May 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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John Clute, Elizabeth Hand, John Langen
Conference Report: Fantastic Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Children’s Literature
by Edward Carmien, May 2004  
(Copyright 2004 Edward Carmien)
All Photos Courtesy of J.V. Sanders

Between April 30 and May 2, roughly a hundred individuals gathered to discuss, in an academic yet reasonably relaxed format, questions of Genre and various fantastic literatures. SUNY New Paltz provided a wonderful venue for this conference, with mountain views to see and a college town to explore. Novelist (and frequent reviewer) Elizabeth Hand and critic (and novelist) John Clute were the keynote speakers.

Heinz Insu Fenkl and John Langan organized the conference, along with significant help from Ernelle Fife and Robert Waugh. A good time was had by all, but even more important at a conference such as this, Deep Thoughts were had by all who cared to indulge them.

Friday night’s Keynote Panel Discussion, “The State of the Art: Genre Criticism Now” set a good tone for the conference. Panelist Farah Mendlesohn of Middlesex University and editor of Foundation, The International Review Of Science Fiction expressed her interest in seeing the best critical work possible about genre fiction. Change is good, argued the panel in general, suggesting that critical work should lead to concrete new ideas, not just apply past theory to past or current work.

Gordon Van Gelder, Michael Swanwick

The conference was rich with other panels on subjects such as “The Rebirth of Fantasy,” “Academic / Writer—Writer / Academic,” “Fiction Short and Long: The Year (and a Half) in Review,” “Writing, the Craft,” “Interstitial Arts,” and many others. Panelists ranging from Ellen Datlow (SciFi.Com), Brett Cox, Gordon Van Gelder and many others to up and coming graduate students of the field such as Veronica Schanoes of the University of Pennsylvania and Helen Pilinovsky of Columbia University enriched all of the panels with their expertise and depth of perception about relevant issues.

Elizabeth Hand’s Keynote Fiction Reading Saturday afternoon was a chance to hear this fine author’s excellent reading voice as she read from her forthcoming novel Mortal Love. John Clute’s Keynote Critical Address Saturday night, “Pardon the Intrusion,” presented the audience with a chance to hear the distinctive voice of this influential critic as he argued for the relevance of critical thought and ideas in the world of genre literature.

Michael Swanwick, X, Gregory Frost, Z

Gregory Frost and Michael Swanwick were just two of the published authors who read from their fiction during the conference. (Your reporter did, too, but he’s too shy to say so. –Ed.) Angela Colvert from Norwich University read a paper that connected computer games with narrative elements. Alexander Jakubowski of Orange County Community College juggled for coins (literally) then read a paper that detailed his efforts to engage his visually literature students in science fiction that is written. Lauren Lacey of Rutgers University discussed LeGuin’s Hainish novels. Many other presentations by folks like Robert Waugh, Annette Wannamaker, Farah Mendlesohn, Marcia Littenburg, Norm Gayford, Ernelle Fife, Anne Paradise, and Dee Michel among many others also enriched this conference—but your reporter could only see so many.

In fact, although there were only three tracks at this modestly sized conference, one could easily wish to be a time traveler in order to go back to the beginning and do it all again, visiting different aspects of the conference the second time through. Just where is Charles Harness when you need him?

Attendees. Name em all and win our admiration. Let's see, that's Swanwick again, and David Harwell's back and ...

Much of what was discussed fell along similar lines of thought. The quality of fantasy is up. More and more works cross traditional genre boundaries. More and more fantastic elements appear (and appear without comment—my contribution to the conference) in mainstream books, television, and film. Although not universally well received by the attendees of this conference, the efforts of those involved with the Interstitial Arts “movement” address this trend as well. A newer generation of authors appears to fear the labels associated with genre fiction less than their forebears. And so on.

What this all means is of course fundamentally unknowable. Discussing these questions results in sharper perspectives on important if abstract notions about these literatures, and this conference undoubtedly achieved that goal. Thanks to Fenkl, Langan, Fife, and Waugh for bringing us together for a marvelous conference. Rumor has it another is planned for 2006.

What, then, will we do next year?

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I2 keeps an eye on books and trends in the academic niche. The scope, as you see above, is broad—from science fiction and fantasy to detective fiction, I2 covers it all. (If you listen carefully you can hear as many as three different squeals of outrage at this linking of content areas. Do what I do: wear earplugs and enjoy it all anyway.) If you feel there is material that should be brought to the attention of this column, contact I2 care of SFRevu.

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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