August 11th 2009
A Part, Yet Apart
So, I’ve been thinking about the science fiction convention experience and wondering if I’m alone in my relationship with cons or whether it’s something more general to writers attempting to make their way up the pro ladder. Because, as a professional genre writer I find that I feel both a part of the convention community and apart from it.
It has not always been this way for me. I am a 3rd generation fan, my mother and grandmother were part of the effort to save the original Star Trek series and somewhere around here I have typewritten note from the series producers thanking them for their efforts along with a black and white publicity photo. OTOH, they were not convention going fans. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I first went to a convention, the old MiniCon, when it was huge.
I had a blast. And for about a decade I went to MiniCon every year. Then, for various reasons I stopped going. It was about the same time that I got really serious about my writing and decided to make a career of it, but the two events were largely unrelated. Then for maybe 6-8 years I didn’t attend a con. I finally started going to conventions again in my early 30s with WisCon which I first went to for the combined allure of a writer heavy convention and a feminist/academic convention. Since my wife is an academic who does research on women in science from within the physics department she now chairs, it made for a great twofer.
Because WisCon is much more professional and academically oriented than MiniCon was, it took me a number of years to notice how my relationship with conventions had changed. It wasn’t until I started going to MarsCon and CONvergence in the Twin Cities that it really hit home.
I used to go to cons as a fan/actor and make costume/clothes changes every couple of hours. I never went to panels. I always went to parties. I wanted to make a certain kind of splash and I often did. I certainly gave the concom people reason to roll their eyes at me on occasion, like when I was playing in the pool in 30 pounds of chainmail or sliding down the steel slope between the escalators. I felt completely immersed in the experience and as though I was surrounded by my people.
When I returned to the convention scene I did so in professional clothes (I even wore a suit coat from time to time, though I draw the line at ties). I attended and was on tons of panels, mostly about writing. I rarely went to parties. I went out of my way to not stress out the concom folks. I was shooting for a very different kind of splash.
Now, some of that is simply that I did an enormous amount of growing up between the two phases of my convention-going, but a lot of it had to do with my changed relationship to the genre. I no longer saw the creators of the various f&sf media as people apart from me, people whose job it was to entertain me. I had come to think of them as my peers, and in ever growing numbers, my friends. Andre Norton was no longer ANDRE NORTON! She was someone I shared an agent with. Instead of seeing NEIL GAIMAN, I see someone I’ve had tea with. The concom was no longer a mysterious entity whose radar it was best to keep off of. Rather, the people running the convention are long time friends and acquaintances.
At the same time I’ve grown closer to the people making things run at conventions and the creators of the field, I’ve grown more distant from the general run of fans. That’s partially because you interact differently with someone who is a fan of yours than you do with someone with whom your primary point of commonality is a shared fandom of someone else, and partially because knowing more creators and more about the process makes me much more reluctant to indulge in some of the more nasty sorts of criticism I once might have made. It’s not so much that I don’t have strong opinions about whether I like something or not as that I’m much more reluctant to think of my tastes as being the same as good taste or to claim that there is one true standard of quality. Again, a lot of that is simply growing up, but not all of it.
So, while I find that I go to many more conventions than I used to and that I still love the experience I have in some ways stepped out of my old role as a part of the clan and into a new one that holds me at least a little bit apart from the clan. It’s role that I am proud to have assumed, but it is not always a comfortable one.
What about you? How do you relate to conventions? If you’re a pro or aspiring pro has that relationship changed over time?
Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.
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