21 July 2008

Readercon Summary

A grand time was had by all at Readercon this year, and it was a great thrill for me to get to see one of my oldest friends in the writing world, James Patrick Kelly, as guest of honor -- honored so well and appropriately.

The two panels I was on seemed to go well, though I arrived at the con only half an hour before I was on the "Triumphing Over Competence" panel and hadn't quite adjusted yet, so my contributions were few. Adam Golaski did a fine job of moderating, but it was a tough topic to focus in on in a way that would lead to real insights. Saturday's "The Career of James Patrick Kelly" panel felt much more successful to me, and one of its strengths was the diversity in the backgrounds of the panelists -- we had all discovered Jim's writings (and Jim himself) at different times and in different ways. Of course, afterward I thought of many things I should have said instead of what I did, in fact say, but I probably talked too much anyway, so it's good I didn't think of them. Mostly, they would have been elaborations on my (nascent) ideas about Jim as a regional writer, particularly with relationship to Burn, a story that nicely meshes two of the primary types of stories Jim writes: tales rooted in a sense of place (with that place often redolent of northern New England) and tales that are set way out in the universe. In some ways, the earlier novel Look Into the Sun brought the universe to New Hampshire, while Burn brings New Hampshire out into the universe.

I didn't attend too many panels, because after seeing a few, I began to get immensely frustrated with people who didn't know when to shut up. Panels are almost always unbalanced, since it's difficult for everybody to speak for equal amounts of time, but it wasn't unbalance that bothered me -- it was hijacking. In one case, it involved an insufferable moderator who thought the entire point of being moderator was to pose questions to himself.

The conversation between Jonathan Lethem and Gordon van Gelder, though, was well worth attending. The goal of the discussion was to explore the similarities and differences between the worlds of (for lack of better terms) genre fiction and literary fiction by using the two men's careers and experiences as lenses, since, as van Gelder pointed out, they began at similar spots and ended up at very different places, with Gordon starting out as a book editor and then becoming editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Lethem beginning with stories in Aboriginal SF and Asimov's and F&SF, then becoming, well, Jonathan Lethem. I didn't have a notebook with me, so didn't take notes (Scott Edelman did take a few), but what stuck with me were such moments as Gordon wondering if there are ways to talk about the differences between types of writing without feeling the need to valorize one type over the other and Lethem saying that what has changed in his writing as it has developed is not his interest in questioning and subverting core genre values, which has been there from the beginning, but rather his ability to let his fiction absorb a genre exoskeleton rather than wear it. The genre-as-exoskeleton image was one he played with for a bit, saying that his earlier work wore the exoskeleton and let the body underneath it be something else, while now he feels like he doesn't need to wear it anymore, that there is a more organic or internalized sense of the fantastic (or mysterious) in his work. He said people sometimes see him as moving away from genre fiction and Michael Chabon as moving toward it, while he doesn't feel that way at all -- he still feels like the influences on his work are the same, and the genre writers who interest him remain the ones who complexify and question the traditions they inherit -- he could not, he said, write a sword-and-sorcery novel, as Chabon recently did, and he noted that Chabon has long been a much bigger fanboy than he, Lethem, ever was -- Chabon wrote (unpublished) science fiction novels before he wrote Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Lethem noted. What I liked about these distinctions was that they countered the simple narrative of moving toward or away from the SF field, and instead suggested that a writer's relationship to the texts and social environment of SF can be a complex one, and the results in the writer's work (and life) can be unpredictable.

One of the ideas that could have used a bit more time for exploration and explanation was the idea of the difference between the worlds of genre fiction and literary fiction being substantially one of class, with class anxiety explaining some of the tendency toward belittling different types of writing that Gordon brought up. Lethem also pointed out that people deeply committed to one type or writing rather than another often have tremendous misconceptions about the world of the other type of writing, and this idea, too, deserves a lot more exploration. I sometimes wish we could have the writing equivalent of a take-your-child-to-work day -- we could initiate Take a Litfic Writer to a Science Fiction Convention Day and Take a Science Fiction Writer to Bread Loaf Day (heck, Asimov went to Bread Loaf a couple times).

I refrained from buying too many books in the bookroom, though I did pick up JPK's new collection, The Wreck of the Godspeed and David Schwartz's novella The Sun Inside.

Ultimately, and as always, the best thing about the con was getting to see folks I seldom see, or, in some cases, have only met via email before -- it was great finally to get to meet Christopher Rowe (whose reading from a novel-in-progress is among the best readings I've ever been to), John Kessel, and Brian Slattery, and to at least wave to all sorts of people who I wish lived within easy walking distance of my house. But if they did, I would not need to go to Readercon, and the joy of renewed acquaintances would be lost.

1 comment:

  1. >In one case, it involved an
    >insufferable moderator who thought
    >the entire point of being moderator
    >was to pose questions to himself.

    The one where one of the participants asked the moderator,
    "Did we disturb you by talking?"
    I think I was sitting right in front of you for that one. Such a waste of the participants who actually knew something about the topic and couldn't get word in...

    ReplyDelete