21 July 2012

Readercon 23

Last week's Readercon was among the best of the many I have attended, for me at least. Inevitably, there wasn't enough time for anything — time to see friends, time to go to all the various panels I had hoped to go to, time to mine the book dealers' wares... Nonetheless, it was a tremendous pleasure to see so many friends and acquaintances again, as well as to be immersed in such a vibrant community of people who love to talk about books.

I've been on the Programming Committee for Readercon for the past two years now, which changes my experience a little bit, because I find myself paying closer attention than I did before to how the panels end up working in reality (after we on the committee have puzzled over their possibilities for a few months) and to how people on the panels and in the audiences respond to them. (Note: We're actively trying to expand the invitation list to Readercon. If you have any names to suggest [including yourself], please see here for more info.)

I don't love being on panels myself, because I don't really have any confidence in my ability to say anything beyond the banal in an extemporaneous situation, but I was on a couple this time, and though I don't think my contributions were anything memorable, there were some good moments. (More thoughts on panels and the current discussion of gender parity on panels at cons below.)

The two panels I was on were both on Saturday morning, which turned out to be less than ideal for me because I hadn't gotten to sleep until sometime after 2am (having been part of a long and wonderful conversation with Eric Schaller, Jeff VanderMeer, and Michael Cisco), so I was pretty exhausted. The first panel was on John Reider's excellent book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, with the other panelists being Robert Killheffer, Darrell Schweitzer, Vandana Singh, and, as leader (that is, moderating participant), Andrea Hairston. I thank the gods of scheduling that Andrea was the leader, because her skills at moderating are a wonder to behold. I wouldn't have been leader of this panel for anything, because not only is there a potentially controversial topic, but it's the sort of topic that is wide open to unproductive tangents — for instance, it may bring out the history geek in participants or audience members to such an extent that they can't help demonstrating how much they know about exactly what happened in 322 BCE and how that is what really explains the Berlin Conference. There was a bit of this, and Andrea brilliantly brought the conversation back toward things that could be more effectively discussed in the hour we had without making the person who just couldn't help talking a lot about the Romans feel entirely squashed. (If he did, he didn't behave as if he'd been squashed.) I find it hard to stay on track during panels myself, so always appreciate a moderator who can moderate without humiliating.

I'm not sure we were able to really say anything beyond what the book itself already says, but we affirmed that its analysis is provocative, powerful, and generally convincing, and if we succeeded in sparking curiosity about the book in one or two other people, then it was a success. (Copies seemed to be selling well at the Wesleyan University Press table in the dealers' room.)

After the panel, Andrea Hairston and I had a moment to chat, and affirmed that we have lots of overlapping interests so should chat more, and then, as so often happens at conventions, we got too busy with other things to be able to do so. I hope our paths will cross in the future, though.

I then scurried off to "Samuel R. Delany's Golden Jubilee" — that is, a celebration of 50 years of Delany's work (well, almost 50 years: it will be 50 years in December). There were six of us altogether on the panel (me, Liz Hand, Jo Walton, Timmi Duchamp, Don Keller, and Ron Drummond, who was leader) and afterward Liz Hand and I both thought it felt like the panel lasted a total of 5 minutes. There is so much to discuss from Delany's career that no one-hour panel could even mention all the facets, never mind do them justice. This combined with the panelists' passionate knowledge led to a certain lack of focus, and a few panelists never got the chance to say very much, unfortunately. But I think the general message got through: A thank you to Chip for his decades of writing, his generosity, his thoughtfulness, and his utter uniqueness.

In addition to the two panels, I did a reading on Friday night. I brought cookies and Twizzlers as thanks to anybody who would come to a reading of mine, and they seemed to be appreciated, as was, to my delighted surprise, the story I read — or, rather, read the first half of, because a 7,000 word story can't really be fit into a 30-minute reading slot. I had brought five copies of the story for anyone who was dying to know where it went (or how I ruined it), and those copies disappeared, perhaps because people needed napkins for their cookies.

Among the panels and readings I attended, these stick out in my memory:

"My Mother, Shirley Jackson", a talk by Sarah (Sadie) Hyman Dewitt: One of the best things I've ever seen at Readercon, if not the best. A funny, touching, informative talk by the daughter of one of the most wonderful American writers of the 20th century. Years ago, I read Judy Oppenheimer's biography of Jackson, Private Demons, and I've read most of her short fiction and many of her novels, so this was a real treat. Just because someone is the child of a famous parent doesn't mean they necessarily are able to say a lot in public about that life, but Sadie really did, and she became a treasured presence at the whole convention. (You can get a taste of some of what she's like via the video of the Shirley Jackson Awards, where she spoke for a few minutes before the presentation of awards.)

"Readercon Classic Nonfiction Book Club: How to Suppress Women's Writing": Samuel Delany had been scheduled for this panel, but he wasn't able to make it in time, so it ended up being only Timmi Duchamp and Andrea Hairston, which was no problem at all, as they're both fundamentally awesome. They brought Brit Mandelo up to join them, though, because Timmi has just published Brit's monograph We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Truth-Telling. There wasn't a chance to really dig in to the details of Russ's book, but there was good discussion and I think everybody left with a desire to encourage more people to read, share, and debate Russ's work. There were general complaints from some audience members and panelists that Russ isn't included in enough university-level classes, and general incredulity that a person could graduate with a minor in Women's Studies from anywhere without having read Russ. As someone who occasionally teaches Women's Studies classes, and has only once assigned Russ (in an SF & Gender class), I somewhat defensively feel that this is an unfair criticism of academia. I certainly hope that Russ's work becomes more widely read, and I think How to Suppress Women's Writing could be a valuable text in a variety of different types of classes, but there are all sorts of reasons to assign or not assign texts in classes, and the list of books and writers that rarely, if ever, make it onto syllabi is at least as full of wonders as the list of books and writers that frequently get assigned to students. The legitimacy of any academic program should really be judged on how well it prepares its students to seek out and appreciate work beyond the syllabus, because only the most narrow and shallow field could possibly be encompassed by the limited time spent in classes.

"Readercon Classic Fiction Book Club: The Palm-Wine Drinkard": Because of bad timing on my part, I missed one of the Book Club panels I wanted to see (on Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death). The last of the Book Club panels was scheduled pretty late at night, which ended up being convenient for me, and I was thrilled to make it to this panel because it's fun (and occasionally frustrating) to see how people respond to and contextualize Amos Tutuola's writing. The panelists here were Michael Cisco, Sarah Smith, John H. Stevens, Jeff VanderMeer, and Michael Swanwick (leader). Some of them knew nothing of Tutuola's or the book's history, others, particularly Swanwick and VanderMeer, knew more of the context. Jeff's bringing out an e-book collection of Tutuola's short stories, Don't Pay Bad for Bad, sometime this fall, after having corresponded with Tutuola's family while securing the reprint rights for a story for The Weird. That contact led to an important interview with Tutuola's son, Yinka, and then the e-book, for which I have written an afterword. I chimed in a bit from the audience about some of the specific influences on Tutuola and the trajectory of his career (about which you'll find more information in that afterword). Jeff said I should have signed up for the panel, but I really didn't want to, because it's been a few years since I last read The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and I knew I would not have a chance to re-read it before the panel. If I had known so much of the discussion would end up being about Tutuola's life and style of writing, though, I would have signed up, just to be able to add some of the information from my research, which would have saved some time and allowed, perhaps, more discussion of the book itself. One thing I wish there had been more of was reading from the book's text — a lot of members of the audience didn't seem familiar with it, and Tutuola's work reads wonderfully aloud.

(I attended a couple of other panels, but they weren't at all memorable, and so I don't trust my ability to share anything useful about them.)

I also saw a few readings, starting with Jeff VanderMeer's (standing-room-only), in which he read from his newly-finished novel Annihilation. (He'd promised me he'd be reading Sword of Shannara, which is the only reason I went. Lies! Lies!) I also went to Samuel Delany's reading, because I try to go to his readings every year; this year, he read some of the least provocative pages from Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Michael Cisco followed Chip, and I stayed to hear him read from Celebrant, his latest novel. It was an excellent, even extraordinary reading — Michael's concentration is contagious, his reading rhythms entrancing; it was just about as close as I've ever felt to being hypnotized. (Alas, general busy-ness caused me to miss a lot of readings I'd hoped to get to, including those of various friends, so my apologies to you all!)

Oh, and we gave out the Shirley Jackson Awards! Yay!

Having just come back from a convention, I became especially interested in some recent discussions of gender parity on con panels. Genevieve Valentine unfortunately experienced harassment/stalking at Readercon and felt patronized and marginalized on a panel (a panel I didn't see, so I have no perception of my own to offer). This is heartbreaking and infuriating to me not only because Genevieve is someone I've known and respected for a long time (and someone I really look forward to seeing at Readercon each year), but also because I'm idealistic enough to wish that we are better than this by now, at least as a Readercon community. We're not.

[Update 7/27: Unfortunately, the convention did not handle the situation well, and chose to violate their own stated harassment policy.]

The most comprehensive discussion of the concept of panel parity is one John Scalzi recently linked to: an excellent issue of the fanzine Journey Planet (PDF). It's a valuable discussion (even the stuff I disagree with!) because it shows the necessity of thinking about these ideas and some of the difficulties of implementing them. There's plenty of research and experience to show that women in our culture generally are less likely to put themselves forward for such things as panels, less likely to feel comfortable fully participating in such things as panels, and less likely to be treated as rational and intelligent human beings by the men who participate in such things as panels. Thus, without some deliberate action to reduce these social facts, the playing field is not even remotely level or meritocratic.

I trust more experienced people than myself to be able to come up with good, creative solutions to the problem (we are tremendously lucky to have Rose Fox as the chair of programming at Readercon). The first step is to actively try to get a varied, diverse group of people to your convention. Continually expanding the invitation list is especially important. (All sorts of factors affect whether people show up, of course.)

The actual composition of panels is a thornier subject. I don't think a requirement that all panels be evenly split between men and women is either practical or desireable — worst, it's binary, and we need to get over that. Any approach to the social and power dynamics of panels needs to be intersectional, because it isn't just gender that's messing us up and keeping us from getting to the point where people are free to talk about what most interests and excites them.

Actually, I think there should be more panels dominated by less menlike people. At Readercon, we got to give out the Shirley Jackson Awards, for which I was a juror this year, and most of the awards went to women. This is exciting to me, especially since menly men have dominated genre awards since the birth of genre awards. To my eyes, more women than men have been doing interesting and innovative work in genre fiction, particularly in the short forms, throughout the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, most of the times when nonmen get to be the majority on panels, it's when those panels are about subjects perceived to be "feminine" (e.g., paranormal romance). Dominant groups get to talk about whatever, while nondominant groups get pigeonholed. I would be excited to see, for instance, an entirely non-male panel on hard science fiction. (Perhaps there has been one.) Too often, though, what happens is what a commenter at Scalzi's blog, Jonathan Vos Post, described happening to his wife:
My wife, a much-published experimental physicist, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Author, former Active Member of SFWA, who’s taught in 4 countries, and is Chair of Sciences (Astronomy, Biology, Physics) at Woodbury University, has been shouted down by males on Worldcon and Westercon panels, and thus no longer chooses to do panels. She is content to let ignorant testosterone-fueled dildos shout at each other. As on Facebook.
She's not the only one.

As some of the writers in Journey Planet point out, parity can mean more than just a narrow and imposed 50/50 split. It can be a guiding principle, one that infuses the structure of convention design. It will lead to more interesting and lively conventions. I'm sure plenty of people will shout, "Politically correct!", because shouters need to shout, but convention committees don't need to shout; instead, they need to think and listen and discuss and experiment. Not all the experiments will work. That's why they're experiments. We can learn from the mistakes as much as the successes. And we can build on the successes.

Continuing on with my rambling here (I've been piecing this post together for days, which does not bode well for its coherence) — Timmi Duchamp has written two good blog posts about Readercon panels: "Post Readercon" and "Panel Deportment and Demeanor". Nancy Jane Moore's comment on the first post is especially valuable in bringing out some of the dynamics in addition to privilege and dominance that cause panels to go awry, and Timmi's second post follows up on that. What I'd add to the conversation is the effect of the performance elements of the panel format: as a panelist, you're sitting up there in front of an audience (and now with Twitter, YouTube, and blogs, the audience is not necessarily just the one in the room). Time is short and there's a certain pressure to perform. People respond to the presence of an audience very differently. I'm used to audiences — I've been an actor, and I've been teaching for 14 years — but as I said above, I find being on panels difficult, unless I'm reading a paper or using a Powerpoint, which gives me a crutch and doesn't require me to interact with people extemporaneously. (My anxieties aren't about an audience per se, but about the lack of a script or the need to respond to ideas quickly. I sometimes have to write scripts for myself when I call people on the telephone, just to overcome the anxiety of speaking freely.) General conversation in life is difficult enough; conversation in front of an audience is perilous. Sometimes, my discomfort manifests in my shrinking back and saying as little as possible, sometimes it manifests as a certain awkward gregariousness in which I try to force myself not to shrink back and instead just grasp for whatever words happen to come out. (A good moderator is a blessing for me and actually helps me relax and just be a panelist.)

In some ways, it's almost miraculous that extemporanous panels are ever actually productive and interesting. But I've seen some good panels over the years. Many of them at Readercon. I look forward to seeing more.

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