Roundtable: Conventions Part III, Feeling Lost, Alone and Confused

Karen Burnham

In today’s installment of discussions about conventions (Part I, Part II), we face up to the fact that sometimes cons aren’t terribly welcoming spaces for the uninitiated. Several of us were quite put off by our early experiences. Today’s participants include N. K. Jemisin, James Patrick Kelly, Maureen Kincaid Speller, myself, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Andy Duncan, John Clute, and Cecelia Holland.

As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

N. K. Jemisin

My first conventions were anime/manga/gaming cons, so I had quite a bit of culture shock when I started going to SFF cons.  My first was Boskone — can’t recall the year, early Noughties.  There was no movie room, the dealer room had nothing but books and jewelry in it, nobody was in costume, and there were all these old people!  🙂  It was hard to meet people (I didn’t go with friends), I got yelled at by a moderator the first time I tried to ask a question, a total stranger decided to pet my hair in the dealer room, and I was pretty much the only brown face in the place as well as probably the only person under 30 (aside from other congoers’ small children).  It was pretty miserable.  I stayed for only a few hours, then left and didn’t attend another SFF con for several years.

My second con was the Boston Worldcon a couple of years later.  I don’t remember much about it except wandering through the Boston Convention center feeling quite bored, and walking out of a panel when an audience member said something horrifically, blatantly racist and no one in the room said boo to him.

Despite that I kept going to SFF cons, mostly because as an aspiring author I felt I had to, for professional networking purposes.  So I decided to treat them like industry conventions — necessary for work, not meant to be fun.  I brought business cards and had nice polite uncontroversial conversations, shook lots of hands, and gritted my teeth when people did/said rude or offensive things.  But things improved when I got involved in a writers’ group and at least had them to hang out with, and when I realized the way to make friends at SFF cons is simply to hang out in the bar.  So I started to have fun at last.  And I realized not all SFF cons are alike, so I found a few that suited me better in terms of programming — Readercon, for example, with its nice intellectually-chewy panels; Arisia, which had all the energy and diversity of an anime con; Wiscon, where questioning the moderators was not only welcomed but expected; others.  I also started meeting people from online SFFdom, which also gave me a ready-made group to hang out with — and that in turn helped me relax and meet other people.  So I have lots of fun now.

That said, it helps that the conventions themselves are changing.  More of them seem to realize new attendees shouldn’t be just left to figure things out on their own.  A lot of them now have newbie meet and greets, and so on.  Several of them seem to be trying to diversify their audience in terms of race and class and gender and age.  A few are training their moderators on how to moderate well.  So I’d like to keep seeing those kinds of changes.

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2 thoughts on “Roundtable: Conventions Part III, Feeling Lost, Alone and Confused

  • August 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Now I’m having an anxiety attack, but don’t we all. Y’all be nice to me at this year’s WFC, OK? …OK?

  • August 25, 2011 at 1:20 am

    I keep giving up on conventions, even though I’m fairly good at them; I can give good panel, I can meet strangers and draw them out, I don’t think I was ever lonely at a convention. I just find that after a few hours at a convention I’m strung out and irritable and want to go do something else. This feeling gets especially acute if I go to the bar, con suite, or SFWA suite; I prefer to either give a show and make an exit, or have small group conversations — not more than about 6 people — in a controlled environment, i.e. one where people don’t come and go so much and I don’t have to keep track of my surroundings constantly. My biggest regret about the con scene is that I didn’t fully grok how unnecessary it is, that many writers I like and admire, with far more commercial success than I’ve had, have never been to one. Too much of the discussion here seems to be dedicated to the position that writers really ought to be going to cons. Frankly, if you go and hate it, don’t go again. You’re missing nothing.


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