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Con Report – Readercon 18

July 9

Readercon 18 was held July 5th through the 8th, 2007, in Burlington, MA, USA. Readercon is known as a very focused convention: there are none of the art shows, music, gaming, costumes, etc. that one often sees at conventions of the fantastic. Instead the attention is lavished on the convention program — the panels, talks, readings and interviews. As the name suggests, Readercon is very much a convention by and for those who share a love of books that require discussion.

Readercon 18 was also my first convention (unless you count the single-day comic convention I went to when I was about 12, that was essentially just a big a dealer room). I need to thank the Readercon 18 committee for doing such a fabulous job making everything easily comprehensible for a con newcomer; I’ll definitely be back next year.

As the focus of Readercon is the program, so too the focus of this con report is the program. Below are my notes, supplemented by memory, on most of the panels I attended. Note that there were typically 5-6 program events happening at any one time; the following thus amounts to less than 10% of the full Readercon experience, factoring in the bookshop, social activities, and program elements such as readings and interviews that I can’t cover here. My notes on each panel of course cover those things that were interesting to me, and should not be taken to represent the entirety of any discussion. Apologies in advance of I’ve misrepresented any of the panel participants; if so, please send me corrections.

Here is a list of the panels I’ll be covering; click to jump down to a particular panel, or just keep scrolling to read about them all. In the lists of participants, M signifies Moderator and L means Leader (a moderator who also takes part in the discussion).

* “The Real Year” is Ageless
* What Single Novel is Most Emblematic of Readercon?
* A Heinlein Roundtable
* The Slipstream Canon
* The Retold Fairy or Folk Tale
* Awe, Horror!
* Reviewing in the Blogosphere
* Sense of Wonder, or Sense of Cool?
* Fantasy as Inner Landscape
* The Case for Archetypal Evil in Fantasy
* Towards a Promiscuous Theory of Story Structure
* I am forced into speech because a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife: Horror and Social Observation
* See it Like Saruman: Reconciling Fantasy and Progress
* After Rowling and Pullman

Readercon – Day 0

This year for the first time, Readercon began on a Thursday with two night-time “keynote” program elements, one a panel and the other a more open discussion.

“The Real Year” is Ageless

John Clute, Elizabeth Hand, David G. Hartwell (L), Barry N. Malzberg, Graham Sleight

John Clute opened the panel by recapitulating his idea of “real year,” the notion that certain books are best understood as a product of a year other than which they were written or published — often a year especially formative in how the author came to regard the world. Clute commented that he did not intend for the “real year” to be a concept best applied to all novels, rather that it was another tool in the critical toolbox. Clute further noted that it was a tool he originally developed to be critical in both sense of the word, a way of calling attention to the backward-looking, conservative bent of some science fiction.

Graham Sleight commented that many novels from the past few decades seemed to have a “real place” as well. (Although I think these places are often tied to the concerns and culture of the times; that is, the real place stems from the real year. Thus in the 80s we had many works set in Japan and China; in the past few years we’ve seen more works set in developing powers like India and Brazil.)

Elizabeth Hand said that she saw more and more science fiction books where the real year was now, that were less wondrous than SF had been in the past. She and Graham Sleight talked about the distinction between SF books that are prescriptive in some way — “change your behavior now or this is what the future will look like” — and books that, as John Clute commented, are more focused on helping us apprehend the “now.” For innumerable reasons in the past few decades, we see SF shifting more to a literature of recognizing the now (typically as something that is fragmented and resists understanding) than one that prescribes for the future. Graham Sleight did mention Kim Stanley Robinson as a writer still interested in prescriptive SF, and Ted Chiang as an author whose works still evoked a sense of wonder.

When asked if it was a failing of SF that it could not be more prescriptive, Barry Malzberg said that it is not the job of literature to offer up plans for solutions, that pointing out that a problem exists and making people aware of it is in many ways halfway to a solution. Racism and literature about racism is an example.

John Clute talked about the self-referentiality of SF, how it has been burning itself out with stunning rapidity (the phrase was not mentioned, but this is very much the concept of a feedback loop). This does not, Clute added, make SF any less worthy of study and appreciation.

What Single Novel is Most Emblematic of Readercon?

F. Brett Cox (L), Paul Di Filippo, Darrell Schweitzer, Sarah Smith

This was an open discussion with participation from both the panel and the audience. John Crowley’s books led the pack, with votes split between Little, Big and Engine Summer. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren received many votes; Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and M. John Harrison’s works were also mentioned several times. It was also suggested that the most emblematic novel of Readercon is the one we haven’t read yet, but that we will because of Readercon.

Also noted was that The Lord of the Rings was only mentioned once — not because it was not beloved by many attendees, but because it had already been studied and discussed sufficiently outside of Readercon.

Readercon – Day 1

The first full day of programming, which was also a first — in the past, the first Friday of Readercon had only started in the afternoon. This was a very busy day — I actually went to two other panels beyond what I have listed here, and also readings by Jeffrey Ford (a very good short story about a man who literally goes under, forthcoming in a new anthology series) and Catherynne Valente (from the forthcoming Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, which looks and sounds every bit as excellent as the first volume).

A Heinlein Roundtable

Charles N. Brown (M), John Clute, Graham Sleight, Gary K. Wolfe

Gary Wolfe began by commenting that Heinlein is not simply the elephant in the room of science fiction, he is the room. Science fiction writers have either been directly influenced by Heinlein (Brin was given as an example) or indirectly, with his writings as a point of departure and disagreement (Aldiss). Several panelists mentioned the vast numbers of books written in response to Starship Troopers.

Graham Sleight noted that Heinlein is less popular is the UK, where fewer of his books are still in print and someone like Asimov was a more common gateway drug for new readers. Sleight also commented on the tendency toward extreme reactions to Heinlein: either he is seen as a fascist, or beloved as the father of modern SF. Various panelists mentioned how Heinlein was seen as something of a father figure by many SF writers, who in the 40s tended to be younger and have less life experience than Heinlein.

Sleight, Wolfe and Clute discussed the positivism inherent in Heinlein’s work as a reason for its popularity. Heinlein was one of the first writers who really mapped out how technology will take us into the future, how technology could provide the correct answers to the world’s challenges. Heinlein made the future an appealing place, a place people would want to help bring about. He was very much an advocate for the future.

John Clute mentioned the idea of a “contract” that Heinlein may have felt he had with the writing world, and how he may have felt that contract had been broken when the future he advocated failed to come into being. Thus (in part) his later novels.

Charles Brown mentioned Heinlein’s dialogue, how realistic his dialogue was and how SF before Heinlein had been primarily driven by description, not dialogue.

All panelists commented on how slippery a writer Heinlein was — Sleight called it (if I’m remembering correctly) the “deniability” factor, the “oh, did you really think I meant that?” element to his work that allows for, for example, vastly different interpretations of Starship Troopers.

The Slipstream Canon

F. Brett Cox (L), Paul Di Filippo, Ron Drummond, Theodora Goss, John Kessel, Victoria McManus, Graham Sleight, Catherynne M. Valente

F. Brett Cox led off by saying that they would be taking “slipstream” beyond Bruce Sterling’s original formulation — composed largely of mainstream novelists writing books using genre SF elements.

John Kessel defined slipstream as fiction that creates cognitive dissonance due to having elements that cannot be reconciled. It plays with expectations. It is thus effect-based rather than content-based.

Catherynne Valente commented that many things that other people considered slipstream, she considered just plain fantasy. Victoria McManus echoed this. The panel discussed how fantasy-the-marketing-category differs from fantasy as understood more broadly, and how slipstream is as much a distinction from the former as the latter. It was also noted by several panelists that other genre-bending categories such as magical realism, surrealism, and interstitial fiction are not necessarily slipstream because they do not always have the necessary element of dissonance.

Graham Sleight added that slipstream was by definition contemporary — not necessarily in literal setting, but that it somehow reflected the strangeness of contemporary life, that it fails to make sense.

Theodora Goss spoke of the 20th century split between realistic fiction and fantasy, and the continuum that now exists between these two points. Slipstream is fiction in the middle, that thus creates a clash of reading protocols. The use of expected tropes doesn’t lead to the expected clarity.

Goss also commented that the characteristic of slipstream fiction is that it presents the world as essentially unknowable (echoing Clute’s comments on SF from the night before). This can be disquieting, but it can also be optimistic in that it makes anything possible.

The “working canon” of slipstream the group came up with totals 115 books. Authors receiving the most votes included Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, John Crowley, Kelly Link, Samuel Delaney, Angela Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.G. Ballard, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kalfka, Virginia Woolf, Pamela Zoline, Umberto Eco, Karen Joy Fowler, Jeff VanderMeer, and contributors to anthologies such as Feeling Very Strange (Kessel and Kelly, eds.), The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (Link and Grant, eds.), and Interfictions (Sherman and Goss, eds.). The full list will, I think, be posted online at readercon.org at some point.

The Retold Fairy or Folk Tale

Holly Black, Ellen Datlow, Theodora Goss (L), Gavin J. Grant, Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne Valente opened by mentioning that she has been feeling a backlash against fairy-tale retellings; many people (editors and reviewers at least) seem to feel the market has been played out. Holly Black commented that this is not the case in the young adult market; however, many young adults may not today be familiar with the original fairy tales on which retellings are based. Ellen Datlow agreed with this.

Speaking to the value of re-telling fairy tales, Valente spoke about how these tales allow us to mythologize our own lives. In modern Western society, we enjoy most entertainment as spectators: our heroes are other people. Not enough people see themselves as the central hero of their own life.

When asked if fairy tales let people understand their lives, Gavin Grant replied that fairy tales give structure, but not necessarily understanding. Valente echoed this saying these tales give illumination, not meaning. Theodora Goss suggested fairy tales serve as cultural templates.

Several writers commented on the common equating of fairy tales as tales by and for women. Grant commented on some of the class issues in fairy tales. No conclusions were drawn in either case.

Holly Black said that because we often read fairy tales when we are young, re-telling them when we are older has a transgressive pleasure. Black, Valente and Goss all commented on how in original fairy tales, many characters are just archetypes and icons, not true characters; and only certain icons are allowed to speak. One of the gateway points to many retellings is giving any or all of the broad set of icons the thoughts of an individual, a truer sense of character, and seeing what happens.

Awe, Horror!

John Clute, Ellen Datlow, Nick Mamatas, Kim Paffenroth, Gary K. Wolfe (L)

Gary Wolfe and John Clute opened by reviewing Clute’s concept of “vastation,” presented in his recent examination of horror fiction The Darkening Garden. In that book Clute attempted to provide a structural framework and language for what he felt was the best horror fiction; “vastation” occurs at the end of a work of horror when the horrific, uncaring world of the fiction is shown to be our own world. In other words (N.B. Clute made this distinction in a later panel, not here — see “Towards a Promiscuous Theory of Story Structure” below) the best horror is not based on our empathy when something horrific happens to a character in the fiction, rather the horror comes from our apprehending the way that our world truly works.

When challenged that not all horror is structured this way — Nick Mamatas mentioned how his own book began with a horrific episode and ended with the protagonist sitting calmly on his couch — Clute replied that his structural model was prescriptive rather than descriptive. That is, it does not seek to describe all existing horror, rather it is what Clute thinks horror ought to do, and what the best horror does do. It is in that sense very much a work of chutzpah, but Clute referred to both the history that his life has spanned (including the Holocaust) and the vast reading he has done as qualifying him to write such a prescriptive work.

Asked how she defined horror for the anthologies she has edited, Ellen Datlow agreed that a traditional definition based on terror is inadequate; for her, horror is a more general sense of “the creeps.”

A question from the audience asked whether Clute’s definition of horror was similar to a classic notion of tragedy, and Clute acknowledged there was a similarity although they also differed in a variety of ways. The panel ended before any other of Clute’s proposed structural elements could be discussed.

Reviewing in the Blogosphere

John Clute, Kathryn Cramer, Jim Freund (M), Ernest Lilley, Tom Purdom, Gordon Van Gelder

Jim Freund made an initial distinction between reviewing in a personal blog and reviewing for an online publication, and asked each panelist to comment on their experience writing and reading online reviews.

John Clute led off by saying that he found writing for online publications to be enabling and freeing, in that he could take as many words as needed to convey his review, and his work was less likely to be edited to suit the knowledge and expectations of a singular imagined readership (because online websites are still trying to determine their audiences). While initially fearful that he would have to alter his writing style to suit an online audience — shorter sentences and paragraphs — he has not found that to be the case.

Gordon Van Gelder commented that the lack of an editorial presence at most online websites has led to a proliferation of bad reviews. Tom Purdom agreed about the value of an editor. Kathryn Cramer (oddly the only member of the panel with a blog) talked about how the date-oriented form of the blog was a pressure to produce small bits of content regularly rather than taking time to think about and work on longer reviews.

Ernest Lilley mentioned that at the website of which he is the editor, he exerts a high degree of editorial control, hardly ever publishing a negative review and keeping reviews to a limited word count. Clute responded that these plot summaries plus reviewer opinion are not really reviews. Asked what a review should do, Clute replied that it should be just like any other piece of writing any writer might produce, something that deploys all the skills she or he can muster, that they are proud of, and that they can envision still being in-print (and still being proud of) 10 years from now.

Cramer touched on the difference between a negative review and a bad review, the former being one that regardless of the reviewer’s opinion of the book does attempt to present fairly and accurately what the book is attempting to do.

The panelists talked about the ability that online reviews often grant readers to quickly comment on reviews; the panelists saw this as a negative, as leading people to write reviews in order to have a personal audience. Asked about the other unique properties of the online environment such as linking, Cramer replied that the way people have learned to use links, jumping from one page to another, is not conducive to this. Clute said that the idea of contextual links “violated the contract of the sentence.”

I asked the panel about the value of private pre-publication peer-review of reviews; Clute replied that essentially an individual review should be the work of an individual reviewer.

Readercon – Day 2

The non-panel highlights of this day were interviews of the two guests of honor, Lucius Shepard and Karen Joy Fowler, and the truly hysterical Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition.

Sense of Wonder, or Sense of Cool?

John Joseph Adams, Thomas A. Easton, Laura Anne Gilman, Ernest Lilley (M), Ian Randal Strock

Ernest Lilley asked the panelists to distinguish between wonder and cool, and many commented that it was a matter of scale, that some hand-held example of miniaturization (like an iPhone) was cool, but wonder was something that required a much grander scale, like opening a door and having the whole universe in front of you. However, Lilley suggested that the panel shift away from this conception of cool and instead focus on cool as it is understood as a personal characteristic — disaffected, uninterested, rebellious — and how this relates to wonder.

Strock noted the internal vs. external foci of the two. Laura Anne Gilman echoed this, saying that cool is selfish; wonder cannot be selfish, as it is other-directed.

Lilley posited a timeline for how we distinguish between the two: that wonder is something we experience as children, while coolness is an idea that emerges during adolescence or puberty. Wonder may re-emerge is later years.

Easton pointed out that cool is relative to time, place, class.

Lilley asked whether fantasy could be wondrous, and Gilman replied that in fact fantasy was about wonder, not about cool. Easton however suggested that fantasy is not about either wonder or coolness; if science fiction asks “what if,” fantasy says “if only.” Something impossible cannot be wondrous. Lilley agreed, saying that wonder is previously unrealized and unthought of potential.

The panel talked about awe vs. wonder, the difference being that wonder engenders a curiosity.

The panel talked about re-readability, and how often cool becomes dated while wonder usually holds up better.

Bringing up an idea that John Clute had suggested in the opening “real year” panel, I asked whether wonder vs. cool were things that can be understood as being achieved via different narrative structures — wonder for example being based on juxtaposing the small with the large, the human with the inhuman. The panel didn’t think much of this.

Fantasy as Inner Landscape

John Crowley, Greer Gilman, Kelly Link, Kathryn Morrow (L), Paul Park, Michael Swanwick

John Crowley led off by noting how the Ancient Greeks wrote many poems describing the conflict between gods such as Athena and Aphrodite, and that these were related to the soul and depicted the internal conflict between (in our example) wisdom and love.

Michael Swanwick talked about the prototypical hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell and how often it ends with a wise and just king taking the throne, but how odd this is as an external journey because a king is a very bad model of (most of our) ideal government.

Kelly Link responded that authors often felt the need to use kings or highly powered characters because such characters have agency. Link was uncertain about whether this was a good thing because readers themselves often lack this agency, become more spectators than active. Paul Park noted that he had struggled with this question while writing his Roumania quartet, how to give characters the appearance of agency without allotting more than is reasonable.

Link noted that for an author, a story often reflects the inner landscape of its own creation — the struggle in the story mirrors the kind of struggle required by the author to write the story.

The Case for Archetypal Evil in Fantasy

Ellen Asher, S. C. Butler, Jeanne Cavelos, James Morrow (L), Joshua Palmatier

Ellen Asher stated that archetypes work best in allegory; if you don’t want your writing to be allegory, then avoid archetypes.

James Morrow suggested that the case for archetypal evil in fantasy was that it defended against the humanist impulse to believe everything can be redeemed, is fixable.

The panel talked about evil as a lack of empathy rather than a lack of intelligence and reason. Morrow mentioned how in The Lord of the Rings, the quest succeeds because the good characters can understand Sauron’s thought processes, while Sauron cannot comprehend the thinking of the good characters; they succeed because they do what Sauron could not envision they would do.

Ellen Asher (I think) noted that while a lack of empathy may be a hallmark of evil, so too is the collective that wants to all feel the same thing at the same time.

Towards a Promiscuous Theory of Story Structure

John Clute, John Crowley, James Morrow, Sarah Smith, Eric M. Van (L)

Eric Van led off the panel by saying that he had noticed that most if not all stories in fantastic literature are based on a misperception of the world. In some (fantasy) the world is bad, but a revelation shows us how to make it good; in others we think the world is good, but it turns out to be bad (horror); and so forth. There seems to be a correlation between fiction based on perceiving the world and fantastic fiction, as compared to fiction based on perceiving the self, which is mimetic/realistic/mainstream fiction. John Clute expanded on the previous day’s panel on horror, saying that horror is not private, not focused on the self, rather it is about apprehending the world.

Sarah Smith suggested that this assumes there is a singular world to be perceived. Clute suggested that this was not necessarily the case; it is the idea of perceiving the world at all that is relatively new, the notion that it (as opposed to just people) could be a subject of discourse. James Morrow said science fiction’s great achievement is allowing us to think of ourselves as one of many species that are part of the world.

The panel discussed how some fantastic fiction focuses on characters learning to understand the world, while others focus on characters learning to change the world. Crowley noted that in fantastic fiction, speaking of the world has the possibility to change it.

Van suggested this distinction, of how changeable the fictional world is shown to be, is one of the core elements in describing the story’s structure. The complete list is:

  • whether the world is fundamentally good or bad;
  • whether the world is dynamic or static;
  • whether a dynamic world is amenable to our efforts to change it;
  • whether the world is revealed to be simple or complex; and
  • whether that revelation is a trigger that enables the story or is the resolution of the story.

It was noted that “revelation” can be true shock or something the character knew but was in denial over.

Van suggested that like any good theory, the exceptions can be as illuminating as the data that fits. There are certainly some works of mimetic fiction that are very often enjoyed by fans of fantastic fiction — novels like Moby Dick, films like Vertigo or Memento. These are not fantastic but they do not feel mimetic: they are carried by the drive to understand the self but crucially seem to convey the possibility of changing (or at least apprehending) the world. Clute noted that Melville could have easily written Moby Dick with fantastic elements without at all changing the way the story is told. Crowley noted that the more storyable a work of mimetic fiction is, the greater the pressure towards the fantastic.

When asked about social problem novels and the social change they can engender, the panel commented that what we do as readers after reading a book is not the issue; the question is whether the world is seen as changeable by characters within the book.

Readercon – Day 3

In addition to the following panels, I also attended a fascinating talk by Peter Watts on what led him to write Blindsight.

I am forced into speech because a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife: Horror and Social Observation

Michael Cisco, Karen Joy Fowler, Laura Anne Gilman, Adam Golaski (L), John Langan

In case the title isn’t clear, this was a panel comparing the social observation novel as embodied by Jane Austen with works of horror as embodied by H.P. Lovecraft. The initial thesis was that the two have more in common than would commonly be thought, as both involve the discovery that the world is more complex than initially imagined.

Laura Anne Gilman commented that both Austen and Lovecraft focused on (and indeed had experience with) narrow segments and aspects of society. Both had a focus on social desires, how outward layers of rules and respectability interplayed with inner desires.

John Langan mentioned that both Austen and Lovecraft loved the 18th century (and indeed Lovecraft attempted to mimic the prose style of 18th century writers). Both had a fascination with manners. Adam Golaski echoed this, and noted how both authors focus on social rules.

Michael Cisco gave a brief history of modern novels, mentioning how the early novels of the mid-18th century tended towards moral education primers for young women, and noting how soon afterwards the gothic novel appeared. Cisco also commented on the difference between European and American social novels, where European novels tended to have a definite resolution (for better or worse) while American social novels tended to be open-ended. In many ways Lovecraft felt a nostalgia for order (and Austen something of the opposite).

Gilman noted how in Austen’s novels breaking rules can be a recipe for both success and failure. Karen Joy Fowler amplified this, noting how slippery a writer Austen is; a reader is never sure when she is being ironic. A central motif of Austen might be that rules are ridiculous, and have the capacity to make both those who follow the rules and those who break them look ridiculous. (Echoing in some way the previous day’s panel on horror, the idea that human rules simply don’t matter, can’t be counted on against the uncaring larger world.)

Fowler also commented that while we now read some of Austen’s situations as ironic, a woman reading them at the time they were written would feel something of the horror at the limited and confining choices available to women then.

See it Like Saruman: Reconciling Fantasy and Progress

Judith Berman, John Crowley, Ken Houghton (L), James Morrow, Michael Swanwick

John Crowley began by noting that in many ways the separation of “cold, hard science” and mystery (in the magic, unknowable sense) is a relic of the past. Anyone who has looked into quantum physics knows how mysterious and fantastic-seeming science can be.

James Morrow suggested the Harry Potter series as books that have reconciled fantasy and progress in many ways: magic is seen as being composed of measurements, ingredients and formulas, and there are story elements such as advances in flying broom technology. The Discworld books were offered as another example, where a fantasy world is in fact undergoing an industrial revolution and progress is raising the standard of living. John Crowley mentioned utopian fiction, where utopias are generally seen as being enabled by progress.

Michael Swanwick talked about the renewed popularity of fantasy as it has become the opposition: it is now a reaction to modernity that tries to highlight the beauty that is being lost to urbanization and industrial pollution. Crowley agreed, noting how formerly the industrialists and capitalists were the progressives, while now they are the corporate establishment; the new progressives are those who want to recycle, plant more trees, conserve the environment, etc. Judith Berman mentioned Crowley’s Little, Big, how the jungle (the wild, dense and dangerous place) has become the city. She summarized by saying that fantasy is imagining what you don’t have, what the world is not.

Michael Swanwick made a distinction between magic and what he called “alternate science,” books that treat something magic-like as a natural science to be studied and progressively mastered. The panelists agreed that something that exists as an unchanging thing, just waiting to be discovered and have its rules systematized, is not properly magic.

Berman talked about how, from an anthropological perspective, mythic stories are not directly about truth; they are about communicating norms and desired behaviors. Many people in more primitive societies can conceptualize the difference between the literal truth of fantastic stories and understanding the metaphorical power of their symbols. Crowley talked about how when we encounter a fantasy story, our question is not “is it true,” but rather “what does it mean?”

After Rowling and Pullman

Steve Berman, Holly Black (L), Sarah Beth Durst, Kelly Link, Sharyn November

Holly Black kicked off the panel by asking each participant how they thought Rowling and Pullman had changed the market for young adult fantastic fiction. Sarah Beth Durst commented on the sheer quantity of books now available, and also on how it has become more socially acceptable for adults to read (and admit that they read) YA fiction.

Sharyn November talked about the cultural phenomenon of certain YA books like Harry Potter and how it has led publishers to seek to replicate the phenomenon, looking for new series, new franchises. This is not necessarily good for anyone; readers, writers, editors or publishers.

Kelly Link talked about how the Harry Potter books (and the Buffy TV series) were so phenomenally successful in part because they gave casual readers and viewers enough hooks; they did not require any previous genre experience. Both Sharyn November and Sarah Beth Durst talked about how the Harry Potter series are very much a “common denominator” books: there is something in them for everyone, whatever combination a reader’s interests are of school, romance, sports, angst, adventure, friendships, politics, etc.

Link and November talked about the greater interactivity in reading now, since the publication of the first Harry Potter book: books can be more of a social phenomenon, with people talking about them, discussing them on the Internet, writing fan-fiction about them, etc.

Steve Berman talked about how many new writers seem to be writing YA fantasy to cash in on its popularity. Black commented that many editors are being asked to edit fantasy YA who have no previous experience with fantasy — who may not even like fantasy. November suggested that lack of fantasy experience is not always a bad thing in an editor, as (echoing Link’s comment) it forces authors to unpack their genre assumptions a bit more for more general readers.

Black talked about issues of content in fantastic YA vs. mainstream — how, for example, there’s often the assumption that there is no swearing in YA fantasy although there is plenty in mainstream YA. In many ways the Harry Potter books have exacerbated this expectation.

Kelly Link turned the discussion to Pullman, noting how (as the panel wondered what fiction was written in response to Pullman) Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was very much written as a response to Lewis’s Narnia books. Link noted, however, that Pullman is guilty of many of the same things he accused Lewis of: preaching; the diminishment of women (which occurs in the Harry Potter books as well); etc.

Link also commented that Terry Pratchett has a good sense of magic; in contrast, magic in the Harry Potter books “feels like a credit card.”

One downside to many of the fantasy YA books out there now is the dominance of the single savior figure. There is a very adolescent, inward focus in imaging one’s own self being able to save everything; the panel participants suggested that more books involving teams and teamwork would be valuable to see in the post-Harry Potter world.