Saturday, July 15, 2006

Readercon 2006: kaffeeklatsch with Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden

In between all that deconstructionist talk (see my previous post) I attended a very refreshing, and much more interesting event, a kaffeeklatsch with editors Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden. They gave interesting insights in what makes a SF/F novel or story good, at least if we define good as interesting or readable. (Kaffeeklatsches were small gatherings, where a pro (a writer or an editor) met with fans (up to 10 people) around a round table, to chat and answer whatever questions fans wanted to ask them. Coffee and tea were served, hence the name.)

Just-in-time exposition

The conversation veered towards JK Rowling and the secrets of her success among mainstream readership (outside of science fiction fandom). Somebody (perhaps one of the Haydens) had this theory. In many SF/F books the reader needs to notice details whose significance he or she can't understand immediately, and store them for later use, to be remembered and interpreted later in the reading process as more information reveals itself. But Rowling does not make the reader do it. At any point in the book she reveals only as much information as is needed to understand what goes immediately after. One guy in the audience aptly called it Just-In-Time exposition.

I wonder if anyone else in the room noticed that all this talk about JK Rowling seemed to have conjured Harry Potter himself. He was in the audience! :-)

Another editor said her many years of work as an editor affected the ways she looks at real life. She can't help but look for a hidden plot in any real life story, for example, news stories. Let's say she saw a news story about a terrorist plot to flood Manhattan. But Manhattan is above the sea level, so it doesn't seem feasible for her. So she wonders "what's really going on", the same way she looks for hidden subplots in the books she's reading.

How fast is your train moving?

And here's a snappy piece of advice given by Theresa Nielsen Hayden: if the passengers are critiquing the scenery, the train isn't going fast enough. Writers often think they have to give more exposition to the readers, whereas in fact they need to give less. If the plot moves fast enough, readers are less likely to notice inconsistencies or incompleteness or logical gaps in the exposition.

Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden at a kaffeeklatsch at Readercon. More pictures from Readercon can be found in my photo gallery.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Readercon 2006: fantasy writers -- unwitting agents of capitalism?

I got an overall impression that Readercon is a more highbrow convention than ArmadilloCon. Or maybe it's just that I didn't go to those kind of panels at the ArmadilloCon. Or it could be that China Mieville's presence makes everything highbrow. :-) I mean, suddenly the panelists, instead of just chatting about cool things in science fiction and fantasy, are "deconstructing" books and talking about "alternate readings of texts". Probably because socialist politics and literary theory go hand in hand. :-) Not only you start hearing how most of the "traditional" fantasy (as opposed to "new weird" fantasy Mieville writes) upholds conservative beliefs and reinforces the status quo of class disparity (e.g. by promoting such archetypes as The Good King). No: in addition to that, you hear about how the very notion of a novel having a protagonist is somewhat bourgeois and reactionary. I don't know about you, Dear Reader, but my first thought was "Whaaaat?" Well, yes: the presence of a protagonist implies that one person, a hero, can single-handedly change the world (as they often do in SF and fantasy), and therefore reinforces the notion that our happiness or unhappiness is solely the consequence of our own actions, and never of the society, hereby removing a need for social change.

In SF and fantasy, therefore, a cigar is never just a cigar. Willingly or unwillingly, the genre has become an agent in the class struggle.

I'm semi-joking, of course. While I indeed heard China Mieville say things I recounted above, I also heard him say the opposite: namely, that he does NOT like reading SF and fantasy as an alegory, and that in order to get the most out of the genre, you must read it as if it was literal truth. (Suspension of disbelief and all that, I guess.)

I may have to think how to reconcile those views. Or, most likely I'll just forget it as the demands of daily life take over. :-)