Key West Literary Seminar 2012: redux

The Key West Literary Seminars are running at the moment. I can’t believe it was a whole year ago that I was lucky enough to attend myself. I blogged about it at the time. I also wrote an article for Locus which I intended to blog as well but plumb forgot! Better late than never, as they say:

Key West Literary Seminar: Yet Another World: Literature of the Future

A review by Cat Sparks

It was my first day on Twitter. I’d only hopped on to see what all the fuss was about but did a double take when Margo Lanagan retweeted a message from Margaret Atwood. Unbelievably, my favourite author would be speaking at the Key West Literary Seminar – and teaching a workshop on the writing of post-apocalypse first chapters afterwards! One hard-fought-for Australian-government-arts-grant later and I found myself plane-hopping across the Pacific to Key West, Florida, haunt of Hemingway and other famous literary drunks.

KWLS took place January 5–8 at the San Carlos Institute on infamous Duval Street. Along with Ms Atwood, Yet Another World: Literature of the Future featured William Gibson, China Mieville, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan and a host of other high profile and extremely entertaining speakers. The theme was ‘Exploring the potential of the present moment, pursuing it through dystopian, utopian, and imagined worlds that shed light on our current condition.’ Or, in plainer terms, the sort of speculative fiction I’ve been enamored of since childhood.

KWLS has been going for thirty years. It generally attracts an older crowd who turn up like clockwork, no matter the topic. Apparently this year’s was a little different. Forty per cent of the regulars didn’t front, yet bums-on-seats attendance was higher than ever, some events being standing room only. Many regulars I spoke to had no previous experience whatsoever with SF literature and would have been certain it wasn’t their cuppa had they not experienced the panels first hand.

And they were excellent panels, right across the board: a handful of the best and brightest manouvering their own work into broader contexts.

Some highlights in brief:

According to William Gibson, Facebook is the mall, whereas Twitter is the street. He spoke of atemporality, pattern recognition, the transparency of experience and how externalised forms of memory are both our special gift and curse as a species. What new aspects of ourselves we might discover through new devices?

Michael Cunningham declared that most books suck. ‘Literary’ authors are busting out into genre-ish territory. Writing true ‘scary’ is really hard. He has admiration for anyone who can pull it off.

Self-identified dystopian George Saunders says all fiction reminds us that conceptual reality is just a veil.

Jennifer Egan spoke of air crackling with disembodied (digital) communication like gothic ghosts. She admitted to an anti-SF prejudice. She believes chronology is the writer’s straightjacket and successfully subverted the narrative form with her Pecha Kucha slide presentation.

Not having heard of steampunk seemed utterly universal – something that surprised me as I’d presumed it to have crossed quite boldly into mainstream consciousness by now.

My own prejudices were turned around when I found myself immensely enjoying the poetry of former US poet laureate Billy Collins and the surreal, apocalyptic offerings of James Tate, a contemporary of Kurt Vonnegut who once famously said of science fiction that ‘no one wants their work placed in the drawer that people piss in.’

So are people still pissing in Vonnegut’s drawer? Not on China Mieville’s watch. Total genre warrior, he came to the seminar armed to the teeth with clever quips and comebacks whenever Big L literature attempted to fire off a cheap shot.

”You say ‘shock value’ and ‘titillation’ as if it’s a bad thing,” being my favourite quote, his point illustrated by referencing the giant bee fighting sequence in Gulliver’s Travels.

And now to the workshop:

I’ve lost count of the number of smug SF enthusiasts who proudly announce they refuse to read Margaret Atwood’s work on account of her infamous ‘talking squids from Planet X’ comment, as if hand-cementing another brick into that genre ghetto wall is somehow doing the rest of us a favour.

Ms Atwood showed herself to be no literary prima donna, despite her commanding presence onstage. She’s a cabinet of curiosities where cutting-edge science and historical phantasmagorias mix. She cracks a lot of jokes, loves B movies (the more ridiculous the plot, the better) and claims she “reads a lot of trashy books”. She’s fascinated by technology, ecology and the future. Also history: the minutiae of human exploration and endeavour. Perhaps what she favours most is the crossing of the streams: the threads that connect past and future through the present.

Twelve hand-selected students were treated to four days of wordy seam picking: the unraveling of sentence construction, the extrapolation of ideas seeded, oftentimes, by single words. She encouraged the development of intricate back stories; the fleshing of two dimensions into three. Blooming ecologies, landscapes and textural infrastructures. Forensic examination and interrogation of thought, ensuring we departed with broader horizons than we arrived with.

Later I learned that she was the one who shaped this year’s KWLS. She invited Mieville to the party and ensured that science fiction/speculative fiction – whatever you, she or I prefer to call it – was placed squarely on the map for the rusted-on, Big L folks.

Ms Atwood is every bit as legitimate a SF enthusiast as I am. She’s someone whose engagement with this genre could only be of benefit to us all.

Maybe it’s time to forget the flying squids and bury the hatchet.

KWLS audio archive


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