There are hundreds of science fiction (and fantasy) conventions held around the country every year, involving thousands of volunteer hours, countless airlines tickets and hotel bills, and booksellers, writers, editors, and readers coming together to talk about the field. There are conventions that include, besides books, media and gaming. There are some that are "furry"--a designation I can't speak about with authority! And there are a handful, not enough in my estimation, which are focused exclusively on books. Not writers so much, although writers are encouraged to attend and take part, but on the process of discovery, critique, analysis, and sometimes deconstruction of books.
Readercon, in Boston, is one of these latter conventions. (Others are Potlatch, in the Pacific Northwest, Armadillocon in Austin, Texas, and World Fantasy Convention, which is a movable feast.) Readercon, which is a long day's travel from my home, concluded yesterday. It was, as was my previous experience, a challenging and enlightening experience. And listening to esteemed science fiction and fantasy critics like John Clute and Paul di Filippo hold forth on the underpinnings of the genre, I came away more convinced than ever that the creator--the writer--has to tune the bulk of this information out, at least during the creative process.
I think my colleague Kay Kenyon (Bright of the Sky, A World Too Near) put it perfectly when she called the disconnect between the critic and the writer "the sacred divide". Readercon featured brilliant academics like Farah Mendelssohn, who presented a fascinating thesis on the four types of fantasy. Equally brilliant writers attended: Jonathan Lethem, James Patrick Kelly, Geoff Ryman, Elizabeth Hand, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, et al--I hate leaving anyone out, but I've left out a number of them. Besides doing my own panels, I scooted around trying to sample what these genre leaders had to say. A good bit of the academic talk I simply can't understand; it's not my language.
Years ago, when I was a novice, I subscribed to an excellent review publication, The New York Review of Science Fiction. My intent was to learn all I could about the way critics and academics view speculative fiction, novels in particular. But after reading a deconstruction of one of my novels, Sing the Warmth, I found myself thinking about critics as I wrote. Such a bad idea! I was forced to let my subscription lapse, and to pick and choose carefully what critical essays I read.
I worked with many musicians, in my first career, who assiduously avoided reading their own reviews. There's something to that! The creative process needs to use its own vocabulary, and stretch its own muscles. Maybe certain courageous writers can look at their own work with a constructionist eye, but I suspect they're rare. Nothing will knock me out of the "flow", I've learned, than to worry what critics (or even editors) are going to say.
I'll still go to Readercon, naturally. It's the one convention that gathers the best of the best, and it's valuable to simply breathe the same air they breathe for a time. But I'm going to respect that "sacred divide"!