The Christopher Priest Controversy: Contention as Social Creation in Fantastika

“And yet, in a real sense, the awards that we bestow give us a snapshot of where our cultural priorities are in any particular year. And when we grouse about the shortlists and the winners, what we really rail against is the consensus taste that they imply.” – Chris, The King of Elfland’s Second Cousin

“[T]he beauty of the Clarke shortlist is that it’s always going to offend someone.” – Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Last week I discussed one way to think about how we create, interpret, and use literature, building on some ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This week I will elaborate on that discussion by examining an episode of controversy that recently arose in the fantastic field of literary production: Christopher Priest’s polemic against the selections for this year’s Clarke Award and the responses to it. Priest’s unblunted critique quickly became a point of contention and fomented a mixture of agreement and backlash from other authors and bloggers across the Internet, which was been the main arena for these struggles for a generation. Indeed, Priest published his polemic on his website and it was quickly disseminated, generating a plethora of responses. While some echoed or extended Priest’s criticisms, others were dismissive; many respondents found Priest’s line of reasoning self-serving or elitist. A few, such as Jeff VanderMeer and Catherynne Valente, used Priest’s diatribe to reflect on matters related to the field. It was often noted that a response like Priest’s was common, as most awards announcements inevitably spawned reactions that took issue with the choices of the awards.

But this characterization only scratches the surface of both Priest’s polemic and the struggle that it engendered.

To recall from last week, I am borrowing the notion of struggle that Bourdieu used in his discussions of how the literary and other fields of cultural production work. It does not just mean opposition; struggle is an ongoing activity in the field punctuated by explicit instances of contention. For Bourdieu, struggle is any activity that seeks to challenge or alter either one’s position or the distribution of symbolic capital in the field. In this case, the struggle is one in which participants articulate a position in relation to Priest’s assertions by either building upon his critique or reiterating the prestige of the awards and discounting the critique of them by equivocating his contentious reaction with all others. The controversy that Priest incites becomes a juncture where participants in the field can not only argue about the field as it is, but create a vision of what they think the field should be.

A controversy is a socially-shaped opportunity to reproduce or question assumptions, positions, and interpretations in the field; it seems instigated by a complaint or by an action that refutes some commonly-held perception or narrative. But controversy generally arises when a prevailing idea or practice is validated or reproduced and participants in the field react to that assertion. In this example, Priest is not creating the controversy so much as he is pointing one out. The Clarke Award is touted as “the most prestigious award for Science Fiction in Britain, presented annually for the best Science Fiction novel of the year” and its shortlist is often seen as a snapshot of the field’s literary depth and variety. What spurs potential controversy is the projection of this prestige onto the works chosen as finalists; the potential endowment of value onto a work by the final prize creates a socially energized moment that prompts participants in the field to examine their own ideas of value. That instance of reflection can lead to the invocation of controversy.

In his polemic, Priest goes farther than most participants would go in not only critiquing individual works, but critiquing the criteria that they represent and proposing that “[t]he present panel of judges should be fired, or forced to resign, immediately” due to their incompetent selections. Priest’s argument is that the novels on the shortlist are for the most part unworthy to serve as exemplars of the genre, which he feels is a failure of the selection process. As he puts it:

“In short, the winner of the award must be found within an excellent shortlist, that the win must seem to have been hard-won, and that the choice was the result of reasoned argument and intelligent debate amongst the judges.”

He also proposes that a new jury be selected and the awards process be redone in the following year.

Initially, I thought that the response to Priest’s polemic was mostly negative, based on responses from John Scalzi, Cheryl Morgan, Damien Walter, and others. Damien Walter characterized it as Priest “throw[ing] a hissy fit,” while John Scalzi more gently stated that he “shouted at clouds.” Cheryl Morgan felt that he was taking it “way too seriously” (emphasis hers). Each of these prominent observers, in different ways, called into question the legitimacy of Priest’s critique by highlighting what they think are petty or silly motives and methods. And the comments at each blog were mostly in line with the sentiments expressed by them. Not too surprising, perhaps, but the picture that emerged was that Priest was judged arrogant, foolish, and mean, and thus his critique was not taken seriously.

And yet there is, as both Scalzi and Morgan assert, a sort of ritualized discourse of critical (sometimes snarky) response to awards like the Clarke. But theirs and others‘ responses also show that there is also a ritualized discourse of dismissal that is used to insulate awards from sustained critique. Scalzi deflects the bulk of Priest’s critical comments by putting them down to individual taste (even as he agrees that Lavie Tidhar’s Osama would be a worthy addition), while Morgan equates Priest with the sort of “Mr . Angry” who gets too worked up about awards that are at heart ” a lot of fun.” In both cases, Priest’s criticisms (which I agree are quite sharply-worded) are sidelined in ways that shift any literary discussion to one of social propriety. Priest’s obvious frustration and passionate rhetoric are focused on and deflect attention away from the conversation he hopes to stimulate about just what the Clarke Award is supposed to represent.

What is more interesting to me, and is something in need of more thought, is how these responses set a wider tone about how we consider critical engagement when thinking and writing about awards. There is a cherished prestige around awards that is maintained by reproducing them annually and following their particular bureaucratic rituals, but also by fending off criticism of them. Priest’s critique was addressed as a social problem, and I wonder if that is in part because of his visibility. Other individuals (in particular Niall Harrison and Nina Allen) have expressed their disappointment with the Clarkes both before and after Priest did, but have not had the same disapprobation directed at them. Was it Priest’s position in the literary field of production that made many other participants engage in a struggle with him to maintain the commonly-held perspective of the Clarke Awards as prestigious?

The short answer is, of course. But there is more to it than that; it is a struggle in Bourdieu’s sense over an aspect of the field that creates prestige and value within it. Priest’s polemic is framed as an attempt at asserting interpretive dominance over the award and the field, but the negative responses to it do not just put Priest in his place, so to speak, but do the same for the awards. The awards have to remain untouched, the selection process mystified, and any attempt to critique them reinterpreted as individual taste with little, if any, critical force behind it. This is as ritually prevalent as the initial critiques that arise, not because some people are mean or seeking attention, but because we have these creators of social and literary value locked firmly in place, and to question them is to question the field itself.

14 thoughts on “The Christopher Priest Controversy: Contention as Social Creation in Fantastika”

  1. Evil Monkey and I were very ambivalent about Priest’s comments, just so it’s clear. But my immediate and my abiding reaction to this sort of thing is to send up all involved not because of allegiance to awards or to criticism of awards but because of the abiding absurdity of the rituals involved and the investments of time and territorialism made in those rituals. Priest certainly doesn’t stand outside of the system–he is not arguing that we look outside of existing systems for ideas about literary quality and fantastika–he is merely saying that this year a cog in the machine broke down. Fix that cog, dammit! That is all he said. So everyone is arguing about whether a cog actually broke and what that cog was made of.

    1. What we invest time and effort in talking about and defending defines what we value, whether we’re saying something negative or positive, really. I’m interested in this idea of literary institutes and investment in protecting or not protecting ideas of quality and taste because of having just finished a long essay on fakes, which ties into the discussion because of the way fakes have of destabilizing literary institutions, or at the very least annoying the hell out of them. This essay begins to get at something I want to explore in another long essay once I’ve finished tweaking the one on fakes.

      PS Not sure Scalzi was saying exactly what you say he was saying.

      1. Speaking of Scalzi and “fakes” and awards, there’s the little matter of an April Fool’s joke on the Hugo short story ballot.

        One thing which is interesting to me is the difference in how another current Awards controversy is spreading around — the recent “no award” for the Pulitzer for fiction. Ann Patchett wants the Pulitzer to be a celebration of books, to get people into bookstores (she compared the Academy Awards and getting people to go to the cinema). Lev Grossman’s more ok with the idea that, hey, if there isn’t a truly great book, go ahead and withhold the award for a year. (Though lost in the exchange somehow seems to be the nuance that a jury failing to reach majority consensus doesn’t necessarily mean that there was no great book this year…)

        Anyway. Patchett and Grossman were on PBS to discuss the Pulitzer “no award”:

        Meanwhile, while the Clarke is nominally a British award, all the tempests in a teacup that have spread through the genre blogs? Other than The Guardian (UK) has there been much mainstream interest in the issue?

        Anyway. Also recently relevant is Adam Roberts’s run-down of the “Clarkemind” over at Strange Horizons (in two parts):

        To which Roberts adds a final paragraph with some brief thoughts on “the Christopher Priest controversy”.

        1. Speaking of Scalzi and “fakes” and awards, there’s the little matter of an April Fool’s joke on the Hugo short story ballot.

          I’m not quite sure what you mean by this.

          “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons” is an April Fools inspired hoax, most definitely.

          “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” is a real piece of short fiction. It’s styled as a prologue to the first book in a trilogy that doesn’t exist, but it’s a real piece of short fiction.

  2. Hi John. Wondered when we’d see your discussion of these issues.

    Certainly, the list the judges came up is extremely idiosyncratic at best, to riff off of Jonathan Strahan. As for me, my bone of contention with Priest’s polemic was the descent into ad homimem attacks on the Judges and on Charles Stross. I had no beef with the expression of his opinion and viewpoint on the issues.

    And I think tone matters, and it was that tone that got Priest the opprobrium that he did.

    1. Priest could have written a satirical, over the top polemic. He could have written a thoughtful analysis of great submitted novels that didn’t make the short list. He could have said he just didn’t like the slate.

      It’s not like the man doesn’t have skills.

      But his polemic wasn’t satirical and over the top, it was just hateful and over the top. He defended it on Scalzi’s blog with a comment that basically boiled down to “I’m old enough, I’m successful enough, and the publishing industry fucked me over enough that I’ve earned the right to not be polite.” He admitted that he meant the worst parts of it, and the goofiest part (“have we lived and fought in vain?”) was his attempt at “rhetorical flourish.”

      1. “Hateful and over the top”? Puh-leeze. Either it’s been too long since you’ve read Priest’s piece and your memory of it is distorted, or you’ve led a far too sheltered life. Much of Priest’s criticism (notably of Miéville’s novel) is of the most respectful and encouraging sort.

          1. >>Speaking of ad hominem…

            “You [people] keep using that [phrase]. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    2. Priest’s article may have been occasionally harsh in tone, but there were no “ad hominem attacks” in it. Saying that Charles Stross “writes like an internet puppy” isn’t an ad hominem (“to the person”) attack; it’s a criticism of his writing.

  3. Hey John,
    Great column. I meant to respond the previous one about the field as a concept but I actually prefer this column’s focus on struggle as productive anyway. I am less invested in the Priest controversy per se, largely because I don’t track awards. I was very intrigued, however, by your pinpointing of the ritualistic arguments and intellectual moves that awards and awards controversies create in their wake. I am not so convinced, however, that the awards and the responses to them are all that firmly locked into place. After following your column for a while, I’m pretty convinced that the field itself is being questioned all the time. It may just be that the awards, and perhaps the Clark awards in particular, work hard to create a feeling of canonicity and stability that is less “self-evident” or real the less one pays attention to them. Or perhaps this is me playing a war of position? Kind of makes me want to see a structural analysis of the field and certain elements such as awards within it.

  4. I’m not 100% certain that I agree with this interpretation of the negative reactions to Priest’s post: “…the negative responses to [Priest’s polemic] do not just put Priest in his place, so to speak, but do the same for the awards. The awards have to remain untouched, the selection process mystified, and any attempt to critique them reinterpreted as individual taste with little, if any, critical force behind it”.

    Just as awards and their shortlists generate a certain broad but ultimately closed set of responses in individuals, so too do the subsequent reactions to those initial responses. The second-order responses might range from agreement, to sympathy, to explanation, to dismissal, to outright rejection and the many shades in between. But I don’t think it is fair to characterize all (or even most) negative reactions to Priest’s polemic as ritualized elevation of the Clarke Awards.

    Many of the more thoughtful reactions (notably Cat Valente’s) try to shift the attention to underlying issues within the community, broadening the scope of the cultural discussion beyond the awards that initially spawned it. Others try to explain Priest’s reasoning, some sympathetically others antithetically, but nevertheless engaging with his critiques on some measure of their merits.

    In the case of this particular storm in a teacup, there has been relatively little discussion that I have seen of the awards themselves, their purpose and role within the field, or their governance. This absence stands in sharp contrast to the recent controversy that surrounded the British Fantasy Award which ultimately led to dramatic changes in their governance. The fact that there hasn’t been that much discussion of the Clarke Awards is interesting, and it does make me wonder why Priest’s polemic has failed to elicit such questions (I would argue that his recommendations for what to do with the jury were meant to incite exactly such discussions). But the fact that the struggle Priest produced hasn’t led us in that direction is not the same as saying that we have ritualized the protection of the awards.

  5. Hello everyone. Thanks for the comments; I appreciate the feedback and some of you have made good points.

    I agree with those who said that this interpretation is partial, and a bit too focused on one aspect of the commentaries I am discussing. I agree, for example, that Scalzi is not just rising to the defense of the awards. I think there is more going on in the commentary on Priest’s polemic, but I chose to focus on one aspect to illustrate how elements of struggle are present in how we collectively discuss awards and how we frame and reproduce ideas of the field. This needs more development and elucidation and in this coming week’s column I am going to write about what else I see in these discussions, and try to talk about the pleasures that are generated as well. A large problem with Bourdieu’s theory is that it leaves out a lot, and reduces most social interaction to tactical maneuvers in an eternal social conflict. I’d like to think the field of literary production isn’t JUST about that.

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