Division ÷ Street
Abi Frost

AJF speaks up for the single-stream convention

Our text today comes from Ian Sorensen, writing in Conrunner 8 on the Eastcon and Contravention bids. "The reality of Eastercons these days is that they are very big, do not have a homogeneous membership, and will require a committee to supply a wide range of entertainments. Maybe not bread and circuses, but a multi-stream, wide-ranging programme." Earlier in the article, Ian comments that Norwescon lost support "because they insisted they were going to provide a 'real science fiction convention' ... [and were] seen as being too bookish and possibly elitist by many. The term 'media fan' is bandied about without much thought being given to who it would apply to. True media fans attend their own conventions where they have a programme devoted to ... TV shows or films. Yes, some will attend an Eastercon, but only a very few; they will mostly be attending Elidor. The media fans at an Eastercon are those fans who like to see films/videos at a convention, and have little interest in panels of authors talking about aspects of novel writing or publishing deals.... 'Straight' sf fans will also be found watching films but their principal love is reading. I would question whether a programme largely devoted to the writing of sf will necessarily appeal to its readers. In any case, I don't reckon there will be enough 'straights' at Eastercon now ... to vote in a 'bookish' bid. They are, I think, the last remnants, in attitude, of the pre-Seacon 79 convention-goers."

Ian seems confused here about the relationship between reading and writing: "written sf", the Mexicon expression, means just that. It doesn't mean that Mexicon programming consists entirely of talks about writing; or that clear and interesting discussion of the business of writing doesn't help the reader to enjoy their reading further. But I'm more concerned with the conventional defence of multi-streaming; the idea that a single, integrated programme cannot offer "something for everyone" and will inevitably exclude some people's interests, catering only for an "elite".

At a single-programme convention everything is for everyone; which doesn't mean that everyone has to attend everything. At a multi-programme convention, some bits are "for" some people and other bits are "for" others. The convention itself institutionalises divisions between groups of fans, instead of emphasising the common ground. And it is in such a divided community that "elitism" -

and the paranoia about it which causes the withdrawal of certain groups which is sometimes read as elitism itself -- can grow and flourish. When we were all fans, we had each our own mental pecking-order, no doubt, but we all felt part of the same community. Now that we are seen as members of special interest groups, whose special interests must be catered for, we grow further apart from each other by the day.

A simple example: the Follycon film programme. Having been away from Eastercons for so long, I was impressed and delighted by the number of feature films on offer -- and the quality of the selection. Here were films I'd seen many times before and always like to see again (Performance); films I wanted to see but had missed first time round (The Wall and Brazil); and films I'd never even heard of but some of which sounded worth a look. How many did I catch?

Not one. In the event, every film I fancied clashed with a programme item (or more often, two -- feature films being rather longer than fan panels, usually), or a party, or a trip to the art gallery, or a meal, or a long bar-rap with friends; the other things I go to a convention for. Tucked away in a "film room", the film programme hardly had a chance to catch me. Eight or ten films, repeated throughout the con, would have been plenty, and would have ensured that everyone had a chance to see what a substantial proportion of their membership money must have gone on. Four really good films, shown in the con hall and perhaps followed by discussions of their place in the sf pantheon, would have been real highlights, providing perhaps some of the common ground of the convention and a real talking-point.

And common ground is what we need. Emphasising the gaps between (say) fanzine fans and media fans merely creates problems and unnecessary distress. More emphasis on the common ground might discourage a few infantile souls who insist on the con being distorted to accommodate them, personally, but who needs such people? The rest of us could start to communicate and find out what each other has to offer: each other person, not each "fandom".

The common ground is, ultimately, science fiction. I say that as a hard-core fanzine fan. one whose presence here has little to do with any strong personal commitment to sf. Instead of merely celebrating (say) Gerry Anderson, why don't his fans try to show the rest of us his place in the genre's history; why don't they make the case for Anderson as science fiction? It's true they would risk being laughed out of court, but why not try to examine his shows' appeal? Or let them listen to the writers, artists and others whose work has something in common with Anderson's and make the connection for themselves.

Every side-show at a convention diminishes its wholeness. A convention which stresses side-shows at the expense of core material might even cease to be a convention -- which means a coming-together. It becomes instead, at the extreme, a muddlesome gallimaufry of eccentricity and self-indulgence. It diminishes understanding, both of the genre and between the people in it, where integrated programming can serve to increase it.

Mexican II had something called the "thirds principle"; the theory was that things are going all right if at any one time, one-third of the convention is watching the programme, one-third in the bar, and one-third doing god knows what somewhere else. This didn't mean that the same third might do each thing throughout the con - though some individuals may have spent their whole weekend in the bar or the con hall -- but that a programme item had to look as if it would attract about that number of people before it was commissioned. This means looking at your programming in a new way: not as a way of placating vociferous interest-groups, but as a selection of items each capable of attracting interest from the non-aligned.

While, obviously, it is useful to provide a choice at a large convention, it needn't be done in a divisive fashion. Let programming reflect the interest-value and potential audiences of the programme items themselves, not a hackneyed idea of "something for everyone". "Something for everyone" means most things "not for me". I like Mozart opera, and I like Clint Eastwood: but I shan't feel cheated if Clint isn't playing Papageno at the ENO this season.

Chicken Bones 1 (1989)