There were a number of panel discussions at World Fantasy Con, last weekend in Columbus, Ohio, worth describing.
Friday at 2p.m. was the topic of “Art and Commerce”, with Gordon Van Gelder, Nancy Kress, Tom Doherty, and Ginjer Buchanan. Each was invited to state which team they favored. Tom said, “both”. Nancy disagreed. Tom’s position was that the best books sell the best…eventually; quality endures, while the bestsellers of yore are forgotten. Maybe so, said Nancy, but why does Danielle Steele sell so well? She actually read one, and still doesn’t know. She gave examples of how commercial considerations come before artistic ones: how agents advise that fantasy is easier to place, these days, than SF; how her novel Dogs was rejected by three publishers (including Tor!) on the grounds that it would upset dog lovers. No one challenged the obvious “everyone knows” that most bestsellers are not the same books as those most critically acclaimed. The discussion veered toward how the reputations of writers can wax and wane over time, for unpredictable reasons — Philip K. Dick, a success only after his death; Somserset Maughm, whose reputation is now inexplicably in eclipse.
I heard most of an interview with Guest of Honor David G. Hartwell, who spoke frankly about his lifelong intention of influencing the whole SF and fantasy field. He recounted his history with Whispers, with the World Fantasy Con itself, and its awards; as a collator for Locus way back, and his discussions with Charles Brown about how to improve the field. He talked about the effort that went into editing the just-published Heinlein biography (after another Tor editor passed on it, as too big a chore to edit), and how in a sense this is a book he was destined to edit. And he talked about singing “Teen Angel”, a song that is apparently his signature, late-night-con-party song — which somehow I have never heard him sing. (I guess I don’t stay up that late for those kinds of parties.)
Then a panel on the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, or specifically, “What We Swiped from Jorge Luis Borges”, with Ted Chiang, Jeffrey Ford, Darrell Schweitzer, Dora Goss, and John Kessel. They cited their favorite stories — “The Aleph”, “The Library of Babel”, et al — and discussed how Borges’ background wasn’t the 19th century literary canon, but rather writers we now recognize as precursors of SF and fantasy — Carroll, Stevenson, Wells, Kipling, Dunsany. Chiang told how his story “Exhalation” was inspired by “The Library of Babel”, to the degree that it describes a self-contained universe without trying to “explain” it. Ford admired Borges’ compression, and recursiveness; Kessel, his boldness. Schweitzer revealed a Borges Cthulhu mythos story. An audience member discussed how the available English translations of Borges are all lacking to some degree.
Then at 5 p.m. — it was a full afternoon — was a panel on “Critical Theory and Its Discontents”, with Gary K. Wolfe, Karen Burnham, Christopher Rowe, Calie Voorhis (a writer), and Edward Schneider (an agent). Karen outed herself as a scientist/engineer, and pointed out how the term “theory” is used differently in the arts than in the sciences — among other things, in the sciences, “theories” can (in principle) be disproven. Whereas, as the panelists went on to discuss, different literary theories are useful in particular domains, but if applicable everywhere, lose their usefulness. They discussed the problem of teaching to theory, of handing students theory instead of deriving theories from novels and stories — or I should say, texts — and dropped the names of several SF/fantasy writers who consciously use critical theory to structure or inform their works — Jeff VanderMeer, China Miéville, Adam Roberts, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jim Hines, M. John Harrison, John Clute, Mary Gentle. And they mentioned a couple books on critical theory that I’m inclined to look up myself, especially Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory.
Saturday at 1 p.m. was the obligatory “Best of the Year” panel, with Jonathan Strahan, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Paula Guran, and Kathryn Cramer. They did rounds of reciting their favorites titles of the year — of 2010, that is — novels, a few anthologies, lots of short fiction. The most repeated novel titles were Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, China Miéville’s Kraken, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, and Ian Tregillis’ first novel Bitter Seeds. Other first novels mentioned were those by N.K. Jemisin, Karen Lord, Mary Robinette Kowal, Anthony Huso, and Amelia Beamer; other novels mentioned were those by Joe Hill, Richard Kadrey, Holly Black, Charles Stross, Terry Pratchett, Gene Wolfe, Ken Scholes, Steve Erikson, and Justin Cronin. And lots of short fiction titles were mentioned — too many to write down.
At 4 p.m. was a panel on “The Moral Distance Between the Author and the Work”, with Scott Edelman, Eric Flint, Nancy Kress, Kathryn Cramer, Paul Witcover, and Jack Skillingstead. Do we reject the work if we disapprove of the author, or artist? A handy example was immediately cited — the disinvitation by WisCon of author Elizabeth Moon, following her blog posting about Muslims. The panelists generally agreed that you *should* separate the author and the work, but distinguished that from whether one *can* or *must* do so (Scott Edelman parsed this). They gave examples of the silliness of demanding boycotts based on this or that — Catholics wanted the film Cleopatra boycotted, because Elizabeth Taylor was having an affair with a man not her husband. More interestingly they discussed examples of how it can be difficult to appreciate a work once learning about its author, whether it’s seeing an author behave like a jerk at a convention, or from what one learns about her unsavory politics. Nancy Kress distinguished between those who would prevent everyone from accessing a work, e.g. banning Harry Potter from libraries, and the obligation of parents to shield their children from certain harmful influences (though the panel didn’t explore this gray area any further). And the panel ended with Nancy Kress’ outrage for Eric Flint’s unapologetic admission that he had edited James H. Schmitz’s stories, for reprinting recently by Baen Books, to remove anachronistic passages such as excessive descriptions of cigarette smoking…
And the final notable panel I attended, at 5 p.m., was about “Authors and Ideas”, with Ellen Kushner, Lee Modesitt, Jason Sanford, Tim Powers, S.M. Stirling, and Guy Gavriel Kay. The theme was a variation of the previous panel’s, though not as provocative. Yes, good fiction can’t help but be infused by its author’s beliefs, to the extent that default beliefs of one’s background or culture aren’t even ackowledged or challenged — Stirling made the point that most aliens in SF are less alien than the Japanese. Or one’s great-great-great-great-grandparents. And Kay observed that writing fiction is, potentially, about creating characters who have different beliefs than the author.
Sunday was, of course, the World Fantasy Awards banquet, which went smoothly, and after that the traditional judges panel, at which Gary K. Wolfe, Greg Ketter, Jim Minz, and Jurge Snoeren (fifth judge Kelly Link was not in attendance) discussed some of the process and difficulties, or lack thereof, in this year’s judging process.
The weekend ended on a high note for me personally; I managed to tag along with a dinner group that included Peter and Susan Straub, Jonathan Strahan, Gary K. Wolfe, Francesca Myman, and Alisa Krasnostein, and dined with them at a very good Italian restaurant up the street called Martini; after that, most of us gathered first in the bar, then up in Amelia Beamer’s room, where Ellen Klages, Ellen Datlow, Walter Jon Williams, and others held court. Bringing a bottle of Scotch (Ardbeg) helped. I got the day’s Locus Online post (the TOC for the November issue of the magazine) posted very late that day.