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The Big Con

August 10th, 2008 1 comment

I’m just back from Worldcon in Denver.  The weekdays before that I was back in Jersey, visiting the family; the two weeks before that, I was prepping for Worldcon and putting a slew of rare books up for auction on ebay.

Simply put: I’ve been busy.  This is not any great concern, because I’d had the topic of this essay picked out some time ago: the con.  Worldcon, after all, is a different beast from other conventions, partly due to size and partly due to content.  Many of the readers may have never attended one.

There are people who attend these conventions every year.  For my part, I try to attend at least one major every year… Worldcon (SF/Fantasy), World Horror (Horror), World Fantasy (Fantasy/Horror), Bouchercon (Mystery/Thriller), San Diego ComiCon (Comics/Media) and Dragoncon (Media/Writing) have taken up happy weekends over the past decade, sometimes seeing me behind a table as a dealer and sometimes in front of it as a regular attendee.  Each con has a different feel.

DragonCon and SDCC are huge experiments in the herding of people.  As one of dozens of thousands of people, it’s hard not to feel like you’re not a participant, but merely another cog in a great machine.  Arrangements are made to meet with people at very specific times at very specific places, because the throngs of people make normal instructions impossible; it’s very easy to have decisions like “We’ll all meet at the Corner Bakery at 7 PM” go wrong because the quantity of people inside and outside make it impossible to find each other.  The costumes are wonderful, the dealers’ rooms and artist alleys are extensive with impressive talent on hand, the writing guests of honor are impressive.  But the constant press of bodies can cause uncomfortable warmth if not claustrophobia and the sheer size of the events can make it hard to get from one location to another in any reasonable length of time.

World Fantasy and Bouchercon are filled with field professionals and their associates, as well as avid readers who are looking to fill holes in their collections.  The dealer’s rooms are typically awash with books valued from hundreds to thousands of dollars each.  Pitches are made over drinks and dinners, conversations tend to focus on the recent changes in the field and ones projected in the near future.  Panels are typically addressed to topics which would be either unappealling or incomprehensible to someone not familiar with the field.

World Horror is, on its surface, very accessible to fans of horror literature.  It brings in a strong contingent of the people who are currently placing stories at pro rates.  It has a dealer’s room which consistently has available the new books by the convention attendees, some highly sought and desirable collectible books, and some harder-to-find but not particularly expensive older horror books for the reader.  Despite all of that, I have never been to a World Horror which has been fan-heavy; the amateur writer far outnumbers the simple fan at those conventions.

Worldcon, then.  It bears the earmarks of World Horror: many of the current professionals in the field, and a large and varied dealer’s room.  Where it differs is in size, and that size is guided by the huge mass of attending fans.

And it’s shrinking.

The dominant theory as to why goes like this: as science fiction has become more technical, it has lost many of the pre-teen readership to fantasy literature.  Moreover, as other avenues of entertainment have become available, that same early readership has been diminishing.  The result has been what was repeatedly termed at Worldcon as the Greying of the fandom.

Okay, there’s undoubtedly some merit to this.  But I think that overall, it’s the biggest con of them all, and it’s something we’re perpetrating upon ourselves.

Worldcon and World Horror are experiencing the same thing; the difference is that Worldcon has so many older, established fans that the lack of new faces, while noticed, hasn’t seemed imperative until recently.

But a visit to a bookstore shows the problem with the demographic argument.  While it’s undeniable that sales are down, it’s also easy to see that the majority of people buying fantasy, science fiction, and horror are the same people who have always bought it, either as children or adults.

What’s gone away is the incentive to attend the conventions.

The traditional reasons to attend have, in large part, fallen by the wayside, and it seems like people haven’t fully realized it.  Want to have some contact with your favorite author?  Go to their message board and post; chances are fair you’ll wind up with at least incidental contact, and possibly an extended discussion.  Want to know their opinions on a given topic?  Forget the panel, just read their blog. Looking for a signature, or an inscription?  Check their links to their favored booksellers, or buy the author’s backstock directly from them.  Looking for that funny or wild incident at the convention?  Wait two days until the con’s over, then check YouTube.

There were many authors who exhorted the audience to encourage reading among the youth, as if that would somehow generate fan attendance.  I certainly want more kids reading, but I think what’s needed is a serious effort by authors to encourage their younger fans to attend a convention or two, especially things like WHC or Worldcon.

Sure, all of those other things brought those early fans together, and lured new fans to the conventions.  But what keeps people returning year after year, especially in these days of message boards and forums, is the cameraderie and shared history of the attendees.  That can be continued and grown for the science fiction community, and it can be generated in the first place for the horror field.  But it’s going to take some effort, and that effort is going to have to come from all over, not merely a handful of people struggling to keep a convention alive without diluting its soul.

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