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Neil Gaiman Speech & Talk (Part 2) - Body by Henson, brain by Seuss. [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Kelly J. Cooper

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Neil Gaiman Speech & Talk (Part 2) [May. 25th, 2008|02:08 am]
Kelly J. Cooper
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Per my last post, I noted that I'd be writing up Part 2 since I had notes (but what I didn't mention at the time of typing up Part 1 was that the notes were down two floors and I was too friggin' tired to go get them). Neil's own notes on the topic are… shorter.

The Julius Schwartz Memorial Lecture Featuring Neil Gaiman started on time at 7pm, Friday, 23 May 2008 with a brief introduction by Geoff Long, an MIT student and coordinator of the event. Geoff came off the stage and took a seat in the audience (2nd row, one behind us and to my left), Professor Henry Jenkins went to the podium, and Neil went to one of the two green leather chairs center stage and put his water bottle down on the wobbly coffee table between them.

From the podium, Prof. Jenkins gave a lecture about Julius "Julie" Schwartz. The following are the interesting bits that I wrote down.

Julie was part of The Sciencers, who wrote (what is believed to be) the first science fiction fanzine, which they called The Time Traveler, in the early 1930s. He also organized the first Worldcon. Later, he became an agent for many science fiction writers, initially earning $1 for every story he placed. The agency was named The Solar Sales Service (which I'd like to mention is actually a science fiction pun).

While Googling around to confirm my spelling on things, I found an interesting biography of Mort Weisinger, largely derived from Julie's autobiography (the aforementioned Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics), Superman by Les Daniels, and miscellany found on the Internet. In it, I discovered that the Solar Sales Service was actually three guys, the founders of The Time Traveler: Julie, Weisinger, and Otto Binder.

Back to Julie – he joined All-American Comics near the end of the Golden Age of comics. It was bought by DC a short time later.

Julie's quote from that time period made me laugh: "Finally I was a science fiction editor, one of the gods on earth."

Julie created the Justice League of America and is credited with Marvel's resurgence when they created The Fantastic Four in order to compete. Thus Julie is believed by many to be responsible for the Silver Age of comics.

Apparently, one of the things Julie was famous for was creating covers for comics and then challenging writers to come up with stories that explained them. Honestly, this put a LOT of things in place for me, because I've always found the covers of older comics to be utterly incongruous compared to the story they contained. Another one of life's little mysteries solved.

These strange covers also inspired the website SuperDickery.com, which I believe grew out of the "Superman is a dick" cover gallery.

At this point Prof. Jenkins introduced Neil Gaiman. While running through an abbreviated list of Neil's work, he mentioned Warning: Contains Language, one of Neil's recorded pieces, as a favorite of his and one of the funniest titles of any recorded work.

Prof. Jenkins left the podium and Neil came up, responding to him that it took them a year to convince Diamond that it was a joke. They kept listing the CD as "Untitled by Neil Gaiman" and running it with the title as a warning label.

Next, Neil explained that out of all of us, only one of us had still been scribbling notes for this speech at 4:30pm that afternoon. He explained that he would use other people's works for examples, because he wanted to and so he didn't feel like a giant egomaniac.

Then he read Alan Moore's essay about (and for) Julie, which Neil had read at Julie's memorial back in March of 2004. It still fills my eyes with tears.

Next, he started talking a bit about the study of literature, deferring to academics by saying, "It is the job of the creator to explode," continuing with something like, "and it's the academic's job to pick through the pieces and see whether the explosion did what it was supposed to…" and mentioned a few forensic terms. (The man really knows how to build a metaphor.)

Then he came to the main topic of his speech, which was to answer the question "What is genre?" saying that genre, for most of us, is a shelf in a bookshop or video store. It tells us where NOT to go. It's not subject matter, it's not tone…

I think this is where he talked about wondering, as a child, why some books were science fiction while other books were stories with science fiction elements in them.

Then he explained that so many people send him books to review or blurb that he often gets books he really really shouldn't, including Linda Williams' book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible", which is about hardcore pornography and which helped crystallize what "genre" is to him.

There was a lot of laughing.

He described how Williams put forth that hardcore porn can best be understood in comparison to musicals. There were solos… duets… trios… full choruses… men singing to women, women to men, men to men, and women to women… there were happy songs… (imagine loud laughter at every ellipsis).

He continued to explain that, in a musical, the plot exists to get you from song to song and stop all the songs from happening at once. And, while you're not just there for the songs, without the songs, it's not fair to the audience. It's not a musical.

Thus, whether you take the sex out of porn or the songs out of a musical, you cease to have porn or musicals. The plot exists to get you from event to event, and without these events, the reader feels cheated – if that happens, then it's genre.

If these particular events are part of a larger story and the audience won't suffer from their loss, then they are stories and genre doesn't matter.

When a story feels inevitable, it's the best.

Thus the question arises, what points would a reader feel cheated without?

Then he asked and answered the question of what he means by "story," saying, "anything that keeps someone watching or reading and doesn't leave them feeling cheated at the end. That's my definition."

Then he asked the really interesting question of whether we transcend genre by doing magnificent genre work or by stepping outside of genre?

And this is where the speech started getting a bit drifty.

Some highlights: the miracle of prose is that prose begins with the words. You're making something collaborative in prose, more than other media. With prose, you're letting people build from the ground up (their idea of the characters, setting, and story). With comics, you give them pictures and the reader does the work between panels. Then he mentioned Scott McCloud's example of a woman with an ax standing over a man (asking, "or was it a man with an ax? well, it really doesn't matter") in one panel, then a city skyline in the next panel with a scream of "Aaah" written across it. Then McCloud tells you, the reader, that you are the ones who killed the man. It's implied by the juxtaposition, but you did the deed between the panels. (It's also one of my favorite bits in McCloud's Understanding Comics.)

These are all just different ways of getting ideas from one head to another.

And, by the way, we're discussing media, not genres – books, comics, film, etc. are media. Comics is always getting called genre, which is wrong, it's a medium like any other and there are genres within it.

The fundamental core component in science fiction is the sense of wonder. I think he meant to say something like, without the sense of wonder, the reader feels cheated and it isn't science fiction, but instead he talked about the idea of "slipstream" fiction, a label invented by Bruce Sterling to describe non-genre works that make you feel like science fiction makes you feel without being science fiction.

Then he wandered off to the topic of China (which he'd recently visited) and how, under Mao and ever since, the Chinese government disapproved of science fiction (not as much as crime fiction, because, as you'll recall, Mao said there was no crime). This ended recently, hence Neil's invitation, and Neil asked his guide about it. The guide explained that China is very good at making things that other people come up with, but not so good at making things up themselves. So when China looked at America, at places where ideas start (Google, MIT, some other examples), they noticed that they are full of science fiction fans.

Then he started closing the speech, saying "That's the most important question there is… 'what if?'" and that Julie Schwartz literally helped create the world as it is by encouraging the exploration of that question.

At this point, he sat back down in his green leather chair to thunderous applause. It was about 8pm, and Prof. Jenkins started the Question and Answer period.

Since I have about 4.5 more pages of notes, I'll continue this in Part 3.