Re: An Open Letter From the Arthur C. Clarke Award

Tom Hunter, Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, posted an open letter to science fiction fans on Torque Control today.

In response to some of the issues facing the Award, he has posted a number of questions that those involved in the award have been asking themselves. One of the concerns is that the award continue to be relevant and, if possible, become more significant to the wider SF community.

I look forward to the Clarke Award: the short-list tends to include books I have already read, or intend to read. I believe that the Clarke Award genuinely (within the wider constraints of genre) attempts to select works of literary merit.

One of the things which I hadn’t really thought about – and I realise that this is slightly odd now that I write it down – is the UK focus of the award. The Clarke is awarded to works published in the UK in the qualifying period which can, therefore, include UK-published works by non UK authors but (as someone pointed out in the thread on Torque Control) it can also lead to British authors being ineligible because of their publishing arrangements. The discussion was pulled a little too far towards arguing the pros and cons of widening the reach of the award (er, which I have to confess I found myself thinking about too much). That said, if publishers start to adopt the type of electronic publishing model that the likes of Angry Robot do (that is to say, DRM-free and with no regional restrictions: as it should be) then the lines do start to become blurred. Of course, I’d imagine that it would be some time before you’d see e-publication as the sole method of publication for a large number of novels, but it, I think, starts to blur lines.

Anyway the point is that, while I was fully aware that the Clarke Award is a UK prize, I just hadn’t fully considered the implications of this, or the criteria for selection. The ease with which one can purchase books not yet (or ever) available in the UK has – for me anyway – made place of publication far less important than it had been before. However, having read a few comments from authors regarding the focus (and giving it a little more thought) whilst I think that there is perhaps some room to widen the focus a little, I like the idea that there is a high profile SF award which prides itself on the more literary qualities of the novels selected. Jonathan McCalmont was right in his comment that the award should avoid the temptation to “follow the rest of the internet into a kind of Transatlantic Anglophonie.” SF tends to be dominated by novels written in English and this tends to mean American SF dominates. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of US SF that I love. However, I think that there is a peculiar quality to a lot of the work produced in the UK which I’m not sure always translates well across the Atlantic (certainly not in terms of sales? Perhaps I’m wrong, it’s just a perception of mine). To be clear, this isn’t a judgement on the relative merits of UK/US science fiction in terms of quality. I suppose it’s just a question of cultural background and what it’s easy to relate to…

So, yes, I’d love to see the Clarke increase its reach.

I might be way off base with this, but one doesn’t tend to see the Clarke used as a marketing tool for books. For example, go into a Waterstone’s around the time of the Booker and you’ll see stands promoting long- and short-listed titles. I don’t know if the Booker committee or publishers pay to have this done (in the same way as with other promotions). I can’t think I’ve ever seen this with Clarke nominated titles (though, again, I might be missing them – it does tend to be the case that I’ve already read a number of the nominated books by the time the award comes around). It seems to me, though, that such an arrangement would benefit the reader and the publisher.

Ian Sales noted in his post that the Clarke tends to look outside of the SF marketing category for the short-list. The last award containing, for example, Marcel Theroux’s novel, Far North which while drawing heavily on SF tropes, was not marketed as being an SF novel. Ian points to the debate that this creates within fandom, and I’d agree. It’s good to read widely in and outside of genre. I grew up reading SF and continue to love it, but there’s no way that I’d wish to limit myself to reading just science fiction. I think the other thing to consider about the wider spread of works considered by the Clarke jury is that this could work the other way. Push the fact that (say) Tom McCarthy’s C – a “literary” work – is nominated (not saying that it should be, I’ve yet to read it, just to pinch another’s example) for a genre prize. Get both sets of readers interested in each other.

I think this is enough for now! I hope that the Clarke can continue to build on its excellence.

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