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What is a Fan? A Response to Justin

July 31, 2013

Justin Landon of Staffer’s Book Review has assembled some interesting thoughts on the apparent over-abundance of self-proclaimed (and predominantly unpublished) ‘writers’ in the genre community:

During a live recording of Mur Lafferty’s podcast at Balticon she asked the audience, “who here is a writer?” Roughly, 75% of the audience raised their hand. Admittedly, Lafferty’s audience is writers, since her podcast’s title is “I Should Be Writing”, but throughout the weekend nearly everyone had a story in the hopper. There were dozens of panels composed entirely of “the writer”. Unfortunately, there were only a few with publishing credentials. Most weren’t published by anything larger than my garage (and some weren’t even self-published). This is not a comment on the quality of self-publishing (or indie publishing, or whatever). Self-publishing is a perfectly viable route to take. But, why should fans care about “the writer” until they have people reading and buying? Until then, “the writer” is a fan. . . just like the rest. Would anyone pay to listen to themselves?

This post puts me in a rather interesting position as while I agree with many of Justin’s complaints and observations, I think he is looking at this particular problem from entirely the wrong perspective. In fact, I think he is conflating two very different issues.


1. The Problems with ‘Conventions’

Unpacking Justin’s post, I think the core of his complaint is that convention panels are all too often a boring mess and I could not agree more. In fact, I am genuinely struggling to think of a single panel, interview, or talk that did not strike me as a wasted opportunity. I can remember Gwyneth Jones saying that she was raised by cyberpunks but beyond that my memories of live genre events are dominated by small nervous people saying small nervous things that were completely overshadowed by the often fascinating and enriching discussions I happened to have in the bar afterwards. I also agree with Justin that this is a real problem for the genre community as it means that, in order to benefit from conventions, you have to either have a set of pre-existing social ties or be the kind of person who talks easily to strangers and who wants to pay an often large amount of money in order to be bored rigid and ignored? Most people get enough of that at home.

Where Justin and I part company is at the level of causes: Justin seems to believe that convention panels are boring because convention programmers fill them with aspiring writers. While I agree that it’s intensely problematic that everyone and his cat now thinks they’re a writer because they’re working on a novel about a kick-ass airship captain, I don’t think the problem of convention panels can be solved by con-runners somehow becoming better at policing the boundary between ‘fan’ and ‘writer’. In truth, being able to write well and being able to talk well are two entirely different skillsets.

Two of my favourite literary podcasts are Julia Rios’s Outer Alliance podcast and Michael Silverblatt’s syndicated radio show Bookworm. The most striking thing about these shows’ interviews is that while some authors can talk brilliantly about their work and culture as a whole, others come across as being well… somewhat less than brilliant. Silverblatt is known as an almost peerless interviewer and one of the reasons why I nominated the Outer Alliance for this year’s Hugo Awards is that Rios is one of the few interviewers in the field to encourage people to talk about themselves rather than their latest publication. Aside from suggesting that being able to bring the best out of someone in front of an audience is a skillset of its own, the disconnect between quality of interview and stature of interviewee suggests that even if con programmers were to fill their panels with nothing but professional authors, they would still in no way guarantee decent content. In fact, two of the most notable conventionfails of 2012 involved professional authors:

The first took place at the 2012 Worldcon during a panel about the state of Asian science fiction. The panel featured a Chinese panellist, a Chinese-American panellist and the veteran Hugo Award-winning science fiction author David Brin who reportedly took it upon himself to transform the entire panel into a brainstorming session designed to help him sell more books in Asia:

Brin turns to Primlani and tells her that he’d like her to form an outreach organization which will put together publishing contacts and the like so he can get published in India. I know Brin is from the generation of writers who are all “In my day, fandom was happy to be my butler just so they could bask in my presence.” but this really took the cake. Primlani reacts by falling back on the “well there is no monolithic market in India.” (And yes, Brin brings it up later and discusses how important it is that this happens, just not important enough for him to do anything.)

Brin may not have written anything worth reading for the best part of a decade but he is undeniably a substantial talent and a professional author but if you paid to see an Asian SF panel and discovered the shuttle crash that ensued, I doubt your problem would be with the people on the panel who were not famous professional authors.

The second notable conventionfail took place at the 2012 Eastercon where the established and award-nominated science fiction author John Meaney introduced the annual British Science Fiction Awards with a misguided and offensive attempt at a humorous monologue. The Twitter reactions speak for themselves but Alex Dally MacFarland summarises the monologue thusly:

We got Lauren Beukes being reduced to her looks, we got Ian McDonald being somehow capable of talking to Beukes even though she’s so so good looking (gosh, maybe McDonald sees Beukes as a human being?), we got something about Israelis liking to punch people in the face and how strange it is that someone called Lavie Tidhar could write a book called Osama, we got male allies being called “new men” in a very mocking way, we got a woman liking muscle cars OH MY GOD HOW BIZARRE, we got an impression of a stereotypical working class plumber whose girlfriend likes to go to Ibiza, and by that point I was walking out the door. Given that I was sitting by the door, I can tell you that quite a lot of people were walking out.

Clearly, John Meaney is not quite as skilled a talker as he seems to believe he is but neither his racism, his sexism nor his inability to entertain an audience seemed to have prevented him from being made Guest of Honour at Bristolcon 2012 a few months later.

What Meaney and Brin demonstrate is that while you can devote as much time as you want to policing the boundary between ‘fan’ and ‘writer’, this police action would in no way guarantee good convention programming as an ability to talk entertainingly in front of an audience has never been the thing that distinguished authors from ‘writers’ and ‘fans’. In fact, many people would argue that an ability to perform well on convention panels is part of what makes someone a great fan.

Just as a speaking in front of an audience is a skillset, coming up with interesting programming ideas and assembling panels is a skill that con-runners take years to develop. It must be incredibly tempting to revisit successful panels from the past or to simply build panels around trusted names in the expectation that they will simply carry the show. Good programmers must not only be familiar with the important issues of the day and the skills of the panellists at their disposal, they must also be able to strike a balance between different personalities and different levels of reputation so as to ensure that aspiring panellists get their chance to shine, learn, and become the great panellists of tomorrow. Convention programming is a substantial skill cluster that is in no way reducible to an ability to tell the difference between real writers and mere wannabes.

And as for Justin’s final question: Yes, I would happily money to listen to someone like myself as long as they had something to say. In fact, fans are often more entertaining panellists than professional authors and they do it purely for the love of the game.


2. The Problems with ‘Fans’

Justin is quite right to suggest that the genre community is infested with aspiring writers: Set up a blog that occasionally deals with genre and chances and you will be deluged with requests to review books that are both self- and professionally published. Establish any form of social media presence and you will attract legions of people who are not nearly as interested in making friends as they are in selling their sordid little stories. In fact, ‘writers’ are now so common in the online genre community that they are beginning to distort the values governing that community.

It is a simple truth that the social conventions governing conversations amongst friends are fundamentally different to those governing professional interactions: Between friends, social interactions are driven by honesty and the frank exchange of views and ideas but professional conversations are about convincing people to buy things or at the very least making people think that you are a good person with whom to do business. Turn up at a professional gathering and loudly slate not only the competition’s product but the state of the industry and chances are that people will simply stop working for you.

The number of writers and ‘writers’ in the field is now so vast that many of the field’s more casual and free-spirited social conventions are being challenged by those who would see them replaced by an attitude of universal professionalism. Online shit storms such as the mythical YA Mafia and Stop the Goodreads Bullies (both discussed with considerable insight by the wonderful Foz Meadows) are fuelled by a feeling that writing negative reviews is not just socially unacceptable but ‘unprofessional’ in the sense that it might (or should) harm an aspiring writer’s potential literary career. In fact, the 2012 BEA Book Bloggers convention was reportedly dominated by the idea that reviewers somehow existed purely in order to help the publishers sell stuff. As Ana from Book Smugglers put it:

We just wish that the ones running the show would understand that bloggers attend this conference not to hear about how great they are at being cheerleaders for authors and publishers. We attend because we want to meet other bloggers, because we want to listen and participate in a dialogue between bloggers and the industry, because we want to learn from other bloggers their tips and tricks of the trade, best practices, and how to become better at what we do best: write reviews and spread the word about books, both good and bad, and on our own terms.

Even worse, the conference also featured a panel on critical reviews and one of the panellists was an “author’s rights” lawyer who, according to Jane at Dear Author:

Proceeded to scare the crap out of bloggers about possible libel suits.

Though not one of ‘Our’ conventions, the BEA Book Bloggers Convention did evidently reflect the growing belief that being negative or harsh is at least ‘uncool’ if not ‘unprofessional’ or outright ‘illegal’. This is a profoundly worrying attitude and while negative reviews are still acceptable to a lot of the online community, there is definitely a sense in which they are under pressure and so people who regularly write them often find themselves in a position of having to defend their right to honestly express how they felt about a particular piece of writing. Persist in your negativity and chances are that you will wind up getting up getting dog-piled by angry fans who may or may not have been encouraged to do so by angry authors and editors.

This plague of professional positivity is profoundly problematic but the reason so many unpublished (and unpublishable) ‘writers’ are desperate to present themselves as professionals is that the role of ‘fan’ has become increasingly devalued.

While the roots of the word ‘fan’ may lie in fanaticism, it is now more likely to carry connotations of passive consumerism, questionable taste and psychological dysfunction. In his original post, Justin makes it abundantly clear that he does not consider himself to be either a writer or a ‘writer’ but nor does he lay claim to the label of ‘fan’:

I’ll be the first to admit I write a little bit, but if someone asks me what I “do” I’ll answer two ways. Either, (a) I’m a blogger or (b) I work in politics. Nowhere in that discussion will I say I’m a writer.

In truth, I am much the same… I am happy to be described as a reviewer and a critic but chances are that I would bristle if you were to describe me as a fan. The reason for this is that while ‘fan’ carries quite a few negative connotations in general, it is particularly problematic in science fiction circles as traditional fandom has very clear ideas on who and who is not a ‘real fan’. In fact, trad fandom is so zealous about policing the boundaries of its culture that some fans even go so far as to label themselves ‘trufen’ in an effort to put some distance between them and all the shit-munchers who spend their time reading books, going to conventions and generally engaging with all the cultural spaces that have grown up around science fiction. And if you think that’s crazy, I direct your attention to The Enchanted Duplicator, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress or Satanic Bible for true fandom:

As the revelation came to him, there was sound of golden trumpets in the air, and he heard again the voice of the Spirit of Fandom.

“Yes, Jophan,” it said, “you are now a True Fan: and it is yourself that has made you so, as it must be. And now you will realise the second great truth — that this is indeed The Magic Mimeograph, and it will produce The Perfect Fanzine. For –” and now the song of the trumpets filled the air, ringing out across Trufandom to the far mountains — “FOR THE MAGIC MIMEOGRAPH IS THE ONE WITH A TRUE FAN AT THE HANDLE.”

And Jophan found that it was so . . .

As the response to this year’s post about the Hugo Awards hopefully demonstrates I have something of a conflicted attitude to traditional fandom: On the one hand, I admire the history and institutions that have grown up in science fiction fandom since the 1930s and hope that they will survive for another eighty years. On the other hand, I feel that traditional fandom has become so attached to its own history and institutions that it would rather see those institutions die than allow them to change in a way that would encourage younger people to join them. As one older fan put it in a comment on a post I wrote about fandom:

Why should we older folks spend our time, energy, and money putting on a con we don’t enjoy for the purpose of attracting people with whom we have nothing in common? Let them start their own as, indeed, they have done/are doing.

Clearly, traditional fandom and I are fundamentally incompatible and yet, I actually think that many members of the genre community could learn a lot from the way that traditional fandom did business before it all descended into secretive mailing lists and ‘nice guy’ sex pests. In particular, I think that genre culture should start reclaiming the word ‘fan’ and use it to denote not some inferior species of genre-lover but someone who actively participates in making genre culture a more interesting and vibrant place despite having no professional skin in the game. Fans are not passive consumers… they are the people who keep the conversation going.

Reading an extensive fan history such as Rob Hansen’s history of British fandom Then is a bit like working your way through Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men: Ages pass and with them fannish empires rise and fall. Young angry people explode onto the scene in one paragraph only to reappear a few pages later as stern authority figures fighting an unwinnable war against time and demographics. Sometimes the concerns of these fans seem trivial to the point of impenetrability and other times they speak directly to the challenges of our day. Fandom is not just old, it is ancient and with those shattered decades has come profound respect for the stuff that takes place between books.

I was drawn into the orbit of science fiction fandom when I decided to take a break from grad school by writing a few reviews. At the time, I was hanging out on an RPG forum and someone I knew there was a regular reviewer and I decided to try my hand at it. Gratified by the idea of seeing my name in print, I started sending reviews to different venues and eventually set up a (now defunct) blog to serve as a kind of clearing-house for my various reviewing activities. Once I had a blog, people started linking to it and once people started linking to it, I started linking back and then the flame wars started… ten years later and they’re still raging even though the book reviewing has since slowed down.

If this period of my life has yielded one insight into blogging it is that book reviews themselves do not actually matter. Most reviews are poorly written (and often corrupt) monologues that interest only the person who wrote them but a good review can strike a match that sets the entire blogosphere on fire. When we talk about the genre as a community, we are not talking about interviews, giveaways and criticism, we are talking about the times when we all look up from our books and start actually talking to each other. The howls of outrage over sexual harassment, lady editors in swimsuits and rabid jungle cats are not just shit storms and slap fights, they are the times in which the music of genre changes from a series of discordant solos to a single rousing chorus. Reviews and interviews matter… of course they do… but they only matter in so far as they help to generate wider debate. It is in the moments when we’re at each others’ throats that we truly come together as a community. What traditional fandom understood is that being a fan is not about cheerleading for the publishing industry or climbing the greasy pole to SFWA membership… it is about keeping the conversation alive.

I feel that by reclaiming the word ‘fan’ and using it to refer to anyone who actively contributes to the great genre conversation in a non-professional capacity, we would not only be helping to rejuvenate the rich cultural history of traditional fandom, we would also be reminding ourselves that you do not need to be a professional in order to be a part of this community and that sometimes talking shit on the internet is fun and not part of some structured plan to improve ourselves and our career prospects. It’s okay to do stuff for fun… it’s okay to talk shit on the internet… it’s okay to be a fan.

  1. July 31, 2013 2:55 pm

    You exposed me! I definitely had two issues I was trying to talk about at the same time. The first being that there’s a problem with the overabundance of aspiring writers. And the second being that conventions kind of suck at putting panels together.

    You’re also definitely right that fans can make better panelists than writers, unfortunately someone like you or me is less likely to get on a panel than even the lowliest self published author. The problem becomes though I’ll live with paying to see David Brin make an ass of himself, but I really don’t want to pay to see some poseur flog his terribly written book.


  2. July 31, 2013 2:58 pm

    Fantastic article!

    I guess I’m unusual in being a blogger who a) doesn’t write any fiction at all, and b) has absolutely no interest in cons whatsoever. I’m not sure why, maybe I should check one out one day…

    Also, re: a backlash on reviewerly negativity – I once wrote a (relatively) negative review of a book (which had, at best, a lukewarm critical reception anyway), only to receive a very aggressive e-mail from the author, who all but threatened litigation. After many thorough re-reads of my review, and after seeking some advice, I realised that what I’d written was not libelous in anyway whatsoever – so I left it as was. Gotta admit though, I was pretty freaked out and intimidated; ’twas quite a while before I wrote a negative review again..


  3. July 31, 2013 3:16 pm

    Hi Justin —

    This would actually be a question for the SMOFs :-) I know that this year’s World Fantasy in Brighton has an online form you can use to volunteer your services as a panellist but while there are tick boxes for ‘editor’ and ‘writer’ there are no boxes for ‘reviewer’, ‘critic’ or ‘fan’.

    I suspect there may be an element of self-selection going on as aspiring writers are more likely to volunteer for that type of stuff as they want to sell their books. I’ve been asked to do an interview at a small fan function but I’ve never been asked about panels and I’ve never volunteered.

    It would be interesting to know how much professional status comes into play when people are putting together panels. I would very much like to think that ‘has something to say’ counts for more than ‘has had a few publications’ but I fear you may be right about aspiring writers clogging convention panels and keeping less ‘professional’ voices out.


  4. July 31, 2013 3:22 pm

    Hi Tom :-)

    I’m in the same boat as you… happy to engage with people and write about stuff online but vurrry reticent to move into cons. Partly due to introversion-related issues (which I should probably work on lest I transform into Old Crazy Cat Man) and partly due to the fact that I’ve sat through quite a few terrible readings and panels as a paying member.

    I’m also with you on negative reviews. I got jumped on by Jo Walton and Ellen Datlow who both pulled the ‘let me leave this link here and leave it up to you what you do’ schtick and while both experiences left me feeling that negative reviews were really important, it is notable that I am not reviewing as much as I once did. It’s not as bad as your experience (which sounds mind-bogglingly awful) but part of the reason why I review is to be part of the conversation and dog-piles generally leave you feeling that your voice is simply not welcome.


  5. July 31, 2013 3:47 pm

    “I know that this year’s World Fantasy in Brighton has an online form you can use to volunteer your services as a panellist but while there are tick boxes for ‘editor’ and ‘writer’ there are no boxes for ‘reviewer’, ‘critic’ or ‘fan’.”

    Well, that’s World Fantasy for you, he said cynically. Their latest email progress report said that they “will be inviting suitable attendees to participate in due course”, which sounded very gentleman’s-club to my ears. I get the impression they’re the sort of convention that very much prioritises the pros on panels.

    And that’s really the main thing I’d say: this sort of thing varies from convention to convention, because some people working on convention programme are better than others. Or, to be more generous, different conventions have different priorities; some convention attendees don’t want the sorts of panels you and I want, they want something more chatty and relaxed, so when they run a convention, that’s what they schedule.

    Do you really think “fan” is at the point where it needs to be reclaimed? That’s a bit distressing. I’d hate for anyone to think I’m not a fan.


  6. July 31, 2013 6:40 pm

    Great article.

    You touched on the generation gap between con organisers and fans – as much as I like to be cynical about fandom, this is one thing that fills me with optimism. I was a guest back in January at Genericon, an SF con that has been running for about 25 years in New York state. Now the genius think about Genericon is that it’s on a College campus, and is run by students, meaning that the organising committee is in constant flux – people can’t hang on to power because..well, they graduate. Every few years – if not sooner – there’s a Logan’s Run style cull. It’s brilliant. The result is that what was once a firm SF/F con is now dominated by anime fans and gamers, mainly all cosplaying, mainly all under 25 if not a lot younger, with what looked fairly close to a 50/50 gender split. It’s adapted to cater for its audience. It had to.

    Now, while that sounds great for anime and games how is that of any use to SF? Well, as one of the guests of honour I was expected to give at least 3 panels. Now panels at anime cons are a bit different – they’re not really panels at all, more one person standing up and giving a presentation and then fielding some questions. I’ve got a past in writing about anime so I thought I’d do one related to that, and two related to SF. My first one on the first day was about theories of dystopian fiction, and I find myself standing up there quoting Zizek and Ballard to a lecture theatre holding, I dunno, maybe 25 kids dressed as pokemon. Fine. It seemed to go ok.

    Next day: I’m giving a talk on the history of cyberpunk. Same lecture theatre. It’s packed, standing room only. 200+ cosplayers listening to me waffle on about James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon and William Gibson and Moebius and all that. Afterwards I’m surrounded by kids asking me questions. Seems word got around after the first panel and people decided to come check it out.

    My point is: the interest is there. It’s so there! These kids had little experience of SF outside of anime and games – or certainly not much experience of SF literature, but they wanted to talk to me about books. More importantly, they wanted to talk to me about them in THEIR environment, where they felt comfortable, whilst dressed as Sailor Moon. And why the fuck not? More power to them.

    It’s time for some lifeclock crystals to start flashing red.


  7. July 31, 2013 9:44 pm

    Hi Niall :-)

    I think that ‘Fan’ means different things to different people but I do get the impression that traditional fandom is currently under quite a lot of pressure from two different directions:

    From Below: We’re starting to get the same whiff of scandal and corruption that we’ve recently had from politics, the media and religion. A post-War generation that thought itself revolutionaries is bowing out as pocket-liners and seat-sniffers. Rather than seeing the willingness of the SMOFs to turn a blind-eye to sexual harassment as proof that there are a few bad apples in trad fandom, many people are seeing the institutions of traditional fandom as inherently corrupt. I know I’ve fallen onto this train of thought myself as while I began my engagement with this year’s Hugo awards hoping to encourage others to engage as well, I ended my engagement by saying that I never wanted anything more to do with Worldcon or any of the people involved with it.

    From Above: I think Anglo-American culture is becoming increasingly antsy about the idea of simply doing stuff for fun. Personal productivity websites are everywhere and they not only encourage you to work harder at your hobbies, they encourage you to treat your passions as jobs in the hope of one-day making them your job. I think in this type of culture, merely being a fan seems slothful and passive and so a lot of people who might once have considered themselves fans are now trying to present themselves as professional writers.

    While I know that traditional fandom would not suit me, I completely and utterly *get it*. I get why fanzines are the way they are, I get the sense of shared history and I get the idea that fandom genuinely can be a way of life but I also realise that fans and their institutions need to change if those institutions are going to survive. I read stuff like Renay’s excellent column and I see someone who really gets the sense of belonging and history that can come from fandom and yet does not feel welcome there:

    That’s why I think the term “fan” needs reclaiming.


  8. July 31, 2013 9:49 pm

    Tim —

    Yes… that is exactly how I see it! I think the world is filled with kids who are interested in the stuff of science fiction but somehow never quite found their way into reading the books and joining in with that particular conversation.

    An entire generation of kids have been effectively told to “build their own lawn” and so they have and the institutions of traditional SF have suffered immeasurably from their absence. These are young people who adore these ideas and devote a lot of their lives to talking about them… they are real fans and yet somehow they’ve been kept out of this particular yard and I think that that is immeasurably sad.

    I think today’s anime fans could learn a lot from the (now all too often corrupted) values of friendship, cooperation and critical engagement that run through trad fandom but I think trad fandom could learn a whole lot more from those younger people.


  9. August 2, 2013 2:06 pm


    (That is all.)

    (For now.)


  10. August 2, 2013 2:19 pm

    To be fair, WFC has always been seen as a “pros’ con” and not a fan one, so you can hardly blame them for being what they are. Eastercons, however, are a completely different matter and many of the people who appear on panels are not professional writers. For example, I was on one panel on Joanna Russ vs Anne McCaffery and I was the only published author among the four of us (it was, in fact, scheduled immediately after I’d won the BSFA Award too).


  11. August 2, 2013 2:50 pm


    Just for the record, John Meaney was chosen and announced as a GoH at BristolCon in October 2011, based on the fact that we liked him, he lived locally and he had proven himself to be an entertaining panelist in the past. After Eastercon we spoke to him at length about what had happened and he was tremendously apologetic and offered to pull out of being GoH. We discussed it at length in the Committee and concluded that we would like to keep him as GoH in 2012 (out of interest, both Alex Dally McFarlane and Foz Meadows, both mentioned in your article, were also panelists that year), on the condition that he was interviewed by someone who would brook no nonsense from him ;) He was chosen as a GOH a long time before EasterCon.

    We have always encouraged fans and people with interesting things to say to be on our panels, regardless of whether or not they have been published. We are also, I believe, the only convention that allows potential panelists to chose what subjects they want to talk about from a longlist which is chosen by the committee, ensuring that we end up with people on panels they are interested in and know a bit about. We’ve found that makes for much more entertaining (and sometimes lively) panels! We are fundmentally opposed to the “Get off my lawn, you young people!” mentality that can sometimes afflict more established cons – we want new people to come, we welcome fans, we feel there’s room for everyone, not just the people who are “doing fandom the right way.” I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to be a fan :)


  12. August 2, 2013 4:29 pm

    Hi Jo :-)

    Thanks for dropping by. I must admit I was somewhat taken aback by Meaney’s appearance at Bristolcon so soon after his disastrous speech but I do understand the position you were in.

    I’m very glad to hear that Bristolcon are going out of their way to find new and entertaining voices and I hope they long continue to do so.


  13. August 2, 2013 7:48 pm

    I think you’re absolutely right about the fact that there is little correlation between being a great writer and being a great panelist, and to rigidly enforce some boundary between fan and writer where only the latter appear on panels isn’t going to help. In my experience it’s not trivial to work out who will be good or bad beforehand unless you’ve seen people talk in public already, and using only people you know to be reliable entertaining panelists makes it impossible for any new voices to break in. It’s also a balancing act between the needs of the convention, who need authors to participate but don’t pay them anything and can’t expect them to jump through a million hoops just to get on a panel, and authors who want to be on programme as a way to promote themselves and their books and justify the expense of the convention.

    Another problem is that there isn’t even a consensus about what makes a good convention panel. We can probably all agree that some things are bad, but I’ve come out of panels thinking they were pretty mediocre and heard it was someone else’s favourite panel, and if I’m bored the third time I hear a panelists get on the same hobby-horse as they did last year and the year before, there’s someone here for the first time who finds it incredibly entertaining. So even if I put together a programme filled with items I think are brilliant, someone will still be disappointed, and I’m sure there’s conventions where I’ve been disappointed and someone else has been having a whale of a time.


  14. August 2, 2013 9:40 pm

    Hi Liz,

    I can totally see the difficulties involved in programming and I think Justin was a little unfair by (probably accidentally) suggesting that programmers simply grab the nearest person with a fiction sale and stick ’em on the nearest panel.

    You need to know who is at the con.

    You need to know who works well with whom.

    You need to know who knows about what.

    You need to know what type of subjects the con-goers are looking to hear about.

    I think ‘non trivial’ is something of an under-statement as far I wouldn’t even know where to start.


  15. August 3, 2013 8:22 am

    It might also be worth bearing in mind that there are differences between UK and US con culture. Or indeed, between regional cons in the US. From what I’ve heard, US cons hold professionals in higher esteem than UK cons – which is not to say that UK cons look down on the writers who attend, just that unless they’re GoHs they’re treated much like everyone else. I know of one UK writer who attended a US con and discovered they had a separate registration desk for professionals, and even their own bar, with finger food laid on, where they could socialise without having to descend among the Great Unwashed.


  16. August 3, 2013 8:51 am

    If that’s true then the whole “I’m a writer” thing is both more understandable and far more toxic than I had assumed.

    My reaction to Justin’s post was partly fueled by the fact that I’ve recently listened to recordings from quite a few American con panels and I’ve generally been disappointed by the standard of discussion and the tendency of panels to be filled with people whom I’ve never heard of talking at length about their latest book even though it’s only tangentially related to the topic at hand.

    As with the people who campaign for awards without ever spreading the love to other potential nominees, I see this as part of the whole ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ thing as selfish people misuse the culture’s common spaces for their own ends and thereby devalue those spaces for everyone.


  17. August 3, 2013 9:17 am

    Bear in mind that was one person’s experience – and I can’t remember which con it was; in Seattle, I think? – and no doubt there are cons in the US which are more egalitarian. There’s a wide regional variation, after all.

    This “pros are speshul” attitude is also built into the big media cons like Comic Con, Dragon*Con, and even to some extent the SFX/Sci-Fi Weekenders. (For the latter, professionals were given free membership through their publishers – normally £49 per person for a single day pass – though hundreds of free tickets were given away in competitions and to dealers.) You only have to see the fawning reports on such cons to see this – recent examples include all the pants-wetting over Tom Hiddleston flying to the US dressed as Jango Fett so he could make a surprise appearance as Loki at Comic Con.

    As for writers using panel items to promote their own works… I can only go on my own experience, either the panels I’ve been on or the panels I’ve sat through (and been sober enough to remember what was said…). There was one at the Eastercon in Bradford last April, in which four of the five panellists were writers, and only one I can remember mentioned one of her own books because it was relevant to the discussion and we were all floundering a little at that point. I think there’s a danger when sitting on a panel to fall back on examples you know well, ie, your own fiction, to make a point. Of course, it all depends on how well prepared you are. I’ve been on panels where I’ve basically winged it, and on others where the panellists discussed what we’d talk about during the weeks leading up to the con via email. On another panel item, myself and other panellist pretty much decided what we were going to do as we made our way to the room; and even then, fifteen minutes in and I could see people’s eyes starting to glaze, so I completely switched tack and threw the discussion open to the whole room…



  1. Linkspam, 8/9/13 Edition — Radish Reviews

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