You’re Never Alone with a Critic – Shadowing the Clarke Award, 2018

You’re Never Alone with a Critic – Shadowing the Clarke Award, 2018

By Maureen Kincaid Speller

Last year, when the first Shadow Clarke jury convened, its jurors had no idea how people would respond to the idea of a shadow jury. As Nina Allan noted in her introduction to the process, although there is a well-established tradition of mainstream literary awards having shadow juries, so far as we were aware at the time, there was no such thing in place for any sf award. Nearest in intent were the Not-the-Clarke-Award panels which were a much-loved feature of Eastercons for a number of years, though obviously one would have needed to have been at the convention to hear the discussion. There had been informal discussions online, but social media had its limitations, and not just the constraints imposed by 140 characters. There was a feeling that people weren’t really talking about the Clarke Award any more. Consequently, when they decided the time had come to spark a wider discussion, the shadow jurors were heading into the unknown.

Heading into the unknown is of course what the Clarke Award judges do each year, starting as they do with a clean sheet, no definitions, and the opportunity to explore the state of contemporary science fiction in whatever way they choose. The shadow jury’s brief was simple: we would as far as possible model the work of the actual Clarke Award jury, each producing our own list of books we were interested in reading, which we would then review. After that we would draw up our own shortlist and read it against the official Clarke Award shortlist, and make our own choice of winner. The point was that, unlike the Clarke Award judges, whose work is necessarily carried out in secrecy, we would have the freedom to do this publicly, showing everyone what the process of judging an award might look like, airing our opinions as we went.

Why would we want to do this? As Nina observed last year, the shortlist is in some ways almost more important than the winner of an award and we wanted to stimulate a ‘vigorous and impassioned debate’ about the shortlist and eventual winner of the Clarke Award, by talking about a broader range of books, and involving sf readers in the debate.  But what started out as an entertaining project, or so we thought – everyone loves to talk about the books they’d have chosen, or not chosen, right? – became much more complex as the process unfolded.

To begin with, we discovered that the phenomenon of award shadow juries is apparently not that well known outside Europe. There was an unexpected degree of resistance to the concept from some parts of the global sf community, people who saw our enterprise as part of an ongoing attempt to police their reading, which was certainly not our intention. More than that, we came to realise that a surprising number of people within the sf community had become deeply averse to the whole idea of critical writing. I was genuinely surprised to discover this had become the case. Historically, it was fans writing to the early sf magazines, like Amazing, expressing their opinions on the stories being published, who created the fan community in the first place. And it was sf fans who initiated some of the early bibliographical work on which the critical community was founded. Writing about science fiction has always gone hand in hand with reading sf and writing sf. From my point of view, it hadn’t seemed to be that long ago since critical writing about fiction had been a flourishing part of the fannish discourse. Certainly, it had been my primary activity within the community for as long as I can remember, and indeed still is, when I’m not editing other people’s critical work.

Nonetheless, it became clear that many people felt that sf criticism was no longer relevant. What was the point of it? At best it seemed to be a theoretical abstraction that belonged in universities rather than in the wider sf community; some people even suggested it was actually disrespectful to authors to publicly criticise their writing. There was a clear sense that the job of critics and reviewers was simply to promote science fiction, so if we couldn’t say something nice, we probably shouldn’t be saying anything at all.

Here’s the thing – a critic’s job is not to provide plot synopses, nor is it to tell you whether or not you’ll like a novel. It is definitely not a critic’s job to act as an unpaid publicity agent. A critic’s job is to look at the fiction itself, and to have a view about it. Critics write about all sorts of things. They think about where a text sits in relation to other works of sf, they explore themes, tease out aesthetic similarities and differences; they consider what a novel says about the world at large, and, yes, they make judgement based on their experience as informed readers. Which is, if you think about it, exactly the same kind of work as that carried out by an award jury.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that criticism per se has become so frowned upon in the last few years. Is it just that people don’t want to admit this is what is going on behind the scenes? Is it because the word ‘criticism’ carries two meanings, one analytical, the other disapproving? We couldn’t tell but we were fascinated by this pushback against the Shadow Clarke project and decided we needed to explore it further. So, we have decided to run the project for a second year, and this time, rather than simply focusing on the Clarke Award, we’re taking the opportunity to use the shortlisting process as a springboard to exploring the business of criticism more broadly, because we continue to believe that critical analysis has a vital role to play when it comes to talking about science fiction.

Our basic approach will be almost the same as last year, in that our jurors, some familiar faces, some new recruits, will once again be choosing individual recommended reading lists, drawing on the Clarke Award submissions list, reading and reviewing those titles. Once we’ve done that, we will draw up our joint shortlist and then compare and contrast with the official Clarke Award shortlist. But this time we’ll be placing an even greater emphasis on showing our critical working. So, alongside our individual reviews, we hope to include dialogues, round tables, and possibly some podcasts as well if we can sort out the logistics. We’re also going to be talking individually about our critical practice. It’s common to see fiction writers talking about what moves them to write, where their ideas come from, and so on, but nowadays it’s vanishingly rare to see critics and reviewers doing the same. It’s time we changed that. The Shadow Clarke jurors come from a variety of critical backgrounds, and it’s going to be very interesting to compare notes on what we do and how we do it.

We’re delighted that once again our project will be carried out under the auspices of the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Anglia Ruskin University, on whose website most of our commentary will appear. Helen Marshall and her colleagues were wonderfully supportive of the project last time, and we’re more than happy to be working with them once again.

Of course, we couldn’t do this if the Arthur C. Clarke Award itself didn’t exist. Over the last thirty years it has done so much to promote an understanding of what constitutes the very best in science fiction, and to keep that conversation going. We’re very proud to be able to take part in that conversation. Last year, the Clarke Award judges and the Shadow Clarke jury independently chose the same novel as their winner –Colson Whitehead’s astonishing The Underground Railroad. I wonder what we’re going to choose this year.


Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and reviewer. She is Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, and Assistant Editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. She also reviews for Interzone and Vector. She is a former Arthur C. Clarke Award judge, and a former James Tiptree Jr. Award judge. She also blogs at Paper Knife.


  1. Ziv W 6 years ago

    This sounds fantastic.
    Thank you all for your time, effort, and putting so much thought into this 😀

    • I’m finding it genuinely fascinating to sit down and work out my thoughts on the issues I’m raising here, and expect to be raising as the project continues. Revisiting matters one tends to take for granted is very valuable discipline, it turns out. 🙂

  2. Ziv W 6 years ago

    And my own humble observation:
    I also feel that criticism has been losing prominence, but I don’t think it’s frowned on, per se.
    But one big problem that SF criticism has in the internet age is that it suffers a compounded version of the discoverability problem. There’s so much material out there, that it’s quite difficult to write meaningful criticism with any expectation that your readers have read some of the same material you have.
    By the time you look at responses to critical pieces — well, you take the group of people who have actually *read* the specific work being discussed, narrow that down to the group of people who *furthermore* find and read the critical piece, and narrow *that* down to the group of people who care enough to respond, and have something to say. It’s no surprise that once you’ve traveled that far down the funnel, a lot of the voices you get are “I read this book and loved it and so I read your criticism and hated it.”

    It can work the other way round, of course — when some critical mass of critical people say interesting things about a particular book, that can spur interest in it. Which is one of the reasons the Shadow Clarkes are very exciting to me 🙂 But reaching that critical mass just seems to be getting harder and harder– which may be a large part of that sense of “why are we seeing less criticism” — we’re not, necessarily, but it’s much more fragmented, and there aren’t “widely-accepted” luminaries or guides.

    • PhilRM 6 years ago

      That’s an interesting point. I would argue that there’s a somewhat different aspect to the discoverability problem that compounds it even further, which is that there is a substantial fraction of both writers and readers who think that they only purpose of criticism (and by criticism they actually mean ‘reviewing’ as summed up by Maureen above: a reviewer is someone who will give you a (spoiler-free!) plot synopsis and tell you whether or not you will like a book; this is in fact a valuable function but it is not criticism) is to promote a book; saying anything negative (even something at the level of ‘I enjoyed reading this book but I don’t think it deserves an award’) is regarded as tantamount to an attack on the taste of readers who loved it and a personal attack on the author.

      • Ziv W 6 years ago

        That’s definitely part of it.
        I’d qualify that it’s not that there’s some widespread agreement that any criticism is necessarily an attack; it’s more that (hey, big numbers!) any criticism of something popular, that gets enough of an audience, will have *at least one or two people* reading it as an attack. (Sometimes they will also have excellent points in doing so.)
        Which means most readers might be 100% supportive of criticism 99% of the time, but that doesn’t contradict the fact that writing negative analyses is likely to land you in a whole lot of flamewars.

        • PhilRM 6 years ago

          Absolutely, I didn’t mean to imply that it’s a majority of readers. (And of course, this reaction is not confined to SFF.) Nor did I intend to imply there is anything wrong with readers defending books that they love. I do wish that there was more engagement with the criticism, as opposed to sniping at the critics.

          • Author
            admin 6 years ago

            I agree. It’s an interesting phenomenon that does connect with the issue of visibility for books and the issue of what criticism does (or might do, or is supposed to do). What’re your thoughts on how critics might account for this?

          • Author
            admin 6 years ago

            @Ziv: Sorry, this got a bit disconnected. I meant, the phenomenon of too many books to read is quite interesting because reviews, then, need to take into consideration that the majority of their readers likely won’t read (or won’t have read) the book in question. Gary K. Wolfe talks about this in his forthcoming piece…

          • PhilRM 6 years ago

            @admin: Sorry, are you replying to me or to Ziv? It isn’t clear to me which phenomenon you’re referring to.

          • Ziv W 6 years ago

            @admin: I’m afraid I didn’t understand the question :-/ Could you perhaps repeat and rephrase? 🙂

    • Author
      admin 6 years ago

      Someone on Facebook made an interesting comment that he watches movies rather than reading (not exclusively) in part because it’s easier to talk about movies because there is more chance the other person has seen them. This speaks to the value of developing critical communities, precisely because they can build up a shared vocabulary and shared points of reference to have those sorts of extended conversations. But even with a project like this there’s a challenge in the sheer breath of material published.

      • Ziv W 6 years ago

        @admin: Oh, wow, I can really identify with the comment about movie-watching.
        There’s at least one TV show I’m presently watching for the sole purpose of having a regular discussion to take part in…
        And, yes, absolutely. Having a community sharing a focus is tremendous — and hard to get going, and hard to maintain…

        • These are interesting thoughts about the need to build a critical community (not necessarily a community of critics) in order to have these discussions. By the time I realised I needed to find somewhere online to talk to other people about books, most of the forums that had existed had already dwindled away, and I’d anyway not known they’d existed in the first place. Which speaks to some of Ziv’s earlier comments about discoverability. I still think there is a role for the blog and/or forum as a place for people to meet and talk, and I very much hope such a community will develop here over the next few months.

    • Huh. There are a handful of times where I avoid reading criticism of something I haven’t read, but lots of times (including from the shadow jurors), I find it incredibly useful to read criticism even if I haven’t read the book(s) being discussed. (

      • Ziv W 6 years ago

        Hi Jonah 😀 😀 😀
        All I can say to that is “it depends.”
        Or perhaps: reading criticism makes *a lot more sense* when you understand what’s being discussed, and it has a lot more appeal. Doesn’t mean I *can’t* read criticism for something I haven’t read (seen, heard, etc.), but it’ll be harder going, I’m likely to get a lot less out of it, and I’m substantially less likely to start reading it in the first place.
        That being said, the Sharkes function as a focused overview on the field, which *is* something I find appealing and interesting. So personally speaking, I’m definitely onboard 🙂

  3. PhilRM 6 years ago

    I’m delighted to see the Sharkes are back in the water!

    • I’m delighted we are too, and to see you here again, Phil. Very much enjoyed your comments last year.


  1. […] (11) SHARKES IN THE WATER. Maureen Kincaid Speller has posted an intro for the 2018 Shadow Clarke project. […]

  2. […] Clarke juror Maureen Kincaid Speller’s manifesto for the return engagement, “You’re Never Alone with a Critic – Shadowing the Clarke Award, 2018”, says in part […]

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