by Garth Spencer

(from Scavenger's Newsletter #40, June 1987)

What are cons for? I was interested by Stuart Napier's rather bemused article on cons in SNL #32. Seems to me that someone gave him (or he came up with) some mistaken expectations of SF conventions, and naturally he was hacked off when he found an event that offered nothing much to someone with a professional orientation to writing.

The notion that Napier started out with seems to be revealed in his 13th paragraph: "... a gathering together of fans and artists to share thoughts on a subject of mutual interest ..."

Sorry, that isn't an SF convention. Nobody pretends that's what an SF con is about. (Or so I thought ...) I sometimes liken SF cons to indoor county fairs; Darrell Schweitzer has compared them to Shriners' conventions and boat shows, combined. But a professional, craft-oriented event seems to be what Napier expected.

As a result, he seems to be saying, "What's the point of these events? You might just as well get ahold of books and films by other means."

In my estimation, a large plurality -- maybe up to 40% -- of SF fans are people who have trouble socializing. I have been in that group and am slowly recovering from whatever was wrong. Consequently, some social events have to be set up for these people to manage to enjoy themselves.

The socially crippled aside, however, cons were conceived as a way for fans to meet each other, and to meet some of the pros. SF fandom being what it is, conventions (like other fannish institutions) acquired an independent centre of gravity, and the emphasis has moved away from SF ... to what? To socializing.

And I think that's okay. For pros (and fans) who are serious about writing, and symposia about writing, there are conferences set up for that purpose: but the word "convention usually denotes something else. An aggrandized social event.

As it stands now, SF fandom, and its events, are only marginally about SF. Fans are not only, not even mainly, fans of writing. What we've got here is a leisure interest group which has evolved into a subculture ... mainly by being so self-involved.

Since cons were first conceived, in the 1930s, it's become relatively easier for fans to meet by other means -- there are more pros and fans around, for starters -- and cons have grown, and grown, and grown. World SF conventions regularly threaten to reach attendances of 10,000. I say "threaten" because, with the rise of mediafandom especially, there seems to be a trend toward enormous conventions, where you can neither socialize nor discuss craft with writers.

I'd say that for Napier's purposes, a seminar, forum, or symposium should be fairly small -- maybe attendance should be in two digits or less. For my purposes, I think an SF con should limit itself to three-digit attendances. And for writing workshops, even 10 people may be too many.

Should you think it profitable to discuss further the sociology of writing, of readerships, and of fan groups, I think I can profitably contribute.