09 July 2005

Readercon: Day 2

More unedited, unorganized, uneloquent notes on Readercon before I forget everything that happened....

First, something I forgot yesterday: I met both Rudi Dornemann and Rick Bowes (whose story "There's a Hole in the City" I recently praised). I got to spend a bit of time with Rudi as we wandered from one thing to another, but only talked with Rick for a moment in a doorway. It was a good talk, but I do hope to get the chance to speak with him again sometime in a different location, such as, perhaps, a hallway. As for Rudi, just before coming to the convention I'd read his story "The Sky Green Box" in Rabid Transit: Menagerie and loved it -- one of the most inventive stories I've read since Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State".

Now to today. I began with a panel called "Genre-Switching for Fun and (Lack of) Profit", because who could resist a panel with the following people on it: Michael Blumlein, Samuel R. Delany, Jonathan Lethem, Teresa Nielsen Hayden (moderator), Kit Reed, and Kate Wilhelm. In fact, if the panel had any faults, it was that there were too many smart people with too much experience in too many different kinds of writing, publishing, and living for one hour to be even remotely adequate. I wish I knew shorthand, because the panelists talked quickly enough that I think I was only able to write down about a third of the things they said. Nonetheless, here's a sketch of the panel:

Kit Reed said that genre SF (in the 1950s) taught her how to write by giving her a specific form to practice with, though mainstream fiction is where her heart is. She said that she came to write psychological thrillers under a pseudonym because none of her other work was selling, and publishers were therefore wary to publish anything more under her name. The thrillers did well, but she stopped as soon as she could and started writing what she felt like writing again.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden said that changing genres, though said in the panel description to be "widely considered the worst possible career move", is not the worst career move. There are far worse. But it is dicey.

Samuel R. Delany said he thought readers have more trouble switching genres than writers do. Underlying ideas for writers are not genred and is superficial compared to the impulse to write, but readers build expectations from their perceptions of genres. He said that though he hasn't written anything distinctly science fictional in twenty years, he still feels like an SF writer, even though readers might not approach all of his work that way. He said that genre is a surface, like the rhyme scheme of a poem.

Jonathan Lethem said that there are enormous individual variations even between writers who are lumped together under one label or another. Core genres (or subgenres or subsubgenres), though, can have very specific requirements: for instance, space operas and westerns involve as many particulars as the forms of a sonnet or sestina. Writing within those traditions and forms is very different from writing work that raises questions about itself. Writers, readers, and publishers all have expectations that are different.

Michael Blumlein said that choosing to write as a way to support yourself is different from writing to write from your own urges and impulses, for which there may not be a market.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden suggested that some writers bring their audiences with them -- Gene Wolfe, for instance. A new Gene Wolfe novel is more like other Gene Wolfe novels than it is like other fantasy, SF, historical, or whatever novels.

Jonathan Lethem said that he read a western story by Theodore Sturgeon that, in the first half, was a beautiful Sturgeon story, and then in the second half was also a beautiful Sturgeon story, but a different one, and the experience of reading this story then made him want to write a western that was more unified but still beautiful, and this impulse was enough to get him thinking about something new to write [I forget what he said it was came out of this -- maybe one of the stories in his first collection]. Writing, he said, comes from an urge to write something like someone else who inspired you, or to fix something that you read by someone else. Writers can be perceived by readers as switching genres or styles, but this is usually the result of a bodily feeling, where at some point the writer stops absorbing and starts emitting. Kit Reed responded by saying that writers often write best when they try to create what they most want to read.

Kate Wilhelm said she has never in her life written anything she thought of as genre, and that she lets other people make that decision. She submitted a book to her agent, who then asked her what she thought it was, and she replied, "A novel." She meets readers who say they only read her courtroom stories and hate science fiction, while other readers have asked her why she publishes science fiction as mysteries. She now has two distinct audiences that don't think they read what the other does, but, without realizing it, when they read her they do.

Jonathan Lethem said he has written out of engagement with extremely specific genres. For instance, for his first novel, much of the inspiration came from seeing Neuromancer called "hardboiled SF" and feeling that it wasn't, that "hardboiled" is a term for a very specific form of writing. After Gun, With Occasional Music came out, readers wanted a repeat. He said he feels all his books are deeply personal, all related, but it's more difficult for readers to see that. (And he did return to some of the hardboiled style with Motherless Brooklyn.)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden then suggested a new particle theory: bombard a writer with enough particles and they'll start emitting their own. Talking about genres here, though, she said, is really talk not about genre in any real sense of the word, but of marketing categories. Such categories are constantly shifting, with understandings between readers and writers constantly being renegotiated.

Kate Wilhelm said she started reading as a kid at the local library, where books were arranged by broad categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays. She would read by author rather than category, devouring the work of authors she liked and authors who seemed similar, for instance reading everything in the library by Tolstoy, then moving on to Dostoyevsky, then Turgenev. She was happy to go wherever writers she liked wanted to take her, and that then affected her own writing.

Michael Blumlein said he was originally labelled as a horror writer, but that he had actually not read much horror fiction, and had, in fact, avoided it. He never thought his stories were horrifying, and was surprised by the label.

From the audience, Farah Mendelsohn said she thought people were really having two separate conversations, one about tropes and another about sensibility. [This then got into a conversation about paranoia, rationality, mysteries vs. thrillers, SF writers as unable to write irrational fiction vs. fantasy writers, etc. -- my notes are too scrambled to represent it accurately.]

From the audience, Patrick Nielsen Hayden said that most science fiction writers have a very different view of rationality and science than more popular Crichtonesque writers of thrillers that use some scientific elements. In a science fiction novel, everybody may turn into plants in the end, and that's great because it's the logical outcome of all that has come before. [How I've written it here isn't very amusing, but how he said it was.]

Kate Wilhelm suggested we grow more and more branded and categorized every year. Just look at laundry detergent.

From the audience, someone asked how critics and reviewers affected the perception of genres and categories. For instance, Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude was received very differently by many mainstream reviewers than it was by many SF reviewers.

Lethem replied that it's a pretty specific issue for that book in particular, for a few reasons. It was reviewed by a lot of people who hadn't read anything he'd written before Motherless Brooklyn, so they didn't have the real context for his writing. The purpose of that book, though, was to provoke questions about how realism and fantasy work together and how they are read. The realist elements are extensive, and then suddenly there's a superhero. The troubled reviewers were a necessary result of the conversation he wanted to have.

Thus ended the first panel I saw today.

At noon, I went to the reading that launched the premiere issue of Jabberwocky, Sean Wallace's new magazine full of weird, surreal, decadent poetry and prose poetry and bits of fictional matter. Sean hosted the reading, and Mike Allen, Holly Phillips, Sonya Taaffe, and Lila Garrott read. The audience was small, but appreciative, and Jabberwocky seemed to be selling pretty well all day. It's a great little magazine, even if the cover didn't come out as yellow as Sean hoped (it's actually kind of pea green. Neon pea green. I like it better than the yellow, but that's me). The book was inspired by Jeff VanderMeer's short-lived magazine of the same name from the late-'80s, early-'90s (I forget exactly, though I have the first issue somewhere) and from his later Album Zutique, which it resembles in size and shape. This first issue looks like a kind of Prime sampler, with work by a bunch of current or soon-to-be Prime authors, as well as a few others, including Jane Yolen.

After the reading, I wandered through the bookshop for a bit, and mustered the courage to have Samuel Delany sign a copy of Atlantis for me -- I'm not an autograph hound at all, but I sometimes like to get a book signed as a way to remember a specific time, as if to prove to myself that yes, I did indeed inhabit the same space as the other person for a moment. I so enjoyed Delany's reading yesterday and much of what he had to say on the panel this morning that getting a book signed felt like a good thing to do. Getting the courage to actually ask someone I have respected for nearly as long as I've been reading science fiction for his autograph was tough, but I did. And then ran away.

I talked with Mike Allen for a bit, and picked up a copy of both the latest Mythic Delirium, which he edits, and the brand-new, hot-off-the-press Alchemy of Stars, the first collection of Rhysling Award winners (from 1978-2004). The diversity of work is impressive -- everything from nearly inscrutable surrealism to funny joke poems to narratives to personal lyrics to....... Mike signed a copy of the new Interzone, which includes a story Mike wrote with Ian Watson. He said reviewers have been critical of the story, missing its humor. I told him reviewers are all really sick individuals and should not be given any credence whatsoever.

Then I realized I was late to lunch with Jim Kelly. Luckily, Jim had been captured by a bunch of people outside the dealer's room (not the gaggle of women who captured him yesterday, either). I broke through, saved him, and we dashed off in my car to find something we could both eat and both afford. This meant going to the food court at the Burlington Mall. We'd forgotten it was Saturday, though, and lots of people go to malls on Saturdays, which makes parking anywhere within a mile of them challenging. We didn't do too badly, though, and had plenty of time to both eat and to talk, which was nice, because every time I've seen Jim over the last year or so, one of us was severely pressed for time.

We made it back in time to catch the last half of a panel I'd been looking forward to very much: "What Do You Believe About Speculative Fiction That You Can't Prove?", with Rosemary Kirstein, Jonathan Lethem, Barry Malzberg, Farah Mendlesohn, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Graham Sleight (moderator). Because we were late, I didn't take notes, but the panel got marvelously lively when Barry Malzberg said he'd read a review by John Updike of a David Hartwell anthology (probably The World Treasury of Science Fiction) where Updike was very respectful of SF's better work, but said that, because realistic fiction was one remove from reality, therefore SF was another remove from reality, making it an inherently second-rate literature. Malzberg said he thought this was probably true.

Nothing like being at a science fiction convention when somebody says science fiction is inherently a second-rate literature!

Of course, people disagreed. I think Farah pointed out that this is a 19th century argument (one redolent of Henry James). It was either Jonathan Lethem or Patrick Nielsen Hayden who said abstraction from reality is a ridiculous way to judge aesthetic value, because under such a rubric music, for instance, is meaningless. Another person said looking at it that way, photography is inherently superior to painting. Etc. Somebody from the audience made a good point: kudos to Malzberg for being willing to say something he knew everybody would disagree with, when everybody else had been pretty timid.

Another unproveable idea Malzberg offered was that when American SF was founded as a genre with the first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926, it was fueled by male sexual repression and dysfunction (my terms, not Malzberg's -- I don't remember exactly how he framed it).

After the panel, I caught up with various people, and we all went to Sonya Taaffe's parents' house for a dinner of Indian food. Sonya's grandfather showed up, too, and there were ten of us total. It was a marvelous time, and Sonya's family was tremendously welcoming and friendly. And they have a house full of books, so it was pretty funny to watch this group of bibliophiles wandering around. "Look -- a bunch of early Harlan Ellisons!" "Good god, you own a copy of Footfall?!" "Didn't finish reading it, don't worry." "I actually did read it once. I had the flu." "That's no excuse." Etc.

Finally, quite stuffed from dinner, we zoomed back to the convention in time for The Rhysling Award Poetry Slan, where the readers were past Rhysling winners and nominees Mike Allen, Theodora Goss, Joe Haldeman, Darrell Schweitzer, Vandana Singh, and either Terry McGarry or Sheree Renee Thomas (I missed the name, alas, and one person was not there). The readings were well received by the audience of 75-100 people, with a standing ovation for Joe Haldeman's double sestina "Old Twentieth" (printed in the convention program book) and general amusement all around by Mike Allen's dramatic rendition of "How I Will Outwit the Time Thieves".

After the readings, Joe Haldeman read out the names of this year's Rhysling winners, and the winner of the SFPA Grand Master award. I won't reveal it until all the winners have been notified. (Particularly good choices this year, I thought.)

And so the day ended. I returned to where I'm staying (with dear friends in Needham) and intended to write a short, pithy post about the day. Right.

17 comments:

  1. "Jonathan Lethem said that he read a western story by Theodore Sturgeon "

    It was Chip Delany who talked about the Sturgeon story, not Lethem.

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  2. Nope, too late. It's doorways or nothing.

    Rick

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  3. I think the only autograph I ever requested was Delany's -- I couldn't resist asking him to inscribe The Straits of Messina "to another reader."

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  4. Thanks for another marvelous report of the day. I so wish I could be there! :-)

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  5. I was just there from 3 p.m. till 2:30 a.m. yesterday, but missed you all the same! Catch you soon I hope, in NH or VT, neighbor.

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  6. Hi, Matt! Coming to this two days late. Thank you for your sketch of the Rhysling Reading!

    The other reader on your list that you were unsure of was in fact Terry McGarry, but you left someone off, as Sonya Taaffe also read (twice!) She can deal with you however she wishes.

    I heartily agree with your assessment of reviewers, present company excluded, of course! :)

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  7. If you came late to the "ideas you can't prove" panel, how did you know other people had been timid? Malzberg had in fact refused to offer his own "gut feeling you can't prove" and was responding to other panellist's comments.

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  8. Sorry Farah -- quick, dumb assumption on my part, based on the atmosphere and one of the questions from the audience, which are not particularly good things to build assumptions from...

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  9. I've been looking around for the book review Malzberg mentioned, but I can't find it. I want to read it, since it made such a powerful impression on him, and his comments made me think it might be more illuminating that just "sf is inferior because x." Has anyone tracked it down? I searched the New York Review of Books, did a few Google searches, but no luck so far.

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