Tag Archives: jonathan mccalmont

Shagreen, or chagrin: the shadows begin to gather

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,

And he shows them pearly white

I’m going to try keep the shark references to a minimum over the next few months, not least because my fellow Shadow Clarke Award judge, Vajra Chandrasekera, is already staking out that piece of territory quite nicely, but that snatch of song just popped into my head. ‘The Shadow knows!’ flitted through my brain as I finished that sentence; I have no idea why, as I’d mostly been preoccupied with thinking about Babylon 5 until that point. Sometimes, the early-morning brain is a startling mish-mash of cultural fragments. But now, after a cup of tea, it’s time to work.

A week ago, Nina Allan announced that a group of writers, critics, readers and Clarke-watchers have come together to form a shadow jury for the 2017 Arthur Clarke Award. As Nina goes on to say:

We will be following the Clarke Award right from the beginning, selecting our ideal shortlists from the submissions, reading and reviewing those books and picking our own winners. Then, when the official shortlist is announced on May 3rd, we’ll be reading and reviewing those books, too, before having our own virtual judgely huddle and selecting the shadow winner of the Clarke Award, to be announced, in the honourable tradition of most shadow juries, the day before the unveiling of the official winner.

Other awards have shadow juries – the Booker, for one, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, for another. But I can’t think of an sff award that has had a shadow jury before. (And yes, I am aware of the Not-the-Clarke panels at Eastercon, but I’m obviously going to argue that this is a different kind of project.) I did carry out my own informal shadow project on the Clarke Award a few years ago (The Shortlist Project), which was something of an eye-opener. I enjoyed the process on some levels but missed the discussions with other people and didn’t do it again. Which is one reason why I’m so glad to be involved in the Shadow Clarke jury this year. More people to talk to, and such people!

But more seriously, Nina’s initial post raised some important points, I’d like to reiterate here:

To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be …

I’ve shared Nina’s anxieties for some time, arising from my own reading, and from conversations with Nina herself. But how to articulate that feeling of dis-ease? It’s very easy to jump up and down and shout ‘what was the jury thinking? Was the jury even thinking?’ but that is unfair to each individual Clarke jury. They set their terms anew each year and go about their business as best they can. I’ve been a Clarke judge myself and it is no picnic. I’m sure a lot of people imagine it’s all ‘wow, free books’, but a look at the submissions list will tell you that the jewels are accompanied by a lot of dross – and yes, let’s be blunt about this, dross. This is not unique to the Clarke Award, by any means. I’ve been a Tiptree judge, and witnessed a Campbell Award judge at work; it goes with the territory. But while it’s worth being mindful of the fact that one woman’s dross is another man’s treasure, some dross is just dross …

If there is a problem, with the Clarke and other juried awards, it’s that … actually, there are two problems. One is that the jury’s deliberation is private, and indeed it should be, but as a result we have no access to the debate and can never know what prompted them to make certain decisions. There is probably horse-trading some years, and publishers are not always willing to have their titles submitted if they’re trying to market a book a certain way that is emphatically not science fiction. We don’t know, we can only guess, and it makes things difficult when a book doesn’t appear on a shortlist, and we ask ‘why didn’t they put that on?’ not knowing that the publisher couldn’t or wouldn’t submit. Judges can ask for books but that doesn’t mean they’ll arrive.

But the other problem is that when the shortlists roll out, ‘what were they thinking?’ is a quick and easy response, because it’s really hard to come up with anything else, in the absence of prior debate. And too often this becomes a veiled attack on the competence of the judges, which is not fair on them. They were asked to judge and they did their best in the circumstances. The one thing I will say is that it has seemed to me in recent years that the organisations who nominate judges have tended not to nominate practising critics, which means that one particular approach to sf has been neglected. And that may look like special pleading, but critics have their place in the ecosystem too, alongside the readers.

Which is the other reason I’m glad to be a part of this project: the freedom it affords to have a wide-ranging discussion about the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of science fiction in 2017, and how they pertain to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to test everything I’ve ever thought or felt about science fiction, using the submissions list, and the shortlists (ours and the actual Clarke Award shortlist) as bench marks.

I am a slightly late arrival, as ever, to the introductory posts-party. Nina Allan has already posted about the Shadow Clarke on her own blog, while Paul Kincaid laid out his stall over at Through the Dark Labyrinth. David Hebblethwaite isn’t blogging much at the moment, but he’s posting on Facebook and on Twitter and is well worth following in both those places. Megan AM, known to some of us on Twitter as @couchtomoon, has opted for a classier level of punning, invoking Gene Wolfe, and has posted about her involvement with the Shadow Clarke at her own blog, From Couch to Moon. Megan and I talked about the Clarke Award 2016, with Jonah Sutton-Morse, on his Cabbages and Kings podcast here and here, so I’m particularly pleased to be working with her again on this project. Jonathan McCalmont blogs at Ruthless Culture but hasn’t said anything about the Shadow Clarke there as yet; you can also find him being pithy at @apeinwinter (I said pithy). Victoria Hoyle gives her thoughts on the Shadow Clarke here, with moving pictures and all (but don’t expect that from me as it isn’t going to happen. I have an excellent face for podcasts). And Nick Hubble can be located at @contempislesfic on Twitter. You already know where to find Vajra’s blog but he is also on Twitter at @_vajra

But most important of all, this project is taking place under the auspices of the shiny new Anglia Ruskin Centre for Research into Science Fiction and Fantasy, based in Cambridge, and run by Helen Marshall. This is incredibly exciting, not least because we hope it will bring even more people to the discussion. We’ll be publishing our thoughts there as well as on our blogs, and talking on Twitter (#shadowclarke).

I’ll also try to collate material from the internet about this project on Paper Knife as we go along.

File 770 has already covered the launch of the Shadow Clarke; some of the comments were interesting, especially from people who had never encountered the notion of a shadow jury before. And I utterly refute the Puppy comparisons.

Also, we have no influence whatsoever on the actual Clarke Award, as people have asked. We don’t get to put any titles on the shortlist. I rather hope the Clarke judges will entirely ignore us until it’s all over.

But that’s all for now. The Arthur C. Clarke Award submission list is out later today, so the work will begin in earnest.

Two final thoughts.

Sharkskin is also known as shagreen, and was once used as an abrasive to achieve a fine finish on wood. I’m not quite sure what that means here, but it feels significant.

And lastly, to finish off the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post,

Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear

And he keeps it out of sight.

I mention it only because this is of course Paper Knife.

BSFA Awards shortlists

Two shortlists in one day, as the BSFA Awards shortlists were also announced yesterday. Another interesting set of nominations. And for the second time, Paul Kincaid, Karen Burnham and I are all up against one another in the Best Non-Fiction category.

Best Artwork:

Richard Anderson for the cover of Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, published by Angry Robot Books.

Blacksheep for the cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, published by Gollancz

Tessa Farmer for her sculpture The Wasp Factory, after Iain Banks.

Jeffery Alan Love for the cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, published by Gollancz

Andy Potts for the cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, published by Egmont

Best Non-Fiction:

Paul Kincaid for Call and Response, published by Beccon Books

Jonathan McCalmont for ‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’

Edward James, for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War

Strange Horizons: Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, Juliet McKenna, Kari Sperring, Maureen Kincaid Speller for The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium

Karen Burnham for Greg Egan, published by University of Illinois Press

Best Short Fiction:

Ruth E J Booth for “The Honey Trap”, published in La Femme, Newcon Press

Octavia Cade for The Mussel Eater,  published by The Book Smugglers

Benjanun Sriduangkaew for  Scale Bright, published by Immersion Press

Best Novel:

Nina Allan, for The Race, published by Newcon Press

Frances Hardinge, for Cuckoo Song, published by Macmillan

Dave Hutchinson, for Europe in Autumn, published by Solaris

Simon Ings, for Wolves, published by Gollancz

Ann Leckie, for Ancilliary Sword, published by Orbit

Claire North, for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published by Orbit

Nnedi Okorafor,  for Lagoon, published by Hodder

Neil Williamson, for The Moon King, published by Newcon Press


Bridging the Gaps III – 20th May 2013

Stuff that caught my attention on the internet.

Yet more contributions to the ongoing discussion about the ‘exhaustion of sf’, this time from Karen Burnham, at Locus and a response from Jonathan McCalmont

Submissions for the 2013 Kitschies are now open and the judges have been announced.

Still not quite sure why John Gray was talking about Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels on Radio 4 last week, but he was, and this is a transcript of the broadcast.

“To celebrate the release of [The Aylesford Skull, James] Blaylock has put together a list of forgotten or ignored works of literature that have inspired his own writing, and should be must-reads for anyone interested in science fiction or the fantastic.” Ignore the overly prescriptive title: the selection of titles, however, is well worth checking out.

New story from Steven Millhauser in the New Yorker: Thirteen Wives

From David M Barnett, in the Guardian, When Horror Stopped Being Supernatural

From LARB, Science Fiction in China: An Interview with Fei Dao

Blogging Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

We were having lunch when I happened to mention I had started reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. ‘Are you going to blog it?’ asked Niall Harrison. I hadn’t given the idea any thought, but it turned out that while all of us had either read bits of the Anatomy or had always meant to read it, we couldn’t actually muster a complete reading between us. Thus was born the idea of reading and blogging our way through the entire Anatomy of Criticism.

‘We’ are Niall Harrison, Paul Kincaid, Jonathan McCalmont, Paul Graham Raven and me, Maureen Kincaid Speller. The book comprises a ‘Polemical Introduction’, and four Essays, plus a Tentative Conclusion, so we have shared out the Introduction and Essays, and each of us will introduce one of them and open discussion. We will all respond to the Tentative Conclusion.

The project begins today with my comments on the Polemical Introduction, in the next post, and the rest of the blogging timetable should look like this (with the caveat that life happens so there may be some slippage).

7/3 Polemical Introduction (MKS)
14/3 Theory of Modes (Paul R)
28/3 Theory of Symbols (Niall)
11/4 Theory of Myths (Jonathan)
25/4 Theory of Genres (Paul K)

It remains only to begin the discussion.


As Jonathan McCalmont memorably observes in a post on his blog, Ruthless Culture, this week, ‘most blog posts tend to be lengthy monologues bellowed into a storm of utter indifference’. It is, for the most part, unavoidable; it is in the nature of a medium which is staggeringly generous in the way it deluges one with possibilities but wretchedly parsimonious when it comes to offering responses. It’s like being offered the longest menu in the world and being invited to choose from it. Well before you get to the end of the list your eyes will have glazed over, your brain will have shut down. Choice becomes impossible.

I feel like that about the blogosphere at times, particularly when I look through my feed reader. What am I hoping for when I look through these blogs. Or, rather, when I glance through the list, tagging posts here and there to remind me to come back to them later. And I do that how often? Tagging posts is like recording tv programmes for later, with about the same effect.

And in the meantime, the monologues continue. Here, I’m writing another one now. And yet, I’m keeping this blog because I am in search of a conversation. I want to find like-minded people. I know they’re out there. Some of them know I’m here too. We all read one other’s blogs but, and again Jonathan puts it well, something is not quite right:

We write about the arts but we seldom actually converse; ‘the conversation’ is not something that people have, it is an abstract entity that exists half-formed between dozens of blog posts, reviews and articles.  Like the world, it is everywhere and yet impossible to locate.

I think many of us are, in our various accidental ways, mapping the absence that persists in the middle of this without being quite clear what that absence is, perhaps because it can’t be properly defined, or maybe because for each of us the absence manifests itself in a slightly different way.

The articles and reviews are essential, of course, because without them the conversation doesn’t even start, but we also need the link-rich posts to provide the necessary instructions on how to find them. I am delighted that Jonathan is going to be taking up a more visible role in providing that guide. I, in turn, will do my bit by drawing attention to the link-rich posts where I see them.

Yet, for me, personally, something is still missing. In fact, it’s not a nebulous ‘something’; I know exactly what it is that is absent, and I’ve known all along. It’s participation. Not anyone else’s, though goodness knows, it would cheer me if a few more people did comment on my writing, but my participation in the discussions elsewhere. As I’ve already noted, a characteristic of the medium is the overwhelming abundance of material, the so-called ‘information overload’ which suppresses the ability to deal with any of it. It becomes tempting to stay close to home, on one’s own blog, where it’s easier to cope, a kind of internet agoraphobia.

Having said that, I can’t talk to the whole internet, nor do I want to. In theory, I do, given that my blog is an open forum, the internet equivalent of standing at Speaker’s Corner, proclaiming my opinions. But I do not engage with others. And if I do not engage them, why on earth do I expect people to engage with me? Or do I seriously think that my posts will function like so many intellectual breadcrumbs, drawing people to my blog to talk? Probably not.

I’ve been thinking about my lack of participation for a while, pretty much since I restarted Paper Knife. One aspect of it arises from the sheer overwhelming volume of material to deal with. I have neither the time and the energy to process it all; indeed, I suspect a lot of other people don’t either (though kudos to those who appear to be able to combine daily life with a 24-hour scrutiny of the web). Strangely, I found my answer yesterday evening while I was listening to Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, best described as a business chat show. Last night, the guests were talking about market research, and drawing an interesting and enlightening distinction, for me at any rate, between quantitative and qualitative research. The first gathers a broad mass of data, the more the merrier, but the second, as its name implies, is more focused in its efforts. The obvious solution is that I need to construct my own micro-community within the broader mass of blogs and focus on that. Hardly a revelation, I realise, but it was one of those moments that helped me make better sense of what I want to do.

The other aspect of my disinclination to participate has preoccupied me for a lot longer and, indeed, has caused me to back off of much involvement in online discussion generally, even back in my days on Live Journal. I could politely refer to it as a general lack of civility in discussion, but frankly, there are too many parts of the web where ‘discussion’ consists of commenters browbeating other people into accepting their point of view, come what may; general ad hominem attacks and a tendency to pile in for the sake of the fight, rather like kids gathering around a scrap in the school playground, rather than because individual contributors have anything useful to offer. On the internet you never need to think about taking turns in the discussion or bothering to pay attention to what anyone else is saying. As a medium it invites drive-by commenting. Someone is Wrong on the Internet. Press Enter and everyone can learn why they are wrong and you are right.

The internet connects but it also strips us of so many of the cues that might facilitate a more reasonable discussion. It is not that I want everyone to be nice to each other on the internet (though, actually …) but there are times when I could wish people would conduct themselves more as though they were in a seminar rather than yelling insults from a distance (and for reference, on this blog, commenters will be required to conduct their discussions in a civil fashion and with due respect for the views of others, or else risk my considerable wrath and the introduction of moderation).

It cheered me immensely to see Paul Charles Smith saying something very similar in Getting The Conversation Right on his own blog, Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dream (which incidentally wins my vote for one of the best blog titles ever), and to see the point being made among the comments that pitting a like against a dislike doesn’t make for a discussion unless both sides are prepared to negotiate the nature of those views. There are some authors whose work I don’t particularly like but I don’t want to know that you adore them unless you can tell me why as well. In the why lies the opportunity for me to figure out why I might not.

Paul’s commenters touch on other issues as well, not the least of which is the self-consciousness of joining in if you really only want to say ‘Really liked the post’. Yes indeed, been there, not done that, been totally frustrated with people who’ve done it to me, because it does not advance the conversation. Except that I think I’m wrong here: it may be that people don’t have much to add to the conversation but they’ve stopped to say that they witnessed its taking place. I’m coming to the conclusion that is important. And if they keep on witnessing its taking place, one day they might have more they want to add. I think that is an important lesson to grasp and it is something else I shall be bearing in mind as I set out on the new, improved quest for a conversation.

In fact, it may be that we are all in search of something that doesn’t really exist. The nature of the blogosphere is such that it pushes to the extreme that faintly paranoid sense that the really good conversation is going on somewhere else, just round the corner, if one could only locate it. And so we must keep on looking – I have visions of us as Brechtian characters, staggering desperately into the night, frantically searching for the next whisky-bar before we die. Sometimes I wonder if the hunt for the conversation might, if we are not careful, become more important than actually finding it. However, I have also come to the conclusion that one way to avoid this is to follow my own version of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ by building a conversation outwards from this blog and finding ways to connect it to other micro-conversations. The Conversation is the ideal, of course, but a conversation is also a good thing.

Which is perhaps a good moment to note that I shall be starting a new conversation here shortly. I was in a café last week with Niall Harrison, Paul Kincaid, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Raven and I happened to mention I’d recently started reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.

Oh, said Niall, are you going to blog about it? I’d not thought about doing so, but suddenly everyone was saying ‘I really ought to have read this’ or ‘I’ve only read bits of it’, and before long we’d decided we would all read the book and write about our responses to Frye’s arguments. I’ve agreed to host the discussion here at Paper Knife over the next couple of months, and you’re all very welcome to join in. We will start on March 7th with a consideration of the ‘Polemical Introduction’. I’m really looking forward to it.