Smuggler Army Trash and Treasure

Trash & Treasure: Foz Meadows on Worldcon 76 (a Recap)

Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows. This month’s entry is a recap of Worldcon 76 that took place in San Jose between August 16-20…

This year, I was lucky enough to attend Worldcon 76 in San Jose, where I had a wonderful time. As an extrovert who seldom gets the chance to talk SFF-shop in daily life, cons are a way for me to recharge my creative and mental batteries, and while there were invariably some issues regarding marginalisation and accessibility to be learned from in the future – not only in the leadup, but both during the con itself and afterwards – the overall experience, at least for me, was a positive one.

From Friday to Sunday, I participated in seven events: six panels and a shared reading with fellow Book Smugglers authors Kate Elliott and S.L. Huang. The reading was packed, and all three pieces – including Lisa’s excerpt from her Book Smugglers novella, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist – were well-received by the audience; it was a genuinely wonderful way to spend an hour. Panel-wise, while I would be hard-pressed to pick a favourite appearance, the Breaking Out of the Margins panel with Michi Trota, JY Yang, Caroline Yoachim and Sarah Kuhn was definitely a personal highlight. While discussing what we most wanted for the future of diverse storytelling, we coined the term #ownvoicestrash to highlight our desire for marginalised creators to be able to tell as many tropey, indulgent, fluffy, light, ridiculous stories as we want, without always having to bear the representational burden of being serious and deep about our identities and politics. Given how much of my WIP folder at present can be accurately described as #ownvoicestrash, it was immensely validating to find the sentiment shared by such a group of amazing, talented writers, and left me more eager than ever to finish the various projects on which I’m working.

One discussion I wish could’ve run longer was Saturday’s Author vs Fan Ownership panel, where I appeared with John Scalzi, Renay Williams, Eric Kaplan and Greg Hullender. Though the outcome of the panel itself was positive, I felt that the conversation spent too long discussing strictly legal definitions of ownership, rather than – as I suspect was more intended by the panel description – the problem of fan entitlement and the etiquette of navigating author/fan relationships. Though the panel discussion eventually started to move in these directions, we ran out of time before they could be addressed in any depth. Afterwards, multiple audience members asked for my thoughts about the recent trend in claims by some fandom extremists that fans literally own the stories they love, whatever those stories might be, just by straight-up virtue of passion.

To give an example of two of the more toxic examples of this sense of fannish entitlement, taken from both ends of the fan-political spectrum, consider both the MRA Star Wars fans who tried to crowdsource funding for a new, lady-free version of The Last Jedi, and the lone Voltron: Legendary Defender fan who tried to blackmail Studio Mir into making their gay ship canon. In both cases, there’s a belief that wanting a personal, idealised, specific version of the narrative to exist in canon should not only trump the plans of the creators, but effectively constitute a shouted BECAUSE REASONS! override of their actual, legal ownership.

My response to this logic is simple: no fan, no matter how popular their ship or the groundswell, perceived or actual, behind their support of an alternate canon, speaks for the entirety of fandom. That being so, even if we accepted the frankly bizarre claim that loving a story entitles a fan or fans to take ownership of it canonically and legally, this power would rest with all fans, not just those who subscribe to a single, specific interpretation of what should happen. If a random Keith/Lance shipper is entitled to take over Voltron just because they want to see two boys kiss, then so is someone who ships Shiro with Keith instead, or Lance and Hunk, or any one of the hundred other romantic permutations possible between the characters. Which is why we have fanfiction in the goddamn first place: because canon is, of necessity, finite in a way that our imaginings of it are not. I have immense sympathy with the frustrations of marginalised groups and their desire to see themselves reflected in their favourite stories and characters, and as a fanwriter, I’m obviously in favour of discussing the potential canonical development of particular stories along our preferred lines. But to claim that wanting something is the same as being entitled to it is, in just about any context, an incredibly toxic mindset. Whatever legal liminalities exist around fan ownership of fan-produced content based on the IP of others, there is zero ambiguity about their ownership – or rather, their lack thereof – of the canon itself.

On Sunday night, I attended the Hugo Awards ceremony. San Jose was my fourth time attending a Worldcon, and so my fourth appearance at the Hugos: I’ve been nominated for Best Fan Writer three times now (!), but have only been in the audience on two of those occasions. It’s always a tense, anticipatory feeling in the leadup, but even if there’s a flash of momentary disappointment at not winning, it’s difficult in the extreme to feel bad about coming in second to writers like Kameron Hurley, Abigail Nussbaum and Sarah Gailey. It’s an honour just to be nominated – and more, it’s an honour to be able to be there regardless. I’m not generally given to welling up in public, but there’s something about the Hugos that always gets to me: the memoriam for those we’ve lost in the previous year, even when I don’t recognise the names, reminds me of the interconnectedness and longevity of fandom; of the largeness of a community which, when it’s just me in front of my keyboard, can often feel small. Listening to the acceptance speech given on behalf of Ursula Le Guin for her posthumous win was likewise poignant in the extreme, while N.K. Jemisin’s historic third consecutive win for her Broken Earth trilogy had the whole room on its feet, cheering.

There were, of course, people outside the room who were vastly less impressed with Jemisin’s achievement – and, indeed, with the con itself. After publicly stating his intent to break the convention’s code of conduct and being banned accordingly, a certain Sad Puppy decided to show up anyway. He filmed in a hotel lobby for a bit on Friday, then briefly wandered around before being evicted, but while both this cameo and his broflakey twittering encouraged a handful of random white supremacists to show up and picket out front on Saturday, he didn’t join them. As the drama unfolded, a peanut gallery of amused onlookers formed on the upper level of the con venue, watching as the protestors, who were outnumbered both by a bored-looking police presence and by the antifa who showed up to counteract their yelling, succeeded only in blocking access to the blood donation van for a couple of hours. Honestly, the whole affair created about as much disruption as a burst sewage pipe: there was a brief stink out front, people took an alternate foot-route to avoid it, the relevant authorities tidied everything away while the con took basic health and safety precautions, and then things went back to normal.

Even so, in light of my third non-win as a Hugo nominee, I find myself reflecting on the origins of the Puppies: of the bitterness of those other non-winners who, instead of celebrating the achievements and success of their peers, decided there was more to be gained from throwing over the whole institution in a fit of pique. Which makes me reflect, in turn, on the question of fan entitlement that our panel never quite addressed: of the hubris of individuals who feel so fundamentally entitled to their view of canon, their view of a world and its characters, that they interpret any disagreement as a kind of belligerent theft. As with the canon of any given narrative, an award is a necessarily finite thing: no matter how many potentially deserving recipients along various axes exist in a given year, a single prize cannot be given to all of them. Someone is always going to be omitted, just as the canon of a story will always omit some narrative possibilities: that is, both definitionally and fundamentally, an integral part of any human action that requires us to make a choice, and no matter how you carve things up, it’s something that cannot change.

Yes, there can be biases and nepotisms that unfairly steer the decision-making process in any award-giving context, but anyone claiming that the Puppies were the first to raise such concerns regarding the Hugos clearly wasn’t paying attention: for years prior to Correia’s initial tantrum, there were widespread discussions of logrolling, accusations of favouritism and arguments about the etiquette of self-promotion every time Hugo season rolled around. What differentiated the Puppies wasn’t their observation that the Hugos don’t always celebrate the most popular stories in a given year or that not everyone agrees with the actual winners (see also: the Oscars, the Emmys, the Clarke, the Man Booker, literally every other major award since the dawn of time and continuing forever, amen), but their rageful, entitled certainty that they alone knew what was Worthy. And because of this, we now have a major schism in SFF, as distinct from all the other, smaller schisms that invariably make up any complex whole: those who share in joyful celebration of the winners, and those who chant actual Nazi slogans outside convention centres.

Personally, I know which side I’d rather be on.

(PS: the Hugo Losers party had a chocolate fountain.)

4 Comments

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    August 30, 2018 at 9:02 am

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  • Greg Hullender
    September 3, 2018 at 10:59 am

    Hey, Foz. It was a pleasure meeting you at WorldCon! I think the biggest problem with the panel was that two of us had no real experience with fan fiction. I had completely the wrong idea of what the panel would be about, so I came armed for a completely different discussion.

    Before WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, the con organizers sent e-mail to the different panelists letting us chat with each other in advance. If we could have done that, then a) at least we’d all have agreed on what it was going to be about and b) we’d quickly get past questions like “why don’t you just write stories with your own characters?”

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