These notes are not representative of the whole session and might have errors, I am just trying to write down in good faith what I remember. My memory, handwriting and language skills all got failings so please keep that in mind.
The theme of the session was genre: fantasy, sf, horror from an author´s point of view. Moderator was Rogéério Ribeiro and the other participant was a portuguese author (of sf I think) called João Seixas. Saturday, 5th of July 2008, 16.00 at the auditorium of Biblioteca Orlando Ribeiro (Biblioteca de Telheiras) in Lisbon.
The discussion started with genre, in which field did GRRM feel more comfortable writing. GRRM replied he does not differentiate to any great extant, that he believes people write what they read and mentions the overlap of genre historically done, like Lovecraft´s sf stories, Jack Williamson´s work particularly "Darker than You Think". Discussion then turned to that in the USA there is strong differentiation of genres by the public, including separate labels and for younger writers breaking into the genre if they want to write in a different genre (or subgenre) name changes are suggested.
GRRM mentioned that in the USA fantasy is going much better than sf. Historically sf outsold fantasy but then in the 60s Tolkien and then in 70s the Del Rey imprints and authors like Donaldson and Terry Brooks started to show up in the bestseller lists. Currently it´s not clear, that now that bestselling authors like Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke died, which sf authors can emerge to have that sort of bestselling numbers and status.
GRRM - Fantasy outselling SF seems to be a worldwide phenomen, even more pronounced in Britain than in the USA, the exception seems to be Asia, Japan particularly. GRRM thinks that is because the Asian countries have more belief in the future, that in the USA maybe readers have lost the belief in the "sf future", that most americans when polled reply they think their children will have a worse life than they have, due to things to pollution and climate change. The attitude in Asia resembles 1950s America. Na example is the tallest building in the world. Through many years in sf that was a symbol of progress, giant towers of early sf, and they are not being built in the USA anymore. Through the beginning of the 20th century, American buildings suceeded each other higher and higher has being the tallest building in the world but now those supertall towers are getting build in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Malaysia, Dubai-- The obsession with the futuristic seems to have moved to Ásia.
Then some arguments from the portuguese sf author about role of science in asian societies, but I really did not agree with some of those points and can think of plenty of counterarguments so I did not bother with notes or trying to transcribe. Let me just say that a lot of science development happened and a lot of sf got written in post-1945 America IMHO.
GRRM then told an anecdote that when he was growing up, a lot of sf authors had a written future history, a universe defining how the future would develop. Heinlein, Asimov had it, got published as appendixes to their stories (personal note: much of GRRM´s own sf seems to fit the same universe, anybody ever tried to build a timeline or concordance for that? I love his sf stories as well). The one future history which GRRM did not think believable was Heinlein´s which seemed arbitrary and full of incoherences. Turns out Heinlein was closest to the truth, he was right that people did go to space and then stopped. Heinlein predicted the crazy years, predicted a theocracy dictatorship, Nehemiah Scudder as dictator, which some days does not seem so implausible. Perhaps Heinlein was the accurate one.
GRRM - that there are many types of sf, but that the story of space travel was central to the genre. Like in history historians talk of the Matter of Britain or Matter of France (Arthur or Charlemagne), to american sf its central core was The Matter of Space, and the space program was abandoned and it undermined sf. A lot of people present at the conference were too young to ever had somebody walk on the moon during their lifetime.
A new question, if sf has run out of new ideas? According to GRRM no, there are always new ideas and even fads coming up in sf, things like nanotech, but perhaps the problem is that people stopped imagining the future as a terrific place.
Another new question about the "american Tolkien" comparison, from a critic for Time magazine. GRRM did not adress that but mentioned a bit of ASOIAF publishing history, that since the beginning his publisher has been convinced that ASOIAF is very likely to appeal to people who do not like fantasy (personal note - I totally agree, I have had tremendous luck recommending it to people who do not like fantasy but love historical fantasy or just plain good stories). As an example the first cover of AGOT, which will now only be found in the ARC had a veyr fantasy feel, GRRM described it and it does not sound familiar at all (Catelyn mentioned perhaps? anybody knows?). It was precisely the same type of cover to a lot of fantasy novels which were selling very well. Publishers hoped a non genre cover would appeal much more widely so picked a "big book, important book" non genre cover to catch the eye of everyone, silver foil with a generic symbol and planned subsequent covers to be of the same style with a common metallic theme. The hardcover edition of AGOT turned out to be partially a failure so publishers panicked a bit, and when it came the paperback edition they picked a typical genre novel cover (the one we know, with jon Snow riding a black horse). The second book´s cover was a compromise, picking up the gold foil from the AGOT hardcover edition, but using an illustration box for the fantasy genre feel. With book 4 came a complete redesign, the publishers think they got all the fantasy fans aware of the series, time to go after the non-fantasy fans. GRRM mentioned that the difficulty on reaching, on perception of who are the readers who might like a certain book can be frustratring to an author.
New question about media and fanzines, GRRM mentioned that fanzines seem to have moved online and there is all sorts of electronic media to fulfill that role. That magazines are folding and the ones holding out are selling less and less every year and that sadly will probably be a matter of time, maybe even less than 5 years till Asimov and Analog close. F&SF might last longer not being part of a big corporation. As a journalism graduate GRRM has recently been very impressed when he received a chinese sf magazine who was serializing Skin Trade. He could not actually read the magazine but leafing through, it was a very thick magazine, full of ads for lots of things, full color, with articles on all sorts of media (games, interviews with authors) as well as fiction from several genres (or subgenres), that the american sf magazines are stuck on time and while they might print great fiction they don´t make appealing magazines. Oh and apparently men´s magazines (Playboy etc) are also dying out, it´s all in the internet now .
A new question, about if there is commercial pressure to write fantasy and if authors pick themes not chosen for literary reasons. GRRM mentions that there is a distinction between a career and a livelihood, that in the earlier days, a lot of writers were not fulltime writers. Heinlein was the exception, but Asimov was a college professor, Simak was a newspaper editor for example. In the 1970s it changed and a lot of emerging authors were able to be "just" writers, to have writing be their livelihood. That is now changing back, that for a lot of emerging authors it´s just as possible to have a great literary career but maybe they might still not be able to do it as a fulltime job.
Another question, this time as a former editor of New Voices magazine, what did GRRM look for? GRRM mentioned that there are many kinds of good writing and good stories, mentioned he is currently editing an anthology "Warriors" with Gardner Dozois, a cross genre anthology where the theme is an examination of the warrior mythos. They will mix up all the stories without labeling (genrewise) any story and hope it helps toe expand the horizon of readers . For example if somebody who bought it for the Joe Haldeman story finds out the Cecelia Holland story and likes it and vice versa. GRRM believes they are all stories and that genre is an artificial construct which creates genre expectations which affect the way a reader reads a story. Classic example, a story where a detective finds a body drained of all their blood. If it´s an horror story we expect vampires, if it´s a mystery we expect vampire wannabes and that affects the reading experience.
A short mention of sf setup books written by non sf authors, often of literary acclaim, and that for sf writers or fans it can be frustrating to read reviews which seem to think the concept is original and has just been invented. GRRM mentioned Cormac McCarthy´s The Road, another author based in new Mexico but they never met. Trivia : some New Mexico based genre writers meet for lunch once a month.
Recommendations of books aspiring sf/authors should read were asked. Just caught GRRM´s replies, he warned he would mention only classic writers, that he is relatively stubborn and his influences came mostly from his earlier reading, so he is not likely to be influenced by another writer anymore. Sf recomendations: Zelazny´s Lord of Light, Heinlein (his juveniles or The Puppet Masters, that Stranger in a Strange Land is not a particular favorite though it has many fans), Bester´s The Stars My Destination, Sturgeon´s Dreaming Jewels and Jack Vance who he considers the greatest living sf writer. For fantasy the recommendations were Tolkien, Ghormenghast, Vance´s Lyonesse and Dying Earth series, Robert E Howard ´s fantasy stories, Fritz Leiber. For horror he mentioned Lovecraft, Stephen King who is unavoidable in the genre, Clive Barker. Then a mention I can not quite decipher (Robert Bloch). And a particular recommendation of an almost forgotten author, Gerald Kersh who wrote strange little horror short stories and is mostly remembered by a mystery he wrote, Night in the City who was adapted twice to film, the last time starring Robert de Niro.
More comments about writing and fandom, that writers of other genres seem to write in isolation and not often meet the people who read their work, that sf/fantasy authors are much more fortunate than those in other fields. Sf fandom exists since the 1930s, possibly since the 1920s, conventions have been going on since 1970s. GRRM mentioned that he believes relations between friends are stronger in the sf world, gave an example from his post-college parties, that it´s his sf friends who still keep in touch.
Then some more discussion about the generics of awards, that GRRM thinks awards are good even when given to the "wrong" book, since they get people talking about books. That the purest awards are the ones directly given by fans, and that a problem with the Hugos is that so few people (of all those who could) vote for those, that 20 votes might be enough to put any work in a shortlist, so it´s very important that all those who can vote or nominate do so.
And that is about it. Any misquotings or misinterpretation (nevermind missspellings and assassinations of grammar) are all my own, for which I apologize.