Friday, September 27, 2013

No Literary Value

"I didn't find any literary value." So said one member of the Randolf County's (North Carolina) Board of Education about Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, when the board handed down their decision to ban the bookThis is the end of the official Banned Books Week, but every week books are challenged, suppressed, censored, bowdlerized, banned, and yes, still burned

No literary value. It's one of the more common arguments put forth when some person or group wants to challenge a book. That got me to wondering as I perused the list of the most challenged and banned books, because there are so many works of clearly great literary value that have earned a permanent spot on this list.* Here's just a few of my personal favorites:
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  • Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Brave New World, by Aldus Huxley
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
  • Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle
  • and everything Toni Morrison's ever written as far as I can tell
I believe the "no literary value" offensive works on a couple levels. First, it's a convenient cover for the real complaint, which has to do with the theme or topic of the book. Taken as a whole, any list of banned books is a short course in the flashpoints that we struggle with as a society. Regardless of the literary value of the books on the list there's no arguing the evergreen topics: race, religion, sexuality and sexual preference, gender, and class. Second, there is a popular perception that establishing a work of art's value is impossible. The idea that beauty is solely in the eye of the beholder is a tautology that serves to scuttle any reasoned argument. True, there is no mathematical formula, yet we have always recognized creative genius, e.g. Beethoven, Milton, da Vinci. There are giants in every field, and by their examples we set the bar, by critical agreement, and by the test of time.

All art is subversive and therefore vulnerable to censure. Good art  strips away our preconceived notions, and pursues the truth, no matter how painful or damning. Good art also reveals the transcendent beauty all around us. But it just might be the narrative arts that are the most subversive of all. A recent study about about reading fiction confirms that it influences our ability to empathize. It also found that that the higher the reader's "transportation" into the story, the greater our empathy. One of the joys of reading a great book is the feeling that the world around us has fallen away, and we have been truly transported into the world of the story. We see that world through the eyes of the protagonist and empathize with his or her point of view. 

I believe that seeing the world through new eyes, irrevocably changes the way we see our own world once we put the book down. A book can change your mind. It can change your heart. Is there anything more dangerous than something that can change your heart? 

We need these books for the same reason we need free speech, because we simply cannot be trusted to limit it fairly. The opening lines of Invisible Man express perfectly why it is one of the most ironic books to ban.
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
But maybe there's hope yet. ** So, go forth and be daring, be subversive. Read a banned book.
Artwork courtesy of the ALA
* Don't even get me started on the kids books on this list. That'll have to wait for another post.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Book of Symbols: Writing Archetypes

A page from The Book of Symbols

I've blogged about writing from visual prompts before, but I wanted to mention The Book of Symbols in particular. It is quite literally a feast for your eyes. Put together by Jungian scholars at the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS), this is no dry book of academic theory. The first clue is that it is published by Taschen, a publishing house known for beautifully designed art books.

Carl Jung believed that were universal patterns and images that reside in what he called the collective unconscious. These images are given particular expression within individual cultures. According to the Wikipedia entry:
"Strictly speaking, Jungian archetypes refer to nuclear underlying forms ... which emerge images and motifs such as the mother, the child, the trickster and the flood amongst others. It is history, culture and personal context that shape these manifest representations giving them their specific content."
Joseph Campbell's idea of myth grew out of Jung's theories and  method of dream interpretation. Campbell went on to develop his own theory of the monomyth, known among us writers as The Hero's Journey.

What I love so much about this book is that you don't have to buy into the idea of a collective unconscious or even The Hero's Journey for it to inspire countless stories, worlds and characters.  According to the Wall Street Journal's article, the people who put the book together were less concerned with theory, than with simply exploring our cultural touchstones through images and short evocative essays. 
"The specifics of Jung's work do not figure prominently in the book's collection of images and essays, which fans out to include references to poems, plays and tales from history and myth. The four-page section labeled "Bird," for instance, features an ancient Native American sculpture, a 17th-century Iranian painting, a remark by Emily Dickinson and a quotation from a 1980s animal-facts book."
Every image in this book suggests a multitude of stories. The essays dilate the meanings of events that are woven so tightly into the fabric of our everyday lives as to seem mundane, for example, see the entries for "Dawn" or "Wind."

This book isn't an argument, simply a set of observations, which is what makes it such a good tool for creative endeavors. Check out this book if you can and then, with the words of Carl Jung in mind, go make something!

"Trust that which gives you meaning and accept it as your guide."

Friday, September 13, 2013

Last WorldCon Post

A DRD (Diagnostic Repair Drone) came all the way from Farscape.
Here's the rest of it.*

I'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming (i.e. whatever tickles my fancy or chaps my hide) next week.


Breakfast with a dozen or so conventioneers, only a few of whom I knew, now I know more genre people. The delicious, if expensive, buffet went a long way toward soothing the rather prevalent hangover situation.

The How To Write a Short Story panel had a great lineup of some of my favorite writers dispensing nuggets of pure, golden wisdom:
Michael Swanwick, James Patrick Kelly, Vylar Kaftan, and Cat Rambo
  •  Short fiction is where the new ideas and forms are forged. 
  • Aim high, not just the next sale, aim to make all science fiction to date obsolete. Now that's shooting for the stars.
  • Short fiction is a good place to work on beginnings, middles and ends.
  • Short fiction is also a great place to find your voice. 
  • Stop looking for heroes, look for who gets damaged in the story
  • If a story isn't working, sometimes you need to put it in the drawer to let it mulch with other story ideas
  • Don't hoard your ideas - use them all up. Using them up is what generates more.
  • Try everything, find what works for YOU.
  • Kaftan pointed us to her great blog post The super-cool magic short-story formula. I plan on trying this as a writing exercise as soon as I'm finished with this post!


I sat down with Gabrielle de Cuir and Stefan Rudnicki of Skyboat Media. They've been in charge of the Lightspeed podcasts for some time now. I've listened to their voices narrate so many stories, it was trippy to sit down and have a conversation with them. They are just finishing up with a full cast audioplay of Ender's Game called Ender's Game Alive. They were amused and maybe a little appalled when one of the other attendees admitted that she bumps up the playback speed on her podcasts when she's in a hurry.

After that, I sat down with Tobias Buckell and David Nickle. I know Buckell more from his blog than his books though I have Arctic Rising on my to read list. Nickle brought some of his books, published by ChiZine, and they were gorgeous. Both Buckell and Nickle were friendly and generous with writing advice and anecdotes.

Another panel about short fiction, this one titled Short Stories - What's Next? Another stellar group of writers and editors: Kij Johnson, David Levine, Steven Silver, John Joseph Adams, and Damien Broderick

  • There was a lively discussion as to whether length is becoming irrelevant. Certainly electronic publishing does not have print costs, and print-on-demand also mitigates up front print costs, but Adams points out that if you're committed to paying writers pro rates, the costs are still a factor.
  • Kij Johnson noted the premise that Science Fiction is a literature in conversation with itself (true of all art IMHO), and sees many stories embellishing or rebutting other stories out there. She noted that stories can now respond to each other nearly in realtime because of new technologies. The panel agreed that there are many stories in dialogue with all kinds of media (i.e. responding to movies, comics, TV -  and not just recent material, e.g. Star Trek).

Paul Cornell
I'm not a cosplayer, but I enjoy admiring other people's costumes, so I checked out the Masquerade. The costumes ranged from fantastic to strange to hilarious. The kids category was adorable through and through. Paul Cornell, Master of Ceremonies displayed his aplomb throughout a technically challenged show (I believe the tech was run by volunteers, God bless 'em. Seriously, tech is hard!) Cornell kept everyone entertained through all the glitches.

After that it was off to the room parties. Patrice scored an invite to a party thrown by a Texan scifi fan in the presidential suite. There I got to chat with David Brin, Michael Swanwick, Neil Clarke, Rachel Swirsky, and Ann VanderMeer! And Patrice got to talk with Lois McMaster Bujold. Honestly, I could have gone home after that and been completely satisfied with my WorldCon experience. But we soldiered on and went to more room parties including the Drabblecast party where we caught up with Matthew Bey and Norm Sherman. I also met Abigail Hilton, an indy author and podcaster. While I don't have the time or gumption to go the indy publishing route, I am always interested in hearing about how others do it.
One of a myriad of room parties.

The presenter, Higashi Masao, has edited
three volumes of Japanese ghost stories.
Disaster and the Literature of the Supernatural, wasn't so much a panel as a presentation about the nature of ghost stories in Japan both in the past and today. In Japan there is a deep connection between the literature of the supernatural and natural disasters such as the Tsunami of 2011. Here's a quote from a short film the panelists brought about the ad hoc shrines to the dead that sprang up amid the devastation the Tsunami left behind:

"Each of us alone is weak and powerless, but even the longest story begins with a single letter." 
Of course I had to check out the panel with the wildly optimistic title of The Anthology Renaissance: The Return of the Short Story Market. It boasted another great line up of editors: Neil Clarke, Ellen Datlow, Gordan Van Gelder, Kasey Lansdale, and Rick Klaw. They discussed:

  • the growth of flash fiction on the internet.
  • that there are more novella markets doing chapbooks - more but it's still a tough market.
  • that unthemed anthologies don't sell well. This was an interesting fact for me. I prefer unthemed anthos for the variety, and the panel noted that many people SAY they prefer unthemed anthologies, but they don't BUY them. Hence the proliferation of themed anthologies.
  • how they ordered anthologies. (Even though people often read anthologies out of order, they still order them with the idea of reading straight through.) The first and last stories are usually the strongest ones. The first story has to be accessible, to invite the reader in and set the tone of the book. The longest story often next to last, with a shorter one at the end as a grace note.
  • the impact of Kickstarter on the anthology market, which is generally positive. From an editorial perspective it has its own challenges, but can be an excellent option if an editor wants complete artistic control over a project.

Selling Poetry, with Mari Ness, Jo Walton, Rachel Swirksy, stayed true to its no nonsense title and was stuffed with lots of interesting information about speculative poetry markets and also poets that I will have to check out.

Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, and Mythic Delirium.

Poets (including the panelists!)
Mari NessJo Walton (posts most of her poetry on her LiveJournal, scroll down),  Rachel SwirkskyNancy Hightower, and Catherynne M. Valente

  • I discovered that awards shows are much more interesting if you're invested in what the awards are for and who's on the ballot.
  • The short story I voted for didn't win, but they were all good stories so it's hard to hold a grudge. 
  • I watched George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones cream three episodes of Dr. Who. in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. Nothing against Dr. Who, but seemed apt somehow, GOT being so warlike and all. 
  • I have decided that Paul Cornell should host the Oscars. Someone make that happen, OK?

I was pretty exhausted at this point, so I focused on finding some gifts for the family in the dealers' room and chatting with old and new friends and acquaintances. I did manage to go to a science panel about the Cambrian explosion (I love me some biology).

The last thing I went to was Nancy Hightower's reading. She read from her forthcoming novel Elementari Rising, a flash fiction piece, and three amazing poems. She also mentioned that she's been published in Bourbon Penn, a magazine I am soon to be an alumni of as well!

Nancy Hightower
File under miscellaneous:

  • I got to meet one of my Online Writing Workshop crit buddies, D. L. Young. We had a long talk about fitting writing in around family and kids and about the pros and cons of different kinds of face-to-face critique groups.
People who I didn't see or talk to nearly enough:

* This isn't an exhaustive report, just the highlights. WorldCon was great, but it's gone on long enough!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Emerging from the Vortex that was WorldCon 2013

So, the WiFi in the lobby was was not great and my phone's battery is also not great, so instead of tweeting and blogging throughout the con as I'd hoped, I simply gave in and experienced WorldCon live and in real time. 

Before I recap last Friday, I want to note the interesting - and important - discussion about diversity in the genre that's sprung up on various social networks. This is because of the often glaring lack of diversity at these events in both the attitudes of some panelists (no panels that I attended), and too often in the demographic of attendees. WorldCon did skew old, white, and male. This is a worthy conversation and I have some thinky-thinks I may blog about in the near future, but for now I'm just going to talk about the experience of my first WorldCon. Being constrained both financially and by my delightful family life (Seriously, it's hard to abandon my husband, daughters, dog and chickens!), there aren't many big cons I'll be able to attend. So, by way of "loving the one you're with," I really did have a fabulous time.

Friday was my first full day at the con and I started it out by meeting one of Short Story heroes, Kij Johnson, in the hallway of our hotel. We had a wonderful chat in the elevator and on the walk over to the Convention Center. She was genuine and gracious and even went so far as to ask the people at the registration desk for a "First WorldCon" ribbon for me.
I only made it to a couple panels. The first one, Graphic Novels You Should be Reading,
was more nostalgic than I expected with a fair amount of discussion about some of the greats of the 1960s and 70s, especially the Europeans. I started reading comics much later and am not familiar with most of the books they brought up, so I have more to add to my reading list like the Blueberry comics and Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths. 

The next panel, The Things They Never Tell You About Getting Published the First Time, was a nice mix of informationa and anecdotes about both novel and short story publishing. Vylar Kaftan pointed out that, especially in the short story market, new venues often have poor contracts because they don't know any better. The panelists also agreed that you shouldn't put too much importance on reviews. What really matters for a story to get traction is readership from the venue. In other words, getting the work out there in front of eyeballs can trump the opinions of reviewers. Words of comfort indeed!

I sat in for half of the Editors and Writers panel before I had to leave for my Writers' Workshop.
This one had some heavy hitters: James Patrick Kelly, Gardner Dozios, Janet Harriet of Apex, Lou Anders of Pyr Books, and Shelia Williams of Asimov's.

Gardner Dozios told an anecdote - and others agreed that they'd had the same experience - about writers who have had a story accepted then withdrawn it to revise or workshop it. I couldn't believe anyone would even think of doing this with a SOLD story. I can't believe any editor would even agree to it (which just goes to show that editors can be nice to a fault). They all agreed that the stories they got back weren't what they wanted, i.e. what they had originally BOUGHT! Chasing perfection can lead you down some dark paths. Don't go there!

Shelia Williams said that, in the short story market, she is always looking for writers who can reliably (every other month or so) send her good stories, reminding me again just how important it is to produce consistently! She also mentioned that she loves novellas. Good to hear since I'm working on a couple.

I hated to leave that panel, but it was time to be off to my Writers' Workshop. There were just three writers and two pros. Our pros were John A. Pitts, a novelst at Tor and Alex Shavartsman (read his con recap here), a short story writer and publisher of the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies.

I brought a slightly older story, but one that isn't selling, and got some great feedback. After their comments I could see some missing pieces in this story and now have some ideas about what I can change to really make this story pop (and sell)!

After the workshop, I had lunch with Alex and another workshop attendee. Sure I missed some panels, but that's what conventions are all about -- making connections, renewing old friendships and forming new ones. And, spending every day from dawn to well after midnight talking about writing!

After that, I perused the Dealer's room, took a catnap, grabbed some dinner, then off to make the party rounds with Patrice, my partner in crime. We checked out the Helsinki Bid party, The Tor Party and the Dell Party. I saw Marshal Ryan Maresca and Stina Leicht, who I know from ArmadilloCon. I met Keffy Kehrli (Shimmer) and Lynne M. Thomas (Apex) and continued my conversation with Alex about how hard it is to write humor and the difficulties of translating fiction.

I opened far too many conversations with "You rejected me!" Even pitched in thrilled fan-girl voice, really, it's a terrible line. Everyone was awesome and fun to talk to. It was great to get to know the human face behind the genre that I love.

Here I am with Alex Shavartsman at the Dell party