Clarke Thoughts: a guest post by Gareth Beniston

Clarke Thoughts: a guest post by Gareth Beniston

By Gareth Beniston

Some thoughts. If anyone has ever read my blog they will, I hope, see that most of the implicit criticism is aimed at myself, though obviously some of what follows touches on various discussions on the Shadow Clarke board.

Subjective taste and critical practise depend on so many factors, thus any reading will privilege certain aspects – close reading, theoretical base, genre knowledge, life experiences, political orientation. Once you remind yourself of that basic idea, it becomes almost impossible to defend the rhetoric and moralism that goes into a special pleading for this book or that. I like a bit of rhetoric and I like a bit of hyperbole – it’s fun. BUT my head would not have exploded if The Power had won this year now would it? It will be hard to stop but I probably should. Moreover, I CAN understand why Priest, Mieville, MacInnes, Kavenna or ANY novel didn’t make it on to the shortlist. The idea that there is some objective truth or taste out there that says differently now seems to me entirely bogus. Even amongst those with a depth and breadth of knowledge about the SF megatext there is no agreement or consensus about the books this year or any year.

This is difficult of course – if we can’t be passionate about the art that we love then what can we get passionate about. When great books don’t receive the acknowledgement and discussion they deserve it feels like an injustice, sometimes a personal affront. The problem with prizes is that they ask us to join together two, perhaps strangely irreconcilable, ways of splitting up literary discourse – taste, value, aesthetic judgement on one side set against criticism and theory on the other. This is probably an unavoidable contradiction – an understandable fudge that we prefer to ignore for the most part because we understand how literature, especially the novel, is so intertwined with humanism, with the middle classes and with a bourgeois outlook, but maybe it’s one we must acknowledge more and explore further. Moreover, even amongst the Shadow Jury and the writers that have regularly reviewed the shortlists there seems to me quite a divergence on their aesthetic preferences and on their theoretical baselines.

Once you get over the idea that the 6 best books – for YOU, or for the good of humanity, or for SF – will get chosen every year for the Clarke then it can be quite liberating. For me the obvious conclusion is that there should be a commitment to equality. The greatest insult to SF, art and humanity is not that Becky Chambers has been on two consecutive shortlists but that there were no women on the 2013 shortlist and only two last year. Add to that the outrageous fact that it is 20 years since a BAME author won. If the Clarke announced their commitment to a shortlist each year to include at least 3 women and 2 BAME authors – as a minimum – that would give publishers something to think about and writers all over the world a little encouragement. This kind of thinking has to be implicit in the judging process anyway, one would have thought, so why not make it explicit and send a clear message to bigots and conservatives everywhere. People might complain that ‘lesser’ books would thus be forced into contention. You’d have to laugh in their faces first and then explain why they were patently wrong.

There is also much said about originality, finding new voices and so on. Yes to all that, of course, but I hate the idea that a shortlist should never again have a novel by KSR, Priest, Mieville or, actually, a few other white men who have already received lots of praise. Why? Judge the text – whatever your criteria. For me that is about its relevance, its pleasure and play, originality, complexity, ambiguity and whether it is asking hard questions.

And BTW, I have no idea what a coherent shortlist is. Coherent how? And after reading the discussions I’m pretty sure no one will ever convince me! Actually, I want to blow raspberries at coherence. Damn, I really should stop with the rhetoric already!

Returning to personal taste……this year’s shortlist felt like a victory to me, especially after last year. But then lesser evilism IS the order of the day in these parts. Three very good books, an interesting one and two I haven’t read. Looking back through shortlists it’s generally hard to hope for anything more. Is that a bit depressing? To settle for less, to NOT reach for the moon? To accept that classic realist texts will win out over experimental or interrogative texts? To accept the formulaic over the disorientating? I’m actually not sure any more because I don’t know how you overcome all the contradictions. One of my favourite books last year was a realist text – Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End – not just because it was beautifully written, exciting and passionate but because it confronted ideas about history, landscape, environment and sexuality.  Was it the same as having my unconscious disturbed and pulled apart by Han Kang’s two novels? No. But I’m happy to have both, to appreciate the work they do and to try to do some work in return.

Part of me is also wondering whether a critical community has a right to the high ground anyway – in taste, morals, experience, whatever – when they/we will, rightly, champion The Thing Itself but not push half as hard for a text like The Swan Book. [Octavia Cade – I know you have tried!]

The Shadow Clarke has been brilliant – some great, insightful reviews; amazing honesty even when it showed up inconsistencies and contradictions; passion, love and care. It is helping me to think about all kinds of ideas and investigate them further; it is helping me to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. It’s part of what has made want to try and read in a different way. What about you?

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Gareth Beniston lives in Birmingham and is a librarian at a large girl’s school. He wishes there were more hours in the day to read books and watch films. He believes that an episode of Blake’s 7 will improve most days. He blogs at Dancing on Glass.

25 Comments

  1. Paul Kincaid 6 months ago

    “If the Clarke announced their commitment to a shortlist each year to include at least 3 women and 2 BAME authors – as a minimum – that would give publishers something to think about and writers all over the world a little encouragement.”
    Really? It would be great if there were 3 or more women on the shortlist every year, and 2 or more BAME writers. But are you guaranteeing that every single year of the award there will be at least 3 novels by women that deserve to be considered among the six best books of the year. Or are you saying that some years people should be shortlisted not because of the quality of their work but because of their biography? (Please note: this is not my opinion, but it is how some people and groups could very easily present it.) Because once you do that there will come a time when people start saying “so-and-so is just the token X” or “so-and-so is just there to make up the numbers of X”. And once that happens, there’s a danger you could devalue the work of any woman or BAME writer who finds their work on the shortlist. You also risk encouraging Puppies-like groups to claim it as evidence that their preferred writers really are being discriminated against.
    Yes, there needs to be a way to encourage more publishers to bring our more books by women and BAME writers; to encourage more readers to pick up books by women and BAME writers; to encourage award judges to treat such books seriously as potential award material. But I think a quota system like this would be far too crude, too blunt an instrument, to have the effect you desire. And it could be damaging.
    And no, I don’t know what the answer might be. There is probably no quick and easy solution, there never is. But maybe critics like you and I, the rest of the Shadow Jury, critics and book bloggers everywhere, could do more to extol the qualities of good work by women and BAME writers (and provide genuine criticism of work that is not good, since that is important too). Maybe we could do more to draw attention to their work as a valued and valuable part of science fiction. Maybe we can build an atmosphere in which a Clarke shortlist composed entirely of BAME writers would not be seen as exceptional, but as a simple recognition of what is the best in the field.

    • Nina Allan 6 months ago

      Thanks for writing this, Paul. I’ve just spent half an hour of my own time trying to think how to word this, and gave up. Personally, if a quota system were introduced, I would withdraw my own work from consideration.

    • Niall 6 months ago

      “are you guaranteeing that every single year of the award there will be at least 3 novels by women that deserve to be considered among the six best books of the year.”

      Just as a practical point, we have the submissions lists for the last mumble years now, so we can test this hypothesis! To make it a challenge, I’ll exclude anything that was actually shortlisted, and try not to pick any author more than once.

      Published in 2016: The Fifth Season, Radiance, Gold Fame Citrus
      Published in 2015: The Swan Book, Glorious Angels, Find Me
      Published in 2014: Lagoon, The People in the Trees, The Girl in the Road
      Published in 2013: A Tale for the Time Being, What Lot’s Wife Saw, Rupetta
      Published in 2012: The Method, Alif the Unseen, Pure

      Is that enough to make the point? I’m not, of course, asserting that all of those books are unimpeachably the best of their year, but rather that they all could be argued for, that they would make good shortlistees. Surely, if the Sharke projected itself backwards in time, these are titles that would be in your “under consideration” lists. I could do the same exercise for writers of colour — a bit more of a stretch, but my god, how is it that the 2014 Clarke overlooked A Tale for the Time Being and A History of the Future in 100 Objects and The Man with the Compound Eyes< *and* City of Devi? That the 2012 Clarke shortlisted neither Zone One nor How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? And so on. And all of this discounts the incentive that such principles would (hopefully) represent (if what we are told about the Clarke’s ability to increase sales these days is accurate …) — if such principles were in place, would we already have a UK edition of Rosewater? Of Version Control? Of Elysium?

      So yes, I think we can guarantee that in any given year there would be three books by women, and almost certainly two by writers of colour, worthy of inclusion in a discussion about the best science fiction of the year. I don’t think any compromise on quality would be needed, just greater and more explicit reflection on what types of quality are being recognised. I think, in fact, that given the above lists (which are obviously not comprehensive), the onus of explanation is on anyone who thinks it’s perfectly reasonable that the Clarke went over a decade without a gender-balanced shortlist. There was a point in the late-00s when publishing disparity was part of a reasonable explanation; that is no longer the case.

      That said, and loathe as I am to needlessly multiply entities, I wonder whether a better intervention might not be something along the lines of the Hemming Award (but for writers rather than themes). And I certainly don’t disagree that critics can do more to build an atmosphere in which the excellence of work by writers from a variety of backgrounds is more readily recognised. I think the breadth of discussion about the lack of women being published in the UK in the late-00s did contribute to the (movement towards) rebalancing that we now see in the submissions lists, by increasing the number of people who noticed the disparity and giving extra prominence to those who were asking awkward questions about it. We need that for writers of colour now, with the UK market simply failing to offer readers books that have been successful and/or highly praised in other markets.

      • Paul Kincaid 6 months ago

        Niall, I’m with you on many (though not all) of these books. I am surprised that works like Lagoon, A Tale for the Time Being, Alif the Unseen and How to Live Safely did not make the shortlist. But my argument is that they belong on the shortlist by merit, not because they are part of a quota. All quotas do is give other groups an excuse for arguing that the system is rigged, and that devalues the whole process.
        If you start introducing quotas, you actually make the award that much less worth winning.
        And really, a half dozen counter examples do no negate the general point about needing to guarantee worthy nominees year in, year out. You and I both know that there are years when, through the vagaries of publishing or whatever, few women have seen their work into print. It only takes one year when something is shortlisted solely because of the quota for critics to start saying that the whole system is broken, that the award is corrupt, or whatever.

        • Niall 6 months ago

          “You and I both know that there are years when, through the vagaries of publishing or whatever, few women have seen their work into print.”

          I genuinely don’t think there is a single year of the Clarke’s history where there were not three excellent novels by women published in the UK. Pick a year, if you want.

          Now, there certainly have been a large number of years when the set “shortlistable books by men” is substantially larger than the set “shortlistable books by women”. But that comes back to Gareth’s initial point: it’s perfectly reasonable to use explicitly political criteria to filter the general set “shortlistable books”, because all aesthetic criteria are already also political.

          • Paul Kincaid 6 months ago

            Ah, right, so it is perfectly acceptable to use your political criteria to rig the award? Because that’s what that is going to sound like to the Puppies, and it’s always nice to give them more ammunition, isn’t it?

          • Niall 6 months ago

            Why on earth do we care what puppies think?

            As I said in my first comment, it’s not actually my first choice solution. But the award exists in a biased landscape and currently replicates and reinforces that bias. The argument in favour of it instead acting as a corrective to that landscape is not empty.

          • Paul Kincaid 6 months ago

            We may not care what puppies think, but if they can point to evidence to support their case they will convince others, and in that moment you have taken the first step towards destroying the Clarke Award. We cannot deal with the Clarke Award as if we live within a bubble of like-thinking people and anything we do will have no consequences.
            Yes, the award exists in a biased landscape; all awards do. But the moment you make bias an explicit part of the structure of the award you are doing irreparable damage.

          • Nina Allan 6 months ago

            All aesthetic criteria may be political, but for one set of people to attempt to second-guess the political nature of those criteria on behalf of another would be to make huge and often patronising assumptions about who is reading what, and why.

            A robust critical hinterland is essential to the health and relevance of any literature, both in raising awareness of individual works, and in discussing political, social and aesthetic trends, biases and conflicts within that literature. But a literary award is a literary award. Within the eligibility rules of that award – ‘best novel written in English’, ‘best translated work’, ‘book of the year by a writer of colour’, ‘women’s prize for fiction’, ‘best science fiction novel’ or whatever – all judging decisions should be made solely on literary grounds. To do anything else would be, as Paul so eloquently put it, to do irreparable damage.

          • Niall 6 months ago

            So on the scale of possible interventions by the award, which of these (if any) do you see as acceptable?

            * Release a statement stating that the award seeks additional submissions of books by women and BAME authors

            * Promotion of the award at festivals/events built around women or BAME authors (e.g. Bare Lit)

            * A new policy that submission fees will be waived (or at least reduced) for publishers whose submissions are at least 50% by women or at least 30% by BAME authors

            * A new policy that publishers submitting > 1 book must include at least one eligible book by a BAME author and, I don’t know, 3 by women

            * A one-year change to the rules such that only books by BAME authors are eligible (but perhaps from a wider pool, e.g includes US books), to draw attention to publishing disparities

            * Supporting organisations release a statement stating that they are seeking recommendations for potential BAME judges

            * An all-women jury for one year, or an all BAME jury for one year (or indeed both at the same time)

            * A requirement that supporting organisations must put forward 50% women and 30% BAME judges over, say, a ten-year period (can’t do it easily per-year because 5 judges doesn’t divide nicely), or they will lose their judge-nominating privileges

          • Nina Allan 6 months ago

            Definitely this:

            * Release a statement stating that the award seeks additional submissions of books by women and BAME authors

            This:

            * Promotion of the award at festivals/events built around women or BAME authors (e.g. Bare Lit)

            And this:

            * Supporting organisations release a statement stating that they are seeking recommendations for potential BAME judges

            These suggestions are all exciting ideas, good common sense and could prove highly effective in increasing the diversity of submissions, and indeed jurors, which I think everyone would agree is a desirable outcome. I’ve long believed that the system for recruiting jurors, in particular, is in sore need of an overhaul and not just for the reasons you imply. The pool as it currently exists is way too small and interrelated, as it were. We need more diverse juries along all axes, pulling in jurors with a passionate interest and broad knowledge of SFF but without necessarily being invested in the UK SFF scene.

            Anything more prescriptive though and you risk excluding smaller presses, for example, who might only have one eligible book in a given year. The Clarke should be aiming to encourage, enthuse, and raise awareness – not issue fixed penalty notices!

            As an addendum, there might well be an argument for making US books eligible anyway. We’re all aware of some notable US omissions that it would have been great to see appearing on submissions lists, so a change of rules in this respect is at least worth considering.

          • Martin 6 months ago

            Now, there certainly have been a large number of years when the set “shortlistable books by men” is substantially larger than the set “shortlistable books by women”.

            Have there been any years when 50% of submissions have been by women and 40% have been by BAME writers?

            I’m not against quotas but I think they are most effective – in terms of minimising negative opinion against them – when they match supply (which they may then in turn increase). Your suggestions downstream seem more widely acceptable interventions.

            But that doesn’t apply to the Sharke Award, which is already a counterfactual rather than an institution itself, and it seems to me that there is an opportunity for a shadow jury to produce just the sort of counterfactual that you suggest against Gareth’s quotas. The fact you probably could produce a worthwhile shortlist for each year would be a pretty powerful statement and agent of change. And, of course, it wouldn’t need to be this shadow jury, you can have a multiplicity of juries.

          • Jonathan McCalmont 6 months ago

            I think the term ‘quota’ itself might be something of a sticking point as it carries connotations of bureaucratic imposition and stressed out workforces. Much like ‘positive discrimination’, it’s a term that skews the debate before it even begins.

            Regardless of what you call it, I can see a strong case for all genre awards having some kind of minimum diversity threshold. I don’t think that the Clarke award can do all that much to put a dent in the systemic racism and sexism of genre publishing but it would certainly make historically marginalised writers more visible and so encourage more people from historically marginalised groups to think of themselves as genre writers.

            I also think it would be useful in terms of making jurors a bit more mindful… I know the conceit with these things is that everyone is supposed to read everything but in reality a book that got a bit of buzz in genre circles was always going to look more interesting to a pool of judges drawn from genre culture. If you impose some sort of guidelines on the jurors then the genre imprints can fuck up and we’d still get a more balanced shortlist as it would be a lot harder for jurors to rock up and do nothing but rep their faves. Systemic bias is partly about habit and anything that causes jurors to break out of their usual responses to book selection and reading can only be a positive thing.

          • Paul Kincaid 6 months ago

            When we set up the Clarke Award our main aim was to encourage British science fiction. Therefore we had a long debate about whether the award should be restricted only to British authors. We decided that that would actually be counter-productive. It would be counter-productive in several ways. For a start, whatever the facts of the case, it would make it seem that the Clarke Award was not for the best science fiction, but for the best representative of a small pool. In other words, the award would be diminished even before it got started. Secondly, it would imply that British writers were not good enough to be compared with the best in the world. Thirdly, the higher the target to aim for, the better people seem to do. I have similar worries when people start focusing just on particular groups, as if women and BAME writers aren’t really good enough to be there on their own right.
            As for linguistic niceties like “minimum diversity threshold”, that’s all very well, but you know that in the popular mind that would become “quota” in about five seconds flat. Because with the best will in the world, that is basically how it would appear.

          • Martin 6 months ago

            For a start, whatever the facts of the case, it would make it seem that the Clarke Award was not for the best science fiction, but for the best representative of a small pool.

            That’s exactly what the Clarke is. Many, many SF novels (including a significant number by BAME writers as Nina has listed in a previous thread) are not eligible because they are not published in this country. Any award inherently narrows its pool. But, in fact, Gareth’s proposal doesn’t do this, it simply increases competition in some parts of the same sized pool.

            Secondly, it would imply that British writers were not good enough to be compared with the best in the world.

            Does the Bailey’s Prize imply women can’t write as well as men or does it bring additional attention to excellent books by women that might otherwise be crowded out?

            Thirdly, the higher the target to aim for, the better people seem to do. I have similar worries when people start focusing just on particular groups, as if women and BAME writers aren’t really good enough to be there on their own right.

            I’m not sure where “focusing just on particular groups” came from. Gareth’s proposal is that the focus should be on all groups and that this can only be achieved by ensuring representation.

            The other thing, of course, is that this year’s shortlist achieved the ratio Gareth wanted without a quota and the Sharkes didn’t think the women and BAME writers were good enough to be there on their own rights so does it make much difference?

          • Nina Allan 6 months ago

            Hi Martin,

            Counterfactuals are always interesting, I agree. Just for example, here are the counterfactuals I would personally put forward for the years when you yourself were a Clarke judge:

            2011
            Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
            Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
            The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna
            How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
            Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
            C by Tom McCarthy WINNER

            2012
            Dead Water by Simon Ings
            Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
            The Islanders by Christopher Priest
            Osama by Lavie Tidhar WINNER
            Zone One by Colson Whitehead
            The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

            Very different from what actually transpired, and very different statements about the state of the field, as I’m sure you’d agree, although of course it is much easier to imagine these kinds of possibilities when one is not tied up in the mechanics and inevitable compromise that come as standard for an actual jury.

            My own interest in and desire for the Sharke was to offer the opportunity for experiment: to allow for a good number of the submissions to be opened up to critical scrutiny, to show interested onlookers the process by which a theoretical jury might reach its decisions, to discuss the state of science fiction generally and – as the Clarke is a British award – SF in Britain in particular. The idea of offering a ‘corrective’ shortlist never occurred to me and the idea of quotas (if this is the word we are using) is an anathema to me personally. I see our shadow shortlist more as an example than a corrective, and just one example among many possible examples at that. What matters to me here – what interests me – is quality of writing, the possibilities inherent in speculative fiction, and critical analysis of both. I find myself less and less interested in genre as such. That’s where I stand. Other Sharkes will and do think differently. One of the most pleasurable aspects of this project has been the interplay of angles and insights offered by individual shadow jurors.

            I won’t be able to participate in any shadow jury activity next year, which is probably a good thing for all kinds of reasons. But one of my key hopes for the Sharke is that others will feel themselves inspired by our example, and that the project will continue with a new jury and a new set of ideas, ideals, and of course baggage. A new jury might decide to take Gareth’s quotas as a template and of course as a counterfactual rather than an institution they’d be perfectly within their rights to do that. I’m sure such an approach would yield some fascinating and thought-provoking results.

      • Nina Allan 6 months ago

        “…but my god, how is it that the 2014 Clarke overlooked A Tale for the Time Being and A History of the Future in 100 Objects and The Man with the Compound Eyes and City of Devi? That the 2012 Clarke shortlisted neither Zone One nor How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe?”

        Precisely the question I was trying to ask in an earlier thread, I think.

        A big part of the problem as I see it is that current juries are always going to shortlist The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet rather than The Swan Book, Ninefox Gambit rather than The People in the Trees.

        Even if Gold Fame Citrus had been submitted this year, I think the current shortlist illustrates quite plainly how completely GFC would have been ignored.

    • Tom Hunter 6 months ago

      I’ve posted two long pieces at the end of this thread, as I wanted to respond in a broader way to Gareth’s piece and all of the subsequent commentary in one go.

      More briefly though, while there have been a number of suggestions about what the Clarke Award could / should do, I wanted to make one in return to this Shadow project.

      Quite simply, I would love this current project to conclude with a piece or pieces on what the Shadow Jury would want to see submitted for consideration by publishers in this next submissions cycle. I do my own research, of course, but there’s always more to learn about and there’s definite advantage in my being able to point to other people already talking about certain books in the context of the award, or just as science fictional texts, that can be very useful in securing an actual submission from publishers (eligible titles only for preference, please).

  2. Nina Allan 6 months ago

    Thanks, Gareth, for a thought-provoking and timely post.

    “The idea that there is some objective truth or taste out there that says differently now seems to me entirely bogus. Even amongst those with a depth and breadth of knowledge about the SF megatext there is no agreement or consensus about the books this year or any year.”

    I think this is perhaps the area where I have grown and changed most as a critic as a direct result of being involved in the shadow jury project, and throwing out the idea of an objectively verifiable version of ‘best’ is, as you say, curiously liberating. When you say though that aesthetic judgement, for example, is likely to be ranged directly against what you call ‘criticism and theory’, I am not so sure I’d be ready to go along with that. As you say yourself with regard to your own favourite text from last year, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, you found it satisfying – ‘best’, if you like, at least for you – precisely because ‘it was beautifully written, exciting and passionate [and] because it confronted ideas about history, landscape, environment and sexuality’. Critical approaches that favour close reading need not be in conflict with historicity when making judgements about a text, in other words, and personally I would argue that they must not be, that any jury that aspires to seek out the ‘best’ would ideally combine aspects of both approaches. That’s the nature of the beast, the nature of ‘best’.

    “[This] year’s shortlist felt like a victory to me, especially after last year. But then lesser evilism IS the order of the day in these parts. Three very good books, an interesting one and two I haven’t read. Looking back through shortlists it’s generally hard to hope for anything more.”

    From my own repeated perusals of past shortlists, I’d certainly agree it’s the way things usually end up. I do keep hoping for more though, even though experience tells me I’m unlikely to get it. This year’s shortlist feels disappointing to me because it’s so unadventurous. I’m playing devil’s advocate, of course (as perhaps you are also, at least a little) but what we have here could count as the most ‘expected’ shortlist in years: the most talked-about book across all genres all year (Whitehead), a previous Clarke winner and multiple-times nominee (Sullivan), an author who, McEwan-like, should have won in a previous year and whose turn has now come (Tidhar), one of the best-loved fannish successes of recent years (Chambers), a book from an author with a huge home fan base (Newman) and one of the most buzzed-about debuts and a wide-screen space opera to boot (Lee). It’s dull, dull, dull. Not one outlier, not one unexpected choice.

    I stress again that I’m playing devil’s advocate here. But what this shortlist signals most to me is that as an arbiter of what speculative fiction is capable of, the Clarke has run its course. As a showcase of where the field is at, some might argue it still has currency, and moreover, that such currency has value. Tottering under the weight of my own baggage, I’m not sure I’d count myself among them.

  3. Jonathan McCalmont 6 months ago

    Really interesting piece Gareth, thank you for writing it.

    I’m interested in the idea of critics taking the high ground as I find the status games far and away the most tedious aspect of genre culture. Personally, I speak for nobody but myself and consider my tastes no better and no worse than anyone else’s. When I write about a film or a book, I write what I felt and thought whilst reading it. There’s no political will behind anything I say… I’m not sure what the high-ground looks like and gave neither the energy nor the nous to seize it.

    Do I wish that there were more books that I wanted to read? Sure. Do I wish that more public conversation connected with the trajectories of my own thinking? Sure. I’m grateful to Nina for settimg up the Shadow Clarke as it’s nice to be able to take part in the collective experience of a shortlist but I’m not sure where the political agency woukd come from as it’s certainly not me.

    As someone who just happens to enjoy sharing his thoughts about books online, I don’t recognise myself as having any kind of duty to promote anyone’s work. That’s a job for people employed by the publishing business, surely?

  4. Gareth 6 months ago

    Hi all, mainly I just want to say HUGE thanks for replying and debating. I think its fair to say that I was trying to be less polemical than usual but didn’t entirely succeed! I’ve tried to script a quick response but it’s just not something I’m comfortable with at the moment – the whole point of doing this is to attempt to think things through anew and be open to criticism – so I’ll hopefully try and reply to some of the points over the weekend.

  5. Tom Hunter 6 months ago

    Thank you Gareth for starting this conversation off, and to everyone who has contributed.

    Like Gareth, I’ve tried to write my own response, and still intend to, but one of the downsides of being a voluntary award director is time in the week, and the conversation on this one has already moved faster than my ability to type.

    So, rather than try today, I’m going to take a little time to go through the above and answer directly and as specifically as I can any questions that have been raised from the award’s own position( and if you want to ask something specific, do reply here) and I’ll also try and outline what we are already doing.

    Thanks, Tom

  6. Tom Hunter 6 months ago

    Thinking about quotas:

    We seem to be talking about two kinds of quota here.

    First there’s Gareth’s specific shortlist proposal, ‘If the Clarke announced their commitment to a shortlist each year to include at least 3 women and 2 BAME authors – as a minimum – that would give publishers something to think about and writers all over the world a little encouragement.’

    Then we also have Niall’s series of proposals for submissions, judge selection and so forth. Actions the award might take outside of the actual shortlist selection to potentially affect the range of submissions received and possibly the opinions of the judges.

    I say possibly because in my experience we shouldn’t expect judges to necessarily tilt to their immediate demographics when in the room, and an obvious example of that is the 2013 all male shortlist which came from a judging panel of 4 women and 1 man (I’ll come back to this particular shortlist in a bit).

    The first thing for me to say is that the idea of shortlist quotas for the Clarke Award has already been discussed at length by its directors, and we have no plans to adopt them in any form.

    In other words, no quota for first time authors, no reverse quota where previous winners are not eligible for future years, no percentage of titles having to be from one part of the publishing industry over another (small presses for example), no guaranteed spot for works in translation or any other example you might want to add.

    We’ve discussed this in the same way we discuss any potential change to the award – should we have a separate ‘best first novel’ category, should we have a long list, should we increase the shortlist to 7 or 8 books to better highlight the range of books we receive every year and so on.

    There are many ways the award could change, and often very passionate arguments about why those are seemingly a good idea, and we spend a lot of time working those arguments through.

    In one particular instance we have made a change with our recent move to open the award to self-published work, and this was made after several years of discussion and partly prompted by some of the concerns here over visibility and lack of publisher / agent opportunity. As I’ve written before, one big prod in that direction was the shortlisting last year of A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, a title that was originally self-launched via Kickstarter before being picked up by Hodder, but the discussion had been going on for many years before that occurred.

    I do not believe, as Gareth does, that an announcement from the Clarke Award would necessarily give publishers as much to think about as he hopes (although I’d also suggest there are many in the industry already thinking about these same issues of visibility) and neither do I believe that such an act would necessarily give the encouragement to writers he thinks it would.

    Indeed Nina’s immediate response that she would withdraw from such an award is not the first time I have had that suggestion made to me when the idea of quotas is raised.

    Quotas may not be the solution, but there is clearly a disparity in the number of women writers of SF versus men, and we can see that quite clearly in our own submissions data.

    Without going year by year, it’s broadly accurate to say that that the percentage of submissions has remained at about 25% across recent years, and that’s before we count other factors such as that 25% not being the same people every year as women writers often move in and out of contract more than men and also that many of the women writers who are acknowledged by the award don’t always consistently write SF.

    While the conversation here has only gone back as far as 2013, when I look back at the award I also see a 10 year stretch where no woman writer won the prize, a lot of years where only 1 woman was shortlisted and there are 2 years in the awards history of an all male shortlist, 2013 and 1998, the second year of the award. In 1998 the jury was also all male, although I should also point out many of those men were also on the previous jury that selected The Handmaid’s Tale as winner.

    Indeed there are in fact only two years of the award where there was an equal balance of genders in the shortlist, this current year and 1993. Interestingly 1993 was a year when the award had 8 books on its shortlist when there was more variation on shortlist numbers in the early years of the award before things settled to 6.

    As I noted above, we have actually explored the idea of a return to a larger shortlist, spurred by the rise in total submissions in recent years. In one way we could imagine that a larger shortlist would allow for a greater range of titles to be showcased, although we also have to allow for the fact that we might find ourselves with an 8 strong all male shortlist too.

    At the time this was being publicly discussed many of the people on this very thread were strongly opposed to the idea of that happening (and to reassure those same people we’ve already made our decision against, I’m not resurrecting the idea today) and I mention this example to illustrate that we do aim to weigh all arguments for change carefully, even those we propose ourselves.

    Now, if I ended here on this rather negative note about the award’s 31-year record, it may seem as though I have actually argued for rather than against a quota system.

    What I want to do is return in a separate post to address the ideas in Niall’s comments and elsewhere in the thread about alternative types of actions that could be taken, which feels to me as the better route for the award to consider.

    There are indeed actions we are already taking, more ideas to consider, and even one specific way this Shadow Clarke project might contribute that I would like to discuss.

    As a final thought on quotas specific to shortlists though, I’d like to end with a question about the year 2013.

    We do not just decide an award shortlist and then announce it moments later, there is often a gap of several weeks between meeting and announcement.

    In the case of 2013 we had a jury of 4 women and 1 man. 2 of those women were genre writers themselves, both speaking out often about issues of women’s visibility in SF&F, and one who had even been shortlisted previously and was the only woman writer on that year’s list (This isn’t to say the other 3 jurors weren’t equally aware of these issues, by the way, but rather to indicate the explicit high degree of awareness in the room that day).

    Still, the jury selected a list comprised of 6 male authors, and they knew that the moment they had settled on the list.

    A little while later my phone rang with the customary call from Andrew M. Butler, our non-voting Chair of Judges, to inform me of the list.

    After my usual failed attempt to guess the choices, he read out the list one by one.

    It was, in my opinion, a great list book for book, perhaps even one of our strongest on certain fronts, but again on hearing the sixth title the disparity was obvious.

    “They’ve discussed this I presume?” I asked Andrew and, yes, of course they had. These were the six books they collectively felt reflected the best science fiction of the year.

    It was a great list. It was also a highly problematic list, and we were pretty sure which narrative would be the one generating the most conversation.

    Right now no one but you, the award organisers, and the panel knows the shortlist so there is a chance to go back and rewrite that decision. A chance to lobby, cajole, insist or downright overrule if you wanted to, and perhaps apply a form of quota to save the day.

    What would you do?

    This is a hypothetical, of course, we don’t overrule judging decisions, and even writing the idea down creates a sense of unease in me, but the question is real.

    You know what we chose because the shortlist is out there.

    We knew it would be contentious and we also knew that there was much that could potentially be gained through the award being spotlighted in this way if it would also highlight the bigger issues behind the shortlist.

    In our view the award was already well versed in controversy and if we could use that to make a bigger point (and we definitely tried our best on that front) then we figured the award could take the hit. My job is to put forward and promote the shortlist decided by the judges, not to try and tailor it to fit a particular prearranged ideal.

    You might argue that this is a very different scenario from a pre-arranged quota system, and I’d take your point. For me however the two are not so different as both require an organizational intervention into an open judging process that currently considers books against the criteria of ‘best science fiction’ and nothing else. The sense of unease I feel is equal in both approaches.

    That’s me though, what would you do?

  7. Tom Hunter 6 months ago

    As a follow up to my post above, I wanted to try and address some of the other actionable ideas suggested following Gareth’s original proposal that the Clarke Award would benefit from adopting a form of quota system.

    I should first note that the award is always receiving suggestions for more it could do or how it could/should do things differently, so this conversation, while focused on a particular objective, is really business as usual in award HQ. Other obvious examples would include the award needs to focus on the future of sf, not what’s buzzing now, it needs to pay attention to the core genre not focus on the edges, it needs to embrace self publishing, it needs to open up to authors outside the UK, it needs to have more categories and, of course, it needs to do more to promote itself and its books to increase visibility and potential sales for authors.

    In the face of often contradicting ideas, and the practicalities of time and resource, I have become most focused on what the award can meaningfully do outside of its immediate announcement cycle. So, for instance, we might not be able to ensure the kind of balanced shortlist Gareth has proposed every year if we retain judging freedoms (although I’m not convinced 3 women & 2 BAME authors would be viewed by everyone as balanced) we can look to partnerships and projects outside of that cycle where we might hope to meaningfully contribute.

    It is this logic that has led us to partner with an education charity in Sri Lanka this year, raising funds for Sir Arthur’s adopted homeland in his centenary year. It’s also why we have been building ties with the organisers of Ada Lovelace Day , http://findingada.com, who are doing a lot of the same work being discussed here, only in STEM. There’s a lot of synchronicity there, and also a lot more data on what works, so we’re learning a lot as well as paying it back with our own experience in other areas (fundraising and marketing for instance).

    This year I’m hopeful that a past Clarke winning author will be part of the Ada Lovelace Day event in London (we’ll be promoting the heck out of it if so) we’ve recently launched an ongoing series of interviews with women sf writers curated by our interviewer in residence Anne Charnock (an sf writer herself with a background in science journalism) and you can check the first of those out on medium.com/@arthurcclarkeaward. From that we’re also piloting an online sf writers club matching women sf writers with women in STEM for research purposes – men are also welcome to engage the group for research btw, but not as members. We are very happy that anyone be able to benefit from the insight of women STEM practitioners however.

    That’s a couple of examples of things we’re up to, and more obviously we’re also always trying to improve our ability to promote the books we do have shortlisted every year, and also all of our past authors too.

    Looking at some of the ideas discussed above in response to Gareth’s post, I think I can say right off that we have no present plans to open up submissions beyond the UK at this time. Most often when this sort of proposal is made it is with the idea of particular missed books in mind, not the vast array of other books that would come at the same time. There may come a time when UK publishing merges globally to the point we can’t draw such distinctions anymore, but until then I believe the Clarke Award is best designed to operate as originally set out.

    Exploring Niall’s suggestions, while we won’t be putting out particular statements as he has suggested, I have already been working on an updated version of our own existing main statement – our annual call for entries – in response to many of the queries we’ve had in recent years. One of the main things there will be to further define our openness over what potentially constitutes an SF novel, who writes them and who reads them. It might not be as explicit as Niall would hope, but it’s already coming.

    I am not keen on the idea of using our submissions fee as an incentive because A. I don’t think the fee is high enough that waiving it makes much difference in most cases B. many submissions of the kind we’re talking about come from active call in anyway, so I’m on the phone actively asking (sometimes begging) and C. the award kind of needs the cash to keep operating, and I think it is hugely important the award stays as a cash prize.

    When it comes to our 3 supporting organisations, I am very loath to introduce any idea they might lose that status if they don’t hit certain jury quotas. Two of those organisations, BSFA and SFF, were there at the beginning of the award and SCI-FI-LONDON was probably the single biggest donator to the award in terms of support and resource in recent years as well as being a great channel to a different audience and a rather nice way of connecting to Sir Arthur’s SF legacy in both film and literature. On the other hand, we are always in need of future judges, and there is no reason why we can’t explore a broader recruitment with our supporting organisations that doesn’t include penalties.

    I wanted to keep this post shorter than the one above, so that’s just a few responses to the ideas above and a swift indication of some of the things we’re working on.

    One last thing to mention though is that we aim to promote as much great stuff as we can across the whole year on social media (Twitter still works best for us right now) and we’re happily pushing books old and new, cool new Kickstarters, events and charity projects wherever we can. I’m @ClarkeAward and always on the look out for new things to share, plus it’s way more fun than just tweeting about the award and nothing else.

    In my experience this drip drip approach actually does shift a fair few books in the longer term, and SF has always been about that longer sales cycle not just the hot new book of the Summer. In a past research project we ran, we identified that many of our fans were reading 50+ books a year and also buying 50+ books a year. The sting was in the fact that of those 50 books being read each year only 5 or so were being read in the year of their being published. Sure, the sale might have been there for the publisher, but sale doesn’t mean the book is being read right away and even in the most avid fan bases the buzz (or more accurately lots of separate moments of micro-buzz) might not starting hitting until well after the book first launched, which is ultimately the driver to future sales.

    For me the Clarke Award works best as a recommendation engine rather than one that seeks a particular outcome via quotas or similar. My own particular first response to a shortlist is not to challenge or critique it, but more simply to try and appreciate why the judges might have been so enthused by that particular book even if I can’t see immediately see it.

    I’m reminded of an old conversation I had with an agent about what they were looking for when they went through their own submissions piles. It might surprise some that it wasn’t a book we can sell, or book a bit like so-and -so (they’re so hot right now) or a book that’s experimental, solidly genre, has a spaceship in it somewhere or anything remotely like that. It was, much more simply, ‘did this book make you want to tell other people about it right away?’

    I am always looking for new recommendations, and the only thing I enjoy more is sharing those with others, which perhaps goes along way to explaining why I’m still with the award ten years after first signing on. That, and I can see from all of the conversations here and elsewhere that there is still plenty of work to do.

    Thanks again everyone for all the thought and passion in this thread.

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