Christopher Priest: the Interaction, edited by Andrew M. Butler
Reviewed by John Clute
16 January 2006
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.