By Victoria Hoyle
I can tell you the first Arthur C. Clarke Award winner I ever read. The year was 1999, the book was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; I was doing my A Levels and it was an optional coursework text. I wrote 3000 words on its use of biblical allusion and metaphor and read it half a dozen times. I’m pretty certain that I didn’t know who Arthur C. Clarke was at the time, or why Atwood winning the eponymous prize was interesting or important. It was only later, at university, when I started to meet other people who also liked weird and geeky novels that the idea of genre and the debate around it entered my consciousness at all. A quick skim back over the shortlists and winners of the last thirty years shows that, while I’m not an avid follower, the Clarke Award has made a mark on my reading biography since then. I can tick off nine of the 30 winners and another seventeen of the shortlisted titles.
My only deep engagement with the award up until now came in 2007. I was 24, in the spring of my book-blogging life, and – full disclosure – a friend was a juror that year. Fellow blogger Nic Clarke and I embarked on a project to read the shortlist, discussing them in joint reviews over the course of a couple of months. (You can still read those posts at Eve’s Alexandria if you like, but be gentle, it was nearly 10 years ago.) Aside from the truly risible Streaking by Brian Stableford, I thought it was a pretty good shortlist that year: Nova Swing by M. John Harrison, Gradisil by Adam Roberts, Hav by Jan Morris, O Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet and End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I wanted Nova Swing to win, and it did. Although Nic revisited this experiment annually for a while, 2007 was the only year I joined in. I moved on to other projects. I kept a weather eye on the Clarke but didn’t give myself up to the full body experience.
These days I would describe myself as a reader on the outer edge of the sf genre; a frequent dipper of toes but a dipper nonetheless. I say that in context. I read 100 fiction books last year, of which just under a quarter could be characterised as science fiction or fantasy. That’s quite a significant proportion I suppose, and if asked I would identify sf as something I’m interested in. But I know that in some parts of the reading universe that’s not a great deal, and that what I’ve read doesn’t qualify me as an expert in any shape or form. At the most basic level I think of my role in the shadow judging process in this way: I’m the kind of person who uses the Clarke Award as a litmus test of quality and a steer to sf books to look out for. I’m looking for ways to supplement the limits of my expertise and this is one of them. As a reader of predominantly ‘literary’ and historical fiction I’d like to think the Clarke shortlist is a shortcut to the most critically challenging, engaging and powerful fiction in the field in any given year.
I’m invested then in the quality of the debate around the Award and the extent to which it is serving the purposes for which it was intended. I was inspired to think more closely about it by Nina’s essay ‘The Last Hurrah?’ which she first published last year. She tapped into my interest in the process and politics of book awards generally. If I’ve been a fair weather follower of the Clarke, I have been a devotee at other altars. For 8 years between 2005 and 2013 I read the shortlists of the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize) and the Booker Prize; in several of those years I read the longlists too. I did that because, in addition to being a glutton for punishment (and believe me, some of those years were punishing) I wanted to take part in debates about the quality and relevance of new writing. I wanted to explore thematic trends, the impact and interpretation of global events, emerging voices, stylistic experiment and stories that provoke debate. It made sense that book awards would help me to fulfill that goal, given their stated ambitions to highlight ‘the best’, ‘the most’, ‘the finest’. Since books are one of the principal ways in which I interface with a diverse world I’m willing to put a bit of work into doing the best possible interfacing I can. But I’ve grown increasingly sceptical about the value of this kind of literary storm chasing.
The question that plagues me, I suppose, is: to what extent is it possible to delegate my reading priorities to the subjective judgements of others? Juries are fallible and every reader is different; each award shortlist tells us as much about the people selecting it as the books on it. Sometimes but rarely I experience a perfect alignment; some choices appear patently ridiculous. The rise of shadow juries for all of the major prizes is a testament to the enthusiasm there is for informed, thoughtful critique and debate between readers outside the jury room. It’s a labour of love and a massive commitment on top of already busy schedules. There are other motivations too I’m sure: suspicion of the fitness of a particular jury, disappointment with previous results, perhaps the teeniest bit of jealousy, a desire to make personal opinions into public opinions. The underlying logic is a recognition that different people, with different agendas, will make different choices. One reason I jumped at the opportunity to be a shadow Clarke juror was to reflect on that as transparently as possible and to test my own assumptions about what makes good judging.
Another reason is to speak my mind, but in a more structured and purposeful way than usual. Official juries are limited in what they can say during and after the process. They are announced with a list of their achievements and accolades but without the details and caveats about them that will surely come to bear on their judgements. In contrast a shadow jury can share their thoughts, deliberations and disagreements in technicolour. We can lay bare the decision-making process, and reveal the compromises that it must entail. Is it possible to make decisions that combine personal taste with the application of a critical apparatus (which is also a product of your biography) in a way that is meaningful to anyone other than yourself? This is the question I really want to explore over the next six months. It helps somehow to be in an arena where I feel comfortable but not entirely at home.
Before I wrap up, here are some things about me that it might be helpful to know in the spirit of openness. All of these things shape my subjectivity as a reader and, make no mistake, will play a part in the likes and dislikes, approbations and criticisms I express during the shadow judging process.
- I identify as female and bisexual. I have been in a monogamous relationship with a woman for 14 years.
- I am white and British and 33 years old and an atheist.
- I have a Masters degree and am financially comfortable.
- I’m on the left, politically speaking.
- I have a well-documented bias towards women writers, that I work every year to correct. Every year I fail. Correcting biases is hard.
With that, onward.
Victoria Hoyle is an archivist, blogger and part-time PhD student. She lives with her partner and a dog called Juno in rural North Yorkshire in the UK.