For those who weren’t at Readercon—or who didn’t attend the Beyond Strong Female Characters panel—Sabrina Vourvoulias’ post lays out the panel I was going to write about as my low point for the weekend. I expect a certain amount of fail at sci fi conventions, and as failures go this wasn’t one of the majors for me. (Ellen Kushner has already apologized to me on Twitter, and I will be talking to her shortly after this post goes live. I accept the apology and this post isn’t really about Ellen so much as the phenomenon she was a part of at this particular panel.)
I wasn’t originally scheduled to be on the panel, and I agreed to do it at the last minute as a favor to the programming chair, Emily. (I’ll still do favors for Emily, but she’s probably going to owe me a teensy bit for this one.) I was annoyed at the time by the way the panel was going and I did the math. In that moment, I decided against looking like the Angry Black Woman ™. It was early, I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and—frankly—I have fought to make space for myself and voices like mine on so many panels that some days all I have is an eye roll and a plan to walk away after the panel is over.
In the wake of news stories about Dallas, Minneapolis, and Chicago, a part of me was elsewhere, focused on my sons and other people that I love and their safety. Readercon is supposed to be fun, or at least fun adjacent, and I drew the line at spending 2 days driving to Boston from Chicago and then spending money on a hotel to be angry because a panel was tense.
I’m sure Ellen didn’t intend to come off as “snotty and dismissive,” but that’s what happened. And while I am fine and already over it, I am also aware that seeing that panel could have been off-putting to someone who is not me. For another Black writer (or anyone of color, really) who was new to Readercon, new to con spaces, a moment like that on a panel could lead to them deciding not to volunteer for panels. As Readercon’s Program Chair already noted in comments to Sabrina’s post, Readercon isn’t exactly a bastion of racial diversity. And this panel was far from the only one this weekend to go downhill when attempts to bring up race and how it intersected with the panel discussion were met with less than adept reactions from white panelists.
I look to the newer fans in the audience and try to draw them into the conversation every single time I panel. So many new faces (particularly of color) were at Readercon this year. For many of them the problem wasn’t, “Well, Readercon only talks about books,” so much as it was, “Readercon seems unwilling to talk about books in a way that includes people like me.”
No one is perfect. No one can ever be perfect. But if con spaces are going to survive, if they are going to attract new attendees, then everyone involved, including panelists, has to be conscious of how they are engaging with each other and with the audience. New attendees can easily decide to spend their money and time at corporate-run media cons. It won’t be as intimate, they might not build the same friendships, but they will also be navigating spaces that are far less fraught. I go to Readercon because some dear friends run it, but for the last 4 years I have had at least one panel go sideways. At some point I will do the math in the moment, wish my friends well, and stop going if Readercon doesn’t get better for me and people like me.
And that’s the kicker of moments like this: I’m the person who has been willing to fight the fight. I’m the person who has been willing to keep coming back. I have a personal and professional stake in Readercon.
For a lot of newer writers, newer fans, there’s no real reason to sit through panels that aren’t diverse, to watch as panelists are disrespected, not when they could go do something else, make connections somewhere else. As a community, we have to be willing to have the harder conversations, to have the nuanced discussions, to understand that someone wanting to apply an intersectional lens to a discussion isn’t the enemy but the one trying to make things more inclusive. Are the conversations at sci fi cons changing? God, I hope so.
If I’m on a panel that addresses craft, humans, sexuality, gender, robots that are treated like humans, or whatever else a panel description might contain, I’m going to do my best to broaden the discussion. To talk about the ways that race, class, etc. can impact the topic at hand. To want the conversation to be as nuanced as possible. Because that’s the point of going to cons. I refuse to be pushed out, to let someone else feel like they don’t have a right to be there, to be an Other in a genre that is ostensibly inclusive.
Ultimately, cons are supposed to be fun. They’re a chance to meet people who love the same kinds of things that you do, a chance to geek out with them about whatever it is that you love. They are also a major part of networking in the industry. You can share a table with an agent, an editor, and your potential audience. Cons are important for fans, for authors, for the publishing industry as a whole.
Dissuading new authors and fans from con spaces this way won’t keep them out of publishing. It might make it more difficult, it might make for fewer amazing stories. But mostly it will make for the end of con culture. Maybe that’s the point. If the panels aren’t welcoming, if some con spaces feel closed, then as sad as it might be to lose con culture, maybe that’s for the best because endlessly fighting for space at the table is energy that can be used to build a new table.