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I'm not at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo this week, so I hadn't expected to be attending a conference. Yet that's exactly the feel that the Gresham College Symposium on "Science Fiction as a Literary Genre" had yesterday. It was a very well-attended conference session, mind you, with over a hundred attendees - although there was slow-but-steady attrition as the afternoon wore on and the plenary speaker's talk receded further into the past.

The event, in which five white male science fiction scholars read their papers on aspects of science fiction and genre, was a product of what Gresham College thought it was looking for in a symposium. The speakers were all distinguished specialists in the field, certainly. I suspect that the last talk, given by Roger Luckhurst, was intended by Gresham to be on contemporary science fiction, but since they gave him the title of "Modern British Science Fiction", that's exactly what he spoke on.

There is nothing wrong with conference papers sounding like conference papers, but I had thought that Gresham College's mandate was to present academic topics to a dabbling audience, that the papers would be more tailored to an audience not already familiar with the field. Further, the papers sounded academic because they were all read. This too is a product of what Gresham asked for: the papers will all be published as handout or on the college's website. I hear John Clute is normally an engaging speaker, but since he felt obligated to read from the paper-to-be-published, I sat and wished I was reading to myself what he was reading aloud instead.

I love the idea of Gresham College. I love the continuity of seeing references to it this week in the Samuel Pepys blog, and then going to the venue itself. In this case, however, I felt that they hadn't quite figured out how to ask for what they wanted, and so they were stuck with what they'd asked for. Also, it would have been better with less aggressive air conditioning, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the panel, but a great deal to do with how cold I was.

It wasn't all disappointment, by any means. Although Neal Stephenson blurred the boundaries of literary and cinematographic genres, he was a lively and engaging speaker. Martin Willis's call to reclaim nineteenth-century science in fiction for science fiction seemed an unnecessary war cry, but still useful for reminding us of the existence of those texts. It made me want to go away and talk to M.K. some more, since she works on science in fiction, but not science fiction. I would happily sit down and read Clute's paper. I'd like to browse through a glossy photobook version of Andy Sawyer's talk. Finally, delightfully, the reception afterwards was in a lovely courtyard by the college, an architectural bouquet of styles, tucked away near Chancery Lane.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 9th, 2008 05:49 pm (UTC)
Reading papers doesn't seem academic to me - it seems like the result of poor presentational skills. Science papers are almost universally not read, but are much more interactive and extemporized - at least when done well. It's a curious difference between the 'two cultures' that I still don't fully understand.
May. 9th, 2008 05:53 pm (UTC)
At the average conference I go to, there will be several papers which are NOT read. Most will be read - whether or not they look like they are. The highest praise for paper presentation I ever received was someone who praised me for not reading a paper - when I was. (There were sentences on end for which I didn't have to look at it, but plenty I did.) Inevitably - at conferences I attend - lots of papers will be blatantly read which would have benefited from being a little less so.
May. 11th, 2008 03:47 am (UTC)
We missed you at the 'Zoo, though I'm awfully glad you were getting to hear other interesting stuff.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )