Your discussion points for the day, drawn from discussions at last night’s BSFA meeting, on the subject of Awards:
- Does the sf field have too many awards, or do they all serve valid audiences? Which awards would you get rid of?
- Is a shortlist more valuable than a final award, as a guide to what to read? At what point does a “recommended reading list” get too unwieldy?
- Should an award recognise what seems most vital now, or what seems most likely to last? Is there a difference between the two?
- In theory, juried awards take a longer/more contextualised view; does this mean they have a better chance of getting it “right”?
- Juried awards — allegedly — tend to favour compromise candidates. But is that a bad thing? If a book is the second-favourite book of the year of five different people, isn’t that in itself a strong recommendation?
The other notable part of the evening, for me, was receiving a small pile of old back-issues of Vector, dating from the early eighties, courtesy of Mark Plummer. Back then, the magazine was A5 and had a cover price of 75p. I was particularly excited to discover a copy of Vector 98:
This is the Vector of the month of my birth. It contains articles by Chris Evans and Simon Ounsley; book reviews by Paul Kincaid, David Langford, Roz Kaveney and others; and a transcript of a Novacon Guest of Honour speech by Chris Priest, on what’s wrong with science fiction:
The only thing wrong with science fiction is the “science fiction” label, and all the misbegotten attitudes that have arisen around it. We are all aware of the close-minded attitudes from people outside the sf world who have not read the stuff … we know that their dislike of science fiction is based on ignorance and prejudice. My point is that there are similar attitudes within the field, just as ignorant, just as prejudices, yet they are mostly invisible to us because they appear to be on our side. These internal ignorant attitudes will eventually destroy the freedoms fo creative writers, unless they are exposed for what they are.
Science fiction writers are blessed with many valuable things. They have an active, intelligent and open-minded readership. They have a successful commercial framework within which to work. The “science fiction” label conceals a multitude of sins, but it also provides a liberal framework within which to write. New writers are still being actively encouraged. There is room for the experimental story, for the avant-garde, for the work you can’t easily pin a label on. All this is valuable, and, as far as I know, unique in modern publishing. I say to the remarkable men and women who are my colleagues: write up to the level of your audience. Make life difficult for them. Give them autonomous, demanding novels. Stimulate them and entertain them. Don’t listen to the Loser del Ray-Guns of the world, don’t settle for the imaginatively second-hand, for the easy sequel to your first success. You’re not writing for beer-money, you’re writing for minds. Put your language first; language is the test of reality, the medium of ideas.
EDIT: And I’ve got to quote this section from the same speech, on sf critics:
Then there are the critics, who divide into camps of such extremism that neither side knows where the other lot are.
Doctor Johnson once said: “Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” So it is … but whether we like it or not, sf needs responsible criticism.
Writing is an art, and criticism is the natural companion to art. It defines and shapes it, it interprets it, it sets standards, it provides an overview of what individual writers are doing, it provides a context of intelligent debate. Original work can survive withuot it, and can of course be appreciated without it, but responsible criticism enhances art.
Science fiction critics are usually one of two sorts. There are those who have discovered that sf is literature, and have promptly gone barmy. These are the academics, who come to science fiction from the comfortable security of a chair at a university. There are a few good academic critics, but most of the criticism I have seen from academics has been pompous and narcissistic, apparently written with no love of literature, just a desire to impress.
The other lot are the crowd-pleases, the likes of Loser del Ray-Gun and Creepy-Crawly Crusoe, who shy away from criticism and call themselves “reviewers”. They claim to know what the common reader enjoys, and from this position of arrogance and ignorance parade their subjective opinions with all the certainty of the closed mind.
Neither kind of critic is worth a damn. They say nothing to the writer or the reader, and neither is able to join a larger debate.
Of course, there are a few exceptions. There are some perceptive critics in fandom, who are not showing off, who are not trying to agree with anybody and who write with honesty and insight. And the British magazine Foundation has a well-earned reputation for clear, unpretentious criticism. But this simply isn’t enough to form a body of critical work. There should be a sufficient amount of sf criticism that there is disagreement amongst informed critics, that there is a continuity of debate.