Thursday, September 30, 2010

Authors and Their Covers

At a panel at AussieCon 4, the topic of authorial control over book covers came up. Authors, in general, have little or no control over the covers of their books. This often surprises students. It's often a source of great frustration to authors. It's also, it turns out, frustrating to illustrators who are often only given a brief and later find out that the brief doesn't really relate to the novel at all.

So, I love Ben Tripp's response. He wrote a novel about zombies, but wanted it to be accessible to a general readership. Unfortunately, the publishers decided on a cover that makes it very genre specific. His comeback? On his website, he's providing alternate covers you can download, print off, and re-cover your book with. I'm particularly fond of the cookbook cover.

There's an interesting dynamic emerging as publishing houses rely more and more on authors creating their own online presence, while at the same time, some authors are rebelling against the dictates of their publishers through this very online presence.

(Later note: On the other hand, there are other problems/opportunities in the academic publishing area. I was just reading a disheartening blog post at Savage Minds about the closure of Rice University Press. I'm not familiar with the ins and outs, but the post had some good points to make about the difficulties faced in academic publishing today.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Getting out from behind the lectern - and Joss Whedon

An academic friend and I have been debating the issue of fashion and the female academic. We were inspired by a blog post, "Mind over Malls or, Does Academia Hate Fashion." Minh-ha T. Pham notes:

"That fashion scholarship and fashion/style blogging seem to be mostly circling each other rather than interfacing is not so much the failure of academics as it is the evidence of the persistence of the beauty/brains division in academia in particular and society at large."

I think this is starting to break down. Just as geeks are becoming fashion forward, academics are finding new ways to express their research interests through fashion. It's actually quite entertaining popping along to a conference and trying to figure out an academic's area of expertise based on their dress. It can be as easy a giveaway as an ironic pop culture shirt to the more subtle beret and wrap that might mark an Austen scholar. At a very practical level, today I noticed a blog post in which a very practical reason for bright shoes was voiced:

"You had to know that I was going to wear a colorful shoe, right? I’ve realized that I am far less likely to hide behind a podium when teaching if I’m wearing a bright shoe. A bold heel deserves a bold presentation style."

Oh, and remember that I went to Joss Whedon's keynote speech at the Melbourne Writers Festival? There's a transcript available to look at now. This is one of my favourite moments from his keynote:

"Well, a lot of my writing is influenced by comic books, a lot of my directing is influenced by comic books. They make very iconic images, they know exactly, you know, where to put “the camera”, they do the storytelling in – they have to put everything in these panels to get from place to place, and when it’s done well, you really know, you really feel that flow. And but you also feel the “pop” of these moments, so you’re not just sort of [bumps the microphone] – oh excuse me. [realises] I just apologised to a microphone. I really do need to work on my self-esteem, huh?" (Min, omg - squee)

I also noticed another piece on the same website that made me click, "Authors are People Too" (Firefall). It's worth a look if you're interested in how fans are now influencing the work of their favourite authors.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Want to study fairy tale in Tuscany?

If you're a Monash student, here is your chance! My new Prato unit is up and official. You can find the details here. I'm very excited about it. I'm also wondering if shoe shopping in Florence can be worked in as a field trip...

Shoes, fairy tale... it all makes sense.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Understanding the place of fanfic in literary culture

Naomi Novik recently gave a great interview about how fan fiction is part of literary history ( via i09). A couple of times at AussieCon 4, Cory Doctorow mentioned his own well-known stance on fan fiction:

"And once readers model a character, it's only natural that readers will take pleasure in imagining what that character might do offstage, to noodle around with it. This isn't disrespect: it's active reading." (Locus Magazine)

I'll admit, I don't really read a lot of fan fiction. I read some of the fiction friends write, but I'm having enough trouble keeping up with the arrivals of comics, fairy tales, novels and such that then pile up. Nonetheless, I get frustrated with myself. I believe in fan fiction. Why don't I read more of it? Why do I let it reside at the bottom of the 'to read' pile? For that matter, why don't I write more?

Well, in terms of the latter, time is the easy answer. I did once write fan fiction, but it was scribbled into the back of geography notebooks and passed around friends. I went to high school before the Internet was around. But writing with established characters provided fascinating opportunities to explore how we all related to them and, indeed, opportunities to write for known audiences. I could use what I knew about my friends' interests to appropriately tweak my stories. As a writer, it provided vital practice in 'knowing one's audience.' Today's fan fiction writers are writing mostly to fan bases. They have to grapple with factions and theories and rumours in the fan community, not simply with the 'canonical' material. This offers a fascinating insight into how writers and readers engage and debate story.

If you're interested in the topic at an academic level, a great place to start is Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers.

Incidentally, over at Silk for Caldé, there's a terrific post on AussieCon 4.

Genre Fiction

I found this little gem via a retweet this morning:

"At the bookstore later in the day, my son stood in front of the Sci Fi section and said, in a very loud voice: 'Mom, this is my new gender.'" (Original blog post here.)

I love that this gem comes from a writing professor, whose blog is titled Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi?

AussieCon 4 is over. I have a new skill. I can say Raxacoricofallapatorius with ease. I had been displaying this skill in class this past week. I practiced hard to acquire this skill for my Doctor Who paper: Doctor Who - Humanity's Fairy Godfather or Prince Charming? I gave my paper to a packed audience (it was a small room, but packed with Doctor Who fans) who all applauded my feat of skill and laughed in the right places. It's all you can really ask for.

I saw many fantastic panels. My only moment of horror was when someone linked the word 'wholesome' with 'YA lit'. Still, for the writers, there was a terrific panel on establishing an online persona with the point that agents and publishers do now google perspective authors, looking for a public presence. If you are looking at a writing career, it's something to consider. There were great panels on the future of electronic publishing, book covers, paranormal romance, YA literature etc. There was a very funny keynote by Kim Stanley Robinson, during which he interviewed himself. There were many steampunk costumes, confirming that steampunk is enjoying a particularly high profile now, and the Girl Genius stand, with authors signing, sold out in a mere couple of hours. Girl Genius is one of the fantastic examples of how creative teams are working outside the industry and making cult fandom work for them - financially too. The financial aspect had always been the tricky part.

We had a great cohort of Monash students giving papers in the academic stream, all to good effect. I haven't permission at the moment to give their names - okay, I haven't asked for permission yet - but kudos to them all.

Right, now I'm going to try to wrestle my other shoe from my dog and try to get over this cough, which has been frightening both the dog and my students for the past week.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Little Bits

Yesterday before heading off to AussieCon 4, I caught a couple of interesting pieces in The Guardian.

Item One

A great interview with Terry Pratchett on the release of the last Tiffany Aching book (I admit here that the Tiffany Aching books are my favourites and I want to believe in the Nac Mac Feegles more than I want to believe in fairies). Here's an excellent snippet from the interview:

"Pratchett knows there are strict rules about making things so dark when you are writing for children – 'a child's instinctive grasp of narrativium [sic] is that this has got to end well' – but he is also very clear that, while his witch can take away physical pain (she draws it out into a ball, then dumps it), she cannot, and will not, take loss, sadness, or grief."

Aside from finding 'narrativium' to be an excellent word, I find it odd that this persists: that explanation of darkness in children's literature is required. Children's literature is built upon dark fears and dangerous things. Pratchett has it right. The trick of children's literature is that it will end well. There are ways to fight the darkness. The essence - indeed, the importance - of children's literature is this exploration of the overcoming of the darkness, whether it be in the slaying of dragons or the ability to face and manage depression. Some writers forget this. It's not about the darkness and the fear. It's about overcoming it.

Reading Positions

I also found Alison Flood's blog on an AbeBooks survey about the positions in which we read to be entertaining. Let's be honest, being involved in the study of literature, I read a lot. Position is important.

There are some areas of academic study that look at how people read - the physicality of reading can be just as interesting as the intellectual side of the exercise. If you're interested in pursuing that line of study, do get in touch with Monash's Centre for the Book.


I had a good day yesterday. First, Neil Gaiman and Shaun Tan at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Shaun Tan sketched on site a story about an angry moose in space. There were also technical difficulties bringing Neil Gaiman, sleepy but via live feed, to the session and he disappeared periodically, reemerging looking benignly upon us while drinking tea (the large screen above the stage had a rather curious effect in that respect - he was a little like the Cheshire Cat). The panel agreed that adults can read picture books. It's sad we still have to agree to this.

Then it was off to AussieCon 4 (the World Con). I caught the session, "Border Crossing: YA authors writing for adults and vice versa" with Bec Kavanagh, Marianne de Pierres, Pamela Freeman and Cory Doctorow. Curiously, the distinction between adult and young adult persists in terms of sex and swearing. Curious, since I'm pretty sure most young adults know about as much about sex and swearing as adults, yet there is still a perception it needs to be censored from YA and that this is the basis of the genre definition. Of course, it isn't really and the panel discussed this. There is a growing recognition that adults also read YA literature (and, in fact, not all adult books have sex and swearing in them, which is, essentially, the assumption if you turn the perception around). YA and children's literature does suffer from definitions that place undue stress upon intended readerships, readerships that are increasingly understood to be far more diverse than indicated. Much work is yet to be done on how these genres can be defined beyond readership age and censorship of sex and swearing. Likewise, these definitions are coloured by 'anticipated risk factors' where publishers and librarians and teachers etc think ahead to what might be considered unsuitable. Naturally, this leads to greater conservatism and is problematic for the boundary-pushing activity of the genre.

I also did like Cory Doctorow's remark that the prevalence of fan fiction is a sign that the writing is working - the characters go on living in the readers' minds, having further adventures.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Did I Get Here?

This morning I was inspired by Wil Wheaton's blog post, "You may ask yourself, 'well, how did I get here?'"

The truth is, I've been feeling pretty positive about things that are happening around me, too. I have great students and I really enjoy teaching the kinds of literature I have the opportunity to teach and my postgrads are working diligently (mostly!) on fascinating projects.

Tomorrow I'm seeing Neil Gaiman (via skype) and Shaun Tan at the Melbourne Writer's Festival before heading over to Aussiecon 4. Having never been to a convention, I'm intrigued and psyched about the experience. I'll be there for a few days. Right now I'm refining my list of sessions to attend - I'm trying to catch some of the Cory Doctorow, Shaun Tan, Ellen Datlow and Paul Cornell sessions, among others. Oh, and on Monday I'm giving a paper in the academic stream. It'll be on Doctor Who and fairy tale. That's about all I can promise at this stage... as I feverishly attempt to finish it. Somewhat literally. I'm really hoping the loss of voice in this morning's class was not a bad sign.

In further positive news, it looks like there will be a fairy tale unit among the offerings for Monash's Winter Semester at Prato. That's right. Next year, I may very well be teaching fairy tales in Tuscany. Fairy tales, gelati, Italian shoes... dreams do come true.

Gustave Doré (adapted)

Keep an eye open for it!

But how did I get to this good place? The truth is, I spent the greater part of my student life avoiding becoming an academic. The irony is not lost upon me. I even ran away to London, where I became a temp from Chiswick (just like Donna Noble), in order to avoid becoming an academic.

It didn't last. I did a MLitt part time, while coming to the realisation that I didn't like working in corporations, and one morning before work, I went down to the food court for a coffee and toast and was planning an essay on the 'Beauty and the Beast' narrative in Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I remember exactly where it happened. I was crossing the road afterward, on my way to the office, and thinking about how Mr Darcy and Beast are pretty much one and the same thing, and it struck me. I could make a career out of thinking these things.

It took me another few years and a few degrees to realise that fairy tale really was 'my thing' (I know, I know... it was obvious from the start... I was blinkered), but now that I have, I'm no longer avoiding being an academic.

The trick, most will agree, is to find a job doing what you love. I love working with fairy tales. So even on days when I'm tired and grouchy because I've been ploughing through marking and paperwork, there is a little voice in the back of my head, saying over and over again:

"You have a career where you spend your time thinking about cats in boots, glass slippers, magic blue boxes, prince charming and falling stars."