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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 (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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