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Sunday, 10 November 2013

And the Bad: What WFC Could Have Done Better

So, last week I wrote about how much I enjoyed World Fantasy Con in Brighton, but today I want to go over some of the things that I didn't like, or thought they could have done better. And the big one - the elephant in the room, as the cliche goes - is female participation on panels.

Because I'm a nerd, and obsessive, I just went through the whole list of panels that took place, counting how many had at least gender parity compared with how many featured more men than women. What I came up with is, over half of the panels were majority or exclusively male (although there were very few that didn't have any women, whether as panelists or moderators). The only panel that had no men participating was the one entitled "Broads with Swords", which looked at books with female protagonists donning chain mail and kicking ass.

WFC has no policy in place to ensure gender parity; they say that they try to "match the best people available to us to the most appropriate panel topics". In fairness, you can't always get who you want, and for certain topics - like the 1950s SF magazines - it's probably difficult to get that many women to make the trip anyway (age, illness and money would be factors; Robert Silverberg was due to attend, but had to cancel because of a heart attack just a couple days before, although luckily he survived and was able to fly back to the US after a few days).

But in practice, it led, at least in the panels I attended, to a bunch of male authors talking while the lone female author was stranded out on the end, kind of hard to hear (although that was because of the bad acoustics more than anything else). It happened in the comics panel, and in the "Elvish Has Left the Building" panel, talking about whether fantasy is still relevant. It even happened in the panel about literary agents - apart from the moderator, Meg Davis, the only female participant was Juliet Mushens, although I was pleased to note that she was seated right in the middle, and offered her fair share of comments.

However, I was still a little surprised that they couldn't find just one more female agent for that panel, or that they couldn't get Robin Hobb (for instance) to sit on "Elvish Has Left the Building". Because frankly, the makeup of the con was pretty gender-balanced, and I think it would have been appropriate for the programming to reflect this better.

That leads into the other point that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, namely harassment. I didn't see any incidents of it myself, apart from a drunk lady (who wasn't participating in the con) who behaved toward me in a manner that would have been roundly frowned upon had our genders been reversed, and who later made an even more inappropriate advance toward someone else that I know. However, I did see something on Twitter on the Sunday morning about "WFC and the hotel" investigating an incident the previous night, and later some comments from one of the people who had seen it. And yet, the last morning the update at the hotel said specifically, "And nobody's been harassed!"

I don't know if this was a particularly good or bad con for harassment, but that statement seemed either really clueless or really disingenuous. Given how much the issue has been discussed, particularly this year, I'm hoping it was simple cluelessness, because it's not something to sweep under the rug.

And finally, as far as the redcoats, who were herding people in and out of panels, setting up, making sure things started and ended on time, and generally being helpful, I have the sense that they were run a little ragged by the organizers - I've heard stuff about them not being able to take breaks, which is a shame. I hope that they weren't being exploited as volunteers, because the possibility of it happening has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Turning to less serious issues, though, I thought there was one key thing missing from the programming, which is foreign-language fantasy being translated into English. John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the Right One In, was on a few panels, and Adrian Stone, a Dutch fantasy writer, also sat in on the "Elvish Has Left the Building" panel. But given the recent popularity of authors like Markus Heitz (The Dwarves series) and Andrzej Sapkowski (the Witcher series), it would have been interesting to have more perspectives outside of the Anglo-American ones we usually get - whenever I visit a bookstore in Italy, for example, I find a lot of fiction, both Italian and foreign, that never gets translated into English. Seeing how the convention is usually in North America, this would have been the perfect opportunity to shine some light on the rest of Europe.