Roundtable on Non-Fiction

Gary K. Wolfe

In terms of SF background and criticism, I have to simply add my concurring voice regarding the SFE and the Fantasy Encyclopedia, which I still find myself using in print even though the website is available.  The problem with any online source is that you go straight to what you’re looking for, and the print editions always delight simply because of accidentally stumbling across a neighboring article, or opening it to the wrong page and getting caught in the net of Other Stuff You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know.  As for critics, Knight and Blish for sure, and I’d add Algis Budrys to that list.  I’ve also found helpful Mike Ashley’s history of the SF magazines, and his Greenwood reference books on SF and mystery magazines.

An academic critic I’ve not seen mentioned, but who has been consistently influential since grad school, is Wayne Booth.  I still go back to The Rhetoric of Fiction once in a while, and to a lesser known book of his called Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, which explores the interesting question of why we have so many more rhetorical terms and tools for attack than for praise.  It’s one of the reasons it’s so much easier to write a scathing review than a thoughtfully favorable one.

And sometimes I just go back and read Borges’s essays, just out of envy.

Kathleen Ann Goonan

I gobble Science News, any new, weird scientific take on Us and Matter, which we are, and depending on what I’m writing about (WWII?  Memory?) heavy carloads of everything, which I inhale and which I am afraid I must begin to cull, since it seems that my most pure dream of life is having a huge library.

Books that make me laugh–Thurber, when he’s not being racist; Perelman, lots of essayists and, when last crossing the Atlantic, most any British magazine or newspaper, as the sense of humor seems so much more sharp, opening new ways in which to view us, the human circus. And for that matter, comic strips, which fostered my habit of always beginning to read newspaper sections from back to front.

Personals in the paper, and any small town newspaper.  You will never want for weirdness.

I don’t remember who mentioned Delany’s About Writing, but I have my writing students buy it; it seems useful at so many junctures when one is pondering “what next?” and “how?”

I strongly recommend a book I just got–The Etymologicon, A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth (The Inky Fool).  If you love words, this is your book.  I got one for my father, a crossword fiend, as well, and he loves to read it aloud to me over the phone.

Cat Rambo

One little writing book that I regularly highly recommend to student is Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution, which is a great little book for learning how to pick all the lint off a sentence.

This is by no means the end of this particular conversation–over the next two weeks we’ll also get people’s thoughts on poetry, music, and speculations about John Clute’s giraffe. No, really. Stay tuned!

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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