? ?
Previous Entry Share Flag Next Entry

Three Gray Fandoms

So a lot of conversation is going on at the moment, post-Worldcon, about just how weird the demographics were, and that leads to “I’m tired of all this ageism” and while I am arguably not the most interesting or insightful on that matter, nor do I have a lot of experience with Worldcons, but hey, it’s the Internet, and when did that ever stop anybody?

I will say right now that it was by-and-large an older white con. Tina came along as part of my entourage (She said she’d never been on an entourage before!) and at one point she turned to me and said “Wow. I feel like the youngest person in the room.”

Tina’s in her fifties. I’m thirty-six.

In fact, the topic came up practically every time we talked to somebody–”Wow. Anybody seen a teenager?” Teiran claimed to have, and said they were the only ones who bought anything. The furry contingent sat around the bar shaking our heads. At Anthrocon—and indeed, by standard demographic spread—we are solidly middle-aged. At this con, we felt terrifyingly young. Of all the cons I do (and I have done many, over the years) this was far and away the oldest skew of any of them.

As for the panels—well, going through the program book, we had one on the fifties, one on the sixties, and either eleven or twelve—I lost count, I admit—on Robert E. Howard. I’ll just leave that statement standing there for a bit.

Now, before anybody gets their bowels in an uproar about ageism or about how we’re blaming fandom’s intransigence on old people, let me hastily say that this is a symptom, not necessarily the cause.

We will come back to SF in a minute, in fact. For now, let’s go on to my two other main fandoms, gardening and birdwatching.

Both of these hobbies skew older in a big way. Average ages tend to the fifties, and in practice, when I go to a birding hot spot, I can generally expect that I will be either the youngest person there, the second youngest, or that somebody’s got really well trained children. Birders are usually OLD. The only difference between a bunch of avid birders and a bunch of Worlcon attendees is that one group is wearing binoculars and tends to be in marginally better physical shape. (Again, this is not a reflection on the nature of fandom. If panels occurred on the tops of mountains or the middles of swamps, we might see a similar trend.)

The primary difference, I’d say, is that there are marginally more female birdwatchers, according to the survey I looked up for the purposes of making my point. Otherwise they also tend to be overwhelmingly white*, tend to a somewhat higher than average income, and incidentally are overwhelmingly married.

In gardening, I couldn’t find a good analysis of the racial demographics, but as garden bloggers go, I am on the young end of the spectrum. There are more women. The bloggers tend to be white—this may or may not reflect the demographics of gardening so much as blogging. Certainly the impression of gardeners tends to be of little old ladies with sun hats and dirty gloves.

I have been told, by the small subset of gardeners who read my gardening columns that aren’t already fans, that they admire my “punk-rock” style of gardening. (I have no idea what this means, but I assume it’s a sort of “you’re a weirdo who swears a lot and your bio pic has dyed hair, but your heart is in the right place” thing.) Definitely there is an impression that I am young, and a little out there, but that’s okay.

Now, somebody’s going to yell that birding is nothing like SF fandom, to which I say “Uh-huh. I travel around the country, running into some of the same people each time, doing an obscure thing most people think is really weird and geeky, which involves specialized knowledge and equipment and has its own lingo, dedicated almost entirely to the art of collecting one weird thing. (Bird sightings.) Then we all get together and compare our collections, engage in friendly one-upsmanship about Who Has Seen The Weirdest Thing. Then we tell stories about funny things that happened relative to acquiring said sightings. There are high end fans. There are obscure rules. New sourcebooks come out regularly. We judge each other for unethical behavior. There are clubs and organizations. We feel strongly about it.”

You tell me that’s not like fandom. Go on, do it. Tell me how different it is to stand in line to be at the midnight showing of Star Wars vs. getting up at 3 AM to be at the dawn chorus for the Colima Warbler. Tell me how your specialized knowledge of Lord of the Rings is wildly different than my specialized knowledge of the Ringed Kingfisher. Tell me that my comfort reading of The Essential Earthman and yours of Earthman’s Burden are different. Do it.

Then please hold while I laugh at you. It will take a few minutes for me to finish, so you might want to make a cup of tea.

Gardening? Sure. We have flame wars, did you know that? Oh, we do. Talk to terribly nice people about butterfly bush being invasive and some of them will try to take your head off with a trowel. People have screamed at me for saying that mimosa trees are an invasive thug. There are wars fought over hybrid tea roses.  I put my nose up snobbishly at the Stella d’Oro daylily, the Mourning Dove, and people who think Heinlein was the Greatest Author Who Ever Lived, in more or less equal measure.

In fact, my dear doubting reader, as far as age goes, my other two fandoms outrank SF fandom. Audubon’s first volume of Birds of America came out the year before Jules Verne was born. There were fortunes made and lost on collectibles in gardening long before any SF writer was a twinkle in his great-grandfather’s eyes.** SF fandom led to all sorts of scientific advances? How about Mendel and his pea plants and, y’know, genetics? How about the advances (some of them dangerous and disturbing) that arose from learning to extract nitrogen to make fertilizer to bring in a potentially dystopian world of too many people who, nevertheless, we still more or less manage to feed?

These are fandoms. These are people who act like fans, which is to say that they act like people, because much as we’d all like to pretend we’re special and different, we all do pretty much the same things, which is get together with our friends and find things to be excited about and bitch about stuff we think is stupid and go to daggers drawn over relatively insignificant details that an outsider would find really, really ridiculous.  The difference between me in a used book store and me in a garden shop and me in the hill country with binoculars is mostly a matter of sunburn and what will eventually need to be watered.


Having said that.

The problem of Worldcon, sez I, and of a subset of SF fandom in general is not that it is full of old people. All my fandoms are full of old people. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. They’ve generally been glad to see me, and I’ve been glad to see them. The guy with the scope who got me my Elegant Tern was probably a contemporary of Jules Verne, and the guy who patiently got me onto a Cerulean Warbler in High Island was weathered like a megalith. And I would put any curmudgeon in SF, no matter how legendary, up against the late Henry Mitchell, who would have turned them into mulch and planted daffodils amongst their bones.

No, the problem is that it is insular and intransigent and run by rules (Robert’s Rules of Order, ahem***) that favor the status quo over change. It is that it has problems, and one of the manifestations of that problem is that young people aren’t showing up.

I am not saying that Worldcon would be infinitely better if it was run by the young whippersnappers. I am saying get your shit together, because whatever’s going on is making sure there are no young whippersnappers. However old birders and gardeners might be as a clump, people are still showing up who aren’t eligible for AARP—and we are welcomed. Gracefully, not grudgingly. (And in fact, among gardeners at least, people under 35 finally caught up with other age groups pretty recently. Whatever they are doing, it is bringing in new blood.)

And also that maybe eleven (or twelve) panels on Robert E. Howard is…well, bizarre, anyway. You go to a garden show, there will likely not be eleven (or twelve) hours dedicated to a single cultivar from 1936. I’m sure Howard’s awesome and all, but does he merit eleven (or twelve) times the number of YA panels, total?

A gaming section so small you could hide it in a matchbox is probably part of the problem. And  the fact that we keep getting called “lady authors” is a problem. (We do not call female birders “lady birders” or female gardeners “lady gardeners.” That would be stupid. Other fandoms know this.) Maybe contempt toward all these “media awards” at the Hugos is part of the problem. (Birders, for one, embraced technology hard and fast. We spent the entire trip through hill country on our Sibley apps, checking eBird, which pinpoints the GPS coordinates where a bird has been sighted. You invent a better, lighter pair of waterproof binoculars and birders will fling money so fast it’ll look like a blizzard.)

Maybe an anemic dealer’s room with All The Same Stuff, And Too Much Of It is part of the problem. Gardeners like new stuff. They like old stuff, too—I bow to no one in my love of many heirloom plant breeds, and I plant them for a sense of history and continuity, and don’t get some people started on how much better the old narcissus bulbs were—but you only have to flip through a catalog for “NEW NEW NEW NEW NEW and also NEW!” Birders like new stuff—or dread it, occasionally, as the word comes down that science has now split the Winter Wren into two different species, the Pacific and Winter, and now we have to go find one or the other—but if there are birders going “Damnit, Winter Wrens were good enough for me as a boy, and they ought to be good enough for anybody! I won’t acknowledge the Pacific Wren! That’s stupid!” I have somehow missed it.

Three largely gray fandoms.

In two, I’ve always felt intensely welcome. Total strangers have showered me with cuttings, patiently walked me through fieldmarks on birds that were (to them) extremely common, and cheered with me when I saw a new bird for the first time. Birders will routinely let total strangers sit in their garden to get a rare bird that has showed up at their feeder. Gardeners will spend hours hunting through guides to figure out what kinds of weird flower you’re looking at.

In the third, this past weekend, I sometimes felt like an archaeologist looking at the ruins of a dying civilization. And I love SF fandom. And I want better for it than that. Birding and gardening, as Kevin points out, do not require a secret handshake.

We have got to do better than this.

ETA: Well, this certainly went a little nuts, didn't it? Haven't seen so many new people show up since the last time Gaiman retweeted a link. I assume somebody posted it somewhere.

Welcome, everybody, and keep it civil. We are a non-mudslinging crew. You can tell people they are wrong, you can tell them you disagree, but if you start calling them names, I will be forced to use the Trowel of Internet Civility. (Hey, we can't all afford Mallets!)

Let us also be clear that factual statements can be argued with, but statements like "I didn't feel welcome" can't be fixed with "YOU'RE WRONG!" Nobody is going to suddenly sit up and go "Oh my god! You're right! I felt awesome about things!"

Also, mostly I talk about birds, wombats, obscure fairy tales and horrifying insects---plus posting art---so if you plan to stick around, be aware this isn't...err...normal.

*The only minority group with equal participation was Native Americans, interestingly enough.

**If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re clearly too young and obviously don’t know the SMOG handshake. Pffeh. Go ahead, ask. I will shame you for your ignorance, then perhaps condescend to tell you. Maybe. If you’re lucky.****

***”Never get involved with people who fetishize Robert’s Rules of Order,” says my friend Dave, who has been in fandom long enough to know people that were old when I was born.

****Yes, I am joking, and yes, it’s the Dutch Tulip thing.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

Whoa! I don't think I've ever heard of a Robert E Howard panel at a Worldcon before, and I'd be mildly surprised at the thought of two. Are you sure it's not his rules of order that were in effect?

I'm very backlogged in my Podcastle episodes right now -- as in well over a year and a half behind. I find it to be a great help in catching up to the current episodes when they run a REH story as I can skip it without the least bit of concern that I might be skipping a story I'm going to enjoy. Yeah, I mean I know he's a well recognized author who contributed greatly blah blah blah, but really people, how about something a bit more current for Worldcon?

WorldCon is expensive. Actually when you are in your mid 30's and still have 5+ years to go on your student loans and you can't get a job that actually uses the degree you got so you're working wherever you can that pays you the most money, only they pay you a decent hourly wage but no benefits or paid vacation so you can't go anywhere or take a vacation other than maybe a bed and breakfast for one night and then, fuck, the car breaks down ...

That's my life for the last 8 years.</p>

Cons will happen when we retire.

I think that's definitely part of it, yeah. I would never pay $250 for a con if it wasn't a business expense/excuse to go somewhere neat as a tax write-off.

I went to WorldCon a few years back, when it was in Montreal and a family friend was up for a Hugo. I brought a friend with me; I was a bona fide teenager till, while she'd just squeaked into her twenties a few months earlier. People seemed pleased in the abstract to see Young People at their con... but at every panel we went to, we found the same two stories.

1) It's okay if you're young, but if you haven't read every half-decent scrap of SF/F ever written, you are bad and should feel bad. "Wouldn't it be awesome if someone wrote something addressing such-and-such?" "Uh, white-male-author-so-and-so did that once in his short story such-and-such, published in year-before-you-were-born. You should read it. Next question." I think part of this was a sort of nerdy one-up-manship thing between panel members, but it made it really hard for us to even understand what was being talked about, much less feel welcome to participate in the conversation.

2) It's not okay if you're young. The fact that you're young is an active threat to the things we love. Get the hell out of our con. "Our TV show, Doctor Who/Stargate/Star Trek/something-else-that-was-old-and-has-a-new-version-now is being ruined by young sexy actors with their youth and sexiness. It used to be SERIOUS sci-fi and now it's just YOUNG SEXINESS. When we were younger, we watched TV uphill both ways in a raging snowstorm. Kids these days don't know how good they have it." My friend, who is asexual, raised her hand in a DW panel to note that the ace community has often claimed the Doctor as their own, and to ask about the increasing sexualisation of the Doctor as compared to previous more asexual interpretations. She was told by a DW writer that the showrunners felt it is was unrealistic to have a character that never expressed sexual attraction, an answer that was basically a slap in the face for her... and then the panellist went right back to complaining that Doctor Who is too sexual, darn these young people sexing up our show.

Maybe that year was particularly bad, for some reason. Lots of new reboots of old SF fandoms, maybe? But it wasn't just that WorldCon wasn't welcoming to younger individuals; it was, for us, actively hostile. Unsurprisingly, I have no real desire to return to WorldCon.

Edited at 2013-09-04 12:18 am (UTC)

I went to that WorldCon too. And two things are dawning on me:

(1) I want to say it wasn't like that!

(2) I realize that I went out of my way to try and catch two things: the inclusive panels (there was a list of them put out by I believe coffeeandink) and the ones featuring specific people who also happened (I say that with self-suspicion) to be older white women. And there was still some, uhm, some really creepy stuff.

(3) I am remembering how old how many people I talked to were, relative to me. Most of them were not younger. I think possibly a couple of the people I saw from the art show and the dealer's room. Literally, two.

(4) I think part of it is that I geek relatively heavily on old SF, so I am capable of having a discussion that is more "You read 'Evening Primrose' too? I thought I was the only one!" than it is "Well I have read Jack Vance and Alfred Bester so neener."

(5) was so like that, wasn't it. Dammit.

(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
I keep hearing about this "greying of (SF) fandom" thing, but it's rather hard for me to believe concretely, because all the SF fans I know and see are around 25. The only con I attend regularly is one run and attended by college students and very recent alums. All I knew about Worldcon before now was that a group of my friends, all under 30, were attending and performing. We exist! We're just generally too broke to get out much.

I've never attended a Worldcon, but I've attended my local SF/F convention and I can tell you that the attendance there is healthy and and varied. It feels like it's fairly close to 50/50 on the male/female ratio. There are kids, teens, young adults, people our age, all the way up to grandparents and ancient monoliths. The panels are varied and they specifically provide activities for every age group. It's an incredibly welcoming experience. It was my first SF/F con experience and I realize now I've been terribly spoiled after hearing all the stories and experiences about other conventions. Seeing other cons that aren't as well-balanced and welcoming makes me sad. They can do better and need to do better if they want to survive.


At Arisia, there's a kid track, and the kid section is fairly filled. Panels on Kids In Fandom, Parents In Fandom, etc. And panels on Poly, etc., of course...

I was feeling some of this more than ten years ago in our local convention scene, even being in my early 30s at the time. I remember having to fight to get decent space for gaming and trying to encourage programming with more "youth appeal." I don't know if we succeeded or not, but we did what we could to bring in new blood (while respecting the existing members, of course) ... and I know I would have balked at so many panels on any single author that wasn't actually at the convention (or, you know, no longer breathing for the last eight decades or so.)

I'm a fan. And I'm in my 50's. And I'm white and female. I've been in fandom for over 30 years, and back in the 80's, I was welcomed. But I can't say the same for the people who are the age I was then, now. And that's why so many of my costuming friends attend mega-anime cons instead of 'traditional' SF cons. They're fans, and they're incredibly participatory, but they're not made welcome and the things that interest them most are ignored.

The Roberts Rules of Order thing just blows my mind--it is so crusty, so alienating, and so utterly unnecessary. I'm from the Bay Area, and the local-meet-every-week group uses Roberts for heavens' sake! So the only time I ever bothered to go was to see some friends get married, and to see some folks who were there from out of town--and I left AS SOON AS the 'meeting' started, because it was ridiculous--and not in an ironic way.

I'll admit to being one of the folks who "fetishize" Roberts Rules of Order. It's easy to forget that RROO is supposed to make meetings run smoother, not rules-lawyery. The vast majority of the Rules are to deal with exceptional circumstances, or to provide general advice, not to nit-pick over trivial details of procedure. To a certain degree, it's written like the D&D rules: the chair(DM) is supposed to follow the rules, but in the end, the chair(DM) runs the show (although RROO has a procedure for overruling the chair, by a supermajority vote). If the chair is a dick, or can't keep control, meetings go badly. But it's amazing how much procedure can be stripped down within the context of RROO and still have a smooth meeting.

On your brief rant about birding being like fandom...

Absolutely. There are geeks for just about anything. Some people make something a pastime or even a hobby. Others are passionate about it. Those are the geeks. I've met sewing/costuming geeks, gardening geeks, music geeks, film geeks, coffee geeks, food geeks, car geeks, beer geeks, etc. People can absolutely be birding geeks. A person who gets excited about birding? Birding geek. I'm an animation geek, comic geek, board game geek, video/PC game geek, computer geek, costuming geek, SF/F geek, fandom geek. I get excited about all these things. I can see someone doing the same for birding and it's not really all that different.

I think having activities to be passionate about is a great and very human thing. :D

Yes. I've seen fandom dynamics in fish clubs that should, had real names not been involved and the forums locked, have been posted to fandom_wank.

(Deleted comment)
Terrifying thought for you: Read any report about "The Gathering Of Juggalos", and realise that Juggalos have less gatekeeping, less institutional racism and sexism[1], and are way more welcoming of newcomers than SF fans.

(Obvious retort: "and look at the quality of people allowed to be Juggalos". Obvious retort to the retort: "Fuck you. Nobody who isn't a Juggalo wants to be one, and do you *really* want to invite that comparison, given the words 'fanboy funk' and 'con crud'?")

Now, if only ICP didn't suck....

Worldcon, specifically, has the major problem of "requires travel" and "stupidly expensive". Which skews it heavily old white man inherently.

[1]: A shitload more overt racism and sexism, but you almost get the feeling they're confused by that and have no idea what you mean. Sure, a turkey leg is a "bitch beater", but lay a hand on a female juggalo without her permission and everyone around you will separate you from her and drag you to the cops. Yes, the phrase is "my ninjas" and the crowd is 99.99% white, but nobody who calls a black juggalo a racist slur is going to make it out of the crowd without being slapped.

Seriously, if SF fans behaved that way about their fandom, it would be better, and what the fuck kind of thing is THAT to be able to say?

I am moderately appalled at how right you are, and have no idea how to process it. At all.

I put my nose up snobbishly at the Stella d’Oro daylily, the Mourning Dove, and people who think Heinlein was the Greatest Author Who Ever Lived, in more or less equal measure.

This is bloody brilliant. I'm not a birder myself (although I happily go out birding with friends who are -- my personal "have to identify this now" thing is wildflowers), but I'm a gardener, and a quilter. And if you want to see a beyond seriously skewed fandom, go to a quilt guild meeting, where 90% of the members will be white, female, and over fifty. I started quilting in my late twenties, and even now that I fit the stereotype myself, I still don't feel comfortable in a quilt guild.

I have very little interest in going to stitch n bitches, spinning guilds, or weaving guilds outside the SCA, because I am a mid-forties widow with no children, a veteran, and have a hobby (martial arts) that involves learning how to hurt other people very, very badly. I tend not to fit in with women who cannot begin to conceive of the path that made me who I am. Honestly...

...they bore me.

(Deleted comment)

compared to Dragoncon...

Never been to WorldCon. Only vaguely heard of it. Years ago, used to work on staff at DragonCon, and many of my old friends still attend. It's full of youth and vitality. So I decided to compare their wikipedia pages. Worldcon has a bland, wordy page with no pictures and stuff like "A rock and roll dance with a DJ"... yeah... I don't know what era the organizers are from, but they seem to do what many many groups do - appeal to people who people who are *just like them*, with no interest in people who are *not just like them*, this includes any categories one cares to think of - age, sex, race, nationality, education, income, etc. etc. When even your wiki sounds old and crusty, I can understand why young people would prefer to be elsewhere.

The reason why one works staff at DragonCon, incidentally, is it's the only affordable way to attend. A friend of mine has been working on an academic track, with scholarly work being done on feminism and cyborg ethics and other such issues in SF. Just mentioning this in case anyone out there is interested in such things.

Re: compared to Dragoncon...

Interested. Busy as can be, but interested.

I just got back from Dragon... worked all 4 days in the Dealers room and saw everything from 3 month old babies to folk who could be my grandparents, and I am no spring chicken myself.
Wanna feel old? Go to an Anime con.
When I went to World Fantasy the age spread was still there, but that con is weighted to writers, publishers and folk who want to be writers.

I pretty much was going to say this. All the whippersnappers I know are going to DragonCon, SakuraCon, ComicCon, and Pax. (I'm aware of the issues with Pax. That's not why I'm mentioning it.)

They've never heard of WorldCon.

So I'm a late-20s SF&F fan, and also a gardener, and I love your comparisons. I go to the Baker Creek Heirloom Expo, and I talk to little old ladies about how to take ninja cuttings from roses (I came away with a whole pamphlet about it,) have rapturous conversations about heirloom chickens and obscure apple varieties, and then go talk to the sour cherry tree farm about how much we hate gophers. It's welcoming and nice and when I ask questions people want to give me answers.

When I go to cons I feel like I have to be on guard. I'm afraid to ask questions or show ignorance because mansplaining is fucking irritating and by and large I don't get a very welcoming vibe. It's kind of depressing. Add to that the cost issue and the fact that I usually don't see a lot of panels dedicated to stuff I'm interested in, and I don't go to many SF&F cons. In fact, I don't go to many cons at all. :/

And a weird little note - I feel like Anime cons have the opposite problem - the attendees seem like they're getting younger and younger, and I don't think it's just me getting older.

Very much my experience too, the tomato gardening community is so very welcoming ... You get some oneupmanship and disagreements (lol, talk about acidity in tomatoes and see what happens) but I never felt attacked or unwelcome EVER. I'm so happy that gardening is somehow more sexy now than it used to be ... The interest in seed saving and biodiversity is really cool.

Being an old fart who used to go to Worldcons back 30-45 years ago, I am stunned. There used to be a mix of ages. Plenty of young fans looking for sex and parties. Isaac Asimov's skill at being able to look down a woman's blouse to stare at her cleavage from across the room.

(Deleted comment)
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(Deleted comment)
Oh, good, I came here to make just this point. There's a large aspect in which organizational Worldcon is a convention for classic science fiction rather than anything like a modern SF con. (Informal Worldcon isn't necessarily grey at all, but this only works if you have a gateway to the young people who already know each other. They/we usually aren't doing officially announced things at all.)

I recently had a conversation with a teenage friend, and one of her dreams is attending Worldcon. The established fans' reaction was "Dear God why?" and we're trying to figure out how to talk her out of it, because we don't think she understands what she'd be getting into. Possibly this is indicative.

Edited at 2013-09-04 01:45 am (UTC)