The Eastercon Is Not Your Bitch
First published in Banana Wings #48 (December 2011)
Authorial note: This article contains many statements of the bleeding obvious, and as such has the potential to offend, one way or another, almost everybody who has ever got involved with any Eastercon; but it is written to analyse, inform and entertain, and I hope will be read in that spirit.
Every Easter weekend for the past thirty years or so a thousand people, give or take three hundred, have joined the Eastercon. Each convention was funded by the memberships those people paid. For each Eastercon a dozen people worked their socks off for up to three years (and for some of them, particularly programme planners, that means twenty-to-forty hour weeks each week for several months before the con). Maybe a hundred will do preparatory work of some kind with programme items or costumes or technical equipment in order to help the convention run. Another couple of hundred will put in effort on the day participating in the programme, or as gophers or stewards. A hundred more will bring dealers’ stock or artwork. And the rest – many of whom will have done similar work in other years – will turn up and enjoy the results.
So the first thing that you need to know is that Eastercons are run by volunteers. Committed volunteers. Competent volunteers. But volunteers. Who are not being paid for it, are not being told what to do by a boss, are not being appraised against a job specification, do not have specialist resources or other people to pass excess work onto, and are doing it in their free time. You need to read this essay with this very firmly in mind – it explains a lot.
The second thing you need to know is that nobody ever had to go to an Eastercon. That includes you.
And the third thing you need to know is that, regardless of who you are and why you interact with it, the Eastercon is not your bitch.
I say again, the Eastercon is not your bitch. This means everyone. This means me, and this means you.
Potential and Actual Seated Eastercon Committees: Thank you for wanting to run an Eastercon. We’re very grateful you are willing to put in the work, wish you all the best in your endeavours, and sympathise with your having to put up with other people’s critical opinions, including this one. But you need to know that the Eastercon has a history running back six decades. There is a cluster of different communities concerned with what it is and how it is organised, some of which have been around for almost all those decades and some of which just joined in recently. At all times it is the gathering and inter-relationship of currently active British science fiction clans: social, literary, scientific, artistic, technological, charitable and commercial.
Almost nobody comes to an Eastercon for just one reason; we come for the synthesis of all of these. When you bid to run an Eastercon, please be sure it is an Eastercon you want to run, and be prepared to address all the Eastercon’s constituent communities with your ideas. Your age range is 0-90 (and remember what that means for the range of physical ability). You are international. You are interdisciplinary. You are intersocial. You are many things to many people whose common factor is science fiction.
Making choices and playing with the form (e.g. costume ball rather than masquerade) are fine; telling one or more of its communities its contribution is not welcome is not. Bringing in new skills, ideas and enthusiasm is fine; assuming that the way it has been done up till now is not satisfactory and needs fixing is not. Extending and exploring the boundaries is fine; going wholly outside them is not. Talking among yourselves about what you want to do is essential. Don’t forget to talk to the rest of us too.
Old Pharts: You probably know whether you are one. If not, why not? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, but if you don’t know, are you sure you have been paying attention?) Since the first Eastercon was held in 1948, in all probability there had already been Eastercons for several decades by the time you turned up, and you were probably younger then than you are now, too. We all hope the Eastercon has a future. Some of us would like it the way it was when we were younger and don’t want it to change. Face it: this is not possible. You are not as young as you were. The things you did because you had to sometimes don’t need doing any more. There are – believe it or not – things that need doing now that you didn’t have to worry about. And the things you did because you wanted to when you were young are not necessarily things people want to do now – Eastercons themselves being an exception, of course. Besides, what is the point of being a science fiction fan if you cannot cope with the future arriving in your own back yard?
Young Pharts: You probably don’t know why I’ve called you that. Never mind, we were all young once and you don’t have to stay that way (and if you want to stay around you might want to think about finding out). Meanwhile you have attended one or two Eastercons and have opinions on how they ought to run. Don’t think you are one? Look at your conrep: it complained that the programme had 60 or 90 minute programme slots, or did or did not leave gaps for lunch, or did or did not do this, that or the other that you would have preferred, or that this, that or the other was not well done. The Eastercon is not perfect, and has never pleased anyone, let alone everyone. It never has and never will, there are good reasons why, and when you know what those are you are in a position to complain and be listened to. If you are still complaining about things like this when you’ve been to five Eastercons it’s time to think about running one for yourself: that way you get to find out why it works that way. Until then, remember that your complaints are useful only to people thinking about running them, and interesting only to yourselves.
Programme Planners: See Eastercon Committees above. Then think some more about your programme. Do you know who the Eastercon communities are this year, and what they are talking about? Who is doing the talking and are they coming to the convention? Will your programme plans engage them from the off, or will they mutter in their own corners that they don’t feel welcome? Will they come to you (the BSFA, the SFF, some professionals, some fans) or are they people you have to invite? If you don’t know these things, how are you going to find out? Hint: Talking to people other than yourselves is a good start! And when you get down to practicalities and want to schedule people onto specific programme items, have you realised you need to see convention membership and hotel booking lists so that you don’t ask people to be on items when they are not going to be there? And can your planning systems cope with volume of emails, and the nuances of participation: A will only be scheduled between 11 am and 4 pm. B does not wish to be on a panel with C. D is leaving at 3 pm on Sunday. E won’t know for sure she’s coming until a few days beforehand. You can’t get it right, you know, but there are some things it would be nice if you didn’t get wrong.
Programme volunteers: Thank you for wanting to contribute to the Eastercon. Your participation and your ideas are valuable and useful. Please understand that Eastercon programme planners working in their spare time deal with a couple of hundred people on a typical Eastercon programme, and they don’t know everything about everybody. They may (sorry) make mistakes and lose your email down the back of the sofa – it’s a pity, but it happens, so please don’t take it personally. They are happy to recognise you as an interesting person, and invite you to join the conversations that entertain and educate us, but they are not there to indulge your ego, promote your book/film/game/whatever for you, or give you free access to jointly-funded facilities to use for your own personal gain. They are entitled to say thank you, that isn’t something we want to do at this Eastercon. (Can’t think what I might be getting at? Happy to oblige: we might be delighted to discuss the uses of bondage in science fiction stories, but that doesn’t mean we want you to run bondage workshops.) So if you think you have something to contribute to the Eastercon, don’t assume you are known: make contact early, introduce yourself appropriately, and be prepared to repeat yourself if necessary.
Branded participants: There are quite a few of you1, and your numbers and expectations and cumulative contribution to the Eastercon have grown over the years. The Eastercon values the organisations and individuals whose interests march with the Eastercon: publishers who launch books; dealers and artists who do business with members; people and organisations who organise talks, panels, awards ceremonies, workshops and sponsored parties. Your combined contribution to the Eastercon is enormous, but here you are still volunteers among other volunteers. Your event should fit into the overall Eastercon the committee want to run. You may be being paid and paying to organise your particular event, but you are still relying on the Eastercon’s volunteer and jointly-funded resources to enable it to happen. And you can’t all have your sponsored item in Eastercon prime time (3-10 pm Saturday, if you were wondering). So play nice, please, and remember that you are members, not customers, of the Eastercon.
Panellists: Thank you for wanting to contribute to the Eastercon. Your participation is valuable and useful. But could you please remember that you have agreed to take part in a conversation of mutual interest for the entertainment and enlightenment of the audience. You had the opportunity to say no, not interested, or to ask more questions before agreeing to participate. If by chance or negligence you have ended up on a panel that does not suit you, it is only polite to join in, even if only minimally. It is rude to spend twenty minutes on a subject unrelated to the topic under discussion. It is rude to disengage and start writing your conrep while the other panellists try to carry on the conversation without you. If you need the help of a microphone to be audible to an audience, please would you learn to use one before muttering inaudibly for the duration. And if you have agreed to moderate the panel, please understand that the role involves directing the discussion on behalf of the audience, and at least try to keep it on track.
Stewards and Gophers: Thank you for wanting to help the Eastercon run smoothly. Your participation and your work are valuable and useful; we can’t run an Eastercon without you. But we are not obliged to give you work to do just because you offer to do some. And anything resembling a T-shirt, a groat or a party is a recognition of your efforts and an honorarium to say thank you, not an entitlement you can sue for.
Hotel Management: Thank you for being willing to host the Eastercon. There are several hundred people we want to talk to, and it would be nice if they came to stay in your hotel over the weekend, when otherwise you would be empty. So will you help us, please, with reasonable room rates, bar prices that recognise the range and quantity of what we drink, food that varies a bit from day to day, recognises a sensible variety of dietary constraints (there are, for instance, vegetarians, coeliacs, and diabetics among us), and comes at several different price points. We’re happy to give you our money for services received, but we don’t want to feel ripped off and we’d like to feel we have some choices during our four-day weekend.
Hotel Staff: We can’t have our fun without you, and we appreciate the hard work you put in. It is nice when you do your jobs well around us. Bear in mind, please, that we will put a couple of hundred thousand pounds through your hotel tills over the weekend, much of which pays for your work. We do like to be treated as customers even when wearing jeans and trainers, and whether or not we are running expense accounts.
Members: And I mean all of us. You are a member of the Eastercon, not a customer, and not a client. Eastercon does not exist to serve you. It is shaped by the co-operation of a thousand people, and under the control of none of them. Eastercon needs conference space and accommodation. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we have a choice of hotels in a given year; more often the problem is finding a suitable hotel at all. There are not very many UK sites that can house us, and all of them have something wrong with them. Location of the main hotel and overflow facilities, the arrangements and sizes of function rooms, the state of the facilities are all things we have to make the best of; they are not under the control of the convention. Complaints about the state of the rooms, air conditioning or carpets should be made to the hotel, not to the committee. Eastercon needs organising. Each Eastercon committee does the best they can for their con. Sometimes, if lucky, an Eastercon committee has a choice of people to do particular jobs and take particular roles; more often the problem to be solved is getting the job done by anyone at all. Polite comment and criticism of the results is warranted, for otherwise we cannot learn. Some comments are never warranted, and these are the ones that include personal abuse, or are based on false assumptions: that people are at fault if it doesn’t suit you personally, or that being a member of the convention entitles you to command its participants to your service.
There are a thousand or so of us at each Eastercon. Some work the convention, some go to the programme, some sit in the bar. The equations of place and people are complex, there are many solutions, and not one of them is a good fit for everyone. Recognise that the perfect convention is not an option. Relax. Participate. Enjoy.
Eastercons are fun. Eastercons are learning experiences. Eastercons are worth having.
The Eastercon is not your bitch.
Long live the Eastercon.
Who is this Caroline Mullan who feels qualified to speak in propria persona for the Eastercon? She arrived in fandom at Seacon ’79, the first Worldcon in Brighton, and has attended every Eastercon from 1980 to 2011. She has been reading and writing for fanzines, often about conventions, ever since. She was actively involved in organising Eastercons and other conventions from 1982 until 1995, including the programmes for Beccon ’87 and Speculation in 1991, with additional experience in finance, publications, green room, convention and programme ops, newsletter, registration, dealers’ room and art show. She remains regularly and actively involved in organising and participating in the programme, and as a branded participant in connection with her various roles in the Science Fiction Foundation. Aware that longevity does not imply omniscience she also asked several people currently involved in running Eastercons to read it before publication in an attempt to verify her assumptions that some truths are eternal. She is pleased to report that nobody had any quibbles on that score.
© Caroline Mullan 2011