On Expertise

A perspective on Readercon:

This weekend I went to my first Readercon. There’s a lot to like about Readercon, but there’s also a lot to dislike. To start off with, the name is false advertising. This isn’t a con that centers itself on or meets the needs of readers, or enables readers to talk to each other. This is a professional networking conference that also meets the needs of a small set of fans, most of whom seem to be white, male, and over 50. It is designed, in many ways large and small, to reinforce the status of professionals–particularly writers, but also editors, paid critics, and academics–above that of people who are “just fans” or “just readers.”

The con’s setup (everything from the programming to the hotel selection) allows and encourages this group of people to talk to each other, and fans and readers to express appreciation to this set of authorities, but does very little to encourage literary conversation as a conversation among equals. Readership, audience reaction, is strongly encouraged to stay within strict bounds; criticism and participation in the discussion are treated as privileges accorded to a few, not the basic rights of every reader.

(I was going to do a general post-Readercon links post, but then it was pointed out to me that the relevant links are already being collected at the Readercon livejournal community, so I suggest you go there, instead, and I’m just going to single out this one post.)

I haven’t been to a Readercon. It’s always been on my list of conventions I’d like to go to someday, but to date has never quite made it to the top, because the constellation of writers it places in the centre of the field is in large part not a constellation that particularly excites me. (I have a memory of seeing, in a panel description somewhere, a statement to the effect that Little, Big was the definitive Readercon book, to which my response was: right, well, this is not for me, then.) But I have to say that this description of it, though intended as criticism, really, really makes me want to go.

Panel discussions have always been part of the draw of conventions, for me. I can get readerly discussion of books in conversation with friends, down the pub, or online; I can, almost literally, get it all the damn time if I want. At conventions it is what the bar is for, what going out for meals is for, what book groups are for. You know what I can’t get on a regular basis? What I very rarely get enough of even at a convention? The experience of listening to experts on a particular topic discuss it in depth. That, to me, is what panels are for.

When I started going to conventions, I chose the panels I wanted to go to by topic. This proved to be a very hit-and-miss way to approach things, as you can imagine. So then I started to choose panels based on the panelists, because experience taught me that nine times out of ten, published authors will be more interesting on a panel focused on a topic they know about than “just fans”, and a good proportion of the time critics and academics will be more interesting than authors.

(Note that I do not consider myself a critic, precisely because of the status implications of the term. I am not putting myself in the top tier of panelists that I’m creating in the paragraph above, and if I went to a Readercon and was offered more than, say, a panel on the collected work of Stephen Baxter, I would think something had gone wrong somewhere. You would be amazed [or maybe not] at the breadth of the shallowness of my knowledge of sf and fantasy. Note, also, that I am talking about literary panels; science and technology panels, fan panels, culture panels and so forth are a different kettle of fish. And I tend to go to less of them.)

I have lost count of the number of times that audience involvement has been the death of a fascinating panel discussion. Few phrases strike fear into my heart like, “This is really more of a comment than a question …” Sometimes the audience discussion phase is fascinating and insightful; but mostly, not. And there are obvious reasons why problems arise: a room is more difficult to moderate and focus than a panel. These reasons are not insurmountable, but if they are surmounted then you get a different kind of discussion — it becomes, again, the kind of discussion I can easily get in other times and places.

Of course, this approach to panels necessitates among other things (a) a convention committee who can be trusted to find the five best people for a given discussion, and (b) a programme book that allows con-goers to find out who the names on the panels are. Readercon seems to have (b) covered, since it provides more extensive biographies of panelists than any other programme book I’ve ever seen. The other criticism in the post linked above, though, is that they’re not so good at (a): “There are a number of perspectives which simply do not appear–particularly those of people of color, but also those of younger generations, queer people, women, young professionals, poor or working class people, and fields of literary criticism developed since 1968.” This is, no doubt, a problem, and makes me move Readercon back down my list of priorities. If they’re not including a wide variety of perspectives, they’re not finding the best five people to discuss a topic, which undermines the whole point of being so strict about the regulation of panels.

But in principle, a convention that, within the panel format, unashamedly celebrates expertise? Bring it on.