Tag Archives: Kij Johnson

Writing: The Ghettoization of Speculative Fiction?

CBC, ghettoizing SF, bad science fiction, badly written fantasy

From a 50s B-movie. Unfortunately some people think SF novels are still like this.

Yesterday on CBC Radio’s Q, Jian Ghomeshi talked with Clive Thompson about the ghettoization of speculative fiction or whether William Gibson was the next Tolstoy. Thompson was extolling the virtues of SF, sort of. Or damning with faint praise. Below is the response that I sent, which I also put here in case CBC decides they have moral rights on my opinion.

Dear Jian,

 

I’m not quite sure what to make of the speaker Clive Thompson you had on talking about SF, science fiction, or speculative fiction since it encompassed both science fiction and fantasy works.

 

I write here as an individual but also as the president of SF Canada whose members consist of professional writers and others in the speculative fiction community. I missed the first part of Thompson’s conversation but I also express here views of the members of SF Canada.

 

Although Clive was supposed to be regaling the virtues of SF, he sounded uninformed in many ways. As a reader he seemed to exhibit huge gaps in knowledge when he said that most SF is badly written, misogynistic, dominated by men. And he gave Heinlein and Dick as examples. Robert Heinlein and Phillip K. Dick were in their heyday in the 60s and 70s; that’s at least 30-40 years ago. Taken in context, Heinlein was no different than many authors (whether SF or not) of the day, and some of his views on relationships were far reaching for the time.

 

Thompson did mention Cory Doctorow, who is a Canadian but there was a huge gap in between. (Doctorow’s book has been nominated for this year’s Nebula awards.) Some of the bigger names in speculative fiction may be men but there are many women writing and of merit: Ursula Le Guin, Kij Johnson, Pat Cadigan, Pat Murphy (of old, Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Anne McCaffery), Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kris Rusch, Nalo Hopkinson, etc.

 

If he was talking Canadian speculative fiction, then he was all over the map with his observations so I must presume this was about SF in general. There is very little that is published these days that would be misogynistic unless it was showing a particular culture. Much is extremely well written and if you ask Michael Chabon, winner of both SF awards and the Pulitzer, he places more value on his SF awards.

 

Basically Thompson picked some of the worst or most dated examples for his points. It would have been better to see more current knowledge that goes beyond Margaret Atwood.

 

As for ghettoization, well there is good and bad writing in all genres. He spoke about the issue of whether one would place Oryx & Crake on literary or SF shelves and how it was confusing for publishers. I spent 20 years in the book industry as book rep and book buyer (for a store). This doesn’t confuse the publishers as they are the ones that came up with the categories through their marketing departments. A book will be marketed to the group that they think will buy the most copies. The cover will be changed accordingly. So in essence it is the publisher that has ghettoized all genres.

 

As to the attitude toward SF, well it depends. What sells the best in movie theatres, and is often based off of a book? There is indeed a snobby attitude that only literary is real writing and many of those writers who do write speculative stories adamantly say that it is not of that ilk. My creative writing degree did not include speculative fiction because of the attitude at the university that the only good writer was a dead white man. I would argue that erotic fiction and romances have a lower spot in the old world thinker’s eyes of “genre” and ghettoization, even though they may sell better. Harlequin romances have some of the highest sell-through rates of any books. Are they good? I don’t know as I haven’t read one.

 

Thompson also mentioned that SF is doing quite well. On one level yes, on another, not so much. Fantasy still outsells science fiction and in many cases editors are begging for science fiction stories. But sales of speculative fiction? Yes, the Harry Potter series can speak to that.

 

Next time, when talking about SF and whether William Gibson (an expat American living in Canada) is the next Tolstoy, it would be great to have someone up to date on current speculative fiction trends. Heck, try Neil Gaiman who you talked with a couple of weeks ago, or contact SF Canada and we’ll send you a boatload of opinions by Canadians.

 

Regards,

Colleen Anderson

President

SF Canada

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World Fantasy 2008: Part II

A big part of these conventions are the parties. Because World Fantasy is a professional con there are few but advertised parties and launches. SF Canada put on a party on Friday night, which I oversaw and I’m pleased to say that we never ran out of alcohol and that I had to actually return some. I could have ordered more of some things and less of others. We’ll know for the next one but it was definitely a success with over two hundred people passing through the suite.

Other parties included book launches for authors by RedJack press, Tor books, Borderlands, and others that I can’t recall. Because we weren’t leaving until Monday we attended the dead dog Sunday party which had a fair number of people and drinks. The parties were good, noisy and lasted until the room closed around 2 am.

The other place to meet people was in the bar, as always. I met Jetse De Vries, former editor with Interzone, a noticeable man for his long wavy hair, tallness and great rolling, Dutch accent. He was talking about the Netherlands for World Fantasy in 2016 as it would be the 500th birthday of Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a ways off so who knows. I also met Jenny Blackford from Australia, one of the awards judges for next year, and we discussed Greek mythos.

I met Mark Kelly of Locus, recognizing his name before I linked it with his reviews, Bob Brown, an antiquarian bookseller in Seattle, writers Mark Rich and Liz Bourke, and artist Mike Dringenberg. I met many SF Canada members in person including Leslie Carmichael, Claire Earmer, Lorna Toolis, Richard Bartrop, Dom Benoit, Den Valdron, Carolyn Clink, Celu Amberstone, Candas Jane Dorsey, Marcelle Dube, Dave Duncan, Matt Hughes, Alison Sinclair, Cath Jackal, Marie Jakober, Ed Willett.

Publishers that I met in the flesh included Virginia O’Dine and Dominic Macquire of Bundoran Press (Prince George), Gwen Gades of Dragon Moon, Karl and Stephanie Johanson of Neo-Opsis, Jacob Wiseman of Tachyon Press, Diane Walton of OnSpec, Champagne Books, Flash Me Online. I said hello again to Patrick Swenson of Talebones, Brian Hades of Edge, Peter Halasz sponsoring the Sunburst Awards auction, Brit Graham Joyce, Karen Abrahamson, Chris Lotts, Janine Cross, Rhea Rose, Linda DeMeulemeester, Eileen and Pat Kernaghan, Derryl Murphy, Nina Munteanu, Rob Sawyer, Darrell Schweitzer, John Douglas, David Hartwell, Bruce Taylor, Nancy Kilpatrick, Leslie Howle (of Clarion administration) and a few others. There were so many people and conversations that I don’t remember everyone but it’s a good place to meet people and talk about art and writing.

World Fantasy special guests included David Morrell, dark fiction and thriller writer and creator of Rambo, Patricia McKillip, who sold her first novel at the age of 23, Todd Lockwood with a lovely body of artwork, Barbara Hambly with an impressive number of books, Tom Doherty, publisher of Tor and other ventures and Tad Williams as emcee. During the presentation of the World Fantasy awards he gave a very funny speech about the beginning of fantasy writing, with such things as it all starting in the US and William Shakingspear made an indent. He claimed that Canadian writers were really just geographically confused Canadians and that no one knows if Charles de Lint is real but that his footprints have been found deep in the forests.

Tad’s history of fantasy began in the times of cave men and came forward to present day. I do hope this speech will be printed somewhere as it was extremely well done and had people laughing. The awards presentation happened on Sunday. My friend Kij Johnson was up again for a short story but she did not win. Ellen Datlow, who did win, has nine World Fantasy awards. A bunch of us joked about her forming her own Easter Island. Following is the list of winners at the convention:

Life Achievement: Leo and Diane Dillon; Patricia McKillip

Novel: “Ysabel” by Guy Gavriel Kay (Viking Canada/Penguin Roc).
Novella: “Illyria” by Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing).
Short Story: “Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss (Logorrhea, Bantam Spectra).
Anthology: “Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural” edited by Ellen Datlow, Editor (Tor).
Collection: “Tiny Deaths” by Robert Shearman (Comma Press).

Artist: Edward Miller
Special Award—Professional: Peter Crowther for PS Publishing
Special Award—Non-professional: Midori Snyder and Terri Windling for Endicott Studios Website

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World Fantasy Convention 2008: Calgary

World Fantasy took place in Calgary’s downtown at the Hyatt Regency this last weekend. Although the hotel had an exceptional collection of paintings and heavily focused ungulate statuary everywhere, it was still a very expensive hotel. I haven’t been in a hotel in the US in the past five years that charged for internet and $1 for local calls. Internet cost $14 a day, an exorbitant fee, and the hotel price was high even at convention rates. We found Calgary pricey for food but cheap for alcohol, if you were buying it in stores but comparably priced to Vancouver in the hotel.

The con hospitality suites were smaller than I have seen at other cons and the air conditioning (hardly needed in Oct. in Calgary) was on high for most of the convention. The dealers room and art show were also small. From one discussion with a Seattle antiquarian dealer, the hoops and paperwork besides shipping costs are prohibitive and discourage international exchanges. The dealers room did have an interesting array of publishers. Some of them were Redjack, Fitzhenry/Red Deer Press, Tachyon, Edge, Talebones/Fairwood Press, OnSpec, Electric Velocipede, SFC table of members’ work, Sunburst awards, used and new booksellers, and other dealers that I don’t remember off hand.

 The dealers room used to feature books and some jewellery. This is a professional convention of editors, publishers and authors (and some fans as well) and fan paraphernalia is not allowed. The books are still there but the jewellery is not. It seems the WFC board has put a stop to it after so many years because it is a “serious” convention. I let them know that quite a few of us “pros” enjoyed buying our piece of con jewellery over the years and that we missed it. Does serious mean no fun? After all, the jewellery could be juried to fit certain criteria as well.

As often is the case with these cons, I get to few or no panels. I went to one on Friday and then left halfway through to see another. Unfortunately both were clunky, with no real flow and very short to no answers by the pros on the panel.

Saturday, I missed half of one, which had George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams and Steve Erickson talking about killing significant characters in a novel. They may have been more focused in the first half but it wasn’t bad for flow and was funny. Tad Williams, one of the special guests and emcee for the World Fantasy awards is a very funny guy.

The other panel I attended was “Why do we write dark fiction?” with Graham Joyce, Nancy Kilpatrick and David Morrell. It was moderated well by Nancy and thought provoking. Very interesting panel that had many of us thinking of their childhoods and surreal experiences.

Because this is long, I’ll continue tomorrow with more on WFC.

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Writing: Campbell and Sturgeon Awards

Friday night was the presentation of the Campbell Award for best new novel and the Sturgeon Award for best new short fiction of the year. They were presented in Lawrence, Kansas as part of the Campbell Conference and the SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association) conference. David Moles won the Sturgeon Award for his story “Finisterra,” as well as Elizabeth Bear for her story “Tidelines”

The Campbell Award gave third place to Ken MacLeod for his book, The Execution Channel. Second place went to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball, and the winner was Kathleen Ann Goonan for her novel, In War Times.

Saturday continued the conference with a SF book sale at the KU library, and readings and signings at the Oread bookstore. Readers included David Moles, Kij Johnson, Frederik Pohl, Robin Wayne Bailey, Karen Joy Fowler, James Van Pelt and Kathleen Ann Goonan. Fred Pohl, the last of the Futurists (which included Kornbluth, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and others) claims that he will no longer write a collaboration with another author because they end up dying. He finished a book with Arthur C. Clarke but Clarke died before the last fifty pages. The book, The Last Theorem, will be released within the next few months. Pohl is quite a funny guy and it was a delight to hear him read, as well as the other authors.

The conference ended the novel writing workshop. Saturday night, we had a party as our last goodbye to each other. it was a good workshop and some really great people. I’m excited to start working, really working on my novel and restructuring it. Maybe I can get it done this year.

James Van Pelt said some interesting things about writing regularly. He once kept trying for 1000 words a day but couldn’t always manage it so then he’d fall behind and not write for days on end. Stephen King and other writers might do 1000 words a day or more but they don’t always have other jobs. Pelt realized that the 1000 words was the barrier and sat down with what he’d be happy writing in a year and then divided it by the number of days. He realized that he only needed 200 words a day. That breaks down to less than a page and even if tired or too busy, a very doable number. It increased his output and he’s never missed writing a day since.

I think I’ll be trying that and tonight I sat down to look at a story I wrote recently. Using some of the new depths to writing I learned these past two weeks, I rewrote it and added a thousand words. I’ll try writing at least 200 words on fiction every day.

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Fourth of July for Writers

Somehow I missed posting this on the 4th. Probably because I fell asleep half way through writing it.

Today was Independence Day for the writers, and overall we did what we’ve been doing all week. We went for dinner but spent longer than usual, then returned to the dorms to write and discuss. When the fireworks went off, a couple of people went outside to watch but they were far away. The KU campus sits on a hill, but the rest of Lawrence is flattish.

I’m now quite excited about my novel and listening to a few others, they were starting to feel this “it’s right” feeling. Of course, everything will change with the critiques next week, where most of us have to rewrite our outlines.

I’ve had to get rid of a viewpoint character that Rhea was calling my Duncan Idaho and completely downplay my gods. And I have to reformat the crisis/conflicts but I also have a second and possibly third novel out of this.

We’ve talked about opening lines and how they convey setting right in the first sentence and that that first sentence is the most important. We’ve looked at pacing and dialogue, overall story arcs, as well as interior and exterior motives/arcs. Much of this I knew but working out the nuances for novels is somewhat different. The pacing can be longer and needs to be, but then you have chapter arcs within story arcs.

I think some of this will settle out once I’ve had time to ruminate.

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Novel Writing Workshop

Tomorrow (today) we go over the last of nine novels, which means three chapters and the outline. The writing is of a pretty good caliber in all of these and all of them need work. Kij is amazingly astute and finding what’s not working and at defining structure.

There has been quite a range in the ideas from humorous space opera to medieval fantasy to alternate histories. I hadn’t worked on the novel for ten years and knew I had huge expository lumps. But I was getting mired. I had to build a complete world, including geography, races, culture, religion and rulers. No small feat and it’s still evolving. I was told to get rid of the first two chapters and simplify the information. I also had to drop the meddling gods back.

The more I thought about it, the more relieved I was. I have so much information to impart and I was getting mired. After we went for BBQ (where the food was okay and the waiting staff terrible) at the Vermont, I think, we went back to the dorms. Most nights people sit around and talk and write, to varying degrees. There’s a quiet room if you don’t want to be bothered by the chatter. I was working on my outline and chatting with Eric Warren from the short fiction workshop.

He had sat in one day on our workshop and had read the two novel bits so he could see how the process went. It’s not round table like Clarion and is a more gentle, more brainstorming style which I quite like and find useful, not to mention you learn from the other people’s novels too. We ended up discussing my novel and it was really useful. Eric gave me a very cool idea for the second novel and I got to bounce my changes off of him.

What this outline has given me that the first didn’t is a jumping point to a second novel. I had only thought in the vague terms of “there will be one” before this. Kij has made me cut down to three viewpoint characters. Because of the races and plot, I can’t really go to fewer. But this leaves room for different character viewpoints in the second novel. One rule was that two of the three problems must be solved by the end of the novel. I’ve done this (at least in the outline), and leaving one unsolved problem leaves room for that problem to flow into the next novel and for joining them.

The outline gets turned in next week and taken through the process. I think it is stronger and kind of exciting. I also wrote up story arcs for each of the four characters, which definitely helps in plotting the outlines. I hope to have most of the outline done by tomorrow.

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Writing: Clarion Daze

I’m soon to embark on the second major writing workshop of my career. I attended Clarion West in Seattle lo, these many years ago. Clarion was a six-week workshop with a different instructor per week: five authors, one editor. I still think it was a stellar cast of instructors that year: Ed Bryant, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Ursula Le Guin, Tappan King and Samuel Delaney.

There were 21 of us attending from all over the US and three from Vancouver, BC. You arrived with a story written, ready to critique. Each day we would critique three people, then go back to the dorms and write and read stories for the next day. We were supposed to produce a story a week for critiquing.

Ages ranged from fresh out of high school to a couple of people in their forties. People came with all levels of ability though all of us had made the selection process. I knew I had a lot to learn and if we were all standing on a ladder, I was beneath most of the other people. But in the process of that six-week course I climbed a long way up the ladder. There were those above me who climbed maybe only a few inches. There were those who didn’t move at all.

Connie Willis gave us humor, Ed Bryant gave us horror. Tappan gave the realities of publishing and Chip talked about the novel format. Octavia and Ursula were a wealth of insight and information. Of course they all taught the process of writing and story structure as well. I think I was the second most prolific person and did write a story a week, if not more. I also got by on four hours of sleep a night for six weeks and felt like I was close to having spontaneous out of body experiences. I can say that things became jittery and I was drinking Pepsi regularly and I don’t really drink pop.

We did let some of our stress out with a massive water fight that soaked the dorm, with a few people like Gordon Van Gelder being tossed in the shower. After that (or maybe it was the culmination) we had everything from water pistols and weenies to Uzis, and would skulk down the street with a water weapons, laying in wait for our unsuspecting classmates. We curtailed the street attacks when someone pointed out that the police might not take kindly to people lurking about with what looked like weapons.

The slug became our mascot, specifically the banana slug. Somehow it was mentioned in class the first week, and Seattle is prolific with them as is much of the West Coast. I believe we read that there was a slug race going on in one of the nearby cities. We bought some rubber slugs and would leave them outside people’s doors. Then Octavia Butler, in our second week, mentioned how she was phobic of slugs and once had one in her bathroom. By the third week Ursula, who lives in Portland, cemented the image though I can’t remember what she said. So we had Cyril the cyber slug and eventually when I did up T-shirts to commemorate our workshop, it was Cyril, with pierced antennae, mirrorshades, a mohawk and riveted body parts that graced the shirts. Somewhere, I still have one.

The reason some people didn’t write much was that they came to the workshop knowing they could write well. When twenty people critique your story it can be pretty deflating and sometimes ego crushing. There were times when the critique would consists of six or more people saying the same thing, which became irritating. We had meetings so that people would just say ditto if they had nothing new to say. There was one fellow who really only wrote one story the whole workshop and would name drop constantly. That was not his most annoying trait. He had the habit of not reading someone’s story and then sitting halfway around from who was being critiqued (we’d know the night before). Listening to everyone else’s critiques, he would then cobble his critique together. It soon became obvious to us and though we had a meeting where we didn’t address him directly we tried to make sure he knew that we could tell which people didn’t read the stories. He also decided to come to my room one night and give his personal opinion of my writing.

Each weekend there would be a party (coupled with the Clarion reading series) at a host’s house. Some hosts were authors like Greg and Elizabeth Bear and we got to probe their minds in an informal way. Many of us were so burned out after the workshop that I think some people never wrote again. I slept for about a month.

Our year seemed to birth more editors than anything else. Kij Johnson worked for Dark Horse comics and Tor at one point, Gordon Van Gelder worked for St. Martins before taking over F&SF. Michael Stearns still works for Harcourt I believe, in New York now. Kathleen Alcala edited for a publication in Seattle and wrote magic realism. I freelanced copy edited for years and still do, as well as currently editing for Aberrant Dreams (and soon to help with poetry editing for Chizine). I’m not sure where some of the others went or what they did but few published novels came out of our year. To date, I think Kij is the most successful there. Others sold poetry and short fiction. Kij and I recently googled Dean Shomshak, who we knew as the revenant guy (because of his one zombie story) and it seems he became quite successful in writing game books and articles. Kathryn Drennan wrote shows and series in Hollywood.

Did Clarion help my writing? Yes. Did it help it enough? I don’t know. Would I do it again? I don’t know but here I am getting ready for a shorter two-week workshop. There is something about being immersed in a group of your peeps and doing nothing but eating, drinking and spewing writing. If nothing else, you usually come out of it with more ideas and a better path through your story.

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