There’s hopefully another post about the fab panels at Nineworlds on the way, but I sort of have to get something else out the way first. It’s been rattling round my head since I was persuaded to go to the Writing the Other workshop with the lovely Stephanie Saulter. We discussed how to deal with issues of race, gender, ability, age, orientation and religion, but unlike the book on which the workshop was based, class was added in too. It turned out to be a bit of a theme for the weekend.
On many axes, I’m fairly middle-class. I was lucky enough to go to public school and study at Cambridge, I have a white-collar job and I own a house. On the other hand, my background is solidly working-class, I had grants and bursaries through school and uni and on my own my income is fairly meagre. Lots of things that come with middle-class culture don’t sit well with me. Put it this way, I’m not going to morph into Hyacinth Bouquet just yet and enjoy spending over £20 for two G&Ts at the Radisson bar, or eat at a restaurant where the main dish is a good hearty working-class, erm, whole lobster.
After a short while at the convention, I started to get the impression that the overarching demographic was white, middle-class professionals. There’s two reasons why this was the case, to my mind. One was that the hotel was a fairly expensive one next to Heathrow which pretty much guaranteed that only a certain income bracket could stay on-site, and that’s before factoring in getting down to London. The other is that it does always seem to be that white, middle-class group doing the debating about the sorts of sociopolitical issues the convention panels were mostly about. It might not be, but ask yourself when you last saw someone identifying as working-class discussing the gender binary in X-Men on Twitter. It’s a bit of a flat-capped white elephant in the room, but I can’t overstate it enough. The look on the workshop attendees’ faces when we were asked what our assumptions were about characters in an excerpt we read, and I said ‘glossy middle-class professional’, was wondrous to behold. It was almost as if they’d never been exposed to the ‘real world’ or ‘no money’. Which perhaps was true of the convention-goers I heard snarking about staff in McDonalds one lunchtime. What a time to be alive.
How to get a more financially diverse crowd coming, then? I appreciate it’s hard to find a large, convention-ready, cheap hotel (preferably not in London), but I’m wondering if the model I saw at BiCon would work better. They use university campuses which have cheap food, drink and accommodation, plus they have an excellent hardship fund for those who can’t afford to attend. This year I believe 20 weekend passes were available for NineWorlds on ‘Con or Bust’, a site specifically aimed at helping non-white con-goers attend. That’s great, but somehow not enough. And the response to a request for a fund last year was along the lines of ‘we don’t want to segregate attendees’. Which, er, you’re kind of already doing, nor will you be doing if you provide financial assistance unless you plan to stick up a list of names.
Slightly leading on from this, I do wish London wasn’t the default for everything. Most events are there, many of the books in the All Of The Books track were set there, leaflets about other cons were mostly in London/South England, and most attendees lived there- and already knew each other, which made making new friends tricky. It was very strange. Here I was with my extrovert hat on, and trying to talk to people in the bar or sessions left me cold. They weren’t even wearing the handy ‘don’t talk to me’ badges. And in that same supposed ‘social’ brunch on Sunday morning, there was a reading of a book set in London, where the villain was deliberately marked out as Northern, was in the process of raping a servant, and talked about cutting people’s skin off. Quite apart from this being breakfast reading material as bad as me deciding to read out my stabby death chapter, I don’t think having a white male middle-class writer coding Northerners as bad made me feel any more at home. It put me right off the free big publisher pastries and coffee.
Also, if you want to make newcomers feel at home, ask if anyone’s new to your event that some of us thought was a ‘turn up and chat to authors’ but was actually ‘sit and listen to readings/Q&As while authors sit apart from everyone’. Don’t ask who goes to your London event or the one at another expensive con, then more or less high-five authors who’ve read at them. It gave off the air less of an inclusive social event and more of a self-congratulatory back-patting session for established, er, middle-class white professionals. Oh.
Speaking of publishing, I was there to do a bit of networking, but found it unusually difficult. There were a few small press launch parties. I like small presses, and since it was billed as a ‘turn up and drink beer with authors and editors’ we rocked up to one and found a room where there was no beer, no obvious welcoming person/writer/editor, and a bunch of small groups giving off an unfriendly vibe of ‘private party’ containing- I think you might be ahead of me!- mostly white middle-class people hooting into their drinks. We left, finally finding an independent bookshop owner who said he was more or less turned away from the tabletop gaming room when he’d brought Magic: The Gathering, because it ‘wasn’t geeky enough’. MTG. Not geeky enough. At an inclusive convention. I just don’t even. Almost as bad as the white middle-class lady in the PoC YA session who asked if the panel had a view on Mysterious Cities of Gold. Only two of us had heard of it in the whole room, so afterward I thought I’d be nice and say I thought it was good representation for minorities and also a fantastic cartoon. They sniffed and said ‘oh, but I wanted an academic opinion on the show, but never mind’.
By Sunday, it wasn’t so much that I was peopled out- the crowds were certainly overwhelming at times- but that I hadn’t been peopled at by the right folk enough. The panels were great, as I say, and it was lovely to see the Inspired Quill team again in the vendor bit, but I find very little motivation to take myself down to Heathrow again next year. I think my time would be better spent at the Fringe and Book Festival (where, arguably, London comes to us), or at places like the Literary Salon, where I can legitimately say ‘these are my people’ because there’s a diverse range of writers who are universally lovely however much they earn. This con, personally, strikes me as being inclusive on a particular axis, but just not mine.