The World Fantasy Convention 2013 is over, and as I more than hinted in the last post, I wasn’t entirely confident that it would be an enjoyable experience. In the end it wasn’t bad, as I’d feared it might be, but neither was it as good as I’d hoped. The things that went well – and from my perspective, it seemed that most things did – went very well indeed, and made me glad that I actually did go (notwithstanding starting the con and a cold at almost precisely the same moment, which meant that I drank 4 times more Lemsip than wine over the weekend). But the things that had been problematic in the run-up stayed that way, and the complaints and concerns about them were not, to the best of my knowledge, addressed during the con itself. I’m not going to restate what they were; alittlebriton did a great job of summarising here, and Tom Pollock has very ably addressed the specific issue of gender parity here. There’s really nothing I can add to either. And I do want to join Tom in expressing my appreciation for the extraordinarily hard work and dedication of the organising committee, who do a tough job for no personal compensation other than the satisfaction of seeing the con come together. I tip my metaphorical hat, and thank them most sincerely. They are decent, talented, committed people, and I hope they know that feedback is only intended to help them be even more successful next time.
Having said all that in the way of being general, let’s get specific. I was helped in this by an email I received Monday lunchtime, when I was just starting to think about writing this post. It was from another con-goer, someone who works in the industry and is, unlike me, a veteran of World Fantasy Cons. It was actually a request for feedback: What did I particularly like, what didn’t I like, and what wasn’t on offer that I would have liked to see? The following, abridged and edited for your consumption, is what I said:
The people. I’d made a list of who I hoped to see while there – I don’t mean the celebrities like Gaiman and Pratchett (wonderful though that would have been), but people from other countries who I’ve communicated with on social media – and in retrospect the thing I should have done was prioritise that list over anything on the programme, and made sure to meet all of them. It’s my fault that I didn’t, but even so the people-meeting, connection-making, like-minds-melding aspect of the con was my highlight.
As far as the programme went, I thought that the one-on-one Guest of Honour interviews were good match-ups, and the ones I went to or heard about from others were great fun.
I’m sorry that this is going to be a longer section.
1. WHO IT’S FOR. My email correspondent inadvertently helped me to identify what I think might be an underlying conflict fuelling a lot of the WFC debate; the line was ‘bearing in mind that this is a convention for industry professionals rather than fans.’ The implication being, I think, that WFC is a place for business to be done, and many of the complaints and concerns are simply not relevant to that purpose. Now I wouldn’t buy the irrelevancy argument even if that were the case, but as I pointed out in my reply, the WFC website states explicitly that it is an event ‘for professionals and fans alike.’ It seems to me that this is a real disconnect. My sense is that the professionals – especially those who’ve been around for a while – do see it as being an event that exists primarily to facilitate them in networking and deal-making, while many fans are barely aware of what constitutes the ‘professional’ side of things at all. Now I’ve got no problem with a professional event for professionals, or a fan event for fans, but if WFC says it’s for both then it needs to really be for both. Everyone’s paid to be there; no professional accreditation is required for membership (not that I’m sure how you’d define professional in this context anyway – are bloggers professional? Are all of the artists?) I don’t know whether or to what degree this professional vs. fan dichotomy is recognised as an issue at the organising committee level, so I’ll simply state the obvious: there is an equal level of obligation to everyone who has paid to be there.
2. ACCESSIBILITY. Whether it’s for fans or professionals, or fans and professionals, WFC needs to be much more committed to providing full, uncomplicated accessibility. It’s not good enough to simply say, ‘oh, it’s an old hotel’ and throw your hands up. It is not acceptable for people who have paid their membership like everyone else, who have just as much to contribute and just as much to learn as anyone else, to be unable to access large parts of the con, to have poor to no directions on how to get to the parts they technically could reach, or for the hotel staff to whom they were referred to appear baffled by the question. And I also want to point out that disabilities and constraints are not only around mobility. If there were provisions for sight- or hearing-impaired members, for example, I saw no sign of them. (Maybe that’s because the con knew no one with those constraints would be coming. Fair enough. But is that because people with those constraints know there’s no point trying to come? That would not be fair. I don’t know which it is, but it troubles me.)
3. COMMUNICATION. I was hoping that the programme guide issued on registration would adopt a friendlier, more welcoming tone than the website text or the now infamous e-newsletters, but unfortunately – not. All written communication appears to have been channelled through a particularly humourless 1950s schoolmistress, burdened with especially dim-witted and feckless pupils who she has the thankless task of attempting to keep on some sort of imaginary straight and narrow. This may seem trivial, but it got people’s backs up before they even arrived. No one likes feeling that they are being spoken down to.
4. PROGRAMME. I normally love panels – they’re the thing I spend most of my time at, as a rule – but on the whole I found WFC’s pretty uninspiring. Part of the problem I, and others I’ve spoken to, had with them harks back to the communication issue – the descriptions could be downright off-putting. (I said it on the day and I’ll say it again: A panel called ‘Broads with Swords’?! Really? Really? Someone, in 2013, thought that was a good idea?!) Looking past the descriptions, very little of the content felt topical or fresh to me. Of the two themes (once I worked out what on earth they were even about – there was a page on the website that no one seems to have noticed, and the descriptions weren’t reproduced in the programme guide), Machen @ 150 felt dated and rather academic – I didn’t know why I should care – and The Next Generation felt like attempts to cover topics I’ve seen covered better, with more interesting and diverse points of view, at other cons earlier in the year. Some of the panels did end up being absolutely brilliant, but that had more to do with the collective brilliance, wittiness and knowledge of the panellists. I’m afraid many of them just felt – tired.
5. TECHNOLOGY. The lack of free wifi in the hotel was a major problem. It made it hard for the businesspeople to do business, for members to keep track of each other, and for events to be promoted to those within and beyond the con. I promised I’d tweet, and I did try, but without wifi and with the 3G network overloaded (not helped by the howling gale that set in on Saturday) it was well-nigh impossible. I ended up sending most tweets via the free wifi in my half-the-cost-of-the-con-hotel B&B, late at night. I’d also like to suggest to WFC that – in addition to treating wifi as a mandatory requirement going forward – they consider using one of the specialised conference apps, something like Sched or Lanyrd. They make organising con diaries so much easier, and they mean that changes to programme can be pushed out automatically. Lanyrd is also particularly effective for networking.
I’m sorry that was such a long section.
What would I have liked to see that wasn’t an option? Well – and especially if we are talking by professionals for professionals – how about some workshops? Seminars? Tips and techniques that working writers could take away and put into practice? (There were lots of kaffeeklatches, readings and signings; great events and I’m not complaining, but I do feel obliged to point out that they are all on the fannish side.) Neil Gaiman’s about to be a professor at Bard College; might he have been persuaded to give new and wannabe authors a sneak preview of some of his course material? Or maybe a few veterans could run a half-day, intensive, mini-Clarion experience for a lucky dozen writers, chosen by lottery on the opening day – a cool addition to the con kick-off? With such an international gathering, there’s the potential for some seriously useful, once-in-a-lifetime learning from real-life genre giants.