David Gullen was a Clarke Award judge representing the British Science Fiction Association in 2016. Here he talks to us about the experience and what it taught him about his own fiction writing.
Each year two of the 5 judges for the Arthur C Clarke Award are BSFA members and last year I was one of them. (The other judges are nominated by the Science Fiction Foundation, and the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival). I have no idea why I was asked. In any event I was both hugely flattered and more than a little daunted by the prospect of critically reading 100+ novels in 9 months (in the end it was 113 books) and something I could not refuse.
All I’ll say about my experience of the judging process is that we were a bunch of SF lovers who were widely-read and who loved and understood the genre as well as the next person. We discussed the books that we admired or hated, the ones we liked, the ones we loved so much we were prepared to fight to get them onto the shortlist. There was, inevitably, a vast amount of reading and it was a big commitment of time, but it was also good fun.
Like most BSFA members it’s nothing remarkable to say that I’ve read a lot. I’ve also written a fair bit, including four novels I’ll admit to. One is out of print but soon to return, one is on submission through my agent, and two others are — somewhere. I’m writing the fifth. In 2016 I was the winner of the BFS short story competition.
Writing has made me critical of books in ways that I wasn’t when I was just a reader. I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing, but it is definitely a thing. For me the best book is one that turns off that critical eye because it transports me into its world so completely all I want to do is read, and to stay in that world. It’s a book that keeps me up late and gets in the way of the things I should be doing, a book that offers me the sheer pleasure of reading a great story well-written. I don’t want to put it down, I can’t wait to pick it up. I feel a little sad when I realise there’s only fifty pages left and soon it will end. A perfect example of a book that did that for me was Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.
For the Clarke Award, it was interesting to think about what a good book does, both as reader and writer. You can generalise but there’s also an ineffable component — the things that make a book resonate with you personally. A particular book may do all the things it needs to do for you but not someone else, and vice-versa. And it’s not just who you are, it’s when you are as well. Books and their authors can arrive at the right or the wrong moment in your life. It was important for me to keep that in my mind. The first time I tried to read Pratchett I just could not get on with him. Twenty years later I wondered what took me so long to appreciate such good writing.
At some point during reading those 113 books it occurred to me what a difficult thing writers are trying to do and just how many different things each author is trying to get right. It’s not just character and plot and pace and tension, world-building, good dialogue, effective exposition, setting story questions and keeping story promises, it’s also trying to get that motivating vision in your head down onto the page. Even a pretty ordinary book takes a lot of effort. If you assume each of those books took 6 months to write — and many would have taken more — that is 57 years of effort, not far from the entire productive life of a single person.
In my opinion there were only two actively bad books in that list (and no, I am not going to say which ones they were). I don’t write many reviews but when I do it’s because I think the book is extraordinary and hope a review will give the book and the author a signal boost. Praise the good, ignore the bad, life is too short and anyway, I should be writing. Why did I think those two books were bad? Mostly because in one or more ways the writing was lazy. I look at the last word in the sentence and worry I’m being unfair. Some books do not get the time they need to fully develop, some projects lose their champions. But this wasn’t inexperience, it wasn’t as if the authors could not write. Nevertheless, lack of care about characterisation, encounters, decision-making and world-building led to narratives where situations became unbelievable and characters were so ludicrous my disbelief was unsuspended. At that point there is no going back because my not-so-subconscious mind was fixated on looking for flaws. The moment was gone. For me a perfect example of this is Ridley Scott’s film, Prometheus.
We all read the books, some stayed with us and some left pretty quickly. The reasons were varied and included whether the book was even a candidate. Why a publisher would submit a non-SF book for an SF award is an interesting question and I expect there are multiple answers. A fair few of those were put aside for later enjoyment and one I read there and then because the opening gripped me. Finally the judging process was over, we’d had our last meeting and made our choice — Adrian Tchaikovsky’s wonderful Children of Time.
Back home I looked at the piles of books on the upstairs landing and thought back over what we had done and had had done to us. These are some of the things that stayed with me:
- Some books didn’t work so well because of ambition. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, pushing yourself out of your creative comfort zone is a good thing but these books didn’t fully succeed. This by no means meant they were bad books. We can respect an ambitious piece of work far more than an unambitious one. I see little wrong with an ambitious project but I do with an over-ambitious one. I thought there were a few of those and that their authors could perhaps have benefited from better editorial help than they received.
- Translators are enormously under-rated. The skill and hard work needed to bring an author’s voice and style from one language to another should be acknowledged far more than it is. Maybe one reason is that foreign-language genre books inbound into the English-speaking world are not that common. There were a small number of books in translation submitted to the award and that was very good to see. I hope publishers continue to bring us books originally written in other languages.
- Almost everyone on that longlist could write a good action scene. It was near enough a universal and half-convinced me that these types of scenes are not as hard as some people think. Action comes with its own pace, it’s inherently engaging and comes with its own internal context. Yes, it has to fit reasonably into the story, but in terms of the, ‘He pulled a knife, she laughed darkly and drew a gun’, you don’t need to worry about it in the moment — it’s already been established. Yes, there are mistakes to be made — you can go on too long or wander into dialogue, but maybe it’s not that challenging compared to other aspects of writing.
- Almost everyone wrote well. In sentence, phrase, and paragraph, good use of the written word was not an extraordinary thing at this level of publication. Some writers have tics, positive and negative but so do some readers. Spend the first few pages referring to your protagonist as ‘he’ or ‘she’ and you run the risk of irritating me*. That’s just me, I know I’m like that and do my best to compensate. Did all this good writing make it harder to judge and select books? At a base level, yes, because I was denied the opportunity to throw dozens of books at the wall and mutter about how badly written they were. Reading was required! On the other hand it was an excellent thing to be denied that! And on a more substantial level no it did not. There were two main reasons for this and the first is:
- Not everyone can tell a good story well. Or to be fairer not everyone managed it for that particular book. Action scenes and use of language are learned things, story-telling is too, but it is far less straightforward. Perhaps this is why when some successful and popular writers discover a formula that works for them they stick with it (You could argue that Elmore Leonard, JG Ballard, and David Gemmell are examples of very good writers who have done this.) X tells a good story, some wag will say, and they’ve told it several times.
Which brings us to my second reason and an interesting question: What is a good story? There’s a relationship between the book and the reader formed around what the author is trying to achieve and the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of those things. For me a good book has to make sense in that it has an internal logic, it has to keep the promises it makes to the reader, and the characters need arcs of sufficient emotional intensity. The story should be original, imaginative, passionate, puzzling, solvable, and the ending must be satisfying. All that and well-written too! If there’s a single word to describe what a good story is, I think it is just that — satisfying. But satisfying doesn’t tell you anything more than saying it should ‘sparkle’ or be ‘good’, or that I want to be transported. You have to read the book and find out.
A good story is ultimately a gestalt thing, a combination of all the elements of a book done well — the things I’ve just mentioned, and more — all coming together in synergy. A really good one does that in a way that speaks to needs or desires common to many readers. If there’s any justice in the world the book is a great success. Sometimes that’s not the case. Mike, Linda, & Louise Carey’s City of Silk & Steel is one example, Gaie Sebold’s Babylon Steel is another.
In the end I think only you — whoever you are — can answer that question for a particular book. Did it speak to your condition, or illuminate something you previously only vaguely understood, or was it just really good fun and lovely? Our opinions changes over time, and rightly so. Different things speak to and move you in different ways during different periods of your life. Obviously, there is a significant overlap in opinion among the reading population, including us Clarke judges. There were big differences too. An essential part of the process was the conversations about why we made our individual choices. And talking about books is one of life’s great pleasures.
Looking back at the selection process I think Sturgeon’s well-known law that “90% of SF is crap because 90% of everything is crap” really didn’t apply. At least not for the work submitted to the Clarke Award. And after 113 books that was a very good thing. Writing a book is an extraordinarily difficult thing yet lots of people do it well. Many of the books were good and worth reading. Some were very good. A few were wonderful. Were there any truly great ones? Maybe. It’s also possible we judges in our hubris missed them. Time will tell.
*Why? Because I feel it unnecessarily distances the reader from the character. Tell me their name.
David Gullen’s short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies including Nature, ARC, and Sensorama.
His is a winner of the 2016 British Fantasy Society short story competition, placed third in the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His collection, Open Waters, is published by Exaggerated Press and you can read some of his fiction for free on Wattpad and his own website, davidgullen.com.
This article was originally published in Focus, the creative writing magazine of the British Science Fiction Association, and is re-posted here with permission.