Christopher Priest Shouts at Clouds

Or, more accurately, at the nominees for this year’s Clarke Award, and the jury which selected them. Mr. Priest, for those not aware, is a science fiction and fantasy writer most famous (in the US, anyway) for The Prestige, which was made into a film by director Christopher Nolan. The Clarke Award is a juried science fiction and fantasy award for works published in Britain; Mr. Priest won it in 2003, for his novel The Separation.

I made comment about this on a Metafilter thread on the issue, which I will reproduce in its entirety here:

“Mr. Priest’s contribution is the first this year in what is sure to be a lot of barking at clouds concerning science fiction award nomination slates, all of which will essentially boil down to ‘my tastes are different than yours, and your tastes are wrong.’ This format of complaint will no doubt pick up considerably, as it does on an annual basis, regardless of what is nominated, when the Hugo slate is announced in a couple of weeks.

“That said, as a representative of the format, it’s pretty good: Mr. Priest writes it with an engaging amount of piss and vinegar, varies his tone from target to target (more in sorrow than in anger for Mr. Mieville, blithe condescension for Mr. Stross, outright contempt for Ms. Tepper), and to his credit, offers viable suggestions for an alternative slate, at least one of which, Mr. Tidhar’s Osama, is in my opinion eminently slate-worthy. So for connoisseurs of the form, this is top-shelf stuff, much better than the usual entitled bleating of the tendentiously aggrieved.

“Whether Mr. Priest is right in his cane-shaking is, of course, a matter of personal taste. But with a piece like this, that’s always the case.”

On my end of things, I suspect Mr. Priest and I have different tastes, as I liked Rule 34, have been a Tepper fan of long standing, and believe that if Embassytown is China Mieville underachieving, we should all slack as well as he. But of course that’s my point, and in any event it’s a rare nomination slate for any literary award that does not have someone railing against it as a parade of mediocrities, or worse.

Over at his blog, critic Damien Walter offers a psychological portrait of Mr. Priest to explain his invective regarding the Clarke list. I can’t speak to the accuracy of Mr. Walter’s mind modeling, knowing neither him nor Mr. Priest, but in a general sense I don’t think we have to reach that far into Mr. Priest’s psyche for why he’s had his eruption. Sometimes, one is just cranky about a list of works for which one has little enthusiasm or connection, which purports to exemplify the best of one’s field.

At the end of his rant, Mr. Priest inevitably does what it seems most people who write these sorts of things inevitably do, which is to blame other people for not having their personal tastes. This is where he loses the plot. As I’ve noted before, there’s a difference between saying “This is not what I would have done” and “Why did you do this? You suck.” The first is a perfectly valid thing to say; the second assumes the primacy of one’s personal opinion over everyone else’s. Mr. Priest may feel well qualified to assert such a thing, but no one else is obliged to agree with him. “Incompetent” does not actually mean “valuing the works I do not.”

What should Mr. Priest’s punishment be? Quite obviously, to head up next year’s Clarke Award jury. I would wish him joy in the task.

Update: Charlie Stross, whom Mr. Priest referred to as an “Internet puppy,” is making t-shirts, featuring the image at the top of the entry, made by his mighty spouse Feòrag NicBhrìde. I’m totally getting one.

Update, 3/30: Follow-up entry here.

97 thoughts on “Christopher Priest Shouts at Clouds

  1. Man, his take on Charlie’s book is… something.

    Some things it is not include: demonstrative of self-awareness, and possessive of any sort of charity, either for Charlie (not that he needs any) or the rather large group of science fiction enthusiasts who really like Charlie in general and Rule 34 in particular.

    I’m certainly glad my breakfast didn’t include whatever Christopher ate.

  2. I think it’s funny that he calls Charlie Stross, egotistical and amusing, when his whole rant is hugely egotistical and not at all amusing. I get the whole looking for literature in SF and fantasy thing, but to act like the very people who dismiss any merit in the genre at all is about the only thing that approaches amusing in what Mr. Priest has to say.

  3. I can’t see that his opinions just boiled down to a matter of taste. I don’t agree with all the minutiae of his criticisms but I think he’d like to see the level of the playing field raised and certainly doesn’t describe it as anything like a parade of mediocrities.

  4. Mike Williams:

    That’s why I put in “or worse.”

    And yeah, it really is just a matter of taste in this case. Of the nominees I’ve read, there are perfectly defensible reasons for believing they represent a significant aspect of the art, as it were, in science fiction and fantasy. One may argue about these reasons, but it’s not as if the books on the shortlist were pulled randomly from a bookstore shelf. Priest’s position isn’t necessarily raising the field, it’s grading the field to his liking.

  5. Damien Walter: “But what really drives us [writers] is the desire to be…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays.”

    Interesting premise. Is this what really drives you, Mr. Scalzi?

    “Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down.”

    I don’t know if any of Walter’s evaluation is even remotely accurate, but this… this is funny.

  6. Tom:

    He sure as hell wouldn’t put it on the Clarke list, that’s for sure.

    Greg:

    No, what drives me is getting paid to do something I love. I like having pals in the field, and I’m not going to lie: being one of the top names in the genre doesn’t suck. But they are fringe benefits.

    Likewise, I have my doubts about Mr. Walter’s evaluation of Mr. Priest. A writer who has won awards, has bestsellers, garnered considerable critical attention and has had entree into Hollywood not only is at the table, he’s got a whole tureen of the gravy to himself.

  7. Excellent critical analysis! I expect nothing less from the author of “Your Hate Mail will be Graded”

  8. Priest has honed the art of ranting, from his book reviews in the ’80s for The Magazine of Fantasy Science Fiction (he eviscerated Joan D. Vinge’s “The Snow Queen,” spending a large chunk of the review on her grammar, and not so much on the themes or characters, if I remember correctly) to his critique of Harlan Ellison’s still-unpublished “Last Dangerous Visions,” titled “The Last Deadloss Visions”/”The Book on the Edge of Forever”). Having not yet read this latest rant, I expect it to be more of the same.

  9. He seems aghast at the idea that people in science-fiction novels should speak in the manner of normal people speaking conversationally, or that common elements of their language should reflect the very different world they live in. His criticism of Embassytown for the latter, that a better author would suggest the strangeness in a less linguistically contrived way (or something like that), seems to miss the way that some of the things you have to puzzle out aren’t so lamp-shaded, and can be quite startling.

    Spoiler:
    V sbe bar qvqa’g frr gur qhny-angher bs gur Nzonffnqbef pbzvat sbe ntrf, nf vg jnf oneryl fhttrfgrq ng sbe n juvyr juvyfg bgure zlfgrevrf cebzvaragyl orttrq sbe nggragvba.

  10. John, your snark is as delicious as always.

    Charlie Stross’ Internet Puppy t-shirts for the win. That’s an *awesome* response.

  11. Priest’s rant is funny and very old-man crotchety. His alternative nominees are clearly for someone who is fan of a very specific style of British SF.

    I would say that Damien Walter is way off base with his “gravy” comment. Here are Priest’s award win and nominee tallies for Novel::

    BSFA: 3 Wins, 3 Nominations
    Clarke: 1 Win, 2 Nominations
    Dimar: 1 Win
    Hugo: 1 Nomination
    World Fantasy Award: 1 Win

    That’s not too shabby at all.

  12. I may also be misunderstanding, but I think he makes a mathematical error when he proposes rolling the 2012 award over to 2013.

  13. There seems to me to be a very clear and obvious distinction between, “I did not like or appreciate the work in question,” and, “The work in question is bad and only a fool or a liar would say otherwise;” many critics write as if this distinction doesn’t exist. As someone who is deeply skeptical of the idea that there exists a universal and objective standard of quality, I tend not like or appreciate the work of critics who behave as if there is.

    That said, I disagree with Mr. Scalzi about the merits Mr. Priest’s screed. While I did appreciate the cited variation of tone and the high level of erudition, I felt less positive about some of the specific criticisms. Mr. Priest’s complaints about neologisms in “Embassytown” feel a bit like complaints about lightsabers in “Star Wars;” removing them defeats the purpose. For another example, I see some irony in a writer criticising another for being lazy in one paragraph only to blithely dismiss another book a few paragraphs later soley for its inclusion of a talking horse.

    Mr. Priest’s rant generally failed to impress me, and someone of a different disposition than mine might say that it was frequently marred by incompetence and laziness.

  14. It interesting to me to see this sort of blunt assessment of an argument made by someone in the same field. Aren’t you worried you won’t get invites to all the important cocktail parties?8-{D

    One of the things wrong with our modern media is that so many of the people involved know each other & go to the same parties etc. They are unwilling or unable to critique each other in any meaningful way. While I have no useful opinion on the relative merits of any of these arguments (I only know the books I enjoy reading, have no idea which are more praise worthy) but I do appreciate a reasoned back and forth.

  15. Clarence Rutherford:

    “One of the things wrong with our modern media is that so many of the people involved know each other & go to the same parties etc.”

    The irony in this case is that the science fiction field used to be substantially smaller, so the idea that familiarity would breed caution is kind of amusing, given science fiction and fantasy’s history.

  16. We need more grading of hate mail. Thank you both to our host and to Nicholas Condon for making my morning. :)

  17. I can appreciate the thesis that Mr. Priest is forwarding here, but does he have to be such an asshole about it?

    On a more positive note, I was not aware of the Clarke or it’s nominees in anything more than a vague way, and now I am. Several books here I’m going to add to my list, including a couple that he rips pretty badly. :)

  18. Mr. Priest is a stylist, and wants books to shine with style. Style is a virtue, but by no means the only one. What he seems to be complaining about with Charlie is a want of style, or at least of personal style, Charlie, on the other hand, is an advocate of story, which is also a virtue and (to my mind) a far more important one.

    I understand Priest’s point of view, but it’s a minority one, and a bit odd. Philip K. Dick would never pass muster.

  19. Is it bad that I’m using Priest’s rant as a “recommended reading” list? I hadn’t heard of half of what he felt were deserving pieces of fiction. I’m not saying they’re bad or anything… I just wish more people would be so considerate as to suggest books at me while they complain about things.

  20. I have to say that I found Priest’s “rant,” as people here are calling it, pretty enjoyable. But then, I tend to agree with most of his assessments. Alas.

    But actually, as a new-ish reader of Whatever, what I’m most impressed by is the level of the comments here. Who knew polite & snarky could go together so well? Mr. Scalzi or his regular readers/commenters should offer a course in how to intelligently disagree with others on the internet. Although, I suppose only those who are actually *interested* in intelligent conversation would be likely to enroll…

  21. I dunno. I personally wasn’t able to get very far into Rule 34 myself, but I would hardly use it as a benchmark by which to measure charlie.

    Likewise, I would criticize China Mieville’s books, but not on the basis that their lazy. Far from it. The most frustrating thing about his books are that his digressions and side stories are so imaginative and interesting that the main plot can almost never keep up with them.

  22. Dani:

    That’s the magic of the Mallet of Loving Correction, and a group that self-selects to have conversation, not to post declamatory statements.

  23. I don’t understand why Christopher Priest thinks “goes on being… amusing for far too long” is a bad thing. I like to be amused. *Adds Rule 34 to wishlist.*

  24. In Priest’s defense, it is a terrible short list. In the Clarke’s defense, they only had a pool of sixty books to pick from, many of which are not SF even by a very generous definition of that term (which means no Mr. Fox) and of the 14 I read, 11 were mediocre or worse (and Mr. Fox, a superior choice to at least three of what was picked, is fantasy). Although if I assume what I read was typical, 14 is about a quarter of 60 so if I saw two books I thought were defendable candidates, 60 books should have been good for about six decent. Just, you know, not a set of six that include the the Bear, the Rogers, or the Tepper.

    At least they didn’t pick the Willis books.

  25. Priest is entitled to his opinion, and even entitled to be snarky about it. Not sure why people are hating on him for it. His characterizations of the shortlisted authors have bite because there’s an element of truth to them; Stross does indeed remind one of an internet puppy, which I find delightful but which others may not. Embassytown is a good book overall and Mieville’s love of language shines through, but Priest pegs weaknesses in it that are in fact present. And Priest does present his own alternative slate, so you can slag on his choices if you like. He’s has fulfilled all the requirements for internet snarking – making criticisms with justification behind them, and showing how he would do better. We need more of this sort of snark.

  26. Excellent, this was my thinking as well, that he serve on the jury next year. I believe we have the makings of a true grass-roots movement!

  27. What about Priest’s essay says “this is a man who the other four jurists would find pleasant to share a jury with”? Is this intended as a punishment detail for the other jurists?

  28. Man. There is never internet wank over the awards that I have a hand in. I am really starting to feel left out. Maybe next year will be my year!

  29. Michael:

    “Priest is entitled to his opinion, and even entitled to be snarky about it.”

    I’m not aware of saying anything otherwise. And as noted, in general this is a better version of this sort of rant than we usually get. That said, Priest still indulges in the fallacy that his opinion is a sort of absolute, and because the jury picks works he does not approve of, they are therefore “incompetent.” They probably aren’t, and as noted earlier there are likely defensible arguments for each book on the slate. So his snark is fine; he faceplants in the conclusion.

    James Davis Nicoll:

    I’m sure we can find four other jurists who deserve Christopher Priest, don’t you?

  30. I was pleasantly surprised to see Drew “Paid To Curse On The Internet” Magary made the Clarke shortlist. The man made a career out making fun of the writing of Peter King so will probably take this in stride. BTW, the US title of his book is “The Postmortal” instead of “The End Specialist” if anybody wants to check it out. Drew is another author to make the transition from writing on the internet to print novels. I wonder if I’m the only person who makes sure to read Whatever and KSK every day.

  31. “James Davis Nicoll: I’m sure we can find four other jurists who deserve Christopher Priest, don’t you?”

    In fact, I think it is highly likely that we will find them within the next 7 days!

  32. It is interesting to note that a few of the books Priest deems worthy of consideration have rather low ratings on Goodreads (including two that are below 3/5; on Goodreads, anything below 3.75 can probably safely be considered “mixed reviews” at best). Not that the collective assessment says anything definitive about their quality or lack thereof, nor does a popular drubbing bar Priest or anyone else from liking them. Rather, it shows that every person reads every book differently, and we’re not going to agree on what makes said book good or bad 100 percent of the time, so obviously no one is ever going to be happy with a slate of nominations like this.

    But no, fire everyone, I guess. Fire the readers on Goodreads who didn’t like these books I like!

  33. The Arthur C. Clarke award makes no sense. It should be given to hard sf.

    Priest’s criticisms of Stross & Mieville are right on the money as far as I’m concerned.

  34. I find myself intrigued to see how the critical dynamics between Priest and Andy Remic would work out. Hmmm. Priest, Asher, Remic, Roberts… Need one more. Is Moorcock still active?

  35. Yes, but he’s in Texas these days.

    tam:

    “It should be given to hard sf.”

    As Clarke himself initially funded the award and presumably had the ability to dictate the scope of the award at the outset, it seems as if he would disagree with you, tam.

  36. John @10.40a:

    Will you now be referring to it as the “Magical Mallet of Loving Correction”?

  37. In vehement agreement with you here, I offer my post from last year about canards from the Hugo Awards process, and in particular the maxim that The failure of your favorites to be nominated for/to win [the award] does not constitute a failure of process. I wish I could be astonished at the number of people who are convinced that of course All Right Thinking People are 100% behind whatever that person thinks, so if the individual’s personal favorites don’t win, it’s a Failure Of Process. You get people like that who seem convinced that sinister forces are cooking the books on the Hugo Awards since of course [insert work here] is obviously the best thing ever published and anyone who thinks otherwise is a deluded fool.

    I’ve almost gotten to the point where I look forward to the annual cries along the lines of “The Hugo Committee must rescind these crooked nominations/awards and give them to [insert work here].” What I really want to have happen (but isn’t likely) is to get two of these “You’re All WRONG” types with diametrically opposed views on what is best to start arguing with each other and sell popcorn for the event.

  38. The failure of your favorites to be nominated for/to win [the award] does not constitute a failure of process.

    It can indicate that the people responsible for the outcome have terrible taste. See, for example, the year Anderson’s “The Saturn Game”, whose moral is it is a bad idea to engage in participatory hallucinations while exporing an unfamiliar and hostile world, beat out such stories “Blue Champagne” and “True Names” for Best Novella. In such a case it is not just permitted but almost required to enquire just what the voters were smoking and why it is they apparently hate science fiction.

    WHAT! IT WON A NEBULA TOO???!!!!???!!!

    See also the year Ben Bova’s remarkably dire TITAN won the Campbell.

  39. James David Nicoll,

    I think it’s a legitimate contention that nominees for an award ought to be comprised of the best stuff out there, though of course the judgment as to what’s “best” is going to be subjective. But to be shocked that a contest in which the winner is decided by popular vote is based, at least in part, on popularity seems extremely naive.

  40. Well, I will be on the jury next year if all goes to plan (I did it last year and am now skipping a year) and would be happy to work alongside Chris, who is a friend, although I disagree with his approach here. I’m also very pleased to see Charlie on the shortlist and wish ‘em all luck. Having worked with a number of the judges, I consider them to be pretty competent. However, ‘Liz Williams likes a lot of people’ probably isn’t very newsworthy.

  41. …if Embassytown is China Mieville underachieving, we should all slack as well as he.

    To be fair, a real writer would have written the whole book in first person from the POV of one of the Hosts, complete with bifurcated sentences. Let the reader sink or swim!

  42. John – while true I assume there will come a time in the near future where you will find yourself sitting next to Mr. Priest at some function. That has to be uncomfortable & I commend your willingness to publicly disagree. I hope he is grown up enough to have that disagreement without becoming petty (well, since I really don’t know you beyond your books & this blog I hope the same of you ;) )

    As for the comment about how great a place this is for reading threads; you act like you don’t know how really wonderful this place is. I read a lot of sites & there are dang few I will wade into the fever swamp that is their comment section. While those of us who self-select in deserve some tiny credit you and your judicious use of the MoLC really made that self-selection possible. THANKS

  43. Wow. That was an epic rant on Priest’s part! Although I admit when he got to the part about suggesting the awards be canceled and the judges be fired, I totally expected him to morph into Alan Rickman, shouting, “AND CALL OFF CHRISTMAS!” Good on him for defying my expectations!

  44. There is some interesting discussion on Intenet Puppy Charles Stross’s blog.

    For the record, my late friend, coauthor, and co-edior Sir Arthur C. Clarke liked BOTH Hard Science Fiction (as he was heir to the Olaf Stapledon empire) and Fantasy. I wrote the Intro or Preface, for example, to a small press compilation of his correspondence with Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany…

  45. >I totally expected him to morph into Alan Rickman

    There is a slight resemblance, actually.

  46. I liked the Prestige and now for some irrational reason I feel like an embarrassed participant in thedemand that the Clarke jurors be fired. I haven’t read the works in question, and perhaps I would agree with Priest’s assessment if I had, but really, fire the jurors? I find myself wondering who would have the authority or standing to do so.

  47. It’s hard to take it seriously when he offers as an alternative a book that he says he has only read 80 pages of.

    I find Adam Roberts’ books are actually best when you only read 80 pages of them. Less, even.

    And his criticisms aren’t entirely without merit; Stross’s dialogue does tend to the clunky and his techno enthusiasm does have a slightly incontinent-puppy quality to it. I like his stuff, mind – but I recognise its shortcomings.

  48. Boy am I glad I stopped by. I was reading Priest’s rant and thinking, “Wonder what WHATEVER is
    saying about this?” Voila!

    I think these kinds of rants serve the useful purpose of making people *think* about what they read.
    Do we agree or disagree with the guy speaking? Do we have an alternative argument?
    These questions are invaluable to the craft of literature. Actually to ANY craft or art, whether it’s
    literature, music or painting/drawing/mixed media, etc.

    Personally I read Mr. Priest’s opinions as “Sounds like a matter of taste but let me go back and re-read
    the nominees. And while I’m at it, read the ones he thought were overlooked.” Interesting, useful but
    I’m not sure I agree with the dude.

    My To Be Read List just got longer….

  49. Even as I disagree heavily with Priest’s assessment of the field and its current talents, I would dearly love to see him write more on the subject. In fact, he ought to do critiques of every major new publication. Perhaps as a video blog. With cheaply animated slideshows.

    Yes, I’m demanding the scifi world’s version of Zero Punctuation. Because it would be glorious on so very many levels. Not the least of which is because I am all but certain that the mere idea would ruffle Priest’s feathers badly.

  50. Well, Priest’s rant didn’t convince me of anything other than “Christopher Priest is a flaming jackhole with no manners at all.” (Perhaps a classist and a Thatcher-like “English nationalist” too, if I read his attack on Charlie’s “och-aye” dialogue correctly.) Well, maybe that I ought to have a look at Osama, but that’s because his description of it sounds interesting, not because of his opinion.

    I think the inability to distinguish between one’s own taste and some kind of absolute objective quality is an adolescent trait. I personally got over it when I learned what really good beer is supposed to taste like, and found that (at 16) I preferred really bad beer (this taste or lack thereof did not persist, but I kept the lesson).

    What he says about China Mieville is point-and-laugh stupid. So Priest doesn’t like the immersion-and-incluing style of SF; fine, I don’t like the infodump style (well, except when Charlie does it, because he writes it like Asimov science writing gone creepy, and it has its own fascination…and I don’t mind it so much when Cherryh does it either) or the As-You-Know-Bob style. But then I like to figure things out, whereas Priest apparently likes things handed to him on a silver platter. For heaven’s sake, Priest, stop whining. Not everything is going to be done just as you would do it. Write an infodump book if you want.

    His attack on Charlie Stross strikes me as crossing the line into the personal, or maybe Priest is a Tory and is infuriated by Charlie’s politics. I haven’t read the book in question, but I’ve read and greatly enjoyed many of Charlie’s books, and in our brief conversations at conventions found him pleasant, engaging, and unpretentiously friendly to an utter nobody like me. So I resent what appears to me to be a personal attack on Charlie.

    Finally, in my experience when people who are highly literate and extremely verbal become intoxicated, they lose their humility, judgment, and manners just like everyone else, but maintain their verbal coherence; hence, focused but ill-considered rants. They do lose their mathematical ability, which would explain Priest’s incorrect addition. So I wonder if perhaps he wrote and published this after one too many stouts down at Mrs. Thatcher’s Pub.

  51. Prior to this, I was tangentially aware that Christopher Priest was a science fiction writer, though quite honestly I’ve never read anything by him; only seen the movie based on his work and assumed he was actually the other Christopher Priest (the comic writer).

    Now that I am more aware of him from his criticism of the Clarke award and then reading of some of his book entries on his website, I am also convinced that he is something of an asshole. His writeup of the Prestige takes pains to say how much more clever his book is, though his write-up on his experiences of having it adapted pay it more lip service. His ‘Book on the Edge of Forever’ appears to be a screed against Harlan Ellison (which is his right and possibly warranted), but his write-up about the book engages in supposing that an Amazon critic is Ellison-In-Disguise (!) trying to sabotage him and keep him down(!).

    I’d say that he’d lost a reader, but seriously: I’d have to have been already reading his work for that to be true. As it is, I think he’s perfectly entitled to be a crotchety, classless jerk with a strong opinion. But I don’t have to like him for it. In truth, I find his opening shots at mystery writer that he shared a stage with at the Oxford Literary event to be like school in summer: [mushmouth] NO CLASS.[/mushmouth]

  52. Great ranting – entertaining, funny and very enjoyable. Suspect there’s an untold story behind the passion, maybe he was on the judging panel at one point and resigned. The review of Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three was almost perfect, categorizing the book and identifying the type of person who would enjoy it (me, apparently), all without giving away any of the plot.

  53. “Spastic Fecal Dispersement” is the name of my Plasmatics cover band. ;)

    And, wow. I read Priest’s rant this morning and read it again this afternoon, and while I thought it started off making a halfway-decent point, at the end he came off sounding like a petulant child, albeit a very erudite one. And as the father of a frequently-petulant three year old boy, I know whereof I speak. It also left me hoping Charlie Stross wins the Clarke, just so Stross can thank him publicly for helping him sell more books.

  54. His attack on Charlie Stross strikes me as crossing the line into the personal, or maybe Priest is a Tory and is infuriated by Charlie’s politics.

    In fairness, given that Charlie tends to be well off of any linear spectrum in this regard, he could be Labour and be infuriated by Charlie’s politics.

    I read that part more as “you kids get off my lawn garden”, though.

  55. Jamie, way back at #2: That’s the classiest formation of “Wow, who pissed in HIS Cheerios?” I’ve ever seen, and I will be adding it to my own arsenal.

    On a more personal note: I have not to date read any books by Mr. Priest, and reading his post makes me disinclined to change that, for reasons well-delineated by Xopher above. Yes, it’s possible to enjoy a writer’s work without liking the writer in question, but some things just taint the entire pool.

  56. “I’m sure we can find four other jurists who deserve Christopher Priest, don’t you?”

    I’m taking it from Liz Williams’ post that the Jury for next year’s awards has already been picked. Which is good, because I don’t have to waste my time campaigning to get Harlan Ellison on it next to Chris…

  57. Looks like I never said much about him through 2004 online except:
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/authorsP.html#Pr
    Christoper Priest, British author {to be done}
    Christopher Priest tribute
    “The Inverted World” [Harper & Row, 1974; Science Fiction Book Club;
    Popular] is selected and praised in “Science Fiction: The 100
    Best Novels” by David Pringle
    other books include:
    * Darkening Island [Harper & Row, 1970; Manor]
    * Indoctrinaire [[Harper & Row, 1970; Pocket]
    * The Perfect Lover [Scribners, 1977]
    * The Space Machine [Harper & Row, 1976; Popular]

  58. This was a classic, ‘get off my lawn’ bit of classic Britishness, certainly nothing to do with politics.

    Having met the guy and listened to him talk about his writing process (this was around the time of The Prestige) he really is quite the opposite of how Charlie and many other writers work. He’s also old enough to have a very formal regard for the English language and I took this more as an attack on genre ‘writing’ than necessarily specifics.

    I strongly suspect he hated that Rule 34 is a second person narrative of a future world, rather than a third person narrative of a known one with a fantastic edge, which Priest specialises in.

  59. If I was to respond to this with snark in return, I’d say that the movie of THE PRESTIGE has more depth, literary merit, ethical complexity, and emotional impact than the novel on which it was based. (To go into detail would be to list spoiler after spoiler of both, so I would rather encourage people to both read and see the thing, since, no matter how much snark I’m throwing at Priest, the book’s actually GOOD.)

    Seriously, I find Priest’s rant to be more endearing than offensive.

  60. I’ve never read Mr Priest’s novels, but they are now on my “read immediately” list. This review is brilliant, utterly scintillating. Moreover, I disagree w/ you that Mr Priest loses the plot by making judgements. Everything about this piece sets Mr Priest up as a valid critical trope, that of “expert.” This is the Dorothy Parker school of criticism, and it is executed expertly. The piece would not be complete without the drop of the gavel, like a romance novel w/ no LHEA, or a mystery w/ no corpse.

    I would have dinner, and possibly sex, with this man. Or, at least his brain.

  61. clambson:

    “Moreover, I disagree w/ you that Mr Priest loses the plot by making judgements.”

    I wonder how you can disagree with me on that when that’s not what I said. I said he lost the plot when he blamed others for not having his personal taste.

    “Everything about this piece sets Mr Priest up as a valid critical trope, that of ‘expert.’”

    I don’t think anyone doubts Mr. Priest is an expert in science fiction. However, he’s not correcting people on matters of fact. He’s expressing an opinion. Expert though Mr. Priest may be, he’s railing against a jury of people who are very likely also experts in the field, to a greater or lesser extent, whose opinions are probably reasonably informed. For that matter, I am an expert on science fiction, my opinions are definitely reasonably informed, and I disagree with Mr. Priest on several points. Being an “expert” doesn’t mean your opinion is unassailable.

    “This is the Dorothy Parker school of criticism, and it is executed expertly.”

    You may need to read more Parker.

  62. I thought it was a highly enjoyable rant. and I do want my own internet puppy mug.
    I would never even consider not reading another of Priest’s books because of it. I think the art should be separate from the author unless absolutely necessary. But then again, there are always other things to read.

    as FWIW it’s worth, xopher, I didn’t read his criticism of Embassaytown at all being that *he* doesn’t like “the immersion-and-incluing style of SF”, I thought it was a legitimate point about the danger of limiting your art. “drive home the fact that he is defined and limited by the expectations of a genre audience….unless he is told in clear terms that he is under-achieving, that he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces, he will never write the great novels that many people say he is capable of. “
    whether or not you agree with Priest is one thing, but that is an important critique to make and not at all based on his personal taste of info-dump vs. immersion.

  63. That was a rant of fascinating contradictions. He disses Arthur C. Clarke’s work as inconsequential as literature and the award — which he has received — as a worthless creation of Clarke’s ego, while at the same time declaring it vitally important and required to shape the literary canon. He advocates that the books nominated should have as little science in them as possible, in direct contrast to Clarke’s own work. Granted that many of the award’s winners are not hard science fiction, but then why would this mean that hard SF should be banned from consideration as “best”? Instead, the key criteria for Priest is experimentation, yet he insists that all language must be formal and avoid modern vernacular, which greatly limits experimentation and is certainly unusual coming from a New Wave author when one of the things the New Wave delighted in was deliberately using modern vernacular as a tool. He dismisses what experimentation he does find in the nominees as too bound in old ideas and approaches of SF, while ignoring that a central idea of two of the novels he’s picking as alternatives — the playing around with famous real people into different perspectives — is one of the oldest SF gambits around, that Dead Water’s things happening in different time periods is ditto traditional SF formatting, and that Roberts’ use of the rich in his novel is hardly different a SF approach from the one he knocks as detrimentally nostalgic in The End Specialist. (The novels he advocates are from great authors and all sound interesting; I’m just noting his criteria.)

    He also comes across as dead set against suspense as plebian nonsense, but suspense has been a major part of his work and of the works he’s advocating, one of which is using “pulp”, so by that we’d assume he means certain kinds of suspense and/or presentations of suspense, but other than slang and perhaps gun play, the differentiation is vague at best. He slams several nominees for satiric content while advocating two novels that are essentially satires. He declares that the goal of SF writing should be to ever go forth into the future of presumably both speculative ideas of what might be and experimental writing play, but advocates three novels that look to the past primarily while ignoring cutting edge aspects of the nominees’ stories and sneering at their experiments in second person and language development, and deriding paying any attention to the passing fad of the Internet. (Oh those Internet puppies.) Basically the attributes he praises in the three novels he finds worthy, he then rails against in the nominees. He seems mostly concerned with how the various novels might appear to others as symbols of SF, mainly that they will be seen as juvenile, hence the emphasis on the use of vernacular — youth speech that supposedly betrays a lack of knowledge and education unless used in ways considered ironic, deconstructionist, etc. His praise for Mieville as a genial and well behaved if not quite adult diplomat for SF is indicative of this.

    I do actually agree with him that the Clarke award seems to have gotten a little too obsessed with Mieville for a bit, good as he is, and that this is not ideal for any major award. And I do think bringing up books that seem worthy of awards is vital. But Priest seems more concerned with old social classes of the past than with the actual works of the nominees. I don’t think he is, as Walter suggests, jealous of getting to sit at the adult’s table in SFF. I think instead he sees himself as the guardian of the adult’s table of SFF literature, with adulthood being an avoidance of spaceships, aliens, and anything non-SFF readers might consider too teenage boyish — unless of course it’s seen as ironic, deconstructionist, etc. Why must you be so childish, goes the rant, to which Charlie Stross has responded, as all good teenagers must, brilliantly, with a mocking, slang-filled clothing display.

  64. Scalzi: “At the end of his rant, Mr. Priest inevitably does what it seems most people who write these sorts of things inevitably do, which is to blame other people for not having their personal tastes. This is where he loses the plot.”

    I just skimmed through Mr. Priest’s post and I’m not entirely sure this is an accurate portrayal of what he is doing. I don’t think Mr. Priest ever lost grasp of the point that he was rendering judgements about the nominees, works that didn’t get nominated but he thought should, and judgements he had about the nomination process itself. I don’t think he ever lost grasp of the point that his judgements are subjective opinions, just like the jury’s judgements were subjective opinions.

    It seemed to me that he had a fairly firm grasp that it was all various people expressing their subjective opinions about subjective experiences. But it seemed that he just didn’t bother prefixing every sentence with “It is my personal opinion on this subjective matter that…” Because he was clear that’s what he was doing and that’s what others were doing. And he didn’t prefix it with those words any more than he would start every sentence with “As someone who lives on Earth and breath oxygen…”

    I have run into internet rants where the person wasn’t unclear what planet they were living on and explicitly establishing planetary location might be useful just for the sake fo clarity. But reading Priest’s post, I never got the impression the he lost sight that he was rendering his own personal subjctive judgement.

  65. Wow, he really, really doesn’t like Charlie Stross, does he. :) Even though I disagree violently with most of Priest’s arguments I chuckled quite a bit, because we all like a good rant, no?

    However, things like his presumption that success in the form of a 4th Clarke award would go to China Miéville’s head* actually make me angry. And they make me think that Christopher Priest might be a wan– um, an ars– um. Ah. A tool. An eloquent one, sure. But a tool.

    * Or am I mis-/ overinterpreting “[...] he is shown to be more or less the only writer worth reading. Worse even than this, it would send a misleading message to China Miéville himself”

  66. Umm – and I’ve nominated “The Islanders”, “Embassytown” and “Rule 34″ for the Hugos. And I stand by all three nominations.
    On Chris Priest’s remarks about “Rule 34″ and Charlie Stross, my first response was to wonder whether he wasn’t really reacting to the Charlie of, say, 25 years ago – Charlie has had a far longer career in British SF fandom than as an established SF writer, and I’ve heard similar (though less coruscating) remarks about the young Charlie Stross from longer-established British fans. On the other hand, I very much doubt that the Internet Puppy t-shirts (though lovely) will do anything to revise Priest’s opinion of Stross.

  67. SusanneZurFreiheit: “Or am I mis-/ overinterpreting “[...] he is shown to be more or less the only writer worth reading. Worse even than this, it would send a misleading message to China Miéville himself”…”

    Again, I think that Priest views Mieville as a writer who can become an adult — fulfill his potential as a great writer — but not if he continues to cling to “teenage” genre things and to get fulsome praise and literary awards for it that make him stay teenagery and not strive for adult improvement. He also seems to have viewed Adam Roberts as a juvenile writer in the past, but now feels that Roberts has become more adult in his writing and doesn’t use awful slang. The idea of hair becoming a medicine and social identity he finds ironic, something sophisticated people can appreciate for its cultural satire but that genre SF fans don’t appreciate because it doesn’t pander to what he assumes they want, which is teenage candy. He refuses the idea of Stross’ social satire to contain adult irony because he thinks Stross is pandering to SF fans in a teenage, unsophisticated manner and that then reflects poorly on SF in the literary arena.

    Realistically, the Clarke is often portrayed as a “juvenile” award compared to things like the Mann Booker or the National Book Award by many — an evaluation that the people running the Clarke award don’t particularly give a hang about — and Priest is arguing that if it’s ever going to be seen as an adult award of real literary understanding, it has to restrict itself to novels that would not be objectionable to the readers of Granta. This is of course not experimental at all. It’s restrictive, art as a set, formulaic template of repeated styles and approaches acceptable to a particular audience, except that the definition of adulthood and whether a style is used or not or an element is acceptable or not keeps shifting in Priest’s diatribe. That’s not unusual, it’s not even wrong in a judge for a juried award. It’s just not going to change the judging panel of the Clarke into a bunch of Priest clones. “Juvenile” is the insult most often levied in SFF by fans and critics alike to differentiate good from bad. I find it a useless barometer, but Mr. Priest, coming from the sixties, is used to it being synonymous with bourgeois and so flogs the idea of taboos that should not be crossed if you want to be seen as adult, intellectual and serious. Those who are labelled teenagers and low class, though, as Priest’s generation was in their time, strike out against what is insisted as adult and high class restrictions, changing the game, and so Priest has become the very thing that he used to in his salad days rail against, I suspect. I do wish that Clarke could somehow still be alive just to hear how he’d respond to a guy who was a puppy in his time slamming the puppies and spaceships. That would be fun.

  68. @Kat Goodwin

    I think that Priest views Mieville as a writer who can become an adult — fulfill his potential as a great writer — but not if he continues to cling to “teenage” genre things and to get fulsome praise and literary awards for it that make him stay teenagery and not strive for adult improvement.

    Your interpretation makes way more sense than mine! Thank you.

  69. John,
    Thanks for funny, engaging, and pointed good writing, as usual. Come the revolution, you will be chained to your typewriter under harsh klieg lights (I-before-E-except-after-C) and forced to turn this stuff out by the hour for the amusement and edification of our New Alien Overlords, on the rationale that however much you do of it, we want more.

  70. I’m with Priest. Juliet E. McKenna, Martin Lewis, Phil Nanson, Nikkianne Moody and Rob Grant are a poor lot to judge the best in science fiction. Is that the best group they could come up with?

  71. Xopher, you are totally and utterly wrong about Priest’s critical stance on Scots dialect. He is attacking Stross for being a middle class Englishman who lazily stereotypes working class Scottish speech. Obviously this is not a particularly Thatcherite position.

  72. I thought Priest’s critique of Embassytown was bang-on. The book didn’t have characters, just a bunch of talking heads. And I have the same feeling of disappointment as him when reading Mieville’s recent novels. Mieville’s like an incredibly talented athlete who makes it to the big leagues and proceeds to coast on his offensive talent, never applying himself to the hard work of learning how to defend. It’s the job of far less talented coaches to push and prod such a talent into filling in the holes in his game, so he can become truly great, but some guys never “get it.” Priest is arguing that Mieville has gotten too much praise, that he needs criticism to goad him into improving his game.

  73. I just got around to Priest’s rant (look, these videogames aren’t going to play themselves) and while it *is* a matter of taste, mine coincides with his so closely they might as well gay-marry and adopt a little Chinese girl.

    Mieville is over-rated, Stross’ writing *does* often come across like a 12-year-old dumping pixie sticks into Coke and telling you about a dream he had and, basically, there is waaay better stuff out there than appears on that short-list.

  74. With another editing pass, Mr. Priest’s rant could have been acceptable on alt.peeves back in the day*. Not top-drawer, by any means, but it would have received appreciative nods from the Brit contingent, and helpful comments from the other writers and editors in residence.

    * I.e. in the days before Mr. Stross had managed to sell any of his wonderful fiction yet.

  75. Priest’s assessment of the nominees was brilliant. Especially incisive was his criticism of Charlie’s novels – the man has some great ideas, but his execution is purely sub-comic book. I know this is vitriolic, but Charlie and Cory Doctorow’s teenage degree of characterization and dialogue demean all current science fiction.

  76. I told you all this a years ago. Looking at the Hugos nowadays, everything on there (including the winners) are books I could care less about. Many, many people feel this way also. The field is dying.

    And it is not a taste thing…they just suck. Are not even innovative of interesting. I mean I am not a “New Waver”, more of a Golden Ager. But I can appreciated either type. And am reading The Perfect Lover now. But the modern stuff? Sorry…this wave has long peaked and sci fi has grown boring.

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