Further Worldcon Thoughts

Commentary and controversy about Worldcon continues to flood in. I discovered today that Paul Cornell’s Hugo Toastmastering was horribly transphobic (amongst many, many other sins of which it was guilty). I guess it is as well that I wasn’t smart enough to notice that.

Of course there are trans people who might be offended by it. When you are that deep in a hole, any mention of your existence can feel like an attack, especially when it is part of a joke and you have no context. But equally I’m starting to get very tired of angry white men riding to the rescue of various oppressed groups without asking them first if they want or even need rescuing.

Talking of white men, Mary Robinette Kowal has been running a survey to find out more about the demographics of SF&F readers. You can find it here, and the current results are here. Last I looked respondents were 89% white, and 58% female. The most common age range was 30-39, with only 2% of under-20s.

Obviously this isn’t very rigorously scientific. There could be all sorts of selection bias going on. But I suspect that the demographic that Mary is able to reach with her survey is very similar to the demographic that conventions reach when they try to market themselves.

Of course if you want to increase diversity you need to reach beyond the usual channels, but that isn’t always easy. If you go to a convention and find that the attendees are predominantly older and white, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are deliberately keeping other people away. The oldness and whiteness is a feature of the broader community, and something you have to work to try to change.

On the subject of change, some of the suggestions that I have seen for improving Worldcon boil down to it staying the same US city every year (or in London every year). That would certainly help fix some of the problems, but it would also mean abandoning the word “world”. And if you are one of the people who favors this sort of solution, and you also complain that Worldcon isn’t international enough, I laugh at you.

Incidentally, if your solution to the lack of non-US Worldcons is to form a (largely US-based) corporation with a mission to send the convention around the world, then you are doing it wrong. Worldcon can only be genuinely international if fan groups around the world want to run it, and want to use it to showcase their own, local SF&F communities to the world. The Japan and Finland bids both have ample help from the US and UK, but they are also rooted in local fandoms.

Other people’s ideas for fixing Worldcon seem to revolve around concentrating largely on film, TV, comics, video games and so on, because these are allegedly what young people want. However, there are already big conventions that do that very successfully (SDCC, D*C). Worldcon does actually have a marketing strategy, and part of that strategy is that it focuses primarily on books. It does take an interest in other areas as well, because many of its members are also interested in those other things, and because it wants to attract new members. But if it stopped being primarily a bookish convention it would just become a pale and unnecessary imitation of other events.

If your argument is that young people (or brown people, or queer people) don’t read books, and that book reading is elitist, well we need to have a conversation. But the main reason that Worldcon needs a YA Hugo is to show an interest in the books that young people are reading.

A few people, it seems, do not want to go to a convention where they risk meeting others whose political views and behavior they find reprehensible. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to a safe space in which to indulge in their hobby. But to a certain extent Worldcon can’t be that space. It is supposed to be a big tent event as far as fandom goes. That means it has to accept that people who are Libertarians, fans of military SF, and so on, may want to attend. They do have a duty to behave in a civilized manner, but I don’t see how Worldcon can keep them out.

I note also my comments from last week about fans in Europe being concerned that American authors will boycott their conventions because those conventions fail to live up to some standard of moral purity that doesn’t work well with the local culture.

I’m pleased to hear that there are plenty of other fabulous conventions that people can go to instead of Worldcon. People have a choice, and if they don’t like Worldcon they can go elsewhere. Of course almost all of the examples I was given were in the USA, which is rather sucky if you happen to be me. Or indeed a lot of other people.

It is true that us non-Americans can do our own thing, but we still live in a culture defined to a large extent by the marketing juggernaut that is the USA. On the once-a-decade occasions that Worldcon visits our shores, a whole heap of US authors come with it, mostly at their own expense. That has some value to some people.

Mostly, however, people seem content with the idea that Worldcon is a horrible thing that deserves to die. There are other conventions that they can go to, and that’s good. What I don’t quite understand is that a lot of these people seem to think that Worldcon needs to die. It isn’t enough for them to go elsewhere. Worldcon has to disappear as an option. I’m not quite sure why this is.

Also I have noticed one or two people complaining that bad things happened at Dragon*Con last weekend. I don’t see anyone saying that these are the fault of Dragon*Con. They are the fault of some of the fans who attend Dragon*Con. But when bad things happen at Worldcon these are the fault of the fans who run Worldcon. Right now this is just an interesting cultural observation, which may be a result of a lack of data, but I do find it strange.

29 thoughts on “Further Worldcon Thoughts

  1. Especially as the culture that is D*C has it’s own issues – the idea that they’re not responsible for the general culture they’ve created is disingenuous at best.

    And you’re right – at some point the people who feel left out have to generate interest in their group’s attendance – you even noted the clear issues to those of us already there try to do all the selling with this comment: “angry white men riding to the rescue of various oppressed groups without asking them first if they want or even need rescuing.” – there’s a certain amount of damned if you do going on – if those “in power” don’t reach our, they’re “isolationist bastards” (or worse), if they do, they’re “imperialist ass’s” (or worse). It’s hard to figure out what to do – a little like writing POC characters as a non-POC writer.

  2. Mostly, however, people seem content with the idea that Worldcon is a horrible thing that deserves to die.

    Not I. However, I don’t want Worldcon to go the way that the short story market seems to be going…a closed insular circle.

    AS Tobias Buckell said in his post,

    you can probably get 15 more years out of Worldcon at current attendance levels. I think, though, we need to expand the pie. And should

    1. Is the short story market closed and insular? Because I’ve noticed a resurgence in semiprozines, some of whom even pay professional rates for fiction.

      Oh, and did you notice the numbers in Toby’s post are sourced from something Cheryl wrote 3 years ago?

  3. I’m looking forward to LonCon (even though after Denver I was pretty sure I would never attend another Worldcon). Because the “world” is what appeals to me about Worldcon. Which I why I went to Melbourne but haven’t been to any of the USA ones recently.

  4. Cheryl, I’d like to say that I’m heartened by what I find to be a cogent view on a lot of topics, and 6 or 12 of which are fun conversations all by themselves.

    Given a couple widely touted articles by people who seem to be predicting Worldcon will die if it doesn’t attract the same youth in the same way as much larger and more media focused conventions, you almost made me gasp out a “Hooray” by pointing out Worldcon’s focus and noting that it may not be the best fit. My own frazzled attempts at such conversations have mostly boiled down to accusations that we have our head in the sand and we’re driving away all new fans. That may well *mostly* be to my making my points poorly, but it is certainly a little bit about people not really understanding what I am saying or understanding why a convention may not want to market to every conceivable type of fan.

    I think fandom is awesome in any flavor it comes in, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to have conventions that specialize in just a few types of fandom an allow folks who like other things better to find that at other conventions who do *that* thing better.

    As for the YA Hugo, well, we have a year and a committee that this time includes both voices from inside and outside the business meeting to see if we can craft something that will pass the bar on a vote. As evidenced by my participation in it, I believe it’s possible. There’s several notables participating already so I have high hopes.

  5. I GAFIATED years ago and haven’t been to a WorldCon since. It just wasn’t anywhere near enough fun to be worth the money. Over the past few decades fandom has become very uptight, narrowminded(in a PC manner), stodgy and generally intolerant of dissention. As a straight white male who is politically conservative and a life member of NRA, the amount of scorn and guilt that is heaped on me in fannish circles is quite annoying.

  6. There’s a couple of the latest rounds of discussions of how to ‘fix’ WorldCon that go against all I love deeply about the WorldCon.

    In no particular order, here’s just 3 I find to be head-bangingly wrong:

    1) Keep it one place. Forever.

    2) Take it out of the hands of the fans and pros who dedicate countless hours and thousands of their own monetary units to bid and run a WorldCon.

    3) expand the voting to non WSFS membership to boost the numbers of how many people nominate and vote for the winners.

    Folks, moving the WorldCon and handing it over to a new group of con runners every year is not a bug, it’s a major feature and has been since my mother was a darlin’ redheaded girl going to the New York City World’s Fair in 1939. It wouldn’t be a WorldCon if we just held it in DC/NewYork/London/Singapore every freakin’ year. Hell, if I recall my fannish history correctly, the first WorldCon was actually called the Worlds Convention, and when I was a wee fannish lassie, I figured we’d hold it on Luna by the time I was ready to retire.

    Creating a corporation that would run the WorldCon ‘like a business’, with marketing and corporate sponsorship and all the spreadsheets and shareholders that would entail is the antithesis of the spirit of WorldCon. And, by the way, the modern WorldCon is run as a business, with a million $ plus budget, meetings and all the paperwork created in doing so. It’s just a non-profit business, with no paid staff that volunteer to run the con in their copious spare time. WorldCons are actually several businesses, running alongside one another when you consider how long the organization that runs a specific WorldCon exists. There are plenty of those types of for-profit conventions that pay for a year-round staff, appearance and speaking fees for featured guests, big media-focused events and that’s just fine. But WorldCon is the root and branch of fandom, it began in the 1930s and we just had the 71st WorldCon. Surely the fact that generations of fans, pros, young and old have collaborated and managed to run a convention that changes so much of its volunteer staff, venue, even moving from country to country, every year while giving out the best known awards in the genres to pros and amateurs alike must count for something.

    ComicCons, Costumer/Cosplay cons, media cons, hell, the SCA and Ren Faires, cons celebrating the fantastic of all types can trace back their development, at least in part, to the early SF literary-centered conventions that began in the 1930s and grew exponentially as the Boomers grew up thru the 50s-70s.

    I was disappointed that Helsinki lost their bid for 2015. But look how close they came for a bid less than a year in the running. I hope they come back and bid again, soon. I’m delighted to hear that the fans and con runners of Ireland are going to bid for 2019. There’s a lot of good people in Ireland who love the genres, have proven themselves able to work on big events, and Ireland has always honored their writers and artists, let’s celebrate that. If South Africa or Brazil have people who want to bid and bring the WorldCon to their country, great, I’ll listen and ask questions and look at their committee, their function space, their ideas as seriously as I would if New Mexican or Iowa fan groups decided to bid.

    As to opening the Hugo nomination and voting to the entire universe, or to members of other conventions or affinity groups, well, I’m agin it. By definition, the Hugo awards are chosen by the members of the WSFS in any given year. The casual ‘we’ll just let people pay 10 bucks/quids/yen and they’ll get the Hugo Voters Packet and then the awards will have more prestige and participation’ idea just won’t work. Do they think the publishers are bound by some treaty to hand over their products every year no matter what? I know editors who are already nervous about justifying the ‘free’ files they hand over for the HVP. The HVP is still a very new innovation for the WorldCon and the publishers. Would they be happy if they were giving away 10K copies of their products instead of 2K in hopes of winning a rocket and supporting their writers and artists and editors achievements? Especially when they are already concerned about bootleg copies of the files escaping into the pirate sites?

    I love WorldCon, even the ones that turn out to be chaotic, held in crappy facilities and mediocre venues. Are there things that should change, sure, yes, life is change; how it differs from the rocks. But I’d rather pick up those rocks and build something than throw them at the people who think we should kill off the old ways just because they’re old and have been around longer than the critics have been alive.

    I have no coherent summing up here, just a thanks to Cheryl for letting me rant, even just a little bit. I hope that my opinions and experience broaden the range of the discussions. But telling us olde pharts that we way we’ve been doing fandom and con running for the last 40 years is all wrong is not very conducive to working for a better future for the communities who come to WorldCons, just as much as being told that the whippersnappers and ‘fake geeks’ have no reason to complain that their interests and needs are not important to the on-going health and longevity of WorldCons, hell, literary/fan-run conventions in general.

    I’ll back when I can to respond if there’s a need. But since I don’t blog in public, don’t have a fan base or a product or a selective bit of the multitudes of special interests I want to reign over all other special interests or a career to promote by publicity or controversy, I doubt that my words here will cause much of a stir. I just wanted to say my piece somewhere, and Cheryl’s always willing to share her ideas and her platforms to expand the discussions and ideas people kick around.

    WorldCon is for people who like that sort of thing. Just as I avoid mega-media cons like SDCC or D*C because I’m not that much into enormous crowds, comic books, anime or cosplay, it OK if people want to go to events I don’t like. Just don’t expect me to sit back and not advocate for what I personally have experienced to be a damn fine way to spend my adult life.

    1. The other way “moving” is a feature is it distributes the cost.

      Put it in one place, and that ensures that the same people always shoulder the travel expense burden.

  7. I’m looking forward to LonCon because its the only way I can see of affordably spending any time interacting with fandom other than online. I don’t know of any cons in the UK that focus on literature (I went to the Edinburgh Book Festival and that had some genre-related stuff, but that’s as close as I’ve so far got). So I hope WorldCon can get its issues sorted out, or that it can be replaced by a host of annual international cons on the same scale (kind of like the states seems to have loads of local cons). Otherwise, I kind of feel stuck on the wrong side of the ocean to be involved in fandom at all.

      1. The North-East…I attend media cons around the country because I have people to go with but I guess not having any literary-minded friends I’m probably out of the loop…I’m also saving for LonCon. Cost and having friends to go to cons with are huge issues where con attendance is concerned – that SFF Fandom survey seemed to show that’s pretty common 🙂

        1. See Glenn’s comment below. Also I’ll talk to Chaz Brenchley. He lives in the US now, but I’m sure he still has contacts back in Newcastle.

          1. Thanks! I will look into it a bit more. I know where all the Doctor Who cons are but searches for local writing and genre-related literary groups and events has so far resulted in little success.

          1. Gaah. Nottingham!
            Also, Octocons in Dublin tend to have a literary slant, but might be too small for what you are looking for.

          2. I wouldn’t describe Nottingham as “North-East”, though it is on the right side of Birmingham for people in the North-East to get to easily.

  8. What I don’t quite understand is that a lot of these people seem to think that Worldcon needs to die. It isn’t enough for them to go elsewhere. Worldcon has to disappear as an option. I’m not quite sure why this is.

    The context I’ve seen this sentiment in most recently implied the reason was so the Hugos can be pried loose and administered by a more appropriate convention. In some other cases I think it’s just because the commenter wants to stop hearing about it.

    1. which means they don’t understand that the Hugo Awards and the rocket design are the property of the World Science Fiction Society. Period.

      I’d break the rocket mold with my own bare hands and gavel the last WSFS business to an end myself before I handed over the awards and its legacy to D*C or some such.

    2. Oh, right. So they probably want to take the Hugos away from WSFS and create a “Hugo committee” that will ensure that the results are “fair”, i.e. slanted the way they want them rather than slanted the way they are now. That makes sense.

  9. Yes, I’m in the “older white male American” demographic… but I for one am looking forward to going to London and seeing what you lot can do with a con… and two good friends from just up the motorway, decidedly female, are also planning to go… along with my lady, who’s from Tyneside.

    I *like* that Worldcon is smallish and bookish. If it were going to be such a huge crush of people as SDCC, I’d say nuts on it, not going. But I do hope they manage to pull off Luna City in 2069. That trip is at the tippy tippy top of my bucket list.

    Funny, as an American, I know of *several* British cons: Bristol Con; the UK filk con in Grantham; Fforde Ffiesta; and there’s one in Newcastle whose name escapes me; I seem to recall a canonical list somewhere…

    I have to agree with you about making WorldCon a space where different cultural systems meet. I think it needs to be “safe” in that you shouldn’t feel like someone is about to take physical advantage of you… but ideas? Fair game. If someone gets verbally roasted for supporting Orson Scott Card’s current string of screeds, well, then, perhaps he (choice of pronoun deliberate) ought to think about why that is.

  10. Australian cons have faced the same fight for relevance and the ones that have succeeded are those that have concentrated on writing. You won’t get much in the way of joe average fan, there simply isn’t enough on offer. Pitch it more to new writers and program accordingly and you do have a value proposition. No need to restrict membership like WFC, if fans want to come along then let them. Just don’t apologize when the program is slanted towards writerly topics.

  11. …And now for the variable you probably didn’t expect.

    I’m trans; I was on this con’s staff (albeit rather low on the food chain); I was working backstage that night and heard the entire presentation. I can’t say I was at all offended, nor did I find any part of it “transphobic.” If you’re talking about the part I think you are, then perhaps you need to get familiar with Game of Thrones.

    1. Sorry, I had meant to throw this disclaimer in alongside that text. It should be noted that though I was a member of staff, this post is only meant to reflect my own views and not those of the con or the rest of it’s staff.

    2. I’m not surprised in the slightest. I got to watch much of it on UStream, and Kevin was in the audience, so if anything had been said while the stream was down he’d have told me. The trouble is that an angry cis man decided that Paul was being transphobic, and now there are apparently people out there taking up cudgels on behalf of us trans folks. And probably trans folks who didn’t see it angry with those of us who didn’t find it transphobic for not standing up for ourselves.

      Of course some trans people watching the replay may find what Paul said transphobic. I’m not going to try to gaslight them if they do. All I can do is speak for myself. I’ve been involved in fandom for a long time now. I know lots of other trans fans. I have found fandom, in general, to be much more supportive of trans people than the population at large. And Paul is one of the most supportive cis people I know.

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