August 2013

A quick word on gender parity at WFC2013

by Suw on August 28, 2013

There’s been a kerfuffle over World Fantasy Con’s response to an author, Tom Pollockwho stepped down from a panel because of a lack of gender parity and was told by the organisers that he had “just excluded himself from all panels”. The tweeter, Pollock’s wife, quoted WFC’s response in a later tweet:

Actual quote: “As stated… WFC does not subscribe to that policy, so I’m afraid you have excluded yourself from any programming.”

Said Pollock himself:

In practice, in this instance, anyone who knew enough about the topic and wasn’t a dude could take my place.

Indeed, Pollock wrote about the gender parity issue himself last year, and had pledged to step down from any panel that wasn’t 50:50. This is apparently the first time he has been put in a position to have to keep his pledge.

Now, the WFC has an interesting way of scheduling speakers, according to their site:


Not Everyone Will Be On a Panel
It’s simple arithmetic. We will have more potential programme participants than slots available for them. And because we are limited by WFC rules as to how many panels non-Guests of Honour can participate in, we will try to take a number of things into consideration. However, the most important factor will be Are You the Best Person to Speak on This Subject. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve had out, or whether you are a New York Times best-seller or not, our top priority is putting together informative and entertaining panels with the best participants available to us.

What You Need to Do First
• First of all, unless you are a Guest of Honour, you need to be a Registered Member of the convention. You can do that here.
• You need to register earlier than later. If we know you are planning to attend, then we can begin considering you for potential programme slots.


I know this is a convention and not a conference and that things might well be different with conventions, but it seems like a rather haphazard way of organising one’s speaker roster. Usually with conferences – and I’ve organised and spoken at quite a few so I have some experience here – one thinks about what topics are currently germane, who are the best people to speak on those topics, and then you invite them.

Gender parity becomes an issue in male-dominated areas like science and tech at least in part because, as a conference organiser,  your first instinct is to ask yourself, “Who do I know that would be awesome on this topic?” The answer to that question is usually, “Someone that I already know, have already seen speak, or who has already been recommended to me by someone I know.” That is the wrong answer.

Because a lot of conferences are dominated by men, and men get more coverage in the media, the first people to come to mind will be men. That doesn’t mean that a man is the best person to speak on a particular topic, it means that a man is the first person likely to come to mind as a speaker on a particular topic. The only way to combat this tendency is for conference and convention organisers to deliberately seek speakers from outside of their existing social and professional circles. This means putting some effort into finding women speakers whom you previous did not know about.

I know some people hate gender parity policies because they feel that it’s tokenism, that the women are only chosen because of their gender and that, therefore, objectifies them and devalues their participation. And if all the organisers do play the equivalent of Blind Woman’s Buff or Pin The Tail On The Female Speaker, then it’s fair enough to protest it as tokenism. But if organisers go deeper and seek to empower those women who are expert but who have had little or no exposure or coverage, then the policy is working as it should. It’s not about getting any ol’ woman on stage, it’s about encouraging organisers to look beyond the obvious male contributors and find the slightly more obscure but equally brilliant women.

As with many things, it isn’t the what, it’s the how that is important.

WFC2013’s weird way of programming, which essentially restricts them to either Guests of Honour, who are the big, important names and currently standing at six men and two women, or people who have already paid to attend, does rather limit their choices. I suppose this allows them to have their cake and eat it, in that they can totally over-schedule the convention to make it seem busy and exciting and not lose any money because the speakers have already paid to attend.

In the conference world, if you speak you get free entry. Indeed, when I have been asked to both speak and pay for my own entrance I have always turned the offer down because, frankly, you don’t have an event at all without your speakers, and asking them to pay for the privilege of working for you is rude and greedy. I’m less au fait with conventions, so maybe WFC2013 is normal and I just think it’s weird because I come from another paradigm.

But still, there is not a shortage of great women writers in the fantasy genre, especially if it’s extended out a bit to encompass horror and SF which, the last time I want to a FantasyCon, it was. I can’t see that there would be any significant difficulty in ensuring that women are well represented. But, more than that, I cannot see how it helps WFC2013 to punish a potential speaker because he wanted to see gender parity and decided to give up his spot on a panel so that a woman could take part, which is essentially what he did.

WFC2013 has also decided to dance around the issue of having a policy on harassment. It’s FAQ says:

World Fantasy Convention 2013, as with any other predominantly adult gathering, will have a number of rules and regulations for the safety of attendees. These will be clearly stated in our Programme Guide, which will be given to each attendee when they register. In the meantime, we refer you to the UK’s Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Sadly, harassment at cons has come to light as a serious issue and many now have policies that make it very clear that harassment is not acceptable and provide the basis for action to be taken should harassment be reported. By not having an explicit harassment policy and falling back on the all too lame ‘we’re all adults and there’s a law’ position, the organisers of WFC2013 are adding to the perception, right or wrong, that they do not take gender issues seriously.

Recently, author John Scalzi stated that he would not go to a convention that did not have a clear policy on harassment. I admire Scalzi’s stance, especially as he does actually have something to lose by refusing to go to conventions. As an author, appearing at events is a key part of your job and not doing so could have a detrimental effect on your sales, so Scalzi is putting his money where his mouth is.

I wasn’t going to be going to WFC2013 this year anyway as I can’t afford it, but now I’m not going for the additional reason that I simply do not wish to support people who think that it’s OK to effectively punish someone for bringing up the subject of gender parity by banning him from appearing on other panels, and who don’t address the harassment policy issue head on and thereby demonstrate that they take the safety of their female attendees and speakers seriously.

But more to the point, I won’t go to any future WFC2013 or FantasyCon events unless the organisers take a more constructive attitude towards both parity and harassment. They won’t lose out, but I will, as cons are a great place to meet people and network, and at this stage in my career that’s something I really need to be doing, but I’ll find a different way and a different place to do it.

UPDATE: 29/10/13, 10:09. Sarah Pinborough has dropped by and left a comment in which she reassures me that WFC2013 isn’t going to be a massive sausagefest:

There are a huge amount of talented women attending WFC 2013 and having spoken to the Chair ( a woman) there will be absolutely no shortage of woman speakers. It’s the men who will have to keep up.

That’s good to hear, and deals with half my problem with the con. All they need to do now is produce a proper harassment policy and make sure that no other speaker who steps aside to let a woman take their place on a panel gets punished for doing so.

UPDATE: 30/10/13, 10:28. Looks like my upbeat response to Sarah’s insider info may have been premature after it came to light that Kameron Hurley was offered a ‘ladies panel’:

Unsurprised to be offered a “ladies” panel at WFC. About how ladies NEVER used to write fantasy(!?). Where did all these LADIES come from?

Note that this is a FANTASY panel. It’s not even a “Women never used to write SF!!” panel. But FANTASY. Oh lordy lord lord lordy my.

Cheryl Morgan posts the description of the panel:

The Next Generation: Broads with Swords. Once upon a time the heroic fantasy genre was—with a few notable exceptions such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett—the sole domain of male writers like Robert E. Howard, John Jakes and Michael Moorcock. Those days are long gone, and it seems that more & more women writers are having their heroines suit up in chain-mail and wield a broadsword. Who are these new writers embracing a once male-dominated field & how are their books any different from their literary predecessors?

Hurley says on twitter that she emailed WFC2013 to ask them to change the focus and language of the Broads With Swords panel, not least because it seems to ignore a vast swathe of women fantasy writers who’ve been very successful over the last few decades. She also requested that the panel not be made up solely of women. She tweets that she was told her request for a change pas been passed on to the programming committee, but that this is the only panel she’ll be offered.

Blogger A Little Briton, Pollock’s wife, gives us a handy guide to all that is wrong with these sorts of “Women In…” panels. And Jess Haines executes a particularly satisfying takedown. I couldn’t agree more*.

But wait! That’s not the end of it! Morgan also posts the description of a panel that she was asked to be a part of: 

The Next Generation We’re All Bloggers Now. Being a columnist or a critic used to be a skill, combining knowledge and the ability to write with insightful observations. These days it seems that everybody has an opinion and evolving technology has given us numerous platforms through which to make our views known. Have we degraded the true art of criticism to a point where it has lost all value?

There’s so much baggage there it’s hard to see how they’ll get that panel off the ground at all. This sort of thinking does nothing to help either writers or readers, it’s just snobby nonsense. They could have asked how the now complex relationship between traditional reviewers, publishers, writers and bloggers has changed reviewing and what impact that is having on how readers find out about new authors and books. But no, they had to make a judgement first and write the panel description once they’d decided what we should all think.

I’m left thinking that the WFC2013 programming committee really needs to listen to John Scalzi:

Dear WFC 2013: Please stop punching yourself in the face.

For fandom’s sake, please.

* I’ll note that I’m not against “Women In” panels when they provide an accurate and historically aware view of women’s contributions, or if they are focused on addressing the problems that women face in male-dominated fields, because we do need to have those conversations. But this sort of revisionist “Ooh, look at the girlies trying to do what us menz do” bollocks is not helpful in the least.

UPDATE: 30/10/13, 19:09. WFC2013 have responded to criticism via the medium of their FAQ. I’m not hugely impressed, I must say, but it’s time to go out for dinner now, so I’ll do a new blog post with further thoughts in due course.

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Cottingley Faeries

The Cottingley Faeries

Faeries. Fairies. The Fay. The Fae. The Tylwyth Teg. Pixies. Piskies. Pizkies. Pigsies. The Tuatha Dé Danann. Brownies. Titania and Oberon. The Fair Folk. The Wee Folk. The Good Folk. There are, it seems, a boatload of different species of faerie, not to mention a multiplicity of spellings. Had he ever made the attempt, their classification would have been enough to keep Carl Linnaeus occupied for years.

Some fairies are depicted as tiny supernatural beings with butterfly wings, as in the famous Cottingley Fairies, a series of five hoax photographs produced by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917 which fooled many people, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But faeries have also been described as tall and angelic, or short and trollish, their more child-like aspect being a Victorian romanticisation of earlier folklore (according to Wikipedia at least).

Then you’ve got faerie politics and social structures, which I’m sure there’s a PhD in for the soul brave enough to tackle it. Some faeries are kind and good, others mean and malicious, depending on whether they belong to the Seelie Court or the Unseelie Court. Or they can be Trooping, living in groups and travelling in long processions, or Solitary, who live alone and apparently tend to be malicious, except for Brownies who could be called Domesticated rather than Solitary as they like doing household chores.

When I realised that Queen of the May involved faeries, it did present a bit of a problem. Were mine faeries or fairies? Were they Seelie or Unseelie? Trooping, Solitary or Domesticated? Child-like or adult? Malicious or kind? Wings or no wings? Tall or short?

Clearly I needed to do some research, but the more I read the more I realised that there isn’t really one set of faerie lore, but many. And what’s worse, over time those different traditions have intermingled and evolved to create a complicated and often self-contradictory mythology that frequently fails to hold itself together coherently. Instead, I decided to take my cue from the creator of my favourite faeries, Terry Pratchett.

In Lords And Ladies, Pratchett toys with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and although he calls his faeries elves they share characteristics, eg they hate iron and live in Fairlyand, a world parallel to our own that they can cross over from only in soft places. Elves originated in Germanic folklore and became conflated with faeries in the Elizabethan era, according to Wikipedia and so Pratchett is using ‘elf’ as a synonym for faerie. His elves are vicious, cruel and parasitic, incapable of either breeding or being nice.

My own faeries turned out to be a cross between Pratchett’s elves and Duran Duran, but with an alarming inability to comprehend germ theory. They too can’t procreate, not without significant magic, the kind that only the Queen can wield, but as they are nigh-on immortal they don’t really care. They’re selfish, shallow, vapid and cruel, and more than happy to steal humans to use as servants. They can access the soft places between our world and theirs, but our increasing use of iron and steel has fenced them in and it has become harder and harder for them to enter the human world proper. They use glamours, enchantment and hexes to mould the world around them into something that they find pleasing, being far too lazy to do anything themselves.

As I said in February last year, I often feel more like an ethnographer than a writer as I try to figure out the kind of society my faeries live in, how their magic works and whether or not time passes faster or slower in Faerie than in our world. (Turns out that, as these particular faeries live in the borderlands, time passes at the same rate there as here, but the deeper into Faerie you get, the faster time passes. That probably explains why they never bothered to invent watches or time zones.)

I’m not yet done with the ethnography of faeries, however, as a sequel is already starting to ferment in the back of my mind.

Read the first chapter of Queen of the May.

Add to Cart from my bookstore for £2.49, or get it for just 99p if you join my mailing list.

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Queen of the May 24 hour sale!

by Suw on August 5, 2013

cover_digital_qotm-150x213It’s four weeks since I released Queen of the May, and so far I’ve been very happy with how well it has been received. As a way of celebrating, I want to give all my blog readers a treat – a 60% discount! Yup, you can get Queen of the May right now for just 99p by using the discount code CV130806 when you check out.

Add to Cart

The code will remain valid until Tuesday 6 August at 11:59pm GMT – I’m not sure if DPD takes daylight savings into account, but you’ve got well over 24 hours to cash in!

I’ve had one review on Goodreads already and it was a five star, which is a lovely start! Jules said:

A nice piece of intelligent escapism – a heroine with a brain and some initiative, a surprising degree of scientific accuracy and a novel take on Faerieland that manages not to be either twee or sinister, but instead rather icky.

I’ve also had some nice responses on Twitter and by email, so thank you to everyone who’s got in touch!

If you like Queen of the May, please do feel free to send that discount code to your friends, post on Facebook, Twitter etc. But remember, you’ve only got until midnight Tuesday!

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