World Fantasy Convention's Authors and Ideas Panel

I'm now recovering from an extended weekend at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus. This was my first WFC and if you have never gone, it is highly recommended. I met a ton of great people, talked about way too many things to remember, and generally had a great time.

I also moderated the Authors and Ideas panel on the third day of the convention. The panel dealt with how the personal beliefs of authors affect their fiction--think of Tolkien's The Lord of Rings, which is subtly infused with his Catholicism, or the works of C.S. Lewis, where his beliefs are quite overt. Obviously this topic fascinates people because the panel was literally standing room only.

Appearing alongside me on the panel were Ellen Kushner, L.E. Modessitt, Tim Powers, S.M. Stirling, and Guy Gavriel Kay. Yes, that's an amazing line-up and I still can't believe the WFC asked me to moderate the panel. This was not only one of the best panels I've ever taken part in, it was one of the best I've ever heard.

To share some of the panel's insights, I've transcribed the following excerpts from the discussion:

Ellen Kushner: "I feel very strongly that if you write well and honestly and truthfully, your personal beliefs will be woven into that fiction. I think that bad fiction of any kind is where the author attempts to impose something they wish to believe, or thinks they ought to believe, over what they genuinely believe. The truest and deepest work, especially I would argue in fantasy, is absolutely infused with what the author believes, whether they want to believe it or not."

L.E. Modessitt: "Sometimes I don't know what I believe about a given thing. And sometimes the work is an exploration of what I'm not sure I believe. Yes, it is infused with what I do believe, but we don't all know everything about everything. We have beliefs we don't even know we have and that's infused in your writing, but you can be totally honest and not neccesarily know what you're reflecting."

Tim Powers: "As a writer, I certainly hope I never in my fiction have 'something to say.' As a reader, I hate starting a book and realizing, 'Oh, this author is making a point about George Bush or racism or what have you.'"

S.M. Stirling: "If a writer is arguing for a point of view or a belief in their work, that's not what they really strongly believe. The things you believe most strongly, the things you never even think to argue about--your default assumptions about what the world is, what humans beings are, how they operate, that sort of thing--that suffuses what you write. These things vary both between individuals and over time. That's one of the reasons it is valuable to read stuff written a long time ago. You're looking through alien eyes. There is no one more alien than your great-great-great-grandparents. Reading stuff they wrote gives you a valuable corrective on assuming that you are the default condition for human beings. That your basic assumptions are the laws of the universe and will endure forever, or that everything changed up until it came to you and your glorious self and now it will be that way until the end of time."

Guy Gavriel Kay: "I mostly agree it is inevitable that our beliefs and our needs and our culture are going to permeate what we write about. But I also believe that the challenge and the essence of the creative process, by way of imaginative empathy--for fiction writing, not as an essayist--is to create convincing and plausible characters who have and embody beliefs that we do not share."

S.M. Stirling: "The most effective way to make a novel successfully didactic, to make it teach, is not to turn around and look out of the page and talk to the reader in your own person. It is to make what you think feel inevitable and right within the structure of the story. To show it through the actions and feelings of the characters rather than actually saying it to the audience. In fact, I always feel that if I'm conscious that I'm reading words, the author has failed to a certain extent. I shouldn't actually be conscious of the process of reading while I'm reading a really well-written piece of work."

Me: "One thing I love about fiction in both my writing and what I read is the exploration of ideas. But if it was merely about the ideas, I wouldn't read fiction. I would only read nonfiction. I would go out and only read philosophy. Instead, I want the characters. I want the human drama. I want to have insight into life itself, which only happens when I read fiction about truly believable people making truly believable decisions. When I'm writing, I do have ideas I'm trying to explore. And I'm exploring them through the characters I create. What irritates me about some fiction is when the authors don't truly explore their ideas. When they already have their destination in mind. That's not a true exploration."

S.M. Stirling: "When you're writing, it isn't what you don't know that will get you. It's what you think you know which just ain't so. It's your assumptions which you aren't conscious of (which will cause you problems)."

Guy Gavriel Kay: (On the author-reader interaction) "It is a mistake to think of (fiction) in terms of the author setting forth their image, their presentation, of the world. It is in fact the author offering something and the reader taking what they are inclined to take, capable of taking, in the mood to take that year. Because we've all had the experience where we read a book one year and don't like it, and read it ten year later and find it brilliant, or vice versa. The book hasn't changed. We changed."

L.E. Modessitt: "I'm reminded by all this of an aphorism that should apply to authors. If you find my work thoughtful, that's because you agreed with it. If you find it didactic, it's because it doesn't agree with you."

Me: (On the difference between fiction and nonfiction) "I studied anthropology in college, so I could talk at length about cultural norms, the way culture influences people, and all that. I then joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in a rural Thai village where I was the only member of my culture. That was actually experiencing what I had studied, and it is a totally different way of learning. That is the difference between nonfiction and fiction. With nonfiction, you're learning by knowing. With fiction, the reader is learning by experiencing. And everybody experiences things in slightly different ways." 

S.M. Stirling: "One of the things fiction can do, if it's done really well, is break through your tendancy to filter the evidence and only see what you want to see. Really good fiction cracks your mind open from the inside."

L.E. Modessitt: "Art is about conveying that which you believe and that which you don't believe. That's what you're supposed to do in this business."

L.E. Modessitt: "We are first and foremost, if we want to stay in business, entertainers. No matter what you want to say or what you believe, if you don't entertain no one will read (your fiction)."