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Christopher Priest: The Interaction cover

It is a small world. This needs to be said. In Christopher Priest: the Interaction, Andrew M. Butler (whom I know) has assembled eleven original essays by ten contributors (four of whom I know well enough, and others I have met) on the work of Christopher Priest (whom I know). The volume was published by The Science Fiction Foundation (of which charity I am a Trustee) for release at the 2005 Glasgow WorldCon (which I attended) where Priest was the Guest of Honour. There is a quote from me on the back cover, which I did not offer but which was freely available to take. Claude Rains would have had us all rounded up, me, Priest, Butler, the lot of us. We are Usual Suspects. We are intramural. We are mavens of the fantastic. We haunt Casablanca. This is part of the picture. It is all well known.

But before we can begin to get a handle on the strangeness of the volume under review, we are going to have to remember something else: that any book like Christopher Priest: the Interaction (hence Interaction) is fairly certain to represent a product—one might call it a "prestige"—of more than one nest of interests, more than one Casablanca. It might be assumed, from its congenial cover and its initial release at the WorldCon honouring Priest, that Interaction was a text addressed to a non-academic audience comprised of those interested in Christopher Priest because they knew him and/or his works and were looking for a guide to the whole man and the whole oeuvre. Interaction is not that book. It is both more and less than what might have been assumed. Its individual essays, some of which are refreshingly erudite, all seem written within a frame of understanding that treats Priest as a world writer, not "merely" an author tied to the fantastic and its markets; this is surely good. At the same time, however, Interaction has been assembled according to the shibboleths and protocols that have crippled the humanities industry for some years, and much of its contents are, as a direct consequence, pretty well unreadable for anyone not an employee of that industry. This is surely bad. It is very bad indeed.

It is not perhaps anyone's fault that so many of the essays in Interaction were written by people who were in the business of doing so, by scholars (in other words) who were professionally bound to generate product consistent with the demands of the firm that employs them. Seven of its contributors (including its editor) are professional academics; three are not. These three—and a couple of the paid academics—have in fact attempted to write in clear; have attempted to address the lay clerisy of Priest readers. But even their essays—even essays not inherently conceived in accordance with the illiterate scientism of the humanities trade—have been rendered cosmetically barbarous through what must have been an editorial decision to couch everything in the anthology according to the ascription and reference protocols demanded of professional scholars who wish to have their work accepted as legitimate. Interaction gives off, therefore, an ineradicable odour of the factory.

So who in the world is expected to read this book?

These are troubled waters to plumb, and the task of assessment is not made easier by the trouble Christopher Priest causes those who wish to write about him. He is like the patient who is smarter and saner than the psychiatrist appointed to report back on him to the high court: he knows what we are almost certainly going to say before we do (even when it is couched in scholar's cant), and he is already elsewhere before we get to where he wasn't. It is not just that the epistemology of his books—the way his narratives think reality through—is difficult and tricky to begin to parse; it is that a "successful" parsing tends not to lead to dry land. The ontology of his books—the deep being we intuitively feel we can apprehend through a process of epistemological unveiling—is inherently insecure; though (and because) Priest is an extremely clever weaver of Story, a "successful" parsing of the storyline of any of his later books is likely to lead one farther astray than one had dreamed to go. Indeed, it could be said that to perfectly "understand" a Priest novel is to perfectly corrode the route to "understanding." In his introduction, Butler notes that two of his contributors use the term Unbestimmtheit ("uncertainty or indeterminability") to characterize Priest's deadly air of quietude. It is mise en abime without a framing Real.

So the authors of Interaction had a real challenge to face. (One of the reasons I did not myself wish to contribute to this volume was that, over the course of at least five reviews of various Priest books since 1979, I had never felt that I had gotten a critical language to fit him; never felt that I had found any firm ground to say the next thing from.) The responses to this challenge are various. Butler's introduction is competent and written in clear. The first essay is an extremely sharp overview of Priest's entire career by Graham Sleight, who is not employed in the industry; but his essay is defaced throughout by the use of a particularly ugly industrial practice, that of citing titles of the author dealt with in the form of acronyms you have to look at the front of the book to identify (each acronym immediately followed by page references to editions that are only cited at the back of the book), so that Sleight's pithy conspectus is riddled by industrial codes it would take Funes to memorize, like "(SM 14:I: 209)" or "(DW 3: 14-9: 58)" or "(G84 6: viii: 295/G96 6: 9: 320)," to quote only a small sample (there are at least 30 similar examples in the piece; any internal inconsistencies in my cites, incidentally, have been copied directly from the text). I have read quite a lot of Graham Sleight's work; never elsewhere have I found him to inflict on the reader (or have had his text pockmarked with) anything like this offputting nonsense. (Who in the world is expected to read this?) His actual text, when it can be found, rationally concentrates on explicating the raw narrative of each title; it is addressed to those who may have not read all of Priest's works, and/or to those whose readings of early titles may now be decades old. It is moreover a reading of Priest which presumes that he writes fictions; that fictions are told in the form of story; that anything not embodied in the story—not understood and treated as manifestly storyable—does not in fact adhere to the book in question. This presumption is foreign to much academic writing, where Story tends to be thought of as a discardable bag, and meaning as the true contents that the bag delivers to the scholar's desk, at which point meaning is extracted from the bag, and the bag is dumped in the trash. As most of the remaining essays in Interaction sedulously obey industry shibboleths governing thematic studies, and eschew any synopsis of story trash in order that they may better concentrate on contextless thematic essences lifted from texts they do not deign to describe, readers will find themselves referring again and again to Sleight's orienteering work.

But Story is not a disposable shopping bag; Story (which subversively and anarchically slides free of any synopsis) must be confronted anew whenever a text is opened, or it is almost certain that little of general use will be uttered. Unfortunately, too many of the papers in Interaction hew to industrial protocols that actively discourage any focusing on the actual flow of Story through a text. Anyone who thinks that this is topsy-turvy—that is, almost anyone outside the industry who might have been expected to read Interaction—is bang right to think so. In the event, it is all well and good to return constantly to the non-academic Sleight in order to get one's bearings; but Priest is unusually difficult to pin down at the motile level of raw Story (no one in the world is actually very easy), and Sleight's reading of any particular text may or may not help to decipher what one of the essayists later in the book thinks (but does not deign to state) might be the Story in question.

After Gilles Dumay's good 2005 interview with Priest, several essays of the sort that worry us follow fast. In the first of these, "Priest's Repetitive Strain", Nick Hubble treats selected aspects of Priest's oeuvre as enacting a Freudian "repeating and working-through" in which protagonists—rather than developing through this process a reality-oriented coming to terms with that which had been repressed—learn how to escape "from all forms of 'reality'." After some exceedingly abstract attempts to make it look as though Priest actually might have been thinking of Freud at all (phrases like "This is consistent with Freud's idea" are always a giveaway), Hubble lets his hair down and says something immediately useful about "the struggles of [Priest's] characters to write themselves as beings in their own world rather than let themselves be written as things in someone else's." But before this lucidly put and clearly relevant moment, he seems to have felt it necessary to pay his union dues. I quote:

Following J L Austin's work on performatives (Austin 1980)—acts of speech which make things happen in the world such as marriage vows and declarations of war—it is now generally accepted that no form of narrative can be neutral, that the act of narration changes the world by making things happen that otherwise would not.

I am less interested in the daft scientism of the quote, in the presumption that the fairly ancient truism expressed here about how narratives work "follows", in any contingent and reputably citable fashion, from the work of the Oxford philosopher J L Austin, than I am in the extraordinary industrial obscurantism here exposed. Does Hubble actually expect that the lay clerisy which makes up the natural readership of this book will know that "(Austin, 1980)" is an industrial form of words for citing a title without actually giving the title—academic industry protocols forbid quoting titles in any citation embedded in a text (!!)—and that this title can only be found in a hundred pages distant, in a Reference Section near the back of the volume? And after his readers do search out his cite—they will find it in a subdivision of Interaction's Reference Section entitled "Secondary Materials", on page 170—does Hubble actually think that his readers will easily understand the meaning of what they have found? In full—and in explicit obedience to industrial protocols—that citation reads: "Austin, J L, How to do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)". Does Hubble think that his non-academic readers will understand that this reference, which he has cited in support of a dubious but explicitly historical claim about the diffusion of widely-held ideas, is itself explicitly and deliberately designed not to be of any use at all in support of such a claim? The citation may look as though we are being told that Austin's book was published in 1980—which would make nonsense of Hubble's historical argument—but we are not. We are not, in fact, being told anything at all about the book's provenance. How to Do Things with Words: the William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955 was first published, posthumously, in 1962, and Hubble's argument would have been far more persuasive had he been allowed to say so; but industry protocols insisted only that he cite the very copy of the book he happened, very unspecifically, to be using, without any reference whatever to that copy's textual or temporal or geographical relationship to the original publication (I have no idea why he omitted the highly useful subtitle), and without any argument as to why that copy should be cited at all.

In following these shit-stupid protocols Hubble (and/or Butler) sedulously make near nonsense of a speculative historical argument, and they waste our time. I am very conscious that I too have, in a sense, been wasting our time as well with such a long excursus; but the dumb secret strength of the kind of protocols I've been attacking is that it takes a long time to explain how damaging their application is in each specific case. Hubble was my victim here, almost at random. There are dozens of similar dispiriting examples throughout Interaction, each so embedded in industrial practice that each would take a paragraph to describe. The cumulative effect is disastrous, both for the scholars locked into malpractice and for the readers who are baulked from accessing anything much of use in a book so compromised.

There is a larger issue, at least for those of us who actively try to understand the fantastic in literature. I think it is pretty well understood that the genres we love are intensely time-sensitive, in a double sense. 1) the genres of the fantastic are deeply and sensitively (and exorbitantly) bound to the world that has been changing under our feet so fast over the past two centuries; the genres of the fantastic are in their essence all about time and space. 2) with regard to these genres, it is absolutely vital to know where and when a particular text appears. The reasons for this are so obvious that they should go without saying. But in the context of a review of Interaction, most of whose component parts are written in strict agreement with the humanities industry's obsessive campaign to cleanse its products of the accidents of space and time, there is something that cannot go without saying. It is this: the scientism that governs the presentation of knowledge in the humanities industry is inherently inimical to a proper reading or understanding of the field of the fantastic in literature.

Butler is, all the same, a competent scholar and a good and sensible writer, as his two pieces here assembled demonstrate. But in adhering to the priorities of his profession in formulating Interaction, he has helped erect vast barriers between the contents of his anthology and the kind of readers (as we've already noted) the circumstances of its publication might ostensibly attract. The book as a whole is well-designed; the essays themselves seemed to have benefited from a good copy-edit; but the sheer rebarbativeness of the protocols used—forget the hugely deleterious philosophical implications I've just hinted at above—make Interaction quite extraordinarily difficult to benefit from.

Whatever. No crimes have been committed. To slide down the contents swiftly: Andy Sawyer and Paul Kincaid both supply lucid, knowledgeable, caring analyses—Sawyer's, of Fugue for a Darkening Island, because it does good work on a neglected book, is of particular interest in its guarded but convincing defence of Priest from accusations of racism. In "An Unusual Suspect: the Novelisation of eXistenZ," Thomas Van Parys tries to cope valiantly with Priest's best-known novelisation (but see below), without quite seeming to realize that some of the obvious deficiencies in the text not only derive from David Cronenberg's ultimate micro-control over his project but also from Priest's indifference to it. If one is able to do Freemason handshakes with its scholarly apparatus, Interaction can be understood as a genuinely valuable attempt, on the part of several sharp readers, to get at its trickster subject.

There is one more problem. The Bibliographies section at the rear is, I'm afraid, as shambolic as might have been expected from an academic text. This is all the more distressing in the field of the fantastic, where good bibliographies are not at all uncommon, as they are done by amateurs who have never heard of the MLA. For its potential readers in the field, most of whom are not likely to be aware that the humanties industry notoriously depreciates bibliography, Interaction should have been the first place to look in order to find out what Christopher Priest has actually written.

But when Nicholas Ruddick, in "Reticence and Ostentation in Christopher Priest's Later Novels: The Quiet Woman and The Prestige", can refer to The Book on the Edge of Forever (1994) without mentioning the fact that this Priest title is a reprint of The Last Deadloss Visions (1987), a text he wrote and published in a highly charged historical context, then it is clear that the Orcs are about to take Helm's Deep. Butler himself—in "Beyond Competing for Beer Money: The Criticism of Christopher Priest", a cogent examination of his non-fiction—does properly refer to The Last Deadloss Visions, but describes it unhelpfully as "a later incarnation" of an early fanzine, though he does cite it as a book (which it is). This citation, by the way, is void as far as Interaction's apparatus criticus is concerned: Last Deadloss Visions does not appear anywhere in the Christopher Priest checklist at the back of the volume, though The Book on the Edge of Forever is duly registered, in full-blown industry dress: without any indication that it is the retitle of a book published seven years earlier.

The checklist is weirdly deficient in other ways as well. Not only are Priest's pseudonymous books not listed (maybe at his behest, because he does not like to have them talked about), but no reference at all is made to the fact that they have been programmatically excluded. It is as though they had never existed, except for eXistenZ—but here only the US printing, under Priest's name, is listed; the earlier UK edition, presumably because it was published as by John Luther Novak, is simply not mentioned at all. This is crummy scholarship; it also, I think, veers into the disingenuous. Somewhat less seriously, the French edition of A Dream of Wessex, which appeared 6 months before the English, is missed. But Priest's bibliography is not huge: three titles missed or mauled out of a total oeuvre shy of 20 is seriously deficient.

We must return to the beginning: who in the world is expected to read this book? It should have been targeted for readers—past and current and potential—of Christopher Priest. It was not. Sure, almost everything in the book can be deciphered so as to convey valuable information and insights elucidative of the sly daedal Unbestimmtheit dances of Priest over his long prime. A writer like Paul Kincaid knows Priest intimately, and his conflation of the island theme dear to English writers, with issues of identity dear to us all, suddenly makes one see Priest fresh. Which is what a book like this should have done more than once or twice. But a lot of intelligent thinking did clearly drown in essays so lugubriously formatted according to industry shibboleths that they make no human sense at all in the end, except for spelunkers. Interaction is a fine challenge for such. It is a cave for spelunkers. It may be nobody's fault that Interaction, as a whole, wears the long-trained, wizened, bonsai face of academia, but maybe it's time to say enough is enough.

I know, I know, I know.

John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. His novel Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He is the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times. The Washington Post, Omni, F&SF and elsewhere. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays, and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003. Forthcoming is An Historical Dictionary of Horror Literature; he is also working on a third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2007.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
11 comments on “Christopher Priest: the Interaction, edited by Andrew M. Butler”

Thanks for the review, your take on the academy's approach to the Fantastic is very interesting (and I have quite a bit of sympathy with it). However, there are a couple of points in your argument which I don't think I understand properly, and was wondering if you wouldn't mind expanding on them a little?
It is moreover a reading of Priest which presumes that he writes fictions; that fictions are told in the form of story; that anything not been embodied in the story—not understood and treated as manifestly storyable—does not in fact adhere to the book in question.
What is 'story' here, how does 'story' differ from 'fiction', and what does it mean for fictions to be 'storyable'? I can't tell if this is idiom, or language designed to articulate specific concepts, but either way I'm not sure that I fully understand what's being talked about.
Story (which subversively and anarchically slides free of any synopsis)
I'm not clear if you're saying here that individual stories can't be successfully summarised into a synopsis, or that the very concept of story itself can't be synopsised. If it's the latter then maybe you think my questions above are the wrong sort of questions to be asking, are questions that cannot, in fact, be answered. But if that's the case then I guess I'm just a bit stumped.
2) with regard to these genres, it is absolutely vital to know where and when a particular text appears. The reasons for this are so obvious that they should go without saying.
Um, maybe they should be obvious, but would you mind saying? I don't want to second-guess your position here. Thanks.

Paul Kincaid

it is absolutely vital to know where and when a particular text appears
Second-guessing Clute here, I think there are many reasons why I want to know precisely when (and to a lesser extent where) a particular texst appeared. I want to know how it feeds upon previous work, and feeds into subsequent work - and you can only know that when you know the timeline. I want to know how it relates to what was going on in the literature around it, how it relates to what was going on in the world around it. In relation to Priest's work, for instance, the precise location of, say, the Dream Archipelago stories is very important in our reading of them.
Literature is a response to changes in our understandings of ourselves and our world, and as Clute points out, the fantastic in particular rides social and psychological change as the very nature of its being. Divorcing text from context therefore (to use a horribly academic phrase that still seems to work in the circumstances) is to blind ourselves to the engine that is making the story work.


Thanks Paul. Those sound like good reasons. One more question though:
Divorcing text from context therefore (to use a horribly academic phrase that still seems to work in the circumstances) is to blind ourselves to the engine that is making the story work.
This brings me back to the question of what 'story' is. From your answer, I'm guessing that it might be something that is dependent on context, but I'm not sure that fits with my intuitive understanding of story, given that I don't think anyone needs to know the historical context in which something was written in order to be able to follow and enjoy it. Or do you mean that one can understand story on a naive level without knowing the historical context, but that in order to fully understand what drives the story one does need to attend to the context?
In the review above, Clute mentions historical context in relation to understanding "the fantastic in literature" - how much of understanding the fantastic in literature is about understanding story, how much is about understanding what drives story/how story works, and how much is about understanding fiction, or literature? There seem to be a number of concepts floating around here and I'm not at all sure how I should be understanding any of them or how they relate to one another.

Paul Kincaid

'Story' is a term that Clute has been using for some time now, and if he ever defined exactly what he means by the term I missed it. But my reading is that literature is telling us things, taking us places, exploring ideas, and that whole process is 'story'. You can read a story (no quotes) on a superficial level without paying any attention to any of this, but if you do you are missing out on all that goes to give the 'story' substance and interest and value. All of this is particularly true of fantastic literature because it works on a metaphorical level, so the 'story' behind the fiction is that much more significant in driving the whole thing along.
All of these things are inter-related. I think even to begin to understand the fantastic in literature is to engage with the concept of 'story' because that is to ask the most basic questions about what the fiction is doing and why.
A help?

Nick Hubble

Apologies in advance for the formal nature of this post but then I'm an academic and its well known we can't write properly!!
Reply to John Clute’s Review of Andrew M. Butler, ed., ‘Christopher Priest: The Interaction’ by Nick Hubble
Masochistic as I am, I rather enjoyed John Clute’s review of ‘Christopher Priest: The Interaction’ and his singling out of my essay (‘almost at random’) to display the faults of the book. In particular, I appreciated the attack on the ‘shit-stupid’ protocols of the Humanities Industry. Yup! That pretty much sums up my own feelings on the subject and I’m sure the editor, Andrew Butler, had many similar thoughts during the course of his heroic and thankless labours. At which point I should add that regarding the case in question, the dating of Austin’s ‘How to Do Things with Words’, the fault is entirely mine. (On the related point of my ‘daft scientism’ etc. Clute gets me bang to rights! ‘Does Hubble think …’ he thunders and the short answer is no – the brain was clearly disengaged at that point. It’s a good example of how in trying to be concise, one ends up being sloppy. In short, the idea that narrative makes (real) things happen in the world is an old one, but current academic discussion of this concept focusing on the term ‘performative’ draws on Austin’s work – which should have been correctly dated – and its subsequent use by Judith Butler and others. I should have made this clear and I apologise for singularly failing in that respect). However, as Clute acknowledges, the actual protocols themselves are not crimes. They are features of the academic industry for which some of us work. And, while it is different for some academics, those of us at the coalface in post-1992 UK universities and equivalent institutions, tend to get sucked in to internalising these types of protocol as a matter of everyday survival. I agree, it would have been better to have used a different system such as footnotes – a format in which all the relevant details of Austin’s book could have been clearly communicated, but I don’t accept the wider point that use of academic protocol necessarily precludes any ‘lay’ reader from following the discussion.
People are intelligent and they can learn to decode protocols if they wish to. Of course, they might not wish to and that’s fair enough but there is nothing insidious about a genre (academic writing in this case) having protocols: sf has protocols which people also have to learn in order to read it. While sf fans find this easy – often accomplishing it in childhood – it is a readily observable fact that many people in society never bother to learn these protocols and so never gain any pleasure or find anything of value in sf. Do we castigate and abandon the protocols of sf? No, of course we don’t. So neither should we castigate and abandon academic protocols. However, in both cases we should be open to criticism and the possibility that things could be done better. In this spirit, I accept Clute’s points and will endeavour to rectify them as much as possible in future pieces – while continuing to write (where appropriate) according to academic protocols.
Because what also has to be remembered is that an increasing percentage of the population continue into higher education and become familiar with such protocols. Indeed, to a certain extent, these protocols and academic discourse in general form a vehicle for an emergent class fraction (academics and students from non-traditional backgrounds) struggling to express itself against older and more established academic positions which still represent the dominant position in society of a privileged minority. This situation bears a certain resemblance to that of someone like H.G. Wells towards the end of the nineteenth century, struggling to establish new ideas of science and society in the face of a hidebound establishment and hitting upon the genre of ‘scientific romance’ as a vehicle for those ideas.
The portentous bit out of the way, I can now turn to my particular misdemeanours in writing about Christopher Priest. First off, I agree entirely with Clute’s statement that ‘the task of assessment is not made easier by the trouble Christopher Priest causes those who wish to write about him. He is like the patient who is smarter and saner than the psychiatrist appointed to report back on him to the high court: he knows what we are almost certainly going to say before we do (even when it is couched in scholar's cant), and he is already elsewhere before we get to where he wasn't.’ I knew I was setting myself up when I took on the task but I still couldn’t resist letting myself be sucked in by Priest’s work. As Priest has Borden say in ‘The Prestige’, ‘there are always one or two who will take the secret [of the magic trick] away with them and worry at it without ever coming near to solving it’ and I’m undoubtedly one of them. But that is incredibly pleasurable – getting lost in the stories through writing about them intensifies the previous experience of reading (and repeatedly re-reading) them – and I shall go on worrying at them, safe in the knowledge that there will be no anti-climactic solution. For this very reason, I do not see myself as one of those ‘scholars’ who dumps the story-bag in the trash, having extracted the ‘meaning’. My interest – and arguably, the ‘theme’ of my essay – lies in the relationship between story and meaning, in what might be and what – wonder of wonders – is called ‘The Interaction’.
Not only is the title of the book undoubtedly apt for Priest’s work, but it provides a nice hint as to how the contents might be read. So that the essays rightly praised by Clute – by Graham Sleight, Andy Sawyer and Paul Kincaid – interact with ‘thematic’ studies such as my own and Nicholas Ruddick’s. However, these thematic studies are not ‘contextless’ – there is considerable context in my discussion combined with careful attention to story and even, I’d like to think, a certain amount of information of value to prospective Priest readers (such as the provenance of the Noonan character in ‘The Prestige’) or at least someone somewhere without too many axes to grind.
As to my apparent implication that the real key to understanding Priest is to reveal his ongoing dialogue with Freud – Clute argues that ‘phrases such as "This is consistent with Freud's idea" are always a giveaway’ – well that’s not exactly what I’m saying. I’m sure Priest has some familiarity with Freud – so do most people – and as I refer to in the essay, there is a (hardly hidden) psychological element within British sf of the variety written by people like Ballard, Aldiss and Priest, but my main point is that Freudian psychoanalysis provides a critical vocabulary for discussing the way in which story and meaning interact across Priest’s work. I think it works well but I wouldn’t claim it was the only valid approach. Furthermore, I am deliberately using a ‘giveaway’ because I want people to know that I am bringing Freud into the debate. There is no pretence or underhand manoeuvring going on. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for me as a critic to bring Freud into the argument and I don’t think that I can be challenged on that point. People can disagree with my reading or even argue that Freud is not really relevant after all, but no one can simply rule the very act of comparison out of the question. On this particularly point, my clarity should be acknowledged. Mind you, clarity is itself a problematic concept (as many academics would gleefully tell you if you gave them the chance). In the final sentence of my essay, I describe ‘The Extremes’ as having a postmodern resolution but take pains to stress that this is ‘not a wish-fulfilment fantasy’. However, this did little to prevent Andrew Butler implying in the introduction that I see Priest’s work as ‘another tableau in the postmodern funhouse’. But that’s interaction I guess: uncontrollable even between dues-paying academics. And that’s the way it should stay.
And, finally, I know too (but I still can’t help it).

Paul Kincaid is absolutely right that I've never been entirely clear Story, partly because I have been too lazy to do the very considerable work involved to construct a definition which might work in most context, partly because Story itself is (as it were) more like a verb than a noun. There is a traditional distinction --convenient as a tool to make discussion more workable -- between Story and Discourse. The latter is (roughly) what one might describe as the paraphrasable meaning/outcome of a text; while Story is here used to describe the actual course of telling which generates that meaning/outcome. Very roughly, one means "what" and the other means "how" the what got there.
About the relationship between what and how, I tend to be pretty extreme in the things I've said, partly because of the personal and theoretical aversion to theme criticism that I was going on about in my review. I do tend to think that "what" is deeply dependent on "how". To carry it to extremes: There is no what of a story, there is only a how the what is told.
Nick Hubble,
Thanks for your extremely gracious response to my using you as a victim to attack protocols which (as I kept saying) scholars in the humanities industry were obliged, at least internally, to follow. The passion of my distaste for MLA protocols is so deep that I can (I know) seem at times almost intermperate. . . And I do continue to think that these protocols are not a relatively value-neutral set of procedures that anyone with a will can memorize without consequences; I do very strongly feel that these protocols inherently distort the very structure of thought and utterance. (Note that not all divisions of the university humanities enterprise use MLA; history scholars, I believe, routinely use the far far less damaging and intrusive Chicago protocols.)
I'm a bit of an involuntary luddite with bulletin boards (I have a tendency to wipe my comments by pressing some key or other, and will post this without Previewing it, just to be safe), but when I learn how to print out sections, will look at your comments more fully. Thanks for writing.

Donna Royston

I enjoyed this review -- some points very well taken, and I largely agree with the argument. In a work not created for an academic journal but for an audience of readers of Christopher Priest, it makes no sense to trick out the essays in formal MLA citations and assume specialized knowledge of critical literature -- I would judge that this is indeed a barrier to most readers.
Regarding Mr. Clute's pointing out that "'(Austin 1980)' is an industrial form of words for citing a title without actually giving the title -- academic industry prototcols forbid quoting titles in any citation embedded in a text" -- I would say that "forbid" is in error, as far as I know. Of course, actual practice is a different matter. I'm a part-time academic in English lit, teaching mostly freshman and sophomore college students, and I always teach my students to use titles and identify their sources in the text of their writing without resorting to parenthetical citations unless there is a real reason not to. This is common sense, to keep your discussion clear and intelligible. As far as I know, MLA does not instruct writers against this. Of course, I don't use the full MLA handbook anymore; it used to be slim and handy, but it's now bloated to 3 times the size it used to be when I was in grad school. Perhaps I am not aware of a change in recommended practice.
Similarly, regarding whether to cite an article or book's original date of publication, my teachers always taught me -- and I emphasize to my students -- that it's very important to cite a work by its original date of publication, and to include a reprint's publication information also, if that's what you're using. MLA provides forms for showing this information. This is simply a matter of attention to detail and accuracy, but also (again) common sense.
Mr. Hubble, I think, is mistaken when he asserts that mentioning Austin's "How to Do Things with Words" without some summary and explanation does not preclude non-academic readers from following the discussion because (he says) readers are intelligent and can learn to decode protocols. Speaking for myself, I have not read Austin's work. Without an intelligible explanation, I have no idea what "the act of narration changes the world by making things happen that otherwise would not" means. The examples of wedding vows and declarations of war confuse rather than clarify. The only thing I can conlude is either that (a) I don't have enough information to grasp this idea, or (b) the original essay is an elaboration on this apparent nonsense.
Now this bit from Mr. Hubble's response stymies me entirely:
"...these protocols and academic discourse in general form a vehicle for an emergent class fraction (academics and students from non-traditional backgrounds) struggling to express itself against older and more established academic positions which still represent the dominant position in society of a privileged minority."
I don't really understand this statement, but it seems to be making an amazing claim. Except in one instance ("industrial protocols that actively discourage any focusing on the actual flow of Story"), Mr. Clute uses "protocols" simply to mean MLA Style and how it is used in citing sources. Please don't take offense, but I have to say: My gosh! MLA style does all THAT?

Nick Hubble

No offence taken, Donna. However, please indulge me in trying to defend myself and the book with a few brief comments.
Firstly, there seems to be some misconception that the book was aimed solely at the general reader of Priest’s work. It is not clear to me that this was the case – leastways, no one told me about it. Neither do I think (to return to John Clute’s review for a second) that either the cover or the launch at the Glasgow Worldcon signified that the book was intended solely for the general reader. For instance, Worldcon included a major academic track, which I took part in. But I also did some other stuff, like buy books and go to other events. And I did go to one of Christopher Priest’s readings and also a signing, because above all I am a fan of his work and he is one of my favourite writers (and very graciously, he did tell me that he had read my essay and we had a brief chat about Hastings and Robert Tressell). I mention all this to point out that I am at one level just another reader and fan. Just because I am also an academic doesn’t mean I am an alien. Furthermore, I am convinced that my essay can be read by anyone who has actually read Priest (I concede that it will probably be of more interest to someone familiar with his work than to someone seeking an introduction). Maybe I’m wrong but hopefully there is someone somewhere who has read it and enjoyed it or at least found it useful. In any case, I still feel personal satisfaction with the essay and I’m also happy that, if nothing else, the essay has been read by a number of people I respect such as Priest, Clute and the other contributors to the book.
Throughout my essay I always mention the titles of the Priest text I am referring to – any reader can follow the argument without having to decode the parenthetical references. The references are there for those who wish to look up the passages. I don’t necessarily give the titles of the secondary literature: mainly Freud and the brief reference to Austin (which seems to be assuming a significance entirely out of proportion with its role in my argument). In the case of Freud, I think my exposition in the text is sufficient for a reader to follow without extensive prior knowledge. The precise references can be found by those prepared to look them up in the bibliography. I fail to see that this renders the essay in any way unreadable to the general reader – in this sense, the academic protocols do not provide a barrier and I think that the attempt to represent them as such is in danger of sliding into ideology. I’m prepared to accept that general readers (and even some academics) might find the parenthetical references cosmetically barbarous and therefore off-putting. I have got used to them and they no longer interfere with my reading, but as I wrote in my previous post maybe I should think about this again (although this suggests that it is a matter of individual choice – most edited collections will use a universal system of citation over which the individual contributor has little influence).
With respect to the Austin reference, I have already accepted Clute’s criticisms on this point. However, assuming I had managed to do a better job of it, I think it would have been sufficient for its purpose because detailed knowledge of Austin’s argument is not necessary for a reader to follow my discussion. I think it is alright to include a reference that is going to mean more to some readers than others (in fact, it might be considered a courtesy as much as anything else). Show me the text that is completely transparent to any reader …

Nick Hubble

Finally, I do not regard the MLA as a tool of class struggle (although the idea does suggest some fun ‘what if’ scenarios). Part of the problem here is that the phrase ‘academic protocols’ is doing rather a lot of work in both Clute’s review and my response. Furthermore, I am talking about a particular context that might not make much sense outside Britain. Briefly, Britain remains a class society (although the stranglehold has relaxed over the last ten to fifteen years or so). Politics and the media are overwhelmingly dominated by a privileged minority (less than 10%) who were educated independently and came through the Oxbridge system (I am exaggerating for the sake of brevity, but it’s essentially true). Although everyone knows this, it remains a taboo topic and dissenters are demonised and accused of envy and class politics and all sorts. However, educational reforms (affecting the 90% of the population in the state sector) have made ground in contesting this situation. The introduction of comprehensive education in the 1960s and 1970s, and the subsequent expansion of the universities to take in the successful products of the comprehensive system has generated alternative sources of symbolic capital. This is clearly visible in the British higher education sector, where the (Faustian) deal works along the lines that if you accept academic protocols (ie. write all sorts of themed ‘industrial-humanities’ essays), you get a voice. What you do with it is an entirely different matter …

My reference to citations embedded within a text was, I think, unnecessarily obscure. I wasn't trying to say here that protocols prohibited the _mention_ of a title within a text, but that these protocols prohibited the mention of a title within a _citation_ (like "Austin, 1980") embedded in a text. I think I may be right in this claim...
Perhaps I should have been clearer when I was speaking about the audience for the PRIEST book. I don't think I meant to preclude academics as potential readers of the book, though I think that numerically the potential non-academic readers (especially those first exposed to the book in the WorldCon venue) would significantly outnumber academic readers.
What I _should_ have said as well was that non-academic potential _purchasers_ of the book would vastly outnumber academic potential purchasers of the book. There are more of them to begin with; but more important, fans and readers and collectors have historically been far more likely to make book purchases in this kind of venue than academics, partly (one suspects) because academics rightly rely on their library systems to keep themselves up to date with new publications. (This phenomenon is very visible at conferences like the ICFA, where it is relatively easy to track heavy purchasers, almost all of whom are non-academic.)
The point of all this, in the end, is that a small charity like the SFF really has to sell more than a couple dozen copies of each book it publishes if it is going to hope to continue producing new titles.
About the large MLA issue, and my arguments as to the consequences of aspects of the the MLA mindset that lead one to refer to scientism, and to excoriate decontextualizing citing practices, you've amply spoken to aspects of that larger assault which got uttered in the context of your victim piece. The rest of what I said remains, a touch inchoate at points, in my text; and I hope to get together a longer tirade fairly soon, in which I will _not_ single you out....

Nick Hubble

I look forward to reading that, John. Because apart from the desire to defend my own work (I've said what I have to say about that now - it can stand or fall on its own merits from henceforth!), I am interested in the debate. The divorce between work in the academic humanities and the general reading public is an immense problem. One that I do feel personally and hence my sensitivity to the issue.
What would be of immediate practical use to me is if people could propose some examples of this kind of project - intelligent critical overview of a single author which will appeal to the genral reader - which they think are successful and, therefore, could be seen as some sort of model.

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