12 July 2009

Readercon 20

I was only able to be at Readercon for parts of Friday and Saturday this year, so I missed many good events and didn't get to spend much time with all sorts of people I would have liked to have spent time with, but what I did get to do and see was great, probably the best overall experience I've had at the one science fiction convention I try not to miss each year.

I arrived on Friday in time for the Interfictions reading -- twelve of us reading very small bits of our stories in less than an hour, which was a lively good time. There was even room for questions afterward! People had great fun with the format, and it provided a vivid picture of what the anthologies are trying to achieve -- a great diversity of structures and approaches to fiction united by a shared sense of play.

The next event I attended was a panel on people of color in science fiction and fantasy, a panel moderated by David Anthony Durham, with panelists Cecilia Tan, Anil Menon, Tempest Bradford, and Eileen Gunn. It's a topic I find particularly interesting, important, and challenging, and one Tempest and I have talked about a bunch with each other. I was pleased that when the topic of Nisi Shawl's Filter House was raised in conjunction with a discussion of SF awards, Tempest (who was a member of the Tiptree Award jury that made Filter House a co-winner this year) was willing to bring up my review of the book as an example of how the stories can be misread and misunderstood. Tempest said that one of the things she so admired about the book is that it represents a black woman's concerns and experiences without making concessions to a perceived white readership. This then makes it, she posited, a particularly difficult book for somebody who is, for instance, a white guy, to appreciate, and especially to review. I didn't respond during the panel, because if my own inability to really appreciate the book is based on a blindness created by my identity, then I'm the last person who would be able to say that is the fact -- otherwise, it wouldn't be a blindness. Of course, I would like to think that is not the case, and that my struggle with the book is aesthetic, but I don't believe in the idea of a universal reader who is capable of disinterestedly evaluating every text (and even if I did believe in such a ridiculous idea, I would have a big problem with assuming that a white male was such a thing. White guys have gotten away for too long with thinking our experience is somehow the universal and important one). When I read the explanations by the Tiptree jury of their excitement about Filter House, I had a sharp sense of speaking a different sort of language -- I recognized the book they described, certainly, but I did not recognize the way of reading and evaluating that they offered as one that I am comfortable or even perhaps capable of for myself. That suggests to me that I am the wrong reader for the book ... but I'm not entirely sure what that means.

The difficulty I face in completely accepting Tempest's take on Filter House (and other books that similarly, and admirably, broaden the range of represented experience) is that I don't know what to do with it within the narrow and limited realm of critical evaluation. Such a view circumvents critical evaluation in a way that may, in fact, say more about the act of evaluation than anything else. The question is not only one of identity, either -- a review by someone who has little experience with science fiction of an SF novel has sometimes led me to think, "Wow, you just don't get it, do you?" Heck, I think that a lot of the time of reviews, even good ones... If a reviewer slams, or even just expresses reservations about, a book that we've found particularly affecting, is there anything that would make us think the reviewer was anything better than obtuse? At best, I feel pity for people who dislike books I really love, because they aren't able to experience the profound joy I have experienced with them. And I expect the same has, at best, been thought of me...

I am torn by the idea that a person's lack of appreciation for a certain text suggests that they have not worked hard enough to appreciate it, or have the wrong experience (either of life or reading) to appreciate it, because on one hand I think this idea is obvious -- most eight-year-olds can't make much of James Joyce -- and on the other hand I think it dodges the possibility of critical evaluation by saying that any evaluation which is not fundamentally positive is invalid.

I'm too much of a postmodernist to believe there is such a thing as objective evaluation, but I am also a great fan of negative reviews, because even when they are of books I cherish (cue the soundtrack: "Wow, you don't get it, do you?"), I am suspicious of an environment of pure appreciation. Thus, there must be room within a discourse for negative evaluation if such discourse is to have any hope of being about the art at hand. And yet it's also self-evident that readers are extraordinarily different, even when they might seem similar in all sorts of ways -- one of the things that makes talking about books so addictive is that even when you know a certain reader's proclivities and history inside-out, there will be books that reader responds to in ways that seem surprising.

Accepting subjectivity and the immense variability of reading experiences is tough for a book reviewer, though, because the rhetoric of reviews requires an illusion of objectivity, or at least an appeal to certain traditions of aesthetic evaluation -- the ability to say, without irony, that something is "good" or "bad" according to a set of precedents and traditions. Yet all precedents and traditions are the product of people interacting with each other, and thus of systems and powers that can be historicized and analyzed.

Which brings in another big question -- that of power. (And yes, I adore Bessie Head's novel A Question of Power and think anybody who doesn't is obtuse and judging from the wrong precedents and traditions!) A review is an assertion of authority and power: the authority and power to evaluate a book. Given the dynamics and history of power in the U.S. and in the literary world, I think it's foolish to pretend that a review by a white guy of a book by a black gal does not contain some potential problems, regardless of whether the review is on the whole positive or negative. Most reviewers, particularly of SF, are white males, and that's deeply limiting, because people from different backgrounds and experiences will better compensate each other's blindnesses and offer a more varied and interesting range of readings. Similarly, in referencing such white, mainstream writers as John Gardner and Flannery O'Connor in my review of Filter House, I may have reified power structures I profoundly disagree with: the examples that seemed to me to offer the clearest indication of the aesthetic criteria I was applying could perhaps even more easily be seen as valorizing the mainstream/genre dichotomy and, worse, the idea that white writers are superior to non-white writers. Yikes.

Anyway, I don't have settled thoughts on any of this, but the riffing I've done here on it shows one of the strengths of Readercon's panels and panelists -- every year, I've come away from at least one panel or discussion with lots to think about, and sometimes some really productive self-reflection. This year felt to me like the high-water mark for that.

On Friday night, I went out to eat with Liz Gorinsky, Michael Tax, and Eric Rosenfield, which gave Eric and me the opportunity to continue some of our endless discussion of genre, this time with good input and questions from Liz and Michael. Readercon was Eric's first SF convention, and it was fun to see him wrestle with how it compares (or doesn't) with non-SF get-togethers. I'm sure there will be some more posts on Wet Asphalt about all this as he continues to sift through his experiences. Eric was also one of the most prolific Tweeters of #Readercon (an amusing cult).

On Saturday, I started the day with Charlie Finlay's talk on "The Genre Roots of American Mainstream Fiction", which proved, I thought, how difficult it is to extend the idea of SF as a genre much before 1926, when Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories -- and especially 1927, when he began publishing readers' letters along with their mailing addresses, allowing fans to get in touch with each other (Delany offers 1911, when Gernsback published Ralph 124C 41+, but I'm even narrower and more conservative. For good discussion of the early letters columns of SF magazines, see Justine Larbalestier's essential The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and the additional material on her website). What was wonderful about Charlie's lecture -- aside from his lively delivery -- was the range of his references, and the marvelous writers and books he discovered in his research for the Traitor to the Crown trilogy. We're going to do an interview about this soon, so I'm not going to say anything more about it right now.....

Chip Delany and I got to have lunch together, which was great fun, because we had never met in person when he knew who I was (I had met him first in 2006, I think, at Readercon, when I talked to him briefly at the Wesleyan University Press table and told him his book The Jewel-Hinged Jaw had had a tremendous effect on me at an early age. He nodded politely and clearly thought I was a weirdo.)

A few hours later, Chip and I were on a panel with Dennis Danvers, David Hartwell, Fred Lerner, and Veronica Schanoes about "Academic Attention: Good, Bad, or Ugly". We began by naming our academic affiliations, and I began by saying I have a master's degree from Dartmouth College in Samuel R. Delany. The panel really got going once we were able to discuss some of the different experiences we'd had with science fiction in the academy in terms of how the subject has been seen within different disciplines, our particular experiences at certain institutions, and the changes in reception to the idea of SF as worthy of academic attention over the last 50 years or so. One of the strengths of the panel, I thought, was the diversity of ages -- Veronica and I have had quite different experiences from folks who tried to do academic work on SF in previous decades. At the end of the discussion, I said that in my experience, though, there is a real difference between how SF is viewed by literature professors vs. writing professors. We didn't have time to really explore this idea, which was a disappointment, because I'm very curious what other people's experiences have been with regard to such a split. The only times I've ever been told I could not do something related to SF in an academic setting was in certain writing workshops. I think, perhaps optimistically, that this is changing, though.

After the panel, I spent time in the bookshop and hanging out with various folks, including the great and glorious Victoria Blake of Underland Press, the newly generic Adam Golaski of New Genre, the wise and worldly Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld, the fantastic and science fictional Gordon van Gelder of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the small-ly beerish Jedediah Berry of Small Beer Press. Because finances are a little perilous at the moment, I worked hard not to go crazy in the bookshop, though I could not resist buying a copy of Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes, a book I have been anticipating for years -- I have a copy of the issue of the Century magazine with "Jack Daw's Pack" in it, and "A Crowd of Bone" is one of the most linguistically astonishing stories I know. To have those included now alongside the previously unpublished, novel-length story "Unleaving" in a book of breathtakingly beautiful design was simply irresistible.

Then I spent an hour saying goodbye to people and headed north, back to the Great State of New Hampshire, where we've had 40 days of rain, but where the sun is currently shining, hopefully as a harbinger of good things to come...