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Posts tagged ‘Fandom’

My Loncon 3 Schedule


Two weeks from today – August 14 – will mark the start of Loncon 3: The 72nd Annual World Science Fiction Convention (which, since that’s a mouthful, is more commonly known as either Loncon 3 or Worldcon). This Worldcon is particularly exciting for me for three simple reasons:

My First Ever Worldcon!

It’s hard to be engaged with the science fiction and fantasy genres and not hear about Worldcon. It’s a storied event, not least because of its awarding the Hugo Awards. While I’m relatively new to con-going fandom, this will be my first time attending a Worldcon and given everything I’ve heard – I’m looking forward to it!

Reflected Hugo Gloss

This is also the first Worldcon where a project I’m (somewhat) involved with is up for a Hugo Award. Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary is nominated for Best Related Work. Jared Shurin (of Pornokitsch) and Justin Landon (of Staffer’s Book Review) deserve all the credit for editing this excellent collection of thought-provoking commentary about the genre, the field, and fandom. I’m honored to have my work sharing a TOC with the other authors, and I’m looking forward to cheering Jared and Justin on at the Hugo ceremony (though, to be fair, I’m likely to be cheering all of the nominees in Best Related Work: It’s a really tough slate this year, even if I do have my favorite).

If you’re a member of Loncon 3, don’t forget: Today (Thursday, July 31) is your last day to vote for the Hugo Awards. Regardless of which works you vote for, please do your part: The Hugos are only meaningful because of our engagement with them.

Loncon 3 Programming

And last but certainly not least, there’s programming. I’m slated to be on the following panels at Loncon 3, and I hope to see you there:

Friday, 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 3 (ExCeL)
The Role of Fandom in Contemporary Culture
Fandom influences culture. Fan activism appeared in Thailand with the Hunger Games salute while the Harry Potter Alliance organise fair trade chocolate and gay marriage campaigns. Films and television shows change because of fans, thereby indirectly influencing non-fannish audiences. “Published fanfiction” is becoming ever more lucrative a business. Meanwhile, fan materials are widely used as educational tools, including at museums (fan vids were part of an exhibition at the New York Museum of Moving Image), but also at schools and universities. Internal changes within fandom also impact upon contemporary culture, such as the impact of fanfiction on the culture of reading or fan communities as modes of challenging conservative social and political viewpoints. In this session we try to unravel the role of fandom in contemporary culture, work out its impact in different parts of the public and private sphere and predict where we might be heading in the future.

  • Chris Gerwel
    (Moderating)
  • Jean Lorrah
  • Emily January
  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • Laurie Penny

Sunday, 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)
Fandom at the Speed of Thought
The story of fandom and the SF field in the twenty-first century is the story of the internet: more voices, fewer gatekeepers. How are authors, reviewers, editors and readers navigating this shifting terrain? In what ways has the movement of SF culture online affected the way books are written, presented, and received — and how has it affected the way readers identify and engage with authors and books? Do the old truisms — never respond to a review! — still hold sway, or are author-reader shared spaces possible, even desireable?

  • Chris Gerwel
    (Moderating)
  • David Hebblethwaite
  • Kevin McVeigh
  • Aishwarya Subramanian
  • Leticia Lara

Monday, 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)
The Internet and the Evolution of Fan Communities
Fanzines, fan clubs, conventions and local fan groups drove fan communities from their beginnings, with contact being made via post or sporadically in person by those who were not fortunate enough to live near fellow fans. While the decades between the beginnings of SF/F fandom and the emergence of the internet saw new technologies helping fandoms evolve and adapt, little has acted as a catalyst for change as much as the internet. With the development of the internet fans were able to create and join communities anywhere. The diverse nature of these online spaces, with their varying longevity (in terms of existence and how they archived their material), access requirements, and moderating practices has been instrumental in diversifying, strengthening and fracturing communities. In this session we discuss the impact of the internet fan communities including how it functions within different sorts of fandoms.

  • Deborah Christie
    (Moderating)
  • Monika Drzewiecka
  • Chris Gerwel
  • PR K
  • Gavia Baker Whitelaw

A Comparison of Two Complaints: The Hugo Awards vs The Clarke Awards


With the announcement of the Clarke Award shortlist closely following that of this year’s Hugo nominees, award kvetching season is well underway. For a great round-up of the discussions on both awards, I recommend Cora Buhlert’s posts here and here. In the comments to my post last week (where I wondered about the Hugo Awards’ purpose and audience) I claimed that a juried award (such as the Clarke Award) is likely to:

…give rise to a different kind of debate than that which the Hugos gives us every year. There would be less debating the process and more debating the judgment. Debate wouldn’t be lesser – if anything, I suspect it would be even more strident and vocal…But the focus of the debate would be more on the merits of one work over another, helping to push the genre in new directions.

The Clarke Award is the kind of juried award that we were discussing. And this year’s Clarke shortlist is certainly sparking some controversy. Considering my essay last week, I think it would be interesting to compare the controversy elicited by the Clarke and compare it to that of the Hugos.

The Many Layers of the Hugo Awards Controversy

As always, the Hugo Awards Controversy is like an onion (or possibly a parfait) with many layers. Some of the objections relate to the merits of the nominated works (why this book and not that book?). Some relate to a perception of systemic bias (why books by these groups, rather than books by those groups?). Others focus on the systems and processes which produce the nominees (why this procedural rule, and not that rule?). Underlying all of these questions is a question which I see repeated time and again in these discussions (and which I personally think is most important for the Hugos going forward, as I intimated last week): what community does the Hugo Awards truly represent, speak to, and serve?

As I’ve said before, I think that such questions and discussion are both unavoidable and healthy for the field. What I find striking about the Hugo Award controversy is the degree to which it focuses on systems and procedures. When we claim that the “Hugos are broken” we are indicting both the system that governs it and the fan culture which produces and maintains that system. Whether one agrees with that indictment or not, it is the system which has been indicted – not the works eligible, voted upon, or nominated.

Where the Hugo discussion has gone beyond the systems/procedures, it has turned its attention to the culture which administers and awards the Hugo Awards (particularly note the discussion by Renay at Lady Business here and Jonathan McCalmont here). And here, I think, is where the discussion becomes most contentious.

The contention here centers around the different participants’ often unstated assumptions about the Hugo Awards’ purpose (see my essay last week, and Paul Kincaid’s essay from Sunday), and about the population represented by the Hugo Awards. The disagreement between “online fandom” and “traditional fandom,” as evidenced in the comments to Jonathan McCalmont’s post, is illuminating.

How does this controversy differ from that surrounding this year’s Clarke Awards?

The Men’s Only Clarke Award Shortlist

First, the important context: the Clarke Awards are a juried award with a remit to select the best British science fiction novel in a given year from submissions received from genre imprints. This year’s five-person jury was composed of four women and one man, and had to select the shortlist from 82 eligible submissions. This year’s controversy stems from the fact that the Clarke Award shortlist features six novels written by men and precisely zero written by women.

What I find particularly interesting about the controversy surrounding this year’s Clarke Award shortlist is that opprobrium is clearly not focused on the administrative system which produced the shortlist. Instead, the grousing can generally be grouped into three broad categories: the first focuses on the merits of shortlisted works (why this work and not that work?), the second focuses on the publishing system which produced the longlist (why were only 20% of the books submitted by publishers written by women?), and the third focuses on the arguments underlying the jury’s selection (by what criteria was the shortlist selected?).

The fact that UK speculative fiction publishing seems to discriminate against women authors is notable, and worthy of discussion. The “controversy” that arises from this year’s Clarke Award does well to shed light on this fact, and to hopefully encourage publishers, authors, booksellers, and readers to change that (consider this comment from Farah Mendlesohn on the role of booksellers in this process, and this post from Martin Lewis about Clarke Award statistics). The Clarke Award also raises troubling questions for speculative fiction publishing across the pond (or quite frankly anywhere) in terms of our own (often troubled) relationship with gender. Any introspection that results from such controversy is valuable in that it fosters greater inclusion in the field while simultaneously presenting the field as mature and introspective.

The debates sparked by the Clarke Award are entirely different in both tone and content from those surrounding the Hugo Awards. For one, there seems to be both less defensiveness on the part of award stakeholders and less frustration on the part of the complainers. For another, the discussion is devoid of procedural or representational concerns. The concerns of this debate are: the criteria by which works get judged, the definition of the field, and the biases inherent in that underlying field.

What the Difference in Debates Suggests

For one, I think it bears out my prediction from last week (quoted above). The Clarke Award focuses attention on the field in a way that the Hugo Awards do not. The Hugo Awards focus our attention on the cultural and procedural intricacies of fandom. To be clear, I do not advocate replacing the Hugo Award with a juried award (that would be both impossible and I believe impractical). Both have their place, and both are valuable.

However, if the goal of either the Hugo or the Clarke is to select the “most worthy” titles from the field and to communicate their worth to stakeholders inside and outside of that field, then I think the Hugo Award falls short. As I discussed last week, the Hugo Awards seem to have become largely irrelevant outside of a very narrow group of stakeholders. The Clarke Award – by contrast – evokes the envy of Man Booker Prize judges.

Both awards are problematic, and both awards generate controversy. This is as it should be. But if we love speculative fiction, where would we rather that controversy were focused? On award procedures, representativeness, and factionalism? Or on the merits, substance, and sociocultural context of the work itself? What conclusions might an outsider peeking in at these debates draw about our field? Would they want to join the conversation? Would they perceive speculative fiction as mature, welcoming, and culturally relevant?

That outsider perspective matters. It is tempting for us to hole up in our fandom bunker and make the claim that those who wish to join the conversation are welcome to do so. That is a defensive, passive position that demands an acceptance of pre-existing power structures, in-group language (fen? GAFIATING?), long-standing relationship dynamics, and procedural inertia. It has nothing of outreach to it.

If we want the field to grow, if we want new voices, new perspectives, and new buyers readers fans, then we must speak to those outside groups. We must woo booksellers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, creators, and readers. Awards are a tool (one of many) for doing this, and traditional awards like the Hugos are exceptionally well-positioned through their longevity and standing in the field to do this job well.

But is that what the Hugo Awards are for? A comparison of the stated goals of both the Hugo Awards and the Clarke Award are telling in this regards (emphasis mine):

The Clarke Award

The Award was originally established by a generous grant from Sir Arthur C. Clarke with the aim of promoting science fiction

The Clarke Award web site.
The Hugo Awards
(no stated goal or mission) The Hugo Award web site, in particular:

If the goal of the Hugo Awards is to celebrate and promote the field, then let us try and move the discussion forward by engaging in a discussion of how best to do so. Parliamentary procedures and governance structures are an important part of this discussion, but perforce the time to discuss their role comes after a consensus has been reached on shared goals. If we can’t agree on where to go, how are we to figure out the route to get there?

The Clarke Awards – for all of their controversy – at the least have a clearly articulated mission that is unquestioned by those within and without the community. The Hugo Awards don’t even have that. If the goal of the Hugo Awards isn’t to celebrate and promote the field, then please let us stop pretending to ourselves that it is. By maintaining the pretense, we do current fans, the artists, and future fans a disservice.

Most significantly, we likely consign the Awards to cultural irrelevance.

A Rant on Exclusion and Genre Pedantry


The other day, I read a fascinating (and wonderfully titled) essay by Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director for Gollancz, wherein he discusses speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream literary fiction. At first, the thought of yet another volley in the interminable genre wars made me groan. But the essay – and some of the ensuing discussion in the comments – did make me think, and those thoughts have gradually grown into a rant. While Simon’s essay raises excellent questions about genre awards, I’m more inclined to rant wonder about Simon’s main point: why do speculative fiction fans bristle at the prospect of non-SF writers employing speculative devices?

The “War” is Over. We Won.

I think it is fair to say that speculative fiction has essentially won the culture wars. The devices and conventions of science fiction and fantasy have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity that couldn’t have been imagined eighty years ago. They dominate both the big and small screen, form the core of the console gaming market, and feature prominently on literary bestseller lists (whether under the aegis of an SF/F imprint or not). The fact that Samuel Delany’s “About 5,750 Words” could benefit from some updating is, I think, a testament to the success of speculative fiction’s penetration into the cultural mainstream.

Yet for some reason, when authors who do not self-identify as science fiction writers (or as fantasy writers) make use of science fictional/fantastical devices, we’re quick to look down our noses at them. We argue that they “appropriate” devices from “our” genre, that they perpetuate genre elitism, that they are ignorant of speculative fiction’s traditions, etc.

To quote Damon Knight: So what?

The first of these claims is meaningless, the second is laughably ironic, and the third is simply irrelevant.

Appropriation of Genre Devices as the Cornerstone of Literature

Appropriation of devices, structures, and conventions is the foundation of literature. Writers have been stealing each others’ tricks ever since the second story was told around a campfire. What would James Joyce’s Ulysses be without Homer’s The Odyssey? Oh, dear, I am sorry: I forget so often that it isn’t worth reading if it doesn’t have a spaceship on the spine. Ahem. Let me use a different example: would we have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings without William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, or H. Rider Haggard’s She? Or would Robert A. Heinlein have written The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress without the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Would Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey have been possible without the influence of Jane Austen?

To criticize the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenger, etc. for “appropriating” speculative devices is petty. Who cares if their stories feature tropes more commonly published by genre imprints? One can make the equally meaningless claim that science fiction has been “appropriating” characterization from mainstream literary fiction. Literature is always in conversation with all of the literature that came before it: every story incorporates elements from other stories, puts those elements together in new and interesting combinations, and thus gives future writers something else to appropriate. That’s the way all literature works, whether inside or outside of speculative fiction.

The Snobbery of Pedantry

When we claim that writers like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy perpetuate the snobbish genre divide, really it’s just the pot calling the kettle black. So Atwood thinks of science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”. Why should such a reductive classification bother us?

There are as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction consumers, and their attitude towards the genre ranges from uncritical boosterism to generalized dismissal. Like Kipling’s tribal lays, all of those definitions – and yes, including Atwood’s – are right. Such definitions are ontological and fluid; they are a subjective amalgam of what Brian Stableford calls “fuzzy sets”.

And there is nothing to be done about them.

Yet when we get sniffy about how one or another “authority” defines our genre, all we’re really doing is throwing a pedantic temper tantrum. If we claim that Only Our definition is Right and Proper, or if we claim that Your Definition is Wrong and Evil, we are engaging in the same exclusionary discrimination that our own beloved genre has been subject to for so long. When really, that classification isn’t solely up to us.

Works get classified into genres at many stages: Their authors can self-identify with a particular literary tradition while writing the damn thing. Agents (or the authors themselves) can submit the book to a particular genre imprint. The imprint can decide the book aligns well with its category/aesthetic/list. The art management team can select a cover that adheres to a particular subset of genre aesthetics/conventions. The bookstore can shelve it in a specific section. And finally, and most importantly, the consumer crafts their own opinion as to how they think of a given book.

Atwood’s definition, my definition, and your definition are but a few of the many voices in this process. One hundred years from now, a literary critic will be able to better judge the genre classification of The Handmaid’s Tale. History, context, and critical distance will all help. But, for the time being, should we wash our hands of the brilliant thematic explorations of Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale or The Time Traveler’s Wife because their authors’ definitions of genre differ from our own?

The Sin of Ignorance

Likewise, when did ignorance become a cardinal sin? As writers, we’re all guilty of a bit of hubris. We all think we’ve done something neat, something cool, something interesting. Sometimes, we even think we’re the first ones to do it. And every now and again, we’re right. But more often than not, we’re wrong. Ignorance is a common characteristic amongst our species, I’m afraid, and wearing the badge of genre is no defense against it.

So why should ignorance of genre traditions, of the myriad ways in which genre devices have been employed previously, condemn a writer? Mary Doria Russell’s ignorance of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience when writing The Sparrow does nothing to detract from the latter’s beauty or power. To generally condemn a writer – regardless of the genre they identify with – for their ignorance strikes me as arbitrary, and perhaps more importantly, as critically vapid.

It is critically interesting to compare Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even David Brin’s The Postman. Such an examination is specific, and can be critically meaningful. It can give us insight into meaning, metaphor, aesthetics, and structure. In such a comparison, McCarthy may even be deemed to be unoriginal, or uninteresting, or dull (I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but critics’ opinions will vary). Such an analysis would be critically valid, a meaningful contribution to the exploration of literature. But to generalize McCarthy as ignorant of the post-apocalyptic tradition and on that basis to dismiss his work? What does that add to the critical conversation? Nothing useful. Nothing interesting.

Genre is Not a Badge

Genre is not a badge of honor, and I say that knowing full well that I could not and would not divorce myself from my genre roots (heck, my blog’s title is a riff off of Dunsany’s classic The King of Elfland’s Daughter – I’m wedded pretty tightly to speculative fiction). Genre is “merely” a collection of aesthetic, structural, and cultural characteristics which make one creative work resemble another. Genre does not have to convey membership in any kind of subculture, although it often does. If creators wish to self-identify with a subculture or if creators, agents, publishers, or readers wish to specifically position their works within a genre, that is all to the good. They are not wrong to do so, and why should we be so churlish as to reject them for not wearing the “right” clothes?

I think that such pedantic rejection of fiction with speculative elements is short-sighted, silly, and at its heart, useless. It does nothing to broaden the popularity of speculative fiction, nothing to educate the broader public about speculative fiction’s history or aesthetics. If anything, it further solidifies long-standing cultural prejudices on both sides of the genre divide.

Writers who publish mainstream literary fiction – but do so with speculative elements – want the same things as self-proclaimed genre writers: They want to sell books. They want to exert an influence – however small – on the dialogue of letters. They want to affect readers, whether to “merely” entertain them (no mean feat) or to change their worldview. They’re all pulling in the same direction we are.

Mainstream literary fiction audiences are different from speculative fiction audiences. There is some degree of overlap, but there are enough readers in each camp who are ignorant of the other. Publishing – and the culture it speaks to and grows from – is not a zero-sum game. We gain nothing by treading on our colleagues’ heads. Instead, both speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction benefit when we celebrate one another’s strengths, when we cross-promote to our respective audiences, when we educate one another’s audiences about the strengths of distinct literary traditions.

I am willing to bet that plenty of magical realists would love to read before the kind of crowd found at even a small genre con. And I am equally certain that plenty of speculative fiction authors would love to get critical attention from the likes of the New York Times Book Review, or the Booker Prize judges.

We should not be ashamed of our relatives in other genres, no more than they should be ashamed of us. I am buoyed by the fact that while I often see speculative fiction lovers grumble about the literary fiction camp, our prizes – in particular the Clarke and the Nebula – tend to be more open-minded. I think we could do with more of such openness, and that both genres could benefit from a greater degree of cross-pollination, for it is that cross-pollination that lies at the heart of creative progress. Speculative fiction has been trapped in an echo chamber for many, many years.

Now that we have the opportunity to branch out, why not do so?

Some Ruminations on “Geek Culture” in Response to Chris Braak’s Post


Over on io9, Chris Braak put up a thought-provoking rant where he seems to compare the culture of genre fandom (including fan fiction, cosplay, conventions, etc.) with mainstream literary culture, and the culture of broader mainstream (read: non-genre) America.

There’s a lot of hyperbole in the post, but he seems to make two key points – each of which I have to disagree with.

When Chris can’t find examples of Shakespeare cosplay or fanfic, he concludes that Shakespeare, Melville, Proust, Faulkner, Tom Wolfe, etc. are all dead and contribute nothing to our cultural growth. As a consequence, he claims that Geek Culture is the “ONLY legitimate form of American culture” (the caps are his). I suspect that part of this is hyperbole for rhetorical effect, but I see a basic problem in the logic: it conflates community behavior with culture itself, and that’s simply incorrect.

Kayan Woman with Neck Rings

Kayan Woman with Neck Rings, via Wikipedia

Consider the Kayan Lahwi, a people indigenous to Burma. The Kayan women are famous for wearing brass neck rings which over time reshape there clavicles and compress their rib cages, giving them the appearance of elongated necks. Most people in the United States don’t wear neck rings. Does that mean that US-residents don’t have culture? Or that the Kayans don’t?

Of course not. All it means is that each of these two communities expresses its culture in different ways. Fashion, visual arts, writing, dance, and behavior in group encounters are all expressions of culture. In “Geek Culture” we may dress as super-heroes or anime characters, but is that in any way “more cultured” than a Maasai tribal dance?

Cosplay, fan fiction, conventions, etc. are all ways for us to identify ourselves as part of a community with whom we share common interests, perhaps values, etc. We participate in that community to have fun. Other communities have different ways of doing the exact same thing. That does not mean that genre fandom’s methods of expression are “more legitimate” than those of Melville fans. The fact that Melville fans don’t grow massive beards, or Shakespeare readers don’t wear ruffs, or Van Gogh lovers don’t slice off their ears tells us absolutely nothing about the cultural value or currency of these artists. The only conclusion we can draw is that the Melville/Shakespeare/Van Gogh communities express themselves differently than genre fandom. And the closest thing to a credo I’ve found in genre fandom is that different does not necessarily mean bad.

As individuals, and as a society, we are vast and contain multitudes. I don’t need to wear a ruff to be influenced by Shakespeare in my own writing. I don’t need to slice off my ear to paint a beautiful painting (although, considering my utter lack of painting skills it probably couldn’t hurt). Shakespeare and Melville aren’t “dead” because their influence continues to percolate through every contemporary creative endeavor. Why do we still read Shakespeare? Because they tell us to in school? That’s a major over-simplification. Shakespeare still provides us with new and interesting insight into ourselves and our society. We don’t need to write Shakespearean fanfic to benefit from that. Genre creators who haven’t been influenced by past masters are thin on the ground. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

Chris goes on to say that contemporary genre works will stand the test of time better than contemporary mainstream literary works (which are also a genre, BTW). None of us has a (functional) crystal ball, and so that prediction may even be correct. In all honesty, I actually agree with that prediction. But that’s because I believe that a greater proportion of SF/F/H works have relevant things to say about the human condition. That’s a result of the quality of the creative products: it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the community behavior of its creators.

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