Tag Archives: potlatch

Do Women Destroy Science Fiction?

Spent last weekend at the wonderful and thought-provoking Potlatch convention (http://www.potlatch-sf.org/). It’s a con for readers of speculative fiction, and I’ve been going to it for years and years.

Instead of a “Guest of Honor”, Potlatch has a “Book of Honor”. This year’s book was the anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction, produced by Lightspeed Press. It’s a response to the all-too-frequent claim by men that women writers are DESTROYING science fiction! Ever since H.G. Wells wrote the first sci fi book! (Actually, though, he wasn’t the first. That honor goes to a woman, the author of Frankenstein.)

The book is great! Where else can you read stories about dystopias where everyone lives in a mall? Genetic and cybernetic modifications that turn people into mermaids and spaceships? Or watch a corpse decompose in a spaceship after the artificial gravity system disappears? Who can resist an essay titled “How to Engineer a Self-Rescuing Princess”?

It was also wonderful to be able to have conversations about the book, in the form of audience-participation panels, and outside the panels — in the halls, in the hospitality suite, in restaurants, and afterward in blogs.

The conversations, though, seemed to lack focus. We’re in the middle of change — women are respected science fiction authors in some contexts, but not in others — and I don’t know that anybody was able to come up with a clear and coherent vision about the exact nature of the problem or how to handle it. So it seemed like we were talking about all different kinds of problems.  And we were. Some people were talking about respect, some people were talking about the disproportionate publishing and reviewing of men’s work, and some people expanded the conversation to include the difficulty of publishing in general.

You can see some of the comments here:

“Notes on ‘Women Destroy Science Fiction: Not Again'” — posted on the Aqueduct Press blog

The focus that conversation lacked can be found in Nisi Shawl’s Lightspeed anthology essay “Screaming Together: Making Women’s Voices Heard” —

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if . . . women’s genre stories and poems and genre-related nonfiction being published and read and noticed–happened every single day?”

She goes on to give a bunch of solutions, such as:

  • reading books by women
  • talking about books by women on social media
  • nominating women for awards
  • helping one of the many organizations that support women’s writing
  • for editors: repeatedly asking non-assertive women to participate in creative projects
  • for editors: issuing women writers public deadlines
  • supporting women who are writing
  • publishing women who are writing
  • for writers, using alternate publishing resources such as Book View Cafe, Indiegogo, and Kickstarter

This particular conversation, though, didn’t make it into the panel. Nor did a conversation about how far we have come, or maybe more important, what we are aiming for. We want women’s genre writing to be heard, but by whom? Is our goal equal representation in the Big Five publishing houses, and if so, why? Is it just women’s writing we want, or do we care about race, class, ability, gender, and more? Do we need a Combahee River Collective Statement  for genre writings?

Well, this explains why the conversations seemed to lack focus. They’re tackling a big topic. Why not make it just a little bigger by introducing publishing problems faced by men and women alike? Here you go:

“Notes on ‘What Dreams May Come'” — also from the Aqueduct Press blog.

That panel, which drew its inspiration on a speech Ursula Le Guin gave at the National Book Awards about authors, publishers, capitalism, and freedom. However, many of the audience members (including myself) hadn’t seen it, and the conversation dissolved into a conversation about big publishers and Amazon.

Where to next?

I left Potlatch mulling over a couple different concepts, so here they are, in their preliminary form.

1) It’s about building power. The question of who is published and reviewed, and who isn’t, has a little to do with quality and a whole lot to do with power. A group of people working together to read, edit, publish, and review each others’ works will build power.

2) Is it about competing with money, trying to get into the top publishers? I don’t think so. Money is a form of power. A noxious one. It’s a form of power best countered by striving for freedom. Whatever that means. Again, Ursula Le Guin’s speech is worth watching.

3) Is this a problem best solved by the individual, or the community?  Is it about what the individual wants to read, or write, or edit, or publish, or about what our communities need to hear and say and dream?

4) Speaking of community, Potlatch itself is a community-building con. It’s a place for readers and authors to meet each other and support each other. Over the years, it’s exposed me to a diverse range of authors, and it certainly has supported me as a woman author. Part of the solution, that.

5) Do women destroy science fiction? No. Science fiction is indestructible. Here — bring me some rockets and robots and TNT, and I’ll show you what I mean.

Image is from the Minecraft "Let it Blow" youtube video

Image is from the Minecraft “Let it Blow” youtube video

Potlatch/Foolscap – the Book of Honor

Well, I introduced my weekend at Potlatch/Foolscap in yesterday’s post. Today I’ll say a little bit about the Potlatch Book of Honor. (Potlatch has a tradition of having a Book of Honor rather than a Guest of Honor. Everyone reads the same book and discusses it throughout the con.)

This year the Book of Honor was Among Others by Jo Walton. That deserves its own post, but in brief it is a coming-of-age story of a person with a disability who is also a fan of 1970s SF/F. Mori, the main character, is sent away to a boarding school and has to deal with otherness surrounding both her disability and her love of classic sci-fi. Along the way she encounters fairies that come straight out of . . . not The Lord of the Rings, but from the actual mythology that inspired Tolkien. The book is thought-provoking and heartwarming, won a Hugo award, and is well worth the read!

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the concept of a “karass.” The term comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, and it mean — very satirically — a “group of people who, often unknowingly, are working together to do God’s will.” It means something different in Among Others. There it means something like “a group of people who don’t fit in with regular people due to fannishness, and who might have the good fortune to find each other and, for the first time in their lives, fit in.” There’s a sense of community, and also a sense of having a similar world view because of having read the same books.

Potlatch is quite a bit like that. Many of the people who have kept it going all these years grew up on science fiction / fantasy from a similar era. For some, it’s the 1970s, and for some, it’s even earlier. There are people who got to know each other by passing around fanzines through the mail. (This was pre-Internet.) These are often thoughtful and beautifully done. There is a tradition of an active participation by fans in the writing of SF/F — readers would write into SF/F magazines asking for more stories from a particular author, or praise or criticize something an author had said or done, and there would end up being two-way communication. Somewhere along the way a local writer’s workshop developed, Clarion West, and many of the people involved with Potlatch are also involved with Clarion West. That means the local fans have built a community that supports the authors of tomorrow, which is awesome.

You can find out more about Walton and her book by reading this interview with Jo Walton.

A Weekend at Potlatch/Foolscap

I spent the weekend at a “reader’s spa.” Chocolate fondue, rest time, reading time, conversation, coffee, brunch, board games, even a masseuse at the ready.

Actually, it’s not called a spa.You could call it a weekend-long book group meeting, with food.

But it’s not called a book group either. It’s called a con, short for convention. But it’s unlike any other con I know about. I’m not altogether sure how to explain it. First off, it was a hybrid between two different cons — Potlatch and Foolscap. I’ve never been to a Foolscap, but I’ve been going to Potlatch for years. It is all about science fiction/fantasy book fandom, and beyond that it means different things to different people. There’s a hospitality suite with free food (and a donation kitty, of course) and hardworking volunteers. There’s a “book of honor” rather than a “guest of honor”, and the book provides a focal point for conversations that take place. As for the conversations, there are two kinds of programming: panels and microprogramming. The panels are decided in advance and involve lots and lots of audience participation. Usually the audience talks more than the panelists. The microprogramming are events that get decided on the spur of the moment. People write them up and then people attend them.

(Now when I said there was a book of honor rather than a guest of honor, that only applied to the Potlatch side of things. Foolscap has a guest of honor – in fact, two. Nancy Pearl, celebrity librarian, and Michel Gagné, artist and cartoonist. And they were responsible for the chocolate fondue.)

Potlatch is extremely well suited for introverted readers and writers. We just plain have difficulty with conversation. Not only that, but we do conversation differently. Actually, what I mean is that *I* do conversation differently. I hear something, and it sets something off in my mind, and then I take a long time to mull it over. Or I read something in a book, and although I might like to talk to somebody about it, maybe nobody around me has read the same book and then before long I forget whatever it was I wanted to say. So in general, in my daily life, I simply don’t talk about what matters most to me.

Put another way, cocktail party conversation is hell for me.

At Potlatch, on the other hand, I might attend a panel with something pre-prepared to say. Or I might spark off some idea somebody else had. Or I might derive some casual conversation to share with somebody later in the elevator. Or I might just remain silent and then go home and write about it later.

That would be now.