I haven’t even left Madison. I intended to wait a few days after returning to Seattle to write about my Wiscon experience. I’m sitting in Michaelangelo’s coffee shop, where I intended to read some of the books I bought. I sat down, pulled Feeling Very Strange from my backpack, and then just looked at it. All I’ve got going through my head is my experience, and I don’t think I can read. So I write instead, though this won’t get published until I get home.
I decided to attend Wiscon after the kerfluffle last year over what I wrote about Joe Abercrombie’s Before They Are Hanged. Some commenters on Abercrombie’s blog accused me of … well, I’ll just quote one:
Mr Rat sounds like he’s been brainwashed by the feminist lit department at his university, who read oppression into every interaction between men and women.
I thought this was quite amusing. I’ve never taken a feminist lit class. Ever. I’ve taken only the Intro to the Canon type of literature classes, and I don’t mean the feminist canon. I attended the University of Idaho. Idaho! In the center of the whitest Congressional district in the U.S. at the time. A state where the women’s groups that get any attention are headed by Phyllis Schlafly. This was after attending high school run by the Catholic church and only a decade away from being an all boys prep school. Don’t even get me started on my elementary and junior high education! There I was taught that dinosaur fossils were planted by the devil’s minions to trick us.
The point being, no one has ever indoctrinated me in proper or even improper feminist theory.
But afterward, I thought perhaps I should learn more. I subscribed to Feminist SF - The Blog!. My friend Kim planned on attending Wiscon last year and told me about it, encouraging me to go. Last year I had mom’s illness and impending death to deal with, so I didn’t. Kim attended and returned with awesome things to say about it. Earlier this year, I decided to go.
Introversion and Culture
I’m not the most extroverted of people. A fair number of people seem surprised that I am shy. I can fake outgoingness sometimes. The best comparison I have to the trepidation I felt about Wiscon is my experience going to India. I was stepping into a foreign culture. It had values about which I was not familiar. It had unwritten rules about which I was completely unaware. I went by myself, without a protective posse. I stood out as not being part of the locally dominant culture. All these things worked against me in India, and all of these elements were present to some degree with attending Wiscon.
I did two things (at least) though to make things easier on myself. My first tactic I chose consciously. I would not open my mouth to express any opinion in any panel programming. Questions were fine. Requesting clarification I thought was safe. But I decided against expressing any sort of opinion.
This goes back to something Nelson told me 15 years ago. Your job is just to listen right now. It was a different context, but the issue was the same as now. I am an opinionated guy, and I have an instinctive reaction to spout my opinion to any and all who come within earshot (or read my crap online). Regardless if I was asked for my opinion. Regardless if I have any background information. Regardless if I knew the reasons why other people had their opinions. I’m better than I was nearly half a lifetime ago, but I’m still pretty bad about it.
That’s the intellectual reason to keep my mouth shut. It’s valid, but the driving force was emotional. I fear being wrong. I fear being attacked. I fear getting jumped on. My fear is not rational. Others may have a perfectly rational fear of attack. I do not. I have lived and learned from every personal attack. I’ve thrived even. Yet every time I write something negative about a book or express an opinion online, the pit of my stomach drops before I press publish.
The second choice I made was not conscious. I didn’t shy away from controversial panel topics to attend, but I did avoid those with the most inflammatory descriptions. The first panel I attended tackled the topic of the portrayal of the working class in speculative fiction. I’m really no longer working class, but I still identify because I grew up in a working class family. I picked mostly literature related topics. I picked topics with panelists whose names I knew.
RaceFail floated as a prominent issue at Wiscon. The people who were the most involved in RaceFail discussions on blogs were either names I didn’t know well, or didn’t come to Wiscon. Writers of color (i.e., those with the most at stake immediately in RaceFail) that I’ve read and who were at Wiscon included Nnedi Okorafor and … Nnedi Okorafor. And although RaceFail directly concerns literature, discussion about RaceFail is one level removed from books. Keeping my panels directly related to literature kept me one level away from RaceFail discussions. I did attend one panel on multiculturalism and thought it was great discussion, but I doubt it would register much controversy compared to other rooms.
I don’t believe it was an accident that the things I consciously thought about when choosing panels led me away from scary stuff. If I go next year (and I’m leaning towards attending) I think I will examine the choices I’ve made to make sure I’m not avoiding difficult topics. Or at least if I am avoiding them it’s a considered choice.
I’m not sure whether my panel choices was a good thing or not. One one hand, I didn’t freak myself out about a topic that won’t be resolved for quite some time anyway. On the other hand, I learned about 5% of what I could have learned. Had I thought more I might have chose different.
People come back to Wiscon from all over the United States and the world year after year. It’s not just a place for discussion of feminist topics. It’s a place where people of like mind return for fellowship or sisterhood (to use both gender loaded terms). It’s an environment that can strengthen people’s resolve before returning home to fight battles alone or in smaller groups.
There’s a drawback to that though. For the non-outgoing, there isn’t a lot of support for integrating into the community particularly in the first day or so, at least as far as I could tell.
Returning attendees eagerly embrace their friends from previous years, rejoicing at the end of the interruption of their camaraderie. Groups of friends unload their belongings and decamp to food or other activities, leaving the less connected behind. I’m sure not everyone experiences this, but I know I did and several people I talked to related similar experiences for their first time attending.
Friday night I attended the First Wiscon Dinner which seemed to have no support other than a line in the program guide. Ostensibly an event where a few experienced hands would welcome first timers to acculturate us, instead 25 of us newbies stood around at the designated meeting point wondering what the plan was supposed to be. We eventually split into three groups because the word from the Madison local newbies was that close by restaurants wouldn’t be able to handle large groups. I quite enjoyed the small group I dined with, and chatted with a couple from my group throughout the convention.
I didn’t hide out in my hotel room. I purposefully planted myself in the hotel lobby during breaks and periodically introduced myself to people. None of those conversations lasted long nor did any of those folks return to conversation with me a second time during the first couple of days. I wasn’t dismissed, but I didn’t feel any real engagement either.
The first time someone initiated conversation with me was Sunday. M. Rickert engaged me in conversation Sunday morning, sensing I was bewildered and not pulled into the thick of things, sharing her first Wiscon experience from a few years ago. I don’t know the causes, whether our interaction was the key or something else was working, but I subsequently hooked into conversation with people better. Lunch with Liz Henry and C-ko (C-ko being the one person I knew) and a dessert table oddly magnetized to Seattleites for the guest of honor speeches. Maybe I just felt more comfortable by that point.
One big reason to go to Wiscon was to find more good literature that I didn’t know about. I bought books and I got to meet some authors.
Though probably working off bad assumptions, I didn’t chat too much with author panelists. I know they are real people. Most have day jobs. But I still have them on somewhat of a pedestal, and I didn’t want to turn into a fanboy in the hallways. And neither could my puny brain come up with reasons to chat with them or with other panelists. In retrospect, the panel topic would have been a great icebreaker for me to chat with any panelist. Though in most cases I couldn’t have chatted coherently on the panel topics immediately afterward anyway, even just to ask questions.
SignOut on Monday is kind of the designated fanboy event. A fair number of the authors in attendance set up at tables so folks can get their books signed. I bought a dozen or so books by authors who attended and got them signed at SignOut: Geoff Ryman, Ellen Klages, David Schwartz, M. Rickert, Nnedi Okorafor, John Joseph Adams, Carol Emshwiller, and Nisi Shawl. In most cases I chatted a bit with them as well. Other than guests of honor Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman, most didn’t have lines of more than one or two. Of course, all were friendly. I knew this, but I still have a twinge of surprise. Cue Bart Simpson: I will not put authors on pedestals. I will not put authors on pedestals.
I made a point to pick up something by M. Rickert to thank her for chatting with me Sunday.
That turned out to be Feeling Very Strange, an anthology of
slipstream stories. I’ve never read much slipstream though.
I chatted with David Schwartz and M.
Rickert (sitting side by side) talked with me about the genre. I tend
not to like literature I don’t understand. Slipstream is designed
around cognitive dissonance; by definition it will be hard to
understand. But I wanted to try it out because I hadn’t done so
before, and M. Rickert writes slipstream. I may get
something out of it, but I’m pretty sure the pieces that don’t work
for me really aren’t going to work for me.
At the Sunday night Tiptree Award ceremonies, Nisi Shawl received, instead of the traditional Tiptree chocolate, a pie. I thought I recognized a kindred pie aficionado, so when I got her to sign Filter House, I asked her about the chocolate replacement thing. Turns out she gets migraines from chocolate, and thinks pie is the best thing ever. So I mentioned my own predilection for pie and how I made friends through Pie Night. Her response: Where? Can I come? I knew she lived in Seattle, and kind of hoped she’d want to come. Fanboy me emerges. To tell the truth, I haven’t yet read anything she’s written, but she seemed like one of the nicest and most thoughtful people on any of the panels I attended. So I wanted to get to know her. Hopefully she’ll actually be able to come to the next Pie Night.
Geoff Ryman also impressed me. I’ve only really read his story
V.A.O. before. I’m fairly familiar with his Mundane Manifesto and the
movement he’s trying to start. I appreciate the stance, but I enjoy
non-Mundane SF too much to stick to stories that fit that mold only,
as he has advocated at times. I attended one panel he was on, and had
him sign a book at SignOut. Despite having only the limited
interaction, when he ran into me on the streets of Madison this
morning, he stopped to chat with me. Nothing substantive, but I was
nevertheless impressed. There are a lot of people at Wiscon and not
all of them can register on a person’s consciousness.
I’m not normally one to gush about anything, but the panel topics were chock full of substantive discussion. Sure, a few of them were fluff, and I enjoyed those of that ilk that I attended as well. In most time slots I circled at least two or three possible panels. Each panel had enough content to generate at least one separate post. Some had enough for two or three.
Not being a con person, I don’t know how much Wiscon’s panel selection/assignment method differs from other SF conventions. Panels have a mix of professionals and fandom. Any attendee can put their name in the hat ahead of time to be on panels. I don’t know how the programming committee selects folks, but it seemed to work out well for the most part. In only one case did it seem like a panelist was outclassed by the material and the rest of the panel.
In a couple of cases, the moderator could have done a better job leading the panel. Some kind of just were there, and their panels tended to ramble more. A couple panels had members who just had to talk. The moderator for one of those never showed. In the other case, the moderator was the person who dominated the discussion. Neither person ruined the panel, but I would have liked to have heard more from some of the other panelists. Three moderators were outstanding: Fred Schepartz on the working class, L. Timmel Duchamp on book reviewing, and Jesse the K on feminist/leftist SF book groups.
I can’t say I’ve found my tribe yet. I don’t bond deeply, quickly enough to make that assertion. I have found kindred spirits and content that serves my intellectual craving. I felt fulfilled like I haven’t in a long time. There’s something about engaging in deep discussion that I enjoy. About books no less. I read a lot. It’s hard to find people who read as much or as widely as I do. Wiscon is full of people who outclass me in that respect. Full of people who outclass me in a lot of respects. That’s stimulating.
Next year’s Wiscon guests of honor or Nnedi Okorafor and Mary Anne
Mohanraj. I really liked Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi’s
young adult novel. Her manner inclines me to turn into a fanboy.
She’s nice, and incredibly positive. It took a couple minutes of cajoling to get
her to say she didn’t like Twilight. To paraphrase her:
I don’t like tearing down
authors who are just doing their thing.
I haven’t read Mary Anne Moharaj’s fiction. Mary Anne wrote a couple of thoughtful pieces for John Scalzi’s blog that made clear to me some of the issues of RaceFail. I hadn’t mentally connected her to those pieces until this morning.
Both guest of honor selections make me want to go next year.