A Tale of Two Literary Awards

Christopher Priest doesn't like the Clarke Award nominees- so thinks the judges should be fired.

It’s been an interesting day in the world of genre fiction. For those of you who aren’t plugged in to that particular social media and niche news corner of the internet, basically Christopher Priest (a much-respected and very talented SF writer) has attacked a number of his colleagues and a literature award of some esteem over the quality of nominees.

You might say that this shows just how little actually happens in the world of SF, but really this was something to behold (it even made the Guardian). Some of his criticism is downright personal, and honestly left me dumbstruck. Take the treatment that poor Charles Stross’ novel gets:

It is indefensible that a novel like Charles Stross’s Rule 34 (Orbit) should be given apparent credibility by an appearance in the Clarke shortlist. Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long.

Which I would say is below the belt. Thankfully, Mr Stross has one heck of sense of humour, and responded with this piece of Twitter-brilliance:

But on a serious note, there is a problem with Priest’s web-ranting. It’s not that he’s particularly nasty or insulting, it’s that he goes on to call for extreme solutions. Specifically, he says:

The present panel of judges should be fired, or forced to resign, immediately… These people have proved themselves incompetent as judges, and should not be allowed to have any more say about or influence on the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

He wants them sacked. Because he doesn’t like the books they picked. Now, I haven’t read any of the nominees (though I have read one of Priest’s suggested alternatives- Lavie Tidhar’s “Osama”). If I had, it may be that I agreed with Priest’s opinion of them (though I wouldn’t express it like that- I am not devoid of tact). The problem is not hisopinion, it’s the fact that he seems to think that his opinion is scripture. That people should be removed from their post because people disagreed with him. I said I was tactful, but frankly that is nothing short of ego-maniacal.

Last year there was another controversy in the genre world, over another literature award. It was, of course, the British Fantasy Awards. This was a slightly more “serious” kerfuffle- serious in that it wasn’t one person losing the plot, but rather a defect in the rules and process. If you want a summary of what went on, you can find it here, but in brief there was a potential conflict of interest with judges.

As a result, author Sam Stone faced frankly embarrassing levels of criticism and sadly felt she had no choice but to return her award. But it did lead to a complete overhaul of the awards’ rules and process, leaving the BFS as a better organisation (in my opinion).

That is not the same as  the present issue. That was a genuine problem of perceived conflict of interest, which necessitated a structural rule change (if not the personal animosity that regretfully seemed to come along with it). What Christopher Priest is trying to do, it seems, is enforce his opinion as law.

And, in my opinion at least, that is where it stops being funny.

Words in Wargrave

This humble building (Wargrave Library) houses a vital element of local community life, and is under direct threat from the local council.

I love libraries. I think it’s probably a by-product of my love of books. The primary school I went to was  next door to the village library, and as soon as I could read, I used to love going in after school and picking out a book to read. There’s something beautiful about the concept; enough books to keep you fascinated and entertained forever. Books on all manner of subjects, you can literally learn anything you like in a library.

So it should be no surprise that, having gotten back to Wargrave yesterday afternoon, one of the first things I did today was get myself down to Wargrave Library. I joined a few years ago, when I moved to the area, but being at university for the past three years, I hadn’t used it in a while, and couldn’t for the life of me find my library card. Fortunately, the lovely staff helped me out by providing me with a replacement, and I’m now sat reading a lovely copy of “The Drowned World” by J.G. Ballard.

The reason that I bring this up, is because library services are currently under threat. With central government piling cuts onto its local counterpart, library services are at risk the country over. In many places libraries are facing closure, in an effort (hugely misguided, in my opinion) to save money. That is not happening in Wokingham Borough. Instead, they are resorting to traditional Tory fare, and handing the whole lot over to the private sector.

The party line is that this will save jobs and services, preventing the council from having to resort to harmful closures. Except, I’m not so sure. Granted, I’m an ardent critic of the Tories, but I think there are some distinct flaws with this idea.

Firstly, and most obviously, privatisation means that profit will automatically take precedence over any concept of duty or public service. In a small village like Wargrave, the local library provides a central focal point for the community. As I learnt last night, at a fantastic Wargrave Words event for Wargrave festival (featuring fascinating talks from crime authors Sophie Hannah and Simon Brett), there are ten book clubs in the village. Ten. In a village of roughly 4,000.

If a private company takes over this service, they will want to make a profit. I struggle to see where this will come in (maybe someone can enlighten me?) save for cutting back on the quality and breadth of services provided. And if there isn’t a profit margin, then the company will be forced to shut down the library. Hence there’s even less protection against the risk of closure than if it was still council controlled. Local residents can at least exercise a level of control over the council, after all.

So here it is. The library provides a key community service. A place where learning and entertainment can be attained without charge. A place where residents can socialise and form community bonds. A cornerstone of the kind of involved society which the government claims to want to promote. Any threat to the library, therefore, is a direct threat to the community.

There is an online petition, and a fledgeling campaign, already set up to lobby against this decision. I strongly urge you, if the library matters to you, to speak up and sign it. Petitions can make a difference, and the will of the people is a tremendous force in a democracy. And beyond the petition, there will in the near future be a by-election in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe ward (the precise details of I will certainly be blogging about at a later date). This will give Wargrave residents an opportunity to protest against this Conservative disregard for their library. And I can promise you now, the local Labour Party will always be a strong and vocal advocate for the importance of local library services.