Evaporating Genres – Essays on Fantastic Literature by Gary K. Wolfe – comment


OK, I should start by saying it feels a bit funny writing down my thoughts about a book that rigorously covers the reviewing process. I’m not an academic, a well known writer or critic. I feel a need to note that I am one of those untrained, unskilled people who just whack up their opinions on their website in a fundamental absence of any comprehensive appreciation of the speculative fiction field and its history.

Consider yourself warned!

I came across this collection of essays as a part of one of my favourite podcasts, The Writer and the Critic episode 26, where it formed part of their “non-fiction” edition. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet (I wanted to finish reading first), but I’m almost certain that Kirstyn and Ian will have more interesting things to say about the book (well Kirstyn anyway – zing!). I strongly recommend checking their podcast out if you haven’t already.

Evaporating Genres contains eleven essays written by Gary K. Wolfe, well known speculative fiction academic (and presenter on the Coode St Podcast with Jonathan Strahan). Two of the essays are co-written with Amelia Beamer. The book interrogates the speculative fiction field and while it is hard to pick a single overarching theme (the essays have been written at different times and from different perspectives), as the title suggests Wolfe does often come back to the idea that most speculative fiction genres are difficult to define, especially around the edges, and that this fragmentation is part of what keeps the genres inventive.

The book itself is divided into three main sections:

  1. Genres – focusing on various genres that make up speculative fiction and some of their defining characteristics (7 out of the 11 essays)
  2. Writers – focusing on the approach of various writers (and “types” of writers) in creating speculative fiction (3 out of the 11 essays)
  3. Critics and Criticism – the history of criticism in science fiction and the role of different types of criticism (with particular emphasis on the work of John Clute – well known reviewer and encyclopaedia-ist) (1 out of the 11 essays)

I don’t intend to give essay by essay comments for a few reasons – I’d probably grossly misrepresent the arguments in the essays, it would take too long and there is a lot of nuance that comes from reading the detail that I would be incapable of replicating in a review. I will say that if you’re reading on a Kindle, the essays themselves finish at about the 62% mark (believe me, this is useful information). I have to be honest and say that I didn’t read all the footnotes.

Generally speaking I found the essays to be informative, thoughtful and articulate (although the language is a little dense at times). I don’t often read more academic subject matter, so it took a little while to get into the swing of the language etc, but the book does reward the effort. I found if I didn’t worry too much about not having heard of a lot of the writers/publishers/editors referenced, the general points made were intellectually stimulating and did lead me to do a bit more investigation into some of the earlier examples of speculative fiction. At the very least it has given me some context for listening to Wolfe in the Coode St Podcast!

Twenty-First-Century Stories was probably my pick of the essays. It investigated the work of many modern authors whose work deliberately pulls apart genre conventions. I’ve heard terms like slipstream and interstitial used a lot in podcasts and at conventions, but this essay was the first time I’ve really had a chance to grapple with the implications of those terms (and others like them).

Evaporating Genres (the essay for which the collection is titled) was also intriguing, providing the broadest coverage of the central theme of the collection (that speculative fiction genres are, by their nature, definitionally unstable).

Pilgrims of the Fall gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of academia and general review. Understanding the history of how more formal study of speculative fiction grew over the 20th century was interesting, but also gave me a new perspective on the tendency of speculative fiction to see themselves as outside the literary establishment.

I don’t have a thorough grounding in the history of the speculative fiction field, and I found reading these essays to be very valuable in giving me context for my own writing. You get a flavour of this kind of thing listening to the Coode St Podcast, but the essays are more comprehensive and explore ideas more rigorously.

However after some thought I’ve decided that as a writer there is some danger in reading an academic treatment of the field you write in. Namely, the academic has spent some considerable time underpinning their research with a solid foundation of theory. This can make it seem like the authors referenced were doing significant research/theoretical work to to ensure their novels took their rightful place in the speculative fiction canon. Meaning is ascribed to the work of those authors, where the academic has the benefit of both hindsight and history. As a result, I know I found myself wondering why I bother writing – I certainly don’t have the theoretical background to ensure that my work interrogates genre definitions so deliberately. However I comforted myself with the thought that many of the authors referenced may not have realised that was what they were doing until someone told them about it later. So there may be hope for me yet.

There is a lot for speculative fiction writers to think about in the definition of genres, more than I had initially thought. How much of what we write is subconsciously informed by the “rules” of the genre we have chosen to write in? How many of those rules are useful and exist for a purpose, or have evolved through a kind of literary natural selection? Where should we be rethinking them? And if those rules have evolved for a reason, what may be the unintended consequences of our departure from the norm? This collection has led me to think about these kinds of issues, which I’m sure will improve my writing in the long term.

Anyway, they are just a few thoughts on what is a varied and fascinating collection. Highly recommended, especially for speculative fiction writers.

Right, now I can get on with listening the the WatC podcast. As you were.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

2012 Wrap Up / 2013 Preview – Writing

As seems to be the custom at this time of the year, I’ve decided to do a bit of summary of my year in writing followed by a few thoughts on the year to come. This is the companion post to my recent discussion on my year in reading and follows the same basic structure.

Writing in 2012

2012 was the year that I started to properly try and fit writing in around my life (busy job and two kids under 5 don’t make that easy!). It is modest by a lot of people’s standards, but the tally of my outcomes in 2012 include:

  • 7 flash fiction pieces written and published in Antipodean SF (also narrated on the Beam Me Up podcast in the US). See my bibliography page for details.
  • Combining those 7 pieces flash pieces into a single publication titled A Flash in the Pan? which I made available through Smashwords (fascinating experience that I documented in a previous post).
  • Written one 4,000 word short story that I’m relatively happy with (Story A).
  • Written one 11,000 word short story that I’m mediumly happy with (Story B).
  • Written one 4,000 word short story that I’m vaguely happy with (Story C).
  • Written about 70,000 words of a first draft of a novel. I’m not happy with those words. Not happy at all. But at least they are there.
  • Started sketching out ideas for 2 or 3 more short stories that I’m quite excited about.

My reading in 2012 has lead me to a lot of excellent work by excellent writers. I’ve also met/heard from a few of the local writers I admire most at the two conventions that I’ve attended (more on that later). It is clear to me that my writing isn’t in those people’s league, perhaps never will be. But it is hard to adequately express how much satisfaction I’ve felt in getting some of these stories down on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to keep working to make them better and I’d love to have them published. But even if, as I suspect, I’m never going to be the wordsmith I’d like to be I’m still going to keep writing. I just enjoy it too damn much!

A big part of my writing year was getting other people to read my work and provide comment. This started with Ion Newcombe of Antipodean SF reading and editing the stories I sent through to him for publication. Ion is very generous with his time and comments – I learnt a lot from him this year. I also had a couple of local fellow writers provide comments on some of my work which was very useful (hi Lyn and Rick if you’re reading).

I also finally discovered an online writing workshop that I’m very happy with. Quite a few people – strangers who didn’t have to worry about whether their comments would hurt my feelings – got stuck into one of my stories recently. It was excellent – so many different perspectives showing me what was and wasn’t working. The result is Story A listed above – one that I’m about to start sending out into the world.

Story A was one of my big learnings actually. It started as a 2,000 word story I sent in for the Continuum 8 writing competition. I was pretty happy with it. It didn’t rate a prize, so I sent it in to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. It didn’t get past round 1 of their review process, but I got an encouraging comment back from the reader. I then decided to let the story sit for a while and review when I could approach it with a fresh perspective and also try to get some more opinions on it. Each time I got some comments they were very valuable, and I ended up rewriting and expanding on major parts of the story. Each time I responded to a set of comments, I was always happy with the result. And then there were more comments! It was an excellent learning experience.

Providing critiques of other people’s work has helped focus my thinking on what does and doesn’t work in a story. I’ve had the privilege of reading some excellent stories through the year, both provided directly from authors or through the online workshop.

Attending Continuum 8 and GenreCon this year was another great learning experience. I’ve detailed my experiences in other posts (Continuum 8 and GenreCon), but GenreCon in particular was eye opening about the writing industry. Also got to meet some fantastic people at both conventions.

Engagement in the speculative fiction community has been very interesting. In 2012 I set up a Twitter account and made some tentative steps towards using social media – some interesting lessons there, including what not to do. I’ve started to “unfollow” some people who just use their Twitter account to constantly spam about their self published books. I don’t mind the occasional mention of people’s work, but when it seems like they have set up an automated process to tweet about their book on the hour every hour, well then they’ve lost me. Actually I could probably write a whole post on Twitter and social media generally so I’ll stop the rant here before I get properly started!

My engagement in the broader speculative fiction community has been tentative. I’m acutely conscious of the fact that I’m not a “proper” published writer and that I’m interacting with people much more experienced than I am. I’ve generally found people to be very generous with their time and thoughts but I don’t like to abuse that generosity.

A large part of my “contribution” to the wider discussions in the community has been through posting on this website. Reviewing the books that I read is my way of reflecting on the work to help my own writing, but also trying to provide profile for those works I enjoy. Goodreads has been good for that, and I’ve posted most of my reviews there as well as on this site. Traffic to the website has been steady but not huge (most days have between 3 and 10 visitors and in total 2177 people visited the site in 2012), but I’ve had some nice comments from people and I think generally my reviews have been well received. My most popular post for the year wasn’t a review, it was a reflection on my accomplishments in the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading Challenge (In which I become less impressed with my AWWC accomplishments) that got a signal boost from people on Twitter, driving a lot of traffic to the site.

And finally, I’ve spent some time in 2012 helping out in minor ways with the Antipodean SF online magazine. Mostly I’ve been producing the ePub version of the magazine and doing some narration of stories. I find the publishing side of the writing industry fascinating as well and working with the AntiSF editor Ion has been a great learning experience.

Writing in 2013

So, what’s planned for 2013? I found it difficult to find time to write through 2012 – it was a fairly tough year in the non-writing parts of my life. I’m taking a bit of time over the new year to recharge and hopefully get into a more sustainable rhythm. In the hopes that by writing it down in a public place I may just embarrass myself into getting things done, this year I hope to:

  • Start submitting Story A  around the traps
  • Polish Stories B & C to a submittable level
  • Ignore the crappy-ness and finish the first draft of the novel, then start the polishing process. Even though I’m not happy with the writing, I do still really like the core idea of the story and want to give it a proper go
  • Write at least three additional stories of short to novella length
  • Receive cash money for at least one story
  • Write a few flash fiction pieces for Antipodean SF and continuing to help out with narrating and creating ePub versions of the publication
  • Get more involved with the online workshop and try to provide useful critiques for a wider range of stories
  • Support any fellow early stage writers (or indeed any writers!) in any way I can
  • Attend Conflux 13 in Canberra in April
  • Attend GenreCon in Brisbane
  • Attend the Speculative Fiction Festival at the NSW Writers Centre
  • Try to participate in the speculative fiction community in Australia more regularly
  • Look out for the opportunities I can’t see coming yet!

So that’s me. How about you?

2012 Wrap Up / 2013 Preview – Reading

As seems to be the custom at this time of the year, I’ve decided to do a bit of summary of my year in reading followed by a few thoughts on the year to come. Being an engineer by training, I’m breaking this post down into a couple of logical sub sections. Well, they are logical to me. Go find your own damn logic if you don’t like mine…

I’ve also published a companion post on my year in writing.

Reading in 2012

Probably the biggest influence on my reading year has been joining the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading Challenge. The challenge forced me out of my comfort zone. Not too far out – I stuck with speculative fiction of course – but it did push me to seek out more authors. The results of my reading/reviewing can be found at my “Mission Accomplished?” post from a while back – in total I read and reviewed 17 books by Australian women speculative fiction authors in 2012.

I’ve looked back over this blog at reviews published in 2012 and come up with some statistics. Note: Given the number of novels, novellas, multi-author publications, anthologies etc, I’ve used a whim based system for counting up things I’ve read. Sloppy workmanship may also be a factor. It is highly unlikely that anyone who could be bothered going through my back catalogue of reviews would come up with exactly the same numbers, however the percentages should be roughly correct. Stop complaining. What are you – perfect?

Stuff in book form:

  • Total number of books read: 42
  • Total by female authors: 25 (60%)
  • Total by male authors: 17 (40%)
  • Total by Australian/New Zealanders: 27 (64%)

Sean the Bookonaut has put up a post describing a gender audit of his 2012 reading recently. He has graphs. They are very impressive. As a homage, I am also including the following graph:

2012 gender reading

Stuff in magazine form:

  • Total number of short story magazines read: 21

On the short fiction side of things, in 2012 I tried to read AurealisAndromeda Spaceways Inflight MagazineAsimov’s and Analog. I failed, but I did keep up with Aurealis and ASIM (I have a lot of Asimov’s and Analog to get through).

It wasn’t included in my review statistics above, but I also read every monthly edition of the online magazine Antipodean SF. This is partly because AntiSF was where all my flash fiction from 2012 was published. It was also because I like keeping in touch with what new and emerging authors are writing and AntiSF is an excellent venue for that. It was also also because I create the ePub version of AntiSF each month and get advanced access to the stories.

In 2011 I started broadening the base of authors I read, this trend continued in 2012. I also tried to become a lot more familiar with the Australian speculative fiction scene.

Looking back over my Goodreads reviews, my 5 star reviews included two books by Deborah Biancotti (Bad Power and A Book of Endings), Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott, The Silver Wind by Nina Allan, The Last Days of Kali Yuga by Paul Haines, the Sprawl anthology edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Pyrotechnicon by Adam Browne. So, I guess that constitutes my reading recommendations for the year that was.

2013 Reading

I’ve joined the Australian Women Writers’ 2013 Challenge, so expect more reviews of Australian speculative fiction from some of our fantastic writers (starting with Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott – review coming soon).

There are quite a few “must read” books from 2012 that I haven’t actually read yet (e.g. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson). I also intend to have read the Ditmar and Aurealis Award short lists before the respective award ceremonies, especially so I can vote intelligently in the Ditmars.

In 2012 I completely failed to read the Hugo short list. I intend to fail to do so again this year.

I’m currently rethinking my short story approach, but I will look to read Jonathan Strahan’s Best of the Year for 2012 to catch up on the good quality short fiction from 2012 that I missed. I’m also considering committing to Strahan’s Eclipse Online series of short stories which I think is an excellent forum. I will continue reading Antipodean SF, Aurealis and ASIM in 2013, and will give Asimov’s and Analog a red hot go. Apparently I can only commit to publications starting with ‘A’.

Apart from that, I suspect my short fiction reading will be spotty.

In terms of books:

  • I am really looking forward to Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott, Blood and Dust by Jason Nahrung and Quiver by Jason Fischer. They are all loaded up on the Kindle ready to read and get my year off to an Australian start.
  • I also should mention the last volume of the Wheel of Time series is coming out in a few days. I started reading this series when I was a teenager and now sheer bloody mindedness is keeping me going. Having said that the last three books did lead me to the writing of Brandon Sanderson and I do quite like his work. But mostly I just need to see how the damn thing ends.
  • I’m also hanging out to see what Deborah Biancotti does next. Given how much I’ve enjoyed all her work so far, I don’t even really mind what it is that she writes, but I am secretly hoping for something longer set in the Bad Power universe.
  • I’ve just received the Library of America 1950s Sci-Fi collection curated by Gary K Wolfe – I think there are 9 novels in there, which will constitute the “learning more about the history of the genre” phase of my reading this year.

That’s about if for now – I’m sure there is more to say but my spidey-sense is telling me that you, dear reader, have run out of patience for reading this post. Stay tuned for a brief discussion of my writing year in review and thoughts for 2013.

Hope you all had a great 2012 and will have an even better 2013.

I’d love to hear your reading suggestions/hopes for 2013 – feel free to comment below or provide links to your own blog posts on the issue.