebblethwaite's comment]. The posts and the comments discuss the difficulties of judging and scheduling, hopes and ideas about how to keep the award relevant, interesting and vital plus hopes and ideas about how to broaden the discussion around the Clarke and Kitchies shortlists. If you haven’t read them already I’d urge you to asap!
Nick Hubble also posted a link to Allan’s essay on FB (posted, 29th April on Contemporary British Fiction if you want to find it) and provides a useful reminder of “the dangers inherent to valuing the ‘literary’”, aware as he is about “how literary valuation and canons are complicit with hierarchical power relations across English studies as a discipline”. He also stresses that there are different ways of being ambitious and gives as an example Dave Huchinson’s fantastic Europe at Midnight. This is obviously important in any discussion opposing ‘literary sf’ with the ‘genre heartlands’.
Part of me has little to add to what has already been written. The Kitschies, for all the brilliant books it has brought to my attention over the last few years, will become irrelevant to readers if it can’t adopt a decent structure and a clear timetable and forum for debate. I hope it does because there desperately needs to be a space for critical debate about literary speculative fiction. But I won’t support it next year unless there is sufficient time to read the books and we get some kind of platform for discussion. Otherwise, Jonathan’s assessment seems depressingly spot on:
“If you want to know the future of the Clarke Award look no further than the Kitschies as they seem to provide publishing professionals with everything they could possibly want from an award: Winners announced two weeks after the publication of the shortlists in order to maximise free PR and a drinks party serving the second or third least expensive wine on the list. Tentacle headgear is optional, no riffraff.”
If the Clarke award is slowly taking a journey to the genre heartlands then it will simply become far less relevant to me. I’d like to be able to say that this is fine. I didn’t find my love of books in fantasy or sf. I found it in horror and thrillers, and later in my teen years, in ‘literary fiction’. Sf didn’t come until much later – first with Banks and Le Guin in my 20s and then, increasingly, with my discovery of Mike Harrison and China Mieville (and their lists). I’ll still be able to identify the books I want to read because I’ve built up a large store of knowledge and because I’ll continue to look to Strange Horizons, Nina Allan and various others for recommendations. And I still read more literary fiction over the course of the year even if I’m drawn most to that which messes and plays with genre boundaries.
However, a lot of that knowledge was acquired by reading the critical debate over the Clarke shortlists by Nussbaum, Roberts, Hartland and others (see Martin’s post above) over the years and by going back and reading many of the novels. Indeed many of those novels mean a lot to me. I already miss that debate somewhat but since it depends on a great deal of good will and intelligence I’m not confident it will be forthcoming. Furthermore shortlists that are fun and conservative, as opposed to difficult, provocative and challenging are likely to inspire less debate and less critical insight too.
Thus, for what it is worth, I clearly don’t want the Clarke to retreat to the genre heartlands. One look at my Clarke shortlist this year will show that I clearly favour ‘literary sf’. I can just about accept that The Shore and The Swan Book are too leftfield for the Clarkes but that Glorious Angels, The Thing Itself and Aurora aren’t on the shortlist is well, unforgivable? Preposterous? Inane? I’ll wait until I’ve finished all the novels until I give a full account. So far, Hutchinson deserves its place, the others really, really don’t.
Of course, however objective one likes to think oneself, looking back through shortlists and their winners is highly instructive and of course should give anybody pause to question their certainties. Frances Hardinge, Adam Roberts and Claire North – 3 of my favourite authors - were judges for the 2014 Kitschies, but did I agree with their winners? Hell no, but that was fine because the shortlists were fantastic. I love the 2007 Clarke shortlist but Martin (see above) is less inspired. And then there is Naam and Mann in 2014???? And how did Richard Flannagan beat Ali Smith in the 2014 Booker (or even Fowler or Mukherjee)? I could go on and on. And this year’s Bailey’s shortlist is a stinker….
So, honestly, I don’t expect perfection, and I don’t expect to agree wholeheartedly. That would be ridiculously dull and conservative of me. Indeed I want to have my certainties challenged, my horizons stretched and my mind blown. Is that too much to ask?
Paraphrasing Jonathan’s last paragraph a little, I will continue to seek out, appreciate and praise criticism that is willing to rock the boat and ask awkward questions. Moreover I want art to push me and perplex me. I’ve never understood those people who tell me art is just for fun or consolation and here I’ll quote Jeanette Winterson:
Art cannot be tamed, although our responses to it can be, and in relation to The Canon our responses are conditioned from the moment we start school. The freshness which the everyday man or woman pride themselves upon; the untaught "I know what I like" approach, now encouraged by the media, is neither fresh nor untaught. It is the half-baked sterility of the classroom washed down with liberal doses of popular culture.
The media ransacks the arts, in its images, in its advertisements, in its copy, in its jingles, in its little tunes and journalist's jargon, it continually offers up faint shadows of the form and invention of real music, real paintings, real words. All of us are subject to this bombardment, which both deadens our sensibilities and makes us fear what is not instant, approachable, consumable. The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art. Is it so unreasonable to expect a percentage of that from us in return? [Art Objects]