Thursday, September 05, 2013

Con Ascending: Making Cons Better and More Sustainable through Diversity in SFF

As I mentioned last time, both Dragon Con and the Worldcon took place over the Labour Day long weekend. This has engendered a fascinating, sprawling conversation about creators and fans about the future of Worldcon specifically -- because it's greying, and not very diverse -- and more broadly science fiction and fantasy (SFF) in general. The discourse has taken place across the web in all sorts of fora, including many author and fan blogs, and has been prominent on Twitter, where writer Jim Hines created the #DiversityInSFF hashtag to further the discussion.

For some important background and the discussion to date, you can read the #DiversityInSFF tweets, as well as blog posts from Chuck Wendig, Madeline Ashby and Jim McDermott.

I wasn't at this Worldcon. In fact, I’ve never been to a WorldCon (I attended the 2012 World Fantasy Con, and I was a pre-supporter for TorCon 3, and look forward to attending future Worldcons), but I'm very much pro-Worldcon. I love cons, I love science fiction and fantasy and the SFF writing and fandom communities – our wonderful, strange little subculture. I want the things I love to succeed, and to continue to succeed for years to come.

I also have some small sense of the amount of work that goes into organizing an undertaking as massive as a convention, especially when you’re an all-volunteer organization. I have the utmost respect for the hard-working convention committees and the other volunteers who make conventions happen. You are all awesome and I don’t want for one second to detract from your awesomeness. I want you to be able to continue to be awesome and pass on the awesome to future generations and for the awesome to roll forever down the ringing grooves of change.

Although Worldcon engendered this discussion, the problems that have been identified are not unique to Worldcon (a lot of them aren’t unique to SFF). That doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t do something about them, either for future Worldcons, or more broadly throughout SFF.

So what are these problems? Broadly, they are problems of inclusivity and bringing new people into the community -- that they are welcomed, that they can freely participate as themselves, that they are encouraged to stay and supported in staying. This is important not only for ethical reasons, but because being more open, welcoming and therefore more diverse is the key to long-term sustainability of a community that is frankly too old, too white and too male to grow or even be self-sustaining in the long run, without change. 

Here are nine suggestions. Nine things we could to address the problems of diversity in literary SFF conventions and fandom.

A note on my own positioning: I am a member of various fandoms. I am a writer who aspires to work professionally within SFF. I occupy positions of privilege, since I present as male, white, cis and straight. I know that affects my experiences and my thinking, and that I am not always aware of how. So these suggestions are just that. Suggestions, my attempt to contribute to a vital discussion, to indicate my willingness to do my part to make things better. I hope for feedback, so that I can learn more and that better ideas can emerge from the conversation. I hope to listen and learn so I can be a better ally. I welcome dialogue.  

Another note: This list is really focused on conventions because that's where a lot of the current iteration of the conversation started. There's lots more work to do in diversity with regards to diversity among writers and in subject matter, for instance -- but others have been writing eloquently about that.

A final note: Many of these ideas are not new. At least half are via other, smarter people than me, and the other half, a different bunch of other, smarter people probably thought up before I did, and I just didn’t hear about them. (I've tried to source them, where possible.) 

But that’s part of the point – these ideas aren't revolutionary, aren't terribly complicated and shouldn’t be controversial. In many cases, they're kind of obvious. Some might take time, planning and money to implement. Some would require a will to change that might not be there. But we are a bunch of people who pride themselves on our intelligence and creativity, right? Well, if we can’t pull off the basic level of problem-solving required to address these issues, then we might have to re-evaluate that opinion.

And with the appropriate background and mea culpas out of the way...


Paul Weimer’s idea to hold an upcoming Hugo Award ceremony at Dragon Con is an exciting and good one. His brief suggestion doesn’t go into detail – would only the ceremony be at Dragon Con? Or would Dragon Con attendees actually be eligible to vote for the Hugos? 

I assume Paul is suggesting the former. The latter would be a great opportunity to open up the Hugo Awards to new participants but given the recent anxiety and pushback expressed in the discussion of opening up access to Hugo voting through more affordable memberships, I don't think the community is ready. 

So, failing that admittedly bold step, simply holding the awards ceremony at Dragon Con would, as Paul points out, be a brilliant way to open the Worldcon door to the Dragon Con community. Everyone gets awards shows; you don't need to be an insider to understand the dynamic. They have built-in drama and fun, and you get to see celebrities dressed up in clothes and making goofy jokes. 

And reaching out to Dragon Con attendees, to be clear, isn't just about raising the profile of Worldcon, or the Hugos, although both of those are worthy goals in themselves. It forwards Diversity in SFF by making an active effort to welcome and include Dragon Con's much larger (about ten time the attendance of an average Worldcon) audience of younger, more diverse fans. Hook them with the awards show, get them interested in the books, the programming, the discouse and the community -- and connect them to SF&F's powerful traditions of celebrating those things, and you're already half-way to winning the next generation. 

If, however, that is a little too much for people...

Why not? The technology is there to have joint panels and other events split between the two cons, connecting via videoconferencing. Imagine a Dragon Con vs. Worldcon poetry slam, with improvised poems on SFFnal topics suggested by fans at both ends. Imagine being in Atlanta for Dragon Con and not having to miss George R. R. Martin’s reading at Worldcon. Hell, with Margaret Atwood's invention, the LongPen, we could even have signings split between the conventions.

An aside on Dragon Con
There are huge differences between Dragon Con and Worldcon besides the age and diversity of the fans -- Dragon Con is commercial, Worldcon is non-profit; Dragon Con is devoted to all media and all things fannish, Worldcon is firmly and almost exclusively literary in focus. And Dragon Con isn't without its flaws or problems. A lot of the comparisons are happening because the two conventions happen at the same time, and therefore form a really clear contrast to one another. The issue isn't Dragon Con per se, just as it isn't Worldcon per se; it's that fan media cons are more diverse, younger, and growing, while SFF literary cons are less diverse, greying, and have plateaued -- for years, in many cases.

But those young, diverse fans who are helping the media cons to surge should be a massive feeder market for Worldcon and other literary cons, creating the next generation of, for instance, Worldcon and World Fantasy attendees.

Should be, could be, but so far aren't. So the question of what can be learned from those cons, and how to reach the fans who attend them, and make them aware of and excited about literary cons is vitally important. Dragon Con and Worldcon happen at the same time and so they're obvious candidates for some form of cooperation and synergy, but there should be stronger ties and connections between literary and media cons in general.

Future Worldcons could create a steeply discounted category of membership for people attending their first Worldcon (as long as information is shared between Worldcons, you can manage this issue with a spreadsheet. The challenge is not going to be logistical). Get the price of a badge down and there will  be fewer barriers to participation, especially for younger and/or less financially well-off people.

And let's be clear: The cost of attending major conventions is significant and it is a barrier to participation. In Mary Robinette Kowal's survey on Diversity in SFF, of respondents who had never attended a con, 57.4% cited cost as one reason. 

Making conventions -- including but not only Worldcon -- more accessible to people who can't currently afford to attend will address Diversity in SFF via age (young people are often less well-off) and social class. And people in groups that are less privileged or marginalized for other reasons tend to have less money and be less financially secure as well -- so there'll be a ripple effect.

(Oh, and on the subject of that survey question, 36.5% cited "I would feel out of place" as a reason they've never attended a con -- another reason that addressing Diversity in SFF will be good for cons!)

Again, and this is specific to Worldcon, there are going to be concerns about things like Hugo voting and the WSFS business meeting. You know what? Amend the bylaws. Make the new membership category a “Friend of the WSFS” or “Observer” or what have you, and sever it from Hugo and WSFS business meeting voting rights – but provide the same access to the other programming as any other attendee. People who try it and get bitten by the Worldcon bug will be back, with full memberships at future Worldcons.

The Carl Brandon Society is doing wonderful, important work "to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction." One of their initiatives is Con Or Bust, devoted to "helping fans of color attend SFF cons". This is essential. As I noted above, financial barriers to participation in conventions are real, and they disproportionately affect people of colour and people in other less privileged populations. Con Or Bust, and the other projects of the Carl Brandon Society, should be financially supported so they can not just continue, but expand them. The Society should be invited to present on its work and hold donation drives at cons. 

And new initiatives should be created to support participation at cons by other under-represented populations (the differently-abled for instance, or the neurodiverse).

I live in Toronto, home to a major film festival. It's going on right now, you may have heard of it? Every year, the Film Festival -- one of the biggest and most prestigious in the world -- has programming devoted to the cinema of a particular country

So, why isn’t the World Convention of the World Science Fiction Society doing something similar? 

It could and should. Every WorldCon could have an International Guest of Honour, bringing a creator from a spotlight non-English-speaking country or culture to the con. Programming could explore the IGOH’s work and the speculative fiction tradition of his/her home country, culture, or language.

Expose con attendees to more diverse SFF from around the world, and they will find something to love -- and that will spur more sources, more voices and more diversity in SFF.

Many people supported the Helsinki bid for the 2015 Worldcon (Helsinki lost to Spokane, WA) partly out of a desire to support the growth and development of organized SFFnal fandom in Europe. That argument did not persuade quite enough people, this time around. But what if the choices weren’t exclusive?

What about a network of concurrent, satellite Worldcons taking place around the world? Set up Worldcon spoke sites, essentially, in Europe, or South America, or East Asia, or South Asia, or Africa, but linked up with the main Worldcon via videoconferencing for conjoint programming. This would allow affordable participation by not just a significant number of creators from other countries and cultures, but fans from those countries and cultures too. And it would develop connections and partnerships between “main site” con coms and their partners elsewhere – and that would also build the skills, experience and fannish infrastructure for future, successful Worldcon bids from outside North America (and western Europe). A Gdansk, or Rio, or Mumbai hub in partnership with the 2016 Worldcon could lead to Gdansk, Rio, or Mumbai hosting the main Worldcon in 2023.

In a list of uncomplicated ideas, this one is a no-brainer.

I first learned of this idea via writer Paul Cornell (who I suspect was consolidating, expressing and making into a personal, actionable goal the outcome of a series of discussions and suggestions that a large number of people participated in -- my apologies to all those who informed this discourse whose names and contributions I'm unfamiliar with.)

Panel parity is just a basically sensible idea. Panels, and therefore convention programming, and therefore conventions, will appeal to more and a more diverse set of people, if they see via the panelists that their participation is wanted and welcomed. More women on panels = more women going to panels and participating in the discussion. The same principle can and should be applied to people of colour, and to other forms of diversity.

If the makeup of panels, that is to say, ignores a significant percentage of humanity, those people will go somewhere else instead -- somewhere that acknowledges, welcomes, includes and reflects them and their experiences.

But why should this be up to individual panelists to police, when it's not only just straightforwardly the ethical thing to do, but is actually in the best interest of conventions? The answer, clearly, is that it shouldn't. Panel parity should be adopted as a core principle by cons.

Now, the people who organize programming for conventions already work really hard -- scheduling those panels and events is like playing Jenga, except that everyone is yelling at you and the pieces are on fire -- but I can't imagine that ensuring parity and diversity in participation would be an unbearable addition to the burden. Indeed, in the long run, by expanding participation, panel parity will expand the pool of available panelists, which will make panels easier to organize -- making it a matter of enlightened self-interest yet again!

Again: No. Freakin'. Brainer. This issue has been discussed at length over the past year or so, but it's central, it's vital and it bears repeating. Conventions need robust and robustly enforced policies and practices to ensure that all fans feel welcome and safe there. There must be policies to prevent harassment and bullying of any kind, and clear, consistent, transparent procedures in the event somebody breaks those rules. 

There are other factors, important ones, that haven't been as widely discussed yet, that are vital to cons being safe and welcoming for all: Accessibility for people with reduced mobility; accommodation for the differently-abled and the neurodiverse; on-site child care are just a few. 

So many people have done so much work on these issues -- harassment at conventions being particularly prominent and thorny lately -- that it would be difficult to name them all. A very short list of the ones who have helped me towards better understanding would include Rose Fox, Genevieve Valentine, John Scalzi, Maria Dahvana Headley, Jim Hines and groups and organizations like SFFragette, the Backup Ribbon Project and the Ada Initiative. We all owe these people, and the others who have been dealing with these issues, a tremendous debt of gratitude. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself into the maw of frothing internet-hatred that this struggle too often is. To acknowledge their efforts properly, we should do two things: Thank them, and then do the work required to make sure these problems are resolved.

That's important for all these ideas, in fact. Many, many people have done a lot of work to change things for the better, so that conventions and fan culture will be more diverse and therefore better, stronger and more sustainable. Let's take a moment to thank them.

Now, using these suggestions or the other, better ones that will emerge from the ongoing discussion, let's fix things. 

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