Archive for January, 2015

TT: Filking Away the Hours

January 8, 2015

JANE: Well, Alan, a few weeks ago, before the holidays sent us Tangenting off in other directions, we promised we would discuss filk music.  Since I had never heard of filk before Roger Zelazny introduced me to it as part of his cheerful campaign to introduce me to SF/F fandom (something I knew little or nothing about – that’s another story entirely), I think I’d like to offer a definition for those of our readers who may be similarly ignorant.

Filk Collections

Filk Collections

ALAN: Definitions are good. Tell me what yours is.

JANE: Filk music is, more or less, folk music with SF/F themes.

I read that the word “filk” originated as a typo in a convention program where a folk music sing-along was part of the late night programming.  The word stuck, since it gave a name to the somewhat different playlist.

ALAN: Not bad – though I’d quibble slightly about restricting it to folk music derivations. These days pretty much any song or musical style seems to be grist to the filking mill.

JANE:  I’ll take your word for it.  I haven’t ever attended a filking session.  Most of my experience has been with recordings.

Sometimes filk is very good.  Sometimes, well…  I don’t have the source anymore, but years ago I read a comment credited to author Marion Zimmer Bradley about filk: “Filk is like sex.  It should be performed by consenting adults in rooms with closed doors.”

ALAN: I agree with her!

JANE: Whatever the case, like sex, filk remains very popular.  Most U.S. conventions have a filk track.  Some even have filk Guests of Honor, along with Author, Artist, and Fan Guests of Honor.

Is filk popular in England?  How about in Australia and New Zealand?

ALAN: Yes – it’s very popular and most conventions have both formal and informal filking sessions. I tend to avoid them, but that’s just me.

JANE:  Why do you avoid them?

ALAN: We have at least two extremely talented filkers here in NZ. Unfortunately we have about 200 extremely untalented ones, so I find most filk sessions quite painful.

JANE: Untalented?

ALAN: Far too many of them seem to have no metrical sense. They can’t count syllables, and they don’t know how to stress the words properly. They do understand rhyme (it’s almost impossible not to understand rhyme), but all too often that just means that their songs are full of place holders – lines whose only purpose is to provide a rhyme, but which add nothing to the sense of the piece. So the whole thing just makes me cringe with embarrassment.

JANE: You did say you have some talented filkers, so things can’t be all bad.

ALAN: Oh indeed. When Star Trek: The Next Generation first appeared on our TV screens, a lot of people hated the character Wes Crusher. One of our filkers wrote a brilliant song called “50 Ways To Kill Wes Crusher.” Obviously it was sung to the Paul Simon tune “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” It was both clever and very funny.

Several years after I first heard the song, I was running a course at a client’s site. I arrived to set up the computers that we’d need but I was told I couldn’t set up yet because the social club was having a lunch time meeting and they were using the room. Fair enough. I went and grabbed a coffee.

Eventually the social club meeting finished and I went into the room to start doing my stuff. I was pleased to see that the social club had obviously been having a sing-song. They’d left some song sheets behind. They’d been singing “50 Ways To Kill Wes Crusher”…

JANE: And so the virus spreads…

Roger loved folk music, so he was interested in filk, since it combined two of his loves: SF/F and folk.  At one point, he sent me a bunch of cassette tapes that produced by something called “Bayfilk.”  They contained a wide selection of pieces – some of which seemed more or less straight “folk” to me, others of which were clearly SF/F inspired.

My impression – and I’d love if our readers would step in and clarify for me, since I’m not familiar enough with folk music to be sure – is that many U.S. SF/F filk pieces were/are original compositions, rather than relying on someone else’s music.

ALAN: I can’t comment about U.S. filking because I have no experience of it, but here we tend more towards setting new words to well-known tunes. That can be pleasing on two levels, of course. There’s the sense of parody of a familiar piece, combined with the cleverness of the SF/F references. What were the filking pieces that you enjoyed?

JANE: I particularly liked many of the pieces by a woman named Leslie Fish.  They were clever and intelligent.  She did one based around C.J. Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur that included a rough growly element and remained faithful enough to the novel that I wouldn’t be surprised if people hearing the song then went to read the book.  I also liked her survivalist “Blue Bread Mold” and another…  I think it was called “Black Powder and Alcohol.”

ALAN: Even the titles make me smile!

JANE: SF writer Joe Haldeman has also committed filk.  His “SF Editor’s Lament” should be required listening on the part of any newbee writer, since he touches on most of the overused tropes.

I once had a friend pull me aside and, literally, whisper in my ear, his idea for a brilliant, new horror novel: “Vampires with AIDS.”  I had to choke back an inappropriate laugh, because this is one of the lines in Joe’s song.

ALAN: Joe is a talented musician and he has a wicked sense of humour. Put those together and it’s a recipe for a fun evening. By the way – L. Sprague de Camp once wrote an essay in which he discussed stories that he never got round to writing. One of them concerned a vampire with a sweet tooth who only dined on the blood of diabetics…

JANE: I like that!  I wonder if someone else took up the challenge.

Funny thing about “SF Editor’s Lament.”   I heard it originally on the Bayfilk “Limelight” tape.  In it, Joe sounds as if he’s fumbling a line but when, years later, I heard him sing it live, he “fumbled” in exactly the same place, so I guess it was intentional.

ALAN: I’m sure he had his own subtle Haldemaniacal reasons for it.

JANE: Me, too!  I’ve toyed with the idea that he fumbled on the recording and then, to make it seem deliberate, decided to fumble every time after, but I’ve never had the courage to ask.

Filk is a topic that many of those who attend SF/F conventions have strong opinions about.  I hope we’ll hear some – and not only about the bad, but about the good and the funny as well!

What English Professors Love

January 7, 2015

At the start of last week’s Friday Fragment, I posted a link to a recent interview I did with Emily Mah Tippetts.



After Chad Merkley read the interview, he had several questions about the following statement I made:

“I have a Ph.D. in Literature. Most people assume this helped me to become a writer. Actually, it proved to be more a hindrance. The things that English professors love – ambivalent endings, layers of symbolism, complex and contradictory images – are things that drive most ‘real’ readers nuts.”

To quote Chad directly: “Jane, I’d be interested in hearing more about this issue. Why do English professors love those things? What defines “literature”? I do vaguely remember some WW posts about light reading versus serious reading, and related issues, but I think it might be worth discussing again.”

I’m more than happy to do so…  However, this is one person’s musing, so I’d welcome other thoughts on the matter.

At Fordham University, where I took my degrees, a Ph.D. candidate was required to show a general knowledge of “literature,” but to also have one major and two minor areas of concentration.  I chose Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern British Lit.  Modern Lit was, by the time I was doing my work in the late 1980’s, not very modern, as it focused on writers from early in the twentieth century such as Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Auden, and Lawrence.  Anything after that time was being called “Contemporary…”  Nor was it entirely British, since T.S. Eliot was born in the U.S., but became a British citizen, while W.H. Auden was British born and became an American.  D.H. Lawrence set nearly all of his work in England, but was a citizen of the world.

This is not as off-topic as it seems, because the wide spread of time represented by my areas of concentration gave me an opportunity to see the change in how the audience for non-fiction was perceived – and when the split between popular writing and “literature” became marked.

Before I go any further, let me limit what I’m going to call “literature.”  To better enable us to discuss this topic in comparison to what I write today, I’m going to narrow the focus to the stuff most English majors study: novels, plays, poetry, and the like.  Most of this is fiction or at least takes (as in Shakespeare’s history plays, which Alan and I Tangented on at some length a while back) enough liberties with its source material to become fiction.

Fiction writers don’t only write fiction.  Some even become as well-known for their non-fiction work as for their fiction.  For example, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers both wrote theological works that remain respected.  But for right now we’re going to focus more or less on fiction.

So, with the understanding that we’re limiting the field to English major stuff, here we go…

You’d think that in the Middle Ages, when the larger portion of the population was unable to read, that literature would have been for the elite alone.  This was far from the truth.  A considerable amount of creative writing was done with the specific goal of bringing high-brow theological issues to the masses.

The play Everyman is a good example.  Everyman is a dramatization of the human spiritual journey, focusing on how many of the things we humans treasure are, in the end, things we must leave behind when we finally enter the grave.

Much of the subject matter of medieval literature was overtly theological.  However, this is no great surprise, given that the literate portion of the population was almost all associated with the church in some way.  So literature, yes.  For the elite?  No.

By the Renaissance, literature had broken off from being theological in emphasis.  Once again, the population was largely illiterate.  Did this mean that literature was produced for the elite alone?  Once again, the answer is a resounding “No!”

Since almost everyone has read some Shakespeare, I’ll use his works as an example.  Even in his comedies, Shakespeare tackled serious topics – like the nature of justice and mercy, or what should one do when love and loyalty come into conflict.  The topics of Shakespeare’s tragedies were not much different from those of his comedies – only the end result was more grim.  (Beatrice and Benedict get married and presumably go on happily bickering into old age; Romeo and Juliet get married, then die.)

Did these serious issues mean Shakespeare was writing for the highbrows alone?  Not in the least.  Even his tragedies include comic scenes or really low-brow humor.  This is often interpreted as Shakespeare writing for the “groundlings,” that is, the people in the cheap seats.  I personally think he was simply a good playwright who realized that if he was going to fill the Globe, he had to have the equivalent of a “chick flick” for the ladies and some fart jokes for the men – no matter the social class or educational level.

As time progressed, a couple of revolutions made literature more widely available.  The biggest of these was print material becoming both less expensive and more widely available.  The other was a more broadly literate populace.  Novels, which had been around in one form or another for quite a while, finally found their audience.  Short stories burgeoned as inexpensive magazines sought to fill their pages.

But even then, there wasn’t a clear divide between literature for the elite and pure entertainment for the masses.  Dickens – who most of us now encounter in classrooms – was a pop writer.  Many of his novels were serialized tales with chapters that ended in cliffhangers to assure that readers would “tune in next week” to find out what happened to Oliver Twist or Little Nell or whoever.

However, once there is lots of material published, everyone can’t read everything.  Those of us who’ve been reading SF/F for a while remember when it was possible to keep up with most of the hot new stuff.  I have older friends who remember when it was possible to literally read everything published in a given year in SF/F.

The same glut of material occurred with general lit. Just as today you’ll meet people at an SF con who only read military SF or paranormal romance fantasy or hard SF, readers began to not be able to keep up.  However, I credit the split between Literature (with a capital L and studied by English majors) and popular, genre fiction to two works published in 1922:  James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s long poem, The Waste Land.

Before I get to this, let me return to one of Chad’s questions, because the answer is necessary to understand why I think as I do.

Chad asked, “Why do English professors love those things [ambivalent endings, layers of symbolism, complex and contradictory images]?”  My flippant, short answer would be, “Because it gives them something to talk about in the classroom.”  As with most things, the issue is more complex.

If a professor is teaching material published even a hundred years ago, there’s a lot of background students need to know in order to understand the material.  Some of this can be covered in a footnote (you’d be astonished by how many students don’t know how to use footnotes), but others are more complex.

A historical context is often important to understanding a work.  Often it’s not as simple as a listing of dates.  Many of my students couldn’t understand why Hamlet was so upset by his mother’s remarriage, nor why he considered the marriage incestuous.  The historical context helps because, in Shakespeare’s time, marriage made people “family,” so a woman’s husband’s brother becomes her brother – and if, after her husband’s death, she marries her brother-in-law, she could be seen as marrying her own brother.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s moving poem, “In Memoriam, A.H.” gains a great deal of depth when the reader understands that Tennyson was living at a time where science was creating a considerable amount of culture shock.  Tennyson is not only mourning his close friend, he is mourning the certainty of his father’s generation where heaven, hell, and all the rest were taken for granted – before scientific discoveries put what everyone had always known, because the Bible said so, to doubt.

With me?  Now let’s go back to 1922.  You’re someone who admires cool, cutting edge writers like Joyce and Eliot, but their works are modern.  There’s no need for interpretation, is there?  Anyone should be able to read something published here and now, right?

James Joyce didn’t think so.  He was so impressed by the complexity of Ulysses that he wanted to make sure that none of the critics missed how brilliant he was.  Did he leave the work to speak for itself?  No.  He made sure that documents providing what I can’t help but think of as a secret decoder ring for the novel got into the right hands.  Suddenly, no one was reading the novel for itself, they were digging around, discussing the notes, not the novel.

By coincidence, when T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land was published, there were five blank pages left in the book.  The publisher suggested Eliot provide some notes regarding the complicated imagery of the poem.  Eliot did so.  He regretted it ever after, feeling that the notes, not the poem, got all the attention.

But regrets or not (and I don’t think Joyce, who would go on to write the impenetrable Finnegan’s Wake, regretted it one bit), the world of reading was changed forever.  The lines between Literary Fiction (which often presented itself as the one and only Literature) and Popular Fiction had been drawn.

And English professors became Virgil with the Golden Bough, guiding the lost through the twists of this particular Hades.  Any work that the average person could read without a guide couldn’t be Literature.  It was demoted to Genre Fiction (SF/F, Mystery, Thriller, Romance, etc.) or popular fiction and, never – especially in the Serious Classroom, at least beyond about fifth grade – were the twain to meet.

Or that’s how I see it….

The Line Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

January 2, 2015

News Flash: A new interview talking about recent projects and older influences was just posted.  You might enjoy.

Wondering what the FF is about?  The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  They are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website.

Persephone Contemplates the Winding Circle

Persephone Contemplates the Winding Circle

This is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.  Myth and legend intertwine with beautiful prose in this book.  Added bonus: It’s a perfect read for cold weather.

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  I enjoyed the twists and turns in this one, especially the chance to get to know Emperor Gregor a bit better.

Carol Milne: Knitted Glass by Steve Isaacson.  A short book that provides a fascinating look at an intricate artistic process.

I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, Except When I Hate It by Brian Boone.  A amusing look at some Rock and Roll trivia.  The author has a sardonic tone that works well – as long as the reader knows something about the subject matter.  I found myself musing what would happen if someone cited this as if it was a wholly scholarly work, instead of a work that is scholarly up until the author can’t resist a joke.

In Progress:

Cetaganda by Lois Mc Master Bujold.  Audiobook.  Miles shows a tendency to seek out trouble.


Still reading the proofs for the mass market edition of Artemis Awakening.  If you didn’t read my WW this week, do so.  It will explain why the job is taking me so long!

TT: 2015, Newer for Some Than for Others

January 1, 2015

ALAN: Happy New Year, Jane and Jim! I notice that the two of you still don’t seem to think that the new year is a very good idea. You only decided to try it on for size an hour or so ago. We’ve had it for ages now, so I think that if you look closely, you might find it’s a bit worn out…

Time Changes

Time Changes

JANE: Happy New Year, Alan and Robin!  We’re liking the shape of this New Year quite a lot.   It seems all fresh and shiny.  How many hours in the future are you anyhow?

ALAN: At the moment, it’s 9.00pm on 1st January 2015 and Robin and I are starting to think about going to bed because it’s been a very long day. So that makes it 1.00am where you are, and your 2015 is only an hour old. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

JANE:  Do you and Robin usually stay up to see the New Year “in”?

ALAN:  We used to, but now that we’ve grown old and boring, we usually sleep through it. Some friends of ours have a party every year. They always invite us, and we always turn them down. We feel a bit guilty about that (they really are very close friends) but this year we had a perfect excuse for not attending. Because we’ve moved house, we were 300 km away as well as being fast asleep when the champagne flowed.

How about you and Jim? Do you stay up specially?

JANE: Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.  It depends on whether the day after is a “work day.”  We’re very lucky in that we have fantastic neighbors.  Most years we gather at someone or another’s house and visit.

Last year was colored by the fact that one of our neighbors was very ill, but she really wanted us to have the party.  She died this past summer, so I’m very glad we all met.

ALAN: Oh that is a sad story. Raise a glass to her if you have a party this year.

JANE: We definitely will.  Barb is very missed.  She was a bright light on our little dead end street.

New Year’s Day is often a quiet one for us, although some years we have friends over.

Many years ago, someone told me that if you wanted a “rich” year, you should eat pork on New Year’s Day.  If I remember, we do this.  Another little superstition I follow if I remember is putting a few coins outside the window.  This is supposed to attract more money for the New Year.

Superstitions can be fun.

ALAN: Eating pork on the first day of the year is a German tradition. Being an observant people, the Germans quickly realised that poultry scratches backwards, a cow stands still, but a pig always roots forward. Consequently they reasoned that if you dine upon pork you will obviously move forward in the new year. Sounds quite logical to me.

I hope this will be a rich year for you.

JANE: Wouldn’t that be nice…  And it’s already a richer year for that cool bit of trivia about how pigs root forward.  I’m thrilled.  I’d always thought you ate pork on New Year’s Day because it was rich in flavor.

ALAN: I don’t know if this will be a rich year for us, but there will be some money coming in and it will be very welcome. I become eligible for the pension in March. Since I retired last August, we’ve had no money coming into the house at all – and we’ve been spending rather a lot on moving house and filling up the new one with fridges and washing machines! The pension isn’t huge, but it will be nice to have something to top up the coffers a bit. They’ve been looking rather empty recently.

Do you have any special plans for 2015?

JANE:  Well, one plan will definitely involve paint.  We will be getting new cabinets and counters in our kitchen.  Then, doubtless, we will need to freshen up the paint.  Funny how fixing one thing makes other things look a little shabby.

Otherwise, we haven’t planned too much in the future, although it’s safe to assume that there will be writing and archeology.

ALAN: We’ll probably spend the year consolidating ourselves in our new home. Robin has big plans for the garden and I think I’ll soon feel the urge to do some decorating. We also desperately need more storage space (we have far too much stuff!) so I might have to put some shelves up. Of course, first I have to find somewhere to put the shelves…

JANE: I love shelves, and cabinets.  One of the things that appealed to me about this house was that it had a nice, solid shed in the back.  New Mexico’s very dry climate means that we could transform it into a library.  We did…

ALAN: We’re a bit too humid to make that a success here, though we are seriously thinking of indulging ourselves in an extra shed which will take the overflow of Robin’s gardening apparatus.

JANE: Now that I think about it, though, one of our intended plans is culling some duplicate books so we will have more room for new books.  But that’s going to wait for warmer weather.

When we have the new kitchen cabinets put in, the carpenter has offered to move some of the old ones to our garage.  So now we will have more cabinets…  Joy!

I am really very easily satisfied.

ALAN: Robin is much the same. Give her places to put stuff and she’s happy as can be. She keeps saying we can put stuff in the garage. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it is a double garage, we now have so much stuff in it that I can’t get the car into it any more. Oh well, there’s parking space on the drive.

JANE: Ah…  Jim solved that for us by building the World’s Most Solid shelves at one end of the garage.  I’m not kidding.  At one point, we had a sofa stored on them.  Since we have lots of heavy boxes containing extra copies of my books, these shelves are a joy.

Want me to send you a picture?

ALAN: Indeed I do – a sofa on a shelf is something I absolutely have to see.

JANE: Oh, the sofa is no longer on the shelves.  That was some years ago.  Sorry!

However, as you noted, it’s actually very early in the morning here.  I think I’ll wander off to bed…  Happy New Year to all of you reading this!