This year at Ad Astra, I did a panel on Fake Geek Girls. Or rather, their mythical quality. (For future reference, there are about as many Fake Geek Girls in existence in 2013 as there were witches in Salem, MA in 1693.) During the question period, a teenaged girl at the back of the room asked what was to be done about all this, about the guys who would seemingly never accept her in their space (which was never their space to start with). I told her two things.
- Plenty of things are being done. It is not your responsibility to do all of them. Your responsibility is to show up, even when those guys don’t take you seriously, because your showing up unnerves them more than those dreadfully subtle Cialis commercials. The medium is the message. You are the message.
- It’s okay, because someday they’ll all be dead.
There was laughter at this point, and I’ve since said this at other conventions, because the kind of laughter you get tells you a lot about the crowd. I got this tidbit from an animator at Nelvana back in 2006 or 2007, who listened to me ranting about the paper-only submissions policy at F&SF for a good ten minutes before putting down his chopsticks and saying, breezily: “It’s okay. Stop worrying. Someday they’ll all die.”
And he was right. Someday, they’ll all die. Someday, we’ll all die. As Tertullian reminds us in Apologetics: Memento mori. (Remember: you will die.)
This year, I met Gordon Van Gelder at the Tor party. He’s a nice guy. By that I mean he’s a genuinely gracious individual. He didn’t bat an eyelash when I said: “Hey! You’re where all the rejection letters come from!” He apologized that they always seemed to come on Mondays, which basically made Mondays feel more like Mondays for me, before I had a steady job. “I used to come home from my workshop, after my stories were torn to shit, and find your letters,” I said, “on a fucking Monday, for Christ’s sake.” He said he never meant it to happen that way. Then he said I hadn’t submitted anything in a while, probably because I’d been working on novels. And he was right. I was working on novels. But I’d also put the magazine out of my mind. I started submitting my work to Rudy Rucker, instead. Then Nature. Then Intel. Van Gelder was right, in his rejection letters: my stories weren’t a good fit for the magazine. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t good. They just weren’t about the things his market demographic enjoy paying for. They were about other things, for another audience. In business speak, they were proposing value to the wrong customer segment.
So let’s talk about customer segments. When I’m not working on a book (more on that later), I work for a marketing firm in Toronto called Ideas in Flight. When I’m not working for IIF, I work for Intel, or IFTF, or SciFutures, or whoever needs science fiction prototypes. I’ve also provided business consulting to other companies. Years before that, I worked where all writers work at one point or another: in retail. So I’m actually fairly familiar with customer personae, demographic analysis, and so on. Plenty of businesses can produce a great product or service, but if they never find their customer, and they never communicate the value of their product to that customer, they flounder. But the moment businesses run into real trouble is when their customer segments shift demographics. This is where Worldcon comes in, because the face of fandom has changed and WorldCon has not caught up.
Plenty of folks have already made this point. J.M. McDermott had this to say:
So, there were not a lot of people of color. Like, hardly at all. To put it in perspective, I am white. I often wandered into the mall for cheap food next door, and once there I became the minority. Which is good and correct in San Antonio, a beautiful patchwork of cultures that is a lovely place to live and meet people of many races, colors, creeds. Once back into the Con, it was like stepping into a portal into a whitewashed world, with so few people of color that one of my friends from grad school (who is Caribbean) started counting on her hands the African people. We met an excellent, excellent Chinese-American author, who lives in the states, and she and he traded numbers they counted of their race, and both numbers were shockingly low, in the single digits, at the largest fan-run con in the World.
And Chuck Wendig added:
At Worldcon / LoneStarCon, the age felt… older. Youthful vigor was not on display like it seems to be every year at DragonCon. That’s worrisome because as a community, you don’t want to cleave so completely to an older generation because you can age out your genre work and your audience — right? I mean, one could argue that it serves as counterprogramming to DragonCon and PAX, but is that really the way you want to counterprogram? By hewing more (only?) to an older generation of fans and authors, though, I have to wonder if that’s healthy in terms of overall genre and industry.
In the comments following that post, I added my own story about demography:
On a panel on philosophy and SF, one of my fellow panelists decried the predilection among younger readers for dystopias and “darkness,” then talked about how when he was a young man, he had no trouble finding a job, buying a house, living a life, etc.
“How old are you?” I asked, from the other end of the stage.
He gave his age. I believe it was around 54.
“So you’re a boomer?”
“And how much did you pay for your first house?”
It was a figure around $60K. Less than $100K, anyway.
“The average price of a starter home in Toronto, where I live, is $550,000. I’m thirty years old. I have a university degree and two graduate degrees. Despite all that, it is likely I will never be able to afford my own home — or have my own child. You want to know why people my age and younger write without hope? That’s why.”
This man thanked me for bringing that to his attention. He was genuine, not sarcastic. He simply did not know how the younger half lived. And really, I think that’s what it boils down to. It’s more than just an active distrust of young people (and young women in particular). It’s a totally different set of life experiences. And, I suspect, a different set of values. For example, I spent my border policy panel listening to talk of the need for national sovereignty. Sovereignty, for Christ’s sake, as though that meant anything in an era of globalization, supply-side manufacturing, ephemeral debt limits, and algorithmic micro-trading. It’s a view of the world that is frustratingly conservative for a demographic allegedly interested in the future.
I hasten to add that it was the minority view: I spoke with several people afterward (and throughout the con) who thanked me for my candor, and I saw the same young people at all my anime panels (which says something). But, as all weary folk say at one point or another: these people vote.
Let me put it another way. The demographic shifts faced by WorldCon’s largest customer segment are the same ones faced by the Republican Party. Let that sink in for a minute. Really let it marinate. These are the same people who cheered me when I talked about Canada’s healthcare plan, and applauded Mark Van Name when he blamed rape culture for America’s ills. They want to be progressive, but they’re being blindsided by the very same demographic shifts afflicting the most conservative elements of contemporary society, for exactly the same reason: they haven’t taken the issue seriously. This is why there isn’t a Hugo for Young Adult novels. Because God forbid we reward the writers who transform young genre readers into lifelong customers at a time when even Bruce Sterling says the future will be about old people staring at the sky in puzzlement and horror. Or as Robert Jackson Bennett put it:
The problem is, when the economy starts spreading money to the younger crowd, or when the Boomers retire or physically can’t attend, then certain industries and institutions and conventions – like WorldCon – are left in a hot seat. Your primary demographic is quite literally gone, and your younger one is alienated, because the programming and events there legitimately were not for them.
YA is what Clayton Christensen would call a “disruptive innovation,” a product that addresses the needs of a neglected customer segment not being served by the dominant incumbents in power. That some of the fiction isn’t terribly innovative doesn’t matter. What was innovative was treating teens like the serious market demographic that they are: a tightly-connected, actively social group in possession of disposable income who want books about the characters that nervous agents and major publishers won’t touch, like queer characters, non-white characters, and girls. This is what happens when a generation grows up reading fanfiction written by their friends about characters developed in other countries, like Japan and Korea, and not books with shitty T&A covers about women who get wet when their fathers give them vaginal exams. They start going to anime cons, or gaming cons, or media cons. They go to DragonCon and PAX and FanExpo and AnimeExpo and Comic Con. Not because those cons are “less literary,” but because those cons are gatherings of communities who share enthusiasm about the characters and worlds they actually give a shit about.
If you told one of these kids that Robert Silverberg said something untoward about Connie Willis at this year’s WorldCon, they would ask: “Who? What? Is that, like, a thing? Either way, what a dick!”
They don’t care about you. But you know who cares about them? Marvel. Warner. FOX. CW. EA. Microsoft. Sony. Blizzard. FUNImation. Kodansha. The list goes on. They’re better served by corporate interest than they are by the people who made the geek economy possible. Sit with that. You may feel a slight sting. That’s not pride, fucking with you. It’s failure.
Sure, you have a nice big con now, and a nice big awards ceremony whose online streaming never seems to work. You have internecine debates about why the big fish didn’t get enough panels (please, somebody, get these folks a waahmbulance and World Fantasy registration). But you don’t have major comics creators as GOH. You don’t have voice actors. You don’t have manga-ka. You don’t have game companies. You don’t have play-testing, or LARPS, or teahouses, or fashion shows. You are offering a room full of vintage first-edition hardbacks to a group of people who read books on their phones.
The last time I was at Anime North, a bunch of kids in cosplay brought out an amp, plugged it in, and started to jam in the parking lot. In another lot, more kids put together their own kaiju battle, doing slo-mo fights to J-rock and -rap. It was great. I was with a bunch of very happy people who didn’t give a fuck about jetpacks. Worldcon may be about the future, but it doesn’t have the future. Remember, Worldcon organizers all over the world: memento mori. And what will be left will be either a dwindling crowd of increasingly conservative elements, or a thriving community of people who are actively engaged in using network culture to bring about a better, more enjoyable world.
Look on your works, ye mighty, and despair.