Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Readercon, authority, and models of readership

[Cross-posted from my blog, where the discussion in the comments may be of interest.]

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.

This description is probably startling to many of you, since many attendees praise the con for the high level of its discussion. Indeed, many of the panels are a joy -- panelists tend to be intelligent, erudite, and witty, with a deep knowledge of the panel topics. The problem is, they all tend to have the same kind of deep knowledge. 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. (HINT: Harold Bloom, b. 1930, most influential work The Anxiety of Influence [1972], should not be the youngest nongenre literary critic anyone on a panel can cite.) The con is missing out on a huge richness of diversity of experience and thought; it is missing out on some of the greatest pleasures of reading, not to mention the chance for writers and critics and "just readers" to challenge and change each other.

These lacks are not due to individual program participants, who seem in general eager to talk and welcoming to newcomers. Rather, they stem from basic assumptions shaping the con's programming practices.

Programming consists of two tracks of panel discussions, two tracks of readings, two tracks of workshops, individual discussion, and "special panels," one track of kaffeeklatsches, and one track devoted to autograph sessions of two to three authors. Program items are developed and assigned by the con staff in private. Panel discussions usually consist of four to six panelists discussing the program topic for forty-five minutes to an hour, with the remainder of the hour open to audience questions at the moderator's discretion. Kaffeklatsches are small meetings led by one or two hosts, and the topic and management of the space is up to the host's discretion.

Basically, all of this creates a top-down expert approach to literature and literary discussion, emphasizing authoritarianism, lecturing, and celebrity status, discouraging small or individual book conversations among people who are not panelists. A small group of experts is given dedicated time and space to speak; the mass of readers must speak in a conversation framed by the experts, and all discussion is mediated by the experts, rather than being reader-to-reader. Kaffeeklatsches may offer a space for reader-to-reader discussion, depending on how the host shapes conversation, but these are not even on dedicated topics; the audience may be brought together by their interest in a particular writer, but since that writer is the host who controls the conversation, the conversation can only occur in particular ways, even if the writing is the topic--and frequently it is not, nor supposed to be.

Of course people can form small discussion groups on their own, if they can hold a steady discussion in the public hallways, or have a hotel room they are willing to open up to strangers -- and I think we all know that depth and long duration are not typical of con encounters in hallways. My point is not that readers are mute or lack initiative, but that the con provides dedicated spaces and established methods for particular kinds of conversations, but not for others.

Additionally, the con provides no resources or dedicated programming for newbies. For a population that often claims to be welcoming the socially mal-adept, it's striking how little care is taken to ease new people into the community discussion. Or, rather, it's striking what kinds of new people are eased in. People who have trouble reading social cues but are confident enough to speak and volunteer discussion without explicit welcome may find this experience pleasurable. People who are hesitant to volunteer discussion without being explicitly welcomed, or who are reluctant to intrude on conversations without explicit invitation, will not. And these differences, although individual, are both gendered, racialized, and tend to trend according to age.

The scheduling shows both an indifference to the needs of typical young working attendees and to encouraging non-panelist communication. Readercon takes place the weekend after a holiday weekend, when people without organizational power (who tend to be younger) will be reluctant or unable to take the day off, but eleven of the con's 21.5 hours of programming are scheduled for Friday. Saturday and Sunday contain some rerun programming (items repeated from earlier Readercons), while the Friday programming is all new. Key program items, like the panel on the work of GOH Elizabeth Hand, took place in the middle of a workday. The kaffeeklatsch with GOH Greer Gilman took place at 11am, first thing in the morning, on a workday. The race panel, which could be expected to be difficult and controversial, took place at Friday at 5pm, meaning that anyone who could only attend the con after work could not make this programming item.

Only one mealtime during the con is scheduled for the entire con, removing another opportunity for people to mingle. There are no official parties and no official Saturday evening events that encourage mingling. The "Meet the Prose" party on Friday evening once again centers on having readers communicate with writers rather than each other, and also offers a painfully evident demonstration of relative status within the Readercon community: You can tell who's generally considered important by how stationary they are.

Unsurprisingly, given the con's focus on traditional status markers, panels are dominated by white people, men, and people over forty. Women, younger attendees, and people of color led the readings track much more than in the panel discussions. POC hardly appeared as panelists outside the dedicated race discussion. I am not convinced more than two people under 30 would have been on the panels without the intervention of GoH Greer Gilman, who had clearly encouraged and endorsed the participation of several young female academics and writers in several program items. Despite the heavy female presence at the con (three female Guests of Honor, including the Memorial GoH; an attendee base that I'd guesstimate at 40-50% female), programming showed a disturbing trend to gender segregation: in panels of 4-6 people, many panels were all one gender or had only one male or female participant out of all the panelists.

For me, the cap for the con's evident unconcern for people who do not fit a narrow set of criteria came in the advertisement for Readercon 21 in the printed Program Guide to the con, which has the tagline "This IS your father's Readercon." Yes, I am familiar with the phrase's history. This does not eliminate the sexism of the assumption that genders science fiction and science fiction conventions male (it was "your father's Oldsmobile" because it was assumed men had the money, the purchasing power, and the moral right to make unilateral decisions about the household's major purchases). And it relies on the idea that what the Concom values in Readercon is the golden past, that it wants to contract rather than expand.

The result of all this, quite clearly, is the reluctance of people under forty to come to the con without the additional impetus of professional networking. In a con taking place in the city with the youngest age distribution in the United States because of the concentration of colleges in the area, I did not meet a single person under thirty who was there without some professional reason to be (academic, editor, professional critic, writer or aspiring writer); in fact, I only know of three people under forty, including myself, who were there without some professional reason. People of color are especially unlikely to attend without professional obligation, given the overwhelming whiteness of the con and the unthinking cultural imperialism of many of the panels.

People of color at the con: 8-12 (personal count vs. personal count of friends)
Con attendees: 600 (guesstimate based on discussion with other attendees)
Percentage of people of color at the con: 1-2%

This con is 98% white. The United States is 66% or 74% white (depending on whether white Latinos are included). Boston is 58% white.

This is the worst con I've ever seen for accessibility; no one appeared to have given it any thought at all. The signage for rooms was small, poorly formatted, and difficult to read even for someone without major vision problems (or, to be precise, for someone with artificially corrected vision problems). The pocket program font size is nearly illegible. The aisles in panel rooms may have been large enough for wheelchairs, but only barely. I believe there was no ramp access to the panel podiums, but may be wrong on this. The steps up and down to the podiums were clearly difficult for at least some of the panelists. There were no seats or spaces up front set aside for wheelchairs or people with vision or hearing problems.


  1. The hotel not only didn't have free wireless, it had thirteen-dollar-a-day wireless that did not work for a substantial number of people. It is just plain ridiculous that the hotel charged for this to begin with, or that the con failed to set up a network themselves for attendees in this situation.
  2. The lack of official party space means that people run parties out of their rooms, inconveniencing guests who do not keep those hours. Admitting that people at cons have parties and declare some dedicated space for them in a single floor or wing will make things easier on everyone, including people who want to sleep on quiet floors.
  3. The program guide devotes an entire page to defining science fiction awards (which attendees probably either know or can google) and devotes 37 pages to participant bios, largely because no one seems to have spent any effort imposing length limits. Some of the bios are five paragraphs long.

I'll try to get up something on alternative discussion models tomorrow, but I'd like to separate it out because it's a general sf con issue even if Readercon is a particularly extreme example. Even the smaller sf cons seem dead-set on the panel discussion model. I don't honestly see Readercon as likely to change its practices, but I think there's some stuff we can experiment with at Wiscon.

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