Understanding Christopher Priest

Writing can be a cruel game. Not least for those who, to innocent bystanders, might seem like winners in the game of literary life. Take Christopher Priest for instance. With a long and esteemed career in writing, numerous accolades under his belt and a Hollywood adaptation of his novel The Prestige still within living memory, Priest has enjoyed a bigger piece of the pie than most writers will ever know.

So why then would a man held in rather high esteem by the community of Science Fiction writers and readers throw a hissy fit about the recently announced Clarke awards shortlist? The immediate assumption one might make is that Priest is somewhat vexed about his own novel The Islanders being overlooked for this year’s shortlist. And no doubt this is one of many straws piled upon this particular heehawing donkey’s back, but in this case probably not the most significant one.

A more significant reason might be that Christopher Priest has spent most of his professional career not being J G Ballard. The two writers began their professional careers around the same period of the early to mid 1960’s, among a number of writers who would become known as the New Wave, all loosely connected by their shared agenda of making SF a serious and respected literary genre. Priest is not now among the first writers that come to mind in discussions of the New Wave…which is of course the point.

The role of camaraderie and rivalry is sometimes overlooked when we draw up our cultural historic narratives. But they are a powerful force in the lives of writers as with all artists. Yes, there is the pure joy of creation. Yes, there is the need to have your work read by an audience. Yes, there is that other need for a hefty pay cheque now and again to keep body and soul together. But what really drives us is the desire to be…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays. But while this is not literally true, there’s no doubt that these writers pay each other a very great deal of attention, even if sometimes that attention manifests as deliberately ignoring your rivals.

Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down. His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, “extremely clever” is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love. It has all the qualities of someone who has spent decades studying, learning, dedicating every fraction of a considerable intellect to learning the rules and structures of fiction, but never quite managed to get his own soul on the page. Which, in the end, is the only thing we really demand of a novelist.

First the New Wave, then wave after wave of SF writers have swept past Christopher Priest. Many of them far less intelligent. Most of them far less educated in the field of SF. And now, just when Priest might have expected to be acclaimed as an elder statesman of the genre, another wave of writers have taken the limelight instead. The bulk of the criticisms Priest lays at the feet of the current generation of SF writers including Charles Stross and China Mieville are products of his own swollen, bruised and delusional ego, but a few are true. All artists are imperfect, all fail in many, many ways. But then don’t we always in the end love the people we love as much for their imperfections? The rhetorical framework of Christopher Priest’s screed, a rhetoric shared by some other extremely clever writers, seems to pose a kind of Platonic ideal work of fiction, for which they are always striving, and which gives them cause to hurl abuse at those weak, frail, all too human writers who fail to reach it.

Because the real cruelty of writing is what it makes some writers do to themselves. Christopher Priest is and will continue to be highly respected in the SF community. His next book will likely be more highly publicised than all his others put together after this hissy fit. Let’s just hope he puts his soul on the page this time, rather than another mechanical exercise in platonic perfectionism.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

21 thoughts on “Understanding Christopher Priest

  1. “His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, “extremely clever” is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love. ” < sounds like a perfect description of Ballard, to be honest. And, at times, M. John Harrison. 


    1. Harrison’s better stuff certainly transcends being merely “clever”, though. And his prose is so damn good it usually makes up for it when it isn’t.


  2. Just read his post. Now I keep picturing Charles Stross running around in circles, collapsing and pissing on my carpet.

    Just like last Eastercon!


  3. I’m not familiar enough with Priest’s work to speak to the criticism of it or his artistic situation in a specific context, but I’m very happy to see the “cleverness” thing nailed so completely.  I read a lot of clever SF. But it takes real chops to make me remember characters as people, or get caught up in their personal lives.


  4. Hes cruel and horrible. Writing is a cruel game but calling an author an internet puppy who we all wait to piss on the carpet is just wrong. 


  5. Ballard’s first short fiction came out in 1956; Priest’s in 1965. Ballard’s first novel appeared in 1962; Priest’s in 1970. That’s an 8 – 9 year gap, easily enough to define a generational difference.


    1. Perfect timing for Priest to want to be like Ballard though. To adopt the same love / hate pose to the genre. Which was my assertion.


  6. Thanks Al Reynolds for pointing out Damien’s error in the Ballard/Priest timing (even if his response implies he didn’t mean what he wrote).

    I agree with others who note that Damien seems to have gone astray in this article.

    For me, Priest’s post was an enjoyable read, well written and reasoned. It made me want to look at some of the books he praised, as well as those he derided.

    Trying to get to the same level of vituperation with the “hissy fit” epithet or suggesting “he’s just jealous” seems to be an act of transference.

    I respect Christopher Priest. I’ve heard of him. Up until today I’d never heard of Walter, Damien G.


  7. I thought Priest’s post was unprofessional in unnecessarily attacking people in a hurtful way. It’s one thing to say “there are more deserving works” and name them. It’s quite another to belittle others and their work. It’s really inappropriate, no matter how praised your work is. It’s a sign of forgetting what it’s like to be in their shoes. And it’s the opposite of the kind of support we should be showing each other in this industry. Good post, Damien.


  8. Priest is just being Priest. Saying what’s on his mind without feeling compelled to observe customary manners or showing any consideration. I very much doubt he is driven by jealousy or disappointment at not being on the list himself. He is widely regarded as a brilliant author and he knows it, so there’s hardly any insecurity there.

    It’s not good style to call people incompetent in he way he does; some opinions you may well hold to yourself, but there’s no reason to believe that he doesn’t think exactly what he wrote or that he’s being motivated by something else than waht he declared himself. And he’s far from the only one to have frowned upon his year’s list.



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