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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

07 December 2010

World Fantasy Con: Panels

In addition to Mary Robinette Kowal's talk on "How to Give an Effective Reading," which I mentioned in an earlier WFC 2010 post and which she expands on at her Website here, I attended six panels. Here are some of the points made and opinions voiced.

Before proceeding, I invite you to get a snack and something to drink and find a comfy place to sit, because this is a long post (but easy to skim, if you prefer).

 Fantasy as a Rejection of the Present, Walter Jon Williams, Theodora Goss, Nancy Jane Moore

  • J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were living in a war era; they were living in an unsatisfactory present, so in their writing they looked back to a more appealing era.
  • Daniel Abrahams was quoted as saying that genre fiction addresses some particular anxiety and fixes it. In sf, the fear is, "oh, God, won't anything ever change?" A panelist suggested that the core fear in fantasy is, "oh, God, won't things stop changing?"
  • The Victorian Era is a time of rapid change, the beginning of modernity, with advertising, modern manufacturing techniques, women riding bicycles, and other shocking innovations. It was also an era of design nostalgia; people were building many Gothic buildings. (I'll strengthen their point by adding that there was also a revival of Renaissance design in building and that both Gothic and Renaissance elements were strong in American and English furniture. French furniture of the time also copied styles from the past, particularly the eras of Henri II, Louis XIV, and Louis XV.)
  • The 1990s was a time of nostalgia for earlier forms of sf.
  • Some writers may reject the past as any better than the present and instead look for alternatives by creating new futures.

The Fairy Tale as a Specific Form, Gabe Dybing, Delia Sherman, Leah Bobet, James Dorr, Terri-Lynne DeFino

  • In the mid-18th century, there were French, English, and German versions of "Bluebeard" with the same plot but different details and meanings.
  • Every culture has its own tale structure and rhythm, even though the stories are often similar.
  • Sherman said that many tales are unknown today because they conflict with our cultural values. These include stories in which children have agency, stories in which women have agency (such as rescuing their boyfriends), and stories from nondominant cultures.
  • Jane Yolen wrote modern fairy tales that were new, not retellings, such as "The Girl Who Cried Flowers." Like traditional fairly tales, these took place in unclear places and times. By being detailess, they become universal.
  • Dorr suggested that anyone writing modern fairy tales will probably draw elements (archetypes?) from various old tales.
  • What is a fairy tale? All fairy tales are about survival. Most involve people entering a world whose rules they don't understand. DeFino said that at its core, a fairy tale is a moral wrapped in a story. Bobet said that all good stories have a kernel of moral.
  • Sherman said that the difference between a myth and a fairy tales is that myths deal with large issues and fairy tales with smaller issues. She also said that the mythical tale follows the hero's journey.
  • Are fairy tales fantasy? This discussion was a little muddy, so I'm not sure whether the panel reached a conclusion or agreement. If you attended this panel, please comment on what you thought they decided.

The Story Cycle vs. The Novel, Suzy Charnas, Scott James Magner, L.E. Modesit, Dennis McKiernan, Mette Ivie Harrison

The panelists were uncertain whether they were supposed to be discussing different kinds of book series or comparing novels with single books that collect related stories. Most of the panel consisted of definitions and examples given by each panelist.

  • Charnas said that in a story cycle, each story in the book can stand alone and pointed out (as did some other panelists) that a story cycle sometimes starts as separate short stories that are later combined into a single book.
  • McKiernan defined a story cycle as a long series of novels with the same characters and said that a story cycle requires an overarching theme. In terms of single books, he said that a novel has one ending, but each story in a story cycle has its own ending.
  • Harrison agreed that each story in a story cycle can stand alone and that the author, when combining them, may need to write new stories to fill gaps in chronology. She thinks story cycles are more literary and doesn't think they sell as well.
  • Modesitt said that a story cycle builds to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. A story collection is merely the sum of its parts.

The Continued Viability of Epic Fantasy, Blake Charlton, John Fultz, David Coe, David Drake, Freda Warrington

This was the panel I was most interested in and took the most notes on.

Definitions of epic fantasy

  • Fultz: Epic fantasy is big in scale and scope, whereas sword and sorcery is more individual.
  • Coe: Epic fantasy takes place on an alternate world and has an extended arc (multiple books) and numerous plot threads
  • Charlton: Epic fantasy does not have to do with saving the world—although he admits that he had trouble selling an epic fantasy that didn't involve world saving.

Is epic fantasy viable?
Drake pointed out that 72,000 hardcopies of the new Brandon Sanderson–Robert Jordan "Wheel of Time series have been sold. He said this proved that epic fantasy was viable and everyone could adjourn to the bar.

But what about new writers?

  • Coe argued that a long-running series may not reflect the viability of first books of epic fantasy. He asked whether new writers need a different structure.
  • Warrington: Writers need to adhere to at least some stereotypes of fantasy. She said that new authors often get a publisher push for only the first volume of a series. In response, she now writes stand-alone novels that are related but do not need to be read in order.
  • Charlton: He has only one book of epic fantasy out so far. He wants his books to be like a pebble skipping and touching down across a river so that they are related but independent.

Current trends

  • "Chihuahua-killing fantasy"—books that could kill a small dog if dropped on it—is out. At Tor, they want shorter epics than in the past. Coe said his first book in the mid-1990s was 200,000 words; his current epic fantasy is coming closer to 100,000.
  • To keep books shorter, authors are cutting the number of plot lines or viewpoint characters.
  • In contrast to Tor, the length of Baen's military sf books depends on each author.
  • In Britain, the market is smaller, has a more limited range of types of books, is less open minded, and less tolerant, according to Warrington.
  • So far, epic fantasy has not sold well in graphic novel form.
  • The drive against "chihuahua killers" has come from Barnes and Noble and Borders. They have a fixed number of pockets in their stores, and as a result they can stock and sell more small books than big books.
  • Epic fantasy is doing better now than five years ago.

For another, more amusing take on this panel, see Heather Albano's blogpost of 11 November.

Sword and Sorcery, Scott Andrews, Martha Wells, Howard Jones, Patricia Bray, Jonathan Oliver

The panel first differentiated between Tolkienesque "high" fantasy and S+S, saying that S+S:

  • is faster paced
  • uses middle- and lower-class characters instead of royalty
  • contains fewer characters and less politics
  • has more adventure
  • is more fun

They then examined the appeal of S+S, which they said derived from its:

  • better accessibility than long epic fantasy
  • fun factor
  • tendency to draw the reader in immediately
  • cool worldbuilding in places you probably wouldn't want to go
  • ability to be "brain candy" when a reader is in the mood for something quick and easy
  • more-experienced heroes
  • grittier nature
  • sense of wonder

S+S has evolved over the years. Today, you can find in S+S:

  • more female characters
  • new settings such as Africa and China
  • nonwhite main characters
  • more multilayered humor
  • no right-wing politics (Readers, do you agree?)

The most controversial part of the panel was its list of current S+S practitioners, and I'm curious whether my blog readers think these authors should be categorized as sometimes writing S+S: Terry Pratchett, James Enge, [somebody] Ambrose, Nathan Long, C.L. Werner, Holly Phillips, Chris Willrich, Barbara Hambly, Saladin Ahmed, Michael Moorecock, Gay Sieboldt, and Carl Edward Wagner.

Among S+S authors who have not received enough attention, they listed Richard Ford, Harold Lamb, Clark Ashton [Smith], Charles Saunders, Tanith Lee, and Barry Hughart.

They listed Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Black Gate as the magazines friendliest to S+S stories.

If you're interested in the definition of S+S, I recommend this long post at SF Signal for a range of definitions from writers and editors.

Hang on, Faithful Reader, only one more panel to go!

The Moral Distance between the Author and the Work, Eric Flint, Nancy Kress, Kathy Cramer, Jack Skillingstead, Paul Witcover, Scot Edelman

This panel dealt with ethical questions such as, Is it moral to read books by immoral people? Does it matter whether the book is good or bad? Fiction or nonfiction? What if the text has no trace of the immorality of the author (that is, it has a lot of moral distance)? They started by defining the concept of moral distance, which means how closely the moral views of the character mirror those of the author.

Different panelists had somewhat different views, but the general consensus was that there's no reason to criticize adults for reading whatever they want to read:

  • Kress: Everyone should read whatever they want to read without regard for the character of the author.
  • Flint: He agreed, but added that it makes a difference to him whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.
  • Edelman: There are a lot of books in the world, so one doesn't have to read an author one considers immoral. (Does that mean he sees no value for anyone in reading, say, Mein Kampf? That didn't come up.)
  • Cramer: She pointed out that great artists such as Picasso and Degas used prostitutes as models, and some were underage, but no one cares. In the art and painting world, moral distance is a nonissue.
  • Flint: If someone doesn't read your books because of your politics, your response should be, "Screw you."
  • Kress: The character is not the author.

Flint and Kress brought up the issue of suppression. There has been social pressure, for instance, not to allow Harry Potter books in schools. Both of them believe that no one should draw the line of what is moral and immoral to read for others. However, the panelists conceded that this stance gets murky when the reader is a child, and the discussion explicitly focused on adult readers after that.

Lastly, the panelists discussed how much of the creator goes into the creation. They concluded that an author's body of work gives you some idea of his or her character; a single piece can't. Sometimes, as in the case of H.P. Lovecraft, the author's moral failing (xenophobia in Lovecraft's case) is what the reader enjoys about the author's work. They also emphasized that readers need to take into account their chronological distance from the author; one has to look at the work through the lens of the morals of the time.

Kress concluded by saying that there are two types of readers:

  • Readers who want to read only things that confirm their beliefs
  • Readers who are willing to have their beliefs challenged and their world view expanded

For those who didn't get enough WFC atmosphere and dispersed wisdom from my posts, here are a few other places to read about WFC 2010:
Heather Albano here (registration), here (fantasy gun control), here (epic fantasy), and here (meeting a favorite author).
John DeNardo at
Mark R. Kelly at LOCUS online
Nancy Kress here, here, here, and here
Emily Jiang here and here


Terri-Lynne said...

I spoke during my panel?? Yay! :)

In the end, there was no clear definition. It felt like we spent the whole time trying to define fairy tale that we never got around to deciding if it was, in fact, fantasy.

I loved the discussion on epic fantasy, though I didn't agree with much of what was said. Yes, the rules change and the genres must change with them, but once you strip all the EPICNESS our of epic fantasy to fit within a certain word limit, is it still epic fantasy??

My December blog post for Apex is on this very subject, inspired by this WFC panel.

Thank you for this wonderful round up! Now I know what I missed in those panels I could not attend because I was socializing!

Shauna Roberts said...

TERRI, what date will your post at Apex run?

I agree strongly with you that epic fantasy should be epic. The crowd of characters and the convoluted plots are part of what I love about it.

And (ha ha) I only got to six panels because I spent a lot of time socializing too.

Terri-Lynne said...

December 23rd. I'll post a link on Facebook and in LJ when it comes up.

Kimber Leszczuk. said...

This was an interesting read!

Charles Gramlich said...

I'd definitely have been interested in the epic fantasy and sword and sorcery panels. Most of my fantasy falls into that general category. I'm kind of glad to hear about the movement away from the HUGE tomes fantasy. I like a faster moving and shorter book myself.

Lana Gramlich said...

Sounds like some really interesting discussions. I bet it was fun. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Wow. Amazing post. Lots of useful info here, I only wish more people loved fantasy as much as I do, so that it would be a more viable genre for writers to make a living writing.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks, KIMBER and MATTHEW, for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

CHARLES, personally, I'm sad about the move away from huge fantasy epics. I love a book with many plot lines and many characters. But I've also enjoyed some of shorter recent epic fantasy books, particularly not needing weeks to read 1000 pages of tiny print.

LANA, it truly was fun. The first time I went to WFC, I knew only a handful of people. It was so much more enjoyable this year to know people and not feel completely surrounded by strangers.