“It’s a Literary Festival but not as we know it, Jim!”

The Distinctive Breadth and Depth of SF Convention Programming.

As well as regularly attending conventions, I’ve long been involved with non-genre literary festivals thanks to working with The Write Fantastic and also as a committee member for my old Oxford college’s Media Alumnae Network. Consequently I have observed how very different the approaches to programming will be.

I’ve often noted the astonishment among fans and writers used to non-genre events, when they first come to a speculative fiction convention. They’re used to top-down programming structured around publishers’ schedules and offering one or two writers per slot the opportunity to publicise their current book. That’s not a criticism. Such programming is assuredly valuable for readers and writers alike and I always enjoy hearing a talented author share their enthusiasm for their work, fiction or non-fiction, as I sit in a quietly attentive audience.

But it’s rare to see a handful of writers talking more generally about their writing, about the themes and topics which their broader genre is currently addressing, about on-going developments in their particular literary area, comparing and contrasting their own work and process with each other and with the writers who’ve gone before them. It does happen occasionally, particularly with crime writers, but it’s still nowhere as prevalent as it is at SF conventions. I often feel that’s a shame, because audiences so clearly appreciate such wide-ranging discussion. It’s rarer still to see a fan/reviewer taking part in such panels to broaden the debate with their perspective whereas such participation is an integral and valuable facet of convention programming.

The dialogue between panel and audience that so often develops at a convention almost never happens at literary festivals. There will usually be an opportunity for Question &Answer but non-genre audiences so rarely ask such detailed and interesting questions as SF&Fantasy fans. Friends with me at Cheltenham some years ago when some bloke asked PD James and Ruth Rendell, ‘Where do you get your character names from?’ pretty much had to shove me under my theatre seat to stifle my exasperation. Especially since the smirking chap clearly believed that he’d asked something wholly original and challenging…

Then there are the fact-based strands of convention programming, where fans and authors alike share their knowledge and expertise, on everything from creative writing to science in all its ramifications from high-level mathematics to computing to cutting-edge bio-chemistry, astrophysics and more, or on historical, linguistics, political and psychological scholarship, to name but a few of the disciplines which underpin the ever-broadening scope of fantasy fiction.

Then there are the visually creative disciplines that have always been so integral to speculative fiction, from the fine art borne of imagination and providing inspiration to writers and artists alike, to comics and graphic novels. Then there’s SF and fantasy in film and TV, not forgetting audio drama, resolutely enduring from the early days of radio to new Net-based incarnations. Then there’s the fun programming, including but not limited to games and costuming events, ranging from the admirably serious to the enjoyably daft.

I have been asked more than once how on earth do SF conventions manage to put on so many streams of wide-ranging items. I have explained that it’s this participation which makes SF conventions so different. From their earliest days, conventions have been fan-led events. Readers and writers alike are encouraged to get involved, exploring their shared enthusiasm for this multi-faceted and outward-looking genre. I’ve pointed out that those going to SF conventions pay for memberships rather than tickets. People aren’t buying a seat to passively attend a performance. They’re investing in the funding of a collective enterprise, run by volunteers for fellow enthusiasts.

We’ve already posted about our general programming philosophy and our particular interest in having as broad and inclusive participation as possible.

As we address the programming detail for EightSquared, this is your chance to get involved, either to offer your perspective or expertise as part of a panel, or to pose the questions which you’d like to see debated as you sit in the audience. Now’s the time to flag up those Sfnal, fantastical, artistic or dramatic things which you’d love to know more about. Incidentally, everyone can volunteer and/or offer suggestions, from fully-paid-up weekend-attending members to those planning to come and buy day memberships on the door (and we’ll be posting those rates on our website shortly).

So have a think and let us have your ideas and suggestions via the Programme Volunteer and Suggestion Form. We can’t promise to include everything or everyone. There are only so many hours in a day unless someone can supply us with a TARDIS or a time-turner for every convention member. But the more ideas we have to consider at this stage, the more chance you will have of a programme offering you something new, different and interesting in Bradford over the Easter weekend. Not writers trying to keep a straight face as they explain where they get their character names from.


3 Comments on ““It’s a Literary Festival but not as we know it, Jim!””

  1. hierath says:

    Reblogged this on Joanne Hall and commented:
    Juliet McKenna talks about what makes SF Conventions unique and special, and how you can get involved. This year Juliet is chairing EasterCon in Bradford, and she’s been involved in conventions for years, and was a former GOH at Bristolcon ( http://www.bristolcon.org ) If you’re never been to an SF Convention and you’re at all interested in the genre – writing or reading – I strongly urge you to get a membership to your nearest Con and come and see what it’s all about!

  2. I’ve greatly enjoyed the panel-audience interactions at the SFF conventions I’ve attended; they are generally insightful, often hilarious, occasionally challenging but always productive and good-humoured. I’m really looking forward to EightSquared and sent my volunteer/suggestion form in a few months ago, but I haven’t yet heard back. I assume there’s some cut-off point for submission, after which you will all sit down, sort through the mountain of offers and ideas, and then get back to us? If so it would be useful to post when that deadline is …

    • jemckenna says:

      Actually, I can’t recall a convention where there has been a deadline for suggestions and volunteering. We haven’t discussed setting one – but I will raise the question with the Committee

      In purely practical terms, that cut-off would generally be when the programme is issued – but that’s invariably accompanied by a note that such things are always subject to last-minute changes. Though clearly, the earlier we have ideas and volunteers, the more likely we are to be able to make best use of them – and the best panel idea in the world is of very limited use if it reaches us with 24 hours to go.

      and many thanks for your form – we’re in the processing of detailing the programme at the moment.


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