Genre, commercialism, and why I’m excited for Nine Worlds Geekfest

To a greater or lesser extent, I’ve been a fan of science fiction and fantasy for most of my life. I was raised on Tolkien and had read my way through the entire YA fantasy/sci-fi section of the village library by my early teens. I have since pursued a love affair with fiction that is in some way speculative or fantastical – and frequently get annoyed with the arbitrary genre distinctions forced upon it, wherein Huxley’s Brave New World and Woolf’s Orlando are respectable “literary fiction” while other works dealing with similar themes – politics, identity, the impact of magic and/or technology upon culture – become ghettoised away from mainstream literary culture and further fragmented into various genres. I recently encountered this fantastic quote  from Deepa Dharmadhikari:

In discourses around genre there are two common dividing lines. Authorial identity separates the atheist straight white dudes writing SFF and the erotica-peddling white women writing paranormal romance from the translated brown people who believe in ghosts and multiple gods and write magical realism. Narrative agenda meanwhile claims that escapism via soul-bonding animal companions is fantasy, allegory via dystopian cyborgs is literary fiction and social chastisement via talking parrots is post-colonial literature. And […] “horror” is only applied to books about zombies and not, say, genocidal pogroms…

So – genre distinctions. I find them something of a pain in the neck, and I’ve tried to approach books and film and television without much regard for how they’re being marketed. I adore stories set in worlds other than our own because they are fascinating arenas for sociopolitical critique and thought-experiments, and because (perhaps more than any other genre) they can make vividly real a plethora of experiences which are far beyond what readers experience in day-to-day life. (Also, spaceships and dragons – come on!) If a work does that, then I’m interested – no matter what label has been slapped on it, or which shelf it’s kept on in the shop, or whether the cover is just the title in a minimalist font or a brightly-coloured space battle. Still, I think it’s inevitable that with this interest in the speculative and fantastical, I’ve ended up being (more or less) a part of SFF fandom and ‘geek culture’.

But while I buy into that culture, in that my shelves are full of fantasy and sci-fi, the accompanying sphere of merchandise leaves me cold. For example, I really don’t enjoy going to Forbidden Planet. It’s cool to have a tonne of books, DVDs, and graphic novels of related interest all in one place – but also gathered together are all the figurines, badges, posters, collectors’ editions which will halve in value if someone unwraps them… It makes feel queasy. I don’t like the idea I need to reify my love for a work of art – whether book, film, graphic novel, or TV series – by collecting scale models of the characters or buying Doctor Who branded stationary or whatever. And that’s not to pooh-pooh the choices of people who do love to collect things – I’m writing this from a room containing my dad’s collection of rare Tolkien imprints, for goodness’ sake – but for me, I’d rather engage with a work by talking and thinking and writing about it. (I realise I’m setting up something of a dichotomy here, which perhaps isn’t fair – I realise that critical engagement and buying merch aren’t mutually exclusive, but from my perspective they feel like very different types of fan activity. I’d be really interested to hear from people who feel otherwise!)

I do wonder if part of the artificial boundary between “literary fiction” that just happens to deal with magic or the future of technology, and the ghettoised genres of science fiction and fantasy, is at all related to the way the latter are marketed and merchandised. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t figurines of Jeanette Winterson’s talking demon from Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit or officially-sanctioned Ministry of Love ringbinders and lunchboxes. Sometimes, it feels like the dividing line of genre is created (or at least sustained) by what people think they can sell to the fans.

The one convention I’ve been to – MCM Expo in London – was like my least favourite parts of Forbidden Planet, writ large. Rows upon rows of stalls hawking fan merch, a couple of samples for new computer games, a few celebrities signing autographs. Nothing that requires creative or intellectual engagement – just the requirement to buy more stuff. Consume, consume, consume. I wandered the aisles for a while, but most of the interest came from the other fans there – getting chatting over costumes or overheard fragments of conversation.

Now I’m out of university – where thinking critically about cultural production with groups of other people and then writing about it was essentially my ‘job’ – I’m champing at the bit for opportunities to do that again, about books and films that I love. So this year, I’ve decided to check out some of the less commercial, more fan-run conventions out there. I know quite a few people who have enjoyed Redemption – unfortunately I can’t head up to Coventry for it because it’s at the same time as the Tolkien Spring School! (Yes, £160 is a wince-inducing price, and not once I’m paying myself: my dad is celebrating a significant birthday this year and is taking the rest of the family out to a big fancy sports thing; as his nerdiest progeny, he’s taking me to Tolkien Spring School instead…)  There’s also EasterCon, which, again, is one that various friends have attended and enjoyed – definitely on the list. (And if I’m ever in a position where I can jet over to the USA, then I’d love to attend WisCon – the feminist sci-fi convention where Moment of Change was launched.)

But the big one that’s getting me excited is Nine Worlds – it’s a new convention, organised by some people with an excellent track record of events in the LGBT community, and it ticks a bunch of my favourite boxes. It has some fabulously diverse content being planned – as well as tracks on things like “Tolkien”, “Whedon”, and “Harry Potter”, it’s got “SF & F Academia”, “Geek Feminism”, and “Queer Fandom”. Oh my, yes please. Fan-run, fan-centred, and looking like it’ll be full of the sort of creative and critical engagement I’m craving. And there’s a robust anti-harassment policy, which (having heard from American friends about what some of the stateside conventions are like) is music to my ears. They’re raising money on Kickstarter right now – early bird tickets are £65, and if they don’t get enough by the end of the month then the convention won’t be going ahead. If anything on the site looks good to you, then do consider them backing them: I’ll be very sad if this doesn’t happen!

… so, something of a rambling post this time. I realise I’ve more gestured towards ideas than explored them, but I’d be very interested to hear more thoughts on genre, the relationship between commercialism and nerd culture, or indeed which conventions I should be setting my sights on.

(Finally, here’s a related thing I found interesting: librarian Jessica Zellers on bridging the divide between fantasy fiction and literary fiction.)

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