Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How can SFF de-expensify itself? Lotteries! Lotteries! Lots and lots of lotteries!


Science fiction and fantasy is incredibly expensive!

Okay, the books and magazines are expensive. But at least there are libraries. And so much of it is available free online nowadays. More than you could read in a lifetime, maybe.

But ... free time is expensive.

And ... being able to vote in the awards is expensive. Paying for the memberships that let you vote is expensive, and paying for those books and magazines and things, the ones on the longlists and shortlists -- the ones you can't get in libraries yet -- that's expensive.

Being able to participate in the conversation around the awards is expensive. Because if you're not voting, maybe you feel a bit stupid or poor or like a trespasser, hmm? You maybe get a smidge of imposter syndrome. Just a smidge. The smidges add up.

And the conventions. And the workshops.

The conventions are incredibly expensive! The workshops are incredibly expensive. Here are two great posts about the recent kerfuffle re Neil Gaiman, Clarion West, the quasi-idiomatic expression "you want x, you NEED x" etc.: Ann Leckie's and JY Yang's.

JY Yang's is probably the more pertinent to this post. "[F]or somebody like me – living and working outside of the UK or US – different culture, different continent, different context – breaking into the SFF publishing scene, getting people to actually sit up and notice you, even getting better at your craft, is extremely. fucking. difficult." Yang talks about community. It's expensive to feel part of science fiction and fantasy.

It is expensive to visit the science fiction and fantasy Top of Mount Olympus, but there aren't too many other kinds of obstacle to getting there. You pay your money, you get on your Mount Olympus Funicular. For a lot of money, you can see, hear, touch -- I guess you shouldn't touch -- living legends. For a huge amount of money, you can have them read your stuff and suggest how to make it better. So long as you're not too picky about your living legend, one living legend or other should be available.

Part of the kerfuffle re Neil Gaiman, Clairon West, etc., is probably driven by the suspicion that workshops like that don't just give you sound advice, they give you even sounder contacts. "Okay, so you're a good writer. There are a lot of good writers out there. There are a lot of good, hard-working writers out there. The ones that know how to network, the ones that can pay to get close to the big nodes ... they're the ones that succeed."

That's the suspicion, anyway. I don't really share it? Not that I have some kind of naive ideal about canons crystallizing according to pure merit, or anything. But I do suspect that there's a third thing, that isn't exactly instruction and isn't exactly networking, although it's a bit like both those things, that you get from something like Clarion West. Or get from a coffeeklatch with a living legend, or whatever. It's the anxiety and pleasure of community. I think we systematically underestimate its importance in shaping, strengthening, and projecting writing outward into the world. Writing is intimately entangled with pleasure, with jouissance. Writing is intimately entangled with community, and perhaps extra intimately entangled with provisional, fragile, hodgepodge, competitive, mercurial, anxious, disputed, and disputatious community.


Anyway: science fiction and fantasy is supposed to imagine the future. Science fiction and fantasy is supposed to imagine the alternative. Science fiction and fantasy is supposed to imagine the otherwise unimaginable alternative. Science fiction and fantasy is supposed to keep some kind of fragile candle-flame flickering through the dark times. And science fiction and fantasy is incredibly expensive.

Because it's expensive, it's elitist.

It directly selects against those on low incomes. It directly selects against those living in countries with comparatively weak currencies. It indirectly selects against those groups who tend to have low incomes, or who live in such countries.

(If you're lucky -- lucky? -- you live somewhere like where I live, and science fiction and fantasy has its free fringe).

I'm sure people way more knowledgeable than me have talked over these problems a zillion times. I know for a fact there are all kinds of practical initiatives that go some way to ameliorating them.

But I'm just wondering: is there some neglected low-hanging fruit here, ripe and ready to drop?

Maybe focusing on the feeling of inclusion, and the anxiety and pleasure of community, might make it a bit easier to improve accessibility?

If it has proved hard to extend the full shebang, to extend the full masterclass-from-a-living-legend, to every talented and hardworking writer who in some sense deserves it ... maybe it's easy to at least extend the feelings of inclusion and of community? Extend it a bit?

UPDATE: Elsewhere, Sunny Morraine writes eloquently on similar subjects. "[...] at least in SFF writerdom, there is really no meaningful distinction between friends and colleagues [...]" (Fuck, cons shouldn't be something people feel they have to go to, should they?)


One way you feel included in something, if that something is something which is cyclical, is if you even have a chance of going to that something. A free lottery ticket, each time it comes round. And/or if you feel like someone who's a bit like you just did go to it. You didn't win, but the person who did reminds you of you.

"Didn't make it last year, or this year, but one year I might, and in the meanwhile, I still feel included. I still feel invested."

Or: "I could afford it that one time, and with my memories of that one time, plus my ritual of entering the lottery, I still feel part of this thing. Which creates all kinds of positive feedback loops and virtuous circles in my reading and my conversations and my writing."

So the guideline is: for any SFF-related thing that involves money, take a moment to pause and think, Is there some spare capacity here that we could give away for free? Is there some aspect that could be hived off and given to whoever's name gets pulled out of a hat?


So for instance:

(1) Could Neil Gaiman and some of his friends figure out a way to make Clarion more accessible, at least for a temporary span of time? I have no idea what the economics of Clarion are, although I bet they're flexier than the folk in charge of them will tell you at first. But for instance, could an instructor (e.g. Neil Gaiman) waive a fee and instead sponsor a low income attendee?

(2) More low income pass lotteries for cons please. Every major con should have tickets that get handed out at random to applicants on low incomes. I'm talking about cramming in a few extra bodies that otherwise wouldn't be there at all.

(3) If it's financially feasible, some lotteries available to everyone too, regardless of income. The important thing is: lots and lots of lotteries, so the more you want to go somewhere, the more scrupulous and energetic you can be about throwing your name in every hat everywhere. Okay, it's not perfect, but "I won the lottery to go to LaserswordCon, help me raise travel and accommodation!" ain't a bad way to Kickstart something.

(4) Associations should also do free membership lotteries. The BSFA could probably do with a membership top-up. Promote the lottery hard, and you'll get a big pool of applicants, and instead of giving some existing member a free ride, you'll get a new member you never would have had in the first place. Maybe they'll stick around. Voting rights in particular: it makes hella sense to me to engage more widely by offering partial memberships that permit voting. The cost to the association could be literally zero (sorry, no paper ballots for lottery-route members).

(5) Magazines should do more lotteries for free digital subscriptions. This is probably less important.

(6) I've forgotten what this one was. More lotteries, probably. Oh, maybe it was more online stuff. Clarion West on an Open University / Khan Academy model? (But beware the risks of the latest round of cyberutopianism).

(7) I know the e"con"omics (pretty good joke huh) generally rule out giving volunteers a free pass, but could some volunteers get a free pass? Or first time volunteers get half price, kind of thing? I'm sure many cons already do this kind of thing.

(8) Errr ... and of course if there are ways of making paying cons and workshops and awards and things a little less central to the affairs of science fiction and fantasy in general, that might not be a bad thing. And if we do multiply the lotteries throughout the lands, we should take care not to use that Good Thing as an excuse to do Bad Things; the more privileged participants in science fiction and fantasy should take care never to use lotteries as an excuse to understate or neglect persistent patterns of marginalization, take care never to use them as a reason not to energetically engage with and promote the work of non-Western and other marginalized groups of writers.

(9) Aaaaaaand of course while all this is going on, it's necessary to step back from time to time and think about how thinking about fairness and finance in the fandom context may operate as a distraction from, or sublimation of, fairness and finance in the wider world.

(10) Masked Clarion. Compulsory masks. Clari-anon. Everybody foxes etc. Who went to Clarion? We all did.

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PS: Con or Bust is taking requests for assistance from fans of colour from Feb 15-25.

PPS: I really like something JY's post touches on at the end. It isn't just about making the core more accessible to the periphery: it's about the possibility of developing the periphery, shedding the periphery-ness, making new, alternate cores. Basically it's also about sf and fantasy localism, about growing vibrant small press scenes that don't necessarily kowtow to whatever aesthetics and politics and whatever which dominate mainstream sf and fantasy and, even more importantly, which resist and/or transform co-option by the more progressive venues and institutions of mainstream sf and fantasy. Just as a quick comparison, for some reason basically all the even slightly good poetry in the UK is published predominantly by small and micro presses.

PPPS: I notice that this post falls into that genre of "x costs money. y costs money."-straight-talkin' type posts. I didn't mean to talk straight and I'm sorry.

PPPPS: Some aspiring writers should be discouraged! I wish somebody had discouraged me! But I haven't quite figured out yet how to tell them apart, the ones who should be discouraged and the ones who shouldn't. Just putting a big discouragement buffet out there for people to help themselves to usually just further marginalizes the marginalized (within this particular context, although being marginalized in one context may free you up to flourish in another, which is what makes this whole thing so tricky. Hmmm).

PPPPPS: I also have the quasi-rationalized superstition that social contact with the authors of texts can sharpen your reading of those texts in a way that is also by the way frequently fruitful in your writing, assuming you are cultivating them as an influence. The Death of the Death of the Author is basically a done deal from where I'm sitting. Btw I heard a fantastic neologism today: not autobiography but bioautography.

PPPPPPS: [To do: are there some general good tactics to adopt when you find yourself in the midst of building a counter-core? Lessons from poetry and/or activism maybe? Simple things: if there doesn't seem to be the constituency to support a genre writing night, start off with a music and comedy and genre writing and open mic night. Or if you don't find yourself in the midst of building a counter-core, then what practical measures can you take to support those who are? What can the sort-of-established editors and authors and publishers, who still aren't happy with what they're established in, do in order to provide real solidarity with and support to these more local and distributed sff efforts, without de-energizing / appropriating / undermining them?]

[Also to do: I sense that "writing," although that term needs interrogating, can really flourish at the moment that you withdraw yourself from a "community" -- and maybe that's not quite the right word either, if it's something that functions most powerfully at the moment of alienation. But yeah: writing obviously isn't really a lonely pursuit, and it obviously isn't a social pursuit either. It has a particular characteristic status in the dialectic of individual and collective, which I need to think about more carefully some time.]

PPPPPPPS: The bit about "hiving off aspects" of memberships / passes etc. does of course raise the question of a tiers, or a sense of being present or participating, but feeling second class. That's a real issue, although at the same time, it is probably something to be sensitive to and try to deal with, not something that renders the whole notion untenable. What's the alternative -- simply keeping the barriers to entry high, just so the people who can't make it at at all are saved the risk of feeling like they're hard done by or interlopers or deserve the full welcome pack or whatever dammit? And it's not as if those feels aren't in circulation already. My Night Nurse is kicking in big time rn.


  1. And also these workshops go on and on forever and who gets to leave their lives for that long? Unemployed people maybe but they usually have to show up for interviews to get their benefits if they have them, and can't afford to pay people to hold down the fort while they go off for six thousand years to a writing workshop. That's why I never did one when I was younger and it might have helped. Cons tend to be a few days long so they're more doable. Plus if they're local you can just go for the day.

    I recently found out I'm too poor for subsidized medical insurance, but I wouldn't apply for any of these hypothetical lotteries anyway--I'd feel there was someone more deserving and I wouldn't want to take their slot.

  2. But some people might. I guess that's also the "people that remind you of you" point, or its flip side, that might encourage you? And you could always make them transferable, so you could pass your golden ticket on if you really wanted ...

  3. I've not been to loads of fandom spaces, but there is something a teeeensy bit utopian about the ones I've been through, just in terms of the variety of personalities rubbing along tolerantly & vigorously & hilariously together, & the fact that it's a big intricate undertaking & yet it's autonomous. But cons are classist. I guess there's a parallel with right wing ways of undermining dissent ("ooh you rich posh kids slumming it, your protest is just a sign of your privilege") but then again, also not?