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LA Festival of Books Panel: Women of Slipstream

Rob Spillman (editor of Tin House, and moderator, and the only non-female)
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Kelly Link – Shelley Jackson
Miranda Mellis
Aimee Bender (pictured — photo credit, Ben Ross)

First off, no one on the panel knew exactly what Slipstream meant. Although that’s not really any discredit to them, seeing as how the appellations for the genre change faster than an auctioneer speaks. We’ve gone through fantastic fiction, fabulism/fabulous/fabulists (which always sounded too upper east side: “that story is fabulous darling, just fabulous“), magical realism, speculative writing, the new weird, paraspheres, bizarro, and just plain old fashioned fantasy. And so when an audience member asked them to distinguish between some of the terms, the panel just shrugged their shoulders.

I was disappointed that Kelly Link wasn’t able to make it — I love her “Magic for Beginners” collection of short stories — but Shelley Jackson, exuberant and sporting green strands of hair, more than took up the slack. She argued frequently for the benefits of applying limits to your writing, to tell yourself that you can’t use the letter “e” for two pages, or avoiding commas or certain words, because the act of limitation forces you as a writer into new highways and byways of syntax. I’ve seen how this works in other genres. I once watched a documentary called “Five Obstructions” where Lars Von Trier challenged Jorgen Leth to remake a short online pharmacy no prescription safe documentary five times, each time with a different obstruction — for instance, no shot could be longer than eight frames, which is half a second. The worst attempt? When Trier gave Leth no obstructions at all. Limitations — even crazy ones — actually helped Leth to make better films.

One panelist talked about the process of how to create stories that weren’t gimmicks for gimmicks sake — a type referred to as “what our students write.” This panelist made a point through several different phrasings, all with similar ideas: Treat the absurd seriously, apply logic to the fantastical, and treat it with the tools of realism. For example, a Kelly Link story was cited in which Zombies came out of a crack in the back of a convenience store. Of course. Naturally. And once this fundamental proposition was accepted, the rest of the story proceeds with the rather logical, believable sequence of events unfolding from that initial proposition.

If you haven’t already, check out the LA Times blog Jacket Copy which is posting a huge number of blogs posts on the events going down on the UCLA campus.

Also, I interviewed a large number of authors today (including Aimee Bender and Shelley Jackson), as well as attendees, and am working on all the editing. As soon as I’m finished, I’ll post the video here.

2008 LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA

So I’m thrilled to go to the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend, where I’ll get to see a bunch of friends I haven’t seen for a while and reconnect with some great authors. I’ve got a couple of things going. First of all, I have — in my editing-grooved, keyboard-calloused hands — the inaugural issue of the Southern California Review, so I’ll periodically be at the USC booth selling fresh-off-the-printer copies and soliciting contact information for a raffle we’re doing to give away signed copies of the journal (I know Judith Freeman will be signing her short story, and Lee Wochner, and perhaps a few other canadian online pharmacy illegal contributors as well).

And I’m also moonlighting as a roving correspondent for an online magazine, Red Fence, so you’ll see me chatting up authors in informal video interviews.

And then also, of course, there’s all the wonderful panels going on (too many concurrently!), which makes it so difficult to decide who to see. But somehow — somehow! — I will stuff it all into a weekend. So. If you see me walking around with a mike and a dude with a video camera behind me, make sure to say hi.

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is coming up soon, on April 26 and 27th, so I’ve picked out some of my favorite people who will be there. And of course I will be around as well, scouting, listening, perusing and getting into all kinds of literary mischief.

Some highlights from the attendees list:

Lydia Millet: Author of the raved about, "How the Dead Dream"
Laila Lalami: Great short story debut, "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits"
Tobias Wolff: His new collection of stories, out this month, "Our Story Begins."
Marianne Wiggins: So popular, she’s listed twice.

More Attendees Who Come Every Year But We Still Love:

Chris Abani
Sherman Alexie
Steve Almond
Aimee Bender
T.C. Boyle
Ray Bradbury (Old Faithful of the Festival — appears annually no matter what)
Steve Erickson
Janet Fitch
Judith Freeman
Gina Nahai

Lovely Bloggers Who You Might Know Already:

Tod Goldberg
Carolyn Kellogg
Mark Sarvas
Sarah Weinman

Addendum: Many apologies to Ron Hogan, whom I certainly did not mean to overlook. Check out his panel, too!

Festival of Books: Blogging Panel

Litblogs: Words Online
Ron Hogan
Andrew Keen
Carolyn Kellogg
Moderator: Tod Goldberg

Overall, the conversation was disappointingly civil. No one screamed or tried to dismember anyone else (although Tod Goldberg did say that Carolyn Kellogg’s blood would be spilt) and Goldberg kept things light and funny (for a sample of his humor, look at the title of Carolyn’s post). What I found disconcerting was that the panel seemed to revolve around Andrew Keen – his book and his assertion that the only possible model for online content is one that pays financial dividends. Everyone kept mentioning his book The Cult of the Amateur – usually attacking one premise or another – and for most of the conversation, the panel focused on the problem of money. So it seemed that rhetorically, the conversation revolved around rebutting Keen’s arguments, giving him the high argumentative ground, rather than the bloggers being able to establish a neutral space to discuss the facts.

Andrew Keen’s basic message was that he was a skeptic of the consequences of Democratization, and the consequences of a flattened media, because it does the opposite of what its promoters thought – it creates no middle ground. He spoke in well-crafted phrases – digital road to Catalonia, the flattened, edit-less media is dangerous, the kleptocracy of the Internet. But next to the suit and tie of Ron Hogan, he looked slovenly. He wore a T-shirt, drank from a Diet Coke can, spent over forty minutes picking at something stuck in his teeth, and slumped back down in his seat while grinning from one side of his mouth as if everyone else’s comments were a joke.

Ron Hogan (check out his post on the panel at Galleycat) did a fine job countering many of Keen’s assertions. He pointed out that the platform wasn’t the problem: there is a spectrum from inane to professional in the traditional media, not only in the blogging world. He also said that counter to belief, the traditional media is not a better gatekeeper than anyone else, and gave the recent example of the Katie Couric debacle. Also, in response to Keen’s argument that why should we reinvent the wheel when we have an adequate number of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, Hogan said that we have enough books and yet we still continue to publish.

Keen (who blogged about the panel here) also made the point that there is a problem distinguishing between inane and professional. Since every blog is equally valid, it’s impossible to tell the woefully inadequate from the professional.

To me, Keen’s rebuttal seems like it is already outdated and will become only more atavistic in the near future. Readers, links, your Google ranking, the frequency of your posts, and the simple ability of people to tell a well-crafted sentence from one cobbled together by a high schooler, all help people distinguish. Other objections of this type were brought up by Carolyn, who pointed out how little faith Keen seemed to have in the ability of people to discern quality.

But now we get to the essence of Keen’s argument. It’s financial: “I like models that make money.” He believes people should pay for content, and that it’s dangerous to empower the consumer (he added that he enjoys paying for his London and New York Review of Books). Therefore he’s troubled that blogs are giving content away for pennies.

In response, Ron Hogan said that his blog parlayed into a paying job, which means there are often career benefits to blogging, benefits that can’t be tangibly measured in dollars and cents. Carolyn’s argument, however, struck even closer to the nerve. She just said that she has enjoyed the community that blogging creates. That’s what it’s about for her – community. This is the heart of it. People used to get together and chat about their favorite books. Now they write about it online. Keen doesn’t care about people talking about books for free, but when someone actually puts something in print, he demands that there be a financial matrix to reimburse the writer.

What this betrays is an unconscious hierarchy: the written word above the spoken word. I don’t want to get into any of the theoretical deconstructions of this notion, but it needs to be said that the proliferation of ways to disseminate the written word has flattened (to use Keen’s term) any sort of hierarchy. It’s perfectly fine to write without pay, just as it’s fine to speak without pay. That said, there are plenty of options for people to get paid for writing, and as people’s reading habits continue to shift from print to the internet, the money will follow, eventually leading (perhaps) to more money being paid to writers online than to writers solely in print. What Keen should have is patience. The money will catch up to the revolution, and the solution is not to charge everyone for online content. This internet money will come (perhaps) from token subscriptions, but mostly from advertising – the same way that print journalism currently works.

There is more I could say, but I don’t have the time. Soon I will post about the other panels I attended on Sunday.

UPDATE: After the panel, it was wonderful talking to Carolyn, and also Callie Miller (who blogs at Counter Balance and was covering the festival for LAist). Nothing better than attaching faces to blogs that I love, and also talking shop about books and MFAs.

LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA

I arrived far too early this morning (as in 7:30 in the bloody a.m.) at the Festival of Books because I was setting up the USC booth. This involved far too much box-slinging, which marred my lovely blue shirt with grease stains. So I changed to one of the USC shirts we were selling. A woman pointed at me and said, “brave.” Implying that in the land of the Bruins, flaunting my Trojan-ness was courageous. But I wasn’t. I was just wearing the only thing that was clean.

The first seminar I went to was one of the best. Probably because they plied the newly-minted novelists with questions about how to become newly-minted novelists, a topic that personally interests me.

First Novels: New Visions
Joshua Ferris
Alice Greenway (who won the LA Times first fiction award last night for White Ghost Girls)
Marisha Pessl
Antoine Wilson

Alice Greenway was rather shy and demure – I wasn’t surprised when she said she hated the whole public side of writing. Marisha was simply young, and rather media-genic, and Antoine and Joshua Ferris spent most of the session joking between one another.

When asked how they got their start in writing, Alice Greenway revealed (with a hint of a Irish accent) her epistolary side – she wrote letters in longhand and sent them via post to friends. Joshua Ferris said he wrote a Alfred Hitchcock rip-off called “Crabs” when he was seven, and when he asked his mother whether it was okay to use the word “damn,” she said, “Only if it’s in the service of the story.” Marisha Pessl said that she used the old Smith Corona of her mothers and wrote all about horses, then read the stories out loud to her classmates. And Antoine Wilson’s first writing was a non-fiction piece about all the words you can make by number combinations with a calculator upside-down.

They were also asked how much of their life was in the first book, and while most of the panelists said they tried to avoid writing an autobiographical novel, Greenway said she strove for just the opposite. But for all her efforts, the story turned into fiction.

Fiction: Jumping off the Page
Chris Bohjalian
Peter Orner
Gary Shteyngart
Marianne Wiggins

I attended this panel mostly for Gary Shteyngart, who is incapable of uttering a sentence that isn’t hilarious. He cracked jokes about skinny and fat characters, and about his parents quoting letters from anonymous bloggers to cut him down to size. When asked whether it was frustrating to be taken not as seriously because he wrote humor, he called upon the legacy of American fiction that is so often satirical: from Mark Twain to Joseph Heller.

Chris Bohjalian, who kept mentioning that his recent book was his tenth novel, had attended too many author events: all of his jokes were canned, repetitions that he pulled out far too easily, and not always in the service of the moment.

Peter Orner, who wrote the The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, didn’t talk much, and when he did, it didn’t seem to be with a great deal of confidence, but on the flip side, Marianne Wiggins, author most recently of Evidence of Things Unseen, was rather brash – almost militant – as she bragged, “I am not edited.” I always feel a bit of pity for people who say that, even if they’re good writers. It’s as though their ego has grown too large to admit that the wisdom of someone else could actually improve their craft.

Fiction: Modern Myth
Aimee Bender
Ben Ehrenreich
Steve Erickson
Deborah Eisenberg
Moderated by David L. Ulin

I could understand why Bender, Ehrenreich, and Erickson were grouped together, because their fiction doesn’t resemble a mirror of the “natural” world, but didn’t know why Eisenberg had been corralled with them. But she actually explained why her work would be considered mythic: “I’ve tried to reach a consensus view of the world – what everyone would recognize as a surface reality. My aspiration is to penetrate the naturalistic screen by using naturalistic details but my interest is in the psychological life which kind of floats on the surface.” Eisenberg seemed rather self-critical – she denied any knowledge of how she structures her stories, denied any attempt to plot, denied that she had any ideas and that she knows anything and denied ever consciously writing to a theme. Afterwards, when I had her sign her latest book “Twilight of the Superheroes,” she said that I probably wouldn’t like it (but I had already read it, and loved it, which I tried to tell her).

Around the end of the panel session, they got around to defining myth, but that didn’t stop the panel from being interesting while they were all applying the structure of myth to their own work.

Shameless plug: If you’re in Los Angeles, come to The Mountain Bar on Tuesday, May 8th, for The Loudest Voice reading. I’ll be reading, along with a few other colleagues, and Aimee Bender will frontline.

Also, we’ve been handing out thousands of free sample copies of the Southern California Review. I’ll be in the booth tomorrow afternoon if you’d like to stop by, and visit the MPW website for instructions on how to submit.

Okay, that’s all for now. I have to get sleep because I’m going to four panels tomorrow. It’s inspiring, all these authors talking about their work. It makes me want to write much more than it makes me want to attend more panels. But because this gig only comes around once a year, I’m still looking forward to hearing more about fiction in few short hours.

LA Times Festival of Books

Just bought my Festival of Books tickets from Ticketmaster (which was a painful chore – and they added a fee this year). Anyway, here’s what I’m going to see: On Saturday, I’m going to “First Novels” – mainly for Joshua Ferris and Marisha Pessl, then racing over to see a panel on “Jumping off the Page” with Gary Shteyngart. The real humdinger is at 1 p.m., called “Modern Myth”. Get this: Aimee Bender, Ben Ehrenreich, Deborah Eisenberg, and Steve Erickson, moderated by David L. Ulin. What a crowd, what a crowd.

On Sunday I’m seeing Vikram Chandra and Gina Nahai at “Novel Landscapes”, and going to “Delving Within” (who makes up these panel names, anyway?) for Sherman Alexie and Judith Freeman. Later on, Brad Kessler and Michael Silverblatt are at “Outside the Margins” and then I’m wrapping the weekend up with “Lives on the Edge” with Percival Everett and Janet Fitch.

Lots of names (and lots of names also in the panels that I didn’t mention) and lots of fun. If you recognize me at one of the panels, say hi, or if you want to seek me out, I’ll be one of the guys at the USC booth promoting our new literary journal, the Southern California Review.

Update on Festival of Books

The full list of authors slated for the Festival of Books is up on the LA Times website now. In addition to the authors I mentioned in the previous post (scroll down), here are some additional highlights:

Chris Abani
Gary Shteyngart
Deborah Eisenberg
Steve Erickson
Aimee Bender
Percival Everett
Tara Ison
Judith Freeman
Janet Fitch
Brad Kessler
Gina Nahai

Festival of Books

I’m gearing up for the LA Times Festival of Books, even though it’s still a month and a half away. Through a series of posts on this blog during that last weekend in April, I’ll be covering news, readings, reactions, buzz, landmark literary happenings, and anything else you’d like to know. If you’re going, stop by the USC Masters of Professional Writing booth, where I’ll be handing out free back copies of our literary journal (the newly named Southern California Review), and say hi.

On the LA Times website page, they promise a full list of authors late March, but here’s a partial list of a few already known to be attending:

Sherman Alexie
T.C. Boyle
Vikram Chandra
Gore Vidal
Walter Mosley
Jane Smiley
Mary Higgins Clark

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