10 July 2005

Readercon: Day 3

Today was the end of Readercon, and everyone looked a bit dazed and even bedraggled, though happy. Corrections to my earlier posts have already begun to appear in the comments -- please feel free to correct anything you think I mistyped, misperceived, or missed. (Thanks to Kathryn Cramer for doing so already.)

First, the Rhysling Awards have been posted and the winners announced to all the world, not just Readercon attendees. Congratulations all around.

Now to today: I arrived in the morning to see Greer Gilman read from the third story in her series begun with "Jack Daw's Pack" and the World Fantasy Award-winning "A Crowd of Bone". I'd heard Greer read other pieces of the story last year, and it's as vivid and unique an artifact of language as the other two, so I wasn't about to miss another sneak-peak. Her writing can seem, on the page, almost opaque, but when she reads it doesn't feel the least bit difficult or obscure to me. I told her this, and she said the stories really should be read aloud, they're designed that way. There were only a few of us at the reading, but it was 10am on a Sunday morning, and it didn't really matter, because it was an appreciative group, and engagement matters more than numbers. ("The average literacy in that room," Greer said to me, "was thrillingly high." Indeed. But that's been my experience of the whole convention, and one of the things that has made it so much fun.)

I dashed from the reading to the only panel I went to today: "Experiencing Sense of Wonder for College Credit: Teaching SF in the Classroom", where the panelists were: Fred Lerner (moderator), Samuel Delany, Theodora Goss, Leigh Grossman, and Suzy McKee Charnas. The participants gave their backgrounds first -- all teach or have taught science fiction and/or fantasy classes at universities, though in various ways and forms. Things got off to a lively start when Samuel Delany said he's against teaching a historical overview of science fiction, that such an overview is impossible and a waste of time, and that he's also against trying to define "science fiction" (he explained the reasons for the latter briefly, but I'd recommend reading his comments on defining SF and the various histories of SF in Silent Interviews, because this idea wasn't really picked up and discussed much during the panel.)

Suzy McKee Charnas said she always starts with a historical overview of SF, because most students' notions of what science fiction and fantasy are comes from movies. She said she starts with Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, because it's old, but full of energy and invention, which many students don't think old things can have. Delany replied that he often does exactly the same thing, and usually starts with Bester, too, but he just doesn't call it history.

Leigh Grossman said he often starts a course with definitions provided by students answering the question "What is science fiction?" or "What is fantasy?" (he teaches separate courses on each). The responses can be illuminating and good ways to begin discussion, and without doing it the students would become frustrated because so much of what they encounter in his courses defies their expectations of what SF is and does. He said he draws across all majors, even though it's an upper-level English course with 6,000+ pages of reading per semester and 150 pages of writing (although summer class participants can get out of one paper if they go to an SF convention).

Theodora Goss said that her university is fairly conservative, and that she teaches mostly 19th century fantasy literature, because, alas, that's what easiest to convince the administrators is worthwhile for study.

There followed a lot of discussion of the lack of respect that SF gets from the academy, though most of the panelists said they've experienced more hostility from creative writing teachers and programs than from academic ones. Suzy McKee Charnas suggested the condemnatory attitude derives from ignorance of the SF field, and therefore a feeling that it's impossible to assess student work related to SF. Theodora Goss said that people in academic programs are looking for new territory to explore, since so much has been written about so many of the major literary figures. Leigh Grossman said that even though his classes aren't exactly creative writing classes, he gets refugees from other creative writing classes where the instructors pretended The Iowa Review is the only respectable market for stories.

Samuel Delany said he uses a series of single-author modules in courses, rather than a historical overview, with eight modules per semester. By using a couple of novels and some short stories by one writer, students get to see what specific writers do, rather than becoming confused by all the paradoxes and conflicts in the history of SF.

Leigh Grossman said he likes to destroy the Norton Anthology view of writing as "this writer followed that one" by talking about how writers work, their worries about money and contracts, their friendships and animosities across generations. This can illuminate and humanize past writers, writers who we think of as godlike, but who were probably just trying to figure out how to pay the rent or get an audience.

Theodora Goss said she tends to teach thematically, for instance with the theme of "the double", to show how writers take central ideas and play with them, for instance "Beauty and the Beast" as seen through Angela Carter's "The Tiger's Bride".

Leigh Grossman said he often has to spend the first day scaring away people who signed up for the course because it said "science fiction" and so they assumed it would be an easy A. Theodora Goss said that happens to her, too, but there are also plenty of students who already are interested in fantasy and science fiction, truly want to be there, and are passionate about the work -- something a bit rarer in a class on Emerson.

Samuel Delany said that bringing science fiction into a creative writing class is no more difficult than bringing people of diverse backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities, etc. At the beginning, he says that all genres of writing are welcome and taken seriously. After all, eventually most writers want to try their hand at SF, as did Hawthorne, Poe, and Twain. It's part of the American traiditon. On the subject of preconceptions, he said he asks students who haven't read SF to list its themes (the students who have read SF are told to be quiet). These prejudicial myths -- utopias, space battles, etc. -- are written on the board, and inevitably turn out to be a fairly accurate description of a lot of SF. He said that he then bans any talk about these subjects in general, forcing the students to focus on the actual texts without their preconceptions.

Someone made a comment about many administrators saying students won't read more than a few pages for any class, and Delany pounced on this, proclaiming the idea of "teachability" as something that has made classes of all sorts meaningless and boring. If teachers get too caught up in trying to convert people to reading, science fiction, etc., this tends to control the canon in the humanities, and not in a good way. He said he prefers teaching graduate seminars for this reason.

From the audience, John Crowley asked what some of the modules Delany uses are, and he said Alfred Bester (the famous works, plus things like "Hell is Forever"), Theodore Sturgeon, Thomas Disch, Joanna Russ, Barry Malzberg, and he's even putting together a John Crowley module. He went on to say that he avoids writers that the students would encounter if they develop any sort of interest in SF -- no need for Isaac Asimov, for instance -- and that one of the best things teachers can do is introduce students to superb writers they might not otherwise encounter. He said his selection is based entirely on his own conflicting ideas of "quality", and that he lays these ideas out for the students to discuss and argue about.

Suzy McKee Charnas said one of the reasons she likes teaching SF is that she likes to talk about the edges of ideas, the edges of culture, and that SF is very good at doing that.

Theodora Goss said that SF of various sorts often investigates and represents things realism doesn't -- for instance, 19th century fantasy could often be seen as a discussion of the fallout from Darwin's ideas, with things like Dracula raising questions about the relationship between humans and animals.

And then time ran out.

I was going to go to another panel, but got caught up talking with a few people, because rumors that publisher Byron Preiss had just died in a car accident were, sadly, confirmed.

At one o'clock, though, I went to hear Samuel Delany read an assessment of the tenth volume of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, an essay that has just come out in The New York Review of Science Fiction. If I'd been thinking well, I would have picked up a copy of the new NYRSF, but the dealer's room closed after Delany's reading. I'm just going to have to finally break down and subscribe, because it's an excellent, insightful essay. In it, Delany compares Sturgeon to Chekhov, and an audience member afterward asked him to elaborate on the comparison. He said there is a similarly large range of characters in Sturgeon's work as in Chekhov's, though Sturgeon tends to focus more on the working class, while Chekhov had peasants and aristocrats (because that's what existed at that time). Both writers have a strong connection to landscape in their stories, and, a real humanity to their perspectives. Someone asked him what his favorite Sturgeon story is, and he said that he couldn't answer that any more than his favorite Chekhov story, because he likes their sensibilities, and, as with any writer who is of great quality, their work as a whole creates a sensibility that he likes being immersed in.

After that, I went to hear Kelly Link read part of "Magic for Beginners", the title story of her new collection, and then Dora Goss read a magnificent story that will be appearing on Strange Horizons soon, as well as some poems.

And so ended Readercon. If I find more reports from the convention, I'll post links to them. Please keep corrections, emendations, different interpretations, etc. coming in the comments sections. If you're more visually oriented, check out Kathryn Cramer's photos from the convention. She even got me, though the camera exploded immediately after. (That's Sonya Taaffe behind me, by the way. I was walking toward Kathryn to introduce her to Sonya, because David Hartwell had asked to meet Sonya, and Sonya didn't know either of the Hartwell-Cramer duo of fabulousity.)

On my way out of the convention, I picked up a registration form for next year, because it announced the guests of honor for 2006: James Morrow and China Mieville.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the capsule on ReaderCon. i=It was like going there without compiling traveling expenses. Very informative - much appreciated.


    Jay

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  2. Many thanks for your Readercon report, it's fascinating and indeed informative -- I learned many interesting new things.
    Delany's SF-teaching classes sound like a great thing.

    Here's a suggestion: somebody should tape the lectures and debates at the next Readercon and make them available online as streaming audio/video.

    Then again, your summary of Readercon is almost as good as having been there... but what did Barry Malzberg really say about AMAZING STORIES and sexual repression/dysfunction? Dig deeper into this issue... the public has a right to know!
    :)

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  3. F. Brett Cox7/14/2005 12:15 PM

    Belated thanks for your extraordinarily thorough Readercon report. As always, I didn't make it to as many panels as I should have, so I'm happy to get info about what I missed, and reminders about what I didn't.

    One correction: the Guests of Honor for the 2006 Readercon are China Mieville and James Morrow.

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  4. Thanks for catching that, Brett. I just fixed it. For years I have conflated Morressy and Morrow in my mind, even though I know they're separate people and rather different writers.

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