Guest Post: Enter the Dragon*Con

by Jaym Gates

If you haven’t been to Dragon*Con before, here’s a little background. The convention takes place, technically, from Friday-Monday, over Labor Day weekend, in Atlanta. Most people come in on Thursday. A lot of us get there on Wednesday. Over 40,000 people pre-register, packing five hotels to overflowing. (Following some law of the universe, the escalator in the Hyatt always breaks down on Saturday afternoon.) The size can be overwhelming.

The programming tracks cover a wide range, from writer’s workshops to Q&A sessions with popular actors. There really is some of everything here, if you can find it. This is the third time I’ve gone, and I’ve never managed to make it to more than a handful of panels. There’s just too much to do and see.

Earlier this year, the director of the SF Literature track asked me to moderate the Race In SF panel. I was a little nervous, but I’ve been asking for more panels on topics like this for a long time, so I said yes.

One week before the con, social media blew up with the Weird Tales debacle. Watching good friends fly to opposite sides of the debate was an excellent reminder that this is an ongoing, gnarly issue with no clear solution. My butterflies tripled in size. It was even more nerve-wracking to find the room nearly at capacity, 20 minutes before the panel.

My co-panelists were L.M. Davis, Eugie Foster and Janny Wurts. I knew, going in, that an hour was nowhere near long enough to discuss the topic, so we focused on certain angles. Davis had already led a panel on African American issues in SF, allowing us to open the discussion from that into the past and future of race issues and representation. The discussion was positive and challenging.

Wurts brought up an issue closely tied to negative representation: whitewashing all the issues out of a culture or time-period. Her books are also considered subversive in Japan, and so we discussed the potential of literature to be escapism in one setting, and culturally revolutionary in another. The hour passed too quickly, and we could only take a few questions at the end.

I stuck around for a few minutes afterward, curious about the audience’s response. Nearly half of them had stayed, breaking into small groups and eagerly debating the subject. The groups were notably mixed, too, strangers taking the opportunity to listen and learn and ask questions.

These were fans, people who maybe were just starting to write or be published and readers. They are the people the authors and publishers started out as, and the ones who will be deciding the future of the industry. After a few years of attending conventions mostly populated by writers, it was a refreshing change of pace to hear from a larger crowd.

It is also interesting to see the difference in demographics. There were several pointed posts after WorldCon, decrying the lack of racial discussion and diversity. But sitting at a table at Dragon*Con, the sea of faces was far from monochromatic. There were panels on multiple racial issues that were well-attended and well-received. The guests were as diverse as the attendees.

Conventions like WorldCon and World Fantasy are wonderful. It’s a chance to catch up with peers and talk about work, to drink in the bar with your fellows. But it’s a relatively closed system.

But conventions like Dragon*Con, ComiCon and GenCon offer the opportunity to reconnect with the people we should really be paying attention to. They offer a view of geekdom at large, and a reminder that our small, tightly-knit community really isn’t that small anymore. It’s big, vibrant, colorful and kind of scary in the best of ways, and that’s just fine. It’s good to leave our ivory towers and mingle in the marketplace sometimes. Taste, smell, find the new and exotic and see what you can learn from your fans and younger colleagues.

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Jaym Gates is a publicist and editor. Her clients include Prime Books, Pathfinder Tales, M.K. Hobson, and more. In her copious spare time, she games, trains horses, and writes. She can be found on Twitter as @JaymGates.

3 Responses

  1. Morgan Alreth

    You mention, “…whitewashing all the issues out of a culture or time-period.”

    There are frequent, often not-so-subtle, demands on the submission guidelines for at least some magazines that political correctness must be strictly observed. It’s not stated in those blunt terms, but that’s what it boils down too.

    Ironic, since speculative fiction is supposed to fearlessly explore possibilities. Or it used to.

    I am reminded of those who periodically scream about banning Huckleberry Finn due to Twain’s use of the (at the time normal and expected) use of that taboo word that we americans are barred from uttering on pain of social catastrophe.

    How realistic can an imaginary society possibly be, if everyone in it is as tolerantly enlightened as a 21st century member of the Western intelligentsia? Seriously?

    A stone age society, where anyone not of your clan was lunch? Copper or Bronze Age, where all females were currency, infanticide was safer and greatly preferable to abortion, and outlanders were the source of so much public entertainment amidst parties while they were being burned alive?

    Perhaps a steampunk culture, like the British empire? Those Brits were enlightened and tolerant people. Just ask the Zulu.

    If people don’t want to read something, here’s a concept. They can always put it down.

  2. Andrew Trembley

    After a few years of attending conventions mostly populated by writers, it was a refreshing change of pace to hear from a larger crowd.

    I’ve had this argument with pros before.

    World Fantasy Convention is primarily a networking convention for genre professionals. I’ve worked on a WFC. That’s what the WFC board likes. There was some grumbling about how many Neil Gaiman fans displaced pros by registering early for the San Diego WFC.

    Worldcon, on the other hand, isn’t.

    Sure, you can spend your whole time at the con-within-a-con genre professionals bubble. You can go to the SFWA suite and avoid fans. You can spend all your time in pro-heavy publisher parties. You can find out from your peers what hotel bar has been designated “the writers’ bar.”

    Or you can spend some time on pro commitments, and the rest of your time hanging out with fans. Pouring drinks at the Barfleet party, like Seanan McGuire did this year. Leading a tour of the art show, like Teresa Nielsen Hayden did. Participating in “Writer under Glass” in the Fanzine Lounge (I think I remember Charlie Stross, Nancy Fulda and Lauren Beukes contributing).

    Yes, it does skew older and whiter than Dragon*Con. Yes, you never know exactly what you’re going to get, it’s a different city, different hotels and a substantially different committee every year.

    But that risk of a bad con is balanced by new fans from different parts of the world, fans who wouldn’t consider traveling to Atlanta but will take a chance on Worldcon if it’s in their backyard. Because, frankly, Helsinki may have an uphill battle to win the 2015 Worldcon, but Dragon*Con will never be in Helsinki. Or London. Or Montreal. Or Boston. Or San Jose.

  3. Jaym Gates

    I completely agree that WorldCon, WFC and even the smaller pro cons have their place and are important to the genre. As much as anything here, I speak to my own prejudices: when I weigh what cons I WANT to go to, it comes down to WFC, the Nebulas, etc. Dragon*Con is big, hot, expensive and exhausting. It’s hard for people to meet up.

    But it’s important, and I need to remember that as much as anyone.

    Also, I’m about the millionth person to say this, but GO HELSINKI!!!