Everything Is Nice

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The Shortlists Of The Arthur C Clarke: What Goes Around, Comes Around

with 27 comments

Having discussed the administration and structure or the Arthur C Clarke Award, I’m now going to move onto the composition and reception of its shortlists.

What is the best Clarke shortlist? Okay, too hard. There are shortlisted books I’ve never heard of by authors who don’t even have Wikipedia pages. So what is the best shortlist of the last fifteen years (ie half the life of the award)? My personal picks would be 2010 and 2008. But, as Nina Allan noted in the piece that inspired my blog posts, John Jarrold hated the 2008 shortlist to the extent he felt the need to invoke Hiroshima. So, obviously, opinions differ. And the opinions of the judges themselves differ: some novels will be unanimously shortlisted and some will come down to a vote and we have no way of knowing which are which.

Instead of getting too much into good or bad, I’m going to talk more broadly about the composition of recent shortlists, their reception and our expectation. At the back of my mind will be the repeated suggestion that the award is not as exciting/radical/interesting/useful as it used to be.

2001, the first year of the period I’m looking at, was an all genre shortlist. In fact for the six year block between 1999 and 2004, every shortlist was entirely genre. The only time this has happened since was in 2014. This is worth bearing in mind when recent shortlists have sometimes been described as disappointingly core genre.

The only all British shortlist was in 2008, although we could probably also include 2006 as the eventual winner Geoff Ryman is a long term UK resident. In contrast, there have been non-majority British shortlists for the four years 2011 to 2014 as well as in 2003 and 2004.

This suggests a bit of a recent Golden Age for the award between 2005 and 2010 when the award produced strong British-dominated shortlists of high quality genre and non-genre science fiction. (Which is not to say they are all great – 2007, in particularly, continues to look a bit baffling.) My unsupported guess is that a lot of current Clarke commentators became involved with the award during this period.

Following the Genre Age and the Golden Age, we then have a third age from 2012. Yes, I jumped over 2011 as it seems to me to be a strong, radical and anomalous shortlist. I would also describe it – along with 2008 and 2013, the two year’s Allan identifies – as a split genre/non-genre shortlist. Patrick Ness had not (and has not since) published an adult science fiction novel and whilst Tim Powers clear had, this wasn’t readily apparent to anyone of my generation in Britain until Corvus belatedly picked him up here.

Anyway, back to 2012 and Allan’s description of the shortlist:

The 2012 shortlist, more now even than then, looks like a classic botch job: a set of random compromises, the result inevitably arrived at when five individuals of differing tastes and mixed critical abilities fail to form a coherent vision and resort instead to horse-trading,

Perhaps that lack of coherence is the defining feature of this Third Age. And perhaps that lack of coherence is understandable when the number of submissions to the award has radically increased from 41 in 2010 at the end of the Golden Age to 60 in 2012 and 113 this year.

Moving from the shortlists themselves to their reception, the single most important thing for the Arthur C Clarke Award in recent memory was when Adam Roberts published this review of the 2002 shortlist at Infinity Plus. He repeated this in 2003 and 2004 before moving to Strange Horizons. The second most important thing was when Niall Harrison at both Torque Control and Strange Horizons gave a home for discussion of the award.

Although I don’t believe Christopher Priest had read the 2012 shortlist when he published “Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3”, I do think it was a positive intervention for the award. We all need to have our feet held to the fire occasionally. However, it is ludicrously self-aggrandising to claim any more for it than that. The most important critical interventions of that year were from Dan Hartland, David Hebblethwaite, Maureen Kincaid Speller and Adam Roberts.

Yet Allan suggests: “In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied.” If so, why? The criteria that allowed those reviews from Hartland, Hebblethwaite, Kincaid Speller and Roberts to arise were:

  1. A vibrant online scene
  2. Sufficient time to read the books
  3. Sufficient interest in the shortlist

Well, we’ve heard a lot about about the death of SF blogging recently (here is a good post on the subject) but the blogs that are dying are not the sort of blogs that would ever have reviewed the Clarke shortlist. Time might be an issue and, as discussed, it might be helpful to standardise the announcement of the award. Which leaves interest.

Perhaps it isn’t that surprising that people are less engaged with the award now than they were at the beginning of the Third Age in 2012, particularly if they became most interested during the Golden Age. There is also the elephant in the room of the Kitschies. I think these awards could accurately be described as the worst thing that happened to the Clarke Award since the only game in town suddenly had a competitor and a competitor with a rather broader remit. I am more interested in this year’s Red Tentacle shortlist than I am in this year’s Clarke shortlist.

I think a longlist for the Clarke Award would be nice but I don’t think it will change this. But I’m not sure how much needs to change. The amount of critical coverage at the end of the Golden Age was probably abnormally high and even then the number of people involved was actually pretty low. For the same people to stay engaged, year after year, is a huge investment of time. Even the indefatigable Adam Roberts said today that “The days when I’d review the entire Clarke shortlist are behind me now”.

But what goes around, comes around and I’m sure that new critical voices will rise to engage (and old ones to re-engage). If that all sounds complacent then I’m not sure what the alternative is. The award will continue and the conversation will continue but it will ebb and flow. It is entirely possible that someone entering the genre now will not have the same relationship with the award that we do but I doubt our relationship is the same as those who established it.

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Written by Martin

8 May 2016 at 13:08

Posted in awards, sf

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27 Responses

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  1. I’m still reviewing the Clarke, but I truly miss the opinions of the reviewers you note above. Their work – whether individual reviews or a single piece dealing with each nominee – were, as far as I’m concerned part of the whole Clarke experience. Without them something is certainly missing.

    And I certainly agree with you re The Kitschies this year. Both the Red and Golden Tentacle feature some exciting novels. Though I think the worst book on the Red Tentacle shortlist won the award.

    Ian Mond

    9 May 2016 at 04:11

  2. In a burst of renewed enthusiasm, I shall be writing about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist in some detail, and Jonah Sutton-Morse is planning an episode of his Cabbages and Kings podcast on the shortlist, which I shall be taking part in.

    maureenkspeller

    9 May 2016 at 09:37

  3. Perhaps that lack of coherence is the defining feature of this Third Age. And perhaps that lack of coherence is understandable when the number of submissions to the award has radically increased from 41 in 2010 at the end of the Golden Age to 60 in 2012 and 113 this year.

    I think this is a central point. A much larger pool of submissions means, trivially, more authors who could be shortlisted. Apart from anything else that makes it less likely that any given person will have read all of a shortlist ahead of time. But also, factor in the normal emergence of new writers over time, and I haven’t done the analysis, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that the proportion of the list made up of first-time nominees has been higher in the last few years than it was in your “golden age”. Both factors work to make the “feel” of the shortlist more volatile, and harder to gauge at first glance.

    At the same time, a very large submissions list means that it’s easier to come up with counterfactuals against which the actually existing shortlist can be judged. When only 60 books were submitted, there might have really only been a dozen or so that were genuinely good enough to be contenders. Now there will be twice that, and more in a strong year. Here’s a plausible shortlist for this year, for instance: The Glorious Angels; The Swan Book; The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet; Planetfall; The Shore; The Just City. I say it’s “plausible” because all six have received acclaim from one quarter or another; because there’s a range of styles and concerns; and yet it’s striking (I expect) because, of course, I’ve picked six books by women. Surely that would have been welcomed with some excitement. It’s not the first time that it has been possible to have such a shortlist, but I think you can look at this year’s submissions list and see a deep enough bench of books by women, perhaps for the first time since the list has been published. that such a list looks, as I say, plausible. You can even come up with a second all-women list that looks just as good: Speak, The Book of Phoenix, Find Me, Tamaruq, Ancillary Mercy, Touch.

    My point is not that either of these sets should have been the shortlist; it’s that everyone can look at a big submissions list and find six books that they love, or find a shortlist that they think works together really beautifully. So the actual shortlist is going to have a tough time measuring up. Look at those all-women lists, and it’s very hard not to ask, how on earth did we end up with only two books by women this year? My own heart, meanwhile, was stolen by this hypothetical shortlist, which includes three of my favourite books from 2015, and three more I desperately want to read. How can reality do anything but disappoint?

    (And I don’t think this is related to the release of the submissions list per se. People will still be aware of the larger number of books out there, and be thinking of them as potential award nominees, even if they’re not written down in a list.)

    Another factor is that authors are moving around genres more. I counted Tchaikovsky as a first-timer, because this is his first sf, but obviously he’s been writing fantasy for a decade or so. Kameron Hurley got nominated and then went and wrote a fantasy trilogy. That sort of thing makes it harder for authors to build up a track record with the Clarke which, again, reduces the sense of “Clarke books” and “Clarke authors”, which reduces the sense of award continuity and focus. Which leads into what I think is your other crucial point:

    There is also the elephant in the room of the Kitschies. I think these awards could accurately be described as the worst thing that happened to the Clarke Award since the only game in town suddenly had a competitor and a competitor with a rather broader remit.

    The Kitschies can follow a writer wherever they roam. That actually makes me less sanguine than you about the establishment of renewed critical dialogue about the Clarke. Don’t get me wrong, I value the Clarke’s focus on science fiction as a distinct thing, but I think there are fewer readers who share that view now than there were ten years ago. At the moment the Kitschies hamstring themselves with their ridiculously short timeline, but if they ever sort out a sensible schedule I would not be at all surprised to see new critical commentary — and mainstream attention, if they continue their habit of actually giving the award to writers the mainstream has heard of — gravitating to their lists, rather than to the Clarke.

    NH

    9 May 2016 at 11:44

  4. Martin – I trust you’re right about new critical voices emerging. Indeed, we’ve seen some excellent recent shortlist commentary from Ian Mond and From Couch to Moon (one of the most insightful newer bloggers around) just for example, and of course these things are cyclical. I think the problem is less one of individual critics coming and going, than a lack of recognition from within the industry, up to and including award-giving bodies, of the importance of genuine critical engagement, both in the promotion of awards specifically and for the intellectual health of genre literature as a whole. You’ve rightly mentioned The Kitschies as having a place in this debate, but whilst I’d certainly agree that they’ve produced some of the most interesting and discussion-worthy awards shortlists by a mile, I’d suggest that at least a part of their success in doing that is down to having not a broader remit in choosing their winners, but a more rigorously defined one, i.e ‘most intelligent, progressive and entertaining’ rather than the self-evidently woolly ‘best’.

    What is much more worrying than any ‘competition’ posed by The Kitschies though, is the fact that they are proving to be even more passive around the issue of critical engagement than the Clarke. With no submissions list, no longlist, no fixed calendar, very little pre-publicity surrounding the appointment of judges, an awards ceremony that remains mainly private and – most unfortunately of all – a scant two weeks between the announcement of the shortlist and the winner, this leaves precious little room for critical commentary, much less such thorough and detailed coverage of the shortlist as we have come to expect and look forward to for the Clarke. To my mind at least, this seems like not so much an opportunity lost as thrown away, for reasons that remain obscure to me.

    Maintaining the vigour of an award and the interest around it involves so much more than a general ‘woo, books!’ high-five positivism and the repetitive and uncritical promotion of six shortlisted titles. That’s why conversations such as these are essential, whatever their outcome.

    Maureen – great to hear that you’ll be blogging the shortlist again! I’m looking forward very much to reading your thoughts in due course.

    Nina Allan

    9 May 2016 at 13:14

  5. Perhaps I should start: I haven’t got anything to say, I just want to add my comments for nostalgia’s sake … No, that isn’t true but I’m beginning to wonder if my reference to Torque Control in Foundation and at the Eastercon wasn’t motivated by nostalgia. I don’t think Martin quite catches me in his characterisation of those ensnared by the ‘Golden Age’ but he is close enough. That is a smart piece of periodisation because it can be supported by the 2005 Glasgow Worldcon, with its all British Hugo list (even if there wasn’t much overlap with the Clarke list). And, on reflection, I can’t help feeling that I wouldn’t be so excited by reading the equivalents of those white men writing difference (to paraphrase James Lovegrove) today (which is not the same as saying that I wouldn’t enjoy rereading those books). The trouble with Golden Ages is that no one with any sense actually wants to return to them. So I guess one has to accept we have moved on.

    But I’m wondering if what’s happened isn’t as simple as that genre itself has changed into something more dynamic, progressive, inclusive and less male-dominated (partly as a consequence of that ‘Golden Age’). Therefore the sense of there possibly being a ‘return’ to core genre is I think registering an actual change; but genre itself has also changed. So that we have (as noted above by Niall) more books, more writers, and more possible shortlists. Such a change has all sorts of possible consequences – many more than can be easily encompassed and probably require a more complex form of criticism than was adequate to keep up with the ‘Golden Age’. The solution is probably not a hub but a portable wide-ranging debate that moves around different places and is therefore more open to shooting off in different directions – directions beyond the control of writers, critics or industry. Already, the interesting question seems not what is happening now but how will this period look in 5-10 years’ time and what will actually be happening then?

    Nick Hubble

    9 May 2016 at 22:10

  6. Again, writing as a library worker rather than a critic:

    Like you, the 2008 shortlist is one that resonated with me. Less so the 2010. 2009 I found particularly poor. 2011 and 2014 were the next years that resonated strongly. I would agree with the former being described as radical and anomalous.

    And whilst Tim Powers clearly had [published a science-fiction novel], this wasn’t readily apparent to anyone of my generation in Britain until Corvus belatedly picked him up here.

    Fun fact – when Askews supply Tim Powers novels to us, they’re labelled as crime/thriller novels.

    So, incidentally, are Ben Aaronovitch’s books.

    Yet Allan suggests: “In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied.” If so, why?

    Personally, I found Niall Harrison’s Torque Control a focus point for discussing such things. Once he moved on, nothing seemed to replace it. Although Strange Horizon’s had a blog section, it was to put it kindly, awkward and painful to use.

    I do believe that the Kitschies and the Clarke can co-exist. If the Kitschies recognise the more progressive fiction, and the Clarke recognises the fiction closer to core genre science-fiction.

    (And, not wishing to pick on the Kitschies, Niall is absolutely right to say “At the moment the Kitschies hamstring themselves with their ridiculously short timeline”, as is Nina Allen to note the “scant two weeks”. No sooner had I suggested we look to increase our holdings of and try to promote the shortlisted books, the winner had been announced, it was all done and dusted, and bad luck to everyone else.)

    (And finally, to put my slightly silly hat on, I’m amused to note no less than three of us commenting on this post now have the initials NH.)

    Nick H.

    9 May 2016 at 23:21

  7. […] helping to guide the evolution of British genre culture. Martin Petto has taken the bait and begun a series of posts looking at the structure of the Clarke Award, the short-lists it produces, and its usefulness as a […]

  8. Niall: At the same time, a very large submissions list means that it’s easier to come up with counterfactuals against which the actually existing shortlist can be judged. When only 60 books were submitted, there might have really only been a dozen or so that were genuinely good enough to be contenders. Now there will be twice that, and more in a strong year.

    Implicit but unstated in this is that it is easier for the judges themselves to come up with counterfactuals to the shortlist. With 30 contenders rather than 15, it is possible for the judges to come up with five individual shortlists with no overlap. So a literary/divisive/unusual/controversial book might have only one backer rather than two or three. This might also make it easier for novels that are either unambitious but well executed or competent and inoffensive to progress to the shortlist. With the field so wide, consensus must be harder.

    This also means that producing a longlist could be harder. I’ll confess that I’d been thinking of my own years where there was a rather limited hinterland and bringing 15 or so books down to 12 wouldn’t have been difficult. This doesn’t apply in the same way when there are 30 or so contenders and more recent judges have suggested that the process for narrowing discussion has changed a bit. Hopefully Tom Hunter will address some of this in his post.

    But it probably also makes a longlist more important as it allows a bit more leeway beyond the limited consensus of six books.

    (I’m also leaving completely unexamined whether the hinterland has actually expanded proportionately with the submissions list. Do people have that sense?)

    Maureen: I shall be writing about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist in some detail, and Jonah Sutton-Morse is planning an episode of his Cabbages and Kings podcast on the shortlist, which I shall be taking part in.

    I’m very pleased to hear this. I joked that Roberts was indefatigable but you are going to bury us fly-by-night Noughties critics ;)

    The point about podcasts is interesting. I said blogs aren’t dying and I think that is true but they aren’t guaranteed to be the primary channel of a critic in the same way it would have been in the recent past. This links to Nick Hubble’s point about “how will this period look in 5-10 years’ time and what will actually be happening then?” Perhaps we have to worry less about future critics migrating from the Clarke to the Kitschies (since we are all agreed they aren’t about to get their arse in gear on their timetable) and more about them migrating away from print entirely.

    Nina: I’d suggest that at least a part of their success in doing that is down to having not a broader remit in choosing their winners, but a more rigorously defined one, i.e ‘most intelligent, progressive and entertaining’ rather than the self-evidently woolly ‘best’.

    I think I need to do a separate post on the Kitshies but for now I’ll just say that I don’t believe the “and” in their definition at all and actually think the definition is much less rigourous because allows the judges a huge amount of flexibility to choose from those traits.

    Martin

    10 May 2016 at 11:26

  9. NH: But I’m wondering if what’s happened isn’t as simple as that genre itself has changed into something more dynamic, progressive, inclusive and less male-dominated (partly as a consequence of that ‘Golden Age’). … The solution is probably not a hub but a portable wide-ranging debate that moves around different places and is therefore more open to shooting off in different directions – directions beyond the control of writers, critics or industry.

    It isn’t my place to argue that genre (whatever that is) hasn’t become less male-dominated or that it hasn’t become more inclusive. That it has is evident from the wider focus on feminist issues and the welcome mainstreaming of post-colonial and queer ideas. These are all good things! Whatever sense of centre there was I think has evaporated. I think that there’s a general direction of travel, but it’s inclusive.

    However I don’t think that direction of travel is necessarily more progressive than the culture of five or ten years ago. The Hugo awards are mostly an American question, but we get dragged into those culture wars. It’s one that if I’m feeling particularly cruel would characterize between fascists who want more stories about rocket ships & swords and the previous status quo, who broadly welcome a flavour of diversity, but only if it continues the traditions and forms of the existing order.

    And the arguments in the last week caused by a foolish headteacher’s blog post about fantasy corrupting young children are another case in point.

    Yes, the headteacher’s argument is bollocks. He’s clearly ignoring the sex & violence in Shakespeare, And he’s obviously ignoring how raunchy nineteenth century romantic poets could be. We won’t even talk about the Greek and Roman classics. These arguments have been made, but they’ve also been made with the instant knee-jerk of, “well Midsummer’s Night Dream has fairies in it and look at all the magic in so-and-so, they’re clearly fantasy (written for exactly the same reasons we use those devices), so he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

    I would argue strongly that if genre was something more dynamic & progressive it would have started to move past those tired equivocations and produce readings of works produced outside of itself which didn’t automatically claim it as part of a whole for greater kudos. Genre would be able to stand by the works of Olaf Stapleton and Hope Mirrlees without reaching into the wider western canon for its authority.

    There are more people at sea, but in many ways they’re clustered around a small number of islands. The Tor.coms and the io9.coms. The static media concerns and our neo-liberal concerns about prospering from our dreams, etc.

    And yes I don’t think a singular hub is achievable any more for any great period of time. The technology is there, as it always has been. However the sense of grand authority that any one individual or location can curate I suspect just doesn’t exist any more, if it ever did. The best we can hope for now is a ragged flotilla of fellow travellers floating in close proximity within the wider seas of genre, before separating to search for uncharted lands until it is time for the next council of pirates. I will read and write my things. You will read and write yours. If we are lucky an award like the Clarke or the Kitsches will bring us together in conversation and gentle argument.

    Are there things that the Clarke Awards, etc can do to cultivate that? Sure. As others have written, a more organized & regular schedules would help everyone align towards a common point on those occasions.

    If we can’t have one or two large hubs, be that Torque Control or Eastercons, then how can we encourage more of whatever this is? Do we need to engage with our inner agent provocateurs more often and have faith that someone will take the bait?

  10. Thanks for the shout-out, Martin. That time seems an age ago, which probably says something in itself…

    For me, reviewing the Clarke shortlist was always a question of interest. It reached the point where it just wasn’t enjoyable to do any more – I found that the selections simply didn’t reward that kind of engagement (I’m not even sure the field in general values that kind of engagement any longer). Yes, there was a declining sense of community and discussion; but, at root, I think the issue was that the lists weren’t as interesting as they used to be.

    At about the time I moved away from the Clarke, I started joining in with the ‘shadow panel’ of bloggers for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the Man Booker International Prize). Here I found what I had been missing in SF: lively, rigorous discussion with a group of engaged and informed readers – and a list of books that made it worth the while. It’s not that this couldn’t happen with SF, but that it seemed (and seems) unlikely.

    Of course, the problem is broader than this – award lists are just a convenient way into the discussion. What saddens me in particular is that I wouldn’t be the kind of reader I am today without exposure to SF’s tradition of amateur criticism – the very tradition that now seems to be devalued. I find it absurd that the SF field now shies away from critical reader engagement when the so-called mainstream – which SF people so often caricature as ‘elitist’ and remote – opens space for it readily.

    David H

    10 May 2016 at 20:36

  11. David – the points you raise here are excellent and vital and merit wider discussion.

    Nina Allan

    11 May 2016 at 09:27

  12. Like Nina, I’d second what David says. And I applaud Niall H.’s suggested shortlist (though I might swap out one of his titles with Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind). The judges really do seem to me to have missed a trick, there.

    I’ve another reason for wishing The Just City had made the list. Namely I do think SF should be doing philosophy, and metaphysics, as Walton does in that novel; and indeed that the genre should be doing other things too: theology, for instance (though that probably is just me); law; economics): by ‘doing’ I mean extrapolating and dramatising and thought-experimenting and playing with — at the moment SF seems stuck in this groove of ‘doing’ identity politics over and over again, and from one of two ideologically polarised positions. There’s merit in that (at least, from the progressive side: not the reactionary one, of course), and there has been great merit in it, as the genre has tracked the great cultural shifts represented by feminism, gay and trans rights, ethnic diversity and racism and so on. But it’s been done so many times now, in so many kinds of novel, it’s starting to feel thin. So, for example Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty was a book about ‘doing’ economics as SF which was really interesting, and promising, and thought-provoking. But nobody seems to be following it up.

    People say that awards should be jumping off points for genre ‘conversation’, and so they should. But that conversation needs to be about more than just ‘meat-and-potatoes SF versus literary SF’, and it should definitely be about more than prize committee procedure. If, that is, and as people are saying in this thread, we want the genre to remain vital.

    Adam Roberts

    11 May 2016 at 11:51

  13. Question for David, Nina, Nick in particular, but really anyone who’s interested. If asked to be a Clarke judge, would you do it? Why, or why not?

    (Lights fuse, retreats to safe distance…)

    NH

    11 May 2016 at 15:47

  14. Hi Niall – I’d do it, for sure. For better or worse, I still have a huge emotional and intellectual attachment to the idea of science fiction, to what I know the field is capable of and still produces, and to the Clarke Award as the public face of that. I would relish the experience of being directly involved.

    Nina Allan

    11 May 2016 at 16:11

  15. David: Like Adam and Nina, I really value this contribution. I’m not sure it needs expanded but if you did want to write more on the topic for your blog I’d be very interested.

    I think all of us (except perhaps Niall) have a bit of a love-hate relationship with SF. If you read a lot of literary fiction than inevitably the vast majority of SF is found wanting. And if you are interested in writing about writing then it becomes increasingly frustrating to have to focus on mediocre texts that not only do you not have much interest in but nor, apparently, does anyone else. At the same time, SF is a huge enterprise and just staying engaged with it is demanding. I am probably at the end of a decade long pattern where literary fiction has gradually given way to SF in my reading. I suspect that will start to move in the opposite direction shortly but I also suspect this is a pattern that will repeat itself several times over my lifetime. The lure of SF is bloody strong – if it can keep M John Harrison within its orbit then it can capture anyone.

    Adam: But that conversation needs to be about more than just ‘meat-and-potatoes SF versus literary SF’, and it should definitely be about more than prize committee procedure.

    If I get round to it, that is what part three will be about.

    Martin

    11 May 2016 at 18:28

  16. Niall: yes, I would, if I had the time to spare, because I still believe in SF as a vibrant and important literature. And because the Clarke is a rare and precious institution, and opportunities to think about and discuss books in such depth don’t come along too often. (Rather a lot of ‘and’s there, I know.)

    Martin: well, first of all, define ‘literary fiction’ :-) There’s plenty of drab, grey realism about, and I’ve no interest in reading it. The particular transition I found in my reading (and this is something I do plan to write more about) was to a place where genre distinctions were not relevant, to the point that it no longer made sense to orient my reading around SF and fantasy. (Nina touches on what I mean in her post when she talks about understanding Delany being similar to understanding Woolf or Beckett.) SFF was where I became a reader; and, with the right book, I’ll always be back.

    David H

    11 May 2016 at 19:14

  17. To pick up on some other points before my flight boards:

    Martin:

    (I’m also leaving completely unexamined whether the hinterland has actually expanded proportionately with the submissions list. Do people have that sense?)

    By “hinterland” do you mean “works published but not submitted” or “works submitted and worthy of recognition”, or something else? If it’s option a) I think no, I’m less aware of “missed” books than I was ten years ago. If it’s option b) I think certainly yes (even without taking into account variation in taste).

    Will:

    And yes I don’t think a singular hub is achievable any more for any great period of time.

    Maybe we should be thinking in terms of significant rather than singular. Could there be One British SF Hub To Rule Them All? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think even Torque Control ever was that. Could there be A British Critical Hub that was widely read and influential? I think that’s probably still possible.

    David:

    At about the time I moved away from the Clarke, I started joining in with the ‘shadow panel’ of bloggers for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the Man Booker International Prize).

    Something I genuinely don’t know: is that in any way affiliated with the prize itself? Or is it just a bunch of people who decided it would be a neat thing to do?

    Adam:

    But it’s been done so many times now, in so many kinds of novel, it’s starting to feel thin.

    Well, a) I trust you have noticed the shock-and-awe publicity being rolled out for the launch of Too Like The Lightning which, much as I hate to be party to it, is at the very least pretty interesting. And b) I have to say that I struggle to accept that we’ve reached Peak Identity Politics when, for example, we’d struggle (from this year’s submission list) to put together even one hypothetical shortlist composed entirely of writers of colour, or writers from outside the US/UK/Canada/Australia nexus.

    I’ll come back to the judging thing anon.

    NH

    11 May 2016 at 20:37

  18. Niall: Too Like The Lightning has even reached Crooked Timber, I saw today. So, yes, that’s a point. And it does look interesting. I’m not sure about your other point, though.

    Adam Roberts

    11 May 2016 at 20:52

  19. Niall, no, it’s not affiliated – it’s all the work of a couple of bloggers who gathered together a like-minded group (it had been going about 3 years before I joined in). However, we have been namechecked by the Prize, and we had invites to the launch party this year (and the ceremony in the IFFP days).

    David H

    11 May 2016 at 21:23

  20. I was just thinking about the hub idea as well. Besides Torque Control, I guess you could look to predecessors such as The Alien Online and Infinity Plus – and what strikes me about all these sites is that they ultimately depended heavily on the efforts of one person to keep them going. I agree with Niall that a widely read British critical hub is still viable, but my feeling is that it would need to be run by a group of people.

    David H

    11 May 2016 at 21:41

  21. Niall: By “hinterland” do you mean… “works submitted and worthy of recognition”… I think certainly yes (even without taking into account variation in taste).

    So going with this we have a situation where:

    1) The science fiction available to the judges has doubled
    2) The good science fiction available to the judges has doubled
    3) The shortlists are perceived to have decreased in quality

    We’ve discussed a bit why this might be but it does seem like a strong reason for a longlist. (I’m also interested in why the submissions have increased so dramatically but that is for part three.)

    David: well, first of all, define ‘literary fiction’ :-) There’s plenty of drab, grey realism about, and I’ve no interest in reading it.

    I’ve got a soft spot for drab, grey realism and I probably read too much of that ten years ago (and too much facile fantasy these days). But consider, for example, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, last year’s winner of the Clarke. This is not, as Adam might wish, a book about politics, philosophy or economics. It is not even the sort of ‘progressive SF’ he identifies as being played out. It is a post-apocalytic fantasy of agency of the sort we’ve seen a million times before. Why then have the Clarke judges and the wider genre taken it to their hearts? I’d suggest a huge, unsatisfied thirst for the traditional values of literary fiction.

    I agree with Niall that a widely read British critical hub is still viable, but my feeling is that it would need to be run by a group of people.

    Agreed. However, I don’t think get a group of like-minded individuals together and able to manage the workload is any easier than finding an inidividual driver. I’ve started the match-making process though…

    Martin

    12 May 2016 at 08:08

  22. I’m way too late to this conversation, but have read it all now and thank you everybody. I’ll be posting the first of my own promised pieces on the Clarke shortly.

    In the meantime, two quick thoughts:

    1. The Kitschies. I don’t see them as in any way threatening to the Clarke Award, I actually feel very close to them personally and professionally. I was very pleased , for instance, that they went first on self publishing so I can now make better decisions on that for myself. Also, given all the conversation around their dates, not all decisions around announcements are strategic plans, sometimes you just have to go with the dates you can go with.

    2. Martin, you mentioned a future blog might be on the subject of why Clarke submissions have increased so much. If you prefer not to speculate I can simply tell you the reasons why if you drop me an email. A lot of it is simply down to me taking on the call out and being very proactive in that conversation with publishers rather than sending out a call and just waiting for books to come in or not.

    The reason I do that by the way is partly the fault of all the people in the comments section above who always look to our submissions list with an eye to what’s missing first. I’m just trying to get ahead of you ;-)

  23. Martin, you mentioned a future blog might be on the subject of why Clarke submissions have increased so much. If you prefer not to speculate I can simply tell you the reasons why if you drop me an email. A lot of it is simply down to me taking on the call out and being very proactive in that conversation with publishers rather than sending out a call and just waiting for books to come in or not.

    Well, it isn’t that simple as your own recent blog points out:

    When I first became involved with the award we were receiving something like 40 to 45 books a year. In recent years that number has jumped to over 100 books a year. There’s a few good reasons for that, ranging from an increase in genre publishers & small presses as well as more mainstream imprints being increasingly willing/keen to submit their titles to a science fiction prize and also simply my spending a lot of time on the phone chasing editors up to make sure we get stuff sent in. The increasing reach and reputation of the award helps too.

    Part three was going to be about what is submitted and what this tells about UK SF publishing. We have an amazing resource in the form of the submissions lists and I think it is worth exploring what it can tell us about what publishers are publishing. But it is also quite a labour intensive process (which is presumably why no one has done it yet) so I’m unlikely to be getting to part three any time soon.

    Martin

    19 May 2016 at 11:45

  24. I didn’t mean to imply there was one simple reason why submissions have gone up so much as to assist with your speculation if you’re interested in the mechanics of the process if that was what you would be speculating on, in which case I can likely save you the pondering and just you straight answers.

    I’m only mentioning this because I’ve seen various (utter bollocks) insinuations that certain books don’t get submitted from more mainstream publishers for instance because terrified interns can’t sign off the submissions fee. I’d hate to see you fall into that trap.

    Investigation into the lists themselves however is one of the reasons why I put that data out there. Before you start you might want to drop Mr Niall Harrison a line. The team at Strange Horizons currently have a big spreadsheet from me with all the data we could scrape together on the Clarke e.g. breakdowns of judging panels by gender versus shortlists, submission info where we have it etc etc.

  25. Before you start you might want to drop Mr Niall Harrison a line.

    Yes, and we are planning to use it, but I’ve not got around to processing all that information quite as quickly as I hoped. Much like I haven’t got around to commenting here again as quickly as I hoped. Anyway.

    Adam:

    I’m not sure about your other point, though.

    Let me take another run at it. You suggested that SF’s take on identity politics has “been done so many times now, in so many kinds of novel, it’s starting to feel thin.” But given the breakdown of the submissions list (and other metrics, like Locus books received), while there may have been lots of identity-led novels, there haven’t been many different identities writing those novels. That makes it hard for me to believe all that can be said, has been said; if it’s feeling thin, then I’d hope that diversifying the author base a bit would help with that.

    (I’m about two-thirds of the way through Too Like the Lightning now, and it strikes me as substantial in several ways,and worth attention.)

    David, Nina, Nick: the reason I asked the judging question was a roundabout way of determining whether we were just kvetching, or whether we cared enough to invest time and energy in the award. One of the areas where, actually, I agree with Tom’s Medium post is his discussion of the “hub” concept. Sure, I think the award can and should do some things to make discussion easier — a more predictable timetable would help, a longlist would help — but ultimately it is up to us to organise. I’m not sure I have the time or energy for very much myself this year, but I’m hoping that later this year I might have more to spare.

    (This would of course be alongside the other project I want someone to establish, a site called “Best Related” which collates recommendations and reviews of critical and associational work…)

    Martin, I was sort of hoping you’d open a fresh thread for discussion of Tom’s post, but since you haven’t:

    There are bits of the post I agree with, and bits I don’t. What strikes me about it most is that although it makes sense to split out the various topics for discussion, lots of them are quite closely linked when it comes to implementation. I think the only chance an expanded shortlist has of working, for instance, is if it has a more predictable timeframe, is announced earlier than current shortlists, and has a good long period between shortlist and award.

    But I still think a larger shortlist is a really bad idea. I’m particularly alarmed that it might be done because it is “new” (or, I guess, “distinctive”). Obviously six books is an arbitrary number, but there are good reasons why you very rarely see shortlists — for any award, in or out of genre — of more than six. I’d say the two main ones are:

    1) The more books you add, the more of a commitment reading the shortlist becomes. That means fewer people will want to do it; more people will be likely to pick and choose, or just wait for the winner and only read that.

    2) I don’t believe adding more books will extend the same amount of prestige to those books. I think the same amount of prestige will be divided up into smaller portions. It will be perceived as “easier” to make the shortlist, and doing so will be valued less.

    In contrast, when thinking about a longlist:

    1) Not many people will read a longlist. But there will be a hard-core of people invested in the award who will look at it, and start to create some discussion. A longlist feels to me like a participatory gesture: I’m not necessarily part of the process, but I’m reading along with the process. Moreover, as Nick H said in one of these threads, it puts the industry on notice and gives them time to prepare for a shortlist.

    2) A longlist creates an interim level of prestige. It helps to mark out “writers to watch”, it gives you that tool to bring more books into the Clarke discussion. If anything it increases the value of shortlisting, because (hopefully) it makes clear how hard-won a shortlist place really is.

    So yes. I’m still #teamlonglist, I’m afraid.

    NH

    19 May 2016 at 15:41

  26. […] In the red corner, Niall Harrison #TeamLonglist: […]

  27. […] written about the fact people aren’t reviewing the Arthur C Clarke Award so it is only fair that I write about the fact people are reviewing the Arthur C Clarke Award. […]


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