Roundtable on Non-Fiction

Guy Gavriel Kay

Liz’s mentions (Hamilton, Harrison) cue a thought.

Sometimes the best trigger resources for a novelist are not the most sober and up-to-date, they are the ones that inspire, make waves in the mind. I’ll bit a shiny sheckel, Liz, you read both of those young (I know I did). Same with the brilliantly lunatic (word chosen carefully) Robert Graves, with both his myths and White Goddess. Or Campbell, who was really useful, before he jumped the shark with ‘Follow your bliss!’ Another example: in researching Lions of Al-Rassan I was exhilarated by a 19th century Dutch historian on the period, a man named Rheinhart Dozy. Brio, panache, verve, elan (add another word!) in his narrative (also love). But even as I scribbled ideas from him, I also scribbled the need to cross-check against more careful and judicious coverage. Dozy inspired (despite the name!), others grounded.

This is one reason specific book research thoughts are perhaps a problem here: they are so idiosyncratic, and I worry they might be read as prescriptive. What about more general, this rocked my world books? Not targeted to a theme of research? The Gulag Archipelago, Wild Swans, Alone Together, You Are Not a Gadget, Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia (a book I’d have everyone read) At Day’s Close, Worldly Goods, Landscape and Memory … and I haven’t even started on poetry.

Cecelia Holland

When I go to Constantinople (OK, Istanbul) I always take Antiquities of Constantinople by Pierre Gilles which was written in the 16th century. The best guide to medieval Paris, though, is Victor Hugo, especially Hunchback, which is fabulous. When you’re going somewhere to find a place that doesn’t exist any more the best chance you have is to find somebody who was there when it was there. If you follow me.

Guy Gavriel Kay

If memory serves, Dorothy Dunnett has Gilles as a minor character, writing his book, in Pawn in Frankincense.

Always happy to follow Cecelia.

Gardner Dozois

I’ve found The Golden Bough useful on several occasions. Also Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned and Lo!, for weird ideas. Also, The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible, for historical perspective. Lots of travel books, John McPhee, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson. And Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

Russell Letson

I don’t write fiction, so my research needs are more like Mark’s or Clute’s or Michael Dirda’s–literary history and theory and various dictionaries and linguistic aids, and my list echoes much of theirs. There’s a Shorter OED a step away from my keyboard (because it’s too big for the shelf I can reach sitting down)–bought for $5 at a giant used-book sale in the early 1970s. I don’t know where my Frye or Kenneth Burke or A.C. Bradley volumes are, but enough of them got burned into my brain in grad school that they’re practically part of the operating system now.

Much of my early writing and research life focused on science fiction and fantasy, and by the time I started college (fifty years ago!), I was already accumulating every scrap of SF scholarship I could find–the Sam Moskowitz magazine columns that became Seekers of Tomorrow, as many of the Advent titles as I could afford (the Tuck Encyclopedia was the crown of this sub-collection), Amis’s New Maps of Hell, and so on. By the time I finished with grad school, my personal research library was more comprehensive than the SF holdings of many college collections. I pretty much halted acquisitions when I stopped teaching and writing academic essays, but the collection surrounds me e’en now–thirty-something running feet, not counting the anthologies and periodicals. The Clute-Nicholls-Grant SF/F Encyclopedias remain the most comprehensive general resources, while for bibliographical work I have the old Day-MITSF-NESFA Indexes and Bill Contento’s newer work, the final Anatomy of Wonder, the Tymn & Ashley Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazines, and various E.F. Bleiler titles. But the world has changed, and these days basic bibliographic work starts with Google. Still, print remains authoritative, if necessarily dated.

The results of other enthusiasms fill the rest of my office shelf space. Some of it reflects hobby interests–space toys, wooden-ship naval history (thank you Patrick O’Brian), stick-and-string aviation history (especially World War I military), show-biz history with a special focus on comedians (the Marx Brothers and Monty Python sections dominate). And when I switched from teaching to journalism (or whatever you call scribbling for short money), some of those hobbies were elevated to professional interests, which meant I could start deducting for books on music and guitars. The latter field feels a lot like SF scholarship did in the 1970s, a mixture of historical accounts (Washburn Pre-War Instrument Styles; C.F. Martin and His Guitars, 1796-1873; The Story of Selmer-Macafferri Guitars) with “guitar porn” pictorials (the big dog: Jonathan Kellerman’s With Strings Attached).

There’s almost nothing to show for more than a decade of computer/tech-biz writing, though–the stuff goes obsolete so fast that there’s no point in keeping files of PR releases, product specs, and corporate white papers. I haven’t done a tech story for about five years, which means I would be starting from scratch if I got an assignment today.

F. Brett Cox

I’m of the “I love research” school.  Some examples from my office bookshelves:

On writing: Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing and Madison Smart Bell’s Narrative Design.

On SF/F/H: The Encyclopedias of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

On the oddness of where I live: Joseph Citro and Diane Foulds’ Curious New England.

Department of Vivid Evocation of Weird America: Douglas Curran’s In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space and Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip.

Department of They Don’t Pay Me Nearly Enough, So You’re Damn Right I Want Desk Copies: The Norton Anthologies of World, British, and American Literature.

Examples of specific reference for specific stories: Bryan Bergeron’s Dark Ages II: When the Digital Data Die; J.P. O’Neill, The Great New England Sea Serpent; Herbert Asbury, The French Quarter.

Peter Straub

Brett: “I’m of the ‘I love research’ school.”

Me, I’m of the “ugh, now I have to do some damn research” school.

Also, however, I cannot see what these worthy books

On writing: Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing and Madison Smart Bell’s Narrative Design.

have to do with research, either. A whole lot of us cited writing manuals right from the git-go. Okay, they might be helpful, but isn’t it a little like sending yourself back to the first grade? (Okay, nothing written by Chip Delaney fits that description, but, you know… it’s still a writing manual. Long ago, I devoured that good John Gardner book about fiction, not On Moral Fiction, but the other, earlier one, yet  I wouldn’t say I ever go back to consult it.) I think people who actually write fiction should take their lessons from what other writers of fiction do or have done. I’d say that’s how we learn, through observation and  the willingness to be knocked out, over and over, by what other writers find themselves able to do. I say this with all respect for Brett and the many others who cited books about writing.

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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