SFatigued

The Sharke did not exhaust me. I was SFatigued before we even started, before I even agreed to join. ‘Twas the Hugo reading that did it: too much Heinlein, too much Scalzi, too much Sawyer, too much Chambers, and the rest– seriously, I’m ready to be done with dollhouse fiction where flat, two-dimensional figures move around in a flat, two-dimensional setting and do and explain flat, two-dimensional things. (See? That even sounds like a Niven book.) There may be a time when I can welcome a book like that again, but for now, it’s just too much blah. When Nina first reached out to me about the Sharke project, I took it on with a big, readying inhale, like you do when you decide to eat that last sliver of pie because, stuffed as you are, and tasty as it might not actually have been (you’re starting to realize), it’s a special occasion, and you can’t just let that one sliver hang out in the fridge by itself, and anyway, if you don’t eat it now, you’ll just keep thinking about it until you do, so you might as well stuff it down your gullet now so you can move on.

So, although I gave it my best, I wasn’t at my best, and I certainly wasn’t objective. (Do I regret this lack of objectivity? Or was that the point? I did have an axe to grind, no doubt, but I’m not sure it’s much sharper than when I went in, so who was I really serving besides myself?) Moreover, I felt stifled, burdened by the act of blogging on somebody else’s piece of internet real estate–a university’s piece of internet real estate, for that matter–which is too far out of my comfort zone, and not a place I would normally want to be.

Despite not being pleased with my own contributions, the Sharke as a project went well! Even the perceived awkward antagonism that may or may not have actually existed between the Sharke and Clarke parties had dissipated to, I am told, a general sense of bonhomie at the award ceremony (that I technically could have attended, having been in the same time zone the day before, but welcomed a convenient excuse to jump continents just in time, in order to avoid that same perceived awkward antagonism, and now I truly regret my cowardice).

While we had our own critics, it was, frankly, a good thing, because it kept us on our toes, despite the occasionally bizarre and contrarian tone of devil’s advocacy that struck me as mostly irrelevant, off-the-mark, and regressively nit-picky in the grand scheme of things. Still, I think most of us were hoping for exactly that: some minorly antagonistic back-and-forth, played out publicly, in order to demonstrate exactly what we wanted from book talk, and what we wanted to surround a normally closed-door award program that has lost its sheen–if it ever had any to begin with, and that’s something I don’t know being USian and having not paid attention until a few years ago.

In my mind, it was the American commentary that became the strangest and most unexpected turn of events. Suddenly, people from different corners of the USian SF blogosphere–people who admitted they never cared about or even paid attention to the Clarke Award before–suddenly had a lot to say and feel about open criticism aimed at what is becoming a corporatized award process– it appearing to be an industry award, rather than the critical award it was originally intended to be– all things they knew nothing about and took no time to comprehend. These people had a lot to say, not because they cared about the Clarke, but because… they could sense that some Sharke criticism might be aimed at their faves. And rightly so.

These people had a lot to say because they are not stupid. They are intelligent people who know exactly why something that should have nothing to do with them might feel a little bit threatening: They know their faves are not actually amazing, that they are actually inherently problematic, superficial, simplistic, dumbed down, and NOT award worthy. They know it because it is just that apparent. (And hardly worth the word count the Sharke jury spent on those books). They did not want to face it. Because they need it to feel safe. (And I get that. I really do. This is, after all, an important social sphere for many people.)

But the USian defensiveness was palpable. The stale, conservative watering hole for Hollywood Tonight-style SF news updates chronicled the Sharke process while its commenters huffed and puffed and said, “not gonna even waste my breaf on it” (but still did). Massively successful workshop authors who don’t seem to read much more than other massively successful workshop authors unloaded words about how readers like me will never appreciate the art of their formula simplicity (and then back-patted each other for how comforting and original they all are). (Comforting AND original! In the same sentence!) The young, white, feminist LGBTQ contingent–MY PEOPLE, goddammit–missed the big picture, as usual, because they benefit from the back-scratching, because they’re afraid to demand more of publishers and writers (because they’re afraid to demand more of themselves).

What you like, and what is important are not the same things. What feels modern and what is progressive are not the same things. Groundbreaking art does not give us comfort; it feels uncomfortable until we get comfortable enough with it to adjust our mental schema–our worldview– to accommodate it. Good novels don’t conform to us, they change us and change with us, and when they do, they should win awards.

I did not “like” The Underground Railroad. And it took me some time to adjust to it. (Which is partly why I’ve come to dislike writing reviews immediately upon finishing a book. My first review of TUR was dead wrong, and even now, I bet my view has changed enough to render my Sharke review obsolete.) It is a harsh book, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s moody, clever, sneaky, playful, but it is also absorbing, easy to read, and forgiving. It’s Dickian in its simplicity and oddities. It is generous. For these reasons it deserves an SF crown.

Critics on all sides have indirectly accused the Sharke panel of hypocrisy for embracing a commercial success like The Underground Railroad while lambasting commercial genre SF, but I’m skeptical that TUR would have sold as well without Oprah’s endorsement, which certainly was not part of Whitehead’s original plan, whereas I do suspect there was a great deal of commercial SF tailoring in something like Ninefox Gambit and A Closed and Common Orbit. Without the celebrity endorsement, it’s possible TUR would have been overlooked by most readers, whereas marketing for Ninefox Gambit and A Closed and Common Orbit was directly aimed at SF readers before they were even on the shelves. I knew about them before I knew about them, whereas The Underground Railroad just sort of emerged, and then hit us in the face. (And, granted, it could be that I was not following the right literary conversations at the time, but, honestly, I follow lit stuff more closely than I do genre stuff, even though I don’t read as much of it.) (And, as long as I’m being honest, I mostly swipe it all away without even looking at it nowadays.)

Welcome criticism, bizarre criticism, and defensive criticism aside, the Sharke jury was successful. Knowing what I know, what I observed, what I’ve gleaned: there’s not a doubt in my mind that The Underground Railroad would not have won the Clarke Award without the presence of the Shadow Clarke jury. Our persistent reminders of Clarke history and its occasional successes at recognizing legitimate, important works of the progressive future, as well as our picking and prodding at superficiality, contrivance, formula, tradition, problematic pretense, and just the general popular acceptance of blasé use of language and plot kept the conversation alive when it normally dies between not-a-longlist announcement, shortlist announcement, and ceremony. While I don’t dare claim to be an expert on what’s going on in The Underground Railroad, I hope my own contributions about the US antebellum South shook readers and jurors out of their complacent acceptance of Whitehead’s sly, seemingly straightforward portrayal.

So, while I am tired, I am SFatisfied.

 

 

Some thanks to a very special team:

Maureen, who has read it all before, and can’t be doing with this nonsense;
Paul, for his critical foresight, then and now;
Jonathan, for digging out the most stubborn kernels of mislaid regressivism;
Nick, for digging out the most subtle kernels of value, even when the rest of us were too fed up to see it;
Victoria, for elegantly articulating the gnarliest of concerns;
Vajra, (my fellow out-of-timer) for distilling it all down to acid (funny acid, at that);
(and David, who can quit SF but can’t quit us);

Helen, for her behind-the-scenes devotion and politicking, and punctual posts;

and Nina, for her boundless energy and enthusiasm, her motivating spirit, her insight, her passion, and her belief that what we’re doing is important.

Because it is.

 

 

Next post: Summer 2017 Reading Review. Like, finally.

 

 

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30 thoughts on “SFatigued

  1. hutch0 says:

    I know people who disagree, but I was a huge fan of the Sharkes; I enjoyed the discussion very much, and I for one would like to say thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Goddard says:

    Great blog! Could Mother Moon be your antidote to SFatigue…? amazon.co.uk/Mother-Moon-Bob-Goddard-ebook/dp/B018W4GFRM/re?tag=geolinker-21

    Like

  3. graycope14 says:

    I also enjoyed the reviews and debate of the Sharkes. It’s thanks to you that I was made aware of it, too. Great to have you back!

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  4. Holly Best says:

    Very interesting, I have been on a 2 month hiatus from SF, diving deep into mysteries, and not writing at all. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sharke, especially your reviews, and am currently sourcing them to transition from my Nancy Drew status to SF geek. Just picked up The Underground Railroad, very curious to see what the fuss is about and whether it will rise above Central Station. Shake off the tired, I need your summer reading guide for October!

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  5. flares says:

    Thank you for your efforts, but I wonder if the word “not” crept into this sentence by mistake?: “there’s not a doubt in my mind that The Underground Railroad would not have won the Clarke Award without the presence of the Shadow Clarke jury. ”

    It won because the judges agreed it was the best book.

    Andrew M Butler
    Nonvoting Chair of Judges

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  6. I obviously enjoyed seeing the reviews and debates, and the whole process made me aware of a number of authors I may not have found out about otherwise. Which was especially helpful since I’ve been drawn more to the UK SF scene, and getting an in-depth look behind the curtains was fascinating. I think the discussion was quite valuable, even if it did get pulled off on tangents about literary merit or what is-or-isn’t science fiction.

    “…because they benefit from the back-scratching, because they’re afraid to demand more of publishers and writers (because they’re afraid to demand more of themselves).”

    Savage. But I agree that there is a tendency not to demand more from the things we consume… the complacency that progress will eventually be handed down from on high, or the weird acceptance that the imperfect things we do get are better than nothing so somehow that makes them better. When the only thing you’ve been given in your life is a barren patch of wasteland, it’s too easy to draw battle-lines and fight to the death defending what you have. (Then the puppies rant about how their reading experience was ruined because the protagonist kissed another man and how pushy those dang SJW feminists are, and I start to remember which genre fanbase I’m talking about.)

    “Groundbreaking art does not give us comfort; it feels uncomfortable until we get comfortable enough with it to adjust our mental schema–our worldview– to accommodate it.”

    Feeling uncomfortable is a necessary part of unlearning oppressive behavior.

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  7. […] THE SHARKE BITES. Megan AM summarizes experience as a Shadow Clarke juror in “SFatigued”. A good friend sent me the link, asking for my help in identifying who she’s talking about here. […]

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  8. Glad to see you back here! Wohoo! It was interesting to read about the Sharke process from the inside–I loved reading all the reviews and commentary, but it sounds like it came with a lot of frustrations. I, too, when I encounter a review that is totally different from my own reaction to a book, tend to be like holy shit, look what I missed, oooh interesting! And then want to re-read and continue to discuss, etc etc (though I think you said that on twitter and not here). Point being, I was baffled by much of the negative reaction to the Sharkes, though I also missed quite a lot of those reactions as I haven’t been quite as active on book internet of late. Wonder if I was subconsciously SFatigued as well. Hmm. Have been far more focused on nonfiction lately, so maybe it was the case. I think, actually, that sort of fatigue is a pretty regular part of the ebbs and flows of my reading habits, though I never really noticed it consciously enough to name it. Interesting.

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    • Yeah, my view of a book has never been wrapped up in how I feel about myself. Plenty of people have criticized books I adore, and I’m usually most drawn to those reviews that counter my own, and they’re either interesting (ie confident, polemical, assertive) or they’re not (ie waffly, uncertain, polite). It’s just book talk.

      It’s only these past few years that I’ve ever read so much scifi, so this is my first ebb, I guess. If it keeps going, I’m going to have to change the name of this blog to “From Couch to Grocery Store” or something because I’m just not going to the moon as often.

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  9. Hi,

    I, too, am SFatigued. I started reviewing 7 years ago then, about 5 years ago, I started reviewing other genres. Gradually more other genres crept in because I was so tired with the same old tropes. Over time I read fewer SF books and more ‘other’ stuff until I rarely cracked an SF book. Until, ironically, my thesis required that I start reading ‘my’ genre once more. I’m researching representations of albinism (to the degree it is a disability and/or mention of albino types) in speculative fiction for a PhD.

    The other aspect of all of this is I tried to become part of the SF community but felt safer — and received far less hate mail and fewer SMOFF posts bearing animosity — by staying quietly in my own corner.

    I appreciate your post that encompasses some of the cliquishness and division within the community while exploring, tangentially, a novel.

    Like

    • Hi Nalini! We should start a support group for the SFatigued. What a bummer that your thesis has dragged you back here, but SF does seem to have more instances of that problematic fascination with disability.

      I totally get the comfort of staying in your own corner. I noticed the cliquishness right away when I first started focusing on SF. In fact, one of my first observations was just how easy it is for writers and bloggers to gain positive attention simply by ingratiating themselves to certain groups, and how disingenuous so much of politicizing actually was. It’s really all about egos, and while I want to be friendly, I can’t help but be critical of the cronyism and performative politics.

      I’m sorry you have received such attacks. I’ve never received hate mail, but sometimes the puppies try to bait me, but they get bored when I don’t play along. Still, I find the suffocating lack of real discussion and rigor the most unbearable part of the scene, and the underhanded misogyny from the so-called progressives and Hugo faves is never too far away if I start to get mouthy.

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  10. […] has put up an excellent post about her experiences as a Shadow Clarke Award juror and, seeing as a couple of other things I’ve […]

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  11. iansales says:

    FWIW, I’m totally on your side and agree with you. It’s totally fine that the genre is returning to its pulp commercial roots, and that it celebrates books that meet those criteria – but there is no way they can be considered “good”… The Clarke has always celebrated the literary side of the genre, and has clearly lost its way in recent years and needs to either re-baseline its remit or take a few draughts from that well which originally inspired it… Nina said as much at Fantasticon last weekend in Copenhagen. Another populist award is what the genre does not need.

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  12. Love this piece, Megan. I was especially enamoured of the bit about the workshop authors. It’s a stinging but altogether honest appraisal of what Jonathan calls aesthetic retrenchment: they’ve collectively refined the narrative/characterization tricks which produce the most sales and thus have settled into a comfortable style produced from excessive workshopping, exhausting the aesthetics of any novelty or daring. Hopefully you come across new works which will excite you. I barely read any contemporary SF as I seem intensely allergic to what I have read (cf. Leviathan Wakes made me break out in hives) but when I do, I’m often fatigued, just like you.

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    • I am so pleased you enjoyed it. And so glad you get my “workshop” complaint too, because I’m sure few would get it enough to agree with me, but yes to everything you said above, not to mention the expense on vulnerable young writers and the assembly line cronyism it appears to foster for the few who are successful.

      (And writers I enjoy have taught workshops and joined them, but as I reader, workshops threaten the worse kind of “bag-of-tricks” reading experiences.)

      Funny you mention Leviathan Wakes because seeing that series loom in my TBR was partly the reason for my stalled progress on the Hugo list.

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  13. […] From Couch to Moon on the Shadow Clarke Awards. […]

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  14. TWAS THE NIGHT ‘FORE THE HUGO
    AND ALL THROUGH FANDOM

    Liked by 1 person

  15. PhilRM says:

    I hope I already said this, but if not: I thought the whole Sharke project was terrific and I’m grateful to all of you for your time and effort.

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    • And I hope I’ve conveyed to you how utterly grateful I am for all your support. You’ve made this all the more worth it, Phil.

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      • PhilRM says:

        *blushes*

        More seriously, if not for the Sharkes I might have missed “The Arrival of Missives” and I definitely would have missed “Infinite Ground”, and those are two of the best novels I’ve read in the past year. (I still haven’t gotten to the Kavenna, but am looking forward to it.) And I really hope the Sharke jury will become an on-going thing; I would love to see that sort of critical discussion around the Clarke Award become the norm.

        Like

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