Last month I attended two days of Readercon, an annual imaginative lit conference in Burlington, Mass. I read very little imaginative literature, but I had a great time anyway. The best part is always talking to fellow readers, and hanging out with Natalie of The Radish, Ridley of Love in the Margins, writer Victoria Janssen, and a few new friends was terrific. The vibe was very low key, and the focus was on books — not on writing them, selling them, promoting them, or blogging about them — but on what’s in them.*
Because of this, authors, readers, and bloggers came together as equals, as fans of the books. No panels on craft, sales, or marketing, so it was very different from an RWA or an RT. There were no signings and it generally wasn’t the place for author worship, despite the presence of some some pretty big names. Even bloggers tended to resist the urge to promote their own sites. There just wasn’t much energy directed towards self-promotion of any kind. The kind of frantic desperation in the air at an industry conference like BEA was totally absent.
No games, costume balls, sock hops, pajama parties, mechanicals bulls, photo booths, cover models, teas, swag, contests, or “chocolate mangasms.” Attendees got to meet authors at informal Kaffeeklatches, with up to 15 readers just chatting with an author. There were a couple of festive events, a dessert party, for example, as well as a good number of private parties, but they were the exception. So it’s very different from the atmosphere of letting loose and celebrating that permeates romance cons like RT, RomCon, Authors After Dark, or Lori Forster’s Author and Reader Event.
Readercon attendees pretty much … attended. I went to panels, listened, participated, and chatted with folks in the restaurant or lobby. There were readings. A few awards. A room with books for sale by booksellers. The tagline of Readercon is “We support the subversive notion that thinking can be fun” and that is some truth in advertising.
The panels were straightforward discussions, and plenty of time was always left for audience members to participate. These are some of the panels that grabbed me:
This Whole Situation Is Monstrous!: Supernatural Excuses for Abusive Behavior. Leah Bobet (leader), Liz Gorinsky, Catt Kingsgrave, Natalie Luhrs, Veronica Schanoes, Peter Straub. Paranormal romance for adults and teens often provides supernatural excuses for abusive behavior. For example, in Cassandra Clare’s The City of Lost Souls, a character’s abusive behavior as a teenager stems from his confusion over being turned into a werewolf. Years later the teens reunite, explanations are given, and the boy’s redemption story briefly takes center stage in the narrative. Instead of focusing on abusers’ redemption through human aspects overcoming monstrous aspects, and obscuring the unpleasant truth that abuse is a very human behavior, is there a better way to use the supernatural to talk about abuse?
The Difference Between Magic and Science. Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman, Andrea Hairston, Kenneth Schneyer (leader), J.M. Sidorova. In an interview with Avi Solomon, Ted Chiang proposed that “The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.” How can we complicate this statement? Are there magic systems that are entirely impersonal, and if so, are they indistinguishable from science and technology? Is science only possible in an impersonal universe? How do we make allowances for the personal applications of science and the impersonal applications of magic, and where do the boundaries between them lie?
The Tension of Satisfaction and Subversion. Michael Cisco, Lev Grossman, Ellen Kushner (leader), Yves Meynard, Eugene Mirabelli, Kit Reed. When reading, we can derive pleasure from having our expectations met and the conventions of the genre or form satisfied. But we also derive pleasure from having those conventions and expectations subverted, exploded, and turned inside out. There’s a natural tension between those two drives which affects both a story’s artistic effectiveness and its commercial appeal. That tension is inherently tied to perceptions and definitions of genre, and to the criteria by which the reading public examines literary works. How then, does that tension work? How do stories strike a balance between conventions and reader expectations, while still offering innovation or subversion? How does our own understanding of that balance affect how the criteria we use to examine literary works?
When the Other Is You. Chesya Burke, Samuel Delany, Peter Dubé, Mikki Kendall, Vandana Singh, Sabrina Vourvoulias (leader). Being part of an underrepresented group and trying to write our experience into our work can be tricky. We might have internalized some prejudice about ourselves, we might not have the craft to get our meaning across perfectly, and even if we depict our own experience totally accurately (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”), we do so while struggling against the expectation that our experience is or isn’t “representative” or “authentic.” How do we navigate the pitfalls and responsibilities of being perceived as spokespeople? What potentially pernicious dynamics allow us that dubious privilege in the first place? Which works make us cringe with their representations of us, and which make us sigh with relief and recognition?
I don’t see this kind of discussion when I look at the schedules for romance conferences. I had even planned to go to RT this year, but I hated the idea of ignoring 90% of what I was paying $500 for. Having been to a number of academic popular culture conferences, Readercon is not academic, although a few of the panelists hold teaching positions. The level of discussion is just reflective and thoughtful, but no special knowledge of a body of critical works or academic degree is necessary to engage in it. Just a knowledge and interest and curiosity about what you love to read.
Don’t we have similar topics worthy of discussion in the romance genre? And don’t we have authors and readers who could be just as interesting when discussing them? I know we do, because I read their blogs. The first panel could be done in romance pretty much exactly as it’s written, and in fact a lot of romance came up in that discussion. The second panel could explore a set of close concepts that are significant in romance: “the difference between love and lust” or “the difference between friendship and love.” The third panel, again, could be transposed pretty neatly to any genre conference, including romance, but I think it’s maybe even more significant for romance, which is so responsive to buyer behavior and larger social changes. All all the fourth panel would require is a change in line-up.
There’s been a proliferation of new romance cons in the last decade, and while I am sure there are important differences in tone and approach, they all seem to stick to the same basic structure. When I see coverage of them I think they do a great job promoting one vision of the genre and its fans. But just as all SFF fans don’t fit the mold conjured by press coverage of ComicCon, there are different kinds of romance readers who read for a variety of reasons. I think it’s great that so many romance readers can now find a conference not too far away from their homes, and often one that’s not too expensive (with the exception of RT). And yay for all those romance readers who just love getting away from it all and partying it up while having a chance to thank and show appreciation for their favorite authors. I’m sure I could go to one of those conferences and be my most boring self, and even meet likeminded folks, and ignore all the rest of what’s not to my tastes and have a good time, but Readercon made me wish for a whole conference organized around a different kind of fan engagement.
Would it be possible to lure enough romance fans to a conference like Readercon? I don’t know, but it’s a nice dream. And in the meantime, I’ll definitely be back at Readercon next year.
*Edited to add: Thanks to a helpful correction from the program chair, I now know there were two marketing panels at Readercon, and a couple of signings in the book sales room, two authors at a time.