Christopher Priest Appears in the Comments

And leaves an interesting and explanatory comment on his decision to write on the Clarke Award selections this year. The comment is here, and I commend it to folks wishing to have further context to what has become science fiction’s polemical event of the year (at least until the Hugo slate comes out exactly one week from now).

Also, I’ll go ahead and put this out there right now, which is that folks who choose to respond directly to Mr. Priest’s comments here should keep in mind that I have comment policies, and that I police them with the Mallet of Loving Correction. Christopher Priest left a good and useful comment; see that you do the same.

23 thoughts on “Christopher Priest Appears in the Comments

  1. It’s like… Christopher Priest is a complaining video game fan ahead of his time by a couple of generations. :)

    On the other hand, I feel bad that Priest felt like he had to justify himself as a writer in order to justify himself as a critic. If I was/were currently capable of reading, maybe I would attempt to read a few of Priest’s books, and if the result of this incident is that a few people buy Priest’s books and like them, then it is a win overall.

  2. His description of Tepper’s work sold the hell out of it to me, so kudos on that. I wouldn’t be buying it otherwise. Magic quest, talking horses, bad puns, heck throw in a fourth wall breaking sing-along and it could be a book adaptation MLP:FiM. I sense this might not be the reaction he wanted.

    Also, grumpy old Englishman writing grumpy letter, not exactly news, more like national hobby for gentlemen of a certain age.

  3. I’m commenting here rather than in reply to Mr. Priest’s comment since he clearly establishes that he has no interest in actually discussing the claims or attacks he put forth: that is, his comment cover the issue of “why I thought I should write and post this evaluation,” i.e. based on his history as a writer. I would note that the work of a number of British SF writers is not published/known in the US; his situation is hardly unique. However, I would bet that more British men writers are published/known than are women, in any genre. And his assumption of the universality of his experience, i.e. that surely everybody thought that “people felt the same way about its bizarre and secondrate inclusions as [he] did, but were too polite to say so,” is at the heart of the problems I had with his polemic. What he wrote in his comment has nothing to do with the issues around literary awards (which, personally, I’m more or less against, for multiple reasons, and which I’m not sure in fact have ever or will ever reflect any “objective” best or do major things for a genre). His comment is interesting as personal background and information on his life as an author, but it doesn’t support his claims, nor explain personal attacks (i.e. that the authors and judges are second rate, incompetent, etc.).

    My major issues with his polemic are expressed in a rant in my Dreamwidth journal:

    http://ithiliana.dreamwidth.org/1650018.html

    Basically, I think his dismissal of Tepper’s work (and given that the talking horse and the one pun I’ve seen so far in my re-read take place in the first few pages, I’m fairly sure he did not read the whole thing) is at heart sexist. I don’t consider Tepper’s nominated work to be her best, but I do consider that her work has done a great deal to deconstruct and challenge the “orthodoxies that clearly define a genre,” like, among other things, the idea that only MEN get quest plots and all the relevant patriarchal ideology that is as present in “the genre” (science fiction? speculative fiction? fantasy?) as everywhere else.

    I have no real interest in why Mr. Priest chose to write his polemic: I don’t care about authorial intent. I am only interested in what he said. Perhaps it’s useful for him to learn that his response which is in fact much more subjective than objectively based on any stated criteria is not universal. The most useful thing in my personal universe that has come out of the responses is that it’s encouraged me to think that I need to revisit and talk more about Tepper’s work. She, by the way, is 82 years old and still publishing. She lived through and knows what it was like in the US in the early part of the 20th century, and some of her work is amazingly on target in looking at how the religious fundamentalist/socially conservative factions in this country are acting to deny women basic human rights. (Her work is not perfect: there are essentialist elements, homophobic elements as well as heteronormative elements–note, I say THE WORK, not the author–and a tendency to focus primarily on white women characters.) But her work is a lot more relevant to many of us in ways that I doubt Mr. Priest could ever understand. That is his loss. I’m 56 and have been a lifelong fan of sff: while I enjoyed some of the New Wave authors active in the earlier decades, the rhetoric of “we must make sf truly literary” which had its appeal back then now sounds a lot like “some of us need to get into the LITERARY treehouse but pull up the ladder so none of those secondraters can get in.” There were definitely treehouse elements in Mr. Priest’s condemnation of the Clarke awards, whether he intended them or not.

    And now, back to re-reading The Waters Rising which, while not my favorite of her works, is far from my least favorite (I like Beauty least). And when I can get some time from grading, I may be posting more about Tepper in my dw because, wow, when I pulled out all her books and I have them all, including the mysteries under other names, is it an impressive amount of work.

  4. It occurs to me that the polemic touches on three things…

    Imagine a Venn diagram with three domains that intersect one another, labelled [a] Good, [b] Enjoyable, and [c] Salable. Note that apart from writers themselves, the groups of people considered authorities on all three qualities communicate with one another, but are nearly mutually exclusive.

    If you want to render the polemic mostly harmless, consider that 2011 was, perhaps, a year for enjoyable, salable books, at the expense of good ones.

    …Nor is that a surprise. The rush to all things e- in books is underway, if ten years overdue in my opinion. Between the threat to margins posed by this paradigm shift and Amazon’s profound disrespect for anyone’s bottom line but their own, isn’t the rational response to make it up on volume? That means enjoyable and salable, and every once in a while something good will creep in.

  5. Thing is “good” and “enjoyable” mean the same thing, broadly speaking, to quite a lot of people. That is I think the point; a differing definition of good and enjoyable. For some readers a dense, challenging read is both good and enjoyable. For others, Twilight is both enjoyable and good; no shortage of 5-star ratings, etc. Even saying “critically good” begs: “to which critics?” Even saying “popularly enjoyable” begs: “to which people?”

    But I’m afraid you may be onto something with the “make up for it in volume” remark. But shouldn’t the existence of the ebook revolution mean we can see a complex work published if it is written, regardless as to whether an advance-paying and large print run publisher thinks it is “salable”? Where are the complex, deep, brilliant ad novels which aren’t getting picked up by the big publishers?

    They’re not getting written in the first place, that’s where.

    The over eager feedback loop on “salable” is already claiming its first victims of our literature; stillborn ahead of page one. Either that or collectively the field is having a crisis of imagination, or waiting for a year in which Mieville doesn’t have a novel coming.

  6. Sam —

    I wanted to work into my earlier comment a brief conversation I had with a neighbor recently about Neuromancer, which is, well… it’s unapproachable by anyone with so much as a hint of an attention deficit disorder. At least, that was the takeaway from our discussion. So there’s a strike against salability right there, notwithstanding the fact that work in question is both good and enjoyable.

    On the difference between those two latter qualities, Priest makes my point for me by taking a shot at Sheri Tepper and her puns on the word “neigh.” Would I enjoy such a book? Almost certainly. Did somebody think it would sell units? Well, yeah. Would it earn a hallowed place next to the Sprawl Trilogy, HHGttG et al., and The Wind from the Sun in my library? Somehow, I don’t see that as likely.

    The problem with good books is that they require the reader to really think and take in all the details. People only have so much bandwidth for stuff like that, and the extroverts among us typically would rather spend the required time and energy interacting with people instead of books… which speaks for a big fraction of the potential market, right there. For that reason, I believe on faith that there are several thousand jumpdrives and desk drawers holding several thousand classics that will never see a market, or even the editorial attention required to realize their potential. A lot of things need to go right for such a thing to make it into print, the virtues of the Internet notwithstanding. People who can write classics are rarely good at all of those things that need to go right.

    Meanwhile, I have days when I will choose a Slim Jim over free-range filet mignon, even if the opportunity cost of eating the latter is inconsequential. I doubt I’m alone in that respect.

  7. bhenick 3:42: I wanted to work into my earlier comment a brief conversation I had with a neighbor recently about Neuromancer, which is, well… it’s unapproachable by anyone with so much as a hint of an attention deficit disorder.

    Well, no, not anyone. I am a diagnosed ADHD person, and I read it with no problem (and enjoyed it greatly) before I was even on meds.

    I’m very curious why you say that about Neuromancer. There have been some books that I have found challenging from an attention standpoint, but that wasn’t one of them. I found it continuously engaging, with no multi-page paragraphs of dry information (which is part of why I find the “infodump” style of world-revelation unpleasant).

    Do you have ADHD? If so, what about that novel did you find unapproachable? Or was it your neighbor?

    Of course, you might just have been using “attention deficit disorder” in the colloquial sense of “I just don’t ever want to focus on any one thing for more than five minutes.” If so, I’ll be a little irritated (because most people with ADHD also have a “chase” mode of deep concentration), but will let it go.

    But if not I’m VERY interested in how you experienced Neuromancer, because your experience contrasts so sharply with mine.

  8. The best bit about his rant was the books CP thought were interesting that I hadn’t read. A book that makes a successful writer go “holy crap” is a lot more worthy of checking out than one that wins awards. Like Pizza – awards are aggregates of taste – sometimes the combination of judges comes up with something spectacular and sometimes it’s pedestrian verging on unpallatable.

  9. I don’t see how his professional accomplishments justify his opinions. He still hasn’t said why HIS opinions are superior to all others.

  10. @ Ithiliana

    I don’t much care about Priest’s authorial intent or the polemic itself. Awards mean little to me, and if groups of fans want to give statues and hold parties in honor of authors that appeal to their personal tastes, it makes little difference to my reading selections. Whether it matters to other authors (my only publications are a few programming and CS books) I could not say, but my understanding is that awards have little relationship to what actually sells, which (is correct) would make awards a who likes whom sort of affair. The idea that the universe has an objective aesthetics is even more ridiculous than the idea that it has objective moral values, so one reader’s art is another reader’s pulp and critical authorities are only as authoritative as those that will listen to them. But I digress, because I mainly wanted to thank you for this:

    [Tepper’s] work is not perfect: there are essentialist elements, homophobic elements as well as heteronormative elements–note, I say THE WORK, not the author–and a tendency to focus primarily on white women characters.

    When I read Tepper’s dystopian novel The Gate to Women’s Country, I raised my eyebrows more than a few times at the anti-diversity and pro-totalitarian eugenics it posits. But I knew then as I know now that I was reading a story and not the author’s personal road map to hell. If anything, it was a cautionary tale about the fragility of civilization and, as with Starship Troopers or Dune the deeply flawed setting was grist for the mill. Utopias are boring. Anyway, thank you for not being another person to chime in with, That author’s whack…just look at all the awful characters and circumstances in the story. You’ve given me hope that, at least by some readers, some authors won’t be accused of every evil under their fictional suns.

    Of course, I’m of the same thinking about anything Priest has written (none of which I’ve read), so I disagree that –isms in his stories reflect –isms in his personal outlook. As for his assessment of The Waters Rising, I haven’t read the novel, but, from what I know of Tepper and her subversion of well-trod tropes to present a different perspective on them, I suspect your right that he didn’t read the book either (though the book may still be substandard for Tepper). His criticism doesn’t come off as sexist so much as simply lazy and shallow; whether or not he is sexist, I couldn’t tell from his ranting about the Clarke awards. He mostly seems ticked that space opera and cyberpunk are still alive and morphing and getting attention from the geek in-crowd. However, I will add (in reference to your own blog entry on Priest) that saying you get a sexist “vibe” of his works from their titles and/or Wikipedia summaries seems not so far (to me) from his reading a blurb or first-page about The Waters Rising and go, “Oh noes, another quest novel!” That’s just my perspective, and, for all I know, you may be be right, he may be sexist as all hell.

    Nice blog, BTW, though the inability to see any of the posts until you click on them and through a disclaimer (in addition to the disclaimer gatekeeping the home page) is a bit hindering.

  11. @ bhenick: Like Xopher, I’m someone with diagnosed ADHD who greatly enjoyed Neuromancer and found it very engaging, so I have the same questions for you as he does.

  12. Gulliver: However, I will add (in reference to your own blog entry on Priest) that saying you get a sexist “vibe” of his works from their titles and/or Wikipedia summaries seems not so far (to me) from his reading a blurb or first-page about The Waters Rising and go, “Oh noes, another quest novel!

    True–but in this case, I’m speaking as an individual who has to make choices about what to read and not read all the time, and there’s nothing about Priest’s blog or info about his books that makes me want to read them (and I know cover art is not chosen by authors). I’m not saying that my sense of his vibe makes his work unworthy of being considered for a prize! (And hearing that he wrote an obituary for Joanna Russ, I tracked it down and read it — and he says very nice things about her work, though very much in the tone of somebody allowing an Exceptional Woman into the boy’s treehouse based on her style–I happen to be a huge fan of Russ and have been since I read “Whileaway” at age 14 or so. His obituary of Russ also shows stone ignorance of how slash has been treated in academic discourse at American universities as he makes yet another sweeping generalization that isn’t based on actual knowledge of the field.)

    Sorry about the hassle getting there–it’s not a blog but a ‘journal’ on Dreamwidth — and didn’t realize there were weird things to click through. Not sure I can do much about that–I don’t usually link to DW from blogs for multiple reasons but will have to check it out.

  13. So, it still all boils down to “Gee, the Clarke shortlist this year blows monkey dick” vs. “dude, I wouldn’t recognize a monkey dick if it bit me in the ankle.” (And, surprisingly enough, Charles Stross takes rather strong exception to being called a barely-literate

    I was rather underwhelmed by the Clarke shortlist myself (plenty of B-grade work from A-list authors, IMO & YMMV of course) but how that expands into the death of literature and the Clarke being the Mos Eisley of genre lit. prizes escapes my feeble mortal brain. Answers on the back of a postcard gratefully received.

  14. @ Ithiliana

    I’m not saying that my sense of his vibe makes his work unworthy of being considered for a prize!

    As I said, it’s not far. And as that implies, it’s also not quite the same. You also were at least up front about not actually having read the work which, if our guess about Priest’s criticism of Tepper’s new novel is accurate, is more forthcoming than his assessment.

    I happen to be a huge fan of Russ and have been since I read “Whileaway” at age 14 or so.

    As far as I’m concerned, The Female Man is one of the classics of SF.

    Sorry about the hassle getting there–it’s not a blog but a ‘journal’ on Dreamwidth — and didn’t realize there were weird things to click through. Not sure I can do much about that–I don’t usually link to DW from blogs for multiple reasons but will have to check it out.

    No need to apologize. I just know that a lot of blog/journal readers peruse the home page until they find something they like then click for the full post, so if they can only see the titles, they might just skip it. But I only went to the home page because your post on the Priest drama was pretty good. Since you were only directing people to that particular post, the first click through wasn’t so cumbersome. I haven’t used LJ personally, but possibly it only allows blanket age locks for every page rather than just a lock on the home page. Anyway, I don’t even keep a blog or journal, so I’m not criticizing; I just thought I’d mention it.

    @ cranapia

    And, surprisingly enough, Charles Stross takes rather strong exception to being called a barely-literate

    I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Charles Stross, but if Charlie is Priest’s idea of barely literate, I’d love to meet the polymath literary supergenius that sets the standards for his scale. Look, it’s not Shakespeare! Philistines!!! More likely answer, IMHO, is that Priest would discount the literary value of anything with spaceships, aliens and AI. But that’s just a guess. I neither have nor want access to the inner workings of Priest’s mind. He seems like a civil enough person. I’m happy to disagree with his tastes and harbor no ill will toward him.

  15. He seems like a civil enough person.

    I can’t agree. He crossed the line out of civility with his remarks about Charlie. Charlie is making the best of it, and seems more amused than anything, but that’s to Charlie’s credit, not Priest’s. Priest is inexcusable in my opinion.

  16. Civil or not, Priest struck a nerve. I think that’s why his comments created such a commotion. If many readers hadn’t started having doubts about Stross and Tepper, his comments would not have triggered this kind of response. I think many had extremely high expectations for Stross a decade ago. His early short stories were so dazzling. I don’t think readers wading through the fourth book of the “Merchant Princes” series ever thought this is where he would be heading. I can’t shake the feeling that his recent books have a gleefully juvenile tone – to me, there is some adult level completely missing there.

    I used to think Tepper was the second coming of Joanna Russ, but would anyone argue that she has developed over the past 20 years? Sometimes there is this siege mentality in the SF criticism… many critics refuse to spell out harsh truths. There are websites who never give anything less than a B grade for notable authors. I think Priest is making the field a favor by trying to be honest. Maybe not civil – but true to himself and his sector.

  17. I don’t think Glasshouse or Rule 34 are particularly “juvenile,” whatever that may mean, though he could have thrown Chalker a bone when listing his influences for the former. Charlie has written other stuff that is explicitly marketed as lighter and more fun, like the Laundry. He has also written stuff I thought was not that good, cough State cough. But if Stross is failing, then 99.9% of SF is failing worse.

    Tepper is 82 years old. If I can function as an independent being at 82, I will probably congratulate myself. Asking for “development” from age 62 to 82. Well that is a great New Agey dream and I hope my cynicism is totally unjustified because I suspect it is going to totally suck to be 82 if that dream is not realistic. However, I suspect being 82 is going to suck. That being said, for Grass and the Game series alone, she should have been made right on the spot, regardless of all this “the books are closed” nonsense.

  18. Wow, I did not know she is that old. Mad props.

    I thought the early Laundry short stories were marvelous – they were tongue in cheek, but still had this chilling impact. I just think that the more Stross goes for comical effect, the more childish his writing gets. Gibson, Kessel, Sterling, Cadigan, Kress, Willis, etc. were brilliant in doing black humor and/or borderline slapstick in Nineties. That level of sophistication is gone IMO. Maybe because the magazine market is moribund.

  19. @Privateiron: Right on! Yes, too many people do not know that she had an entire career (Planned Parenthood) before beginning to publish–and it was this amazing blur of books in the early 1980s, and GRASS should on its own get ALL the awards, and didn’t.

    And yeah, if I’m writing at the rate she is when I’m 82, I’ll be pretty happy too. And awards have been known to reward a later, lesser work when an earlier more impressive work was slighted in previous years!

    @Tero: Despite my decades long love for Tepper, I never confused her with or equated her with Joanna Russ–for one thing Russ’ technique or style is arguably much more postmodern, much more experimental (which means a lot of reader don’t like her stuff–and I’ve taught BOTH Tepper and Russ, and my students do NOT like Russ’ style of writing, but then they also don’t like other complex postmodern texts). Then there’s also Russ’ lesbianism and queerness which she explored so beautifully in so many ways–Tepper’s work, sadly, is limited in that respect, and not only in terms of same sex relationships–with only a few examples, thinking of Marianne and her Magus hubby, and an encounter or two Mavin has, most of Tepper’s protagonists, even though married, experience no joy or pleasure in their sexual lives; many of the marriages are downright abusive. The happiest relationships I can think of off the top of my head are Marjorie’s with her alien friend in GRASS and Benita’s relationship with Chiddy in THE FRESCO. Something I don’t see many people talking about with respect to Tepper’s work is not so much how she does not deal with lesbian relationships–she doesn’t, but that the body of work hardly allows for pleasure for women at all–although I’d argue that’s because of the oppression of the patriarchal institutions (Tepper’s women remind me a bit of Elgin’s women in NATIVE TONGUE). So, no, I never saw her as similar to Russ–but she was dealing with some important issues relating to feminism.

  20. Civil or not, Priest struck a nerve. I think that’s why his comments created such a commotion. If many readers hadn’t started having doubts about Stross and Tepper, his comments would not have triggered this kind of response

    Again with the “y’all just mad ’cause you know he’s right” routine? Are you serious with this? Do you really believe this is the case? Can you not understand how anyone much just think Priest was showing his ass? ‘Cause I gotta tell ya’, I’ve read 2/3 of one Stross novel, nothing by Tepper, and I feel fairly confident that Priest was showing his ass.

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