Roundtable on Non-Fiction

Stefan Dziemianowicz

The breadth of texts that have come up in this discussion so far–genre studies, encyclopedias, book reviews, critical essays, books of critical theory, clinical journals, books of poetry, sales catalogs–makes me wonder if the question we should ask is whether there’s any non-fiction text that a writer CAN’T find useful, the circumstances depending. (I’m tempted to say my company’s quarterly financial report to the stockholders, but I’d bet that someone among us has even referenced a publication like that for a piece they were writing.)

Guy Gavriel Kay

Bravo, touché, what he said.

Paul Graham Raven

Stefan pretty much nails my attitude here when he suggests it’d be easier to list what isn’t useful for research; I’ll read almost anything just for the pleasure of ferreting more factiness and datalumps away in my brain, from domestic bleach hazard labels on upwards…

It’s probably a mark of my generation as much as anything (and as such may make for a few recoils of shock and horror) but pretty much all my research – of any kind! – starts on the intermatubes: there’s no better or quicker way to scrape the surface of a body of knowledge, to feel out what sort of shape and heft it has, and whether it’ll be useful for what you’re working on (or, just as often, useful for something you hadn’t yet realised you wanted to work on). That said, I’m a former library employee, and now employed as a research assistant, so I know that the intermatubes are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the waves lies the chilly scudding mass of deep knowledge. Which is usually books.

All of which is to avoid the question a bit, really, so allow me to redress that:


  • Delany’s About Writing is both inspiring and intimidating at once; the more time I spend studying creative writing, the more I recognise that combination of emotions as indicative of People Worth Paying Close Attention To.
  • Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction is probably the best sf-centric introduction to writing the short story that I’ve yet encountered. Some of the material is a little dated now, but the processes he describes are still useful and inspiring.
  • Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead was a genuine pleasure to read, even if it seems to be a book wherein she spends a few hundred pages failing (or perhaps just elliptically avoiding) to answer the central question “what is the role of the writer?”. Atwood’s honesty about process and willingness to admit when she really doesn’t know something for sure is very refreshing; while NWTD didn’t really teach me much about how one plays the role of writer, it made me feel less worried about not knowing how to play that role, if that makes any sense. Plus she’s a joy to read. Which brings me to…
  • Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. Does exactly what it says on the tin. Lovely and inspirational look at the mechanics of writing as words-on-the-page (and -in-the-mind).


All the usual stuff, basically; still new enough to the game that I haven’t started narrowing my personal field down too severely. So it’s Clute and Wolfe and Gunn and Candelaria and Csicsery-Ronay Jr and Mendlesohn and James and Aldiss and Roberts and… ah, you get the picture. It’s all fuel for the fire at this point.


Again, I stumble across a lot of my raw ideas by bimbling through the tangled banks of the intertubes, but I do have a few favourite dead-tree launch-pads. The etymological dictionary that my colleagues got me as a leaving gift when I bailed out from Portsmouth City Library Service gets regular handling, as does the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and a very Jungian Dictionary of Symbols that I found in a second-hand shop.

But if anything, “second-hand bookshops” is probably the truest answer to this question: if you can’t walk out of one of those places a few pounds or dollars lighter, but loaded down with more new ideas and angles (and books, natch) than you’ve got time to work on, then you’ve a stronger will than I have. Anything from the structural engineering of nuclear power plants to the folk customs of Cornwall in the late 19th Century… if anything, the more obscure and niche the subject, the more intriguing I’ll find it. I’m a magpie. (Us corvids, we stick together.)

Ellen Klages

I went to Clarion (South), in Australia. My dorm neighbor, a chap called Young Trevor, had brought his thesaurus, and I ended up,borrowing it almost every day. I had brought my own thesaurus, but his was British English usage rather than American English, and I found that the forking word paths were just different enough to spark aha! moments.

So now I own one of each, and if I can’t find the exact word / nuance / tone that I’m looking for in my US one (which is a Bartlett’s Roget’s Thesaurus, and I highly recommend it. It has lovely lists of things like Units of Measurement and Legendary Creatures interspersed among the synonyms and antonyms), I switch over to the Oxford one.

Karen Joy Fowler

Just because (I don’t think) no one has mentioned this yet, I love to read naturalists’ notebooks and essays.  There is a kind of attentiveness I find useful whatever I’m working on myself, a sense of the universality of the particular, a reminder of what is beautiful, of how time passes through a landscape.  I remember loving Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk when it first came out though I haven’t read it in a long time.  Terry Tempest-Williams, John McPhee, Edwin Way Teale, Pattiann Rogers.  On the more scientific end, anything by Sarah Hrdy is always amazing.

Peter Straub

I ‘m not moral enough to read naturalists’ essays. And Annie Dillard has struck me for years as  being the most spectacular fake. So maybe I’m too moral for her, but not enough for everybody else.

6 thoughts on “Roundtable on Non-Fiction

  • Pingback:SF Tidbits for 3/15/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  • 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.

  • Pingback:Roundtable on John Clute’s Giraffe | Animals

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *