Fantasy, The Weird, & the Big Picture

I attended my first World Fantasy Con this weekend, which didn’t stop me from tracking election news and Covid-19 spikes, but gave me some wonderful hours of forgetting to doomscroll as I listened to writers talk about storytelling and publishing. I don’t mean that this was an escapist event or that I forgot the burning world. When you become absorbed in a good poem or story in any genre, you’re still thinking about identity, justice, the past, the future; you’re just pulling back from the minutiae of your surroundings to imagine different perspectives and, sometimes, different scales of meaning. To quote Karen Joy Fowler quoting Samuel Delaney (I’ve probably mangled this): “sf writers come in with a big picture of the world,” their attention potentially encompassing everything from interplanetary politics to small, character-based dramas.

A few fragments from the Con:

  • The “Queering Fantasy” panel was one of the first I attended, and it was generous and empowering. The speakers encouraged writers to learn and take risks toward the goal of building better worlds. It made me look forward to getting my brain back so I can plunge into my own novel again (one day soon, I hope?).
  • I spoke on a panel called “The Weird Side of the Fantastic,” organized and moderated by Anya Martin and also including Brian Everson, Michael Kelly, Craig Laurance Gidney, and Zin E. Rocklyn (teri.zin). I was by FAR the newest to this conversation, so I felt abashed to talk at all, but they were nice to me. The Weird, or so the consensus in this group went, isn’t really a genre or clique of writers so much as a slippery, unpredictable incursion of irresolveable, disturbing, and sometimes empowering strangeness into any kind of tale. I’ve garbled that, but I feel at home in the Weird’s way of challenging what passes for realism, as I think many poets do (poetry is so often trying to close in on some weirdness that can’t be expressed). The panel was also a good corrective to an old association between the Weird and Lovecraft’s powerful but toxic version of horror. As teri.zin said (again, I’m approximating, being too absorbed to take perfect notes), Black life in the U.S. has always involved existential threat that is invisible to many white Americans. Weird fiction can be a good fit for those experiences.
  • A moderated conversation with one of my current favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones, may have been the peak of the Con for me. It was deeply moving, very funny, and unpretentiously framed by the experience of someone who wasn’t expected to go to college but ended up, by a circuitous path, arriving at acclaim and best-seller lists. Again, it was also generous, making room for everyone in big conversations about craft and ambition.
  • Do you know the experience of feeling more nervous reading for a tiny group than for a big one? I had given a W&L-based Zoom reading to 75 enrolled participants a few days before, and while I was mighty wound up, I felt good about that event. Yet I gave a reading in the “Weird Cluster” event this weekend and felt like I bungled it. It’s okay. Win some, lose some. (It didn’t help that the event started 10:30 pm Eastern; I suspect the last time I stayed up past midnight was around 2005.) As it happened, a significantly larger audience wandered in later and my cohort carried the night brilliantly. All hail Christi Nogle, Anya Martin, Zin E. Rocklyn, and Eugen Bacon! The picture below is one of Eugen’s screenshots.
  • Listening to Karen Joy Fowler talk about Ursula K. Le Guin was lovely. Fowler also talked about how when she’s in literary circles, people react with dismay to learn of her genre connections, but at Cons, people say, “Sf AND The Jane Austen Book Club? YEAH!” Those biases smacked me in the face when I published The Receptionist and Other Tales, an sf poetry collection; it was short-listed for a great sf award, but when I told some poets about the book, they backed away slowly as if fearing genre-cooties. I’ll say it again: snobs of the lit-verse need to cool it. There’s great and awful work in every marketing category; stereotyping a whole slice of the literary world is just ignorant.
  • Also from Fowler, reporting what Le Guin said about getting some writing done as a woman: “One person cannot do two jobs but two people can do three jobs.”
  • One random crazy moment: I watched an audience member fall asleep during a Zoom reading, the whole head-nod-and-neck-snap slow catastrophe. Zoom has facilitated much worse behavior, but jeez.

It wasn’t all amazing. During many panels, including “Queering Fantasy” and “Black Speculative Futures,” panelists called out deep problems with World Fantasy Con, both historical and recent. Apparently the first version of the 2020 program wasn’t diverse and featured panel descriptions full of stereotypes. I haven’t even seen it–it occurred to me very late that I could try this Con, because it was virtual and I no longer had to scrape up funds for Utah–but vestiges of a much narrower vision of fantasy were perceptible in the version I attended, as well as what you’d have to call obtuseness, at best. Some very accomplished white speakers whose writing I adore dismayed me when they said things like, “humanity is terrible but everyone where I live is so nice,” apparently unaware of how whiteness shelters people from even noticing discrimination and violence; also, it’s not cool to mispronounce names and laugh about it, even though we all make mistakes. Generally, though, I steered my viewing away from events that didn’t feature speakers from marginalized groups. That’s best practice at every conference I’ve ever attended, simply to find the interesting conversations.

I don’t know if I have an accurate impression of this Con when I say I perceived tension about who gets to define these interlocking genres and traditions, plus some reluctance, in some people, to address those conflicts forthrightly. I can say, though, that this WFC did make space for some large and exciting discussions. Many Weird and sffh authors (science fiction-fantasy-horror) are deeply thoughtful about whose realities come into play in fiction, and how; they keep expanding these interlocking fields in incredibly exciting ways. It felt like a gift to spend time with them on this of all weekends.

Don’t freak out, but those beautiful earrings were a gift from Hyejung Kook and they have scavenged fox bones in them

Writing and publishing poetry book reviews

I’m gearing up for a virtual weekend at the World Fantasy Convention, where I’ll give a Friday night reading as well as speaking on a panel about “The Weirder Side of the Fantastic,” both organized by the indefatigable, resourceful, generous writer Anya Martin. I’ll post about that next week, barring apocalypse, but in the meantime I’m thinking about what’s weird and fantastic about poetry reviews.

The WHY of reviewing is probably obvious. Most poetry books don’t get much love, so you serve writers, presses, and readers by bringing your favorites to wider attention. Every poet with means and time should give public service to the art they love, and reviewing is one way to do it (panel/ event organizing like Anya’s is another). Generosity occasionally pays off–if people appreciate you, they may help you in some future, unexpected way–and any byline can increase your name recognition. That’s not the core reason for literary service, though. Fandom is at the heart of it, plus desire to strengthen a fragile community. If you write a thoughtful review, you’ve shown the author they have at least one good reader out there. It makes all parties feel glowy.

Love of poetry isn’t all a reviewer needs, though. I’ve written a ton of criticism, so I’m a faster writer than many, but reviewing a poetry book is still an eight-hour commitment, more or less. I read the book once; put it down and think about it; reread it and start drafting; then take a break from the draft for a day, or a few days, and come back, rewrite, and polish. They’re typically 750-1500 words. Writing micro-reviews (250-300 words) is quicker, but I always end up writing long then boiling them down, a process that takes time, too.

Although I don’t always have the hours, I like reviewing a lot. It feels freeing to analyze a book without scholarly protocols. No bibliography, no citing Very Important Theorists! I’m trying to write a few reviews this year because I’m on sabbatical, grateful for good notices my books are receiving, and, at this bad moment, having a hard time concentrating on big stuff. Writing a poetry review is a way of procrastinating while still putting some useful writing out there.

The first thing to do if you want to write reviews is read a bunch of them and decide what you like and don’t like about them, ideally comparing published reviews to collections you’ve read. I personally find real-world models more revealing than instructions, but here’s how I approach the actual writing:

  • My first time through the book, I note striking lines and poems, trying to get a handle on the book’s through-lines. What’s at stake for the author? What are their strategies for exploring central themes and questions? You’re not writing a five-paragraph theme for English class, but you need an angle of interpretation.
  • In addition to an angle, I need a hook, some interesting remark or example to begin with. I’m always happy to read reviews that have an autobiographical entry-point (“I read this at a crisis point and this is what it meant to me”), but there are endless possibilities. Keep in mind that the review should be centered around the book itself, though, more than on you as a reader.
  • Type out favorite quotes as you take notes. It’s usual for a review to include many brief quotes as well as one or two in the 6-12 line range (micros excepted).
  • Increasingly, I make sure there are a couple of punchy sentences of praise in the review that the writer can excerpt. It’s fine to remark on problems or shortcomings, but I wouldn’t want to spend writing time on a book I didn’t like unless possibly, hypothetically, an incredibly popular poetry book was doing actual damage in the world. (But this is poetry. Not likely.)
  • As I revise, I think about the big picture. No review can cover every interesting aspect of a book, but it doesn’t seem right to get so obsessed with one element that you don’t convey an accurate portrait. Someone who reads a review might be thinking, “should I buy/ borrow this one?” They deserve to know whether a book is really what they want or need to read, because there are many good choices out there.
  • Writers should always try to be interesting in clear sentences, logically organized. I try to write reviews well. I don’t put them through the dozens of revisions a creative piece needs, though. Speed matters.
  • A note on multi-book reviews: I haven’t done many of these because the places I’ve written for steer away from them. But similar considerations apply: you need a hook and an angle. You also need interesting hinge-sentences (more substantive than “another interesting new book is”). I read this recent one by Rose Solari closely because she includes my book The State She’s In, but she’s got a strong angle–“Grief, Grace, and Anger” in books by women–and she she does a good job with linking/ contrasting.
  • On a related note: there IS a politics to reviewing. It’s good to review books you admire, but try, sometimes, for books that stretch you or make you uncomfortable; I always learn from those encounters. Pay attention, over time, to whose books you celebrate. I will always feel pulled to writing by people who identify as women, many of whom get less attention than less talented men, but spending time with work by writers whose experiences are different than mine feels REALLY important, too. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and writers with disabilities deserve extra love in the current hellscape.

It’s helpful to have a target venue or two before you write so you can check on their rules including preferred length, when their review submission period is open, and formatting questions. To find appropriate ones, I check out where the author has published before as well as querying places whose reviews I generally admire. (Some writers mainly review for one publication; I hop around.) Some considerations:

  • If you’re new to reviewing, consider starting with a less-fancy venue, but always try to do a bang-up job. When you have a published example or two, you can use them as sample clips to query prestigious places, because why not? Here is a list of outlets, big and small, from Poets & Writers.
  • That said, it is totally reasonable to hold out for gigs that PAY the reviewer, although you might need a clip or two from a non-paying venue to start with. The $50 Kenyon Review just sent me for reviewing Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque isn’t a good hourly wage, and money isn’t what I did it for, but it’s nice! (I just donated it to a Philadelphia bailout fund after another police shooting of a Black man there followed by protests and arrests. Hellscape.)
  • Some magazines want you to query first, others ask you to submit finished reviews, and still other editors prefer to assign books to reviewers themselves. Also, some venues will only print a review within six months of book publication, so get ARCs and/or work fast. I’m reviewing for Harvard Review right now after querying them with clips, and the editor had the presses send me books directly. You can also personally request ARCs from the publisher (the marketing department, if they have one) or from the author.
  • Some journals are sticklers about there being NO relationship between reviewer and author. I get the ethics of that, but I find it impractical because the poetry world is small. You get to know people who share your interests, especially if you’ve been going to conferences and festivals for a while. If you’re already very good friends with the writer, though, it’s often better to help them with publicity in other ways, like posting Goodreads reviews or retweeting their announcements.

Whether reviewing can be part of your life right now or not, I hope you’re hanging in there. I’m struggling to stay sane, but it was nice to see the Fablesque review come to fruition, as well as a short interview about editing/ submitting with Frontier Poetry and the announcement of a prize I judged for Talking Writing–the winner is B. Tyler Lee, whose work is new to me but whose essay was riveting and moving (it was a well-run contest, by the way–thoroughly anonymous). I gave a fun reading via my college library yesterday that was widely attended by students, colleagues, far-flung friends, and alumni–that was a treat. Finally, I just received my copy of an essay collection called Deep Beauty and I’m really enjoying the many wonderful, surprising, and often uplifting essays bumping shoulders with my own. May your days be full of small good things, and may we soon be smiling over a landslide election.