World Fantasy: Passing For Lit

This morning I caused a bit of a stir on Twitter. As 140 characters are not sufficient to explain anything much, I thought I should do a blog post as well.

The whole thing started when I opened email from the 2013 World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. This is what I read:

The World Fantasy Convention is essentially a literary convention, with a strong emphasis on the bound printed word – there is no masquerade, costuming or gaming. The Dealers’ Room is devoted to booksellers, specialty presses, and independent publishers, as well as high-end fantasy-related art and jewellery. No comics, T-shirts, DVDs or similar products will be allowed for sale.

What I highlighted on Twitter was that, despite billing themselves as a literary event, they were banning comics from the dealers’ room.

Lee Harris noted that the same rule applied in San Diego last year, and pointed to this page on the World Fantasy website which includes similar language. Brighton simply seems to have copied what previous conventions have done. On the other hand, I can point to the dealer information from the 2009 World Fantasy, which was run by SFSFC (of which I am a director) where the language is a lot less confrontational. (This may, of course, help explain why some members of the World Fantasy Board insist that 2009 was one of the worst World Fantasy Conventions ever. That and the fact that our dates overlapped Hallowe’en and we didn’t throw out members who wore costumes that evening.)

The point here is that controlling what sort of thing people sell in a convention dealers’ room is a sensible thing to do. No commercial operation wants to turn up at an event to discover that they have brought entirely the wrong sort of merchandise and nothing is selling. World Fantasy attracts a particular sort of audience, and if your business is selling action figures and movie memorabilia then you won’t do well there. Equally if you turn up with boxes of the latest Marvel and DC flimsies, or with piles of Twilight DVDs, your business will be slow. On the other hand, copies of Absolute Sandman, or DVDs of the fine movies made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, would probably shift. You could probably even sell a few t-shirts if you chose them carefully.

So the point here is not about guiding dealers as to what sort of merchandise will sell, it is a question of language. It is a question of saying that certain items are “not allowed”. Why does World Fantasy use such language, when it clearly doesn’t need to? My guess is that it is because there are parts of the SF&F community that the World Fantasy Board despises, and the Board wants those people to know that it despises them.

The other point I want to highlight is the clear implication in the material I quoted that comics are not “literary”. Anyone who has been involved in minority politics can see what is going on here. The World Fantasy Board is trying to “pass for literary” in much the same way that some gay and lesbian people think that if they make sure that they conform rigidly to the gender binary when outside the bedroom, and have nothing to do with trans people, then they can escape persecution. Well guess what folks, it doesn’t work. No matter how hard you try to pass for straight, if you are staging something called the World Homosexual Convention, you are still going to get picketed by Fred Phelps and his gang. And if you are staging a World Fantasy Convention you’ll still get laughed at by the John Mullans of this world.

The sad thing is that, as Patrick Neilsen Hayden noted on Twitter, this entrenchment on the part of the World Fantasy Board is a relatively recent development. It is all very reminiscent of the old-time Worldcon fans who don’t want the “wrong sort of fan” coming to “their” convention.

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15 Responses to World Fantasy: Passing For Lit

  1. I hope it is just careless wording: a convention that has in recent years honoured Neil Gaiman surely can’t really mean to exclude cutting edge work in comics.

  2. I’m actually very much in favor of conventions with a strong literary focus. But the message WFC conveys, when they stiff-arm everything covered under the word “comics”, isn’t “literary.” It’s “snobbish”. Not to mention “ignorant”.

    Quite reasonably, no WFC concom wants aisles of their dealers’ room taken up by dealers hawking bins of dreary old superhero comics. Likewise, it would be a waste for the WFC dealers’ room to be full of UFO books or healing-crystal woo-woo trinkets. But promulgating a rule that explicitly banishes some of the most interesting and by-god literary storytelling happening today…is just dumb. This isn’t an argument that anyone should be having to pursue in 2012.

    Sure, it’s their convention and they can run it as they choose. And it’s everyone else’s privilege to roll their eyes at stuff like this.

    • John Picacio says:

      +1 — Completely concur with pnh’s take here. Yup. Diversification will be key to survival in 21st-century publishing life. To ignore comics as part of that literary fabric puts a mid-20th-century ceiling on WFC. Unfortunate. See pnh’s last two sentences.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thanks for the support, guys.

  3. Pingback: April 19 2012 « Thinking Too Much

  4. It’s weird to think that the board seems to want to excise comics. Will they be mysteriously disappearing the fact that _Sandman #19_ won for Short Fiction back in 1991?

    • Or if that’s too long ago, one could point out Ōoku winning the Tiptree Award, which is about as literary as speculative fiction awards get.

      • Cheryl says:

        Oh, come on, you don’t expect that people who think that comics aren’t literary would have any respect for an award run by women, do you? 😉

    • Tony Keen says:

      Well, the statement on their website that ‘Comics are eligible in the Special Award Professional category’ strongly implies that a comic would not be now allowed to win in Short Fiction.

      • Cheryl says:

        But elsewhere they have insisted that they rules have never been changed? And when I tried to get some sense out of them for SF Awards Watch they were just rude. Still, that did lead to the spectacularly hilarious event of them spending time in a board meeting discussing how they could prevent me from reporting on the awards (at a WFC for which I was head of publicity).

        • Tony Keen says:

          But elsewhere they have insisted that the rules have never been changed?

          Oh indeed, which is why I specifically did not say that they had. But their statement is a rebuttal to the charge that comics are not eligible for World Fantasy Awards. It doesn’t address the question of whether comics are eligible for the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. It’s quite clear from the overt direction to nominate comics for Special Award Professional that they are collectively embarrassed by Gaiman’s 1991 win, and would rather not see a repeat. Which looks rather like a rule change without going through due process. #

          Actually, there’s a great opportunity for calling their bluff here – nominate comics for the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction! Gaiman’s win in 1991 shows that comics must have been eligible then, and if there’s been no rule change, then they must still be eligible now.

          • CarolC says:

            According to the Toronto World Fantasy Con website, supporting memberships of 2012 can nominate, as can members of the previous 2010 and 2011 cons. So anyone willing to spend $50 /£35 can “express themselves” via the ballot paper 😉

            BUT, I can’t figure when the deadline for nominations is. Last year it was the end of May, but if they haven’t got that up on the website yet, this year it must be later. Or is it?! *puts on her tinfoil conspiracy hat*

  5. Tony Keen says:

    I think the comparison with Worldcon fans wanting to get rid of people they don’t like (e.g. ‘media fans’) is spot on. In both cases, the curmudgeons are starting from a premise that the people engaged in activities of which they don’t approve are entirely different from those whose presence they value and wish to encourage. At which point I note that the most recent winner of the Hugo Award for best fan Writer begain in Hitch-hiker’s fandom, and that fantasy writers who have written for comics include, as well as Gaiman, Michael Moorcock and Mike Carey. ‘They’ are us, dudes.

  6. Lisa Harrigan says:

    As the treasurer of the Mythopoeic Society, a Literary Society that studies Fantasy, which has a recognized juried journal, ie you can’t get any more Fantasy Studious than us, we are pretty open about what can come in our dealer’s room. Is it Fantasy? We’ve even had part of the Lord of the Rings Movie Team into our convention. We’ve even discussed Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
    When Star Wars came out back in 1977 there was a “We’re a Literary Society” backlash. But once it became obvious that Real Fantasy was happening, the powers that be gave in.
    And we were proud to have Neil Gaiman as Writer GoH, comics and all. We even did a special showing of Neverwhere. He’s a wonderful writer in many mediums.
    The “Kids” are into Fantasy in many forms, and if we want to advance and grow we had better recognize it. If we yell “Get Off Our Lawn”, they’ll just go to the Much Bigger Playing Field across the way, and we will become irrelevant.
    No, I don’t want our cons to become ComicCon or DragonCon, too big and media centric. But I don’t want us going the way of the dinosaurs either.
    Looking forward to some of the Fantasy Films and Books coming out this summer.

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