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Archive for June, 2012

Fourth Street Fantasy 2012: Thoughts After the Con


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent the past weekend at Fourth Street Fantasy, a fantasy/science fiction (and that order does matter) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While I’ve been to plenty of New York Comic-Cons and to BEA, etc. this was only my second genre con (after Readercon last year) and it was my first for both being on some panels and being able to stay for the entire event.

I had been looking forward to the con with a school kid’s mix of eagerness and trepidation. On the one hand, the program looked fascinating: panel after panel discussing thought-provoking subjects immediately relevant to my writing. On the other hand, the program was vaguely terrifying: I’d have to somehow avoid making an utter fool of myself, both on and off stage.

The Writer’s Seminar at Fourth Street

Friday morning featured an optional writer’s seminar not included in the con membership. Each of the seminar speakers gave a brief (thirty to forty-five minute) speech, discussing various facets of writing and storytelling, followed by extensive Q&A.

The presentations were interesting and entertaining, though the one-day format of the event didn’t really allow the speakers to dive deeply into a great many subjects. The two presentations that I found most interesting were Beth Meacham’s discussion of editor attitudes/processes, and Scott Lynch’s practical discussion of the reader/writer relationship. And from the latter, two of Scott’s statements particularly struck me as deserving repetition:

“Readers own their own experience of your book. They own the intensity of it. You provide an experience, but what they do with that is entirely up to them. You don’t dictate – and don’t get to dictate – the emotional keys that it plays.”

“Literary fiction is – in some respects – the literature of disconnection and alienation and ineffectuality. It is the literature of being a chip upon the flood, unable to affect the world around [you]. Fantasy is the literature of significant personal action, where you can take arms against your sea of troubles and actually do something about them.”

These are some meaty, insightful statements that might brook discussion or arguments and certainly demand exploration. They also set the tone for the rest of Fourth Street’s programming.

The Fourth Street Panels

Each of Fourth Street’s one hour panels featured a few minutes of moderator-directed questions, followed by a moderated discussion with the audience. While there was some variability, the ratio tended to be 25% moderator-generated, and 75% audience-generated questions, which made for a fast-moving, far-ranging, and insightful discussion. From conversations that I had with other attendees, this seems to be a reversal of the panel structure typical at most genre conferences; the emphasis on discussion particularly stood out for me.

The panels themselves tended to skew in the direction of theoretical/philosophical analysis of narrative structure, craft, technique, and current trends, and the exchange of ideas and opinions produced vibrant debate. Many perspectives and insights were exchanged, sometimes in stark disagreement, which left me with many concepts to think about later. Because there were only one hundred twenty or so attendees, anyone who wanted to participate could and did. This made the discussion flow more like a true conversation than a standard Q&A session, which was refreshing.

This was not only my first complete con, but also the first where I got to speak on two panels (respectively Accessibility, Genre, and Depth and Science, Technology, and Fantasy). Whether I made a fool of myself or not I shall leave to others to judge, but I know that from where I sat the conversation was stimulating, and hope that the other attendees and panelists agreed.

After each hour-long panel, Ellen Klages auctioned something off to raise money for next year’s Fourth Street Fantasy. She was engaging and funny and there was broad participation and laughs all around. The auctions made for a perfect segue to the brief coffee/bio breaks between the panels.

The Evening Revels

When the panels were all over, the discussions naturally continued into the evening. And continued into the evening means late into the evening. For me, it was a novel and wonderful experience to discuss – in detail and at depth – narrative structures, historical non-fiction, research processes, biology, and ecology, with much smarter people late into the night.

And the background folk music? Provided by an inordinately talented circle of musicians and singers? Simply amazing. The conversations eventually shifted to hilarious stories, more folk music, jokes: a bonding, entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the evening (PSA: should Scott Lynch ever begin a joke that involves purple ping pong balls, heed my advice and run for the hills).

The only “complaint” I could possibly voice is not really a complaint, and actually had nothing to do with the con itself. Instead, it has to do with Minnesota’s monstrous mosquitoes. Seriously, we’ve got plenty of them in NJ and since my house backs up to a swamp, I thought myself quite familiar with the little blood-suckers. But these Minnesotan vampires are more vicious than any I have ever encountered before. To give some sense of how hardcore they are, one bit my thick-skinned palm while I was slapping it out of the air. These beasts are not to be trifled with, and when I return next year, I am going to bring/buy some bug spray and bathe in it.

Final Conclusions on Fourth Street Fantasy in 2012

Overall, this was an amazing experience for me. Being able to discuss literature, history, art, culture, and fantasy with so many intelligent, erudite, and passionate people was new and energizing. All weekend long, I felt like a kid at a candy store, and I left Minnesota with new friends and many interesting ideas and thoughts floating around in my brain.

I strongly recommend Fourth Street Fantasy to anyone who is looking for in-depth and thought-provoking conversations about fantasy, literature, and culture.

Surprise! Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension and Plot Twists


Beyond the pages of fiction, I hate surprises. Their timing is invariably inconvenient, and more often than not I could do without the surprise itself (Surprise! Flat tire!). But in fiction, I love surprises. I love plot twists, betrayals, and the resonant resolution of building tension. Fictional surprises are on my mind just now because of a question in last week’s I Should Be Writing podcast, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

Plausibility as the Foundation of Surprise

Regardless of the story, irrespective of the genre, and notwithstanding the nature of the surprise, nothing kills a surprise faster than implausibility. We all know that moment in bad fiction when we exclaim “Oh, c’mon!” and throw up our hands. It is always a moment of the writer’s laziness, when characters and their choices become subordinate to the needs of unfolding action. In good fiction, those relationships should be reversed: it is characters and the choices that they make which drives action.

Consider one of the greatest “surprises” in fantasy: Gollum’s attack on Frodo above the Crack of Doom in The Return of the King. This one moment is such a significant surprise that it gave rise to an entire trope in fantasy, that of eucatastrophe: a deus ex machina event that reverses certain failure and saves the day. Now, as a critical or structural descriptor, I hate eucatastrophe. I think it’s a false device, which mischaracterizes what is actually happening in the story. But Gollum’s attack nevertheless remains a pivotal, climactic, surprising, and satisfying moment.

The resonance of that moment stems from the plausibility of the characters’ actions. That Frodo would refuse to destroy the ring is the first “surprise” – after all, he is the noble hero and his refusal is the explicit failure of his quest (see my earlier comments on that score here). But Frodo’s failure is not, actually, a surprise. Tolkien has been establishing its plausibility for three whole books by that point. Noble Frodo’s entire arc culminates in that one moment, when he betrays his own values.

Similarly, Gollum’s attack – when he “inadvertently” saves the day – is perfectly plausible given what Tolkien has shown us of his nature. We believe that Gollum would do it, and that makes the “surprise” possible. If Gollum had tried to reason with Frodo, it would have been patently out of character and therefore thoroughly implausible.

When I look for ways to model “surprises” in my own writing, I tend to look at the mystery genre. The classic “whodunit” structure relies upon establishing a logical, plausible chain of clues which lead us to the “surprising” culprit. In some cases, the reader discovers clues alongside the sleuth and the mystery becomes a game of wits. The surprise remains plausible because we are given all of the tools to solve the mystery ourselves.

In other cases, particularly in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this type of divination is impossible because the author hides essential facts. But just because they are hidden from the reader does not, automatically, make them implausible. Instead, it puts pressure on the hero (in this case Sherlock Holmes) to convince us that he was aware of them all along. It is Holmes’ charisma and plausibility as a character that prevents his revelations from turning into flat statements of “Oh, by the way, here are essential facts that you had no way of knowing.”

Consider Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It remains a polarizing book to this day, precisely because its surprising solution (which relies on an unreliable narrator) flouts the “accepted” conventions of the mystery genre. And yet, the surprise and the mystery itself remain satisfying (at least for me) because they remain perfectly plausible within the world established by the story. While the surprise forces a re-evaluation of the preceding text, one cannot say “I don’t buy it”.

If a surprise is implausible, if the groundwork has not been laid to make it “natural”, then it will fail. Failure does not mean that the audience isn’t surprised: it means that the audience throws up its hands, and rejects the narrative outright. This is a much more damning criticism, and one that consigns the story to ultimate irrelevance.

Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension

Surprises and plausibility are indelibly linked to tension. A balance must be struck between establishing the plausibility of an incipient surprise, and telegraphing its arrival. Managing that tension is key to maintaining the reader’s engagement with the story. We want the reader on the edge of their seat. So how to get that? I believe the trick lies in information flow.

There is a difference between what the reader knows, and what a character knows. Slasher films love this tension-building device, and for good reason: if we are engaged with a character and we know that there’s a knife-wielding lunatic hiding in their closet, our natural instinct is to warn them (I admit to yelling at the TV during episodes of Criminal Minds). The tension in these scenes works because while we know what is coming, we share at least some of the character’s ignorance: we don’t know when the knife will fall. This selective knowledge keeps us antsy, and makes us jump when the knife finally flashes.

Outside of the over-exaggerated tension of the slasher flick, however, the same dynamic is at play. Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan Books of the Fallen features a dizzying array of political betrayals. But by telling the story from multiple perspectives, Erikson is able to show the reader the unfolding betrayals long before they are enacted. We know – in a loose, general sense – what is coming and what our heroes are ignorant of, and so when the moment arrives it produces a satisfying release of tension.

This same effect can be even more subtle, through the manipulation of reader emotions. In Ray Bradbury’s classic “The Veldt” we don’t need to know, exactly, what will happen to feel tense or be surprised. Instead, Bradbury builds a gradual sense of foreboding, a conviction that the other shoe will drop. What that means, what it entails, and when it will happen is not apparent. The onus of plausibility is spread across characters, events, environment, and most importantly the reader’s emotion. If the resolution of that tension did not satisfy the foreshadowed foreboding, then it would ultimately be an unsatisfying story: we would feel cheated.

The subtler manipulation of reader expectations relies on careful psychology, and an understanding of the reader’s familiarity with genre conventions. Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is controversial precisely because its surprise subverts those expectations. John Scalzi’s new novel Redshirts similarly relies on the reader’s familiarity with science fiction television tropes. Without the reader’s pre-existing familiarity, it becomes much harder for the reader to be one step ahead of the heroes…and as a result, the reader’s satisfaction will be diminished.

Fictional Surprises and a Rare (for me) Sports Metaphor

In essence, what this means is that readers don’t want real surprises. The true surprise, the one that we never see coming, lacks the foundation that makes it plausible. It is the flyball out of left field that hits us in the head and gives us a concussion.

By contrast, a good fictional surprise builds off of the foundations established in the preceding text. It builds off of the character, their personality, the trajectory of their narrative arc, and the structure of the overall story. If a true surprise is the concussive flyball, then a good surprise is the flyball out which the astute reader sees coming, that makes them race for the fences and leap to catch it just before it becomes a home run. It isn’t the inciting moment (the bat hitting the ball) that makes the surprise satisfying, nor is it the outfielder’s surprising leap. The surprise, and the satisfaction that derives from it, is the inevitable slap of the baseball hitting the outfielder’s leather mitt.

PSA: Fourth Street Fantasy is Next Week!


So after the intensity of BEA last week, this week I’d just like to offer a brief PSA: next week is Fourth Street Fantasy, and this will be my first year there.

I first learned about Fourth Street Fantasy, Minneapolis’ premier fantasy conference, last year at Viable Paradise (BTW, if you haven’t applied to VP after reading about my experiences, you’ve got until Friday to do so!).

Here are the important details on Fourth Street Fantasy:

What: Fourth Street Fantasy
When: June 22nd – 24th, 2012
Where: Minneapolis, MN
(at the Spring Hill Suites Marriott, 5901 Wayzata Blvd, St. Louis Park, Minnesota)
Program: (link)
Web Site: http://www.4thstreetfantasy.com/

I’m very excited about going (with panels covering everything from POV, to politics in fantasy, or the use of teen labor in secondary worlds, it is shaping up to be a weekend of fascinating conversation.). This is also going to be the first con where I’m on a couple of panels. I’ve pasted their write-ups and times below, but suffice to say I’m both kid-in-a-candy-shop excited and noob-intimidated by the folks I’m going to be panelling with. I’ll try not to embarass myself too badly.

Here are the program write-ups for the two panels I’ll be on:

Saturday, 2:00pm – 3:00pm
Accessibility, Genre, and Depth
Making fantasy accessible to new readers without making it seem simple or “dumbed down” to a more experienced audience can be challenging. What can we learn from the burgeoning YA genre? What are some techniques for ensuring new readers won’t feel like they’ve been thrown in the deep end, and to what extent can these techniques be reconciled with the intertextual complexity and deconstruction of genre tropes that experienced readers often desire?
  • Michael Merriam (moderating)
  • Elizabeth Bear
  • Chris Modzelewski (that’s me!)
  • John Scalzi

Sunday, 9:30am – 10:30am
Science, Technology, and Fantasy
There is a tendency for fantasy to depict worlds mired in technological stasis, or to imagine magic and technology as polar opposites. Even when authors combine the two, as in more fantastic end of steampunk, they often choose to reproduce a subset of ideas from our world and prior art. What are some of the sources of this approach toward technology in fantasy? What sorts of narrative opportunities open up when you introduce disruptive technologies, magical or otherwise, into a fantasy story?
  • Ellen Klages (moderating)
  • Marissa Lingen
  • Chris Modzelewski (that’s me again!)
  • Sarah Monette
  • Catherine Schaffer

If you’re anywhere in the vicinity, or if you find yourself looking for some great discussions, please join us! If you can’t make it, don’t worry: I’ll be posting a detailed write-up of the event on Tuesday, June 26th. But for those of you who will already be attending Fourth Street Fantasy, I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

BEA 2012: Wrap-up and Programming Suggestions for 2013


NOTE: This is the fourth (and final, I promise!) post on BEA 2012. Unlike my last three posts (here, here, and here), this doesn’t re-cap the expo’s last day. Instead, I’ll try to collate my thoughts and offer concrete, workable suggestions for how to improve the BEA Blogger Conference and BEA programs for next year. And after this, we’ll back to our regularly scheduled weekly programming, I promise!

Thinking back on BEA 2012, I realize how ultimately disappointing the event was for me. Sure, it was great to see old friends and meet new ones. While that’s the most important part of such events, it isn’t enough to make up for programming that falls flat. Especially, when it didn’t have to: both the BEA Book Blogger Conference and the expo itself could easily have been amazing, insightful, informative experiences. But sour grapes don’t help anyone, and so what I’m going to do is make some concrete, practical, and workable suggestions for how Reed Exhibitions can improve their program for next year.

These suggestions come in two parts: the BEA Book Blogger Conference, and Genre Programming at BEA.

BEA Book Blogger Conference: Get an Advisory Panel of Real Book Bloggers

The biggest complaint I have heard about the BEA Book Blogger Conference is that it evidenced blatant ignorance and disinterest in book blogger needs. Considering that the conference is supposedly aimed right at us, that’s a damning criticism. And while I know that Reed Exhibitions tried to collect insights through both a survey and a focus group before the conference (full disclosure: I participated in that focus group), the fact that they missed the mark so widely suggests that something more concrete is needed.

So here’s my suggestion: Reed Exhibitions should put together a Book Blogger Advisory Panel. A small group of book bloggers, no more than six or seven, who would be able to weigh in and help construct the program for the event. Essentially, let the most qualified and interested people create the program. If such a panel were given actual teeth, if it had real power to affect programming and were more than a rubber-stamp body there to give Reed’s poor programming a measure of legitimacy, it would go a long way to both improving the quality of the BEA Book Blogger Conference and its brand amongst book bloggers.

It is not difficult to identify experienced, knowledgeable book bloggers. Coordinating communication is a snap: they are all very well connected through their blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. In fact, they are right now using those (public) platforms to loudly criticize the Book Blogger Conference. To set up conference calls, an e-mail group, etc. is the work of several minutes. And even though I can’t speak for everyone, I suspect that many book bloggers would – given real influence – be happy to take part in such an advisory panel in exchange for a free pass to BEA and perhaps a nice dinner in NYC during the event itself. Essentially negligible cost.

Such a panel would also have an added advantage for Reed Exhibitions: it would give them the opportunity to make their programming decisions transparent. The most significant and dangerous criticism I’ve seen (and offered myself, actually) is that Reed Exhibitions puts the interests of their exhibitors above those of their paying conference attendees. By getting an advisory panel and giving it real influence, Reed can better communicate to the community the practical constraints within which the Book Blogger Conference operates. That kind of transparency mitigates the long-term threat of such criticism, and would earn a far greater degree of trust and respect within the community.

If you think this kind of Advisory Panel is a decent idea, then here’s what I suggest: let Reed Exhibitions know. Reach out to them:

Community/BlogWorld & BEA Bloggers Conference Joe Vella
Community Manager/BlogWorld and BEA Bloggers Conference
jvella@reedexpo.com
Twitter @beabloggers
Event Management Steve Rosato
Event Director
srosato@reedexpo.com

Courtney Muller
Senior Vice President
cmuller@reedexpo.com

BEA Conference/Education Programming: Add a Genre Track

For the BEA programming itself, my major suggestion is to add a genre track, with programming profiled around the particular issues of different categories of fiction. Speculative fiction wasn’t the only genre poorly represented on the program: mystery, romance, basically anything that wasn’t YA got ignored. So my suggestion would be to take a look at the least popular (least attended) parts of the program, and replace them next year with a track modeled on this year’s graphic novel programming.

Offering 3 – 4 sessions focusing on each genre over the course of a three day trade show is perfectly manageable. Every year, speculative fiction puts on several multi-day professional (i.e. without fan features such as cosplay and the like) conferences devoted exclusively to the genre. I think BEA can manage something interesting, particularly in that it attracts a large audience that most genre cons don’t: booksellers and librarians. There are many topics that can be addressed and which would be of practical interest to booksellers and librarians, and which would definitely appeal to Reed’s exhibitors. Consider these off-the-cuff suggestions:

The Hottest Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2013 Modeled on Graphic Novel Reporter’s excellent graphic novel panel, I see no reason why this format couldn’t be extended to other genres. This one would appeal to booksellers and librarians because it gives them compact insight into what to stock and what to focus on in their handselling. And it would appeal to publishers for the exact same reason.
Not Just for Boys: Women and Science Fiction This one could be a panel discussion by booksellers, librarians, and authors devoted to the subject of how to get women into science fiction. Apart from doing some good (i.e. promoting women in speculative fiction, and speculative fiction to women), it’d also be useful to booksellers and librarians because it gives insight into how to actually sell speculative fiction to their statistically largest audience. What’s not to like about that?
Engaging Fandom: Getting Science Fiction/Fantasy Buyers to Come in the Door This one could be a panel discussion devoted to in-store events designed around bringing speculative fiction fans into the bookstore/library. Whether it’s “gaming nights” or signing practices, or any other type of event, there are lots of interesting techniques that people are using to attract this audience of frequent buyers (who, BTW, also tend to be heavy Amazon users). Since it again would offer practical advice to booksellers/librarians, I think it would be very valuable.
Small Is Beautiful: Exciting Books in Science Fiction/Fantasy Small Press I understand why BEA is not traditionally a good event for small press (it costs too much), but it would be great to give small press publishers a chance to talk about what they are doing with booksellers and librarians. And if BEA were to put together a panel of small press publishers talking about what they’re doing, and how booksellers and librarians can get value out of it, it would not only be interesting, but might net Reed Exhibitions at least one or two new exhibitors.

Smarter people than me can come up with many more topics like these (this year’s Tor panel was good, for example). From a practical standpoint, they offer value to BEA’s attendee audience (booksellers, librarians, the press, etc.) and they support the primary goal of BEA’s publisher exhibitors: selling more books. Over the past several years I have seen the genre exhibitors gradually dwindle at BEA, and when I ask people why, they tell me that “BEA is no longer really relevant”. This might be a method for Reed to rebuild that relevance.

If this is the kind of programming you’d like to see at BEA, what I suggest is that you reach out to BEA to let them know:

Conference/Education Programming Sally Dedecker
Director of Education
sdedecker@aol.com

Maggie Donovan
Conference Coordinator
mdonovan@reedexpo.com

Twitter @BookExpoAmerica
Event Management Steve Rosato
Event Director
srosato@reedexpo.com

Courtney Muller
Senior Vice President
cmuller@reedexpo.com

Hopefully, the programming of both events will improve next year. In the meantime, that concludes my BEA reporting. It’s been a busy week, and I’m off to get a desperately needed cup of coffee.

BEA 2012 (Day 2): Speculative Fiction Programming Rationale and the Death of a Teacher


NOTE: This is a recap post of the second day of BEA 2012 (Wednesday, June 6th). You can find my earlier review of the BEA Blogger Conference here, and my comments on the first day here.

Wednesday was definitely a light day at the expo. The crowds – which had already seemed thinner than in previous years – had thinned further, making it much easier to cross the show floor. I had visited most of the booths I had meant to visit the day before, so Wednesday became the day when I got to focus on programming, even though most of Wednesday’s programming was on topics entirely unrelated to speculative fiction.

Graphic Novels and Speculative Fiction

One of the aspects of BEA that I appreciate every year is that its graphic novel programming consistently focuses on graphic novels outside of the super-hero genre. Don’t get me wrong, I like well-written super hero stories, but I find they are rare and quite difficult to pull off well. The fact that the Graphic Novel Reporter’s panel on the “hottest graphic novels for 2012″ featured only two super hero stories was much appreciated.

Yet, in looking at Wednesday’s programming I was a tad confused. Much as I love graphic novels, their sales across all outlets (let alone bookstores) are dwarfed by sales of speculative fiction. In 2010, graphic novels had sales of only $340 million (according to ICv2, via Publisher Weekly), while science fiction and fantasy had sales of $559 million (according to Simba Information, via the Romance Writers of America). Since 2010, I don’t believe these proportions have really changed. So why, then, does BEA feature three graphic novel events on its program to its one science fiction/fantasy event?

Consider: on Tuesday, BEA featured a Tor panel of speculative fiction authors (see my write up yesterday). And yes, there were a number of speculative fiction signings in-booth and at the signing tables. But that was it in terms of speculative fiction programming. By contrast, graphic novels had three events on Wednesday in addition to their signings: a session on hosting great graphic novel events, a “meet graphic novel authors” session, and an excellent review of the best graphic novels in 2012. Why don’t other genres – like speculative fiction, or romance, or mystery – get this kind of programming love?

Featuring this kind of programming for other genres would, I think, be just plain smart for BEA. It would give speculative fiction publishers (read: potential exhibitors) a chance to get in front of booksellers and librarians to better communicate how to move their titles. Even longstanding genres like speculative fiction have to educate the marketplace. And many of the booksellers and librarians who I spoke to at BEA are looking for exactly that kind of education: they might cite galleys and autographs as their cynical motivation, but everyone is there to learn.

The Death of a Teacher

While Wednesday was a light day in terms of the expo itself, the entire day was clouded by the announcement of Ray Bradbury’s death. I remember very clearly the book that got me into speculative fiction (in fact, I still have it). I was eight years old, and I had walked one and a half miles into town (an intimidating distance for an eight year old even in a small, safe town) to pick up some books with the change I’d gotten out of my piggy bank. I went to the little used bookstore we had in town, and wandered into darkened corners that smelled of cobwebs. And that’s where I found a small battered paperback for seventy five cents, face-out and with an awesome cover:

The Illustrated Man is what got me into speculative fiction. I begged my parents to stay up late so that I could scare myself reading it. It was darker, more serious, more magical than anything I’d read previously, and I was probably too young to really appreciate it. But it showed me what writing could be, showed me how words could open infinite reaches of imagination. Ray Bradbury is the writer who got me into speculative fiction, and his control of language got me into writing. Though I never met him, I feel a deep sense of loss to know that he has died.

Ray Bradbury’s greatest gift to us was to expose the sublime dark side of innocence, and in doing so to show us that the scary grown-up world remains magical. We have lost one of the greatest writers of the past hundred years, and I am sad.

BEA 2012 (Day 1): The Relationship of Speculative Fiction to Mainstream


NOTE: This is a brief write-up of Tuesday, June 5th, the first full day of BEA. You can find my write-up of the pre-BEA Book Bloggers Conference here, and I’ll do a write-up of the second day (Wednesday) tomorrow.

Overall Impressions of BEA 2012 and its Relationship to Speculative Fiction

Last year, speculative fiction was omnipresent at BEA, though subsumed by other genres (see my write-up here). This year, I got the impression that outside of YA, that trend has slowed. Yet that is not all bad: YA strikes me as the most vibrant category here at BEA, and it seems like half of the YA titles at BEA are speculative to some degree (take that, folks who claim YA has no SF!). But outside of YA, adult fiction publishers seem to be focusing on more mainstream titles.

Even the large houses (almost all of which have SF/F imprints) seem to be soft-selling their speculative lines at BEA year, with fewer signings and fewer galley giveaways than I’ve seen in the past. Of course, there are plenty of genre publisher parties and the like, but the official / formal presence at the expo is muted. I’m sure there are many solid economic reasons for this, and I’m also sure that it was carefully discussed and considered by the various publishers. Since I’m not privy to those discussions, I’m curious as to what they might be, and why adult speculative fiction is becoming increasingly sidelined at BEA.

The Tor Panel: Was It Preaching to the Choir?

The highlight of Tuesday’s speculative fiction programming, at least for me, was the panel of Tor authors who spoke to genre’s crossing into the mainstream. The panel featured Walter Mosley, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and John Scalzi and was moderated by Ryan Britt (of Tor.com). The discussion was definitely interesting, and as erudite and thoughtful as anything we could have heard from mainstream authors.

One statement from early in the panel struck me as particularly interesting: Walter Mosely said that “For a hundred and fifty years [weird] fiction has been preparing us for the world [we live in],” which the panelists suggested is why speculative fiction is and will remain relevant for readers and our culture. I cannot agree more.

Yet despite the panelist’s erudition and intelligence, I walked away with a worrying impression: looking around the audience, I saw many faces I recognized from the SF/F community. That’s not a bad thing, of course, since I love that community. But were the panelists preaching to the choir? I fear that in some ways, much of the rhetoric about speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream fiction is isolated within the confines of the genre. Are we just marinating in our own sauces? Or are we in fact engaging and educating booksellers, librarians, and consumers outside of our existing fanbase?

As I walk the aisles of BEA, the relative invisibility of speculative fiction makes me worry that we have been isolated in our ghetto for so long that we have become acclimated to its confines. Our narrative devices have escaped to live free and exciting lives across all genres. But as a component of the broader publishing industry, perhaps the creators, editors, salespeople, and booksellers who created and popularized those narrative devices in the first place should break out themselves.

Audiences love speculative fiction, which means booksellers and librarians should, too. Speculative fiction is all about powerful stories, and the genre itself has one. So why do we tell it so quietly?

BEA 2012 (Day 0): The Book Blogger Conference


NOTE: Since I’m spending this week at BEA, my plan is to post a daily recap of my perceptions of this year’s event. Today – Tuesday – is the first day of the expo itself, so here is my review of yesterday’s Book Blogger Conference.

Several weeks ago, I wrote (here and here) about Reed Exhibitions’ stumbles and strategic missteps in the run-up to the 2012 Book Blogger Conference. Now that the event is over, a brief follow-up might be helpful.

The Weaknesses of BEA Book Blogger Con

On the whole, I was quite disappointed. I can look past communications screw ups (provided they get fixed). I can shrug off logistical blunders the day of an event. I can even tune out the occaisional poor speaker. But, as feared, Reed’s earlier missteps have proven where the organization’s priorities lie…and book bloggers do not make the cut.

The day started with an author/blogger networking breakfast. Tables were set up, and authors went on a “speed dating” trip…rotating between each table every fifteen or so minutes. The same setup was repeated for lunch. Speculative fiction – and generally fiction beyond YA – was woefully underrepresented. The morning literally had none, while the afternoon offered only two speculative fiction authors. While I was personally disappointed by SF’s absence, this part of the program did not bother me. It worked reasonably well, and likely provided value for the conference’s other attendees. I don’t mind being pitched when I expect it, and when the rest of my conference is goign to be full of insight into blogging practice.

But then we got to the keynote, which was presented by Jennifer Weiner, author of The Next Best Thing: A Novel. Weiner was an interesting (and for many book bloggers surprising) choice of keynote speaker: she is a popular author first, and a blogger second. What could she have to say that is both relevant to book bloggers and significant? In fairness, Weiner gave a good speech, and she made a herculean effort to focus on blogging. Yet it was clear to everyone in the room that she was there for one reason: to promote her upcoming book. The closing speaker, Jenny Lawson (a.k.a. the Bloggess), at least had a closer connection to the community…but she, too, was there to promote her recent book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir).

This was a common theme in much of the Book Bloggers Conference’s programming: it was skewed to align with the interests of authors/publishers in promoting their books to the book blogging community. I understand the motivation, and I understand the temptation: after all, publishers spend a lot of money on booths at BEA. The breakfast, the keynote, (to a lesser extent) the panel which followed, lunch, and the closing presentations all were oriented around pitching to the book blogging community. I for one regret having – apparently – spent $135 to be not-so-subtly pitched.

The Good amidst the Bad

Yet that being said, the day was not without value. Out of seven elements of the program, there were two which actually focused on the audience’s interest. The afternoon featured two breakout sessions, where we could each choose panels to sit in on that addressed either monetizing blogs, engaging community, critical review craft, or the publisher/blogger relationship. I sat in on the panels on monetizing and engaging community, and both were actually on-topic, interesting, and insightful. I walked away with at least one significant insight from each of these two panels. Had this ratio been maintained for the other program features, I would have been quite satisfied.

The Verdict: Reed Exhibitions Either Doesn’t Care About or Understand Book Bloggers

Unfortunately, $135 is a lot to spend for two insightful hours out of nine total. What I hoped for from the event was an in-depth discussion of blogging practice, offering relevant expertise from people who know whereof they speak. There was plenty of such expertise in the room. But – with the exception of the two panels I mentioned – there was terribly little on the program itself.

If this were an isolated incident – a programming snafu – it would be unfortunate, but reasonably acceptale. But this was not an isolated mistake: it is yet another indication of the conference organizer’s condescending attitude towards book bloggers. It leaves me to wonder: would critics for national news organizations get such treatment? Somehow, I think it unlikely. Other book bloggers, notably Read React Review and The Reading Ape, saw this coming. And I am sad to say that their fears were proven prescient.

If you are a book blogger, and if you were at the 2012 BEA Blogger Conference, you might have a different opinion. I know some people thought the conference was a valuable and enjoyable experience. But for me, it failed to provide the concrete insights I was looking for, and unless I see a dramatic improvement in Reed’s communications and programming, then I will skip it next year. Better to save my time and treasure for BEA itself.

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