Diana Wynne Jones Conference, 2009

DWJ09, as it appears to have become known, was an academic conference devoted to the works of Diana Wynne Jones. It was held at the University of the West of England in Bristol, in large part in the hope that Diana would have been able to attend. Unfortunately she was rather ill at the time and had to cancel, but she was ably represented by her US editor, Sharyn November. More of Sharyn in a minute, but first a few comments about the venue.

Holding conventions in universities has its benefits. They are fairly cheap, are set up to do catering, and have decent tech, but they also have a number of problems that arise from the fact that acting as a hotel and conference center is not their main line of work. Most of the time what they do is act as an open prison for large numbers of cunning, independent-minded but rather antisocial animals called students. The purpose of the academic staff at a university might be to educate, but the purpose of the rest of the staff is to prevent the students from destroying the place. These are the people who are expected to magically transform themselves into hotel staff during the vacation. They don’t quite have the customer service skills.

To be fair, some of the university staff did quite well. The food, while not anything I would deliberately seek out, was cheap and mostly edible. I have had much worse food at hotel “banquets”. The catering staff was also very friendly, and kindly offered to act as a concierge service looking after our bags on the final day. On the other hand, the campus itself was a mysterious jumble of concrete building almost all alike. I think we all got lost at some point over the weekend, sometime on several occasions. I know I did. As for the supposed free wi-fi, it was about as good as could be expected for a service being provided by a group of people whose primary concern is to prevent a bunch of fiendishly intelligent kids from hacking their systems. I was glad I had my mobile broadband account.

Being unable to get online was a cause of major frustration for several of the attendees, but the entertainment we provided ourselves, and that was of a very high quality. There were only around 70 people at the conference, but they hailed from 14 different countries and all of them (except me) appeared to be experts on Diana’s work. When you go to a conference like ICFA many of the papers are presented by inexperienced graduate students. Some of them are presenting their first ever paper. The whole point is for the conference to be a learning experience for them. Many of them are still very good, of course, but others are not. Here the presenters were of a superior quality. In the entire weekend I only heard one bad paper. And, as with all of the best academic conferences, the conversation after a paper had been presented was often as good, or better, than the paper itself.

Some of the most interesting conversation came out of Deborah Kaplan’s Friday paper on age confusion in Diana’s books. The fact that YA books appear to be able to get away with a lot more in the way of sex and violence than books for adults is a common source of confusion. It is particularly odd that we see so little moral panic from the US, where book burners are still to be found. Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, for example, appears to have attracted far more moral panic in the UK than in the USA. Sharyn’s explanation was that publishers in the US focus solely on commercial issues. They don’t worry whether what they are publishing is “suitable for children” or not. If someone complains, well, it will probably make for good PR. The kids, of course, will read anything, and the more “unsuitable” it appears to them the less likely they are to tell adults about it. In this way, revolutions in attitudes can be spread.

One of the recurring themes of the conference (which I would have expected had I read Charles Butler’s now-award-winning Four British Fantasists before attending) is the effect that WWII had on a generation of British writers. Diana is one of those people unlucky enough to have been a child during the conflict and thus subject to the terrors of The Blitz, relocation to the country, propaganda and so on. This being a convention full of students of fantastic literature, there was no recourse to the easy option of blaming the writing of fantasy on a psychological retreat from the real horrors of war. There was, however, an acceptance that Diana’s understanding of childhood is very different from that of a writer who, like CS Lewis for example, has grown up in the relative safety of the early 20th Century.

Another recurring theme was metafiction. I’ve not read much of Diana’s work, but it became very clear from the papers that it is exactly the sort of thing that I love: very clever, full of metafictional trickery. The Game in particular appears to be metafictional to the core. By the end of the conference I was wondering just how I had missed reading Diana when I was a kid. Then Farah Mendlesohn did a presentation of book covers through the years and I discovered that I was already reading the likes of Heinlein, Le Guin and Moorock by the time Diana started getting published. Yeah, I know, I’m old.

I’d like to highlight a few panels, starting with Ying Yi Fong’s examination of Homeworld8. This is a fan community based on LiveJournal, and if that immediately makes you want to run away screaming, think again. Homeworld8 is apparently blessedly free of flame wars, FAIL campaigns, and even fan fiction. The paper set out to examine how it came to be so. I’m not sure that any firm conclusions were reached, but it is good to know what such communities can exist.

In the same session (which I was lucky enough to chair) Shana Worthen treated us to an examination of Stew. Those of you who have read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland will know that Stew is the staple diet of all Fantasyland inhabitants. There was much serious debate regarding the true nature of Stew, its usefulness as a food to be prepared and consumed while traveling, whether or not curry and chili can be considered forms of Stew, and so on. Mostly, however, this paper proved that academic papers don’t have to be stuffy and formal; sometimes they can be very funny indeed.

Talking of the Tough Guide, one of the things that I discovered during Sharyn’s Guest of Honor presentation was that a revised and updated edition was issued by Firebird in 2006. Sharyn showed us a copy. It is very good. Now I have to buy a copy. If you do not have a copy, you need one too. If you don’t believe me, click on the book cover above and use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to jump to a random entry or two. I guarantee that in no time you will be doubled up with laughter. As and when you recover, take a look at all of the effort Firebird’s art department has put into making the book look just like a real travel guide, complete with helpful icons. (UK readers please note, Amazon carries a Gollancz edition that trumpets itself as the “latest edition”, but it was published 2 years before the Firebird edition.)

One of my favorite papers of the weekend was by Finnish scholar, Jenni Tyynelä. Jenni is a philosophy graduate, and one of her interests is the Possible Worlds Theory of David Lewis. Possible worlds are, of course, a common idea in science fiction, but Jenni has chosen Diana’s work as a vehicle for study, perhaps because she thinks so clearly about the issues raised by the existence of a multiverse. I was rather surprised that Jenni wasn’t familiar with the quantum probability explanation for a multiverse, which I believe is more commonly used in science fiction, but happily that led to lots of fruitful discussion and a very pleasant lunch at Finncon. I’m hoping that Jenni manages to make it ICFA next year so I can learn where her researches have taken her.

Another paper that gave me a lot of food for thought was Caroline Webb’s examination of the book, Conrad’s Fate. The book takes place largely in a mansion called Stallery and, as Webb explains in her abstract:

Stallery, it emerges, is throughout inhabited by actors performing parts with which they do not identify. But this unreality in itself draws attention to the issue of how social roles more generally relate to identity.

This immediately brought to mind Judith Butler and her ideas about the “performativity” of gender. Butler has, I think, often been misunderstood, or at least she has often found it necessary to explain herself in more detail. If Conrad’s Fate can help me understand Butler better then it ought to be the next Diana book I read.

More interesting feminist ideas were to be found in David Rudd’s paper on Howl’s Moving Castle. An essential plot element of that book is that the heroine, Sophie, goes directly from being a young girl to being an old crone (she gets cursed by a witch). Consequently she avoids the whole process of adolescence. That immediately rang bells with me because I have been reading Mary Pipher’s excellent Reviving Ophelia, which deals precisely with the way in which adolescence destroys the self-confidence of young women and forces them into subservient social roles. If Rudd is right, Diana is making a very similar point in Howl.

I did say that there was one paper that wasn’t very good, and I should elaborate on that. I have nothing against Fan Fiction per se. If people want to write it, and publish it, that’s fine. Heck, FanFic is almost metafictional by definition, so why wouldn’t I like it? However, many of the people who write FanFic are actually not very good writers. I prefer to read good writers when I can find them, and believe me there is no shortage. Even so, lots of people who write very well don’t read their work well. Performing your work in public is another activity that takes skill, and not every writer has it. Finally, I don’t attend academic conferences to listen to fiction, I go there to listen to interesting intellectual arguments. So if you are ever tempted to go to an academic conference and read your own FanFic instead of presenting a paper, a word of advice: Don’t.

At the end of the convention a lot of people were starting to say, hopefully, “next year?” The organizers: Farah Mendlesohn and Charlie Butler, were not so keen. It isn’t a matter of the effort: a 70 person convention is not that hard to run, especially if you do it in a university and have all of the Tech done for you. It is more a question of the depth of the audience. Are there, Farah asked is, enough DWJ scholars in the world for 70 or so of them to fly to England every year (probably having to get a grant from their college to do so) in order to keep an annual event going? Probably the answer is no. But there is probably sufficient interest for an event every two years. So if you missed this one, keep an ear open towards the end of 2010, because there may well be an announcement of DWJ11.