By Dr. Helen Marshall, General Director of the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy
Last year we convened the Arthur C. Clarke shadow jury in order to support science fiction criticism more broadly, forging links between academics, critics and reviewers, and fans and to explore the ecosystem in which literary awards operate. The project emerged from a sense that the role of criticism was changing. The Internet has created huge changes within the publishing industry. Where once readers operated in an environment of scarcity, where it was possible to read all the major books released in a year, increasingly we’re facing an economy of abundance where the key question is not what should be published? but how can a book be noticed?
This has meant that writers, publishers and reviewers have needed to adjust their working assumptions. As newspapers come under pressure, less and less column space is devoted to meaty book reviews. At the same time, Amazon’s conflation of criticism with product reviews and its use of algorithms to determine the visibility of books has meant authors are under increasing pressure to garner positive reviews. Criticism has moved into online spaces—within magazines, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts—where new communities have formed around them, opening up the conversation in more informal venues.
The Arthur C. Clarke Award has long been an excellent point of reference for taking stock of the changes in the field. It has a deliberately loose mandate to identify the “best” science fiction book of the year, acknowledging that the definition of “best” must be decided by a changing pool of jurors on an annual basis. The Clarke shortlist and the eventual winner showcase the work that has been done in the field, providing an intriguing snapshot of a field in flux. Since its inception the award has been at the heart of a robust critical discussion which interrogates the centre of the genre, its heartland, as well as the margins, where the genre pushes outward. This is why we’ve chosen the Clarke Award submissions list as a starting point for our discussions, and why we return to their shortlist in our discussions.
Awards juries within the context of science fiction are different to those for literary fiction. For one thing, no single award has the prize money and publicity weight of an award like the Booker. Consequently our awards seldom make careers. As predictors of long-term success or esteem they are often hit-and-miss. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent example of this. As the recipient of the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award it met with a mixed reaction. As Paul Kincaid points out, it seemed as if the award had turned its back on the core of the genre. In retrospect, however, The Handmaid’s Tale now occupies a privileged place within the science fiction canon. It would be difficult to pin the novel’s success to the Clarke Award, of course; what the award did was to make a space for it by generating a heated conversation. And what may have at the time seemed like a risky choice has since been vindicated by a shift in the genre to accommodate it. It is this historical significance as a place where vibrant sometimes contentious discussions about the nature of science fiction can take place which makes the Clarke Award such as a fascinating project to follow.
So what do we hope to accomplish? Much of the process of an awards jury is opaque, and yet underlying the presentation of the shortlist and winner is often a series of intense and passionate debates that attempt to answer, directly or indirectly, a series of questions. Should shortlists represent the “best” of a spectrum of books, touching on various subgenres and interests? Should they point toward the centre—the median, perhaps—of where the genre is or expand outward, seeking what the genre might be? Do they reward careers of excellence or showcase new writers? Where is the genre now and where is it headed? What is science fiction, as a distinct category of writing? In their deliberations awards jurors must grapple with these questions and what an award like the Clarke does in any given year depends greatly upon the jury, their tastes and their preoccupations, their expectations and their predilections. Moreover, a jury is seldom a singular thing and a shortlist seldom represents a singular point of view. It is necessarily a bricolage in which some amount of compromise and discussion has produced a list that everyone can live with.
What a shadow jury might do, then, is bring these debates into sharper focus. We believe the criticism is valuable, and that detailed, provocative, and respectful criticism enhances our understanding of the text and the cultures which produced it. This form of criticism is not intended to serve the needs of marketers or publicists but those of readers and writers. It aims not only to make visible but also to illuminate and contextualise.
We also recognise that visibility is still important. We want to highlight books that otherwise might be ignored, discussed in the closed room of the jury but, if not selected for the shortlist, otherwise left unmentioned. For me, the single greatest benefit of last year’s Shadow Clarke project was the production of a number of eclectic reading lists. In a culture of literary abundance I would argue that eclecticism is increasingly important. As it becomes impossible to read everything produced in a single year, eclectic lists can decentre notions of genre and discover new threads and new traditions. I would point toward Vajra Chandrasekera’s desire in his shortlist last year to adopt an “orthogonal” perspective of the field, one which assembled six authors from six different countries, including four titles in translation.
Lastly we want the process to be fun. Yes, fun! Looking deeply at a text can be hugely pleasurable as I’m sure all of our jurors would agree. And the kinds of conversations that spin out of these examinations should also be pleasurable. What you will not find here is traditional book reviews. Rather, these are jumping-off points into a wider conversation about the nature of contemporary science fiction.
The Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy is proud to host the 2018 shadow jury. We feel there is value in a constructive, critical approach to literature from a pedagogical standpoint, both for our students and for the wider science fiction community. We intend for the shadow jury to provide a bridge between academic criticism, the industry’s review culture, and fan circles, all of whom are drawn to these books because of their own passionate interests. So if you’re a fan or a critic, a writer, student or professor—frankly, if you’re a interested reader!—we invite you to join us!