Roundtable on Non-Fiction

Rachel Swirsky

WRITING BOOKS — Writing Fiction Step by Step by Josip Novakovich is the best general-knowledge writing text for intermediate level students I’ve read. I think it’s smart. Anything by Nancy Kress is also fantastic.

CURRENT SCIENCE — On the advice of one of the instructors at Launch Pad, I e-subscribe to Science News.

HISTORICAL RESEARCH — My obsessions vary a lot, but I would say that the most dependable research source I’ve found for writing historical fantasy is the Daily Life in the (Era) series, where the era can be the Italian Renaissance or the height of the Aztec Empire. What I love most about these books is that they provide the kinds of cultural information that you really need if you’re going to write about a time period. A random history book may only tell you a little bit about pervasive cultural attitudes on its way to explaining who won what war when; The Daily Life series will give you floor plans and tell you what kind of patterns were on the dishes.

For fashion, I rely heavily on the paperdoll books by Tom Tierney which are beautiful and give a sense of major fashions from different eras and industries. (The series is Western-centric.) The paintings give a good impression of what the fashions looked like; informative descriptions in the back of the book give technical terms.

Michael Dirda

What little critical method I possess I owe to William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. I discovered them back in the 1960s, when all the world was young, and the two great critics taught me usefully complementary ways of looking at poems and stories. Empson discovered worlds in grains of sand by peering closely at every word and punctuation mark in a poem; Frye revealed that beneath the wild disorder of texts one could, by stepping back a bit, make out an underlying structure and organizing patterns. To their mighty examples, I later added the witty poetry reviews of Randall Jarrell, the chummy table-talk of Cyril Connolly, and the humanist journalism of Joseph Mitchell, Janet Flanner, A.J. Liebling, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vincent Starrett and dozens of others.

For me sf and fantasy criticism began with a list–sent to me by Joanna Russ, the only science fiction writer I then knew–of books I needed to read: Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder, the two William Atheling collections of James Blish, and one or two anthologies of essays by various eminences of the field. I soon  read Darko Suvin, Robert Scholes,Tzetvan Todorov, Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell, Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree, Hell’s Cartographers, a collection of essays edited by Peter Nicholls, the introductions and story notes in various anthologies. But the most important nonfictional sf experience for me was the first, then later the second, editions of the Clute-Nicholl’s Science Fiction Encyclopedia. This, and its companion volume on fantasy, are perhaps the two most intelligent and exciting reference books I know.

But then I admire the great one-person works of scholarship: E.F. Bleiler’s Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Martin Seymour-Smith’s The New Modern World Literature, Malraux’s Voices of Silence, Barzun and Taylor’s crotchety Catalogue of Crime, George Saintsbury’s history of English prose rhythm, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and many others. Such books combine authority with personality, and that’s an irresistible combination.

Like most writers and journalists, I enjoy the preliminary research for a project more than any other aspect. I’m writing a piece now about Philip Larkin, pegged to the fat collected edition of the poems annotated by Archie Burnett. And so I’ve got spread around me Larkin’s letters, Andrew Motion’s biography and Richard Bradford’s revisionary biography, individual editions of Larkin’s poems, his two novels Jill and A Girl in Winter, the festschrift titled Larkin at 60, several collections of essays and memoirs by friends and associates, his friend Kingsley Amis’s letters, the louche jeux d’esprits in Trouble at Willow Gables, the essay collections Required Writing, All What Jazz and Further Required Writing, and, somehow, a half dozen other books. I don’t really need any of them, but I will swoop and browse and gather bits and pieces that might allow me to write a better piece, even though the poems themselves and my thoughts about them will be the heart of the matter. I can only devote three days to the whole project–such is the life of anyone who lives by his pen—but having these books near me gives me a ground of confidence, makes me feel as if I’m almost a real scholar.

That said, the work of nonfiction I use the most is The Oxford American Writers Thesaurus, second edition; a couple of years back it replaced a battered edition of Roget’s Thesaurus I bought at a garage sale decades ago for 25 cents.

John Clute

The secret weapon for anyone doing criticism (aside from academics following MLA protocols, which submerge contexts of time and place in scientistic squid-ink, which is another way of saying garbage in garbage out) is research sources that start with the gradgrind of fact and sing afterwards. Ev Bleiler’s two great books, Science Fiction: The Early Years, and Science Fiction: The Gernsback Years. George Locke’s three volumes of his Spectrum of Fantasy, and Voyages in Space.

Michael Dirda’s list is my list too, except what I haven’t read. Just discovering Jarrell properly, poetry and criticism both. Ten years I thought I’d had a thought, with the idea that America had become a disappointment management culture. And now I finally sit down and read “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket” from half a century ago: and learn again that those who don’t read literature are condemned to repeat it.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Ah, well, even if we do read it we’ll repeat it. But Jarrell (as I think we discussed over coffee once?) is a joy and a treasure as a critic. I cite him on Frost, the two main pieces, as texts for all critics to read: the extreme skill involved in praising thoughtfully. That can shift the landscape for the reader.

Terry Bisson

Clute: Bronk! Yes, or Larkin (Dirda). Poetry shuffles neurons.

Stan Robinson set me to reading Science magazine though I mainly use that for my Locus “column.” (Along with The Onion.) Motorcycle magazines and gun catalogues are fun. Genesis is good for First Contact stories. I’ve only seriously researched a couple of books: Zubrin for Mars, Truman Nelson for John Brown. But I’m lazy; the two writers I admire most do the most actual research: Cecelia and Stan.

Peter Straub

The books I keep close at hand and  often consult are: What’s What, a visual “glossary”, by Fisher and Bragnier (a novelist must know the names of things, and this book really does the job); the Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition; The Concise Oxford Dictionary, really battered by now; The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2 volumes, also pretty battered; the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, a fantastic book; the Reader’s Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder, also very useful; Human Anatomy & Physiology, Carola, Harly & Noback; The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition; and whatever I need if I’m setting something in a period earlier than WWII. Apart from that, if I wish to jiggle my neurons, as Terry says, I read Emily Dickinson and John Ashbery. Both of these poets are great sources for epigraphs and titles, also.

More generally, for inspiration I depend upon David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Henry James, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Raymond Chandler, Philip Larkin, Fernando Pessoa, Rilke, etc., etc.

And now I must see if I can locate Rachel’s suggestions, the Tom Tierney paperdoll books and The Daily Life in the _____ Era books. These sound perfect for me.

6 thoughts on “Roundtable on Non-Fiction

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  • March 15, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    Mr. Letson,
    What are the Advent titles, Tuck Encyclopedia ,the old Day-MITSF-NESFA Indexes and the Bill Contento’s newer work you are referring to ? I am only beginning my SF research hobby and I am curious about these books.
    Can you please provide more information, such as full titles and the authors names.Thanks.

  • March 16, 2012 at 6:54 am

    James–Reaching to and reading from the shelves I can see from my keyboard:

    Donald Tuck, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 3 vols. The ur-encyclopedia, a monument of amateur scholarship, and now superceded by generations of later work. Still, it was a Very Big Deal back in the 1970s and 80s.

    The rest of the books are various indexes to fiction published in the magazines and anthologies. Donald B. Day produced his pioneering Index of Science Fiction Magazines, 1926-1950 in 1952. G.K. Hall published a corrected edition in 1982. Neither is easy to find now.

    The follow-ups includedThe MIT Science Fiction Society’s [MITSF] Index to the S-F Magazines, 1951-1965 (1966) and Norm Metcalfe’s Index of Science Fiction Magazines, 1951-1960 (1968), and a long series of year-by-year indexes from NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association). The Bill Contento got rolling with his Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections (G.K. Hall, 1978) and a follow-up covering 1977-83 (Hall, 1984), and then a long series of annual indexes in collaboration with Charles Brown: Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror: [year] (Locus Press, 1984-).

    If you’re serious about SF bibliography, hunt down a copy of the late Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder–the last edition is the 5th. What’s wonderful about these books is that, with the exception of the Anatomy, they were compiled by amateur scholars and researchers. (There were bibliographies and studies produced by literary academics in those early days, but that’s a different list and a different story. Nor have I mentioned the incredible work of E.F. Bleiler.)

  • March 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Every aspiring SF&F author should read Ursula Le Guin’s critical essays on the uses and purpose of fantasy, especially those collected in “The Language of the Night” (1979). If nothing else, just read the essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” to see how to differentiate real fantasy from faux fantasy in your writing.

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