When Words (& Genres) Collide

Last weekend, I attended the innaugural When Words Collide conference in Calgary. This festival for readers and writers was organized by a committee of local science fiction and fantasy writers. Previously, this group had organized a Calgary science fiction conference CONnvergence. They felt last year’s CONvergence was too media focused and split to hold a writing conference that would include all writing genres. 

Featured author guests at When Words Collide were Robert J. Sawyer, Jack Whyte, Walter Jon Williams and Rachel Caine;  Brian Hades was the featured publisher guest. If all or most of these names are unfamiliar to you, it is probably because you don’t read science fiction or fantasy. All come from those genres, aside from Whyte, who writes historical fiction.

Science fiction is far from my specialty, but over the years I’ve been a fan of some sci-fi authors, TV shows and movies, such as Star Trek (original series) and author Robert J. Sawyer. At the conference, I felt like a welcome outsider and enjoyed the experience of not-being-in-the-thick-of-it making contact with a different species of writer. I think the organizers of When Words Collide did a bang-up job of including panels and events for those of us not totally into sci-fi. All day Saturday and Sunday, every hour on the hour, they offered seven choices of panels, readings, kaffee klatsches with the featured guests and other happenings. There were always several events in each time slot I would have liked to attend.

Most of Calgary’s local writing organizations contributed. The Writers Guild of Alberta had Bob Stallworthy as liaison (listed in the program as ‘The Person Who Kept us Aware of the Big Wide World’). Mystery Writers INK hosted Detective Sweet’s presentation on Homicide Investigation. Through my Alexandra Writers’ Centre involvement, I sat on a panel on pitches and queries. 

Rather than have a single keynote speaker, the Friday evening address featured all five special guests plus R. Cat Conrad, surrealistic, fantastic and space-oriented artist and husband of Rachel Caine. Each guest was given 20 minutes to speak about whatever he or she wanted.

Caine and Cat, Texans on their first trip to Canada, discussed the differences between Canadians and Americans, although they felt at home when they arrived at the conference motel and saw “Howdy Folks” with a drawing of a cowboy boot painted on the entrance door. Don’t they wash these decorations off after Stampede?

Brian Hades talked about the founding of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Before the conference, I hadn’t known this publishing house was in Calgary.

Jack Whyte played with the conference title When Words Collide.  He said, instead of forcing your words to always work harmoniously, let them collide to create energy and harness the energy to make people think.

Walter Jon Williams presented a meditation on the development of modern science fiction.  In the 1970s, he said, science fiction readers were a closed world. Virtually all of them had read the classic 150 sci-fi books, most of which were unknown to the general public.  Since then, the number of science fiction books has vastly expanded, but the initial homogeneity led to a difference between sci-fi and other genres. In mystery, he claimed, the writers established the norms of the genre, for instance, the “rule” that you must play fair with the reader. Literary fiction has a paid critic class that determines what is good. For science fiction, the norms were established jointly by the writers and those initial readers so familiar with the genre’s classics.     

Robert J. Sawyer picked up on Williams’ comments. Sawyer believes the Canadian literary establishment is more welcoming of genre fiction than the one in the US. Canadian genre writers get invited to festivals like Harbourfront, but are still viewed as second rate. Sawyer was at the 2011 Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. An audience member asked him, “How does it feel to know you’ll never win the Giller award?” Sawyer replied that he felt less badly about it after signing a television deal for his latest book. He added that about every other year he applies for a Canada Council grant and has never received one, despite being North America’s most award-winning science fiction writer.  

Some felt Sawyer was taking potshots at literary writing, but why shouldn’t he express his views and experience? The next day at the kaffee klatsch he told us not to worry about offending readers. No writer pleases everyone; the worst you can be is bland.

Must the genres mingle entirely in harmony? To paraphrase Jack Whyte, let the genres collide and create energy. There was plenty of energy at When Words Collide last weekend. I plan to be there next year.

Susan and son Matthew in Vulcan, Alberta

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