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.