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Refresh Your Head! Podcast Recommendations From an Academic Commuter

Guest Blog: Anna McFarlane, @mariettarosetta

I started a new lectureship at University of Leeds this semester, so I currently have a regular 5-hour commute. As a result, I got into a few new podcasts, so thought I’d post some recommendations since the hosts are always asking you to spread the word, and I almost never do. Thanks to Chuckie for offering to host them here, since many of them have a literary and/or fantastic theme.

Firstly, The History of Literature podcast. I got into this one because the host, Jacke Wilson, covers some of the texts I was teaching. Listening to a relevant podcast on the walk to the train station is a great way to do some seminar prep on the go, and I recommended some of his podcasts to my students, particularly some who were struggling with so much reading material. Wilson’s presentation style is completely charming, and there’s some great storytelling here (check out his recent episode Kierkegaard Falls in Love), and you could even treat it like a book club, if you were so inclined, and read the text he’s looking at in advance. I’m currently reading Edith Wharton’s short ghost story ‘The Old Nurse’s Tale’ in preparation for the relevant episode. I also recommend the three episodes on Henry James’s ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ where Wilson reads the story in its entirety, accompanied by his insightful and enthusiastic commentary.

Next up, Why Theory? Hosted by psychoanalysis scholars Todd McGowan and Ryan Engley, this podcast occasionally leaves me behind a bit when they really get on their hobby horses (I’ve just dabbled in some Lacan and Zizek really), but their topic episodes are very accessible; if you like the first one, on jokes and comedy, then I think you’ll get something out of it. They also have an episode on Twin Peaks: The Return, which is reason enough to give them a listen, in my book. For the more in-depth episodes, you may want to set the time aside to read the core text. Any excuse for some more Freud in your life, right?

These podcasts helped me with teaching and were useful materials to send to my students, but I also needed some comic relief for those late evening train journeys after a few pints with colleagues. For these situations, I recommend The Candyman. It’s the story of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory told in the style of a true crime podcast by Big Big Big, an Australian comedy trio. And if that piques your interest in some more comedy goodness, let me also mention The Beef and Dairy Network.

My next recommendation comes with a slight caveat, that I think the hosts occasionally get a bit carried away and deviate from the facts with their debunking… but much of their analysis is completely spot on, and their friendship makes for an engaging listening experience. Mike and Aubrey host Maintenance Phase, a podcast about fat issues and wellness culture. I particularly liked their episode on Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, a book that contributed to my post-natal anxiety when I read Walker’s account of the importance of newborn sleep while dealing with a chronically exhausted 6-month-old. The Maintenance Phase episode came much later, but listening to it was cathartic, and in general I think their opinions have changed the way I think about fat issues in contemporary society.

And finally, I think, my perennial favourite is The Blindboy Podcast. It started as a way for Irish comedian Blindboy (one half of the TV-and-music duo The Rubberbandits) to promote his first short story collection. The first few episodes, and a few episodes sprinkled throughout) are lovingly-made audiobooks of his unsettling, absurdist short stories. Since then, the podcast has featured Blindboy’s ‘hot takes’, deep dives into the history of art and culture, as well as regular episodes on mental health and psychology that provided a lifeline for many during the pandemic, even as Blindboy struggled with his own issues. As a musician, Blindboy really cares about sound quality and works really hard to create a ‘podcast hug’, an intimate and warm atmosphere. Just what you need when alone and cold on a train platform, waiting to find out whether your delayed 10pm train home is actually going to arrive.

I hope this has been a handy way to refresh your podcast listening – and feel free to share your own recommendations!

CFP: Forgotten Fantasists

Who are the unsung heroes of fantastical literature? Who deserves to be recognised for their significant contribution to contemporary Anglophone Fantastika literature but are pushed out of the limelight? This edited companion to fantastical literature hopes to address gaps in research by bringing together considerations of important but underexamined authors and artists. Depending on the number of abstracts received, the collection may be further divided into separate sections – or even individual volumes – taking into consideration different media:

  • Textual (novels, short stories, essays, poems, magazines/fanzines, etc)
  • Artistic (paintings/illustrations, animation, sculptures, etc)
  • Performance (game-playing, plays, opera, ballet, etc)

as well as under-represented voices:

  • Female fantasists
  • POC and/or non-Anglo fantasists
  • LGBTQIA+ fantasists
  • Fantasists with disabilities

The editor Dr. C. Palmer-Patel invites abstracts of 500 words with 100-word bionotes to be submitted to c.palmerpatel@gmail.com by 1 October 2022. Early expressions of interest encouraged. Please include in your bionote details of your primary research interests along with recent and relevant contributions to the field.

The collection has been pitched to Bloomsbury Academic.
Abstracts should make a clear defense for the importance of the author’s work. Final chapters will be due in 2025 and must take into consideration any previous or relevant critical works on the author.

Note that this CFP is related-to but distinct from the CFP for Fantasy-Literature: A Companion. After receiving a number of submissions for one of the suggested topics – challenges to or considerations of influential writers – it was apparent that there is enough interest in the area to warrant a separate collection. Any submissions made for the Fantasy Literature Companion which fall under the remit of the Forgotten Fantasists CFP will be advised to submit their piece to the latter.

Monstress Reading Group: A Belated Invitation and Warning

Dear Reader. My heartfelt apologies. I’ve been remiss in posting details for my virtual reading group for Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress graphic novels. I’ve been absolutely dying to find someone to discuss the novels with + I wanted to do a re-read before reading the latest installment because these novels aren’t easy-reads. Not only is the content at times emotionally burdening/scarring, each text is densely packed with visual and verbal information with regards to both the story arcs and world-building. It’s a lot to take in and I want to – need to – talk about! So we’ll be looking at one volume roughly each month and you can confirm your availability for the first meeting here (note: please confirm availability by this Wednesday as I’ll set the date/time of the group on Thursday based on the responses). There are 6 issues in each volume and if you don’t have the time to read all 6, come along anyways as we’ll be discussing each issue in order so there should hopefully be no spoilers.

My invitation also comes with a warning – one that I really should have thought to make sooner. As I started reading issue 1 in preparation for the reading group, I remembered just how graphic Liu and Takeda’s graphic novel could be. Courtesy of Storygraphs (where readers can select from a lengthy list of labels as part of their review) these are the content warnings for Volume 1 Awakening : violence, gore, child death, death, slavery, body horror, blood, torture, child abuse, murder, cannibalism, animal death, physical abuse, trafficking, confinement, cursing, kidnapping, war, religious bigotry, animal cruelty, emotional abuse, genocide, fire/fire injury, gun violence, injury/injury detail, racism, rape, sexual violence, suicidal thoughts, suicide, xenophobia, grief, death of parent, ableism, hate crime, self harm, sexual assault, sexual content, medical content, sexual harassment, colonization, classism, toxic relationship, and abandonment. …. I told you it wasn’t an easy read. As might be obvious from the very first page of the novel this is definitely an R-rated book but not obscenely so.

First page of Issue 1 of Monstress

What is also probably clear from the first page is that the novel is GORGEOUS. Every illustration with its combo of text and typography is a labour of love. But this beauty poses an odd juxtaposition with the content warnings. If this your first time reading it, don’t be surprised if you’re caught between “can’t look away” and “don’t want to look too closely.”

The series is an investment as a result, which is another reason why I wanted to start a reading group for the series; I’m hoping having people to talk with will help me digest the material better. Not to make it sounds like a support group for graphic novel addicts, but hopefully a chance to make friends based off a common passion for the love of a good book. Potentially we might meet up when later issues are released so join the discord server (here) to keep up-to-date with event details along with some pre-and-post-meet-up chats. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, don’t forget to confirm your availability for the first meeting (link here to save you from scrolling up). Hope to see you there!

Announcing the Ursula K Le Guin Read-Along Symposium

A Read-Along Symposium? What the heck is that?

A couple months ago I contemplated the possibility of putting together a CFP for an edited companion on Ursula K Le Guin. My first thought: given that it’s an author-specific collection, I wanted to do a symposium on it first. My second thought: I’ll definitely want to read or re-read her major works before the symposium. But I need to buddy-read to keep me on track.

And the more I thought about it, the more I considered how much I want to change our conception of academic conferences and symposiums. I already got a good start with Fantastika’s LGBTQIA graphic symposium last year. The papers were delivered as podcasts that we uploaded a week before the symposium with the symposium itself functioning as a series of round table discussions. The podcast format (IMHO) worked great. It gave people the opportunity to listen to presentations at their own pace and in their preferred environment. (If you missed out, you can still access the podcasts here). The podcast format also gave people time to absorb the info. Q&A at conferences can be aggravating as it’s hard to think of a question mere minutes after a presentation. The Fantastika symposium in contrast was buzzing, with chat streaming in via both the chat box in the video call as well as on discord.

I considered replicating that format for an Ursula Le Guin Symposium and then it hit me. I sure I’m not the only one who’d want to read/re-read Le Guin’s books before a symposium. I can’t be the only one who needs a buddy to keep them on track. So why not combine the two, a Read Along and Symposium?

So here’s the deal, starting in April in the 2nd week of each month, I’ll be organizing a meet to discuss one of Le Guin’s books. You’re not required to attend each month if you don’t have the time. You’re not even required to read the whole book. In each meet-up, we’ll discuss the book in 4 quarters. So if you only managed to read half the book, or 3 quarters of the book, or even just the first 25%, you can stay in the meeting up until the point you’ve read up to, and then decide if you want to stick around to discuss further or gracefully bail so you won’t hear spoilers. I’ll mark out the chapter divides in advance so you have a clear idea of “meeting agenda”.

Ultimately this will culminate in an open CFP for an edited companion (and maybe even a “proper” official symposium depending on my university affiliation status). But to start I just want to have fun and read one of my favourite authors with people who love Le Guin too. I’m not posting this on the usual CFP bulletin boards as I want to focus on fun and casual. Just getting together virtually for a coffee or a drink and chat about some of our favourite stuff.

Since I have so many international friends and colleagues, the meet won’t be on the same day or time each meeting. I’ll post a poll link each month so that you can confirm your availability and then will pick date and time based on attendance numbers. So please be aware and conscious of differing time zones and consider if you can or are willing to meet up outside of your working hours.

After *careful consideration*, I’ve decided to do both the Hamish Cycle and Earthsea Cycle in publication order. But I’m also open to adding a non-series text, a short-story or poetry collection, or a non-fiction essay or collection if someone argues passionately for each case.

A Screenshot of my “Careful Consideration” Process

We’ll be using Google Meets as I believe it’s a free platform (although I’m open to a more accessible app if you have recommendations).

Our first book will be Rocannon’s World in the 2nd week of April. As there are 9 chapters plus prologue and epilogue, I’m calling the chapter divides (“meeting agenda”) accordingly (note that I edited the breaks on March 1 after realizing the prologue can function as it’s own separate short story):

  • 1st part: prologue and chapter 1
  • 2nd part: chapters 2-4
  • 3rd part: chapters 5-7
  • Last part: chapter 8, 9, and epilogue

It’s a short read, just over 100 pages. But as it’s Le Guin’s first published novel, there may be some teething issues and no one’s going to blame you if you decide to bail. But come along anyway and tell us about why you bailed.

Cover of first issue via Wikipedia

To join, tell me your availability here. Be aware that the meeting might extend past 60 min (I.e I aim to open the chat 10 min early to allow people to sort out any tech issues and hope to extend at close for a social chat). Edited to add Discord invite here. Please do share the links or this post with anyone who might be interested! TIA

Hope to see you soon!

CFP- Fantasy Literature: A Companion

While fantasy fiction has become incredibly popular and prolific in these last few decades, the appeal of fantastical literature dates back to antiquity, as mythologies, legends, and encounters with the supernatural have formed a large part of narrative traditions in every culture and language. This companion seeks to update and address underexamined areas of fantasy fiction, with the chief aim to provide a global introduction to English-language and English-translation fantasy fiction. This collection will focus on the contemporary written word (narrative prose) produced in late 20th and early 21st century. However, given the range and scope of fantasy (poetry, paintings, sculptures, plays, ballets, operas, films, television shows, graphic novels, animation, video games, tabletop games, etc), the editor will consider proposals which incorporate other mediums as comparisons, adaptations, or lineages, so long as the focus on the written word is apparent.

The companion will be divided into 3 sections:

Historical Influences and Lineage, including (but not limited to) considerations of:

  • Mythological or oral roots (evolution, transmission, and/or dissemination,)
  • Legends and representations of heroic ideals
  • Challenges to or considerations of influential writers (edit: due to the high interest on this subject, I have taken the first steps to form a second companion centred on underexamined authors. Please see the CFP here)

Poetics and Aesthetics of Genre, including (but not limited to) considerations of:

  • Discussions of significant tropes or common images (either across the fantasy genre, specific to a subgenre)
  • Adaptations and movement between mediums
  • Development of the genre/genre boundaries

Current Social Concerns, including (but not limited to):

  • Challenges to or affirmations of gender binaries and heteronormative relationships
  • Issues of decolonization, including unpacking the villain as Other or dissolving the binary of good and evil
  • Global anxieties such as climate change or late-stage capitalism

The editor Dr. C. Palmer-Patel invites abstracts of 500 words with 100-word bionotes to be submitted to c.palmerpatel@gmail.com by 1 October 2022 (extended deadline). Early expressions of interest encouraged. Abstracts will be considered with emphasis on the primary objective of the collection as a whole (as an updated first-stop introduction to fantasy criticism to be used by teachers, students, and scholars), alongside the fit of the proposed chapter for each section. Bionotes should include details of primary research interests along with recent and relevant contributions to the field.

The collection has been pitched to Peter Lang‘s Genre Fiction and Film Companions series. Final chapters will be 4000 words (including bibliography) and will be due 2024.

On the Use and Abuse of Dragons

Who doesn’t like an immense, terrifying, awesome Dragon thrown into a fantasy story? The problem I often find, however, is handling a dragon with… respect? Dignity? The first thing I suppose a writer needs to consider is sentience. Is your dragon a beast or a conscientious entity? Is it somewhere in between? The answer to this has a number of repercussions. It seems almost certain that a dragon will get used in some way. In the few stories where I can think of that the dragon doesn’t get exploited (David Eddings, Terry Goodkind) this is when it only appears in a few scenes and is mostly treated like a beast of nature that you should leave well alone… a bit like if you’ve stumbled across a moose in the Canadian outback.

Reddit picture of moose to show scale

More often, though, if a dragon pops up in a fantasy book, they’re likely to become a minor or major element in the story. Interestingly, although much of contemporary fantasy is inspired by J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its precursor, The Hobbit, contemporary authors seem to avoid taking a page from Tolkien’s book with regards to dragons. While Tolkien kept to his medieval inspirations by casting dragons as an obstacle or quest to defeat and overcome, dragons in contemporary fantasy seem to take the form as a resource, an item that must be captured, conquered, tamed, and brought under control. By taming a dragon, the hero conquers not only nature, but also the supernatural, finding an unlimitless supply of power. Consider Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, for example, an alternate history which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with dragons as an air force in the army. (Although,I confess, I haven’t read the entire series and my memory of them might be faulty.) Novik’s early precursor, Anne McCaffrey, employs dragons in a similar way in her Pern series; here, McCaffrey’s dragons are bioengineered to fight a pestilence that falls from the sky. In each case, the dragons are sentient, taking an active part in the war they’re bred for. But the fact remains that, though sentient, they are still bred for these activities, domesticated much like a hunting dog and given no other purpose except to kill or be killed.

While these examples show sentient dragons that don’t seem to dwell on their own purpose in life – no existentialist crises here – there are, of course, examples where dragons are aware of the way in which they’re being exploited and destroyed. Though I haven’t read the complete series, Robin Hobb’s Liveship and Wild Rain trilogies is one such example. Another that leaps to mind is Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy (which I first talked about here). Although I lamented the slow pace in the first book, the second book moves along at a brisk speed. In the first quarter of the book, we meet the dragon Ancaladar, who has been hiding away as he doesn’t want to risk bonding with a mage. Once a dragon forms a bond with a mage, the mage is able to access unlimited sources of power to fuel their spells. Thus, while Lackey and Mallory’s worldbuilding specifies early that magic has a price, they created a deus ex machina in the form of dragon. Unfortunately for the dragon, the dragon’s immortality is taken away, shortening to match the life of their bondmate. So not only do they get used as a battery pack, but they’ll be discarded soon after. Unlike (most) of the dragons of Pern or Temeraire, Ancaladar does object to being exploited, but as he usually ends up complying with his bondmate’s request, all this shows is that Lackey and Mallory have at least taken some time to consider the feelings of their non-human characters. The drawback, however, is that a dragon with an unlimited supply power risks functioning as a deus ex machina when things go wrong. Their ability to fly also adds to this effect. In a fantasy world where long-distance communication is often a problem, a dragon removes this obstacle fairly effectively. The authors must find other ways, then, to maintain narrative tension.

Finally, we have dragons that are purely beasts. They may form a bond with humans similar to a wild animal that may be raised from infancy, but, at the heart, they are still savage animals. In these scenarios, dragons are even more heavily exploited. Owning a dragon means – almost literally – owning a form of power. Consider George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, where many of the characters try their best to take control of the dragons. Afterall, the Targaryen dynasty was established through dragons, as Aegon the Conqueror was only able to take over Westeros because of these beasts. Other instances of dragons-as-beasts makes the exploitation of dragons even more explicit. In Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy, for example, dragons are bred for fighting, in a gladiator-style dragon cock-fight. It’s a brutal and savage use of dragon-kind, made even more so as the trilogy slowly conveys that the dragons are much more intelligent that the humans give them credit for. J K Rowling treats them similarly in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (although one wonders what was the thought process that went into deciding to use school children as dragon bait for these gladiator-style games. But I digress.)

I suppose my question to all of these authors is why? What is the purpose of adding dragons to your worldbuilding? Do they even have a purpose beyond sheer desire? Have they set out to say something meaningful about the way we perceive animals and nature, the way we see any object that is of use to us – whether sentient or not – and set out to find ways to exploit it? Or is this simply a secondary side effect of the world we live in? Is exploitation the underlying force that moves us all?

Wonder Woman Origins: Where to Start?

I’ve fallen into a deep dark hole of DC comics today and I can’t seem to find my way out. Yesterday I released the abstracts for LGBTQIA+ Fantastika Graphics digital symposium, including my own which I posted here. Although merely days ago I cautioned against writing a conference abstract without knowing some details of your plan/structure, I rarely follow my own advice. 🤷🏽‍♀️ So here I am, trying to figure out where to start my research with Wonder Woman’s origin story.

There are two general versions and they are in oppositions to each other. One is extremely feminist, centering on a parthenogenetic birth (a birth without requiring male interaction) and a matriarchal society spreading the message of peace and enlightenment. The other not only requires male interaction for Wonder Woman to be created but also changes the Amazonian society to make them more aggressive, and more often than not, a group of man-haters. This view is the opposite side of the feminist spectrum, a view presented by male authors who completely misunderstand feminism itself. LGBTQIA+ phobias also get mixed in here (with the idea that a woman would only want to be with another woman because they both hate men). It’s a disturbing and complicated history as each reboot clearly reveals the author’s own views on feminism.

That being said, I still have no idea where to start. Which comic runs should I focus on? The 1940s’ golden age? The 1950s’ silver age? The 1960s’ bronze age? The 1980s’ Crisis on Infinite Earth series which plays with parallel universes? The 1987 reboot which follows it? The 2005/6 reboots? The 2011 one? 2016? The 2017/2020 film adaptations?

I suddenly remember why I’ve avoided looking at Marvel or DC characters for so long. But the longer I put it off, the more “catching up” I’ll have to do. And I thought being an epic fantasy scholar resulted in too heavy a reading list.

But where do the babies come from?

It’s Friday, I’m burnt out, and I’m doing the mom thing today (chasing the kid around nearly an hour past his naptime as he hasn’t eaten his lunch yet). So today I’m going to post a preview of my LGBTQIA+ Fantastika symposium paper – in abstract form. You can find full details of the event here:

But Where Do The Babies Come From?: Evaluating the Effect of Mothers as Matriarchs in Monstress, Wonder Woman, and Y: The Last Man


What happens in a world where there are no men or patriarchs?How are political alliances arranged? How are relations formed? And where do the babies come from? These are some of the questions posed in the works of Monstress, Wonder Woman, and Y: The Last Man. Although men still exist in the world of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, it is striking that the political alliance between the Dawn Court and the Dusk court are made via the marriage of two females. While patriarchal marriage alliances are generally made in order to combine bloodlines, Monstress blatantly ignores this objective. In contrast, while in the original Wonder Woman comics, Hippolyta creates her daughter Diana from clay, in the 2011 retcon DC changed this parthenogenetic birth so that Diana is created from the union of Zeus and Hippolyta, reaffirming the role of heterosexual parentage. Meanwhile, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man undermines this heterosexual/binary parentage completely. At the beginning of the series, Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand are the only two living males left on the entire planet, as a mysterious illness kills anyone with a Y chromosome. One of the explanations offered for this illness is, due to viable cloning, males were no longer necessary, and Mother Nature destroyed them. All three graphic narratives offer interesting perspectives of the place and space of men within a queered world. While these texts are still fairly conservative (as they do not engage in sustained conversation about either intersexuality or pansexuality), each narrative still reveals insights into the binary nature of power structures and family dynamics. This paper will begin this dialogue as the first steps of a larger project examining power and gender roles in fantasy fiction.

Sandman Issue 20: Masks and Facades

Continuing my re-read of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman which I started here, as I’m focusing on portraits I’m skipping most of Volume 3 Dream Country and heading straight to the last issue, issue 20: Façade. “Façade” is fascinating from the portrait perspective and I believe the cover art for volume 3 is a representation of this issue.

“Façade” features Urania “Rania” Blackwell, DC Universe’s Elemental Girl and her inability to cope with living in her post-superhuman existence. Following her retirement, Rania is completely isolated, her only point of contact are phone calls to the agency to inquire the status of her disability cheque.

Rania has the ability to transmutate into anything… except transmutating flesh is difficult. She gained these powers through contact with “the orb of Ra”, a process that leaves her looking alien and monstrous. As a result, each time Rania enters the public sphere she must create a version of her face, to cover her disfigurement. Unable to transmutate flesh (the smell of rotting meat lasts for weeks), Rania creates silicon faces instead. These silicon faces harden and fall off in a day, but Rania keeps them. Throughout the issue we see blurred images of masks hung around Rania’s apartment. From this perspective, they look like Greek theatre masks.

While there is one photograph of Rania before she gains super powers, the masks themselves operate as a series of self-portraits. If portraits are meant to convey the essence of a person, presenting them as a mask subverts that objective, as a mask is meant to hide the true identity, transform a person, and allow them to play a role. And yet, as Rania notes herself, the masks are a part of her identity as well, telling the figure Death that: “I couldn’t throw them away. They’re part of me.”

Death response to this assessment of human identity is striking, as she offers her own:

You people always hold onto old identities, old faces and masks, long after they’ve served their purpose.

But you’ve got to learn to throw things away eventually.

Gaiman, The Sandman “Façade”

Is Death right? Do we dwell on the portraits of our past too much? Do we dream of days gone by, or dwell on our past miseries? I can’t help but think of pop psychology. How often do we locate the source and meaning of our current actions from events that happened in our past. How often do we react in a way because of a past identity, a past hurt or trauma? Can we ever move past it to form a new persona, or is it always built off layers of shattered masks, a series of silicon portraits continously created and discarded but never completely thrown away?

Too many deep questions for a Thursday afternoon. I’m off to take a nap. Until next time, take care!

The University 811: Lessons in Abstract

Continuing the blog series on university tips that I started here, today we’re going to talk about writing abstract. I’ve said it before (here, here, and here), and I’ll say it again, first and foremost for any piece of writing you need to identify your objectives and your audience(s). This is especially important for abstract-writing. In most cases, your objective will be “I want to have my piece of research accepted.” Regardless of what the objective of your research is, the purpose of the abstract is the sales pitch for that research. Since that objective, acceptance, hinges on external factors, your audience, you can see why it’s absolutely imperative to consider your audience.

If you’re writing a conference abstract, then your audience will be first reviewed and approved by conference organisers or a reviewing committee. Have the CFP (call for papers) at hand when you write your abstract. Does the CFP posed any questions they hope to answer? Are there any specific areas or themes that the CFP particularly highlights? Are there any keywords that leap out at you? What is the subject of the theme of the conference itself? What is the background of the people hosting the conference? Who are the keynotes and what are their contributions to the field? You’re not setting out to answer these questions in your abstract, but you should hold them in your mind as you write. You want to frame your abstract so that it’s an obvious fit for the conference. The worst conference abstracts I’ve seen (and I’ve organised 10 conferences so far) are ones which do not match the theme or purpose of the conference. You want your abstract to tell the organisers that you have something meaningful to add to the discussions that they’ve created a space for.

The second audience to consider for a conference abstract are the attendees of the conference. Once your abstract is accepted by the conference committee, it will likely be published in the conference programme itself (either printed or online). Often, there may be several panels occurring at the same time and attendees will have to choose between two or more panels to decide which one to attend. So you want to write your abstract in a way that is appealing to conference delegates with the aim of getting them to come see your presentation. Again, consider the audience’s background and the conference theme. This assessment will allow you to moderate the tone and jargon in your abstract. For instance, I recently presented a paper at a postcolonial conference. As I work on fantasy fiction, I needed to present my abstract in a way that in understandable and approachable to literature scholars who may be unfamiliar with fantasy criticism, or with the fantasy genre itself. If I were to write the abstract for a fantasy conference, then I would need to frame the research in a different way, perhaps highlighting postcolonial elements that a group of fantasy scholars may be unfamiliar with. If I were to write an abstract for a postcolonial fantasy conference, then, again, I’d need to re-frame the abstract accordingly. In each case, your abstract situates your work in relation to the field, but identifying the field itself depends largely on the theme of the conference. While in all three examples, I’m pitching an abstract to literature scholars, there are subsections within this field that I need to consider, categories within the field which are distinct from each other. If you’re writing an abstract to accompany an article submission, then the same ideas apply. i.e. What is the theme and aims of the journal? Who is the audience? How does your work fit within this field?

The difference between conference and article abstracts (IMHO) is tone and tense. Conference papers usually present a small portion of your research. In most cases, this research is in some stage of development, i.e. you may be nearly done or just starting, but generally you have acquired some data and are presenting your initial findings and analysis. Occasionally, you may present at a conference after the research is done and you’re nearly ready to publish (or have published). In this case, the conference paper operates as a summary of your findings and conclusions, inviting the audience to read the full published text. Alternatively, you may be presenting at a conference before the research has even begun; in this case, you would be outlining your plans and methodologies and what you hope to accomplish. All of these scenarios are perfectly acceptable if you treat conferences as a way to test your ideas and get informal feedback from your peers no matter what stage of research your at. (Even if you’re done, you may want to consider directions for your next project, or how to expand the work further.) Thus, your tone and tense-choices may differ depending on the stage. If you’re at an earlier stage, you will likely use more conditional language, stating what you hope to accomplish or plan to do. But your abstract should still be written in a way that makes it apparent that you have considered a rough outline for your conference paper. The second worse conference abstracts I’ve seen are vague ones that summarizes the topic or discusses the importance of it, but tells me nothing about the presenter’s argument and/or methodology. (Check out my blog on the ‘so what’ factor, to tackle that issue further.) In many of these cases, (especially in the humanities) these abstracts are written before the presenter has put any major thought into what they hope to accomplish. Now, while it is entirely possible to write your conference paper on the train ride to the conference, if you’re submitting your abstract to a competitive programme, you may want to avoid statements in your abstract that makes it apparent that you haven’t done any of the work yet.

In contrast, article abstracts are written for research that is ready to be published. Like conference papers, it may only be a small portion of your larger project, but that piece is ready to be publicly disseminated. So your abstract must clearly outline your arguments, your methodologies, and the steps you’ve taken to reach your conclusions. Ideally (and this is only my opinion as journal editor; other editors may prefer other approaches), I prefer abstracts that read as a mini-outline of the project, operating almost as a set of guideposts to your reader. Putting myself in the position of reader, when I’m researching a topic I appreciate abstracts that tell me exactly what the article will do as it helps me decide if the work is applicable to my own research or not. Reading a vague abstract – or one overly complicated with complex language and technical jargon – makes me unwilling to do the work of procuring a copy of the text and reading it.

There’s another type of abstract that doesn’t get talked about often when discussing abstracts, the proposal abstract for grant applications. As there are a number of varying grant types and funding bodies, it’s difficult to summarise audience expectations here. But, in most cases, treat your audience as an educated general audience – i.e they may not have much experience with your particular field, but they will be highly educated, so either avoid using any jargon or concepts that are specific to your field or explain them if you have the space to do so. The key thing to keep in mind for grant applications is that you’re asking someone outside of your field to invest a lot of money into you and your project. So, while above I advise that you don’t dedicate too much time explaining the importance of the project, here you need to make sure that you have one or two sentences which clearly and strongly states your case. The difference in approaches, again, is due to your audience. In conference or article abstracts, you’re pitching your abstract to a scholar related to your field (in my case, another literature scholar); they’ll likely understand the importance of you work within that field. But with grant applications, it’s entirely possible that the review committee may have no experience in your field at all. For instance, while my own funding application focuses on literature, my readers and reviewers may have experiences in a completely different area of the humanities (sociology, history, etc). While these types of abstracts are generally shorter than conference or article-abstracts, you want to use your abstract as a pitch that invites your reader to continue reading the rest of your proposal.

Whether you’re writing an abstract for a conference, an article, or a funding proposal, in all of these cases, the abstract is the ‘first impression’ that you’re presenting to other scholars; so make it a good one. And good luck!