On Expertise

A perspective on Readercon:

This weekend I went to my first Readercon. There’s a lot to like about Readercon, but there’s also a lot to dislike. To start off with, the name is false advertising. This isn’t a con that centers itself on or meets the needs of readers, or enables readers to talk to each other. This is a professional networking conference that also meets the needs of a small set of fans, most of whom seem to be white, male, and over 50. It is designed, in many ways large and small, to reinforce the status of professionals–particularly writers, but also editors, paid critics, and academics–above that of people who are “just fans” or “just readers.”

The con’s setup (everything from the programming to the hotel selection) allows and encourages this group of people to talk to each other, and fans and readers to express appreciation to this set of authorities, but does very little to encourage literary conversation as a conversation among equals. Readership, audience reaction, is strongly encouraged to stay within strict bounds; criticism and participation in the discussion are treated as privileges accorded to a few, not the basic rights of every reader.

(I was going to do a general post-Readercon links post, but then it was pointed out to me that the relevant links are already being collected at the Readercon livejournal community, so I suggest you go there, instead, and I’m just going to single out this one post.)

I haven’t been to a Readercon. It’s always been on my list of conventions I’d like to go to someday, but to date has never quite made it to the top, because the constellation of writers it places in the centre of the field is in large part not a constellation that particularly excites me. (I have a memory of seeing, in a panel description somewhere, a statement to the effect that Little, Big was the definitive Readercon book, to which my response was: right, well, this is not for me, then.) But I have to say that this description of it, though intended as criticism, really, really makes me want to go.

Panel discussions have always been part of the draw of conventions, for me. I can get readerly discussion of books in conversation with friends, down the pub, or online; I can, almost literally, get it all the damn time if I want. At conventions it is what the bar is for, what going out for meals is for, what book groups are for. You know what I can’t get on a regular basis? What I very rarely get enough of even at a convention? The experience of listening to experts on a particular topic discuss it in depth. That, to me, is what panels are for.

When I started going to conventions, I chose the panels I wanted to go to by topic. This proved to be a very hit-and-miss way to approach things, as you can imagine. So then I started to choose panels based on the panelists, because experience taught me that nine times out of ten, published authors will be more interesting on a panel focused on a topic they know about than “just fans”, and a good proportion of the time critics and academics will be more interesting than authors.

(Note that I do not consider myself a critic, precisely because of the status implications of the term. I am not putting myself in the top tier of panelists that I’m creating in the paragraph above, and if I went to a Readercon and was offered more than, say, a panel on the collected work of Stephen Baxter, I would think something had gone wrong somewhere. You would be amazed [or maybe not] at the breadth of the shallowness of my knowledge of sf and fantasy. Note, also, that I am talking about literary panels; science and technology panels, fan panels, culture panels and so forth are a different kettle of fish. And I tend to go to less of them.)

I have lost count of the number of times that audience involvement has been the death of a fascinating panel discussion. Few phrases strike fear into my heart like, “This is really more of a comment than a question …” Sometimes the audience discussion phase is fascinating and insightful; but mostly, not. And there are obvious reasons why problems arise: a room is more difficult to moderate and focus than a panel. These reasons are not insurmountable, but if they are surmounted then you get a different kind of discussion — it becomes, again, the kind of discussion I can easily get in other times and places.

Of course, this approach to panels necessitates among other things (a) a convention committee who can be trusted to find the five best people for a given discussion, and (b) a programme book that allows con-goers to find out who the names on the panels are. Readercon seems to have (b) covered, since it provides more extensive biographies of panelists than any other programme book I’ve ever seen. The other criticism in the post linked above, though, is that they’re not so good at (a): “There are a number of perspectives which simply do not appear–particularly those of people of color, but also those of younger generations, queer people, women, young professionals, poor or working class people, and fields of literary criticism developed since 1968.” This is, no doubt, a problem, and makes me move Readercon back down my list of priorities. If they’re not including a wide variety of perspectives, they’re not finding the best five people to discuss a topic, which undermines the whole point of being so strict about the regulation of panels.

But in principle, a convention that, within the panel format, unashamedly celebrates expertise? Bring it on.

38 Responses to “On Expertise”

  1. Jonathan M Says:

    The “White and over 50” thing is not purely a Readercon failing though is it? That’s a systemic problem with fandom as a whole.

    It’s also something that’s sadly anchored in human psychology. People tend to want to do stuff with people they know rather than people they don’t, people tend to gravitate towards people like them rather than people who aren’t and while there’s some meritocratic aspects to climbing the social slippery pole, it is also very much about networking and knowing people. So, if you’re caught on the outside with little social capital (as non-white and many under-50s are) then you might well wind up having to wait for time and demographics to do their bit or you sit on the sidelines until you get fed up and go home.

    This also presents problems even to right-minded organisers who do want to be aggressively inclusive.

    Presumably, if you’re setting up a panel you sift through a) the people you remember performing well on similar panels in the past, b) the people who have written or spoken on the topic in a way that impressed you and c) the people you know.

    So when trying to set up a panel about what it’s like to be a young black lesbian in fandom you might well find yourself struggling as a) there haven’t been many panels on this topic, b) there aren’t many people writing about these types of things in venues you read and c) you don’t know anyone like that because they don’t attend conventions because all of the panels are white male and over-50.

    Wanting “expert panelists” just exacerbates this problem as it presumably makes people even less likely to take chances on people they don’t know.

  2. Niall Says:

    Wanting “expert panelists” just exacerbates this problem as it presumably makes people even less likely to take chances on people they don’t know.

    I think it can do that. I don’t see that it will inevitably do that, given good research and discussion when planning the programme. It’s not as though the sf community has no diversity of voices to draw on these days, particularly in America; it’s just that Readercon (apparently) isn’t doing so.

  3. David H Says:

    I think the topic and level of panels play quite a large part in determining how good the audience participation will be. My experience of conventions is admittedly skewed (eight Fantasycons, two Alt-Fictions and one Eastercon), but most of the panels I’ve seen tend to fall into one of two categories: (a) very general, broad-brush topics; or (b) very specialised, niche topics. Neither of these necessarily lends itself to stimulating audience discussion: for a), it will probably end up covering similar ground to past panels; whilst for b), you’re less likely to have audience members knowledgeable enough to engage with the subject matter at a useful level.

    Panels could be a great way to have discussions that wouldn’t be possible in other circumstances (not even in the convention bar) – but it depends on the luck of having a good match between topic and audience.

    Agreed, though, that choosing panels to attend based on the panellists is a good idea (though admittedly, the conventions I’ve been to most often tend not to have so many ‘fan-led’ panels). Certainly I’ve been to panels where I was less interested in the subject than in hearing a particular panellist or two speak; sometimes doing so was a good idea, sometimes not – but that’s the way it goes.

  4. Niall Says:

    Of course, “expertise” is sometimes not all you might hope. Related post by Judith Berman:

    One of my panels was about re-reading the classics, a poor choice by Programming since my reading history is lamentably patchy. Somehow (I think all I said was that Shakespeare was hard to read for speakers of present-day English) I seemed to become the person who thought the classics were all irrelevant. It’d be more accurate to say that I think the classics are valuable if not always relevant.

    One interchange was about Homer, and how great the Odyssey was, and how much of the whole history of literature the Odyssey had influenced, and how Joyce’s Ulysses contained the whole of human experience (this last from critic and fellow panelist Michael Dirda).
    […]
    The statement that the novel Ulysses contained the whole of human experience startled me, as it is so at odds with my own experience of Joyce. One piece of this is I think gender-related. Although sf has a very skewed gender ratio, and I often find myself as the only woman on sf panels, I rarely feel I am surrounded by or engaged in purely gender-based opinionating. This panel had several moments where I found myself in a foreign land, for example Dirda’s puzzlement when I mentioned seeing the negative descriptors of femaleness in Le Guin’s pioneering gender-bender Left Hand of Darkness on re-reading it many years after the first time. I might have misunderstood his response, but it was as if he was unaware of this rather well-known (acknowledged and addressed by Le Guin herself) critique of the book. It seems so obvious that it should hardly need saying that one thing not contained in Ulysses is what Molly’s day was like.

  5. Niall Says:

    David:

    I think the topic and level of panels play quite a large part in determining how good the audience participation will be.

    Yes. I suppose I’m implicitly saying that I prefer your (b), and that in my experience audience participation tends to take more away from (b)-style panels than it adds.

  6. David H Says:

    From my experience, Niall, I would tend to agree with you. I should have added that I’d like to see more panels in between my (a) and (b), which I think could have greater potential for useful audience participation.

  7. Al Reynolds Says:

    Quoting from the quote:

    “The con’s setup (everything from the programming to the hotel selection) allows and encourages this group of people to talk to each other, and fans and readers to express appreciation to this set of authorities, but does very little to encourage literary conversation as a conversation among equals. Readership, audience reaction, is strongly encouraged to stay within strict bounds; criticism and participation in the discussion are treated as privileges accorded to a few, not the basic rights of every reader.”

    I haven’t been to Readercon, but I’ve attended quite a few cons as a guest, usually in the company of other writers and critics. A typical con invitation might say that “we know there are a lot of fans keen to meet you” or suchlike. Accordingly, during the opening ceremony we’ve gone out of our way to declare ourselves to be open and available for chat and discussion at any time, not just in the formalised context of panels and talks. And yet, by and large (there are always welcome exceptions) this doesn’t really happen. It seems that there is a large constituency of con-goers who simply aren’t interested in interacting with writers or critics, but are there primarily to hang out with other fans and talk about real ale, knitting, con-running, whatever. No great surprise I suppose, but it’s always a bit of a let-down when you’ve been led to expect the opposite.

    Finncon, incidentally, was not like that at all – but then I’ve always found the Finns to be incredibly well-read and enthusiastic about written SF, and equally keen to discuss it on any level, be it informally or via panels.

  8. Paul Kincaid Says:

    I have not been to Readercon, so I cannot comment on this convention directly. Like you, Niall, it has been on my list of conventions I would like to go to when time/money allow, particularly as a number of people have told me emphatically how much I would like it. (Curiously, those same people have not said the same thing to Maureen, though I suppose I do fit the white male over-50 model and she, of course, doesn’t.)

    But I have attended more than enough conventions, and I’ve actually programmed more than enough of them, also. The trouble is that there is an assumption that programming is easy (I’ve been involved with conventions where programming was clearly the least important part of the organisation), and when it is a long-running convention, like Readercon, it is very easy to fall back on familiar topics and people. Because the alternative is keeping aware of a very wide and rapidly changing genre so you can call on unfamiliar ideas and people, and that takes more time than most convention organisers are able to give.

    So I can well believe the complaint that particular interests and sections are not well catered for. But that begs the question: should they be?

    If Readercon has worked out over the years a way of engaging at a high level with a particular constituency, is it actually fair to criticise them for not engaging with a completely different constituency? Particularly if you don’t categorise that constituency in terms of age, race or sex but rather in terms of interest in a particular conversation. I think the remark about Little, Big says more about the character of the Readercon constituency than the fact that they are mostly male, white and over 50.

  9. Niall Says:

    Paul: I think that if Readercon wants to cater to a constituency who value the work of a particular cluster/tradition of writers, that’s fine. (I can see that Little, Big s a significant book, after all, even if it leaves me slightly cold.) I have a hard time believing that the people who value that particular cluster/tradition are quite so dominantly male, white, and over 50, however, as they seem to have been in this year’s programme. The item that first jumped out at me, skimming through the programme book, was five white guys discussing the career of Elizabeth Hand. It was probably a very good panel — the white guys in question were Graham, Gary Wolfe, F Brett Cox, Adam Golaski, and Paul Witcover — but it seems unlikely that it reflected the demographics of Hand’s audience, which in turn means that it seems unlikely that it fully reflected the experiences of Hand’s readers; which surely should be one of the goals of such a panel. This sort of thing suggests to me that there are indeed other factors in play. I just don’t think panel format per se is one of them.

  10. Jonathan M Says:

    I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between focusing on a literary tradition and collection of authors and focusing upon a certain group of people who talk about that tradition and authors.

    If Readercon is about Little, Big then fine but you can focus on that tradition whilst still being inclusive. Conversations don’t always have to involve the same group of people.

    however, reading around it seems that actually… that’s what the readercon organisers seem to want. Not only are they not interested in readercon becoming a different kind of con, but actually they seem to think that too many people attend readercon as it is and so, frankly, they can well afford to alienate a few outsiders.

    Obviously, they do what they want but I think there’s a difference between narrowing access for intellectual reasons and narrowing access for social reasons and I suspect it’s the latter that are the prime movers. Just look at the tagline for the next convention ‘this IS your father’s convention’.

  11. Niall Says:

    Yes — although to be fair, they have acknowledged the problems with the tagline.

  12. Jonathan M Says:

    Ah fair enough. I stand partly corrected and entirely informed.

    Besides which I’m quite a fan of elitism and Readercon (differences in taste notwithstanding) does sound like the kind of panel-based thing that would interest me more. I’ve been to a few things at the NFT and they have limited audience participation and it works quite well (subject to having a muscular chair who tells people to shut up when they’re rambling).

    If it means not having to listen to readings, especially readings of entire stories that I didn’t think much of when I read them for review (as happened at picocon… the horror… the horror) and an end to questions about writing habits and where people get their ideas from then I say all hail Readercon and fuck the proles ;-)

  13. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Well, Little, Big makes it appeal to me, but that isn’t the point I was making. It wasn’t the particular book that struck me, as the fact that they might think in terms of a “definitive Readercon book”, not a notion I’ve come across anywhere else. My point is that thinking about the convention in that particular way says more about the convention’s self-image, its perceived constituency, than any facile characterisation of them as white, male, 50-plus.

    In fact, it should open it up more: the constituency of people who can talk perceptively about Little, Big is certainly not confined to white male over-50s. Which suggests there is a conflict between conception and practice, and I think that difference might be explained in terms of comfort. You turn to the people you know, talking about the things you know about. As I said, programming is hard when you try not to do that. I think that difference equates with the distinction Jonathan is talking about.

  14. Liz Says:

    As is so often the case I think Niall has nailed it for me. I don’t think the panel format is necessarily the problem, but it is easy to do as Jonathan says way up there and fill up the panels with people you know personally or have seen speak and know are good speakers. This may make for pretty good panels but is not so good if you are excluding the diverse range of opinions because the new people can’t break into the programme.

    I also don’t think programming is an easy task, and I recognise there are many factors which end up influencing who goes on what, but Readercon is a convention which prides itself on how good their programming is, and it seems like a missed opportunity that this philosophy apparently does not extend to the diversity of panellists. If you want panel discussions you don’t get anywhere else, then attracting members with a range of perspectives and using them on panels seems like a good place to start.

    There’s also the financial aspect to this which UK cons don’t have to worry about, as if you’re reimbursing programme participants then participation may well make the difference between someone attending the convention and not coming along at all. (I understand that Readercon reimburses programme participants, but I’ve never attended one myself so I might be wrong there.)

  15. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Mexicon used to reimburse programme participants, which allowed us to offer some of the best and most diverse panel discussions ever seen at UK conventions. But it required programmers to be very proactive in seeking out new people, keeping up with how the genre was changing, and so on. And that, as I can testify, was very tiring and very time consuming. If you’ve already got a stable of good reliable panelists, it becomes easy not to seek out others.

  16. Graham Says:

    I’m just back from said convention, and a little discombobulated for that and other reasons. So will limit myself to a couple of quick factual points:

    1) Yes, those of us on the “Fiction of Elizabeth Hand” panel did remark on the all-male composition of the panel, and spun out some discussion of gender etc from that.
    2) Yes, Readercon does offer program participants free membership. (On the other side, though, as I suspect it has fewer AV requirements than most cons, its overhead per member may be a lot lower.)
    3) I think the “Little, Big as emblematic book of Readercon” thing is a bit overblown. This comes from a single panel, two or three years ago, at which a number of other works were nominated (most frequently also The Book of the New Sun), and after which there were also plenty of reservations expressed about the idea of such a panel: it makes a fairly varied community seem more homogenous than it is.
    4) People whose “Best Half-Dozen Books” list does not contain Little, Big are still wrongheads.

    About the elitism-or-not thing, Jonathan, I assume you were doing exaggeration for rhetorical effect, but I find myself closer to Micole’s point of view than yours. More to follow when I regain full coherence.

  17. Jonathan M Says:

    I don’t think it would be that Herculean a task for an entire programming committee to keep track of a few new people every year. In fact, I suspect that they do and part of the problem is that people have different demands for the rate of change and different conceptions of what constitutes “new blood”.

    But if you look at say Graham’s story about how Charles N. Brown approached him to write for Locus as a young person then you could see why a lot of people might feel excluded :-) “Dear God he’s under 40… he’ll be wanting to be paid in Pokemon cards and crack cocaine!”

  18. Graham Says:

    Locus is one thing and Readercon another; I’d suggest it’s best to think about the two separately.

  19. Jonathan M Says:

    Exaggerating yes, but there is some truth to it.

    On the demographics of fandom in general then yes, I am entirely behind Micole. I think that fandom is debased and distorted by the lack of voices that are non-white, non-male, non-straight and youthful. And I don’t count myself as particularly young so I’m not even making a roundabout case for prominence to be accorded to more people from my age group.

    On the issue of panel expertise, I see myself as a punter when I attend these kinds of events. I have paid or traveled to see a group of experts opine on various issues. I do not feel entitled to be a part of the conversation. In fact, I tend to get irritated at those people who do insist on chiming in from the audience as it eats up time and if I don’t see myself as a part of the conversation then I certainly don’t see random fan x. I think, on this issue, I disagree with Micole as she clearly does expect to be a part of a conversation she is attending.

    for my money, if there’s an accessibility issue with panels then it’s at the level of a) programming and b) fandom in general. In order to do any given topic justice you need to represent as many voices as possible and, for example, to not include a female voice on Elizabeth Hand’s work is, IMHO, a fuck up. It’s not a failing because it’ll make female members of the audience feel excluded from the conversation… it’s a failing because there are loads of excellent female critics and ‘experts’ and it seems potty to me not to include one of their voices on a female author.

    Now, if programmers claim that they couldn’t find any women willing to talk about Elizabeth Hand then either they’re not looking hard enough or fandom is not allowing enough female critics, authors and experts to filter through.

    So, to summarise, Elitism : YAY!, Accessiblity : YAY!, People asking questions from the audience : BOO!

  20. Jonathan M Says:

    I suspect that Micole and the other people who got annoyed about racefail might well see the failure to be invited to write a column for Locus and the failure to be invited to sit on a panel at Readercon to be different facets of the same problem.

  21. cofax Says:

    I think, on this issue, I disagree with Micole as she clearly does expect to be a part of a conversation she is attending.

    Well, and the conversation would only benefit from having Micole participate. Except one wouldn’t know that if one believed that only Big Name Pros in the field had any expertise. Part of the problem here is the assumption that the audience has nothing to contribute, and yet without the audience, the genre doesn’t even exist.

    Now, if programmers claim that they couldn’t find any women willing to talk about Elizabeth Hand then either they’re not looking hard enough or fandom is not allowing enough female critics, authors and experts to filter through

    They’re not looking hard enough. The female critics, authors, and experts are out there. But like unto certain other kerfuffles of recent memory, the tendency to ask people one knows to contribute to something tends to result in a limited pool of options. If ReaderCon only ever asks white professionals over 50 to sit on their panels, then only white professionals over 50 are ever going to ask to sit on their panels. And around we go.

  22. Niall Says:

    In their defence, I note they do say on their website:

    Although we annually send out a set of invitations to participate in the convention, our list of worthies is far from complete! We welcome volunteers, and, in fact, some of the best-known names in the field first came to our attention as unknown Readercon “walk-ons.”
    […]
    If you think you have something to add to the Readercon program this year, please contact us.

    And, obviously, I entirely agree that Micole would be a boon to many panels of the kind we’re discussing here.

  23. Jonathan M Says:

    It’s not that they have nothing to contribute, it’s just that the audience as a whole probably has less to contribute than the same time devoted to the contributions of certain pre-filtered participants :-) Of course, individual members of the audience might have more interesting stuff to say than individual people on stage but in my experience crowdsourcing contributions in real time invariably results in a serious drop in the coolness-per-second score of the event.

    I totally include myself in that by the way. I seldom ask questions because who wants to hear what I think when they could listen to one of the people they came to listen to?

    My preference is for filtering of input but, having said that, it clearly is not the case that only old white guys have interesting stuff to say and I see it as the programmers’ jobs to seek those people out. Just throwing stuff open to the audience is not a good way of solving the problem because when you do that you get banal questions that do nothing but suck time.

  24. cofax Says:

    Just throwing stuff open to the audience is not a good way of solving the problem because when you do that you get banal questions that do nothing but suck time.

    And yet I was on one panel at Wiscon that was completely opened up and turned over (in a fabulous way) by the questions from a member of the audience who wasn’t, in fact, an expert. In fact, that was the point: she asked a couple of questions that really brought the panel discussion down to brass tacks, and turned it over into something real and relevant. That wouldn’t have happened without the panel being open to questions from the audience.

    Which is not to say that all comments are of equal value, and it depends upon the goals of the panel and the panelists: is the point a lecture, or a discussion, or a workshop? Is information supposed to flow two ways, or only one? What are the costs and benefits of that decision-making?

    Defaulting to a hierarchial model, such as ReaderCon, is all very well, so long as it’s acknowledged what the con is sacrificing in order to keep that structure in place. And so long as the con still makes an effort to be inclusive when it comes to the composition of the panels.

  25. Jonathan M Says:

    Agreed Cofax.

    I like hierarchies as long as they’re genuinely meritocratic and select for stuff I’m interested in. All too often, these types of hierarchies select not for skill but for other more mundane factors and immediately that makes them both less interesting to paying customers and less legitimate (especially considering the kudos that goes with them).

  26. Julia Says:

    One thing about selection of people to be on Readercon panels, which I don’t see on the site but I have heard repeatedly from people doing programming. Program participants must either be published authors, or work in the industry.

    Given the industry’s long standing issues with diversity, it shouldn’t be shocking that putting a “must be a WRITER” requirement shrinks the pool of people to select.

  27. Ken Houghton Says:

    “One thing about selection of people to be on Readercon panels, which I don’t see on the site but I have heard repeatedly from people doing programming. Program participants must either be published authors, or work in the industry.”

    That’s because it’s simply not true.

    Or, at the very least, “published author” includes some very wide definitions, including fanzines and semiprozines.

    True. you have to have an interest in written science fiction, and been passionate enough about it to have expressed that interest clearly and coherently–which is the same thing you would be expected to do as a panel participant.

    (As a side note, Micole is a professional short story writer and a former staffer at Tor. She would likely be welcome as a Readercon guest and could certainly propose topics and people who would be interesting on panels.)

    Readercon, as this year’s program book noted, uses the Sercon model. Yes, they have the (relative) advantage of being the only “serious” (summertime) convention in the Northeast, so they draw pros from the entire Bos-Wash corridor, as well as a relatively large Montreal-area contingent. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t new blood every year; rather the opposite, in fact.

  28. Karen Burnham Says:

    Another data point: I’ve only been to Readercon once, but I immediately fell in love with it. I knew enough of the people there personally by then (2007) that I felt I was hanging out with friends, and I got to meet a lot of awesome writers. I first met Lucius Shepard and Paolo Bacigalupi there, for instance. I wasn’t asked to be on any panels, but I felt like I would be, given a few more years of writing reviews/criticism.

    However, Curtis (my husband) didn’t feel very welcome there at all. In fact, apparently he felt as out-of-place there as I did when he took me to an all-fan convention, BayCon in San Jose. He felt similarly to Micole: because he is “just a reader” he didn’t feel like there was much for him. Certainly being a white male 30-40 year old didn’t make him feel any better about it.

    While there have been other reasons that we haven’t made it back to either Readercon or Baycon, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are two cons where we didn’t both feel at home, unlike WorldCon and ICFA.

  29. Karen Burnham Says:

    Sorry for the extra post, but I forgot that I wanted to respond to Al’s comment:

    “A typical con invitation might say that “we know there are a lot of fans keen to meet you” or suchlike. Accordingly, during the opening ceremony we’ve gone out of our way to declare ourselves to be open and available for chat and discussion at any time, not just in the formalised context of panels and talks. And yet, by and large (there are always welcome exceptions) this doesn’t really happen.”

    Having been a neofan for a few years, I would suspect that lots of fans are keen to meet you, but think that you are much too important to be bothered by the likes of them. I.e. they’re afraid that you’re too busy or that they would be a bother or they’re just too shy to walk up to you. Took me years to get over that. You’d think it’d be a natural assumption that no writer ever minds hearing, “Mr. Reynolds, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading Revelation Space” but I’ll tell you truthfully that for years I was too shy to say even that much to an author I didn’t know personally.

  30. Jonathan M Says:

    Karen said :

    ‘no writer ever minds hearing, “Mr. Reynolds, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading Revelation Space”’

    Unless of course they’re not Al Reynolds :-) I imagine Salman Rushdie would be rather puzzled if you said that to him.

  31. Al Reynolds Says:

    OK, it’s time to unveil my secret crime-fighting identity. After I wrote “The Satanic Verses” I felt that I needed to get more spaceships into my fiction, and so…

    My post was a bit of a whinge but I don’t see what writers and critics can do to make themselves more open and available. I mean, we’ve stood in bars for hours. We’ve initiated conversations with fans, rather than waiting for them to come to us. But at many cons (not all, as I said) I’ve sensed borderling apathy/disinterest from many participants. I’m not sure if I’d say the majority, but there have been cons where I’ve come home and realised that, aside from one or two conversations, about the only people I’ve spoken to are the committee members and the other guests. I’ve been to one con where, once I was issued with my meal tickets, I never saw another member of the organisation during the whole event.

    However I appreciate that this is a tangent to the main Readercon discussion.

  32. David H Says:

    If I may continue the tangent…

    I think there is definitely a subset of people who go to conventions just for the social side, rather than to talk to authors; and the passage of time has a lot to do with it. I remember, when I went to my first con, I felt a little star-struck at seeing in the flesh all these writers I’d heard of – and I spoke to quite a few of them.

    Nowadays, I don’t feel that way so much; and, for some reason, feel less inclined to approach authors. I don’t know why that is, because I’d probably have more to about these days. Perhaps it’s something to do with familiarity being comfortable, as has been touched on in the main discussion.

    Having said that: Al, let me just say how much I enjoyed House of Suns

  33. Matt Denault Says:

    Re: separation of pros and fans at Readercon, I don’t really disagree with what is quoted above, but I just wanted to say (since I see him posting here) thanks to Graham Sleight, who was kind enough to approach me in the audience and introduce himself after a panel he was on that I attended. I think it is supposed to work the other way around, but I was assiduously avoiding introducing myself to anyone over the weekend (in a perhaps overzealous attempt to avoid aligning myself with any cliques without realizing it).

    I do think Paul Kincaid makes a very good point in that the difficulty of organizing so much programming (combined with other factors) seems to have meant that the same people have tended to be leaned on year after year at Readercon more because they are known commodities that fall readily to hand than because they are best suited (either in terms of qualifications or mentality). The problem is that this often does not yield “a way of engaging at a high level with a particular constituency” — at least, not insofar as I’m a white male who digs Little, Big, but finds many of the panels devastatingly uninsightful for a con whose calling card is its panels. Too often a non-diverse group of panelists all agree and the panel is effectively over in 5 minutes; too often a panel is derailed when the person chosen as moderator is chosen on the basis of quantity of past con service, not because they have a history of effective moderation, or because they are well-versed in the topic they are moderating.

    And I write this as someone who has a hard time, in the current Readercon protests, picking out a person or a mindset that I agree wholeheartedly with. It is apparently quite difficult in fandom to be someone under 40 who likes to hear stories of genre history from the old guard like Barry Malzberg and Charles Brown, and appreciates how the Memorial Guests of Honor panels can encourage fruitful readings of older works, and who likes to hear Cat Valente’s insights into Haruki Murakami’s works, and who enjoys a solo talk by an up-and-coming academic presenting a close textual reading of a new book. Learning to be a better reader, learning about new works and new kinds of works, learning new ways of appreciating works I have read — that is fun to me, it is in that hope that I go to a gathering like Readercon, and in that lack that I am disappointed.

  34. Rose Fox Says:

    My post was a bit of a whinge but I don’t see what writers and critics can do to make themselves more open and available. I mean, we’ve stood in bars for hours. We’ve initiated conversations with fans, rather than waiting for them to come to us. But at many cons (not all, as I said) I’ve sensed borderling apathy/disinterest from many participants.

    I’ve just added “Q&A with the GOHs” to my (long) list of suggested panels for next Readercon, with a note that the GOHs should be encouraged to say “Whoops, our hour’s up, anyone want to continue this in the bar?” at the end, and have at least an hour of free time following it rather than needing to rush off to another panel. Part of the difficulty of GOH/fan interactions is that GOHs tend to be very heavily scheduled.

    Oh, and this should happen early on in the con, so people have time to spread the word that the GOHs are accessible, friendly people.

    Maybe I should also print up a bunch of cards that say “Dear _______, I just wanted to tell you how much I love _______” so you can thrust one into the hand of your favorite author and then run away.

  35. Rose Fox Says:

    Matt Denault writes:

    It is apparently quite difficult to be someone under 40 who likes to hear stories of genre history from the old guard like Barry Malzberg and Charles Brown, and appreciates how the Memorial Guests of Honor panels can encourage fruitful readings of older works, and who likes to hear Cat Valente’s insights into Haruki Murakami’s works, and who enjoys a solo talk by an up-and-coming academic presenting a close textual reading of a new book.

    This describes me to a T and I don’t find it difficult to be at Readercon at all. I’ve been told my experience is unusual, though, and probably very heavily informed by being a second-gen fan and pro. I’d love to hear more about where you see Readercon as falling down and disappointing you.

  36. Matt Denault Says:

    This describes me to a T and I don’t find it difficult to be at Readercon at all.

    Hi Rose. I was referring not so much to being at Readercon itself — I, too, go because I enjoy all those things — as some of the posts I’ve seen criticizing it in the past few days (e.g., the sentence before the one you quoted). I’ve seen a good number of posts that seem to suggest that younger people aren’t interested in older writers, that presentations of academic papers are boring and so turn off fans who want to have fun, etc.

    I’d love to hear more about where you see Readercon as falling down and disappointing you.

    I’ve been lurking somewhat, waiting to see what the fallout from the infamous flyer would be and what official channels of communicating with the con might be established. So I’d be happy to share my thoughts, but maybe you could suggest a more appropriate venue than here? Commenting here on specific concerns and ideas about Readercon would seem to be both hijacking this discussion, and a bit off the beaten path for other Readercon attendees who might want to take part in discussions about the con.

  37. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting article and thread.

    The dynamics discussed are quite common in other settings too, all too often at conferences on renewable energy or some form of financing I’ve heard some audience member say “This is more of a comment than a question”, actually, they don’t say that, they just launch into an interminable account of their often bizarre views.

    Audience members may have much to contribute, the trouble is without screening when a hand goes up you don’t know if it’s a potentially useful contribution, or a time wasting blowhard. To make matters worse, the blowhard talks for longer, monopolising the event.

    To quote Jonathan “Elitism : YAY!, Accessiblity : YAY!, People asking questions from the audience : BOO!” I think that’s about right. You may lose a valuable outsider input by closing off audience interaction, but you also cut off the people who only stand up to talk about their own pet theory and who really have no interest in a discussion at all.

    How dispiriting to learn that SF conferences are like energy conferences.

    On a slightly tangential note, I was posting to a Guardian comments thread today, and mentioned in passing how I’d be keener to read a new Reynolds than a new Rushdie. Now I learn they’re the same man, the embarassment…

  38. Blissbat.net » Blog Archive » Readercon 20 Report, Pt II Says:

    […] programming, and about the hierarchical nature of the con, and so on. (Here are two thoughtful posts at the opposite ends of that particular […]


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