Genre, Gender, and GenreCon

So, after GenreCon, the inimitable Kat of BookThingo posted this online:

Conference programmers note: This is what an all-women writers’ panel looks like! #aww2015 #GCoz

A photo posted by Kat (@bookthingo) on

The image is from the final plenary of GenreCon the weekend, when we had all seven of our special guests on-stage. It’s a sessions where a question from the audience generated a particularly frank discussion of gender, genre, and the impact of both on a writing career (particularly in SF).

That conversation was cut short, largely because we were running out of time. I hated doing it, but it had to be done due to the constraints of our agreement with the venue, and I apologise to all the people who had follow-up questions they didn’t get to ask.

But it has me brooding on the topic a bit. And I tend to talk about the things I brood about here.

Now, at this point I will acknowledge that I am going to talk about this as a white man chock-full of privilege, which means the statistical odds of saying something stupid on this topic start high and get higher the longer I talk. But, since it came up…

Well, here we go.

I got asked a few times, over the weekend, if we realised we’d assembled seven women as our guests. The official answer from the conference is no, we didn’t. We just assembled some awesome writers and they happened to be female, both because it’s true and because I enjoyed the irony of that logic being deployed in this instance.

But the truth is the conversation did come up in the initial stages of the conference. It went something like this:

Other Person: Do we need a dude on the list somewhere?
Me: No. We do not.

We’ve had the equivalent of that conversation every year that GenreCon’s run, because we strive to be conscious of all manner of representation at the conference and its program. It’s not a question that happens in isolation, either. It’s one of a myriad of such questions we ask ourselves: Do we have the genre balance right? Do we have an adequate balance of experienced authors versus new authors on the program? Are we representing traditional and indie published authors? Do we have representatives from big six publishers and small press? Do we have a mix of digital first and print?

There are a lot of interests at work in the conference and we try to make sure that none of them are under-represented.

Even so, I will be the first to acknowledge that there are some things that bug me, when you look at the history of the conference overall. I am painfully aware that while we’ve had Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books as a guest – and let me stress, she is a fantastic con guest and we were blessed to have her – we’ve never had an international romance author at the conference.

I’m acutely aware that I have blind spots with regards to sub-genres, which means I tend to look for crime-writers who do work in the hard-boiled detective line or authors of regency romance first, since that’s my preferred reading material in those particular genres.

I’m aware that our guest lists have been predominately white, that we’ve got a habit of putting indie/self-published authors on panels that are predominately about indie and self-publishing, and that we had a lot of male international guests in our first two years.

Every time I sit down to assemble a guest list, these things are on my mind. Part of the brief for GenreCon has always been about breaking authors out of the terrain where they keep having the same conversations because of the genre they write in. To combat that tendency for romance authors to be programmed to discuss romance, while the SF writers are over discussing sci-fi and fantasy.

The writers we invite are smart. They have useful things to say to all writers. And it’s absolutely criminal that they are rarely given the option of saying it outside their genre.

It’s why we never deploy genre within the program at all, except as the broad church that unites the disparate genres represented at the conference.

This can be hard to wrap your head around, if you’ve never seen GenreCon up close. We get a lot of panel and workshop pitches from people that revolve around writing the thriller or horror or fantasy, and even when they sound phenomenal, we say no. If it sounds really good, we say  please, pitch something about character or plot or tension, something that will be accessible and useful to everyone, regardless of what they’re writing.

‘Cause if you pitch something genre specific, I have to say no.

Not because I don’t think that people shouldn’t talk about their genres, but because there should be spaces where they can talk about other things instead, and the spaces where you can talk about a particular genre are already kind of plentiful.

Which brings me to the point I’m brooding on, a bit: I’ve taken that approach when it comes to gender as well, despite my belief that it’s an important conversation to have. I’m always thrilled when the inequity of representation in genre comes up in plenaries and keynotes, but its not been on the radar to program a panel about gender and writing.

Within the scope of the conference, I’d rather address the issue of diversity by ensuring a diversity of voices are represented, over and over again, to the best of GenreCon’s ability. I’d rather acknowledge blind-spots as I discover them and find people who can help me navigate them in a meaningful way, rather than just hoping I get it right.

And yet, I feel conflicted about that. Its’ easy to become complicit in silencing discussion, even with the best of intentions.

My gut still tells me the most advantageous thing for the conference to do is have all our representatives talking about writing, not being a female writer, but there are moments I question that logic to make sure we’re adopting it for the right reasons.

The advantage of GenreCon is that there’s a year to puzzle this particular issue out, before we start seriously tackling the issues of what goes on the 2017 program. I’ve already got a master list of topics we’d like to explore that grows, over the next twelve months, as I read and talk to other writers and generally consult with people about ways to tackle the tricky things.

More importantly, I’ve got a year of eavesdropping on professional writer’s conversations at festivals and events, listening to what they actually talk about when they get together, which has always been the initial guiding post for topics worth addressing

It’s a luxury few events of this kind get, and I’m bloody grateful it exists, because it allows for the kinds of shifts in thinking that are invaluable. If we were doing GenreCon yearly, I’d need to have a guest list for 2016 ready to go now. I’d be hip-dip in the initial programming thoughts in a matter of weeks, responding fast rather than thinking things through.

I may not get things right, but I’ll be damned if we don’t try.

  3 comments for “Genre, Gender, and GenreCon

  1. 05/11/2015 at 4:38 PM

    It was a great panel, you and the team did an amazing job!

Leave a Reply