First, there was Thrown with Great Force: Classics We Won’t Finish.
Description: This is a panel for all of you who didn’t finish LotR; everyone who needed to self medicate through Infinite Jest, exiled Frankenstein to the frozen wastes, or wanted to flush the Foundation. What did you fail to finish, which ones do you feel guilty about not finishing, and which ones do not make you feel any twinge of guilt at all?
Kate Nepveu (m), Mark L Amidon, Vikki Ciaffone, Debra Doyle, Catt Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Ken Liu
My mod notes for this broke things down into two super-broad categories, what about classics is different (if at all) from "books that I don't like for whatever reason, frequently that they're just not for me"? And what classics do you feel guilty about not finishing, what do you not feel guilty about, and why?
We talked about the process by which things get designated "classics," which is super limiting and biased, and also subject to fashion, but also kind of fascinating (per Ken, very badly paraphrased) as islands in a sea of historical chaos, stuff that has survived long enough to give you a window into past ways of thinking—which is kind of a related appeal to SFF fans, though for some classics the mindsets have changed so much that you need external material to comprehend them at all. (Ken writes epic fantasy but has never finished Lord of the Rings, because knowing the metanarrative around it is sufficient for his purposes; I suggested that maybe it wasn't far enough removed yet from his mindset, which he wasn't sure about. We talked a lot about the metanarrative around classics and how a lot of the time that's what gets reacted to instead of the actual text—this is all super-relevant to the next panel, though I have no idea how much overlap there was beside me.)
Other ways that people might approach the "classics" differently: the way they were recommended (as attempts to gatekeep, without sufficient detail, too much "eat your vegetables"); things that have been so influential they feel cliche; being taught them badly (lots of stories about this).
(Somewhere there was something about "this story makes A Point, and the point's been made, so do I have to read it?" (I believe the example given was "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.") And we said yeesssss, but sometimes the work that gets enshrined makes the point in a very comfortable, not actually rigorous way (see: To Kill a Mockingbird)—which I guess may or may not be a reason to read it, but regardless calls for more rigor about the decision. I don't think we said, though probably we should've, that things are always new to someone so maybe they do still need to be read.)
Guilt: my failure to finish Tale of Genji despite being so close! and generally to read acknowledged classics by non-white-dudes like Delany and Butler; rightly or wrongly I have the impression that they are Hard Work and these days I don't have a lot of brain for that (though I try to read non-white-dude authors in my fluff). Some people had no guilt at all, because life is just too short, and that is fine too.
Finally, it is possible that Dune was the most-mentioned non-finished SFF classic.
I'm putting this outside the cut because it is still the best thing I've heard all weekend:
Ken said that there is a huge genre of serial prose stories in China, and in one very popular one, two armies were literally facing each other across the battlefield when the author announced that he was stopping writing it. The author went off and wrote other things, and then years later, came back and announced he was going to finish the story. Everyone was very excited, downloaded the installment, and said " . . . wait, this is only about a thousand words long, that's nowhere near long enough to finish the story." And in the story, the armies were facing each other, but then there was this light, and they looked up, and it was a meteorite, that was getting closer, and closer, and . . .
Yes, it was LITERALLY rocks fall, everyone dies.
Next up was How Lord of the Rings Stunted Fantasy’s Growth.
Description: LotR’s shadow looms huge over fantasy. From the moment it achieved its massive popularity, it’s had a stranglehold on the genre. The diverse and weird pre-LotR fantasy landscape was obliterated in favor of decades of Tolkien clones, and we’re only barely beginning to see the genre recover now. Why did something so stilted, mediocre, sexist, and racist capture the public’s imagination in such a fevered and intense way? What would fantasy look like today in a world where LotR never happened?Kate Nepveu (m), Erik Amundsen, Shira Lipkin, Mark Oshiro
I was worried about this one, and had a big opening prepared in which I said, "we all have something we can't stand to hear bad things said about, and if LotR is one of them for you, then I say this with love: you should leave, this panel will not make you happy. I personally love LotR myself, but we are going to talk about its negative influences, whether or not those negative influences are supported by the text—we're not going to stop to say 'yes, people think that, but the text really is more complicated,' because otherwise we'll be here all day." And no-one left and only one person pushed that a little, but I was gentle to them because they'd come in late (and they were very polite about it too). (The room was standing-room only, it was great.)
Here are two things I sent the panel, and one I would've if I'd remembered in time:
Tolkien Cliches by Limyaael
Birthday Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings by Abigail Nussbaum
Doing Tolkien Wrong by truepenny
The categories we talked about were:
Worldbuilding. I defined EFP (Extruded Fantasy Product), which is fantasy bits that have been put through the grinder and squeezed out into something more-or-less book-shaped. A lot of the negative influence of LotR's worldbuilding is via Dungeons & Dragons. But you get faux-medieval and quasi-Europe and humanoid species, and with those comes easy routes to racism and sexism, and you get the default thousands of years of history, which is often unnecessary (and as I think an audience member pointed out, leads to a weird historical stasis when you combine it with the faux-medieval).
Constructed languages. Not mandatory! But if you're going to do it, do a minimum of research.
Story format: prologue, appendices (with critical material in them!), maps, the trilogy in general (and harmful conflation with three-act structure, also blamed on original Star Wars trilogy).
Prose. I broke my rule a little here and said I was going to sit on my hands for this one, and Mark tossed me a bone and said yes, some of the prose is very beautiful, but so much landscape description! And songs!
Fundamental assumptions. Mine were diminishing magic / fallen world, because I am deeply suspicious of nostalgia—if that's part of your religion, go for it, but own it and don't assume it without thinking about it; and hereditary virtue (heirs of Elendil), because as much as that does get complicated in the text, people often run with it in racist directions. Other people said the lack of women, hereditary invirtue, and something I can't remember right now.
We talked about how fantasy would look without LotR. I mentioned Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as heir to Lud-in-the-Mist. Other people mentioned ghost stories, Gothic stuff, sword & sorcery. (Did we talk here or in the classics panel about the Britishness of LotR and what something grounded in American concerns would look like? We concluded it would probably be a lot of Manifest Destiny/frontier mythology stuff instead of monarchies, a.k.a. shitty in a different way.)
It was a really awesome panel.
Finally, today there was Everything I Say is a Lie.
Description: There are several works of fiction, both genre and mainstream, that rely on the unreliable narrator. Used to good effect, this can create an artful twist ending or have the reader second-guessing throughout the whole story. However, how does one create such a narrator? Does the viewpoint have to be first person, or can third person suffice? How do you keep readers following the path you’ve laid out without guessing the real story? A discussion on the making and use of an unreliable narrator.
Ken Schneyer (m), Ken Altabef, Terri Bruce, Kate Nepveu
I knew Ken was going to start by asking us favorite works, so I prepared quotes from The Fortunate Fall (which opens Chapter 1 with "The whale, the traitor; the note she left me and the run-in with the Post police; and how I felt about her and what she turned out to be—all this you know," and closes Chapter 1 with "and you will know a little less about me than you did before." And you do!). I also mentioned Ancillary Justice as something more recent.
We started right away with a "fight" (not really!) over whether the reader should be able to expect that the narrator is by default reliable. I took the position that purely on the level of evaluating the factual accuracy of things being recounted, readers have to assume that things are accurate unless given reason to believe otherwise. This is why I hate The Usual Suspects. Terri, and some audience members, disagreed, liking the openness and feeling that there's no such implicit contract with the reader.
I am totally running out of steam, so I will refer to my notes from a prior panel on the same topic and just mention things that were different—there were some! There was a fair bit of discussion about how actively deceptive "unreliable" was meant to convey, which combined with discussions about mentally ill or developmentally disabled narrators, led various audience members (both in questions and afterward) to note that writers and readers should be careful about assuming the ways in which such narrators are necessarily unreliable. I mentioned that I've started thinking of Flowers for Algernon in the same category as To Kill a Mockingbird: people can read it and feel good about having thought about someone with a low IQ, but the principal emotion evoked is pity and it's very othering. Terri shared an anecdote about an elderly relative saying "I took a walk with X today" and a health aide calling the relative a liar, because the aide interpreted that as "physically ambulated" and the relative meant "engaged in the activity of going outside and processing from place to place." An audience member also favorably cited The Drowning Girl as written from a position of knowledge about the unreliable narrator's mental conditions and also moving from less reliability to more (via self-knowledge, I think?) over the course of the book.
I also mentioned the danger of trying to puncture or satirize something, including through an unreliable narrator, but instead replicating or reinforcing the thing—I sprung off Ken's mention of Lolita (thinking of discussion of the various book covers). There's always going to be the possibility that people take things out of an author's work that they didn't intend (examples given by other people: conservative Republicans thinking "Stephen Colbert" on The Colbert Report was not satire; journalists citing The Onion), but if an author's going to attempt refuting through illustrating, they have to be super-aware of the possibility and maybe consider not using an unreliable narrator.
There was also discussion about the many reasons one might use an unreliable narrator, at varying levels of narration, and techniques for that, but I'm really really tired now and a lot of it is in the past report. Feel free to ask questions, though!
I also went to a panel called "Arisia Fixes Hollywood" (not many concrete fixes that I heard, but I was really sleepy and playing a mindless tablet game to stay awake; also the moderator alas thought it was an hour panel instead of the 75 minutes it actually was); and "The Future of Disability in Literature," which was heartfelt and well-prepared and I have zero notes because again tired. (I was going to say that disability panels seem to get fail even more consistently than race panels, but on reflection it's possible that it was the same person saying something upsetting this year and the last time I was at an Arisia disability panel.)
And now it's midnight and I fall at concision. Le sigh.