2012 Baltimore Book Festival
This past Saturday I attended the Baltimore Book Festival with friend and fellow writer, J. Lea Lopez. I want to take some time to talk about the experience, as it was a first for me.
I had looked at the website a few times after she had invited me, and I wasn’t sure if I would get anything out of the experience. I feared it would be lots of would-be authors shoving business cards and free samples of their product in everyone’s faces while publishing professionals sneered their noses over top of the rif-raff like myself. To tell you the truth, there was some of that, and it did annoy me as much as I expected it would.
Mostly, however, the festival was an array of tents encircling Baltimore’s Washington Monument. (I wouldn’t be a Marylander if I didn’t point out that this was the first monument to George Washington, long before the white pointy thing on the other end of the Beltway showed up.)
The tents were marked according to the type of guests and panels that would be present discussing aspects of the book world appropriate to them. There was the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Tent, the Maryland Romance Writers Tent, and so on. As several interesting talks/panels were happening simultaneously, one had to choose which was most appealing at any given moment. The first I selected, and for which Jen joined me was a talk on the Steampunk genre. I think I may have found this first stop the most interesting.
The panel consisted of five people. An editor, two Steampunk authors, one aspiring to be so, and another gentleman who had not written a work of fiction in the genre, but was helping a group of people build a steampunk world for future use. (I admit I wasn’t entire sure what exactly he was doing this for. But he had interesting things to say anyway.)
Steampunk, for those of you who don’t know, is fiction built around the idea that steam became the primary source of energy and locomotion in our society, starting in an around the Victorian era. That era continued to inspire clothes, food, music, architecture into the future. An alternate timeline sort of fantasy of sci-fi.
I’ve not read any of it myself, but I knew what it was. That’s why I went to the panel. I want to explore its appeal, as up until that point I figured it was mostly based on people thinking, “these clothes and gadgets are cool looking.”
I didn’t talk to authors directly. Only if I feel I have a clever question will I take up time of such people. I did however appreciate the enthusiasm for this somewhat offbeat genre. Much of what I expected its successful authors to be was true of this group. An appreciation for the stylized off-kilter expressed with great enthusiasm. An enthusiasm that was in fact based more of people thinking that “stuff” looked cool. (Though that aspect was certainly a part of it.)
Nearly all of them view steampunk (and its cousins clockpunk and gas light) as an answer to the rigidity of most science fiction, and even that of some fantasy. A true punk sensibility within the established literary coda, steampunk allows authors to explore characters and plots that either fantasy and especially sci-fi alone would perhaps frown upon. I liked that rebellious angle. It gave the movement substance beyond the shiny objects and long overcoats you see people wearing at steampunk events. (Yes, I saw more than a few in Baltimore.)
I’m sure steampunk has its own conventions and expectations. Yet I found it refreshing to see professional authors and editors eschew some of the hard line presented by more conventional science fiction. A hard line with which I myself have had some difficulty.
That, and the fact that the authors were in many cases just as casual if not goofy as I am on the average day. Some of that may be the nature of the genre. But more of that may be my first true, direct exposure to successful authors in the flesh. (One reason I decided I would attend to event after all. To at least be around literary people even if I was in no mood to engage them directly.)
I came out of the steampunk presentation with an enhanced understanding both of the genre and its creators and fans. Already I have started working out a plan to read some steampunk for the first time, and perhaps compose some of my own in the future.
Later I went with Jen to one of the events to which she most looked forward. It was the No Holds Barred event, wherein three professional agents would give a brief opinion on first pages of novels brought in by writers. I think this event needed a bit more planning, honestly. I think the agents meant well, but everything had to move at lightening speed in order to get to all of the submissions that had been brought in.
In fact, I think the organizers might have foolishly been caught off guard by how many people would submit. Naturally if you have a free agent critique of even one page of a novel, you will draw writers like a fly to honey, and that is exactly what happened. The moderator had to read the excerpt out loud to the group quickly, (too quickly for much emoting), and give the agents a moment to read the rest, there on the spot. Then the comments about how it worked as a hook would come.
Again, not ideal for anyone involved. Jen submitted her pages, about which they had several concerns. Having read part of her novel, I’m not sure I agreed with much of what was said, to be frank, but that is hardly my affair. Not long after that, when it became clear that the whole event would only be reading a page and saying one of three pat responses, Jen and I opted to leave. I had hoped it would be more of a talk. A Q&A at least. I think perhaps they were not prepared for the turnout.
Other tents were filled with both established and upcoming authors, none of whom I admit, I had heard of, so I didn’t go there. There was a strong theatre presence, with play readings and free previews. I was tempted to go to some of these, but I was only there for the day, and some of the events were entire plays that would have taken up a good portion of my time. So I opted out.
There were walking tours of literary sites which I would have taken. Jen thought about it, but decided 90 minutes was kind of long. And it probably was. I’d have gone if she had, but I didn’t feel like going it alone.
I did go it alone for the final two hours of the event, as Jen opted to attend two events centered on romance and erotica writing. I’d have been the only man in attendance so I opted out of those, and went off on my own. During that time, I listened to some poetry readings. (Though all of them were depressing I have to say.) I tooled around all of the used book tents, though I didn’t buy anything. Then I wandered into the Peabody Center Library, where a harpist was giving a free concert. I enjoyed that, and was there about 40 minutes until the end of the presentation.
When Jen and I met up again, she was pleased with the panels she had attended, so all was well. By that point the tents were closing up, and we headed off for dinner, and after a break, a late night drive to drop me off at my car in Frederick. (If you want to hear about the events she attended the following day, since she spent the night, she will be blogging on it very soon herself. I look forward to that. Hope you are too.)
It seemed like the kind of place that movies and yes, books, have the quiet, aloof type like me run into the notebook-carrying, book-devouring glasses-wearing pixie that is way smarter than him, and walks around with him to buy an overpriced vendor hot-dog, at which point they have fallen in love.
That didn’t happen to me.
What did happen was a greater appreciation for such events, and an understanding that even I can get something out of them. That I need not be selling myself constantly to have a respectable presence in such places. (I brought business cards just in case, but gave out none.) My aloofness wasn’t as crippling here as it might have been at other events. (Lack of love at first site story notwithstanding.) I already thought about questions I would ask the panels, if I had had more time, or if I had come back the following day. There is next year, and there are events in other cities. I imagine that so long as I don’t have to drive, (Thanks, Jen), I will be found at such events again in the future.
The things that annoy me about the literary world still annoy me. It can be somewhat elitist. The agent model is one I don’t entirely trust yet. Marketing can be obnoxious. I am probably too quiet to get the most out of some of those tents at times. Still now that I have done it, and thus for the first time feel I have mingled directly with fellow writers, (along with my Frederick Writers Salon meetings), I feel a little less alone in this endeavor. That isn’t to say I suddenly feel on fire to change everything, nor does it mean I won’t have some of my issues anymore. It does however mean that just maybe I can see more of the people aspect behind the process.
I even tweeted one of the steampunk authors when I got home. (Tiffany Trent) The interesting thing…she tweeted back.
That, I suppose, is at least the tiniest beginning of something for me.