Over the weekend of May 4th and 5th, tens of thousands of readers gathered in downtown Berkeley, California, for the long-awaited Bay Area Book Festival. Hundreds of authors and speakers shared words of wisdom with eager fans in crowded auditoriums, with a free outdoor fair of rows of white-tipped tents showcasing publishers, literary organizations, authors aplenty and the occasional child rapper bursting with lyrical rhymes.
Courtesy of the English department and its peer advisors who organized a Stanford trip, I immensely enjoyed our Saturday visit, and I naturally dwelled upon works and panels of speculative fiction, or more generally, science fiction and fantasy. Besides witnessing several sides of the creative writing process from author to publisher to reader, I was particularly inspired by the many ways people approach speculative fiction for creation and consumption. Some common reasons include for escaping and processing reality, revitalizing the imagination and subverting the traditional literary bias towards realist subjects.
These topics can be inextricably linked for some authors, so perhaps another major takeaway is that while we may gather together in such festivals to learn more of the intangible qualities of the fiction we love and the Kafkaesque whirlpool of getting your work published, we will still leave with larger questions on the purposes of storytelling and why it even matters at all. (Or, perhaps these sentiments result from my existential angst from midterms, as I am definitely not procrastinating on another paper by writing this article.)
Speaking of article-writing, as we arrived a few minutes past noon, I had some time to spare for wandering the streets and booths before a headliner panel at half past one with several of my favorite authors. Several stands sold used books, one hosted by the aptly named Half Price Books (my favorite bookstore at Berkeley, especially as it’s the only one I know). Other booths included Pegasus, the San Francisco Chronicle, our beloved Stanford University Press (which only recently received much-needed funding and continues to struggle for viability in this age of commercialized book-objects), Libby powered by OverDrive (my love for it continues, as the LA library continues to provide the ebooks I read for English classes) and other delights.
And on the other spectrum of unreality, an entire lane of stands promised me untold good fortune with the wondrous effects of cannabis and cannabis-infused herbal teas. A friend and I were lured by the promise of free books, only to discover after we had already enrolled on the mailing list that what was offered was perhaps not to be desired. By then, I had already signed up for five other lists (with the relative protection of my already public Stanford email, of course), so we were happy to back away slowly with polite thank-yous when we caught sight of greener, non-psychedelic pastures.
Chronicle Books, with its wholesome mission and colorful display of children’s books, offered a refreshing restart. We waited in line with fellow children (we’re young at heart, even in our twenties) to spin the wheel and win a poster. With the encouragement of the seller, I proudly claimed a poster which had several of my favorite things — the color orange, an adorable green dinosaur proudly perched atop a stack of books and a motivational quote, “Even the Tiniest Readers can Reach the Biggest Bookshelf.” (And yes, the poster hangs on my wall even as I write this, strategically placed over my own stacks of unshelved books.)
But as we walked through the “Avenue of Authors” tabled by self-published and small-scale authors, the more pressing realizations started to occur. In our yellow-sandstone towers with an outstanding Creative Writing Program, we are encouraged — often by master authors who have already “made it” in the publishing world, no less — to dream and keep reaching for the stars. We nourish the hopes that one day, we will also see our names on a glossy hardcover, a college syllabus, a publisher’s press release, maybe even a Tumblr fanpage. But this, too, could be a fantasy.
Realistically, many amazing stories get told and remain overshadowed by the new releases of ever-dwindling large publishers, as per the popularized “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” aphorism credited to Percy Bysshe Shelley. And with personally Photoshopped covers, lack of professional editing and the necessity of working day jobs in addition to creative pursuits, many authors will continue to go unnoticed. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, as one of the authors tabling pointed out, but they keep doing it — the mental marathon of even finishing a long prose work, the querying, the submitting and resubmitting, the dreaming that the manuscript they sent two years ago will eventually find a home — out of love for the craft of storytelling.
While art will rarely feed you (if you discover a new form of art-based human photosynthesis, please tell your nearest starving artist), perhaps there is enough beauty in the pursuit and the moments of connection to hope that one day, it will. I talked with an illustrator and self-published author Dean Stuart, who graciously discussed how he spent a year on a “dream project” to hand-paint and write a “full color illustrated picture book with original paintings” titled “Finders Keepers.” The story involves a woman who falls into a coma after a bike accident, and within the surreal landscape of the unconscious, her body breaks apart, and each piece must find its return to wholeness so that she can rejoin reality. The art, reminiscent of the Abarat series by Clive Barker, offers a vivid, phantasmagoric fairytale visualized through gorgeously evocative paintings and stitched together with sparingly brief words. Struck by how the book offers such a gripping portrayal of grief and recovery, I purchased a copy, and he doodled me a bird as he signed his name.
And of course, there is also the rare “creative” who fully enters into and reshapes the cultural consciousness, who no longer tables at a booth as they have become the main attraction. In a panel titled “Let The World Move: Speculative Fiction From the Periphery,” authors Lesley Nneka Arimah, Carmen Maria Machado and Alice Sola Kim, moderated by fellow author and UC Berkeley Professor Namwali Serpell, discussed their work and creative process with their enthralled audience. (Recordings of the full sessions will soon be available online on the website.)
With their first- and second-generation immigrant identities, the panelists reflected on their childhoods and what initially drew them to speculative fiction, with all three of them noting how they practically grew up in the library with a shared love for a battered, and much beloved, collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury. Some highlights included Arimah joking that she was raised on the Bible, “the first genre work,” Machado referencing a world-building technique of improvising (and fake cult-creating) and then filling in the internal logic later and Kim lamenting the sad state of new speculative fiction subgenres, like the oxymoronic and controversial “hopepunk.”
But on a more profound topic, Serpell noted that the panel’s title derived from Toni Morrison’s quote, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central… and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” She launched a discussion of how their individual gravitation towards speculative fiction arose from their personal identities and desire to lean away from a traditionally Western and realistic portrayal of the world. Machado mentioned that in graduate school, she tried to write realistic fiction but found it “uninteresting,” and her stories only came alive when she included speculative elements, with “hyperbole taken to the extreme.” Kim and Arimah shared similar opinions, Kim reflecting that she has basically never written anything non-speculative and Arimah musing that after several years of exploring the literary scene, she finally “came home” to speculative fiction. Together, they converged onto the thesis that their interest in speculative fiction, where they could depict the magical and surreal elements of the human experience, partially stemmed from their desire to create stories where they, and their characters too, had a “home” in the liminality and freedom afforded by the genre.
I stayed a few minutes afterwards to speak with Alice Sola Kim, a Stanford alumna and acclaimed speculative fiction author whose “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and on my syllabus for English 146S: Secret Lives of the Short Story. She generously offered a few thoughts when I asked her about the narrator of the story, laughing as she enjoyed my class’s alternative take of how the “tech mogul” son built the time-travelling world for Hwang, the father. Kim mentioned that while the precise identity of the narrator remains unknown, she originally envisioned some form of “daughter” narrator, as Kim is “also a daughter” and this story has “personal significance” and roots in her Korean American heritage.
And after the panel, I thought further on how the multiplicity of interpretations for Kim’s story, in some ways, reflects how stories can reshape the cultural imagination through a myriad of means, shifting what was once on the periphery — of subject, style, setting, and idea — into the mainstream. Harkening back to the last question of the panel, “How do you know when a story is finished?”, I recalled that after Arimah and Machado mentioned editorial deadlines and other forms of external pressure, Kim added to these answers with how a finished story “possesses a certain kind of richness” that may be “ineffable,” but can very much be felt.
The byzantine publishing market may never uncover every author or story with the elusive concept of “merit.” But instead of relying on the minuscule chance that manuscripts with your name will float to the top of the slush pile, rake in millions of dollars or become an eight-season HBO series, perhaps you become an author when there is no longer a 1:1 correspondence from your story’s textual reality to the reader’s imagination, when the reader takes your story and breathes their own life into the words, when your story has grown to become more than yours alone.
Perhaps this is enough.