This made me think, in this order:
1. “Oh, awesome!”
2. “They must mean best books so far in the year. Not the year’s best books.”
3. “Hm, no, they mean best books of the year. That means…”
4. “Oh my god. It’s November. It’s November!“
This made me think, in this order:
1. “Oh, awesome!”
2. “They must mean best books so far in the year. Not the year’s best books.”
3. “Hm, no, they mean best books of the year. That means…”
4. “Oh my god. It’s November. It’s November!“
Let’s skip back in time to 2004.
I was 20 years old, and I was thinking that, given my recent survey of graduate school, it sure would be more fun to be a shitty, impoverished, drunken genre writer rather than a shitty, impoverished, drunken graduate student. So I was writing my first attempt at a novel, unaware that it would be, in its final form, a good 470,000 words, a massive, ridiculous, terrible, blimp of a story whose length and density would make the Simarillion blush and cause the monocle to fall from the Bible’s eye and into its tea.
I was writing in the library at my college campus, and I knew exactly what I was doing with the story. I must have been doing it right, of course, because I was just slathering on words left and right, as disciplined and thoughtful with my prose as a six year old is with icing. But then I got to one point in the story – a really big, really important part – and the words just… stopped.
The entire book – by then a hefty 130,000 words, probably – froze cold.
Was this writer’s block? No. I knew what was supposed to happen next. I knew how the book was supposed to end. I knew what would happen to all the characters. And I thought I knew who all the characters were.
The problem was that, in this Big, Really Important Part, the protagonist encountered a character unlike any other in the book so far, a foreign, alien, incomprehensible being that I suddenly discovered I had no idea how to write.
Was it some fantastical entity? A Lovecraftian horror? Some tortuous, unfathomable monster?
No. It was a woman.
* * *
Let’s go ahead and walk this back a bit.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I didn’t make the most of my college career. I’m not talking about grades (those I did pretty good on) and I’m not talking about partying (I remember about 15% of weekends post-junior year), I’m talking about socializing and figuring out how to be a real human being, cross-pollinating with the vast menagerie that is human existence, gaining perspective and learning how to communicate with – and be responsible to – other people in your life.
That stuff I wasn’t so hot at, and I didn’t take advantage of my time in school to get any better at it.
So this isn’t to say that I just sucked at understanding girls. I sucked at a lot of things. But that was definitely one of them. I had some valid reasons (I had a speech impediment I was working to get out from under) and some that weren’t valid at all (I was a solipsist little shithead), but the fact of the matter remains that, in my head, I had been chugging along quite merrily for what, if I’m lucky, was about a quarter of my life thinking of 50% of my own species to be Other.
I didn’t realize it at the time, of course. That moment when I was writing, when I suddenly found the excessive gush of words dwindling to a sputtering drip, that was likely the first inkling I had that I was hurtling through life sporting a massive blindspot. I didn’t really understand what I was experiencing, but I think that, in some unspoken, anxious way, I knew something was wrong.
Sometimes I think I might be an anomaly. This isn’t normal, right? This was just a unique set of circumstances, right?
Then I take a look at other male writers whose writing is pilloried for having ridiculous female characters, and I think – Naaaaah.
I’m the perfect example. I was every one of these dudes.
* * *
How did this happen? Shit. There were probably countless ways my experience of the world was carefully walled off from females, some of them my own doing, some of them not.
Except for my mom, we were an all-boys house. On my mom’s side of the family, everyone had boys, about 15 of them total. I recall very, very few girls to play with when I was little, but for a long time we lived out in the country. When I was 10 we moved to my first large city, and I recall being flummoxed by this overwhelming presence of girls in domestic scenarios: they were just living across the street from us, right over there!
Despite this, I remember a distinct feeling of inaccessibility, as if there were invisible dividers between me and them. I was an avid TV watcher, and I watched hours of Friends and other female-friendly shows with an almost scientific eye, trying to discern exactly what the hell was going on in there, what made these social interactions so natural – how were they just, y’know, talking? That never happened to me. I never just, like, talked to them. How did this occur, and why? I never figured it out.
But I did good in school. I did all right, really.
How weird it is that I was able to sail through high school and even college without genuinely befriending a single female. How strange it feels that I could be successful at anything without needing to socialize with them in any genuine manner, without making them a part of my life, social or professional or what have you.
I was never asked, I feel like, to consider them an equal, a peer. It certainly never occurred to me to do so.
I wonder, now, if this is nature or environment – does society sort us into separate groups, and encourage us to do Girl Things and Boy Things? I ask because I watch my son, now two and a half, innately gravitate toward superheroes and trucks and smashing and bashing and yelling and roaring and jumping from high places, all very Boy things, without any real encouragement from me. I don’t tell him to love Superman for his smashing and crushing abilities (he has still not gleaned any of Superman’s sanguine pacifism), yet he does.
Are we hardwired for this? Are we programmed to be different, and does this difference mean we will not understand other humans in the most fundamental of ways?
What a depressing thought.
* * *
The real issue is, there are a lot of professions and manners of living in contemporary society where this is completely functional and sustainable. There are just tons and tons and tons of ways for me to live in this world without engaging women in any manner, without giving six hot wet shits about them, without understanding them or even trying to.
Because, let’s face it, I’m a guy, and in any professional environment, odds are that I’m going to walk through the door and on the other side is gonna be another guy. And because we’re both guys, that fundamentally shapes the nature of our exchange: it dictates what we say and how we do work and how we relate to one another. An all-male environment, even if it’s in groups of twos and threes and fours, is its own environment with its own laws and rules and mannerisms. And women have nothing to do with it, except in the most perfunctory and peripheral of ways, IE, Something For Guys To Talk About.
So there are many careers where I could just keep going and live like this and be probably pretty successful.
Writing isn’t one of them, though.
Hence why 20-year-old-me, to his utter bafflement, found his novel grinding to a halt. And I was really, really surprised by it.
* * *
Why? Well, because I’d been told I was a good writer.
It’s true, I’m not bragging. I’d been told in a variety of places that I could string a word or two together in a pleasing fashion. My teachers told me. And online, when I wrote for forums or commented on things, a lot of people said I was really good at it.
So I couldn’t be the problem. I already knew that I was good! I’d been put through the Focus Group of the Internet, and come out with a thumbs up! And the Focus Group of the Internet is an objective and impartial judge, right?
The internet, for the SFF-inclined, is like a certain political party that found itself totally flummoxed to understand why its candidate had been defeated despite having heard for about six months that a victory would be certain: it’s an echo chamber. It’s being told that you’re absolutely right by people who believe and do the same things you do. It’s white dudes who like video games reading stuff written by white dudes who like video games for white dudes who like video games*.
The problem with writing is that, if you’re doing it right – if you’re trying to use writing to understand yourself and more and more of the world – eventually you have to understand that your version of The Whole World is actually probably about .0000000000076% of the actual real world.
That’s something to remember: you’re always in the minority, to some degree. Even if you feel like you’re the majority, in reality, you’re almost certainly not. There is no plurality in the world, there is no Everyperson, there is no Default Mode to being alive: the second you draw breath you are, in some manner, cordoned off into a very specific method of existence, and odds are you will spend your life struggling to understand all the others.
And that’s what writers do. Or, at least, they’re supposed to. I sure as hell didn’t, in my first shitty book.
I struggle, now, to list the various crimes my first novel committed:
It did not fail the Bechdel Test so much as fall to its knees before the test and clumsily commit seppuku.
It had one female character.
She was, in a metaphysical way, kept in a box.
The drive of her character was that she really liked and wished to support the protagonist, a man. He was actually probably the only character she interacted with in the whole of the story.
And she died in the end, sacrificing herself for him, and he found himself healed by her sacrifice, finally whole while she was utterly destroyed.
* * *
What prompts this piece, this weirdo and probably significantly pathetic confessional, is a post from John Hodgman’s tumblr, where he quotes Junot Diaz in a speech about how hard it is to teach boys to write girls.
I’ve seen some skeptical reactions to it – Surely this is an exaggeration! – but I look back on 20 year old RJB and I can confirm that, nope, this is no exaggeration. Boys today can blossom and progress and learn to put together prose in a pretty satisfactory manner without ever understanding what the everliving fuck is going on in the minds of half the population.
The lesson some take away from Junot Diaz’s speech is, “Dudes suck,” and this inspires a lot of defensive caterwauling, a mass venting of bruised egos. Many assume Junot Diaz is a woman (he isn’t) or assume he’s some shitty, unknown writer (he won the Pulitzer Prize), or they assume that he is actively blaming them, telling them they are Bad, that they are Bad People and they should feel bad**.
He isn’t. He’s saying that you live in a place and a time where, if you’re a guy, your ignorance can run wild and no one will call you on it.
And if you’re a guy, hearing that should anger you.
Because he’s saying that you have had walls built around you, that you have bricked yourself off from the world and been told that it’s okay, that you have been denied knowledge of what so many other people think and feel and do. You have a huge advantage in this world, being a guy, but because of this advantage, there is so much you are blind to, so much you’re actively encouraged not to know or understand. You’re allowed to stagnate and decay and just rot.
And even moreso, you’ve been trained to actually fight being allowed to pull down the very walls you build around yourself! You’ve been taught not just to drink your poison, but to love it! You’ve been programmed, in some ways, not only to harm yourself, but to hate anyone who tries to stop you!
What a fucking con game, right? We’ve been cheated and we didn’t even know it. Sure, we get the privilege, but the cost is one fucking hell of a lot of ignorance, ignorance to the extent that you’re hardly even aware that you’re privileged.
What a fucking con game. And so often we’re the ones conning ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be conned.
* * *
Here’s what this all boils down to:
You use a lot of muscles when you write, and learning to write means training all those muscles to be responsive, strong, sensitive, and coordinated.
One of the biggest muscles in there, in that vast network of fibers and tendons that make up the Writing System, is Empathy – the ability to understand other people who are, arguably, not like you at all.
This muscle is quite hard to develop. It’s not like plot, which in some ways is a bicep – elementary to develop, and showy – it’s more like one of the weirdo muscles in your back, like the trapezius, one of the interstitial pieces of muscle that you forget is there but basically dictates whether or not your whole fucking arm works.
If your empathy muscle isn’t strong, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of writing a good character, because you won’t understand how all humans – men, women, homo sapiens in general – work.
The empathy muscle of a dude isn’t inherently weak. It’s allowed to be weak. It’s encouraged to atrophy. It’s like abs in baseball – how many home run kings have kind of saggy guts? Do they need to have a washboard stomach to pound out home runs? No. In this same manner, guys are encouraged not to waste time on empathy: it is not integral to the game they’re assumed to be playing.
But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be strengthened. It just takes work, and humility, and a lot of patience.
* * *
That story of my first shitty book took place about 10 years ago. I’ve written 10 books since, 4 of which have been published, 1 of which is about to be published, all of which, I feel, are very different. I’ve also gotten married and had a kid and gotten a job in a profession in which the male gender is in the minority. So things have changed a lot, and I sometimes wish to categorize my adolescent inability to write women as a newbie writing mistake, much like splitting infinitives or copying Star Wars.
I’d do that if I thought that this newbie writing mistake didn’t articulate a larger issue. I’d do that if I didn’t think tons of other young male authors out there may likely do the same thing I did – and might get that mistake published, and might even get acclaim, in certain circles, while finding condemnation from others.
I’d say this was just an ol’ fashioned writing problem if I didn’t think this was perpetuating some bigass problems going on today. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what I think.
I’m not sure if I’m good at writing women. I’ve talked about it before, and to be frank I’m not comfortable saying I’m good at writing any “type” of person at all, because in essence that’s a claim that I understand people, and I’m not sure I do.
Really, I’m not sure if anything I do is successful – to me, writing is like operating an animatronic show from a small room with a lot of gears and levers and no screens: I can hear the oohs and aahs from the audience occasionally, but I have no idea what the performance looks like.
But I appreciate that writing has taught me where I’m weak. I appreciate that it’s taught me where I’m blind and ignorant. And at the end of the day, I’m happy I picked this profession to toil at, even if it’s for that reason alone.
*I wonder if the issue is just a symptom of “you write what you read.” You regurgitate the narrative elements you consume. And I look back on the books, TV shows, and movies I watched as a kid, and I wonder – were any of the female characters interesting? Maybe I didn’t know how to write a good female character because I’d read so few of them.
**Some also believe he is saying that women are better by default. I disagree. I believe he’s saying women are better because they’re forced to condition themselves to be better. That doesn’t make them all good, however – there are plenty of awful women writers out there who can’t write a character to save their lives. It’s just the odds are that women will be better at writing many more different types of character than men will be.
My own dumbass opinions.
But seriously, I wouldn’t weigh into a conversation unless I felt like I had something good to say, and this is something I pretty devoutly believe in regards to the way I interact with my audience:
Basically, I try not to.
Well, that’s not totally true. I have this blog, and I have a twitter feed, and I do interviews and, in a very fundamental way, writing something is a very direct way of interacting with an audience.
But what I seriously, fervently believe is that the reading experience is a profoundly individualistic, private, and hermetic experience: it is not a relationship between writer and reader, but rather a relationship between reader and text – or perhaps the text is a lens or mirror through which the reader views and forms a relationship with themselves.
So while I have some problems with the piece that started this fans vs. creators debate, I generally agree that the worst thing I can do, as a writer, is intrude, elbowing my way into that very private and very delicate reading experience, and muddying up something that, ideally, is terribly pure.
I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not - and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.
Though illogical, I have found this is quite true.
For example, there was one instance where I was at an event and a reader told me in great detail about a scene I had written that she loved, going on and on about the various aspects – and all I could think is, “What the hell is she talking about? I don’t remember writing that…”
I had, of course. But she had read it in a manner so inconceivable to me – not bad inconceivable, just something I wouldn’t had thought of – that upon recounting it, it sounded like a totally different book.
The reading experience is 70% work done by the reader, not the writer, and when you bring your own perspective and state of mind to my stuff, you are by default changing it – giving it nuance, color, beauties, associations, problems, and conundrums I could never hope to. The human mind is a wonderfully, tantalizingly strange thing, and it is endlessly more complicated than any book could ever be. My job is to give you fuel, and get out of your way.
So I don’t want to be included in discussions of my work. Ideally, my opinion is moot, irrelevant. I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.
People think writers have power, but ideally, I think it’s quite the opposite, or should be. We aren’t even part of the equation. What you read is infinitely more powerful than what I wrote.
(Writers should know this. We’ve all been in critique groups where someone – maybe us, ourselves – tries to tell a critic that, “Well, I know you thought you saw a problem here, but what you didn’t get was that I was trying to do blah blah blahditty blah blah. So everything you thought I did wrong was actually totally, completely right!” And what needs to be said then is, “Whatever you were trying, I didn’t know about it, and this did not work for me.” And that should be that.)
In addition, having the writer in the room while their work is being discussed is super uncomfortable. I liken it to parents tagging along on their child’s honeymoon, and sharing a bed in the same room: they did their part, now they need to get the hell away. When they had a panel on American Elsewhere at Readercon, I was relieved that I couldn’t attend. I wouldn’t want to even be near that, let alone in the same room. I’d have spent my time sweating in the bar.
This is my own personal take, my own policy. Others may disagree: today, when fervent communities can form in any niche, and access is more or less boundless, some audiences might want to be deeply, intimately involved with the writers and creators they adore. They might even want to see give and take in the actual text, in what the creator creates, art and artist formed by the will of the audience.
Me? That creeps the everliving shit out of me, and I’d never want to have such a weirdo cult of personality, but hey, different strokes for different folks. One of the things I like about my twitter feed is that it actually denies access: it’s purely ridiculous jokes, most very stupid, so those looking to glean insight into my creative process will probably be stonewalled. Someone pointed out that I was, in a way, fondly trolling my own fans with my twitter feed – and while that’s not totally right, it’s not completely wrong, either.
Some might say that a work can be improved by knowing the author, that an author’s story or attitude can make the work better, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. It sounds like prejudice, like assuming my mom’s opinion of my work would be unbiased. And moreso, what if I were to die? What if there wasn’t any “me” to know? Would my writing lose power because I wasn’t there? If so, it must not have been very good writing in the first place.
I want you to like my book because of what it was, not because of who I am. And if I thought readers were reading me only because they “knew” me or liked me, rather than because I wrote a good book, I’d probably be severely depressed.
I consider myself a very reluctant participant in the inevitable publicity game, and sometimes when I’m getting ready in the morning, with last night’s sleep still hanging on my back, I wistfully fantasize about being successful enough where I can be a total recluse, and no longer have to opt into a program where I, Robert The Writer, Robert The Total Stranger, am put on display to pitch and sell a book – a work not intended for me, meant for relationship I will never be a part of, nor should I be.
I’m turning 30 next year. I was 16 when the towers fell, so I’ve spent about half my life living in the shadow of their absence. As such, it’s a little hard for me to get perspective on how things were before, because sometimes I can’t tell if I’m being nostalgic, or if things were genuinely different.
But I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies and TV, because to do what I do I sort of have to act as a sponge for narratives and devices of all kind, and slowly I’ve felt something accumulating inside me, a sedimentation at the back of my head. And I frequently wonder if this isn’t just in my head but inside of everyone’s, or perhaps the larger generational mind, a tumor growing in the zeitgeist – or maybe it is the zeitgeist itself, I’m not sure.
For a brief moment after 9/11, pure, basic, unadultered good versus evil stories prevailed, fantastical tales where the bad guys were ugly and wore black, and the good guys were colorful and obviously kind. Hence why The Lord of the Rings made it onto every Oscar ballot in numerous categories, and swept them in 2003, despite being (as I have found upon rewatch), pretty cheesy and not completely solid movies, in any sense.
But as the years passed, and as we as a global community tried to fix the various world wrongs that became so blatantly apparent 12 years ago, we started to reject that narrative. It didn’t work for us. It was like we’d opened ourselves up and tried to put an organ inside ourselves that just didn’t belong there, and we fell to our knees and vomited it up.
We found we needed something different instead. And when we figured out what that thing was, we flocked to it.
It’s tough for me to think of a movie that’s more seeped in the taint of 9/11 than The Dark Knight. I saw it 6 times in the theater when it came out, but I feel increasingly ambivalent about the movie as I get more distance on it: I dislike its unearned tragedy, its forced misanthropy, the way its main characters feel like passive ragdolls being buffeted by an overpowering wind. I dislike its cold, abstracted, distant city, bereft of plant life and goodwill, full of shadows and suspicion. I dislike the movie’s helplessness, and the way the movie’s environment feels seeded with inexplicable explosives and violence and pain.
And I dislike how the movie, in some fashion, rejects heroics: the average people of this movie genuinely hate and fear the protagonist, who voluntarily collects more and more of this rejection as the movie goes on, unilaterally doing what he feels is right even though throngs of civilians scream at him to stop. The antagonist they accept, maybe even understand: their position is not, “Everyone must do whatever they can to find and stop this monster,” but rather, “There is a monster among us, yes, but why must you provoke him?”
They say this as if this monster and this hurt and this violence was always there, always will be there, and they just have to learn to live alongside it. The movie never really questions the monster: he is what he is. He is an thing, a force, not a person, and thus is eternal, and ever-present. And at the end, when the film limply tries to suggest that the monster may be wrong, the feeling one gets is that the film is not trying to convince the audience but is rather trying to convince itself – and failing.
It’s this sense of inevitable destruction, this floating paranoia and devout belief that disaster and massive, massive wrongdoing is unavoidable, that I think increasingly defines my generation, if not the world. It’s been 12 years since 9/11, and a horrific war rages on in the Middle East, and we’ve more or less retreated from most of the heroic postures we struck there less than a decade ago. It’s been 5 years since the financial crisis, and everyone who was responsible for it not only got away with it, but actively profited from it, punishing civilians while the authorities looked on, either helpless or attempting to assume the image of helplessness. And it’s been less than a year since we discovered that, yeah, actually, the government is recording every single thing you do. We haven’t yet experienced the consequences of this, not fully, but we all seem to agree that we will.
Today, the must-see TV event of the season is a show about a man whose inevitable death causes incredible, unimaginable suffering and hurt. We have watched this show for several seasons, knowing he would die, knowing that all the preventative measures he took would be repaid in pain. And what’s made this show so watchable is the feeling that everything is on the line, that anyone could die for any reason, however coincidental or pathetic: some of us watch convinced that most of the main characters and even ancillary characters will die, and the only question is whether the protagonist’s infant daughter will survive.
In our hearts, we feel the fates and furies watch us closely, and they have no talent for mercy.
This isn’t the only example of a narrative that captures – and perhaps exploits – this free-floating sense of dread. But why do we expose ourselves to such pain? Why is this, of all things, our entertainment? Why do we subject ourselves to narratives whose sole purpose seems sometimes to punish us?
Is it because, perhaps, we wish to experience all the ills of the world indirectly? Do we believe we are headed for inevitable destruction, and we wish to glimpse it first to ready ourselves for this end, like a person plummeting to their death, peeping through their fingers at the cement reaching up to them? Is this who we are now?
I remember when I went to Washington D.C. last year, and was walking the city at night, and I was trying to find the White House. I was coming from the Lincoln Memorial, and I got a bit mixed up, and wound up approaching the White House from the wrong side: I came to the backyard rather than the front, in other words.
The backyard of the White House features a wrought-iron fence and heavy shrubbery, so I had to walk a few feet to peer through to actually see the house. And when I did, I saw I wasn’t alone: there were two men in uniform standing in the darkness, among the leaves, and they were watching me very carefully, and somewhere in the shadows I saw the glint of assault rifles and combat gear.
That is the image I remember so clearly: the brilliant white house lit up many yards away, and there, in front of me, the black fence, the dark leaves, and the shadowed soldiers watching me, fingers near their triggers.
I walked away. I felt disturbed. But not, I think, as disturbed as I should have felt.
When we left the city, my boss, an older gentleman, remarked with an air of dismay that the city had changed so much. “When I was here, in the 60s and 70s,” he told me, “you could go anywhere, and no one would stop you. Everything was open.”
I found I couldn’t understand what he meant. The idea was inconceivable. Because while the armed guards had definitely threatened me, it never occurred to me that they could not be there. They had to be there, didn’t they? Didn’t they have to be there for what was coming, whatever that might be?
They call us Generation Y, but perhaps a more fitting title would be Generation Dread.
This isn’t going to be some kind of deep, incisive analysis about The Identity Crisis of WorldCon and Its Huge Significance or whatever. I feel like there are plenty of those posts, and I’m reluctant to make any sort of calls on that.
However, one thing I’ve noticed is that for a lot of people, and for a lot of conventions, things tend to end on a note of slight negativity, or anticlimax. I noted this myself when I made a tweet saying that I was feeling “the post-convention paranoia that everyone there thought you were a total asshole”, and quite a few people responded saying they feel the same, so I knew it might not be my own personal anxiety kicking in or whatever.
This started me thinking, and I slowly started wondering if maybe conventions aren’t unfortunately geared to leave people with a bad taste in their mouths.
Think about it – let’s take the usual 3 day structure of a Con: for the first 2 days, in the AM you have panels, and in the PM you have sponsored parties (I presume), where one company or association pays a fee to book a hotel suite for them to set up shop in. This doesn’t come lose to addressing BarCon, where everyone just drinks like crazy at the hotel bar, in each other’s rooms, or – rarely – across the city.
Then, on the third day, you have panels in the AM again, sure, but in the PM you have your Big Awards Ceremony/Gala/Banquet, which is supposed to be the articulation of What is Best, and thus, to a certain extent, an articulation of What is Not Best. (I know this isn’t completely true or fair – awards are flawed, etc, etc – but on the most superficial, surface level, that’s what an award ceremony is, and no matter how much the attendees of the event justify or qualify what’s happening, at least a few will be left wondering, “Why that person?”)
So. You have a set group of people, trapped in a confined space together over 72 hours. They’re up every night drinking. Each day, they’re more and more tired. Each day, they know more and more about one another – victories, failures, prejudices, virtues, etc. And then on the last day, when everyone’s the most exhausted, and probably a few are starting to get sick of one another, you have an event that could feel highly divisive in a number of ways. Everyone’s got an opinion, and everyone likes talking.
That’s rough. That’s basically a recipe for eroding common human decency, maybe a little, maybe a lot.
What’s the answer to this? I like thinking about this stuff, but I wonder (whilst not being entirely convinced) if shorter cons are actually better. The shorter a con, the more likely it is everyone will make an effort to show up, which means there’s less, “I’m going to stay here 4 days to make sure I see EVERYONE,” and exhaust yourself. Maybe a 2 day con is a good structure – the meet n greet one night, the awards ceremony the next.
The urge on convention planning is to do the kitchen sink approach, where you throw in everything anyone could ever want and people can build their own convention – but sometimes I wonder if limitation is a good thing, and perhaps trying to accommodate every taste leads to a negative impact on a large proportion of attendees. There’s an, “I didn’t do it all” feeling that comes from having too many choices – no matter what you choose, you feel like you missed something. And if you do try and do it all, there’s no recharge moment, and you wind up getting sick of it.
The real heart of most conventions – most public-oriented ones, where the common denominator is taste/interest, and not profession/education – is the chance to meet people. Meet old friends, new ones, industry contacts, whatever – people just want space and time to talk. There are a lot of ways to make this more conducive and energetic, but that’s the heart of it.
Now, here’s what’s hard: you have two kinds of conventions that excel at this – small, limited, intimate ones, and big, huge, cultural event conventions, where stores and businesses that aren’t even affiliated with the con put on their own show. I suppose it comes down to personal choice, but more and more, I think I might prefer the former.
I did want to talk about one thing, demographics-wise:
WorldCon is old.
That’s not entirely fair, though – everything is old.
The age discussion is not new to WorldCon, or to Science Fiction. The age gap – as Boomers leave an industry and a very different generation takes their place – is on everyone’s mind, or it should be. Conventions are unusually symptomatic of the change, so it’s more highly visible there: they’re big expenditures that often count more as luxuries than professional investments. As boomers are the only ones running around with any dough these days, they show up disproportionately, and programming is disproportionately geared toward them. Many professional conventions – law, healthcare, etc – have an average attendance age of about 50.
The problem is, when the economy starts spreading money to the younger crowd, or when the Boomers retire or physically can’t attend, then certain industries and institutions and conventions – like WorldCon – are left in a hot seat. Your primary demographic is quite literally gone, and your younger one is alienated, because the programming and events there legitimately were not for them.
This is a problem that extends to a lot more than WorldCon. But it’s still a problem WorldCon will have to think about in the very, very near future.
WorldCon was like getting married: you’re either waiting for something to happen, or it’s full-blown huge awesome whirlwind time where you meet everyone at the party but never feel like you said as much to them as you would like to. Then in the morning you feel like you aged 5 years overnight.
I met a bunch of awesome people there, did not do anything to dispute what seems to be my emerging Frank the Tank reputation among the con-going fandom, and I don’t think I ever made it to bed once before 5:00 AM. Hence the aging 5 years thing. I was really grateful that my job has prepped me for meeting tons and tons of people and shaking lots of hands and bellowing my name, which I did repeatedly to everyone, even if I had met them the previous 2 or even 3 nights.
Here’s the rundown:
The Donald Maass showing at the Con was awesome and a ton of fun. John Hornor Jacobs is probably one of the coolest dudes I’ve met in a while – he brought his dang guitar and was playing blues music in his room at 4:00 AM. We were also Scotch Buddies – he told me had a great bottle in his room, the Balvenie 12 year, which made me pause, reach into my bag, and pull out that exact same brand of scotch which I’d been doling out all night. This in turn caused him to ask me if I was magic man with a magic bag. (Yes, I was.)
Chuck Wendig was exactly who I thought he was: clever, motormouthed, and sporting an excess of charm. His banter levels were simply off the hook. Someone needs to give him a TV show. Or just film him on the sly, sleeping, eating oatmeal, etc. That works, too.
Robert Cargill was one of the most easy-going and laid back people I’d met that day, and it was extremely deceptive to slowly realize he had more industry experience and insight than 80% of the people there. He was also immensely confused when I, taken by the music, forced Brian McClellan into a spontaneous piece of (very bad) performance art in his room. (Before you ask, no, I have no memory of this.) I think he forgave me when I made him and JHJ cocktails in my room the next night at 4:00 AM, thus proving I wasn’t a total raving lunatic.
Adam Christopher was completely surprised to find out that, yes, I did put his nice tweet about American Elsewhere directly into the blurbs on its Amazon page, thus making him a 21st Century marketing guru and a powerful, dynamic brand-definer.
Drinks with Authors was a hilarious amount of fun. I think Myke Cole enjoyed it the most: he is a level 32 paladin specializing in yelling, which he did often, and with great enthusiasm. I showed up in a tux, which was dumb – I didn’t realize I’d be staying for the Hugos, which I spontaneously opted to do, which meant I didn’t have any tux to wear to that. Anyway, people seemed to enjoy it (I heard “sexy mortician,” “drunken Mormon,” and “manic Clark Kent,” among others), and we all had a great time. Thanks to Justin Landon and Steve Drew for putting it together.
Speaking of Steve Drew, I did a live Reddit AMA that quickly devolved into Sam Sykes and the Sykes Gang thinking up dumber and dumber questions and me trying to out-dumb them. No one won. I can never run for public office because of this.
Brian McClellan was delightful to meet. One of my favorite things that happened at the con was when we were all ordering drinks, and Brian, with more panache and confidence than I personally could ever muster, ordered a gigantic piece of chocolate cake instead. I have no idea why this delighted me so much, but it continues to do so.
I wasn’t paying attention to the Hugo Awards come 11:00 PM, but when Scalzi walked in to the elevator with a bigass rocket in his hand, that pretty much gave me an idea of what had gone down.
And having Galen Dara, who once did the website for The Troupe, win her Hugo award… well, that just pleased the utter shit out of me.
There are a lot of great, excellent people I’m forgetting here because I’m a big dumb loser. Do not have your feelings hurt – I cannot remember much of anything that happened after 12:00 AM or so each night. Memory is not my strong suit in this matter.
Anyway, on to the embarrassing photos. (Yes, I suck at formatting. Deal with it.)
Just taking a moment to officially announce that YES, I am going to Worldcon, which is officially called “LonestarCon,” because this Worldcon is 100% sponsored by Lone Star Beer, the official beer of Texas, any other beer is treason please drink lone star beer (the official beer of Texas pleasedrinklonestarbeer).
Here are some things you need to know about me at Worldcon, because I am a personage of GREAT DELICACY.
Here are the rules for engaging with me:
I am probably about the worst multitasker in the world.
Well, that’s not completely true – I can multitask pretty well provided the tasks are all united in a single goal. Say, writing a novel – that’s not one task, but about fifty or so tasks going on simultaneously. That sort of stuff I can do. I think of these as “projects,” really big endeavors that tend to take up my thoughts when I’m in the shower in the morning, when I can’t sleep at night, when I’m cleaning, driving, etc.
What I can’t do, at all, is support more than one project at once. I just can’t do it. I find I have this weird sort of myopia that could be mistaken for determination and focus, were my attention given in moderation. But it isn’t – I give myself to this One Big Thing I’m doing wholeheartedly, I let it dominate all the “background” processes in my brain, and whenever I’m bored, my thoughts stray to that One Big Thing and nothing else.
And when I go home, I want to do absolutely nothing. Usually. Shifting gears between the One Big Thing and all the other stuff one must do to keep one’s self and family afloat takes a hell of a lot of energy.
I definitely don’t want to blog when I’m in this mode. What’s there to blog about? There’s the One Big Thing, and how it is or isn’t done, and the degree of its doneness is probably of very little interest to anyone else. The only thing I can say is, “Nope, not done yet,” and go back to it.
So, if you’re curious why I haven’t blogged in nearly a month, that’s why. I have A Project. And until that project is done, I probably won’t be doing much else. And though the end is in sight, there’s little more I can say than, “Nope, not done yet.”
BECAUSE I’M WORKING GODDAMN IT
I’ve often held the opinion that I’d much rather provide a rich, fascinating mess than a clean, efficient diversion, and I’m happy to see that John H Stevens over at the SF Signal appears to have enjoyed AMERICAN ELSEWHERE in the exact manner I’d hoped.
What makes this feel. . . well, not “realistic” but resonant are all of those messy moments that inform the characters’ respective viewpoints and actions. The novel’s power comes from giving the reader so much information that there is a lived feeling to the experience of reading the story, and that makes what the characters go through, and how they deal with the ends of their worlds, that make American Elsewhere so satisfying to read.