I’m talking about SFF conventions here, not the convention that you wear your pants under your trousers or the like. (Unless you are a superhero of course, or an American, in which case you wear your pants under your pants. Except they probably don’t call pants pants. Anyway, I digress.)
This week there has been much discussion about WorldCon, and whether it’s a safe space for anyone who didn’t sell their first novel in the 1950’s and/or doesn’t happen to be in possession of ‘outie’ genitalia and pale skin. Furthermore, even if it’s not actively threatening, isn’t it *dull*? There is a concern that whilst young people are going to conventions like DragonCon, they aren’t going to the big, long-running events. The ones that hand out the gongs.
In response to all this plather, Mary Robinette Kowal put up an online survey. I glanced through it, reading in particular the section where people wrote their own comments regarding what changes might encourage them to go to cons. My interest was detached at first, and then I remembered something. I am on a convention committee. Duh! Not WorldCon or WorldFantasy, obviously, so I can’t help them, but if people have problems with conventions, all con-runners everywhere stand to learn something from listening.
Mary has responses from over 3,900 people at the time of writing. 88.4% were white, 75.4% were American, and 53.7% were female (if this is representative of fandom, we really aren’t doing too well on racial or geographical diversity). 43% said they attend cons. There’s no breakdown within that con-going segment.
It’s only been up for 5 days, but the 1,300-odd comments I read didn’t throw up much that was new after the first 500, so I think it’s worth summarising them now.
By far the biggest factors stopping people attending cons are time, money and distance; nothing organisers can do anything about… Well, maybe, but there were a few people suggesting that the solution is more small, local conventions, run for a day or two, and keeping prices down.
The second strongest theme emerging was definitely inclusivity. Almost everyone (with one or two curmudgeonly exceptions) wanted cons to be made into safer and more diverse spaces. That’s for women, young people, old people, children, people of colour, disabled people, the non-gender-normative, anxious people, and those who’ve simply never been to a con before and don’t know anybody. The only recurring plea for banishment called for the removal of nasty smells (not the owners of the bodies producing the smells, just better personal hygiene all round, and possibly ventilation.) So far, so not rocket science. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Joanne Hall’s advice on surviving a con: be nice, don’t be smelly.
Some suggested changes that would support inclusivity were: strong -and enforced– safe-space and equality policies, gender parity in programming, good disabled access, chillout spaces, child-friendly events, YA and gaming topics, and discouraging ‘porny’ pieces in art shows and on dealer tables. Guides for first-timers and opportunities to mingle would help foster more of a community feel.
It seems you will never please everyone when it comes to programme content. Some wanted more literary focus, some wanted more on comics, some wanted more gaming and less on comics. Lots of people complained about unfocussed, boring and repetitive panels, and there seemed to be some consensus on wanting panels with more specific topics, and panelists who were both knowledgeable and well prepared. Several people suggested including more lectures as alternatives to panels, lots wanted more and better science, and some requested explicit literary craft, publishing and academic tracks (information over entertainment). At the other end of the spectrum were those who wanted more to do that didn’t involve sitting down and listening to people talk.
A surprising number said they didn’t attend cons because they didn’t know about them, which is a particular challenge for us small, local cons.
My favourite answers to the question (What changes would most encourage you to attend conventions?) were ‘my ex-boyfriend gets hit by a bus’ and ‘Neil Gaiman being there’. Yeah. Don’t think we can promise either of those, but fingers crossed for ya. No promises either to the whingers wanting to get comped into conventions because they are SFF professionals. I don’t know what the percentage is but I’m sure most cons would be struggling to stay afloat if they comped everyone who calls themselves a pro. We don’t even comp ourselves ffs. (Is it a coincidence that the reverse of SFF is ffs? Yes it is, but I like it anyway.)
The good news for BristolCon is that we are already ticking a lot of the boxes. No doubt there’s more we can do, and over the next few weeks as we prepare to put on the greatest con the DoubleTree Bristol has ever seen, we’ll definitely keep all this in mind.