The High Priest

Christopher Priest is not happy with the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist. He’s written a salient argument about it — or maybe it’s more a cri de coeur? It’s not a rant, though. It’s a question about prestige — something, I think, Priest knows about.

I’ll admit up front that I’ve not read any of the nominated books. But then I’m not going to follow in Priest’s footsteps. What I want to write about is what I think Priest, by going for the jugular, is talking about: matters of the heart.

I will say, though, that I’ve read lots of Mieville. And, well, China is the kind of writer I could see having a chinwag with over calamari and chips: he seems such a decent and likeable fellow and I can only imagine what dark matter will come from his telluric mind. And he’s such an endlessly interesting writer who, no matter what you may say about his fetishism for neologisms and a need for a manual for his monsters, he is always full of new invocations and spells when it comes to weird fiction. But if he wins another Clarke Award (let alone his nomination) is definitely skating way too close to immortalizing Mieville as the Chosen One, the writer who should have disciples instead of readers.

I get Priest’s argument: he wants the Clarke committee to raise the roof higher when it comes to its judges choosing the very best books. That’s not an unreasonable request. What’s most remarkable to me, though, is that Priest can bring in his wrecking ball (gleaming as it is) and have such a smash fest. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. He is after all a writer of the inner circle — and by this I mean he has earned in the eyes of many (and in my eyes — I devoured The Prestige and made a graven image of Priest in the pantheon of writers I love, even though there were parts of that book that drove me to wish I had some thaumaturgy of my own to make them disappear) the status of Olympian.

I guess it just goes to show that if you are a writer with an armada of prestige and critical success and awards and respect, you can say what you damn well please and ask “have we lived and fought in vain.” But if, say, you are just some little tugboat on some backwater and started slagging off the Clark crowd, you’d be either ignored or else quickly sunk in a volley of taunts and shots.

So what’s my point? It’s that having such King Kong power in the literary world benefits all writers. So many, many writers never get a chance to be heard — and we all have opinions, otherwise we wouldn’t be writers. So it’s good when a writer you have never met suddenly begins to discuss a topic that you have always thought about. And I’m not speaking about the ego-driven sense where whatever a writer says is worthy of a million blogs running to kiss your virtual feet, but the power to have your voice heard, to make a sonic boom of difference because there are so many voices to compete with, especially those that boom so loud but are just frivolous echoes. At least Priest is weighing in on, at least to me, something very important in life: great books matter and we need to choose them the way we choose to live our lives: with honesty, integrity, and lots and lots of imaginative gunpowder. I respect this and in fact somewhere deep down in my vocal chords I feel like I have the same kind of unsaid words. And though I am the first to hate it when someone says something brutally honest to me, I equally can accept that some things need to be said and not just swept under the carpet. We need voices that rise from the pits of our fears and prejudices and kick us in the soft rumps, not for the pleasure of it, but for the joy of dialogue, for that moment where ideas come together and a big bang of discovery is made or else not, and so we move on to the next thing. But the important point here is that we move on: all things in flux.

Priest’s argument forces every writer to seriously think about his or her own work and whether it is pandering to the Clarke crowd or is it being ambitious, challenging, and a great piece of fiction.

What’s the point of simply pulling another rabbit from the hat? I think I should thank Christopher Priest for breaking the wand that creates this illusion.

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