13 July 2010

Readercon Reflections

Readercon 21 was, for me, exciting and stimulating, though this year in particular it felt like I only had a few minutes to talk with everybody I wanted to talk with.  I think part of this is a result of my now living in New Hampshire rather than New Jersey, so I just don't see a lot of folks from the writing, publishing, and reading worlds much anymore.

Before I get into some thoughts on some panels and discussions, some pictures: Ellen Datlow's and Tempest Bradford's.  Tempest asked everybody to make a sad face for her, not because Readercon was a sad con (just the opposite!), but because it's fun to have people make sad faces.  The iconic picture from the weekend for me, though, is Ellen's photo of Liz Hand's back.  I covet Liz's shirt.

And now for some only vaguely coherent thoughts on some of the panels...

I actually missed my own first panel, "Interstitial Then, Genre Now", with John Clute, Michael Dirda, Peter Dube, and Dora Goss, because the battery in my car died because of absent-mindedness on my part the night before.  Luckily, I have a car battery charger, but charging took just long enough to make it so there was no physical way I could get to Burlington, MA in time for the panel.  (Andrew Liptak wrote a recap for Tor.com.)


My Saturday panel, "The Secret History of The Secret History of Science Fiction", with Kathryn Cramer, Alexander Jablokov, John Kessel, Jacob Weisman, and Gary K. Wolfe went pretty well, I thought, though as so often happens, it felt like it was just getting going when it was time to end.  The panel allowed John to talk about the motivations for the book, some of what he thought it accomplished, etc. -- a lot of what he said parallels what he and Jim Kelly told me when I interviewed them about the anthology.  Gary Wolfe offered probably the best line of the panel: "An anthology is, inevitably, a collection of the wrong stories."  (This, of course, from the critic's point of view!)

I'm not very good at inserting myself into conversations, so I did a lot of observing during the panel, piping up only to offer a sort of counter viewpoint from Gary's -- where Gary was in some ways agreeing with Paul Witcover's assertion that writers like T.C. Boyle are just using science fiction as "a trip to the playground".  I was hoping we'd be able to discuss this idea a bit more, but time didn't allow it.  Had it, I suppose I would have tried to say that to me the resentment of writers not routinely identified with the marketing category of "science fiction" or the community of fans, writers, and publishers that congregates under the SF umbrella -- the resentment of these writers for using the props, tropes, and moves of SF is unappealing to me for a few reasons.  It's a clubhouse mentality, one that lets folks inside the clubhouse determine what the secret password is and if anybody standing outside has the right pronunciation of that password.  It is, in other words, a purity test: are the intentions in your soul the right ones, the approved ones?  Had we had time, I would have tried to make some sort of connection between this attitude toward non-SF writers with an attitude I've seen within the field from people toward writers of a younger generation who haven't read, for instance, every story in Adventures in Time & Space.

I mentioned during the panel that my own first encounter with a T.C. Boyle story was in the August 1985 issue of Asimov's, where his "On for the Long Haul" was reprinted.  I got that issue sometime in the late '80s as part of a bunch of magazines I found at a yard sale, read the story, liked it, and sought out more of Boyle's work at the local college library.  There I found Greasy Lake & Other Stories, which contained "On for the Long Haul", and I read a few of the other stories, thinking Boyle was a pretty good SF writer, his stories similar in some ways to ones I'd encountered by Karen Joy Fowler, Lucius Shepard, Harlan Ellison, etc.  I didn't know anything about Boyle, and his publishing in places like Esquire didn't make me think he wasn't an SF writer, since I didn't know much about slick magazines, and I assumed Esquire was something like Playboy, which published SF writers with some frequency.

I love all the epigraphs before the stories in The Secret History, but in some ways they're prejudicial -- Boyle, for instance, is quoted with a perfectly silly statement about genre fiction being formulaic and therefore worthless.  This is true if you use terms like "genre fiction" and "science fiction" as evaluative labels, which some folks do (stories they like are "literature" or "stories", stories they don't like are "genre fiction" or "science fiction" or whatever), but most people who are willing to admit they read SF use the terms for description, not evaluation, thus making "bad science fiction" a possible label rather than a redundant one.

After the panel, I happened to end up in a conversation with Junot Diaz, Eric Schaller, and Brian Slattery.  I told Junot about the panel, and he said he'd liked to have seen it, and wondered if we'd talked at all about institutional privilege and access to resources.  We hadn't, but his point, as he elaborated it, was an interesting one that I hope we'll be able to continue to explore -- applied to the socio-political realm, it's an idea I try hard to impress on students in the Intro to Feminism class I teach, but I had not really considered publishing structures in quite the same way: that systems of privilege are not eradicated by individual exceptions; if anything, they're strengthened by them because they create a perception of equality or freedom where significant inequality and oppression exist.  (Thus, a Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem, who can play in multiple realms, and have access to Guggenheims and Pulitzers along with Hugos and Nebulas, do not invalidate the boundaries, which remain strong as ever.)  I'm not sure I'm entirely on board with such an analysis, because there's so much else going on within the worlds of publishing and within the communities of writers of various sorts, where all the other systems (class, race, gender) are also always in force, but I do think it's a useful way to analyze certain segments of the publishing and writing worlds -- Brett Cox and I, for instance, have spent years talking about the differences between the fairly narrow options for what is "good" writing within many MFA programs versus the growing passion for all sorts of different types of writing within literature departments -- certainly, there are fuddy-duddy programs where all the faculty might prefer a student write the millionth dissertation on Jane Austen than one on Zenna Henderson, but I'd bet those are, or at least are becoming, the minority.  And there are certainly more open-minded MFA programs these days than elsewhere, including some of the most prominent programs in the country, such as Brown's, which is currently headed by Brian Evenson.  (Mark McGurl's The Program Era is a book that annoyed me for a few reasons, but it's worth reading for its portrait of some of the forces that shaped the creative writing industry in the US.)  Defining power and identifying the structures that create and support it within and between genres is a useful critical function, but a difficult one, one that needs to be sensitive to nuance -- to the fact that Michael Chabon started by writing very traditionally "literary" novels before he wrote Gentlemen of the Road, and so perhaps he's got a certain privilege not available to other writers, but Jonathan Lethem started by writing stories for Aboriginal SF before he achieved a similar sort of status.  Does the Library of America's collections of Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick and American Fantastic Tales mean they feel they've done enough SF and so never need to add Samuel Delany to their canon?  (I know they'd never do my dream book of Dhalgren/Hogg, given that including Hogg among the LOA titles would cause people to move from saying LOA's jumped the shark to saying they've gone totally freakin' insane, but still...)  Is power just about access to awards and grants? What about sales and placement in stores?  Access to book reviews?  How does that work, and is the fact that most genre-identified books don't get reviewed in the NYTBR significantly and meaningfully different from the fact that most books full-stop don't get reviewed there?  What about the deafening silence that follows publication in one of the hundreds of lit'ry journals in the country as opposed to the relatively prodigious reviewing of SF short fiction?  (I remember my shock when a friend who'd published over 30 stories in some of the top literary journals in the world told me the first review she'd ever received was for her first novel.  Even my most marginal and smallest-press short stories published in genre markets have been reviewed, at least in passing, somewhere.)  In terms of access to audience and money, genre writers are doing a heckuva lot better than most "literary" writers -- but if we speak only of bestsellers, then we're speaking only of the rarest of exceptions.  Writing fiction is seldom a path to riches.  Etc.

Anyway, a structural/institutional power analysis of the ways writing is distributed, received, awarded, and perceived would be an interesting one, probably well beyond my capabilities, but I'd love to see an anthology of essays about the topic, with contributions from people of different backgrounds and experiences, who know various corners and realms...

These ideas in some ways echoed through Peter Straub's wonderful talk about writing The Skylark / A Dark Matter.  One of the things that Straub kept experiencing was editors' inability to actually read the manuscript for what was written in it rather than to read the manuscript against their own expectations of what "a supernatural thriller" is (since they were bound and determined, against all evidence, to pigeonhole the book as "a supernatural thriller").  Straub broke through this by changing their expectations, giving them a new way to read the story.  This reminded me that one of the things a genre does is manage expectations.  I thought of this again during the "Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Fantasy & Science Fiction" panel, which became most interesting at the end when Cat Valente, Ben Rosenbaum, and CaitlĂ­n Kiernan engaged with a member of the audience who suggested it is a writer's responsibility to recognize readers' potential taboos.  Previously -- possibly at another panel, possibly here, I don't remember -- someone had said that publishers of romance novels often hear from readers who are outraged that there was something in the novel they didn't expect (a certain type of relationship, a certain approach to love or sex).  One of the things that perhaps keeps people invested in strict genre boundaries is their desire to always know what they're getting themselves into, and this desire is frequently at odds with writers' desires to follow where their muse leads them.

The only panel I found really disappointing was one called "Imagining Anarchy".  Ben Rosenbaum did his best to try to moderate it, but the participants all seemed ignorant of the history of the various political philosophies of anarchism.  Walter Hunt seemed particularly lost, defining "anarchism" however he felt like it in whatever way would make it seem most unreasonable and ridiculous.  Despite proclaiming himself a historian, he demonstrated no knowledge whatsoever of anarchist history, whether from the left or right.  The Dispossessed came up frequently, but no-one seemed to have read Le Guin's introduction to the story "The Day Before the Revolution" (a story with the dedication line, "In Memoriam Paul Goodman 1911-1972") in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, where she writes,
My novel The Dispossessed is about a small world full of people who call themselves Odonians. The name is taken from the founder of their society, Odo, who lived several generations before the time of the novel, and who therefore doesn't get into the action -- except implicitly, in that all the action started with her.

Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with, not the social Darwinist economic "libertarianism" of the far right, but anarchism as pre-figured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian state (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.
 It was a painful, frustrating panel.  Much better was Sunday's panel on punctuation, with John Crowley, Samuel Delany, Ron Drummond, Victoria Janssen, and Barry Malzberg.

Ron Drummond opened by saying, "I really adore the semi-colon, and expect many of you do as well."  Wild applause followed that statement.  This was an audience passionate about punctuation.

Drummond, who was the discussion leader, asked the participants how their approach to punctuation had changed over their lifetime.  John Crowley began, "Well, when I was very young, I used none at all..."  After a pause for laughter, he continued more seriously, stating that punctuation has, for people sensitive to it, an emotional quality, and so there is change over a lifetime, because our emotional responses change and develop as we age.  His own punctuation, he said, has become somewhat simpler, with fewer semi-colons, though he still loves that particular punctuation, a mark he finds contemplative and meditative.  He said these days, though, he has somewhat fewer sentences with multiple semi-colons in them.

Delany then said that punctuation in general has become simpler in English, and we tend to forget why it was made complicated in the first place.  He noted that a single punctuation mark can make a big difference, e.g. "What do you do with a stiff neck?" vs. "What do you do with a stiff, neck?"  And he proclaimed himself, as all rational people do (contra Vampire Weekend), a fan of the serial (Oxford) comma, noting the probably apocryphal but nonetheless perfect tale of the book dedication, "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God".  "This is why you need a serial comma," Delany said.  "Without it, you sound like a fool!"

Barry Malzberg said the most important comma in Western literature is the one in, "God rest ye merry, gentlemen."  He said Faulkner and James Jones (in From Here to Eternity) showed the superfluousness of quotation marks and offered the world a new way to write.  He also said he had no idea why anybody would be interested in a panel like this, which he compared to people being interested in the finest points of playing a violin, an interest unnecessary to appreciate a performance of great music.  (Someone pointed out that the musician's hands may be invisible to an audience, but punctuation is integral to how an audience perceives the sound and rhythm of a piece of writing.)

Delany talked about working with students in the creative writing program at Temple University, and the many errors of punctuation and grammar he fights against.  He said he thinks he's turning into an old fuddy-duddy, and it's the fault of his earliest teachers, strict grammar prescriptivists.  Their lessons took hold at an early age, and so, he said, "I know there's supposed to be no such thing as prescriptive grammar, but back in my lizard brain there are prescriptions."  He said that when errors are thoughtlessly committed by enough people with enough frequency, they become normalized, and this affects how (and if) we communicate.

John Crowley said, "The whole history of grammar and punctuation is the history of the normalization of error."

Asked for examples of punctuation used for a purpose -- as opposed to punctuation removed for a purpose, which is perhaps more often the case -- someone on the panel suggested John Barth's "Menelaiad", a story in Lost in the Funhouse that uses quotation marks and other punctuation to create an extraordinary structure of stories-within-stories-within-stories.

The time passed so quickly the panel felt like it only last 15 minutes.  One of the joys of Readercon is the intelligence and passion of the panelists and audience, and the punctuation panel perfectly displayed this.  For those of us who really do like thinking about punctuation, it was an absolute delight.

I'm on the programming committee for Readercon for next year, an exciting and daunting duty, with a bunch of qualified and marvelous people, so I am looking forward to Readercon 22 even more than I normally look forward to Readercon, because this time I will have a small part in shaping a little bit of what happens there.

3 comments:

  1. You are brilliant and it was, as always, a delight to see you. I think Junot's point does get reemphasized in the way that almost everyone you mention as succesfully crossing the institional and cultural boundaries is a white man who is perceived as heterosexual. And Delany still being an outlier may, in many ways, be about him as an individual. It's hard to think of Chip without considering how he's quite the champ at transgression.

    (I agreed with lots else you said, but I'm too asleep to remain coherent any longer, if I was coherent at all.)

    ghg

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  2. The book you're looking for is Evan Brier's A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, The Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction.

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  3. Thanks for that, Josh! I don't know the book, but will now seek it out.

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