“World” Fantasy — Apparently Not For Me, Either

I’ve been contemplating attending the World Fantasy Convention for several years now. It’s more or less a trade show for writers, editors, and artists in the field, and is expensive to attend. Also, as a nobody writer, it’s been made clear to me that this is a highly clique-ish endeavor; it’s where a lot of business is done, and the implication I’ve always taken away from discussions with people who have attended is that you have to be outgoing and gregarious to make any headway. I’m not those things, so despite hearing from many sources that attending could be good for my writing career, I think I’d do poorly under those circumstances.

More importantly, there’s been a very recent dust-up this year about the programming. Author Jim C. Hines recently boosted the signal in his blog post about Sarah Pinsker, who had complained about programming’s limitations to the programming chair in advance of publication of the program list/schedule. Her complaints, in my view, were more than merely valid, but they seem to have been ignored entirely. They can be found here, with another batch by Natalie Luhrs found here, both as collections of Twitter posts. Twitter is not ideal for longer exposition, so bear with me in reading each of these strings.

The programming chair this year is author Darrell Schweitzer. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Mr. Schweitzer’s work a great deal, but it is discouraging to see this kind of behavior from someone whose writing I admire. A fair number of Mr. Schweitzer’s friends and associates have rallied to his defense, including Chet Williamson, arguing that Schweitzer is a good person and should not be treated this way. This misses the point entirely: the complaints are not about Mr. Schweitzer’s person, but rather what he’s accomplished as the chair of programming for a convention that bills itself as an event attracting writers from all over the world.

In looking over the program, it would seem to me as though Mr. Schweitzer is programming entirely for the benefit of himself and his own friends and colleagues, rather than for an event with the word “World” in the title. The relatively narrow focus — with a strong emphasis on works from 50 or more years ago — is difficult to defend, yet a number still do. Hell, the honored writer this year is Shirley Jackson. One would think that it would behoove the programming staff to include in the program more than one single, solitary panel discussion on the work of one of the genre’s most important and influential authors, but no. If nothing else can be said, that omission is shameful.

When you accept the responsibility to organize the programming slate for a convention, it’s important to cast your net far and wide to bring in ideas from other brains. I’ve worked programming before — I even chaired programming at WisCon back in the day — and there were TONS of ideas I never would have dreamed of coming up with unless someone else had brought it to my attention. Another important consideration: check your ego at the door when you run programming. There will always be someone who complains about the job you do, and you have to let a certain amount of that criticism roll off you or you’ll be an angry, depressed wreck.

Still, with this volume and level of complaints, it’s apparent that something is actually wrong. With the convention only two months away, it would be difficult — but far from impossible — to make substantive changes. It appears there has been an attempt made in the last few days to freshen up the program’s titles and descriptions, though the overwhelming number of panels discussing dead white guys remains the staple of this event. If the WFC really cares about moving into the future and not being a slowly dwindling convention exclusively for angry white guys, it should take action to make the program more inclusive. Look, I’m an angry white guy myself, but even I have enough empathy to realize that this is really poor treatment of other human beings — our colleagues, our friends, and our readers — and should not be tolerated.

White males make up something less than half of the readership for books these days. It stands to reason that those same percentages are being reflected in the faces of writers and would-be writers working today. From a strictly business-like standpoint, alienating more than half of your potential audience is a very bad strategy. With attitudes like these it’s no wonder the publishing industry is scrambling to stay afloat.

Many important and influential writers, editors and publishers attend and support World Fantasy, and I am no doubt shooting my writing career in the foot by speaking out. With only two short fiction pieces published — plus hundreds of thousands of words worth of tabletop roleplaying material — I am still scrambling to get fiction published. I have to imagine that someone as generally respected as Mr. Schweitzer will have many friends in the business — including mutual friends and acquaintances — who won’t take kindly to my criticism.

Guess I’ll give World Fantasy a pass for another year.

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