Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Notes on "What Dreams Need Come: A Task List for Visionaries" Potlatch 24 panel

What Dreams need Come: A Task List for Visionaries

Glenn Glazer (mod), Janna Silverstein, Jeanne Gomoll, Dan Trefethen

Panel description (from the program guide): At the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin issued a call to auctorial arms. She warns of hard times to come, charges us to dream alternatives to the ways we live now. But is she right? Science fiction is rarely predictive, so what is it good for? I speculative fiction a tool for change, a gate to better futures, or just another obsessive technology of popular distraction? Other than amusing ourselves, what good do we really expect from dreaming new worlds?

The program guide provides URLs to a video clip of the speech and to a transcript:

As with my notes on the Women Destroy panel, these are partial and scattered notations of statements that interested me.

Janna: Editors now have to be advocates for books as different from other commodities. Publishers have a responsibility to be a standard-bearer for that.

Dan: I'm not an editor or publisher—I think she [Ursula Le Guin] was speaking for art for art's sake. In that speech, she is storming the castle. She has the credentials to do that. [Later, this is characterized as “speaking truth to power.”]

Jeanne: She was identifying science fiction to the people in the room as being a key part of any movement that seeks to change the world. She is posing the question: what kind of world are we ideally moving toward? So many people outside of the sf world do not think of science fiction in connection with revolution or change. Le Guin is pointing out its social value.

Glenn: These publishers [reference to the Big Five, and generally to the publishing people sitting in the audience Le Guin was speaking to] are driven by changes in the technology that we did not see coming. What do authors need to do to survive?

Janna: Ursula may be 6 months ahead of what's going on, but the publishers are years behind—when they should have seen it coming and prepared for it. Publishing is having a real hard time with this transition. 

Aud (Huw Evans): Le Guin talked a lot about freedom in her speech. Science fiction should be the first to embrace technological change. Readers are the gatekeepers.

Aud: Booksellers and librarians are mediators between books and readers and the books' authors.

[In the course of the discussion that followed, panelists and audience members displayed a diverse and contradictory range of notions about who or what are “gatekeepers” and how rating systems and algorithims work. Vonda mentions one of the earliest recommendation programs designed by Dave Howell and how well it worked, one with different aims to, say, Amazon’s recommendation algorithims.]

Janna: Signal to noise ratio is off-kilter with self-publishing. There's a higher proportion of noise now. But bloggers can be discriminatory filters.

Glenn: [Expresses worry about the vanishing of indie bookstore, which has been an important discriminatory filter. The sad closing of Borderlands came up during the ensuing discussion.]

Aud: There’s a difference between gatekeepers and arbiters. It's not always a good thing that gatekeepers have a diminished role.

Janna: We need something that provides a faithful reflection of readers' ratings and preferences.

Jeanne: Women Destroy SF is evidence about the myopia in the field.

Dan: WDSF was crowd-sourced, not produced by big publishing.

Janna insists that the reason it couldn't have been published by the Big Five only because it was an anthology, not because its contributors were all women. [Because anthologies don’t sell enough to be published with the print-runs all books published by them have recently come to need.]

Aud (Nisi) We need not more gatekeepers, but gate-openers.

(Aud) Readers ratings can be (and are) gamed. They can't solve the signal-to-noise ratio problem.

Aud: Le Guin is addressing two audiences-- writers (that they live with integrity and write with integrity) and publishers. I think she was trying to shove writers into greater integrity in their writing.

Aud: It's important to remember that writers are reflecting back the values of mainstream society.

Dan: I think if she were here today, she would say, “I'm talking about you people. Don't sell your soul for a mess of pottage, so to speak.”

Janna: These days, decisions have to be made more consciously than in the past (precisely because these conversations are happening). Everyone in publishing has become more conscious of how their decisions will be read.

Aud (Vicki R.) Often books are rejected because of the marketing dept. Editors might love a book and reject it because they think it won't sell.

Janna: That's the reason I left publishing.

Aud (Tom Becker) Amazon's algorithims are measuring biases & decisions people have already made; they don’t suggest departures [from what people are in the habit of reading]. Algorithims are not going to suggest paths of bold reading.

Dan: UKL says we need to know the difference between art and commerce.

Dan: Small presses are the one bright light in all this.

Janna: We as a community need to heed Ursula's clarion call.

Jeanne: One of the things Ursula does, more than telling us, is that she shows us by her own work. [Cites Tehanu, as an example of revisioning one’s own past work and ideas.]

This panel could have gone in one of several clear directions; instead, it took a scattershot approach. Because it began with an emphasis on technological change and the mainstream publishing industry's apparent cluelessness about it and its inability to do more than attempt to play catch-up, I began with the impression that the discussion would be centering on that. But when the audience entered the discussion (which, being Potlatch, was fairly early), the discussion got bogged down in generalities about the quantity of work being published and the lack of filters (authoritative or otherwise) for helping readers find what they want to read. Although both panelists and audience members made a lot of references to things Ursula said in her speech, I noticed a general avoidance of pursuing the ramifications of what the difference between art and commerce is and whether that difference will vanish (which is clearly one of the concerns UKL expresses in her speech). For all its excellent intentions, we were not collectively bold in our discussion. (I say "we" because I was present, even though I did not speak. As an indie publisher, I always feel I risk appearing self-serving in voicing my opinions on such matters.)

It occurs to me that it might be interesting to see someone unpack the sentences of that very brief speech. That wasn't, of course, the point of the panel, but such an exercise might be fruitful.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

To me, the most powerful words in that speech remain: "We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings." That's the phrase that woke me up. The rules of our economic system can be changed. Hidebound publishers and overreaching tech companies are an example of the problem, one writers, editors, and readers all know well, but I don't think Le Guin's phrase was intended to be limited to them. I am disappointed to hear that the panel bogged down into the usual discussion of the limits of old and new publishing, because I think the speech was intended to send us all out to the streets (even if most of the action we'll see will be metaphorical through our fiction).

Kristin King said...

Timmi, I don't think you should worry about being self-serving! Aqueduct Press is part of the solution, which is extremely relevant to panels like these.

I haven't had the good fortune of watching Ursula's speech yet, so I will get right on that.

It seemed to me that there was a hidden logic in the conversation about gatekeepers -- something people were thinking and not saying. I would not have been surprised to see somebody get up and say, "The Big 5 publishers suck at publishing women, so we need other solutions, but on the other extreme, self-published works are a slush pile all on their own. What's the solution?"