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.
Tagged with: Christopher Priest
Filed under: The Bellowing Ogre
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