British Fiction Focus

Marking the Clarkes

Last week, the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced, and the internet promptly exploded.

Maybe I’m overstating the case. Maybe I should say, instead, that our little corner of it did. But ours is a corner I’m awfully fond of, whatever its faults, so from where I was sitting—from where you were too, presumably—the response to the all-male array appeared immediate, and incredibly widespread.

I can’t hope to collate all the opinions offered, but in Marking the Clarkes, we’re going to work our way through a few of the most representative reactions. Expect equal measures of vitriol, outrage and intrigue. After that, perhaps we can come to some sort of a conclusion courtesy your comments.

But before we get into this whole rigmarole, let’s remind ourselves of the shortlist which inspired such a wide range of reactions.

As usual, six science fiction novels made the cut. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author:

  • Nod by Adrian Barnes
  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

In short, what we have here is a shortlist composed entirely of middle-aged white men hailing from either Great Britain or North America, with a lone Canadian for added variety.

And this is to be taken as representative of the best science fiction published in the UK last year.

For serious.

It’s easy, immediately, to see where the cries of inequality came from. And come they did indeed! To wit, let’s begin this overview with a few words from genre commentator and Best Fan Writer nominee James Nicoll, who put the problem rather sarcastically:

Congratulations to the Clarkes for resisting the deadly temptation to produce a more diverse nominee list, especially given the outrageous—by what appear to the current standards of British SF—presence of women, persons of colour and Muslims on the submissions list. In particular I’d like to praise you for snubbing Alif the Unseen, which could have only emboldened those people into further creativity in the field of SF and for picking [Kim Stanley Robinson’s] proud tribute to colonialism and American Exceptionalism IN SPACE! over, say, Blue Remembered Earth, whose author fell into the dark error of actually paying attention to recent trends in Africa.

Regarding Nicoll’s last assertion, I’d politely suggest that 2312 was a far better book than Blue Remembered Earth; that it deserves its spot on the shortlist because of its superior value as a narrative, because the sense of wonder it evokes is impeccable, because its emotional impact is massive… not because it was written by an American about Americans for America. Robinson’s novel is probably less progressive than Alasdair Reynold’s… but the Clarkes aren’t The Kitschies, are they? It’s important, I think, to bear that in mind.

Otherwise, Nicoll gets right to the root of the larger reaction in a very deliberate fashion. There’s certainly a problem with the shortlist… but that doesn’t automatically mean the panel who picked these books over the other 76 on the longlist are at fault.

Here’s Award Director Tom Hunter, via Alison Flood’s article for The Guardian, on why the lack of women is… if not a non-issue, then a concern beyond the bounds of the people responsible for selecting this year’s shortlist:

“This is a fascinating and complex shortlist that demands repeated attention and thoughtful interpretation. Shortlisting six books from a potential list of 82 eligible submissions is no easy task by any critical standard,” said the prize’s director Tom Hunter.

Hunter said he was “very conscious” of the prize’s male line-up, and pointed to the fact that four of the award’s five judges were female—Juliet E McKenna, Ruth O’Reilly, Nickianne Moody and Liz Williams. He also highlighted that both 2012 and 2011’s Clarke awards were won by female authors—Lauren Beukes for Zoo City, and Jane Rogers for The Testament of Jessie Lamb—and that of the 82 books submitted for the award, just 16 were written by women, and one by a woman and man team.

“We are all aware of the issues and broader conversations in the industry about gender parity, but when you look at the books coming in and the strength of the authors, all the judges were operating from the point of picking the best books,” said Hunter. “That has to be made their priority, rather than selecting on gender.”

Notice how Hunter brings the lack of parity in terms of gender as opposed to colour or creed to the forefront of the resulting discussion.

Beyond this, though, I think he’s spot on. Of course the panel should pick the best books rather than allowing inclusiveness to influence its decisions. Subjective though it may be, would anyone for a second disagree with such a straightforward policy?

And sure enough, as Hunter reminds us, the pickings this year—as regards science fiction written by women—were admittedly slim. Which brings us neatly to Everything is Nice, where Martin Lewis elaborated on the Award Director’s earlier assertions, with—brace yourselves—percentages and pie charts:

There is a persistent feeling that the number of science fiction novels being published by women in the UK has decreased since the Arthur C. Clarke Award was established in 1986.

Unfortunately, we can’t compare submissions historically but we can compare with the shortlists. So, in the first 10 years of the award 30% of nominees were female, 50% of winners were female and there were three years when there were as many women as men on the shortlist. Whereas in the last 10 years 22% of nominees were female, 20% of winners were female and men made up the majority of the shortlist every years.

So the record of the Arthur C. Clarke Award is getting worse. I think this has to reflect the worsening situation for women in British science fiction publishing over this period. The fact that this year’s shortlist is made up entirely of men is a symptom of this and we need to address the root cause.

Relatedly, Liz Williams, writing for The Guardian again, got out ahead of the unrest that she was evidently aware might arise:

As a female science fiction writer, feminist and a member of this year’s judging panel for the Clarke Awards, I find myself in the interesting position of defending our choice of an all-male list. I’ll start by saying that this was an outstanding year for submissions—82 books in total, with some exceptional writing from authors of both genders from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Much of this was quite some way into the “fantasy” bracket, but of the more SF-facing work, we found ourselves looking at a field dominated by big ideas, near—and far—future explorations of the solar system, and some very sharp takes on government intrusion into social affairs. I think the shortlist reflects the best of these three “themes” for 2012, demonstrating a return to both the “sensawunda” and to the critical thought that so many complain is lacking from contemporary SF.

Okay, so that’s probably why Alif the Unseen was counted out—though I loved it utterly, it’s only as science-fictional as it is fantastical—but if sense of wonder and critical thought were themes this year, what happened to Jack Glass? Railsea, even?

More to the point—though I dare say even that is a debatable statement—why overlook vN by Madeline Ashby? And The Method by Juli Zeh? Alongside any number of other contenders, of course.

For an answer, or rather a reason, let’s look to Liz Williams’ defence again:

As a feminist, I am opposed to including women writers in shortlists just because they are female: the work has got to hold its own in its field: we can discuss whether that field is a level one or not, but when you’re judging a work, you’re obliged to deal with what you’ve got, and to me, that means regardless of any ideological criteria.

This leads us into the wider conversation as to why, despite having a significantly enlarged entry this year (a 36 per cent increase on the 60 books submitted in 2012) we received disproportionately fewer from women, of which many were technically fantasy. We do not have to go far to look for the answer: over the last few years, the publishing industry in both Britain and the US (but particularly in the former) has been commissioning fewer and fewer SF novels by women. The running gag for some years now has been that the industry has had a Highlander approach to women who write SF: there can be only one, at least on contract.

An unsettling trend, made still more disturbing by the idea that it’s become so ingrained in the industry that a meme has emerged, essentially fully-fledged.

That said, I tend to expect next year will be different. Maybe that’s the eternal optimist in me speaking, but just three and a half months into 2013, already Karen Lord should be a shoe-in for The Best of All Possible Worlds, and I’ll eat my damned hat if Lauren Beukes doesn’t score a spot on the following Clarke Award shortlist, because—spoiler warning (but not really; rest easy)—The Shining Girls is another astonishing novel from the South African author.

So was the reaction to this year’s shortlist basically a case of much ado about nothing?

No, it wasn’t. Absolutely positively not. There’s a very real problem in play that the subsequent back-and-forth has brought to the fore, finally. But I’d echo the thought that this alarming lack of diversity—at the very least vis-à-vis the overwhelming prevalence of penises amongst the authors of six of the best science fiction novels of 2012—can be traced back to the publishing industry rather simply set at the doorstep of a panel of individuals with autonomous opinions who announced an inherently subjective shortlist.

One last wrinkle before I let you folks work out where you stand and why: the publishing industry lives and dies by the same rules of supply and demand as any other commercial sector. Accusing the bigwigs and the buyers, then, is too easy an out. After all, they buy the books that they have reason to believe we’ll read.

Who then to blame for this dangerous state of affairs but ourselves?

Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.


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