Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #54

Crisis Point: The 2020 World Fantasy Convention 

By Chris M. Barkley: On the few occasions that I was privileged to head up the World Science Fiction Convention’s Press Office, I gave my staff members a great deal of latitude in their duties. However, I had only one directive that was absolutely sacred; if they spotted a member, staffer or volunteer that was in need of assistance, they were to stop whatever they were doing and render assistance.   

In my 44-plus years of congoing, volunteering and activism, I have come to believe that fandom is family; we may not all be related on a familial basis and we all may not agree on certain points or get along with each other, but more often than not, we try to be available to each other and when the offer of help is made, it is be heartfelt and genuine. 

So I felt more than a bit of discomfort when I initially heard about the travails of the 2020 World Fantasy Convention. 

The controversy surrounding the Salt Lake City based bid started when the preliminary list of convention programming items were posted online, which is chronicled here. miyuki jane pinckard, an eminent writer and game designer offered her concerns in an open letter that was published on a Google Docs page.

The most immediate reactions to the posting were swift and harsh, charging that the programming staff was elitist, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and generally tone deaf.

Well known author and editor K. Tempest Bradford has an extensive history of difficulties and criticisms of WFC which she lays out here. Bradford, and others whom she offers evidentiary links to, are spot on about how previous World Fantasy Convention Board of Directors and convention committees have repeatedly failed to address a variety of issues. Mainly of accessibility for disabled members, sexual harassment and a lack of diversity in programming and staffing at conventions among MANY other things.

Ms. Bradford did not pull any punches in her commentary; condemning the Chair, Ginny Smith and WFC’s Board of Directors for not responding sooner to her email entreaties about systemic problems they continually seem to suffer from over a long period of time. In an addendum to her blog post, dated October 10th), Ms. Bradford wrote the following:

It has now been almost 10 years of this. At this point, if you are attending and/or participating in WFC 2020 you are participating in a system that is unsafe for BIPOC and other marginalized attendees and has been for a long time.

And yes, even if they “fix” the many program items with problematic content thanks to help from panelists, I still say: don’t go. Remember, we’ve done this dance before. More than once. And they were offered help and guidance on how not to have this happen. Don’t reward them by accepting last-minute changes that had to be spearheaded by folks who have probably already done too much emotional labor around this.

It should not be on BIPOC and other marginalized folks to clean up after white people who refuse to do right unless Twitter gets mad at them.

I asked folks on Twitter not to help them with programming for these reasons and then I said:

Hey there white, able-bodied, cishet ppl of SFF who constantly claim allyship with marginalized folk: Now’s the time to prove it.

WFC depends on you to come even if BIPOC don’t. Therefore: drop your membership or, at least, rescind participation on panels. Take a stand.

I stand by this ask. Even though I’m apparently being too “extreme“. This hella long post is my testament to why.

So, it appears to me that Ms. Bradford, and many others it seems, have come to the conclusion that the World Fantasy Convention no longer has any value and must be boycotted or ended completely. Doors are to be slammed closed, roads completely destroyed and bridges are to be set alight and burn brightly.

I am going to beg to differ.

But, before I do so, I am going to point out a few things.

I have only attended one and a quarter World Fantasy Conventions in my life. I went to the 1983 convention in Chicago, which featured Gene Wolfe and Manly Wade Wellman as the author guests, Rowwena Morrrill as the Artist GoH and Robert Bloch as the Toastmaster. It was a very relaxed and rather subdued convention in comparison to the six Worldcons I had previously attended. And hey, I got to meet and chat with Fritz Leiber! I had a good time.

As I became more involved with attending and working at Worldcons, I just couldn’t fit the WFC into my schedule, either economically or timewise. I did have the opportunity to go on a day trip to the 2010 Convention in Columbus and hang out in the public areas for a few hours and chat with a few friends, but that was about all. This is the extent of my involvement with the WFC.

Reader, this past Thursday evening, I received an email from Ginny Smith, asking for my help. I got around to reading it Friday morning. 

At this point in time, I was unaware of miyuki jane pinckard’s letter nor had read Ms. Bradford’s or anyone else’s comments on Twitter.

It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. Ms. Smith, a person who I had never heard of or met before, asked for my help. 

And I, without hesitation said yes. Why?

First, because it is my nature to help. Maybe it’s a remnant of my Catholic grade school upbringing, my Boy Scout training or my unbreakable convention rule. My first instinct is to render assistance, if possible. 

Secondly, I live by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., whose framed picture hangs prominently on my office wall and features the following quote, “The time is always right to do what is right.”  

I Immediately sought out and found the File 770 post, pinckard’s letter and Ms. Bradford’s comments. Frankly, none of what I found looked good for Ms. Smith or the convention. She explained to me in a follow up email that she was a complete novice at con-running and was in way over her head from the start. She also told me that she had made several apologies about the snafu and that others beside myself were helping out as well.

One of those people is Christine Taylor-Butler, an African-American author who is a graduate of MIT and Art & Design. She is the creator of the The Lost Tribes young adult series and an impressive number of other fiction and non-fiction books (80!) for children whose various subjects range from a biography of Michelle Obama, to the physical sciences, geography and United States History and Civics.

The other person declined to be identified. The reason she specifically stated was that she doesn’t want others to assume that she is available to perform a similar function for dozens of other conventions. Actually, what she was quoted saying, “I’m simply taking the principle of white people helping to clean up the messes white people have created.” So, respect.

Ms. Smith specifically asked me to review a number of the program items that people found objectionable and offer some insights on how they could be revised to be more inclusive and not offensive. 

I spent a majority of my day Saturday writing up critiques of the titles and descriptions of the panels. I also gave her a few pointed comments on how the Board could have been more helpful in her endeavors. Here are two of the examples:

  • Program Item 30: Norse and Germanic Fantasy: The Northern Thing

Original Description: “Beowulf to the Niebelungenlied, Norse and Germanic myth have been one of the major notes sounded by European and Anglophone fantasy and arguably the basis of sword and sorcery as we know it. We find such echoes from the works of William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkein, Paul Anderson From to more recent works like David Drake, Diana Paxson, George R.R. Martin, and Marvel Comics Thor. Let us explore this particular magic…“

Criticism: “The disparity present in compiling the cultural traditions of the entire rest of the world into one panel while devoting an entire panel on Norse and Germanic tales is telling. This is the most highly detailed panel, with specific authors mentioned, a courtesy that was not afforded the other panels. There is also no attempt to address the problematic side of Norse mythology and its co-option by white supremacists and fascists, including the Nazis. This should absolutely be part of any panel about being inspired by Norse mythology. And yet, the panel fails to actually name any Nordic writers and focuses entirely on Anglophone writers.”

Revised Suggestion: “From Beowulf to the Niebelungenlied, Norse and Germanic myth have been one of the major notes sounded by European and Anglophone fantasy and arguably the basis of sword and sorcery as we know it. Let us explore this particular magic.”

My Commentary: It seems to me (at least) that the critics of this description doth protest TOO MUCH. (Climbs onto soapbox). I may be Black, but even I am aware of the Norse and German influences generally in Westen culture. And YES, it is both intriguing, thrilling AND problematic. Do the critics think that the panelists are unaware of those problems or wouldn’t actually discuss them? Do the racist undertones really NEED to be described in the panel description? (Climbs off soapbox). So, what the objection is REALLY about is that this is yet another panel about the subject, which they are probably tired of seeing. Point taken. So, the panelists can either have a discussion about how those writers have influenced modern fantasy or they drill down on the older regional writers of the genre. The new description could be adapted to go either way, in my opinion. By the way, it’s Poul Anderson, not Paul Anderson. You’ll get a ton of side eye from eagle eyed fantasy fans for a mistake like that and deservedly so.

  • Program Item 54: Female Tropes and Archetypes

Original Description: “Women characters for years were mostly helpmates and love interests or the reward for an adventure well done. But changes in society have brought a welcome change to this restrictive way of viewing half the populace. How are today’s authors pushing past the old, tired tropes to bring a more real and interesting take on their female characters?”

Criticism: “Female Tropes and Archetypes” feels like a topic that was covered twenty years ago.

Revised Description: None, with this note: “Again, we’re not sure how to respond to this. Yes, it’s a topic that has been covered but continues to have an impact on the genre. So… we’re inclined to leave this one alone?”

My Commentary: OK, this is an easy fix; the problem here is that the panel is gender specific and not very inclusive to other people. So,my suggestion would be: remove “Women” from the title and description and call it Tropes and Archetypes in Fantasy (Modern or Otherwise): Fantasy  characters of all ages, genders and a spectrum of sexualities populate the landscape of Modern Fantasy. Gradual political and societal changes over the past few decades have brought a welcome change to the restrictive way of viewing others who had not previously been considered in the genre. How are today’s authors pushing past the old, tired tropes to bring a more real and interesting take on their fantasy characters?”

In total, I offered my suggestions for eight other programming items that were point of contention.

After the disastrous fiasco of the 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony, it would have been very easy to heed Ms. Bradford and others, and just let the WFC crash and burn on the tarmac and left as a stark warning to other con-runners. 

I, for better or worse, am not one of those people. I believe that the Hugo Awards Ceremony could have been saved with some last minute intervention. I also believe the same can be said of this year’s World Fantasy Convention. 

Ginny Smith, her convention committee and, I hope, its Board of Directors, are working night and day to try to put on a convention that is worthy of attending (albeit virtually) and not fall victim to their earlier mistakes.  

If they were truly as racist and insensitive as their critics have claimed, they could have thrown up their hands and said, ‘This is OUR convention, WE run it as we see fit and YOU  can take it or leave it.” That’s not what I have experienced over the past several days.

Earlier today, the World Fantasy Convention Board of Directors released a statement to me, via an email from Ginny Smith:

“The WFC Board is sensitive to the criticisms by members from marginalized communities within the fantasy and horror genres. We acknowledge the minimal representation of these diverse populations on the Board and are taking steps to rectify that lack of perspective. We have voted to add at least one ex officio member to our number to review future WFC programs. We are currently reaching out to proposed candidates to discuss and will release a statement when the new Board member(s) are chosen.” 

– The World Fantasy Convention Board of Directors 

2020 marks the forty-sixth year for the World Fantasy Convention. In spite of its ongoing problems, I still believe that it still is a vital part of our fannish community and should not be canceled or abandoned. 

I HOPE that the calamitous events and harsh, but justifiable criticisms leveled this year’s edition can finally be the tipping point that finally puts this convention on the right path. This will also involve a lot of introspection AND changes by the Board of Directors, which, among other things, being more transparent about the bidding process, staffing, volunteer memberships, programming, the awards and most importantly, how they operate. 

Because it’s always the right time to open the doors of inquiry, build cultural roadways and reconstruct those emotional bridges.

Right here, right now and without delay!

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12 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #54

  1. I’m going to make a prediction.

    Even if the edited/changed programming items that you and others have worked on end up being unobjectionable and we get to the other side of this year’s WFC without a major fail around accessibility, microaggressions against panelists, or a surprise fail that no one is even looking for (and this is a big IF), I highly doubt we’re going to see a reformed and better World Fantasy going forward.

    I base this prediction on what we’ve seen over the last nine years. Even when there was a year or two where these major problems didn’t crop up, that momentum didn’t last beyond the last day of the con. The WFC board can make statements all day long. Their actions will speak louder.

    If I’m wrong about this prediction? Cool. I’d be happy to be wrong. As I said in my post: I’m tired of being the Cassandra in all this. It would thrill me to no end to see WFC turn itself around.

    Sure, it’s always possible to fix organizations. But if the organization is constantly being fixed at the last minute, after they have already messed up, after people on Twitter complain, then the organization isn’t really getting fixed, is it? And so why should people who are the most vulnerable continue to take part? Because YOU say it’s safe now? Because YOU have good intentions and think we’re all family?

    Do you see why some people might not take your view on this?

  2. I have attended multiple WFC and helped run a couple. It is important to remember that WFC is aimed at professionals in the field, writers, editors etc. not fans (although we do help run the convention). And, inevitably some writers are new. So topics that may seem done to death to fans like yourself who have been active in fandom for decades, are still needed for newer writers who need to learn what the clichés are. WFC also suffers from the fact that each new year has a whole new committee so some lessons learned one year have to be learned again by a different committee.

  3. Samuel Lubell: WFC also suffers from the fact that each new year has a whole new committee so some lessons learned one year have to be learned again by a different committee.

    That point can be stretched too far. World Fantasy Con is hosted by conrunning groups who have had to make presentations to the WFC and convince them they’re capable of putting on an event that will satisfy the board’s requirements. Many times these groups are nonprofit corporations that have held Worldcons and major regional conventions, groups filled with highly-experienced people. In general, they are not groups that need to start over — they’re supposed to be bringing WFC the benefit of many lessons learned.

    Even this year’s WFC2020 committee has some department heads, officers and advisors with decades of experience — some I’ve been on concoms with myself.

  4. I share Chris’s view. I wrote a blog a few months ago talking about how inclusive I felt WFC had been towards me and how I felt my opinions were acknowledged and acted upon. I wouldn’t participate if that weren’t true. I have too much on my plate to spend time in the company of people who act otherwise. I saw the same positive behavior when my daughter attended with me.

    I won’t speak for those who are angry. I can say the view of WFC as an “unsafe” environment is not universally held.

    I was once quoted in an article in Mother Jones on the toxic nature of call out culture. “…The greatest threat to literary diversity is the idea that it is okay to destroy people on social media….”

    At the other end of the personal attacks and assumptions of racism are real people with feelings. Perhaps a different approach is warranted.

    I look forward to this year’s event.

  5. One of the things cited as a “systemic problem”, the programming issues, is also described as being run this year by somebody who describes herself as “a complete novice at con-running”. So is the “systemic problem” what’s causing inexperienced people to be given jobs over their heads? Could be. (Really; the way the WFC board evaluates and approves bids may not be adequately aware of or sensitive to the relationship between the bid committee and other local and non-local conrunners they need to work with.)

    Because there isn’t much system behind WFC. The board is a slowly-changing constant, but after that there’s even less connection between years than there is for Worldcon (and that independence is recognized as a big management challenge for Worldcon).

  6. Chris, thank you for the good work. I’m glad you have been making that valiant effort, and, next time we’re able to gather and you appertain yourself a beverage, might it be on me, sir?

    Great Ghu, an entire con panel on Norse and Germanic myth, in 2020? Even we Norwegian-Americans are sick to death of that. And yes, the fact that I can’t even get the Norwegian Alpine ski team Tyr-rune “attacking Viking” sweater without people thinking I’m a Nazi is not just vexing but something that needs to be covered. (Sheesh, six years of occupation weren’t bad enough, and the Nazis think they can strip-mine our myths, too?)

    I’m idly curious what Chris considers the problematic side of Norse mythology, beyond being the target of said strip-mining by white-surpremacist pinheads. I’d personally nominate it being relentlessly depressing, but maybe that’s just me.

    (Anyway, on behalf of Óðinn, Þórr, Týr, and Freyja, you’re welcome for the four weekday names. And don’t forget, no matter what Marvel Studios claims to the contrary, there’s no ‘h’ sound in Þórr.)

  7. @Rick Moen

    And don’t forget, no matter what Marvel Studios claims to the contrary, there’s no ‘h’ sound in Þórr.

    Strictly speaking, you are correct. The first consonant in the Marvel version of “Thor” is [the symbol called “theta” {my best attempt at encoding in wordpress comments}], the voiceless dental fricative. Even though modern English writing encodes that sound with a combination of the letters “t” and “h”, the actual sound is not made up of the successive combination of the sounds expressed by those two individual letters; i.e., the voiceless alveolar plosive + voiceless glottal fricative. The sound at the beginning of “Thor” is made behind the teeth, and the “h” sound is made at the back of the mouth.

    But I think your actual point was that the common English pronunciation of “Thor” is not equal to the Old Norse pronunciation of “Þórr”. Which is true, and it is a reflection of the fact that the English name for the god in question is a different word than the Old Norse name. English has many words that are different than they are in other languages. So it is perfectly fine for Marvel to call the thunder god a name that starts with a different sound. It’s a different (but related) word.

  8. @bill, I wasn’t being anywhere near that exacting, just having fun.

    FWIW, in modern norsk (Norwegian), that ‘h’ sound in ‘Thor’ isn’t pronounced, either (for the same reasons my Norwegian-born father’s given name Arthur was pronounced like ‘Artur’) — and, even though I’m perfectly copacetic with (e.g.) the English language saying ‘Nicosia’ rather than the original Greek’s Lefkosia, and Venice rather than the original Italian’s Venezia, nonetheless as a Norwegian-American I’m just ever so slightly pained every time a Marvel Studios actor pronounces the ‘h’ in Thor.

  9. I’m a POC and have only attended two WFCs (2009 and 2011). As a fan, I have to admit that I was blown away by the number of wonderful authors there were. I felt totally welcome and included, even though I only knew my roommate at the con. I had some lovely chats with authors in the consuite.

    No con is perfect, but I love going, when I can. If people think they’re awful, don’t go. But don’t tell me not to.

  10. Pingback: Virtual World Fantasy Con 2020 Updates Program; WFC Board Announces They Will Add Member to Review Future WFC Programs | File 770

  11. @Chris, as always, thank you for making the world better.
    I’ve never been to a WFC. A friend, of the pale persuasion, has and said it was a blast. I would like it to be for everyone, so Tempest’s comments are a deep concern. Some people, need a lot of help to change, if they ever change.

    It’s not some vague organization who needs help. It’s specific people, thinking specific things. I don’t want to call people out, but should we have a general discussion describing what WFC should be and how we can get there, so the people involved have clear ideas to work from? Or has this been done already? (yeah, I’m new here).

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