Academic Vs General Public Book Gatherings

Over a recent long weekend I went to my second ever non-academic book festival (the Decatur Book Festival), and this second time I really noticed a couple of things. First, there’s the question to authors of all varieties “How do you get your ideas?” Two writers, one I knew of and one I didn’t, on different panels on very different styles and age ranges, gave almost the same answer: ‘I wrote what I {would have} wanted to read when I was {that age}”.  Both authors have been and currently are best-sellers in YA and kid’s lit, and one of them has done that in adult novels as well. Both were apparently rather nerdy as children, getting into science fiction or fantasy, Star Wars and Harry Potter were what they named as the thing that really inspired them.

There is an entirely different atmosphere at this type of gathering than at academic conferences even though there are similarities, at least on the surface. Attendees at both types tend to like to read and/or write, and both have a high number of people who either do or want to do the writing and reading in some sort of professional capacity. One kind of funny, in the sense of vague irony, thing I noticed that really does show the difference in atmosphere is that when it was discussion time, at a major national academic conference I was at about 9 months ago, there were constant reminders to attendees that “questions” should be no more than a few sentences and end in a question mark. To someone who has been to any kind of academic conference, this is at the same time silly but also necessary since there always seem to be people who want to talk about their own work and its relevance to everything instead of focusing on the content of the panel in front of them. At the public festival, there was no need for such reminders. It’s like the people were genuinely there to learn about the subject-work-person in a far more genuine way.

The panelists at the public festival also seemed more interested in each other and in connections between their work than at the academic level. On one panel, the two lady authors, both of whom wrote best-selling fantasy for YA/adult readers, but were there to talk about new middle grade books, started conversing and the moderator let them do it, staying out of things for almost 10 minutes. I have never seen this sort of thing happen at an academic gathering, although sometimes panelists do ask each other questions, but it never really seems to develop into extended conversation.

The other thing that I noticed, besides the general tone, was that even for a general interest book festival, at least some of the panels were reasonably intellectual. The first panel I went to was on wit and humor and I was kind of surprised at how well some of the theories brought up matched with some of the ancient and medieval definitions that I’d recently been working with. At this panel, one of the presenters argued that the key to successful wit or humor was to have to allow the audience to make some of the connections and jumps in meaning, sometimes invoking a bit of misdirection for effect. For example, in an essay discussing the definition or identification of humor in the Middle Ages and Early Modern eras or Western European literature, Albrecht Classen argues that, the comic “results from a conflict between norms, their breach or transgression, though mostly not too egregious to hurt or insult badly”.[1] This idea suggests that the audience would then find the humor by having to fill in the incongruity through a jump in reasoning otherwise making the connection between the conflicting ideas, nearly a repeat of the current scholar of wit and humor. Puns were one of the speaker’s key examples, and to illustrate, medievalists of a certain persuasion should likely be able to spot the one in my title.

Lastly, it may have been some of the particular panels I went to, but there were a lot more children than I’ve ever seen at an academic conference. Occasionally, someone might bring along a spouse and young child, but neither are often seen, and never during the actual panels. Granted, a general interest presentation geared towards things children might be interested in, like books they know and like in terms they can understand, would attract parent with their children, as opposed to a panel talking about the academic theories and interpretations of the same. Even so, there was a child at the book festival complaining to his mother, “This is sooooo boring!”; I’m guessing he was about 5 or so. Another reason you may not see too many children at an academic conference is that, it’s bad enough to have to tell your child in a situation where it might be expected “Don’t kick the person in front of you! Say ‘sorry’!” {child mumbles the apology, and the person nudged never acknowledges either being kicked or apologized to}. These sorts of things would probably be considered far too distracting or interrupting at a more academic event, but it does make the tone more real. That’s real kid, as opposed to listening to people talk about for example the levels and variations of morality or ethics in the same book these two kids were apparently present to hear about, the latest in a series called The Last Kids on Earth; this was not something I’m familiar with, but I’m probably out of the loop on the most current trends and what’s popular, not having kids within the target age range myself.

There’s a certain level of artifice present in the academic world in terms of writing and reading that was just not there at this non-academic festival. People actually wanted to be there for the most part and enjoyed it. Academic conferences can be fun if you know people and/or like to meet new people, but it’s still more like work, and that can take some of the joy out of it.

Circling back to the beginning for a moment, when the author of this series mentioned he was a Star Wars fan-boy as a child, I was reminded of how many people in their late teens through early thirties have said that the Harry Potter series was what really got them into reading and maybe even writing. I was slightly above the target age range when the first few books came out, and was unaware of them until not long after the third novel was published when I was a senior in high school. I re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for another project not long ago, and some things really stood out to me. It’s so well written and the world and characters building are so detailed and well done without a lot of the tropes that get old, like the info dump speeches from one character to another (not that I mind these, it’s just that they’re pretty common). After book 3, when the books doubled to tripled in size, the writing was less witty and the story was less about the world and characters and more about action plot things and angst. I’m not the first to point to the differences between books 1-3 as a set and 4-7, but I feel it more upon a reread much removed from the first time through. Anyways, with these novels being so influential on the current starts and rising stars of the fiction, especially fantasy and sci-fi, it’s going to be interesting to see how much things change if these writers are going to write what they wanted to read other than Harry Potter.

[1] “Laughter as an Expression of Human Nature in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period: Literary, Historical, Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Reflections. Also an Introduction.”  Laughter in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times. Ed. Albrecht Classen. De Gruyeter, 2010. Pp.1-140. Here p.5.

Some Ideas For The Theory and Teaching of Fantasy

I have lived in Georgia for a little over three years. Only a few months ago did I learn that the Decatur Book Festival a) exists {less than 2 hours away from me}, and b) is the largest independent book festival in the country. Add to that, one of my current favorite authors who has one book just released and a second out later this month was going to be there at 2 panels on the same day, and I wasn’t going to be able to catch her on the upcoming tour (which was actually stopping in my hometown, now 1,000 miles away). Needless to say, I decided to go. I was not disappointed.

I should say for the sake of full disclosure, I only went Sunday since both sessions with V.E./Victoria Schwab were that day. I should also admit that, in spite of holding multiple advanced degrees in languages and literatures, I have never actually been to a literary festival of this sort before. I have also not been in the presence of someone who has hit the NYT Best Seller list several times in a row, and in different ranges (adult, YA, Middle Grade); I have been in the presence of famed academics whose books were crucial to my own scholarship or teaching, but it’s a different kind of fan-girling when you see a famous fiction writer who is probably more recognizable to the general public, both in the wilds of a local coffee shop a few hours before panels started, and in a room with a few hundred other people, or in a signing line with a few hundred people (at least).

Besides going to see authors I know, I also decided I wanted to listen especially for writing advice, since that almost always comes up during the Q&A parts of any fiction author presentation. I first noticed this phenomenon attending single author talks; inevitably, someone will ask for advice for the aspiring writer. I have since noticed that such advice has a place in the world of academic writing, albeit with a few adjustments.

The first advice that struck me as useful came from Joanne Fluke, author of a cosy mystery series featuring Hannah who owns a local cookie bakery in her hometown. She (Joanne that is) was on a tour for her latest installment, and stopped at the local indie bookshop in Milwaukee WI (#BoswellRules). When she was asked the advice for aspiring writers question, she said that it would be to always stop for the day when you haven’t totally wrapped up a thought. This way, you are guaranteed a place you can start off writing the next day and not be stuck trying to figure out what to write next. I have found this useful with the following tweak. Finish your thought, but then have a bullet point or two for what you know comes next. Then pick up where you left off when you come back to whatever academic essay, project, or whatever you’re working on.

Another piece of advice comes from a social media posting; I can’t remember if it was either Facebook or Twitter, but I’ve seen it several times since I first saw the Rule of 5. This I’m guessing is designed with the professional or trying-to-be professional writer more in mind. The Rule is that you must write at least 500 words or edit 5 pages 5 days a week. This doesn’t quite work as is for academics since often, in academic scholarly writing, you have to pause for research more often than you do for fiction writing. Sometimes it takes all day to straighten out a single footnote, which then feels like a major accomplishment. Or, you might need to spend a few hours trying to find a source that focuses on something obscure, like the history of travel to the moon in fiction. Worse yet, is trying to find a reference you know you’ve seen somewhere but didn’t fully record or note, and now when you need it you have to re-locate it. To accommodate such research realities that come with scholarly writing, I would amend the rule to 500 words, 5 pages edited, or 3 hours research, 5 days a week.

Back to the Decatur Book Festival 2018.

The advice I was looking for at the festival was both of the sort listed above, but also anything that would help me teach literature, especially longer works like novels.

The most useful and greatest amount of advice was brought up in the panel “Power and Vengeance in Other Worlds” featuring V.E. Schwab, Jonathan French, and Drew Williams. I didn’t always manage to catch who said what, so apologies in advance for any mis-attributions.

One of the first questions asked was about world-building and if world should come before plot or character, or vice versa in any combination. All three writers had different responses which was interesting in itself, but since I’ve taught Vicious by V.E. Schwab and will likely use some of her other works in the future, I focused mostly on her responses. She prefers to start with a main character who is nearly always an outsider of some sort, and ask ‘what if…’ some general kind of scenario or situation, and then build the world from there. Another version of this idea came up as starting with the character and concept, and populating the world based on those premises. She also expanded a little on a theory she’d introduced during the 2018 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. The idea is that basically, a fantasy writer can either create a window in which the reader only sees parts of the world and has to infer the rest, or a door in which the reader can see and experience the design of the entire world.

The basic idea of determining what a key focus is in a novel like the character, the plot, or the world I think would be a useful approach in teaching a novel, but even more so is the vocabulary of the door vs the window. I also think that these ideas could easily be adapted to other genres of fiction that aren’t necessarily based on fictionalized worlds.

The second useful question was how much do you plan for a sequel with a first book in what might be a series. This time there was more agreement among the writers, but I’ve got V.E.’s response as representative. The first book in the series should feel like a stand-alone story; that is, the reader should not need more to feel satisfied with the story and the world, but should want more. Any following sequels should not be mere continuations, but rather stories in their own right. Looking at it another way, the day should be saved, but not necessarily the world. One of the more interesting ideas that came up during this part of the discussion was that sometimes the saving of the day might be more internal than external. V.E. Schwab said, as she has said before, that she really like to write fight scenes. But especially with outsider main characters, the battles should get more internal as the story progresses. The first battle can and should be an external one, but the struggles tend to get more internal as the story progresses.

The idea of the internal versus external threats and fights I think provides a good way to consider how character and plot depend upon each other. The ideas about sequels might also provide for interesting prompts concerning how suspense is developed and how an author might try to draw in their readers.

I probably won’t be able to test any of this out until the spring semester but it’s never too early to start some general planning since I’ve found that some form of fantasy is generally acceptable to a wide range of potential students.