WorldCon is over for another year. Some people are happy – Hugo winners for example ; some are not. Madelaine Ashby questions whether WorldCon and the people who go there have missed the demographic boat, noting quite accurately that WorldCon seems older and more white and male than other fan-based events, such as DragonCon. We’ll skip over for a minute that DragonCon and FanExpo and ComicCon are not fan-based but commercial operations directed towards corporate profits. It is true that WorldCon is not as diverse as, say, the average downtown neighbourhood. Some people say that WorldCon – and cons in general – are bastions of misogyny, homo- and transphobia, racism. Others, such as Cherryl Morgan, who would know better than me, (an aging white straight male), disagree.
I might be more appalled if I hadn’t heard this before. I went to my first WorldCon in 1983. One of the best attended panels was one called “The Graying of Fandom.” At the time my hair was still dark but I knew grey hair was on the horizon. I listened as people bemoaned the fact that ‘young people’ were no longer interested and engaged in science fiction. The solutions: more diverse programming such as movie previews and discussions, expanded costuming (cosplay anyone?) and music. Comic books weren’t high on the list but “graphic novels” were making an impact. Anime and Manga were nothing but rumours and really only began to impinge on North American audiences in the last 15 years (yes, I know there are always early adopters but that’s not my point). There was no question that non-white writers (and fans) were few and far between. Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler were the exceptions that made the rule.
There were, even then, worries about the lack of female fans – though less so about the lack of female writers (5 of the previous Best Novel Hugos had gone to women writers). There wasn’t a lot of talk about ‘sexual harassment’ or worse though everyone knew there were certain well-known male writers young women should be careful not to be alone with. You have to remember that these were the days when universities had just stopped turning a blind eye to professors sleeping with their students. The Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were nearly a decade in the future.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then – both as a society and as fans of science fiction. Despite that, there are still reports of ‘people behaving badly.’ People take offence – even when it’s not offered. That happens and will continue to happen, because people aren’t perfect. Put them in a crowd with a drink in their hands and their imperfections come to the fore. This is no excuse. If you behave like an idiot in certain situations – like when you drink – then it is incumbent on you to avoid those situations. If you just generally behave like an idiot – or, in fact, a criminal (unwanted sexual touching is a crime folks) – then expect to be treated like one. Conventions can’t stop bad behavior – but they can put in place mechanisms to limit it and deal with it appropriately – in a fair and transparent manner – when it happens. No cover-ups; no kangaroo courts.
Anyway, that’s not what I started out talking about.
Is WorldCon a thing of the past? Will it, must it change? Should it do more to attract a younger, more diverse crowd? Should it go away? Who cares what you (or I) think anyway?
WorldCon exists (has existed for more than 70 years) because people are devoted to organizing it and people are keen to go to it. As long as that is true, nothing anyone says will stop it from happening. It may be that the demographic is narrower (or just different) than that which goes to ComicCon but so what? The demographic of people that go to live theatre is different (and narrower) than those who go to movies. Should we close the theatres? WorldCon focuses on books and writers; it therefore appeals to different people than those interested in movies and movie stars or comics and cosplay, for that matter. There is cross-over – people who like it all – but maybe not as much as we might think or hope. But the lines are not drawn on gender, race, sexual orientation, cultural background, or nationality but INTEREST.
Maybe we should have a YA Hugo to show we care more what young people read. In Canada, we have a Best YA novel award in the Auroras (our national version of the Hugo). I’m not sure it has increased youth interest in SF. In fact, I voted against creating the category – though now that it’s here, I’m happy to point out that Dissolve by Neil Godbout, published by Bundoran Press is a nominee this year. In 2001, a Harry Potter novel won the Hugo; in 2009, Cory Doctorow’s YA book, Little Brother, was a finalist. Somehow I think that shows more respect for YA writers than putting them in their own category – like a children’s table at an adult dinner party.
And what about all those old writers? Why aren’t younger ones getting more (or all of the attention)? I recall what my friend, two time Governor General Award winner for drama, Sharon Pollock, growled when the Canada Council announced special grants for young writers: “What are old ones supposed to do? Die?” By the way, the Canada Council defined young writers as those under 40. Not surprising since the average for selling a first novel seems likely to be somewhere around 36. So for those novelists in their twenties who are complaining about all those old guys – maybe you’re just old before your time. In any case, in 20 or 30 years, I’m sure you’ll have an answer for the next generation of geniuses clamouring for you to get out of the way.
As for seeking a broader audience for SF, it’s a great idea but it’s not as simple as one might think. The collective creative wisdom of writers and readers (and, I trust, editors and publishers) will solve the problem. The arrival on the scene of such fabulous writers as N.K Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed – along with many other ‘not old white guys’ writing short stories – will expand the base. It won’t attract all those kids who go to Fan Expo to catch a glimpse of an aging film star – but it will attract people who like books who never considered that SFF had anything to say to them. After all, how many black teenagers considered golf as a sport before Tiger Woods burst on the scene? Their successes – like his – will make a whole new range of readers see science fiction, and science fiction conventions, as a place they want to be.