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Bioshock Infinite and the Components of Video Game Storytelling


On March 26th – while still caught up in the throes of a nasty cold – I dragged myself out to my local GameStop and bought Bioshock Infinite. I started playing that same day, and finished the game (the first time around) a couple of days later. Because I thought my reaction to the game could largely be influenced by my somewhat hazy, cold-altered perception, I waited ’til I was back in fighting trim and then played through a second time. Alas, most of my conclusions were just as strong (if not stronger) after my second play through, and the experience overall has given rise to these thoughts on storytelling in the video game medium.

Since I know not everyone has finished the game, I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

The Fantastical Nature of Story-based Video Games

Story-based video games are inherently fantastical. Whether they are explicitly fantasy-inspired (e.g. Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins, etc.), post-apocalyptic (e.g. the Fallout franchise or Dead Island), futuristic (e.g. Halo, Portal, etc.), or “contemporary” (e.g. the Call of Duty franchise), they face the same storytelling challenges as any speculative fiction story. Most significantly, to be effective they must:

  • rapidly create a world the player can understand, and;
  • establish character motivation which the player can internalize, and;
  • provide the player with an emotional arc tied to the intersection of world-building, character motivation, and character action.

The video game medium itself makes these tasks both easier and harder than other forms of storytelling. The game’s visual design rapidly communicates world-building details to the player. Just as we quickly gain details of a movie’s fictional environment from the visual cues provided, so too does a video game’s initial FMVs and level design give us clues as to the type of world we are about to inhabit. As the complexity of video game environments has increased, savvy game designers have begun salting their games with telling details that heighten the player’s immersion in their fictional setting. Games like Skyrim and the original Bioshock provide the player with rich backstory independent of the game’s plot through in-game books, notes, recordings, and idle character chatter.

The promise of an entertaining experience is a large part of the player’s motivation for playing. Our own momentum through the story is aided when our in-game proxy has clear motivations, when the stakes are known, and when their desires are both recognizable and understandable to us. When we sit down to play a video game, we are actively looking for the character’s motivation because it suggests to us what we should do to proceed through the game. In Portal, Chell’s reasons for working her way through GLaDOS’ puzzles are easy to grasp, both initially (because she is told to and there is no other choice available) and subsequently (the character’s survival). In the original Bioshock, Jack’s initial motivation is even clearer (i.e. to save Atlas’ family since he seems the only one in a position to do so).

To ultimately be satisfying, the game must provide the player with an emotional arc which develops the game’s themes, and evolves the character’s motivation in line with those themes. Ultimately, the character either succeeds or fails in fulfilling their desires, and the character’s success or failure typically coincides with the player’s success or failure in our gameplay.

Just as with a book, or a movie, or a story, the more each game component (visual design, audio design, gameplay, dialogue, pacing, etc.) contributes to those three basic elements, the stronger the player’s overall response. The truly great games – those that move the medium forward in new and exciting ways, as the original Bioshock did – tend to closely align those game components.

Video Games Done Right: Bioshock

Bioshock The original Bioshock got just about all of these elements right. Its primary strength, at least from my perspective, was its world-building. As with solid world-building in any medium, it begins at a conceptual level:

Rapture is founded upon Ayn Rand’s libertarian/Objectivist principles, and those philosophical concepts are communicated and explored at every point in the game. Shops and commercial freedoms, the dialogue and motivations of secondary characters, the contrast between player character morality and the “selfish” amorality of the Splicers, Ryan, and Fontaine – all apply, dramatize, and critique the underlying libertarian/Objectivist values in different ways.

Beyond the conceptual level, the visual design is arresting. The color palette and level design is firmly rooted in the aesthetic of the game’s time period (i.e. the science fictional visions of the 1960s), but with a notable diversion: by introducing us to post-collapse Rapture, we see a far darker and much more tense environment than what we might have seen at its height. Thus the player’s nerves are already tightened simply by the visual signals of societal collapse and decay.

The level design itself takes full advantage of the increasing capabilities of modern gaming technology. In particular, just about every nook and cranny of each game area is explorable, contributing to the game’s significant immersive quality. The varied little details scattered throughout the game – from broken children’s toys where appropriate, to strategically scrawled graffiti here and there – give the environment a “lived-in” feeling which makes it that much more compelling.

Equally important are the recordings scattered throughout the world. By giving the player the opportunity to find and collect these recordings, the game designers enhance our investment in the game’s world. These recordings provide us with valuable backstory that aids in our interpretation of the core story. They help us to contextualize the themes explored, and give us insight into secondary characters who often never actually appear in the game. Perhaps the game designer’s best trick is to give these (many) secondary characters their own motivations, their own storylines, independent of the main game. Because they are heroes in their own (often tragic, always off-screen) stories, they are actually developed as characters rather than merely serving a tactical info-dumping function.

The original Bioshock’s pacing also works well. The game designers wisely applied lessons from horror/survival games to offer us gradually mounting tension, offset by moments of humor and discovery, and punctuated by sequences of frenetic action. This contributes to the game’s emotional arc, and ties back into the game’s themes and plot.

So how does Bioshock Infinite compare?

A Flawed Narrative: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite Visually, Bioshock Infinite is stunning. The floating city of Columbia is arresting and designed with a strong and consistent aesthetic. However, being an airborne city, it is naturally more expansive than the claustrophobic underwater Rapture. It seems that the game designers chose to prioritize inaccessible backdrop over explorable environments. Most doors – houses, shops, alleyways, etc. – are inaccessible to the player. In other words, our exploration of this aesthetically fascinating environment is severely limited, and we only get to examine the parts of Columbia that are immediately relevant to the game’s primary storyline.

This unswerving focus on the game’s primary thorugh-line is, I believe, Bioshock Infinite’s greatest weakness. Every voxaphone recording found and every Kinetoscope watched contributes directly to the main story’s plot. Where are the character’s living their own lives with their own priorities? It seems that every one in Columbia lives only to inform the player of Important Plot Details. This badly diminishes the degree of environmental immersion, essentially cutting off the game’s world-building at the knees.

Bioshock Infinite’s pacing – particularly at the game’s opening – likewise harms its world-building efforts, though in this case I give the designers a little more credit. The original Bioshock puts us in an atmospheric, claustrophobic, collapsed environment. Rapture is desolate and savage. In Bioshock Infinite, we enter Columbia at its height, with citizens (specifically, those of a certain ethnicity and class) seemingly contented. This is an interesting choice, and no doubt presented the game designers with an interesting set of challenges. However, for such a choice to be rendered convincingly (and so add to the world-building and game immersion), the level design would have to offer more scope for exploration and the gameplay mechanics would have to allow for actual interaction with the non-player characters. As is, our inability to meaningfully interact with the NPCs and the significant amount of time before the fighting starts simply highlights the superficiality of the game’s world-building.

The main character’s initial motivation is likewise hollow. Having played through the entirety of the game, I understand that Booker DeWitt’s initial motivation (“Get the girl to pay off The Debt.”) is contrived to accommodate the game’s eventual “big reveal” (which was so heavily foreshadowed that I figured it out during the opening sequence) but its very thinness prevents us from engaging emotionally with the game’s protagonist. When coupled with the game’s thematic incoherence, our engagement with the game is severely limited.

In the original Bioshock, the themes of liberty, morality, choice, and rights permeate every aspect of the game. By contrast, Bioshock Infinite features a grab-bag of themes that are almost haphazard in their application. Themes of religious extremism, race/class conflict, and personal responsibility/culpability are all there. But at no point in the game’s story are they brought together, shown to be different facets of the same issue, or even explored individually to some satisfactory conclusion. Any one of these themes would have been enough to support an interesting, thought-provoking, and compelling game experience (in particular, I would love to see a game explore race/class conflict). In the hands of better writers and game designers maybe these disparate themes could have been unified. As is, these “important themes” are offered as hints of depth which on closer examination prove to be shallow and simplistic.

What Works in Bioshock Infinite

The above makes it sound as if I actively disliked Bioshock Infinite. That is not the case. I played through it twice because I enjoyed the game and had fun playing it. However, as I outlined above the narrative and game design had very significant flaws. On an intellectual and an emotional level, the game was a tremendous disappointment. Whatever enjoyment it provided me, I derived from its gameplay itself.

Bioshock Infinite is a perfectly passable first-person shooter. If it weren’t part of the Bioshock franchise I would consider it yet another briefly entertaining but ultimately forgettable FPS. But it is part of the Bioshock franchise, which sadly raised my expectations. I expected a game that understood its medium and ambitiously used that medium’s unique features to provide a deeply compelling narrative. Bioshock Infinite didn’t do that.

Video games are beginning to mature as a medium, and some designers are beginning to realize that narrative is just as important to the medium as gameplay. I hope that trend continues, because someday I want to play a game that is as visually beautiful as Bioshock Infinite while still being thought-provoking and emotionally moving.

Running a Little Late


*sigh*

I’m afraid I’m running a little late this week. I’ll hopefully have a post up tomorrow (Wednesday).

REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan


A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: February 5th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A scientific fantasy which strongly develops its narrator and world.

One of the most interesting themes I’ve found in science fiction is the genre’s complex relationship to science itself: most science fiction stories are simultaneously promoters of science and cautionary tales, warning us of discovery’s ethical dangerous. This makes for an interesting and powerful theme to explore, what with humanity’s unbridled capacity for discovery. But for all of its power, it is a theme which fantasy addresses all too rarely, which is why it was such a delight to recently read Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent.

I grew up on scientist adventurers: Verne’s Professor Arronax (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Doyle’s Professor Challenger (The Lost World), and Wells’ The Time Traveler (The Time Machine) all thrilled with the promise and possibilities reason could bring. These characters practiced and preached a set of positivist values, an Enlightenment tradition untrammeled by the softer complexities of Romanticism. And when a few years later I discovered the history of science, in particular through works like C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, and Farley Mowat’s Woman in the Mists I could see how real scientists worked and struggled to fit such values into a more complex world than the fictional.

For all of the positivist values promoted through the works of early science fiction, most of those books derive their conflict from the tension between their characters’ full-throated devotion to positivist principles and the subtler risks – ethical, philosophical, and existential – which science exposes us to. Verne’s Nemo – and his mad political philosophy – is an ethical exploration of the militaristic consequences of science, of technology’s capacity for both good and evil. The dismissal of Challenger and Summerlee’s findings in The Lost World explores how society treats discoveries which fly in the face of accepted wisdom, a social statement on public attitudes to science if ever there was one. And Wells’ The Time Machine is nothing if not a commentary on man’s self-destructive tendencies, offset by the Time Traveler’s genius invention of the time machine itself and his yearning to explore.

Such an exploration of reason, such an application of rational thought, is often inimical to much fantasy. So much of the genre relies on the irrational that it is easy to get uncomfortable when put beneath the magnifying glass. Fantasy generally explores different themes, leaving an exploration of science to science fiction. Some fantasists – notably Patricia C. Wrede in her Frontier Magic trilogy, Michael A. Stackpole in his Crown Colonies trilogy, and much in the steampunk vein – have incorporated such scientific themes, but their approaches tend to use science as a device for getting characters into trouble. Science is not the heart of the story: war or some other life-or-death struggle divorced from science provides the conflict. While such stories may be exciting, I usually find myself disappointed that the science gets short shrift.

But Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons keeps the science front-and-center, and builds tension and conflict naturally from that core. The way in which she achieves this effect is particularly interesting because it is simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than I would have expected. The obviousness stems from the book’s historical models: while it is a secondary fantasy, it is structured along the lines of the memoirs and stories of late Victorian (British) natural philosophers.

I am amazed that I don’t see this approach more frequently in fantasy. For 18th and 19th century readers in the Western world, journeys into Africa or South America would have been the equivalent of a secondary-world fantasy. Their settings and the cultures encountered would have been so alien as to be unrecognizable. They would have to establish and contextualize the strange environment, to explain its characteristics in both sensual and intellectual modes. In other words, the historical models for A Natural History of Dragons would have relied on the same type of world-building as any fantasy.

The basic structure of the story traces a recognizable path: the narrator’s development of scientific fascination, her initial discoveries, youthful exuberance, and systematic maturation as those discoveries mount is a natural progression recognizable, I think, to any adult. Because the novel is set during a time when people are ignorant of dragons, the ignorance of broader society (and initially of the narrator) is shared with the reader. We learn about Brennan’s secondary-world along with our heroine as she and her colleagues make what might seem to be basic discoveries. This evokes the same sense of obviousness we get when we look back at the scientific discoveries of yesterday.

The more subtle key to the novel’s success is maturation. A Natural History of Dragons is presented as a memoir written by the now-elderly Lady Trent, a rather feisty and by implication controversial natural historian. In the hands of a weaker author, her anachronistic attitudes (for her time, which is plainly modeled on the 19th century as conveyed by both voice and details in the text) would have always been present. From childhood, she would have been confident of her abilities despite prejudices against her gender, she would have always been respectful of other cultures, would have naturally become the intellectual and moral center of any expedition she took part in despite the many cultural factors stacked against her, etc. She would have been a modern heroine inserted into a historical world, and would naturally have triumphed over historical backwardness. The world would revolve around her because she is Our Heroine, and so a special snowflake.

Brennan neatly avoids this trap, and by doing so makes the book a delight to read. Yes, our heroine is special. But this is a tale of her youth, before she became Lady Trent with the notoriety such a title suggests. The narrator shows herself to be merely one step out of alignment with the mores of her time both during her youth and presumably at the time when the memoir is written. By alluding to her earlier works, and repudiating the prejudices she espoused therein, the narrator simultaneously acknowledges the problematic tendencies of the source time period, and provides justification for the narrator’s anachronism. The narrator does not share the attitudes of the time period of which she is writing because she – and presumably much of her society – has matured in the intervening years. We can plainly see the distinction between the narrator and her younger self, and this serves to further ground us in the character and the world. Yet the whole structure is made even more plausible by showing us the seeds of the opinionated older narrator in the actions and words of her younger self. It is a very neat trick.

Brennan’s character is clearly of scientific mind, and the focus in much of the book is on the science itself. Initially, one can be forgiven for thinking it a tale of simple positivist boosterism: after all, so much of its historical roots were exactly that. But as the adventure ramps up, Brennan introduces suggestions of a flip side to scientific development and discovery. This squarely puts the novel in the conflicted tradition of Verne, Doyle, or Wells. Yet unlike these far earlier writers, Brennan neatly balances the science with an inner emotional journey that at times can be quite touching.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it is too short. Partly, this perception is a selfish one: I would have gladly spent more time in this world, with these characters, and with the voice in which the novel is written simply because of how much fun I had with it. But structurally, while the book works as a standalone novel, it did leave me wanting more.

I don’t know (read: my Google Fu was unable to determine) if A Natural History of Dragons is the start of a series or a stand-alone one-off. This is plainly a memoir of Lady Trent’s youth, and she explicitly references other (it seems wilder) adventures which follow. At the same time, the implicit risks of scientific discovery are brought to the fore near the story’s conclusion. They are not resolved or developed in any meaningful sense, but rather are addressed at best temporarily, which while satisfying in this one volume does beg for further development. Both of these facts suggest that more books may follow, and I for one would be very happy if they do.

(UPDATE: Today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers has a nice write-up of the book, where they mention that it is the first installment in a planned series.)

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the novel is a work of art in hardcover. I would recommend it on the strength of its design alone (with great deckled edges and a sepia-toned font which further evokes that Victorian sensibility), but for me, Todd Lockwood’s excellent illustrations seal the deal.

I strongly recommend A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent to anyone who has a taste for Victorian-inspired fiction, who loves the long age of discovery that spans from the Enlightenment through to the first World War, or who enjoys classic science fiction like Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, or H.G. Wells.

Pacing and Narrative Structure: How The Hobbit and Django Unchained Screwed Up


At first glance, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are fairly dissimilar. One is the tale of a beleaguered young man who is put on the path to a quest by an older, bearded wise man. The other has a dragon.

Jokes aside, both movies have come in for some criticism, though Django Unchained has gotten far less criticism than I think it deserves. Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (myself included) were fairly incensed by the liberties The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took with its source material. And some folks have been grumbling about Django Unchained on grounds of race, representation, and its indulgent depiction of violence (though why anyone would have expected anything else from Tarantino, I have no idea). But these criticisms (deserved or not) are not what I took away from the two films. Instead, I think that both movies – especially when taken together – can show us something interesting about the way that pacing stems from the story’s narrative structure and its presentation.

Where Jackson’s The Hobbit Fails

Tolkien purposefully kept The Hobbit short, simple, and very focused. This choice is exceedingly clear when we compare it to The Lord of the Rings, which features an epic scope and scale. The Hobbit – thematically and artistically – was never designed to be a big story, and its narrative structure is therefore constrained.

When Tolkien first wrote the book, and when his editor first edited it, they determined how best to communicate the narrative and its themes to the reader. They had to decide which information to include, what sequences to portray and which to leave “off-camera”. These are not – as Jackson’s The Hobbit would suggest – idle choices. They are the foundational choices any decent creator makes, sometimes intuitively and sometimes painstakingly, but always integral to the narrative.

Tolkien’s book focuses on a simple man hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins. Yes, on his adventures, Bilbo stumbles into other characters’ epic (Thorin Oakenshield) and tragic (Gollum and Thorin both) journeys. But Bilbo’s narrative is neither epic nor tragic. Tolkien chose to focus on the narrow, pastoral concerns of an anachronistic, pastoral character. Through Bilbo’s perspective, Tolkien looks in on Thorin’s epic journey and Gollum’s tragedy. But – like Bilbo – we remain outside looking in. The Hobbit as a result reads like an anti-epic, specifically presenting the futility of a traditional epic structure.

This fact – apparent, I should think, to most of The Hobbit’s readers – apparently escaped Peter Jackson et al. Whether out of nostalgia for Tolkien’s (actually epic) Lord of the Rings, or a desire to stretch a short book into three movies, or simply the belief that Tolkien and his editors got it wrong, the film makers chose to reverse what may be Tolkien’s most important creative choice.

When we read The Hobbit, we are invested first in Bilbo, and only secondarily in the other characters. Jackson tries to simultaneously earn an equal investment in both Bilbo (who Martin Freeman plays amazingly), and in Thorin Oakenshield (who Richard Armitage plays woodenly). These two characters’ narrative arcs are thematically and structurally incompatible.

By cramming his “white orc” plot line into the movie, Jackson weakens the narrative structure of Bilbo’s story. It makes the film painfully schizophrenic: one half is a version of The Hobbit which stays (relatively) true to the book’s themes and structure. But the other half is taken up by a story which contributes nothing to those themes. Because the events are largely constrained by Tolkien’s original plot, there is no opportunity for either a more complex exploration nor for a subversion of Tolkien’s original themes. If that were Jackson’s conscious intent, then an adaptation is not the place for it.

Jackson has successfully developed split narrative arcs before. The Lord of the Rings – which is an epic story – features this kind of split narrative. We have plot A (Frodo/Sam/Gollum) and plot B (Aragorn et al.). But as Diana Wynne Jones discusses beautifully in “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in the fantastic Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), that “split narrative” is actually a complex weave, where each strand supports, relies on, and contravenes the other. And both of those strands are epic in nature. They are compatible, and the narrative structure relies equally on their compatibility and differences.

It would be impossible to develop a deeper narrative structure around Thorin Oakenshield without rejecting either the structure or the themes of Bilbo Baggins’ arc. This puts the audience in a difficult situation: We must choose which narrative we will actually invest in. This choice plays havoc with the movie’s pacing. If I’m only invested in one half of the film, that means I spend the other half waiting to get to the good bits. One half of Peter Jackson’s movie contributes nothing to its narrative, and so tries the audience’s patience.

Django Unchained and the Pacing Impact of Self-indulgence

Tarantino’s Django Unchained has a different lineage. It doesn’t stem from a book, and so its plot is unconstrained by outside factors. An unabashed homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, as evidenced in the main character’s name (i.e. Django is a nod towards Sergio Corbucci’s excellent classic Django), offhand references (e.g. a character “Eskimo Joe” gets mentioned, probably a nod towards an often-forgotten spaghetti western Navajo Joe), and actor cameos (e.g. Franco Nero, who played the titular character in Corbucci’s classic Django).

From a narrative standpoint, spaghetti westerns tend to explore themes of moral ambiguity and the interplay between justice and vengeance. Tarantino’s Django Unchained plainly follows in this thematic tradition, with its heroes relying on both deception and nigh-superhuman gun-slinging skills to free Django’s wife and exert justice on a rich southern slave-owner.

In general, the narrative itself is satisfying enough. It absolutely lacks the moral ambiguity or character complexity characteristic of the best spaghetti westerns, and in essence is little more than a classically-structured heroic quest (as the movie itself acknowledges). But that’s fine, and I would be happy to experience that kind of story. Unlike Jackson’s The Hobbit, Django Unchained picks one narrative and thematic structure and sticks to it. Where it ran into problems for me, however, lay in quite a few self-indulgent directorial choices that diverted attention from that narrative and easily added an unnecessary forty-five minutes to the movie.

Here are two examples:

Through vivid experiential flashback and spoken dialog, Django establishes his desire to free his wife Hildy (Brünnhilde, more properly). We understand what he wants, and we identify with it. We want him to succeed. The story has us invested. Great. But from this point forward, Tarantino chooses to throw in scenes where Django imagines (hallucinates?) his wife. The action slows down for each of these moments, giving us a drawn out pause that grinds the story’s movement to a halt. No dialogue is exchanged, and Django never remarks on these moments.

How do they help the narrative?

They don’t. Django’s motivation – and his character – are sufficiently established through other moments in the film. The story has only one narrative arc, and it’s pretty straightforward. We’re not likely to forget what Django wants. So these hallucinatory interludes only distract from the narrative, bringing its forward momentum to a grinding halt.

There is a similar, though much longer sequence, lampooning the KKK (to be fair, it’s really a “proto-KKK” since the movie is set pre-Civil War) which adds little to the narrative. Taken on its own, the sequence is actually quite funny, and from a moral/ethical standpoint I am strongly favor of portraying prejudiced bigots as the idiots they are. But what does it add to the story? It is a momentary side-adventure, which does nothing to move the main narrative arc (Django’s quest for his wife) forward. And it fails to deepen our understanding of either Django or Doctor Schultz: we already know where both characters stand on slavery and race relations long before this scene. While it is a very well-composed sequence, it is didactic directorial self-indulgence. And it slows the narrative arc substantially.

Window-dressing and Economic Storytelling

Whereas Peter Jackson’s choices in The Hobbit actively broke the story’s narrative structure, Tarantino’s choices in Django Unchained merely distracted from it. But while the scope of their poor judgment may differ, their mistakes were of a kind: both confused the presentation of story with the story’s narrative.

Presentation is a technical concern. It might be prose structure, language style, camera angles, or shot composition. It is the technique – any technique – through which the narrative gets communicated. When we tell a story, regardless of medium, we have to choose how to present that story. We choose our words, our sentences, our shots. But if we lose sight of what that technique is meant to communicate, if – like Peter Jackson – we choose to present thematically and structurally incompatible components, or if – like Quentin Tarantino – we choose to present self-indulgent sequences which fail to deepen the narrative arc/themes, then we’ll be damaging our story’s pacing (and possibly breaking the story beyond repair).

In short, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained just reinforced for me that presentation should always be in service to the story. That’s what people are there to read/see/experience.

Readercon Harassment Debacle


If you haven’t been following the Readercon Harassment Debacle, you can read all about it:

After the Readercon Board’s failure to adhere to their own published harassment policy, I sent them the following e-mail. I am appalled by their hypocrisy, and would have wished better of the convention that first introduced me to genre cons. If you agree with my conclusions, I urge you to show your support by reaching out to the Readercon Board at info@readercon.org.

Dear Readercon Board of Directors,

I am a lifelong speculative fiction reader whose first introduction to genre conventions was Readercon 22. I write a weekly science fiction/fantasy blog, and am deeply passionate about books, literature, and critical analysis, so it should come as no surprise to you that I felt at home at your convention. Last year, and again this year, I found an environment full of intelligent, passionate people eager to dive into the same topics that so fascinate me. After my experiences last year, I sang Readercon’s praises to anyone who would listen and was delighted to see half of my Viable Paradise workshop class come to this year’s Readercon. But despite my appreciation for the excellent convention you organize, I am appalled by the hypocrisy inherent in your selective implementation of your “zero-tolerance” harassment policy.

In your handling of Rene Walling’s admitted harassment of Genevieve Valentine, there are three clear facts:

1. You published an official policy of “zero-tolerance” for harassment, provided this policy in writing, and displayed it prominently to everyone attending Readercon. This policy explicitly stated that the consequence of harassment was the permanent suspension of the harasser.

2. Rene Walling physically and verbally harassed and intimidated Genevieve Valentine. Per your own official statement, this is not in dispute.

3. Per your official statement, the Board decided – based on Walling’s avowals of contrition – to only suspend the guilty party for two years, which decision is in obvious contravention of the Board’s own official policy.

Taken together, these three facts are shameful. Yes, the right to enforce policies lies in the Board’s sole discretion, which means that you have the right to apply whatever sanctions you choose in this situation. But you have a fiduciary duty to safeguard as best you can the safety of your convention’s attendees, and your original policy was laudable both for its clarity and for its fulfillment of that duty. But by deviating from your own policy, you have failed in that duty and have undermined the relationship of trust you have painstakingly built with your attendees.

Quite frankly, you screwed up and now have no good options: if you rescind your decision and permanently ban Walling (as you should have done in the first place), it will not undo your breach of trust. If you do nothing and merely publish a revised policy (presumably one that is no longer “zero-tolerance” or so admirably unambiguous) you will further erode already-damaged trust. From your perspective, neither is a good option and both will harm Readercon.

Nevertheless, you should take the first option.

First, you should publicly admit to your mistake and correct it. Yes, it will be painful. Yes, there will be loss of face. But that acknowledgment is the first step in rebuilding the trust you have already destroyed.

Second, you should articulate a transparent process for the implementation of your harassment policy in the future. The Readercon Board in its current configuration is clearly not the right body to implement your harassment policy. You have shown that you are abjectly unable to do the job. My recommendation would be to appoint an independent “safety czar” with full executive privileges for a three year term. This safety czar would be an ombudsman (ombuds-person?) for Readercon attendees, their mission to apply the convention’s harassment policy, and their decisions final and completely independent of the Readercon Board. This second step would only be of value if the Board found an individual of great integrity who would have the trust of the Readercon community – otherwise, this step would be valueless.

If you do not take these two steps, or significant steps materially similar, I expect that you will see Readercon attendance shrink, and its wonderful community skew in ways inimical to the diverse discussions that Readercon promotes. Restoring trust will not happen overnight: it will take years, and it will be difficult. But it should be done anyway.

If you are serious about making Readercon a safe environment for all attendees, then you should act that way. If you do, then I for one may return in the future. Otherwise, I will skip Readercon in favor of other events that do take attendee safety seriously.

Sincerely,
Chris Modzelewski


BLOG: http://www.elflands2ndcousin.com
TWITTER: http://twitter.com/KgElfland2ndCuz

Wrong and Wrong: Reviewers, Cliques, and Bullying


NOTE: Sorry again for the delay! But here’s the now edited post I had wanted to publish yesterday. I’d love to know what everyone thinks!

Internet Drama is ugly as hell, and I usually try to keep well clear of it. It’s always a train wreck, with at least one party and often more in the wrong. Typically, it is a storm in a teacup and over just as quickly. I don’t comment, I don’t wade in with The One True and Correct Opinion (ludicrous as that concept might be). I lurk, and I observe the train smash off the rails like some kind of digital rubber-necker. But the recent GoodReads Bullying Bru-haha has had me giving it quite a bit of thought, and I find that I can no longer resist weighing in.

Here’s what I think: on the one hand, the creators of the Stop the GR Bullies web site have crossed an important line and broken the social compact between readers, reviewers, critics, and writers. Their methods are deeply flawed, unethical, and morally bankrupt. And their underlying cause – to protect authors against “bullying” reviews – arises out of the most dangerous mix of ignorance and good intentions.

On the other hand, I think many in the reviewer community are just as ignorant. The idea that the reviewer label and the Internet’s capacity for anonymity absolves a writer of responsibility for their behavior is laughable, and to me at least, offensively stupid. We reap what we sow, and if we’re douchebags to people, our moral high ground becomes a little shaky when people are douchebags to us.

NOTE: For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume you are familiar with the Stop the GoodReads Bullies web site and related controversy. If not then I suggest you check out the discussions in the blogsophere. Foz Meadows’s, John Scalzi’s, Stacia Kane’s, and SB Sarah’s are particularly recommended.

Reviews Are a Natural Consequence of Published Work

Any art – whether written, painted, sculpted, spoken, sung, etc. – is a social act. It is made by one or more individuals, perceived by one or more members of the audience, and the resulting exchange is by its very nature social. With more art than any one individual could consume in a lifetime, reviewers (who I differentiate from critics) fulfill an important function: to aid the audience in identifying and selecting the works of art they want to consume.

Reviewers need not be paid. We need not, in fact, have a platform. When a friend asks us what we thought of a movie, we fulfill that reviewer function when we answer. Reviews are the natural consequence of consuming art, and this is the first fact which I believe many of the Stop the GR Bullies supporters fail to recognize: when we publish a book – whether self pubbed, indie pubbed, small press, or Big 6 – we do so because we want people to read it, and consequently to form an opinion of it.

Of course, we all want our art to be liked. We want it to win awards, fly off the shelves, and give us the cash to buy a small island. But when we make our art public, we are telling the world that we are prepared for whatever response it might produce in our readers. Those responses might sting. In fact, they might hurt like hell. But the moment we release our art into the world, we grant our audience the right to form and express opinions about it. If we’re not ready to hear those opinions – good, bad, or ugly – then we shouldn’t publish our work. When we publish, we become public personas, and must live with that fact.

Reviews Are Not for Writers

The corrollary to the above is that reviewers are not there to help writers sell more books. Many of us are happy when that happens, but quite frankly most of us don’t really care: the responsibility we take on (usually without compensation) is to provide an assessment of the art we consume. That assessment isn’t for the book’s author.

I tend to write very analytical, in-depth reviews. I try to dissect the books I review and see what makes them function as stories, as narratives. I do so to learn about craft, to strengthen my own writing, and when I publish my reviews, I hope that my findings will help other writers strengthen their writing as well. But the author of a reviewed book doesn’t figure into the equation at all. Sure, I’m glad when I hear/read that an author whose work I’d reviewed appreciated my analysis. But that’s not why I do it.

Reviewers can and do interact with authors and publishers in many ways. We receive complementary review copies, we do interviews, giveaways, etc. But none of this interaction represents a contract between the reviewer and the writer. For reviewers who take their reviews seriously, a free review copy doesn’t buy our integrity. And that is something that authors – especially, in my experience, indie/self-pubbed authors new to the travails of being a public figure – should understand.

There is a reason why the big six publishing houses don’t care about bad reviews. Remember the old saw that any publicity is good publicity? Publicity – good or bad – drives book sales. I’ve heard big six publicists even say that their data suggests that negative reviews drive more sales than positive reviews. People who feel stung by critical reviews, who were offended by a reviewer’s invective, should remember that.

Whether a reviewer gives a star rating, writes a single sentence, or posts a two thousand word essay doesn’t change the fact that the book’s author is not the reviewer’s intended audience. If that’s not the case, then the reviewer isn’t really writing reviews: they are trying to engage in a dialog with the author, which is a different form of discourse entirely, subject to a different etiquette and to different norms of behavior.

The only people to whom the reviewer is responsibile are their readers. If that sounds like something one might say about authors, well…there’s a good reason for that.

The Reviewer as Public Figure

Most reviewers, I think, would agree with me when I say that the act of publishing a book automatically makes the author into a public figure, subject to the public opinions of consumers and media alike. But I think many reviewers, in particular those whose rhetorical style tends towards invective, forget that the exact same principle applies to their own reviews.

A review is itself a piece of media which if we post to a public place (GoodReads, blog, newspaper, etc.) exposes us to the same public discourse as the artist whose work we criticize. The Internet affords us great anonymity – hell, I make use of it on this blog. We may choose to keep our real names off of our reviews for a myriad of personal and professional reasons. But just because we can be to some degree anonymous does not change the public nature of our reviews.

Most reviewers, I think, are prepared for people’s disagreement. Many of you have often disagreed with my assessments or comments, corrected me when I got facts wrong, etc. and I love when you do. That is part of the dialog in which reviewers engage, and that dialog can and should sometimes get contentious. And yet, the tone of that dialog – anonymous or not – gets set by the initial review.

Imagine for a moment that you are at an art gallery with a friend. There’s a little wine, tiny cubes of cheese, and the artist herself is there beside the gallery owner, chatting with a collector. You quietly ask your friend what they think of a painting. And they start loudly spewing vitriol about the artist and the work, venting their spleen of all the noxious contents therein. Everyone in the gallery can hear, and everyone naturally turns to stare. Would you be embarrassed? Of course you would. Because your friend broke the unwritten social norms of that environment. In the real world, your friend might get kicked out of the gallery, possibly arrested for harassment and making a public nuisance of himself.

Online, a reviewer can fill their review with the same kind of vitriol, snark, and malice and suffer no direct consequences. I myself tend not to write reviews like that, and I usually don’t read them (genuinely funny snark is perhaps the most difficult rhetorical style to pull off, and I rarely see it done well). Sensationalist rhetoric is designed to elicit a response, to get a rise out of the audience, and that response can take many forms.

Thankfully, most people ignore that kind of rhetoric. They adhere to the principle of not feeding the trolls, and that is by far, in my opinion the wisest course of action. It isn’t cowardice to ignore assholes: it’s just common sense. But sometimes, people will react to aggressive rhetoric, and offer tit for tat.

And sometimes, they might confuse a highly critical review with aggressive rhetoric. The two are usually separated by a thick line, in my opinion, but misinterpretation is a hallmark of personal interactions. And reacting to perceived slight, particularly a slight designed to produce an emotional response, is a human tendency.

When reviewers are labelled as bullies or worse, too many of us raise the fig leaf of our reviewer status, as if there were some sort of secret club that lets us be assholes without consequence. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Every review we write falls somewhere on a continuum that ranges from the thoughtful and well-argued to the agggressive and offensively shallow. Sometimes, it is difficult for authors and readers to tell where along that continuum it falls. But it is incumbent upon us as reviewers to be understanding of that fact, the same way that we ask authors to understand that we might not have liked their book.

If we make hateful statements about others online, we have to be prepared for others to say the same about us. That’s the natural consequence of having a public-facing persona, anonymous or not. Sorry, reviewers, but that knife cuts both ways.

The Existence of Reviewer Cliques

The Stop the GR Bullies site claims that there are groups of “bully reviewers” who go around hounding authors. The reviewers so accused bluster their innocence and call such attacks ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s because those reviewers have apparently never really studied social networking theory or paid attention to the way online communities work.

Just like a high school, online communities form networks of like-minded individuals. Small or large, these informal associations have different types of members, including influencers, leaders, followers, etc. And they tend to engage in similar in-group activities, be it reviewing, commenting on each others’ blogs, chatting on Twitter, etc. It is easiest to see these groups and understand their extent from the outside, just like in high school.

This is a natural, unavoidable consequence of human socialization. It is also not unethical, malicious, or aggressive. But when authors feel persecuted by a tight-knit cabal of reviewers, they are in part justified: from their position outside of the group, that is exactly how it can seem. To shrug off such claims as author paranoia suggests an appalling lack of empathy or self-awareness on the part of the reviewers: our intention might not be to persecute or hound the author, but the effect from the author’s perspective is just the same.

When it comes to their innocence, I think reviewers protest too much, and claims that no such cliques exist are at best naive, and at worst disingenous.

Where Stop the GR Bullies Crossed the Line

All of this being said, I do not support the Stop the GR Bullies campaign. And that is because they crossed several important lines. Most significantly, they breached and encouraged others to breach the anonymity of people who – for their own reasons – had wanted to remain anonymous. And that breaks the accepted norms of online interaction.

Their defense – that they merely aggregate information that GoodReads reviewers have posted on other sites – is flimsy at best. Maintaining anonymity on the Internet – where behavioral profiles and third party cookies are the norm – is extremely difficult, even when one is technically profficient. With a little dilligent searching, one can peel back the layers of anonymity. But doing so when a review’s by-line is anonymized or pseudonomous is a breach of the reviewer’s privacy. Furthermore, publicizing that information and encouraging other aggrieved parties to reach out is an incitement to persecution.

I might not agree with a reviewer. I might vehemently disagree with what they say and how they say it. But if they choose to participate in online public discourse anonymously, I must respect their wishes. As the threatening phone calls one reviewer has received prove, breaching that anonymity puts people in danger. And there is no review, however vile, that gives anyone the right to endanger anyone else.

The Stop the GR Bullies site is flawed on many levels (its apparent misogyny being another big red flag for me), but this is its deepest and most important flaw. And, honestly, it is a flaw which overshadows the points the site’s creators may be attempting to articulate. It clouds their issue, and ultimately defeats them.

And that is sad. Because I would love to see a discussion of reviewing methods and reviewing styles, and to participate in an active and reasoned dialog on what rhetorical approaches work best for reviews. But something tells me I’m not going to get that on the Internet. And certainly not in the GoodReads Forums, or interacting with the Stop the GR Bullies crowd.

Which is why I wish both sides in this “debate” would just start acting like responsible professionals. They’ve already lost one member of their audience, and audiences aren’t stupid.

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.

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?

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