Fri
May 22 2009 12:35pm

Tor.com at WisCon

We’re a few hours from the official start of WisCon, the world’s first—and largest—feminist science fiction convention, held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. WisCon is my (and many people’s) favorite convention of the year, but the concept can be somewhat baffling to anyone who’s never thought about how one might combine activism with science fiction fandom. I can’t explain it much better than WisCon’s already has on their homepage:

WisCon encourages discussion and debate of ideas relating to feminism, gender, race and class. WisCon welcomes writers, editors and artists whose work explores these themes as well as their many fans.

If you’re still baffled, a look at this year’s programming slate will go a long way towards explaining where the discussion will be starting off this year, but it can’t really convey the way that WisCon’s social system functions. Like any convention, WisCon leads to the Brigadoon-like effect where it feels like no time has passed between annual iterations. This is undoubtedly amplified by the deliberately constrained size of the convention (a thousand people max) and the self-selecting pool that it draws. This leads to a vibrant, dedicated, and very interconnected community.

I doubt I’ll be be blogging from the convention because I’ll be too busy learning, having fun, and attending fabulous readings; but I do wish that the social agenda that WisCon focuses on was better represented on Tor.com. To that end, I’d like to invite all members of the WisCon community to a Tor.com mini-meetup at Michaelangelo’s Coffeehouse (enter at 114 N. State Street or 114 N. Carroll Street) from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 23, 2009. Stop by at any point during that time frame, I’ll buy you some coffee, and we’ll chat about what Tor.com has been up to and where we should think about heading in the future. You can also talk to me about this at any time throughout the WisCon weekend (especially at the Tor party, which will be from 9:00 p.m. to who-knows-when in room 629), but Michaelangelo’s will be your best shot at a lengthy and lively discussion.

Spread the word! I hope to see some of you there.

14 comments
Eugene Myers
1. ecmyers
OK, now you're just rubbing in the fact that I'm not there again this year. Have fun at your con! Don't eat the food!
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
My instinctive reaction is that the readership of Tor.com makes it not a safe space for the kinds of discussion that happen at and around WisCon.

But my reaction is very likely colored by (1) my experience in the WoT re-read comment sections (which I stopped reading in disgust a while back), though I don't know how much the many people who participate in those discussions read the rest of the site and (2) being so tired of seeing these discussions turn into bingo games.

I guess the positive contribution I can make is that there may need to be some fairly extensive 101/ground rules posts first.
Johnny Chan
3. Johnny Chan
What was wrong with the discussion in the WoT blogs?

I'm glad that fantasy has an outlet for feminism, but I don't think I'll go to that conference myself. In general, I think this is too much a niche-conference for me. However, I might go to feminism panel at something like DragonCon. It is something that is so outside my normal realm of experience that it might actually be entertaining.
C.D. Thomas
4. cdthomas
Just Torie's insistence in pointing out the broadcast radiation of sexism in her TOS reviews gets either:

a) the "OK, OK, we get it!" response (which would make sense if anyone reviewed TOS on this website before); or

b) the "can't you lie back and enjoy it?" comments (which I'm surprised hasn't yet been posted by the "hi, I'm a girl, 26, hott, and *I'm* never offended by recreational sexism" contingent).

Male-identified commenters knocking down even glancing mentions of sexism in genre work is part of most open Internet discussion boards. Their knee-jerk response serves as a glancing blow to forestall any later criticism of scantily-clad damsels as soft porn, and of the lack of similarly-clad male images as its own stew of sexism and homophobia. It's worked well for close to 30 years, so why should they stop now?
Kate Nepveu
5. katenepveu
Johnny Chan, here is the comment where I stopped participating the comment sections of the WoT re-reads.

I do not wish to resume that discussion and I provide that link only for information.

Further, I note that calling a discussion of the idea that men and women are equal "something that is so outside my normal realm of experience that it might actually be entertaining" is a perfect example of the challenges of hosting such discussions on a general-purpose site.
Luke M
6. lmelior
Wow, there's a lot of great stuff there. I feel sorry for the people who are attending, since they'll have to choose which discussion to attend on Friday at 4:00. There are at least four in that time slot alone I'd love to attend. At 9:00 that night, of course, would be Tyrannosaurs in F-14s! for me. Calvin & Hobbes good. Plenty of good stuff to fill out the rest of the weekend, too.

Now, if only one of these conventions would ever occur closer than 1500 miles away...

@Kate 2
I don't know Kate, the sympathetic and non-confrontational crowd is well-represented in those discussions. I'd wager that the few...ahem...vocal anti-feminists wouldn't make an appearance on principle, or at least aren't so confrontational in person. You know, courage in anonymity and all that. In any case, surely any thoughtful discussion that includes people of dissenting viewpoints makes it far more worthwhile. Otherwise it's merely preaching to the choir.
Johnny Chan
7. firkin
katenepveu@2: there may need to be some fairly extensive 101/ground rules posts first.

+100

which is not an argument against trying, just that it ought to be done thoughtfully, and in a way that encourages productive, respectful discussion, to the extent that that's possible. (also, more transparent moderation would be good too.) indeed, i think not trying at all only helps maintain the default position that this stuff has only niche-level relevance, and is not an important part of sff writing and culture as a whole.

i, for one, do appreciate when sexism, racism, etc are raised or called out when they come up in the text (ST:TOS and LOTR posts, frex).
Johnny Chan
8. Johnny Chan
I didn't say that having a conversation about men and women being equal is outside my normal realm of experience.

I said that going to a sci-fi panel on feminism is way outside my normal realm of experience. I don't see the harm in admitting the truth. Very few men have ever ventured into such a place.

I remember being part of several conversations about feminism in college, but I've certainly never been to a conference about it. But I am totally open to a conference. Personally, I treat the women and men in my life equally well in all aspects of my life. Professionally, I see women exactly like men, maybe better. Since I work in healthcare, the women are usually much more capable of expressing empathy than the men are. In my medical school class men are actually the minority now.

However, in the sporting world I am always hesitant to play against women. I know there are great women athletes, much better than myself, but I generally don't like mixing sexes in sports unless the skill levels are equal.

Anyway this conversation kind of reminds of a quote Perrin made once. Perrin was talking about how 'Men just are' and Egwene then something like 'maybe that's why you do such a lousy job at it.' I would personally be more interested in a something for men that taught us how to be a proper man without emasculating us. I'm not implying, however, that your conference is emasculating men. It is probably doing the complete opposite. However, I would be interest in more discussion on Masculism. Sadly, I've never seen a course about that offered in college.

In med. school we are turning it around though. Women's health has always been a HUGE topic. Men's health has been ignored in comparison. However, there has been a big resurgence on topics of Men's health. I definitely see this as a positive change.
Kate Nepveu
9. katenepveu
lmelior, yes, it's just that "dissenting viewpoints" covers a really wide range of responses, some of which certainly enrich the discussion and some of which make it extremely difficult to keep the discussion going at all.

But firkin is right, it is important that discussions continue and not be relegated to "stuff that only matters to a few overexcitable women/racial minorities/etc."

Like I said, I'm just tired. It happens. You can take that as a really really minor point in favor of the need, if you like.
David Goldfarb
10. David_Goldfarb
Should we refer to that "Wheel of Time" discussion as FaileFail?
Liz Gorinsky
11. TooMuchExposition
All: thanks for your comments, and sorry for the delay in responding. The con tends to eat one's brains once it gets underway.

Kate: I do share your concerns about how the Tor.com readership would react to an increased emphasis on social issues--I haven't been reading the WoT threads myself because they're not my bag, but I've been discouraged by some of the comments on the Star Trek threads--but I think there's plenty of people around here that would like to get beyond that point, which is part of the reason why I'd like to start thinking about what steps we can take to have some more useful discussions around here. Tor.com has thousands of commenters and hundreds of thousands of readers, and although some of them are here to have conversations about one or several very specific things, there's also a more generalist community that could both benefit from and eventually start enjoying meatier conversations about the political implications of the media they're enjoying. It's also worth noting that while the comment threads are a large part of what we do, they're far from the only thing, and I'd love to get the word out / get everyone's thoughts about increasing diversity (of both opinion and background) in our blogger pool, the stories and comics we publish, the artists in our gallery, and everything else we do. I'm not saying we're going to be amazing at this overnight, but I'm hopeful that Tor.com can somehow contribute something useful to the discussion or the community and would love to talk to anyone who has ideas or suggestions about how we can start.

Edited to clarify: In my comment yesterday I mentioned Tor.com's fine community manager Torie Atkinson in a context that was misleading and unfair, accidentally attributing some opinions to her that were really my own. This was thoughtless of me and I'm sorry. I have amended the comment to correct this attribution. More generally, I've also started a discussion about how we might improve one particular aspect of Tor.com without mentioning the many things that Tor.com is doing right already. Fact is, it's because I love the site that I think it's worth encouraging growth in this direction, and I'm hoping that most of the people who show up for the conversation will also be there because they see a lot of potential in the site and want to take it the extra mile.

From a purely practical perspective, I've also realized that I should let everyone know that if you're looking for me in Michaelangelo's, I'll be the tall lady with long dark-blonde hair wearing black and white.
Kate Nepveu
12. katenepveu
Liz, of course you're right; I was unduly narrow in my focus. I have a couple of preliminary thoughts and will keep thinking, but may I e-mail you with them? I think it would be more productive.
Richard Fife
13. R.Fife
I have an oddly guilty conscience over this discussion, and I don't really know why. I know that I may sometimes propose some more, um, radical?, yeah, radical interpretations of what is going on, and I know I've upset one or two people with said interpretations (both in WoT and ST:TOS, amazingly enough). So, um, sorry. I never meant to upset anyone, nor did I actually advocate (well, not often) the interprations I was voicing without strong cavaets of "in this fictional world".

That said, this is a problem I've always found with trying to discuss actual potent social issues within the body of SF/F: no matter what, it takes place in a fictional world that is at its best a first order approximation. I mean, yes, Robert Jordan, for example, wrote an interesting world that attempted to discuss, among many things, "what would it be like if men and women were socially equal?" I think there has been some very good discussion about the meaning of that within the context of his world, but I am curious (not skeptical, just curious) of the value such discussion has in a real life context where we don't have "Tar Valon Witches" acting as an equalizing force and an already historically gender-neutral society.

I am not saying such discussion cannot be done, but I think it definately adds an extra layer of meta-data and distance to the discussion. Yes, I enjoy the discussion, but I think as WoT and ST:TOS have shown, it can be easy to step on toes. I don't think any of us are the "monsters" we might seem on the internet, we are just dealing with a discussion via bursts of text that already rob us of 90ish % of our communication (non-verbal), but then adding onto it having to translate from a fictional universe to our own and the already deep perils of any communication between us fallible beings prone to mis-representing our ideas through the fallacy of language.
Liz Gorinsky
14. TooMuchExposition
Aaah! Sorry for the delay in following through here. WisCon was very intense but very good, but the few days since have been Very Not Good, mostly due to real life monsters like airlines. So, belatedly:

Kate @ 12: That would be great! (I'm at first dot last at tor dot com or gmail dot com if you don't know already). And in case you're not watching this thread anymore, I'll try to dig up your e-mail address and get in touch with you.

Richard @ 13: That's an interesting point, and I'm amused in retrospect that I've never for a second thought about whether it was worth examining how fantastical books measure up to my real-life politics; I've just done it. I'm going to give an over-hasty and ill-thought-out response to your questions, but I'm sure I'll keep rolling this around in the back of my head and refining my position. Basically, I can't buy the argument that what happens in fiction doesn't matter in the real world because to most of the people I know, it *does* matter: I'm sure I'm not the only one here whose greatest and most reliable friends through my early teen years were books, and although I spent many of those years reading indiscriminately, there was certainly a point when I started to form an ethical compass and a sense of identity and wanted the books I kept company with to fit within the former and not undermine the latter. And, sure, if something takes place in a universe that's radically different than ours, it will affect how many of the lessons contained therein we can apply to our own lives. But the more fiction one reads the easier it is to see how a work does on this front relative to other works, and if one is a reader who has (for example) a preference for books where white males are not the only characters with agency, one might prefer some fantasy books that do a markedly better job at this than others.

I totally agree with you that it can be tough to get across exactly what one means to say (and only that) in a purely textual medium, but I think highlighting aspects of fictional works that do well on this front, and addressing concerns about the ones that don't, is of interest and value to enough readers and watchers that it's worth jumping into the fray.

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