Are Conventions Necessary?

The latest science fiction convention meltdown—this time, Odyssey Con, a Wisconsin convention that bungled entirely foreseeable harassment issues—is a reminder of the outsized place conventions in general have in our field. In my view they take up too much space—too much time, money and space in our heads—leaving too little room for the literature and media these events purport to be about.

Last September, in a Patreon post about building bridges and equalizing power structures in arts communities, my friend Tim Cooper noted that the science fiction community does those sorts of things less well, partly because the work isn’t being done to the same extent, partly because it’s actively being opposed from some corners. But he had this to say about conventions:

I’m going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they’re basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose—coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there’s a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don’t accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner’s perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that’s spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it’s a bad idea for everybody.

Tim offers a useful perspective, because many people active in a community don’t have anything to compare that community to. And his point is worth thinking about: when we go to sf conventions, exactly what the hell are we doing?

Sf conventions eat up a lot of money. Yes, compared to other fields, con memberships are relatively inexpensive (unless you’re going to Worldcon or World Fantasy, whose fees are more in line with other conferences), but you still have to factor in hotels, travel and food. Serious con-goers stretch their budgets by sharing rooms and getting food in the con suite, but it still adds up, especially because serious con-goers attend a lot of conventions. Jennifer and I generally attend no more than three or four conventions a year at most, but even though we buy a lot of books, including some expensive limited editions, most years we easily spend twice as much on con expenses as we do on books.

Multiply this example by a couple of thousand fans and the problem becomes clear. Money spent on hotels, food and transportation leaves the field, as Tim points out. That money is not available to be spent on books, subscriptions, art or contributions to penurious authors’ GoFundMe campaigns.

Speaking of which, while being an author, editor or artist in this field is impecunious enough, conventions also have a habit of vacuuming up a lot of their money, too—immiserating professionals who are frankly dead broke but feel they must attend conventions for the sake of their careers (hint: they don’t). Some conventions comp their memberships in exchange for participating in programming, but this doesn’t help very much, since the con membership is the smallest part of the con-goer’s budget. (Most of it goes to Marriott International.)

Nor does that take into account the opportunity cost of preparing for, being at, and recovering from a convention, which in my experience can eat up as much as two weeks of brain. Not helpful if you’re on deadline and actually need that brain.

And once they’re at that convention, they must sometimes wonder whether their presence is doing their career any good, especially when the early-morning panel they’ve been put on has fewer than half a dozen people in the audience because half the attendees were up all night carousing. The small press author, trapped on their third shift at their publisher’s dealer-room table, wedged between self-published authors flogging their marginal wares at high volume, may well wonder whose career they’re at the convention to promote. Measured strictly in royalties, con attendance is a losing proposition.

It makes no sense at all, until you realize that con culture operates by its own logic—one that makes being at a convention an end in itself, not a means to another end.

This logic turns everything upside down: rather than going to a convention to further your career as an artist, author, critic or editor—whether as professional or as fan—your work generates scene points to cash in for status. (The green room is the convention’s frequent flyer lounge.) Levelling up so that you can be on panels and hang out with the right people is, following this logic, the entire point. Con attendance is the boss level of fandom.

This actually explains why so many conventions have been so boneheaded about dealing with harassment: they believe that barring someone from attending a convention is devastating. It’s social death. That’s why they seem to privilege and make excuses for the harasser. That’s where all the talk of second chances, of doubling down, of defending the frankly indefensible, comes from. That’s why they resist banning someone who harassed attendees elsewhere: it’s not some lofty principle about not wanting to set up a blacklist, it’s because, for someone who lives and breathes conventions, who believes that attending conventions is what it’s all about, being barred from every convention is the worst thing they can imagine.

(Even worse, it would seem, than letting a sexual predator of children into conventions, or else the Breendoggle wouldn’t have been a controversy.)

It also explains why conventions get so pyrrhic in their own defence: because saving the convention itself is more important than anything, including the safety of their own attendees.

When a convention screws up, and is being shat on from a great height, one of the defences that gets trotted out is that it’s run by fans or by volunteers. The subtext is: don’t expect too much from us. We’re just fans, here to have fun. We don’t have to be professional. Anything that goes wrong can be attributed to incompetence rather than malevolence. In other words, we mean well. In other words, we didn’t meeeaaan to. In other words, shut your pie hole.

They’re trying to have it both ways. They want the approbation for doing the work when they do it well, and they want to take advantage of the social capital they’ve accrued from it, but they want to be exempt from criticism when they screw it up. Because hey, we’re volunteers.

But being a volunteer does not mean you get to do a shitty job. Lots of jobs—some of them important—rely on volunteers. A defence that conventions are supposed to be fun or are run by fans rings rather coldly when people spend hundreds of dollars to attend, only to discover that the convention has neglected to cover some of the most basic things. And when they talk about “having fun,” I have to wonder, as others have, who exactly is or isn’t having fun when conventions fall down on things like accessibility and harassment? (Speaking from experience, the worst conventions are the ones where it’s clear it’s the con runners who are having the most fun.)

The importance we assign to the convention experience, the power we hand to con runners, and the attitude of said con runners who defend “fan-run” conventions, means that our community wastes enormous amounts of time debating issues arising from conventions—issues that would not have arisen if those events had been competently run—rather than the art that drew us together in the first place. They suck the air out of our community as much as they do the money.

If this sounds like I’m over conventions, I’m not. But I’m trying to think about them a bit more critically. Do conventions have a place in the sf community? Yes, absolutely. When they’re run properly (unfortunately an important caveat) they can be a lot of fun. I’ve met many, many people at cons who have since become very good friends. I participate on panels and do the social-capital dance like everyone else.

But we need to keep them in perspective, and I don’t think we have been. We should take a hard look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether we’re accomplishing anything other than serving as a net “drag on the field.”