I’m back with more tales of my adventures at the LA Times Festival of Books, continued from my post yesterday. In the afternoon I attended a panel on Fairy Tales, that specifically addressed current works of fiction that use fairy tales either as their jumping-off point or as their thematic foundation. Speakers included authors Aimee Bender, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Trinie Dalton, with Nan Cohen as moderator.
Fairy tales seem to be experiencing something of a resurgence in modern-day fiction. The panelists discussed the appeal of this format, and how at their heart, fairy tales are very simple, basic tales that focus more on imagery and emotion than on character or plot. In fact, characters in fairy tales can more often than not be described as their archetypes rather than by any distinctive characteristics: the witch, the princess, the king, the prince, the fairy, the giant, etc. The authors found that framework appealing, since with the structure already imposed on a story to some extent, the author is no longer burdened with having to come up with a unique, original story structure. Instead, they can look for ways in which to partake of a rich storytelling tradition; how can their fairy tale play off the tropes and foundations of the genre’s history? One example was the way in which many popular recent novels have turned the fairy tales on end by addressing the point of view of the villain, and giving the reasons behind their actions.
My final session on Saturday was titled Mystery and Magic in Mind and Matter, and featured K.C. Cole as moderator, Deborah Harkness, and Tim Page. This panel fell into one of those mysterious categories that appear on the festival schedule every year, where you have to squint a little bit and maybe peer at the panelists sideways to get an idea what they have in common. In this instance, the common thread seemed to be a curiosity about the world; Cole has spent years as a journalist covering virtually every topic imaginable, Harkness is the author of the recent novel A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES as well an academic specializing in the history of science from the 1500s through the 1700s, and Page is a professor of journalism and music with a varied publishing history as well. These people love learning things. They’re interested in the world, in systems, and in uncovering information. Harkness came to write her novel, in part, because she stumbled across what she calls the “wall of vampire books” in an airport bookstore in 2008 and realized that if all these supernatural beings existed, it might be interesting to know what they did for a living. The panel was an intriguing demonstration of all the ways in which a writer can turn their own fascinations in fodder for their books.
Sunday morning kicked off bright and early with Fiction: World Building, featuring John Scalzi, Lev Grossman, Frank Beddor, and Charles Yu as moderator. That’s quite a few colorful characters for 10am, and I was glad to have had my morning coffee already, because they were certainly on their toes. Discussions ran to how one creates a fictional world, specifically whether one builds from the inside out or the outside in. The difference here is that some books are written because there is a story and a protagonist, and the writer creates the world around that focus, whereas when building from the outside in, the writer creates the fully fleshed out world and then runs a story or adventure through that existing landscape. Tolkein, for example, built up Middle Earth and created the various languages of the land because that was his primary interest, and then he went back and inhabited his world with the stories of THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. He worked very much from the outside in. Grossman cautioned that, whichever way an author approaches that world building, it is important to keep the world from overshadowing the story you’re trying to tell. It is possible to get so caught up in the details of your world — politics, architecture, history, food, clothes, creatures, geography — that it drowns out your characters and their adventures.
Scalzi and Grossman did entertain the audience for a bit with an impassioned argument over who has the last say in world building, specifically in reference to fanfiction and its effect on canon. Scalzi insists that the writer, as original creator, can know things about his/her world that might not be included in the books, but that makes the knowledge no less valid. Grossman, on the other hand, believes in the sanctity of the text, where it’s only true if it ended up in the book.
The example used was J.K. Rowling mentioning in an interview after all the Harry Potter books were complete that Dumbledore was gay, despite never having said so specifically within the books. According to Grossman, this was not to be considered part of canon, despite the source, whereas Scalzi felt it certainly was canon, whether or not fans liked the information. He went on to point out that Rowling had mentioned the fact to Steve Kloves, the screenwriter, at an earlier point, to keep Dumbledore from making a remark in one of the films that would have suggested he was heterosexual, and that in an intolerant society such as the one these stories depicted Dumbledore was not likely to be out of the closet. (Personally, I felt that the descriptions of Dumbledore’s clothing and the hints of scandal revolving around his friendship with Grindelwald pointed toward his sexual orientation; she wasn’t likely to be explicit in a children’s book.) Regardless, it was interesting to hear a debate surrounding fanfiction that had nothing to do with concerns of copyright or legality.
And on that note, I’ll leave the final bits of my recap for tomorrow. Check back to hear about the rest of my Sunday panels.