Hello to All That

The Fowlesian warning

Above the door to the room that has become my new study there is a sign: WAITING ROOM. Shades of John Fowles! In Fowles’s brilliant novel The Magus (1965), the protagonist Nicholas Urfe is warned: “Beware of the waiting room.” It takes a while for Urfe to understand the true import of this warning, and in a similar way my new room just feels like a good place to have an office. The sign stays up, but I’m on my guard.

(There is a similar sign over the door to the adjacent room: SURGERY. We quickly worked out therefore that this house was formerly used by a GP. I am currently looking around for the inevitable pile of much-read old magazines.)

From all this you may assume that we have arrived safely in our new home. We have moved out of England and are living on the Scottish island of Bute.

The Firth – Cowal Peninsula in the distance

We now have a daily prospect of other islands, of distant mountains, and of a sheltered inland sea. Bute is both romantic and workaday, wild but tamed, under-populated but busy and self-sufficient. It is situated in the Firth of Clyde, not far from Glasgow as the crow flies, forty-five miles or so, but by being an island it is naturally isolated in practice and in attitude, and is therefore a different world.

We were in Devon before we moved – you never in fact tire of being in Devon, because it is an unassertive place of natural beauty, of as-yet undamaged countryside and a quiet way of life, but we had been there for two and a half years and felt, rather reluctantly, it was time to move on.

Why Scotland? Many reasons, not least being the fact that we love the Scottish scenery, the glens and the lochs and the almost endless variety of the island and mountain landscapes, but in reality we felt it was not practicable for us to live in the Highlands, so we have not moved there. Another motivator for the move was the incompetence and dogmatic conservatism of the present Westminster government – they are cutting back on schools, hospitals, social services and renewable energy sources, yet encouraging frackers and seacoal burners, and any kind of presumed financial service they think might massage the economy. There is almost zero support or encouragement from the philistine London government for writers, painters and other artists, while in Scotland the arts are taken seriously at many levels of society. And then there is the matter of Brexit, something I consider to be a disaster, now in the process of being bungled into a disaster of historical proportions by the present UK government. Every part of Scotland voted Remain in the EU referendum. Anyway, we are not farmers or crofters – we need to be close to bookshops, cinemas, theatres, galleries, grocery stores, takeaway food, the Post Office, and more mundane services such as those of dentist and doctor.

Rothesay is the only town on Bute, and it provides all of those (and more), while maintaining the generally intangible aura of being on the edge of the elements. A mile from the centre of town is a huge roadless zone of high moor and windswept hills. The edge of the sea is literally fifty feet from where I am sitting at my desk. Ferries to the mainland come and go at 45-minute intervals all day and every day.

MV Bute leaving Rothesay Harbour

Yesterday the Firth of Clyde was swathed in thick sea fog, and as dawn came up I managed to catch this photograph of one of the ferries just about to head out to sea. Two miles in the opposite direction to the hills and the port is the gothic masterpiece of Mount Stuart House, one of the most astonishing stately homes anywhere in the UK. Less than a year ago a complete First Folio of Shakespeare was discovered in the library.

I intend to get back to writing my next novel pretty soon. The short first draft manuscript I was working on a month ago is in one of the boxes heaped up next door – I’ll keep searching.

Goodbye to All This

We shall be moving house a few days before Donald Trump enters the White House. A small domestic upheaval before a seismic disturbance of historical significance.

I fear and loathe Trump, in the same way I feared and loathed the bullies who dominated my life when I was six and seven years old. I was a middle-class boy with the London accent I had picked up from my Londoner parents (they had been exiled to the north of England by the German bombing). I was sent to a primary school largely populated by kids from the slum-clearance estate that had appeared suddenly on the edge of the Cheshire village where I was born. They too had been exiled by the bombing, in their case from the narrow, mean backstreets of central Manchester. Even at this early age they were tough kids, looked it and acted it. Few of them could read or write, many of them thought with their fists or their boots, and a nervous middle-class kid who had a London accent and liked reading books was for them a heaven-sent opportunity. I shed my London vowels as quickly as possible, but I have never been a fighter and nothing could put a stop to the violent class war that broke out around me and on me. (When I was eight I passed an entrance exam and was moved to a different school.)

Trump reminds me unfailingly of those troubled and inadequate kids, who saw me, and a handful of others like me, as some kind of threat to however it was they dimly and narrowly interpreted the world. Trump is my enemy, in the same way as those louts were my enemies. He is inexperienced, ignorant and crude. He is a sex offender, an abuser of women, a mocker of people with disabilities, a racist. He is culturally bereft. He clearly lacks the capacity for imaginative thought, for subtlety, diplomacy – or any kind of structured decision-making. Worst of all, he actually sees these major personality flaws as qualifications, as character qualities that give him the right profile to be president of the most powerful nation on Earth.

The prospect of this appalling man having any kind of political power, even for a short time, is terrifying. No good can come of it, and although in the past I have worried intensely about political leaders, and suffered by their policies – Margaret Thatcher, the Bushes, Vladimir Putin, Ronald Reagan – with hindsight the threats they represented seem laughably trivial compared with potential for the economic, political, social and military chaos that is likely to result from the bizarre prejudices and confusions of the offensive and disgusting Trump.

Our move away from Devon is not directly connected with Trump, of course, but our decision to move came after the full impact of the depressing Brexit vote began to sink in, and while Trump’s revolting election campaign was at its height. Maybe these two signal events of 2016 had an influence on our choice, but we maintain our motives are positive, not an instinct to try to flee. Devon is itself something of a refuge, of course, a place of presumed safety some people move to as an escape from the harsher realities of the modern world.

We have been happy in Devon: the landscape in particular strikes a resonant chord in me. To most people who live in Britain and who travel to the west country, Devon is a sort of rural prelude to the more commercially adept resort areas of Cornwall. There is nothing much in Devon: there are two big cities, Exeter and Plymouth, but neither of these is on the same sort of scale as the major cities of Britain, and both are well contained within their localities. Exeter in particular is a compact, attractive town. There are a few other smaller towns, but most of Devon is countryside: farms, woods, moors, river valleys, wild coastline. It is peaceful and beautiful, and although such passive countryside is openly vulnerable to exploitation, so far it has been left more or less undamaged by industrialization, by commercial enterprises, by intrusive housing developments, by the unwanted construction of trunk roads. It has not been entirely spared these modern features, but there are still large areas of the Devon countryside that have not substantially changed in centuries.

It has to be fought for. Housing estates are appearing on the edges of many villages, bringing dull modern designs to places better known for cob cottages and thatched roofs. Supermarkets are being built in many of the market towns. Even the one true wilderness in the heart of Devon, Dartmoor National Park, is at risk – many of the off-road tors are now being indelibly streaked with wide and muddy tracks created by trail bikes and ATVs, which are in any event a noisy nuisance to walkers. None of this is the reason we are leaving, because this is the modern world and people have to live somewhere, and anyway so far the damage is not irreparable.

The house we are leaving is situated on high land close to the valley of the River Taw. This meanders calmly between hills, through its flood plain, free of pollution, rich with fish, animals and birdlife. Not far from this is a tributary, the River Mole, flowing down from Exmoor to Kings Nympton, where it joins the Taw. In its comparatively short length the Mole has four of its own tiny tributaries, all more or less unknown outside the locality. They have lovely names: the Yeo, the Crooked Oak, the Bray, the Little Silver Stream.

Of any of this, Donald J. Trump knows nothing. He sees land as something to be bought and developed: he has purchased two golf courses in Scotland. (One of them was already there, but after a lengthy battle with local people and environmentalists he built the Balmedie course on formerly undeveloped coastline near Aberdeen, a bird sanctuary and a marine landscape of dunes and wild beaches.) He believes climate change is a hoax, played by China on the USA to make Americans lose their jobs – he has said that on taking office he will “cancel” all existing US climate change policies. He has “promised” to restore the torturing of political prisoners. He has discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Europe. He urged gun owners to turn them on his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. He –

I have always loved and admired the USA, but some recent madness has made Americans inflict this inadequate and troubled lout on the world.

For the next two or three weeks we will be packing our stuff, moving our stuff some 800 kms (approx. 500 miles), unpacking our stuff, getting our stuff to work again … we will be off grid for a while. By the time we are back on, well – see above.

Happy New Year!

The Terror of 403

Apologies if you have been trying to reach this site in the last two weeks or so. A terrifying error-message which blazoned the word FORBIDDEN in capital letters was all you would find. A virus attack had occurred at the ISP, but it has now been sorted by my son Simon. (A million thanks!) He and I have changed ISP, and things should be back to normal.

But I ask a favour: I understand that after a change of ISP anyone who has a link to my site will not be able to re-connect, except manually. I have no access to social media, and I’d be grateful if this renewal could be made known. The URL is unchanged: www.christopher-priest.co.uk.

Thanks!

They Have Been Sent In

The image below appears on the cover of Fortean Times 347, dated December 2016.

clown
The headline beside it reads as follows:

ATTACK OF THE KILLER CLOWNS
The creepy craze that started in America and spread across the world

My copy of FT was delivered here on 8th November. Fortean coincidence, or what?

Fortean Times, the journal of well researched and sceptical reporting of strange phenomena, the bizarre and the inexplicable, is one of the most readable, intelligent and thought-provoking magazines in existence. It is also at times extremely amusing. In a world perceptibly going mad, it is a beacon of sanity. I read it cover-to-cover as soon as it arrives. A 12-month subscription costs: UK £38.98, EC £47.50, USA $88.99.

 

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The Day the Earth Caught Fire was a British science fiction film made in 1961. These days it has become a somewhat under-rated and forgotten film, but it has its moments. Told from the point of view of the journalists and editor of a Fleet Street newspaper (in fact, the Daily Express), the film depicts the fate of the world after too much nuclear testing tilts the axis of the planet. Severe climate change ensues. In the film, the only possible remedy is thought to be the setting off of even more nuclear explosions, which will in theory cause a return to normality. However, there is an equal risk that the detonations will destroy what is left of the planet.

As the moment of detonation approaches, and the characters face their destiny, the machine room of the newspaper is set to print one of two final editions. The closing image in the film is of the front pages of both editions.

saveddoomed

 

 

 

I can’t help remembering this as we prepare to spend the night watching TV, waiting for salvation or doom.

Ravilious (2)

New Perspectives, the exhibition mounted by Beaford Arts of
new-perspectives
photographs by James Ravilious and others, opened yesterday. (See entry below.) It runs until 12th November. The exhibition will eventually tour, displaying in several of the villages and towns which are the actual locations, but this opening is at the Goodwin Gallery, Petroc Brannams Campus, Barnstaple.

It’s a rare opportunity to see twenty-five of James Ravilious’s extraordinary black-and-white images of North Devon, beautifully printed, mounted and displayed. The exhibition celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Beaford Arts, which holds the Ravilious archive. It was curated and organized by Caroline Preston, who with Lizzie Grant and Martyn Warren also curated the open submissions.

Nina and I went to the private view yesterday, happily mingling with the other amateur photographers whose contemporary pictures were shown alongside Ravilious’s originals, most of them from thirty or forty years ago.

goodwin-gallery

photo by: Nina Allan
photo by: Nina Allan

Ravilious

Today is UK publication day for The Gradual, but resisting temptation to put up yet another scan of the attractive Gollancz cover, let me show you an image of something else entirely.

northam-burrowsThis is a part of the huge area of estuarial salt marshes at the mouth of the rivers Taw and Torridge. The photograph was taken on the southern side of the rivers, known as Northam Burrows. In the distance there is a glimpse of the seaside town of Westward Ho! (The exclamation mark is part of the town’s name, and has nothing to do with my possible surprise or excitement about it.)

I took the photo because I had my camera with me, and because it struck me as an interesting view. I took several more that day, in July this year, and this was the best of them.

Much later I discovered that a local arts organization called Beaford Arts was running a competition to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and were inviting photographic entries inspired by the work of James Ravilious.

Ravilious’s work as a photographer is not, I think, widely known outside Devon, but to my mind his photographs are not only artistic and beautiful, but have real social worth too. He was the son of the artist Eric Ravilious, a painter whose work I had already come to admire as he was based in Eastbourne – many of his paintings were inspired by the East Sussex coast where I was then living.

James Ravilious, working with Beaford Arts for about a quarter of a century, from 1972 until his premature death in 1999, set out to make a pictorial record not only of the unspoiled, peaceful and vulnerable scenery of North Devon, but also of the people who lived and worked in the area. Many of the people who live around here remember him well – he was much liked in his lifetime. He took more than 80,000 photographs in that quarter century, and also made archive copies of around 5,000 more photos taken by other photographers in earlier years. There is probably no other area of rural England so intensively recorded by such a wealth of remarkable photographs. In my opinion Ravilious is easily the equal of great French photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson (who had originally inspired Ravilious to take up photography) and Robert Doisneau. Both of these men worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, as did Ravilious.

Many of Ravilious’s pictures can be seen on his website. The whole archive is maintained by Beaford Arts, and much of that can also be viewed online.

The other day I learned that my photo of Northam Burrows has been selected to be exhibited, and will be displayed alongside a photograph taken by Ravilious in 1977, of Braunton Burrows, on the opposite side of the estuary. I believe the exhibition will be touring in Devon soon, but I don’t think it will be shown outside the county.

So do take some time to look at Ravilious’s astonishingly beautiful photographs, and reflect, as he wished us to do, that this unique tract of England might one day be casually destroyed by those who have an insatiable need for road widening schemes, shopping malls and estate houses.

Life is a Lottery

Affirmation EksmoThis is the cover of the Russian translation of The Affirmation, due to be published by Eksmo on 6th October. It accurately identifies the book as a product of the age of typewriters …

According to my trusty Russian speaker (Nina), the title translates as Lottery, or maybe a slight adaptation of the word. In the novel it’s called a Lotterie.

As always I’m really pleased to see this particular novel given a new lease of life.

Ineffective Art — The Last Days of New Paris

In George Melly’s autobiography, Owning Up (1965), he describes how he became the victim of a violent assault outside a hotel in Manchester. He had been singing with Mick Owning Up (Melly)Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band and at the end of the gig he was standing on the steps of the building, breathing the fresh air, while the rest of the band were still inside packing up their instruments. A group of young thugs approached – one of them had earlier been ejected by Mulligan for pulling a razor on him, and he and his mates were now looking for revenge. One of them had a bottle, which he started tapping with increasing strength against a brick wall. Melly writes, ‘When that breaks, I thought, he’s going to push it in my face.’ The assault began with a head-butt, making Melly’s nose bleed.

Melly, who says he was ‘anaesthetized by fear’, reached into his pocket for the only thing that might work as a defence: it was a book of Surrealist sound poetry, written by Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaist. Melly briefly explained to his attackers what the poems were, and started reading aloud from one called ‘Ursonate’. The first four lines go as follows:

langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi (… and so on)

‘Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off,’ writes Melly. (George Melly had a lifelong commitment to Surrealism, being a noted collector, critic and lecturer in the genre.)

I kept remembering Melly’s anecdote, which I interpret as evidence of how effective art can be when well deployed, all the way through my reading of China Miéville’s new novel, The Last Days of New Paris. Much the same thing happens.

Last Days (Mieville)The story, such as it is, describes the aftermath of an ‘S-Blast’ (Surrealist Blast, I assume) set off in Les Deux Magots in Paris, in 1941, during the Nazi occupation. The S-Blast unleashes a nightmare brigade of beasts and ‘manifs’ from the world of Surrealist art. These empower but also threaten the small band of Surrealists still hiding in Paris: La Main à Plume. Soon a violent three-way battle is convulsing Paris, between the ‘manifs’, the Surrealist fighters and the Nazi occupiers. The war, an extension of the Nazi strategic plan Fall Rot (‘Case Red’), continues until at least 1950, which is when much of the novel is set. The only surviving member of La Main à Plume is one Thibaut, who insofar as the novel has a leading character other than the narrator, is the leading character.

There is hardly any trace of story, but what there is describes the appearance of one Surrealist icon after another, which either attacks or is attacked or avoids being attacked. At the back of the book nearly all of these manifestations are carefully cross-referenced to the original artwork, or sketch, or pensée, by page number. (Thus, very early in the novel what appears at first to be two women crazily riding a tandem bicycle, soon turns out to be a ‘manif’ of Leonora Carrington’s Goya-like pen-and-ink drawing called ‘I am an Amateur of Velocipedes’. This is a bicycle-like machine with a female figurehead mounted on the handlebars – a reproduction of it is quickly discoverable online. An endnote exists. The narrator of the book, in a dialogue with an elderly Thibaut, carefully documents the source. No one can be left in any doubt about what it is.)

As the novel proceeds a whole bestiary of Surrealist oddities enters the book, each similarly traced to source by the narrator. Some are famous: Max Ernst’s painting of an elephant-like metal bin, ‘Celebes’, is one, and ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a collage by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, not only comes alive but takes a prominent role. Soon, the unstoppable carnival of spinning Surrealist images becomes dizzying.

I hoped and intended to like this novel, assuming it was a return to form for China Miéville after a period of some uncertainty. After finishing it, I felt Miéville should be congratulated on writing a unique novel. It is ambitious, obscure, unusual, difficult, provocative, fantastic, vainglorious, and not at all too long. His language is at its best bizarre, experimental, sometimes daringly impressionistic. I cannot recall another novel like it. All this is to its advantage. However, it also presents a congeries of literary problems, serious ones.

‘Weird’ is a word sometimes applied to Miéville’s work, often by the author himself. In fact, there is little about the novel that is weird. If you accept the conceit of the S-Blast, and the madness of war extended almost indefinitely, much of the novel reads like the catalogue of a Surrealist exhibition, or a Thames & Hudson book of art reproductions. We move from one ‘manif’ to the next, programme notes to hand, like captions to illustrations or narrative cards attached to the wall beside the piece of art. The reader is not given a story to follow, or the emotional lives of the characters to grow with. We know nothing of the lives of the characters outside the events in the novel – where do they live?, what do they do at the weekend?, how do they eat?, etc. There is as well a lack of comprehensible dialogue, no plot to speak of, and an extremely poor sense of place – Miéville writes ornately, but the ambience is thin. There is none of the evocative descriptive prose of (e.g.) The Scar.

And because it is a narrative totally lacking in atmosphere, sensuality, character, motivation, and much more, it becomes a struggle to maintain interest. This is the kind of book you press on reading not because you have found something to enjoy or be intrigued by, but because you are determined not to be beaten by its extraordinary flatness.

Like the Surrealist art that the novel describes, The Last Days of New Paris is not weird at all, Dali Clock Aug 2016but odd and fanciful. Surrealism developed from Dadaism, which was based bizarrely on anti-war feelings in the years 1914-18, and is full of fancy. Trains emerge from fireplaces or chug through someone’s beard, ants crawl across melting watches, lovers kiss with their faces shrouded, skeletal bones clutch an egg, a urinal is presented as an object of beauty and usefulness.

Miéville’s novel, by adding nothing to these fanciful works of art beyond making them move and cataloguing them, is full of fancy. It even becomes more fanciful still, because a novel is itself a work of art and this one should have brought something to the intriguing subject of Surrealism, more than being simply an illustrated list of examples.

The early work of J. G. Ballard (notably his stories in the collection Vermilion Sands) is wonderful proof that the images and feelings of Surrealism can be summoned and enhanced in English prose. Ballard, like Melly but seemingly unlike Miéville, was dedicated to Surrealism. Throughout his career he often cited its images and manifestos as being major influences on his writing.

Fancy is related to fantasy, but it is a slot lower. While fantasy literature draws on psychic archetypes and symbols, images of the dream state and the human wish for a sense of otherness, it also inspires imaginative ideas unconnected to the reader’s experience of reality. Fantasy often summons a series of pleasing or exciting or gratifying mental images, serving the reader’s need for the feeling of well-being not present in the real world – equally, it can suggest frightening or disturbing or warning images, again satisfying a need for excitement or menace or apprehension not often encountered in real life. Written well, fantasy is powerful stuff, ultimately based on reality and psychological experience. And yes, fantasy is often genuinely weird.

On the other hand, fancy is a whim, a surprising thought, an unexpected juxtaposition, an anachronism, a party piece. It treats the ridiculous with unfruitful solemnity. It lacks metaphorical depth. While fantasy can move, excite, depress or stimulate a reader, fancy gains only a reaction: at first it is one of amusement, or even of being impressed or astonished, but when fancy piles on other fancies, as in Miéville’s novel, then it is all too much. It becomes risible, annoying, irrelevant, even unsurprising – it provokes irritation, anger, a wish for better things.

An example from Last Days: It was one thing for the poet Paul Éluard to suggest fancifully that L’Arc de Triomphe should be turned into a giant urinal – it is quite another order of fancy for Miéville’s ‘manifs’ to tip the monument on its side, then have it streaming with self-generated urine. Self-generated urine? Where does that sort of image lead us, what does it mean, what on Earth was the author thinking? (P 54.)

A sense of the author’s abstraction, or distraction, recurs too often for comfort. Miéville is presently at the top of his game, and we expect him to be committed to his work and thus give a great performance. Far too often in Last Days there are lapses of style, grammar. The narrative is told in two tenses, the present and the past perfect – we switch between the two without apparent purpose. On pp 68 and 69 there are two such switches: from present to past perfect, to present again. This is a sign of something going wrong: either the author was not concentrating on what he was doing, or it was a meaningless stylistic mannerism he rather liked, or he didn’t realize he was doing it, or he didn’t care that he was doing it. Whichever of those four betraying signs is the one, it’s a no-win.

He has also not been well served by his copy-editor. She was not much older than Thibaut, he thought. She looked at him with urgent eyes (p 6). Who thought that? Who is ‘he’? The entire passage before and after this is in the third-person, and it is about Thibaut, but in the first of these sentences Thibaut appears to be thinking about himself. In the second: how can passive organs like eyes ever be ‘urgent’?

This sort of carelessness is a betraying detail – there are more than a few others, and it would be tedious to list them all. The four revealing conditions under which the author allows changes in narrative tense apply here too.

I found myself breaking a personal rule and began making pencil underlines of dodgy words and phrases. Like most of its kind the thing is obviously in pain. But that size, whatever its injuries or sickness, they will not help him (p 19). We expect better writing than this from a serious and successful author — we are entitled to expect better.

The expansive and dynamic early Miéville novels find few echoes here. The Last Days of New Paris is, I am sorry to say, a thinly achieved novel, apparently book-learned, lacking narrative and descriptive skill, lacking passion.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville — Del Rey, 2016, 205 pp, $25.00, ISBN: 978-0-345-54399-8

Owning Up: The Trilogy by George Melly — Penguin, 2000, 594 pp, ISBN: 0-141-39001-8

Selfie literature

Tom Hunter, current director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, wants to open the prize to self-published novels. He is at present uncertain how this might work. One way he is mooting would be to throw it open to anyone, but charge each writer the same submission fee presently paid by publishers. Another proposal is to allow the panel of judges to call in self-published books. The two could or might be combined in some way.

But it seems to me that this begs the question of what a self-published novel actually is. For example, an ebook made available by a writer through Kindle is self-published — Amazon is only the distributor. Amazon does not act or function as publisher, and the writer remains the de facto publisher.  So here is a definition that might be helpful:

Self-published works are not eligible where the author is the publisher. If the publisher is a company which has been specifically set up to publish the work in question, and/or the author is the person who owns the majority shareholding or otherwise controls the company, the work is ineligible.

That strikes me as a clear, uncontroversial and defensible statement of how self-published novels, intended to be submitted to a literary award, should be defined and regulated. It also accepts by implication that there is a difference between self-published texts and professionally published books. Although it is always unacknowledged by those who campaign for literary parity, here is the difference:

A book brought out by a trade publisher goes through various processes and tests before it is printed and distributed through bookshops.

  • The author, who in many cases has the experience of publishing earlier works, will have completed several drafts and read-throughs before submitting it to the publisher.
  • The manuscript will be read and judged by an experienced editor, and in some cases by several other people who work for the publisher.
  • After it has been accepted the publisher will almost invariably require changes, usually minor but sometimes quite extensive: parts of the book might be requested to be shortened, lengthened, clarified, rewritten, etc.
  • When the author has been given time to consider and carry out the revisions, the next stage is a close copy edit of the text. The copy editor will modify the text to conform to the publisher’s house style, and to normal printing conventions. At the same time various small but important matters will be addressed. Spelling and grammar will be corrected. Inconsistencies of plot or character or language or background will be queried.
  • After the book has been set in type, both an in-house proofreader and the author will go closely through the text to make sure everything is correct.
  • The book will be designed. Typeface and general typography will be chosen, as will page layout, chapter breaks, and so on.
  • A cover is designed by an artist, overseen by the publisher’s art department.
  • The finished book is then printed and bound.

None of these steps, or almost none, will apply to a self-published book. It is nothing to do with elitism (a frequent charge against people who know the difference). Writing is a profession. It has standards.

More than one hundred books are submitted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award every year — 113 were sent in for the 2016 prize. That’s a lot of reading to get through in a matter of a few weeks, and if the floodgates were opened and the commitment had to increase I believe it would become unworkable for most people. If self-published books were regulated as suggested above, then perhaps numbers would stay more or less where they are.

While on the subject of the Clarke Award, and knowing that no one can agree what it is actually “for”, it seems to me that over the thirty years of its existence it has tended to highlight well written centralist science fiction as well as more ambitious works which are pushing at the edges of the definition of the genre. Science fiction has always been a progressive form: it changes and improves and expands, and we look to something like the Clarke Award to reflect that unique literary spirit. In this it differs from fan-based prizes. Most of the people who have won the prize in the past have been serious about their writing, and the general tone of discussion has been, until recently, equally serious.

(Many congratulations to Adrian Tchaikovsy on his win! I hope it will have a significant impact on his career.)