Hugo Award winners N.K. Jemisin and Ann Leckie are two of the most accomplished authors writing science fiction and fantasy today. At their New York Comic Con panel on the New classics of SciFi and Fantasy, they talked everything from working as writers in the modern world to how diversity is changing across the entirety of media. Here’s what they had to say:
According to Jemisin and Leckie, the books we consider classics has little to do with whether they are actually the ‘best’ books out there.
Leckie says the classics collection is created by whoever is in charge.
“It’s always a particular group of folks making that list. And so I feel like calling something a classic maybe isn’t very helpful because all it says is that whoever is in cultural ascendency has said this is part of our narrative of who we are, which is excluding a lot of other awesome stuff.”
Jemisin added: “We may actually finally for the first time in English literature/history be able to come up soon with a canon that is inclusive of all people. It’s gonna take awhile because we are not in that yet. …But as long as we continue having conversations about who is setting that agenda, whose story is central, then we may be able to actually expand what constitutes the canon.”
Writing in today’s world means really connecting with your fan base. Yet the wall between artist and art is thinning, in part thanks to social media.
Jemisin: “Raise your hands those of you who still think of Ender’s Game as a classic. But my guess is if that I had asked that question 10-15 years ago the number would have been much larger. Because things have happened in the interim. Knowing about author’s beliefs helps you understand how their beliefs influence their writing. Once you have enough information about that writer…things that you thought meant one thing you suddenly realize can mean an entirely different thing…that makes a difference.”
“I don’t believe in the idea that the author is dead. The author is on twitter and pissed.”
“It’s never made sense to treat the author as if their personality their experiences their background is irrelevant to the art that they create. That’s stupid.”
“Nothing means anything without a context,” Leckie added. “A single word with no context is basically meaningless. And you can make it mean anything you want as a parlor trick or for a paper for an academic journal…but the context really affects how you take meaning from something. The context you read something in is one thing, the context someone has written something in is another, and awareness of the context in which something was written is obviously gonna change the context of it for you.”
Leckie expressed some frustration with the idea that art should be separate from the artist. She noted that in college, one of her music history professors who was Jewish went through a period in college where he had a really tough time with Wagner. “You could say it’s clearly music and acknowledge its context without telling the Jewish musicologist you’re supposed to ignore that context.”
“I think the people who believe that works can and always should be divorced from their context are people who have the privilege to do so,” Jemisin said. “They’re people who aren’t affected by the real world things these artists may or may not have done.”
Writers interacting with the world doesn’t always mean you learn horrific things about them. Maybe you simply learn they’re human. On the fun social aspect of social media, Leckie said, “When I was a baby writer the internet was not a thing. And so I think ‘oh it’s difficult for me to write and my ideas all just seem stupid. I must not actually be talented I must not actually be meant to be a writer.’
With the internet, that experience can be shared.
“(I can go on twitter) and say ‘oh it’s really hard I have that voice in the back of my head telling me all my words suck and I have to write anyway and hope it comes out ok.’ And the little baby writers can read that and say ‘oh, oh, that’s normal.’ And I think that’s amazingly valuable and helpful to folks who are struggling.”
Not only does your audience learn from you but you learn from them too. So be very aware of what people are saying about your work. Read your reviews, get feedback however you can.
Jemisin didn’t really see what she was writing about until a review of her own work spelled it out. “One of the early reviews of [the Inheritance trilogy] was like ‘knowing that N.K. Jemisin was a psychologist I predict that these characters are the Id the Ego and Superego’ and I was like…I (consciously) had no idea that’s what I was doing! There was more to it…but it took an objective outsider knowing what they did about my background to figure that out.”
Meaning making in art comes from personal experience of the writer and the reader- who will interpret a work based on their experience. You can not tell a story that is devoid of meaning no matter how genral you think you’re being.
Leckie: “Melville was totally writing an adventure story about a giant whale. Yeah there are comments there but the english teacher…you take it fromt hat angle as though that’s what you’re doing. I think a lot of people that approach science fiction as though you’re trying to push this message. Well the message is there because I believe what I believe and it comes out in the story. But I sat down to write something that was gonna blow up a few planet.”
Jemisin added: “I was just going to point out that even Dick and Jane has some kind of meaning. If you really tend to think about the fact, well why did they pick those names? If the goal of Dick and Jane was to illuminate society through simply depicting typical kids why Richard and Jane. Why are those particular names the ones that you chose. And that has meaning. There’s a tendency in our society to pretend that certain ethnicities certain genders and so forth are invisible. That you can actually tell a story that has no meaning. Which is utter utter …”
Are we seeing a change in the narrative? Jemisin seemed hopeful that media is beginning to highlight the “invisible others” she mentioned earlier.
“It is changing because the pushback tells us that it is changing. … The slow changes we’re beginning to see in all of the media forms in all the entertainment forms they know full well that shapes how we think of reality. They know full well we didn’t start thinking a black president was a possibility until we saw a whole bunch of them on T.V. If you can imagine something it can be. And so of course they’re trying to control our imagination. … And we know that it’s effective because the people who are affected by it are really pissed. Some of them. Some of them. That’s the thing to remember. Most are not. The ones who are pissed about it are a small extremely loud destructive minority. I’m not gonna pretend they’re not important. They’re dangerous they’re deadly. They need to be stopped. But we know we’re having an effect because we’re hurting them. ”
If she was holding a mic I assume it would be dropped. Moment of silence. Applause.
N.K. Jemisin is the author of The Fifth Season which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016, making her the first black writer to win a Hugo award in that category. Its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2017. She currently writes a bimonthly column, Otherworldly, for the New York Times.
Ann Leckie writes science fiction and fantasy. Her 2013 debut novel Ancillary Justice won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel as well as the Nebula Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the BSFA Award. The sequels Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy each won the Locus Award and were nominated for the Nebula Award.