Judging the Clarke Award



I’ve been a fan of the Clarke Award for a long time, having enjoyed both the winning books and those on the shortlists. Not all my favourite books for that year end up shortlisted, but it’s never less than interesting. I’d harboured secret ambitions to be a judge ‘when I was ready’ – presumably when there was peace on earth thanks to my benevolent global rule, or something equally imminent. Before that came to pass Donna Scott surprised me at the 2018 BSFA AGM by asking if I fancied being one of the two Association-nominated judges for 2019’s award.

After a lengthy consultation period that boiled down to friends saying, ‘If you want to do it why are you not doing it?’ I signed up. This was August, and afterwards… very little happened. That’s the thing about the award. You think you have a whole year to read the sixty or so books you’re expecting, when in fact you have about six months due to publishing schedules. Oh, and this year there were a record 124 novels submitted, and they arrived from October 2018 to early January, with a couple of stragglers allowed in after that because they were Joyce Carol Oates and Cixin Liu. I managed to clear my already hectic writing, editing and showing-off schedules and got down to the books.

I soon realised a fundamental truth about the Award: there’s a lot of admin. This aspect takes four main forms: keeping a spreadsheet of books you have received; cross-referencing that list with the books the other judges have received via emailed correspondence; outlining your thoughts about each book so the others know what you’re thinking/reading; dealing with the unexpected.

The latter includes, for example, a certain much-loved major publishing house sending you seven copies of each novel submitted, thus unleashing your inner Smaug (so many! And mine! All mine!); liaison with wife (‘send them back, Andrew’; ‘No! Mine!’ etc), finally accepting that despite desire, cunning arrangement (throwing out all of own clothes), subtle suggestion of rehousing offspring in shed you do not have the shelf space, then arranging pick-up, delivery etc.

There are a series of meetings in London, this year at the Star of Kings near King’s Cross, an establishment that is fast becoming the go-to venue for the SFF community. I loved these get-togethers; the team this year were a pleasure to work with. Not only did they kindly accommodate my ranting, I also learned from them. It’s just as well; what makes the Award so important is that every book is considered, as opposed to some fan-based awards where not everyone will have read every book available. What this means is that given the Award’s prestige, the judges are arbiters not just of the current state of the genre, but on the novel form itself.

There are five judges, so there is never a chance of deadlock. There is also no imposed reading order, although people tend to read the first books that arrive in the early days because there aren’t any others. That soon changes, and my method was simple: I read the books in the order they were on the shelf, which was quite arbitrary because I started off ordering them according to colour, size etc, then lost interest in doing that because so many books. What this means in practice is that if three judges nix a book it’s out, and if you haven’t read it by then you don’t have to, because you’d have been outvoted anyway. That said, there were a couple of instances where I was the lone voice promoting a particular book, so if you really love one you can make a case for it, it just becomes harder. And, after a while, you will find others that you might stronger about promoting.

I made a point of reading every book that I could, with a couple of exceptions that, frankly, I hated so much I felt they were draining my essence like a Gelfling in front of the Dark Crystal. At times like that, when a book is simply bad, there’s no use pretending it’s a winner because you know that it isn’t. These were very few though.

I read about a hundred of the books submitted, which equalled between three and four books a week. I developed the ability to read a book a day, unless it was a doorstopper. I don’t know where the editor was with some of those monsters; certainly there isn’t always the narrative to sustain a book that length. I guess it’s a way of justifying a high retail price. Some books just contain a lot of detail, which can be immersive and fun, but I don’t think a novel needs to be more than 100K words in length. I skim-read some longer books without feeling I was missing anything or not doing right by the author. None of the shortlisted books were enormous, and one, The Electric State, had a word-count that was closer to that of a novella.

I was glad to see five self-published novels entered; less glad that they were all by white blokes. Nothing wrong with white blokes (I am one, fact fans); rather that the glory of the self-published scene is the variety it offers. Trad publishing has not always served women or people of colour well, if at all, and I’d liked to have seen more from a wider variety of independent voices, of a quality that would have made the shortlist.

If you are a self-published author who has mastered the craft in terms of storytelling and genre, and invested in your work with professional editing and design then do consider entering the Award. It costs to enter, but could be a good investment – unless the subtext of your first chapter is ‘How come all the attractive women are homosexual?’ In which case, jog on.

Judging the Clarke Award is an intense experience, and if you are a writer yourself you do have to put your own work aside for a bit. However, it’s worth it simply to get a unique snapshot of the genre as it is now. You will also read books you would not otherwise encounter, let alone add to the TBR pile. It’s bracing and needs discipline, but then so does any creative or academic endeavour, or indeed dedicated fandom.

Each judge puts together a long-list, which is discussed, and then a series of shorter lists until the last six are arrived at. There can be an element of horse-trading at this stage, but it does force each judge to be clear about the reasons for a particular selection.

Next: Part 2 – The Shortlist 

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