io9'ers and those who otherwise keep their fingers on the SF pulse will have read this news already, but Christopher Priest has just thrown a gauntlet at the feet of the Clarke Award. (You might remember him as the World-Fantasy-Award-winning author of, among other things, The Prestige.) He’s said some very unkind things about the short list, you see, and more unkind things about the jury, and how unbecoming, and well I never, and won’t someone think of the children.
The gist is that this was a bad year for SF to begin with, and the jury has compounded it by selecting some embarrassingly low-brow novels to vie for votes. Speculative fiction already suffers the stigma of being stupid/silly/arcane/immature in the wider world of literature, so why reward work that simply proves them right?
I’ve written extensively about this before (here, here, and here). It often surprises me that more people have not (witness, for example, how a much of a tizzy Priest has stirred). But it should be clear by now that the wall between speculative fiction and literature is maintained just as steadfastly by the genre community as it is by the literary community. To take Priest’s point home, for example, we talk all the time about Charles Stross, but the guy writes juvenile chewing gum kitsch and has a big head about it. Meanwhile literary masterworks like Delany’s Dhalgren go virtually unheard-of (and mostly unread by those who even know the name). Miéville, for all his sales and Clarke awards, writes unchallenging creature features, yet Genius-Grant-winning Octavia Butler (the only author of speculative fiction to be so recognized) is rarely mentioned in SF circles, and then mostly because she’s black. I’ve never had an SF fan insist I read The Female Man, but countless people have thrust well worn copies of Ringworld upon me, as though I couldn’t find more fully developed characters in a physics textbook.
The Clarke Award has never produced a list that might interest an English major, so Priest is probably barking up the wrong tree—people who cling to Heinlein like there are no real writers left in the world should have a venue that honors the kinds of things they want to read. But he’s right to worry about how the SF community assigns the value of quality. Because there is actually no difference between a brilliant piece of writing and a brilliant piece of speculative writing. In an ideal world, the people who didn’t read SF would be those who simply couldn’t tolerate the cosmetic differences, but in today’s world, the differences are not just skin deep.
As writers of literature, SF authors have a duty to put these things right. Go to.