Christopher Priest does it again

After making waves earlier this year by finding the Clarke Award shortlist inadequate (I posted about that controversy here, here and here), Christopher Priest – the SFF genre’s resident old curmudgeon – is at it again.

This time around, however, his target is not the Clarke Award but Robert McCrum, former editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber and currently commentator at The Guardian and The Observer. It all started in mid November, when Robert McCrum wrote a column for the Guardian website in which he claimed to talk about the rise of genre fiction and to define various new and emerging genres. In practice, however, the column did no such thing and presented indeed a short list of supposed genre classifications that managed to be both condescending and overgeneralizing. Never mind that most of those “genres” exist only in McCrum’s mind.

I mean, US Lit? Really? Because the literary output of a country of 300 million people can be summed up in a single genre, defined by exclusively by old white male writers. The US still fares better than the non-anglophone world, which gets shoved under the genre header “Translated lit”. Yeah, because every book ever written in a language other than English belongs to the same genre.

Anyway, I read the McCrum column, dismissed it as a bit of useless fluff written by someone who obviously dislikes women and SFF and has no idea what genres actually are and promptly forgot about it.

Christopher Priest, meanwhile, read the column as well and felt it was just as stupid and inadequate as I did. However, Christopher Priest was not inclined to dismiss and forget about it, partly because McCrum had compared the SF and fantasy genres to a cockroach which even a nuclear war won’t kill off and partly because it turns out that Christopher Priest had a run-in with Robert McCrum before, while Robert McCrum was editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber. Anyway, Christopher Priest was sufficiently pissed off that he wrote the following evisceration of Robert McCrum on his blog. Juicy details include that McCrum not just hates genre fiction (we could tell) and has zero idea what genres actually are (we could tell that, too), but that he also has no idea of how to handle POV and POV shifts nor why headhopping is a bad thing and that he once wrote an allegedly lousy novel that was – gasp – genre fiction, namely a spy thriller. Oh yes, and he calls McCrum a louse for good measure, too. Take that, McCrum!

Now I have no idea whether McCrum’s novel really is bad, though come to think of it, McCrum’s columns at the Guardian have annoyed me before, particularly due to his pushing of the supposed phenomenon of “Globish” – global English – because obviously people not born in the UK or US or maybe Australia at a stretch (people from Singapore, India, Malaysia, etc… don’t get to speak English according to McCrum, even if it happens to be their first language) are too stupid to learn and speak proper English (here are two examples of McCrum going on about “Globish” – there are more). Well, what do you expect from someone who manages to subsume all of the world’s literary output not written in English under the header of “Translated lit”?

As for Christopher Priest, I only read The Prestige several years ago and neither loved nor hated it. However, I am finding his commentary on the wider field of speculative fiction and his takedowns, particularly if they are aimed at a deserving target like Robert McCrum, fantastically entertaining.

I already compared Christopher Priest to Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the legendarily sharp-tongued critic of German literature, in this post and this latest takedown of Robert McCrum only confirmed my impression. And considering that Anglo-American literary criticism in general and speculative fiction criticism in particular tend to oscillate between the tepid, the willfully obtuse (i.e. mindlessly regurgitating terms picked up during that one class in narrative theory or postmodern literature the critic took in college without understanding any of it) and justified criticism that quickly degenerates into flame-baiting namecalling (“You are racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic. Die in a fire!”)*, a voice like Christopher Priest’s is more than welcome.

*I am all in favour of calling out sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc…, it’s the “Die in a fire” part that I object to.

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