Description: In a blog post at Book View Café, Sherwood Smith writes about the opposite of visits from the "Suck Fairy": going back to a book you disliked and finding that the "Win Fairy" (to coin a term) improved it when you weren't looking. Are the Suck Fairy and the Win Fairy really two faces of a unified Context Fairy? If context is so crucial to loving or hating a work, how does acknowledging that affect the way a reader approaches reading, or a writer approaches writing? How does one's hope for or dread of the Context Fairy influence decisions to reread, rewrite, revise or otherwise revisit a written work?
Kythryne Aisling, Stacey Friedberg, Gwynne Garfinkle, Kate Nepveu, Sonya Taaffe.
I moderated this out of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and think I managed to keep my fatigue and minor end-of-con for-no-reason crankiness in check. It was surprisingly well attended for being in the literal last slot of the con, too. Check the first panel report for disclaimers.
I said we knew the Suck Fairy, let's start by giving an example of the Win Fairy. Stacey said The Golden Compass for appreciating the craft. Sonya said a collection of Joan Aiken because it was doing twists on fairy tales that didn't have the ability to realize were twists when first read. (ETA: this was A Necklace of Raindrops.) Ummm, someone else said Robert Frost, force-fed in school and then rediscovered in adult life (I think this was Kythryne). Someone, Gwynne, may have said The Bell Jar. Mine was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
Then we moved to different things that affected rereads, to try and answer the question whether Suck/Win were indeed just different faces of the Context Fairy. Answers: increased knowledge of literary traditions; increased knowledge of social, historical, etc., factors; different life experiences; knowing the ending so seeing how it fits together; and a format shift, specifically hearing the author read a poem out loud--all of which are probably "context." The audience contributed music that they happened to be listening to (which I said must drive the writers into conniptions because it's so particularly out of their control); coming back to a book in a series after a more accessible entry point; hearing the author read something else, so they had the rhythms of their voice in their head when they came back to another work; being in the emotional state that allowed them to tackle it; author's notes, acknowledgments, and dedications. I think the only thing I can remember that wasn't necessarily "context" was deliberate intent, such as "I'm going to read this much slower than usual and look at the prose."
(I also asked for a better name, because of the breadth of "context," but I don't think we came up with one.)
So from there I went to what readers and writers should do about it. I said for readers, it seemed like you just decide how risk-averse you're feeling; but for writers, there's the question both of what you do ahead of time, while writing, and what you do after. But the beforehand question seems to boil down to "write as well as you can" (feel free to disagree! I was trying to work with a 50-minute format), so what about afterward, the "rewrite, revise" question in the description.
I used this Ann Leckie post about gender in Ancillary Justice, where she said that when she wrote Justice she "was still thinking of gender as binary," which carried through to an early description of Seivarden (and maybe some other stuff, I don't know, I'd have to reread). Leckie specifically said that she'd have answered an io9 question differently, but I asked the panelists: imagine you, like Ann Leckie, have a thing that you've acknowledged that you now realize is hurtful in your work. What do you do about it?
Some people were in favor of not slapping readers in the face, if it could be done without completely reworking the text. Some people suggested foreword/introduction/author's note etc. discussing the matter. (Le Guin's experiments with pronouns and POV for the stories about the Gethenians were noted.) A children's book was mentioned, where a really terrible racist bit about going around the world and meeting different people was revised to have meeting non-representative-of-people animals instead. But people also noted that some past revisions have not stood test of time (Nancy Drew being reissued where she is less active). And terrible things in historical texts can provide educational opportunities.
At this point I shut down a discussion of editions of Huckleberry Finn that remove the n-word, because (as I said) I thought it was more complicated than people were saying, but it was a very emotional and difficult topic that we could not cover in the remaining 4 minutes, and because (as I did not say, but should have) this discussion should never take place without the opinions of the people who actually get the n-word hurled at them in hate.
The final question happily sent us out on a good note: when, or why, should you hope for the Win Fairy? I said I would only do so if I liked it reasonably well but thought I might not have had sufficient context for one reason or another. Others mentioned recommendations from friends, and I have just hit the wall of being unable to remember a single other thing, even though I think there were more reasons offered.
I have notes from panels I attended, but since those are a matter of tidying up my typos and occasionally unpacking my marginal disagreements, they can wait until later. Which is good, see aforementioned wall of non-remembering!
ETA another thing I remembered: readers bring their own context to works that can result in unexpected interpretations, which occasionally have the happy effect of finding things that authors didn't consciously intend but recognize when it's pointed out to them. Kythryne said this poem wasn't intended as a Tin Man story, but oh yeah, when someone complimented on that aspect, look what I did.