Monday, 8 October 2012

Fantasycon 2012, Part 1: The Bad

Another year, another Fantasycon.  This year's had a lot to live up to after 2011's glorious, sun-soaked high-jinks, but also a lot to live down after the Gulag-style horrors of 2010.  Not to mention the fact that both the SFX Weekender and Eastercon in recent months have done a lot to raise my personal bar for what a Con can be ... that is, provocative, imaginative, varied, slickly organised and purposefully inclusive.

The good news is, I had a fun weekend, and caught up with some wonderful people.  The bad news is that not much of that had to do with Fantasycon itself.

Truth be told, I've had my concerns about the British Fantasy Society and its pet Con for a while now; it's been getting harder to see what either has to offer me as a fantasy author when the society increasingly seemed to be a clique for certain folks, most of them in the Horror field, with apparently limited interest in promoting much besides themselves.  The embarrassing awards hiccup last year dragged a lot of my own gripes into the spotlight; seeing that plenty of other people had the same issues and hearing society figures respond in what seemed a positive, proactive fashion, I hoped the times might be a-changing.

Unfortunately, what followed involved those hopes getting a lot of dashing.

This year I went with Jobeda Ali, who - as a fan of Fantasy with no interest at all in Horror and no familiarity with the BFS's long and storied history - was bewildered by the under-representation of her genre of choice at an event named Fantasycon.  Though plenty of excuses have been made for this in the past, the fact remains that if you put on an event called Fantasycon and charge people to attend it, it should live up to its name more than a little.

Of course, that wouldn't have mattered half as much if the programming had had more to offer.  It's probably more polite to not specify which they were, but of the three panels I tried, one irritated me enough that I had to walk out, another achieved the same by being painfully dull and straying badly off topic, and I only suffered through the third because one of the five panelists had interesting things to say.  All three panels were badly thought through and poorly moderated.  In fairness, I should say that Jobeda made the Fantasy Fiction: Keep it Real panel, which I missed, and reported back that it was excellent.  Still, not a great success rate, and those were the ones we'd picked because they looked most interesting.  In general, there were too many tired old questions; does the publishing world really need another "Print vs. Electronic" panel?  I've been lucky enough to watch some terrific panels this year, enthusiastic debates that both entertained and tackled significant questions within the industry, and that's the standard I'm coming to expect.

Elsewhere, there were the usual mainstays - readings, a disproportionate number of launches and signings, often scheduled over each other - and not a whole lot else.  The masterclasses are a potentially good idea, but the decision to charge extra for them and severely limit attendance is plain baffling.  What organiser thinks reserving their best content for a tiny minority is a good idea?  I saw some of the Saturday night's entertainment, and the kindest thing I can say is that I probably wasn't the intended audience.  My less-than-complimentary thoughts about the only feature film on offer can be found here.  In general, I spent a lot of time feeling glad that I wasn't there on my own, relying on the conference to keep me entertained.

Finally, there came the British Fantasy Awards.  Whatever hopes I'd had for their not being another shambles after last year's travesty had already been dented by the shortlists - three of the five best short stories from one anthology?  Edited by BFS mainstay Stephen Jones?  Really? - but it was still a disappointment to see an opportunity for the society to get its act together wasted so thoroughly.  Yet again we had an unlikely mash up of an international awards ceremony - I'm sure Woody Allen and Joe Hill are still reeling from their successes - with something so comically insular and mutually back-slapping that every market up for Best Novella, Best Short Fiction, Best Magazine and Best Collection (not to mention all but one of the publishers up for Best Anthology) could be British and no one thought it worthy of comment.  Just because this year doesn't seem to have produced any major scandals, I hope it doesn't fool the BFS into imagining they've finally got it right.

As is probably apparent by now, I struggled to find much about this year's Fantasycon to be positive about (what there is, I'll come back to in a day or two) and found a huge amount frustrating in light of the steady progress being made elsewhere.  It would take a whole other post to discuss the crummy and wholly inappropriate venue, for example, or to talk about subjects like inclusivity and diversity and the staggering disregard for the basics of sustainability (But seriously, I hope that all least some of the proceeds go towards reforestation.)

All told, I suspect it's a good thing that there's no Fantastcon next year.  I'm hanging onto the hope that the extra year will give the BFS an opportunity to regroup, put aside a little of their complacency and figure out what it is they're trying to achieve here.  I genuinely believe that both the society and Fantasycon have something to offer, and I'd love to see them do it, but with others doing the whole genre convention thing so much better, they have plenty of catching up to do if they want to remain a meaningful date in the Con calendar.


  1. An interesting post David. Was good to meet you albeit briefly at the FCon.

    I don't think the BFS is being complacent. There are people working hard within the BFS to improve the balance between fantasy and horror. It certainly isn't happening over night and will continue to take time.

    As always, with an organisation run by volunteers, it depends a lot on those volunteers to push such changes through. If fantasy fans want to see more fantasy in the society, brilliant, get involved. Volunteer to help run the events, write for the Journal, write for the website, vote for your favourite examples of the genre in the awards. It's the only way it will happen.

    For my small part, I am trying my hardest to ensure that both fantasy and horror are represented in the Journal (and will soon be contacting you about writing something for a future edition if you're still up for it David).

    As for feedback on the Con, please do get in touch with the FCon committee, let us know what you thought about the panels and the convention is general. We need feedback to improve future events. I'll be more than happy to hear from Jobeda Ali if she would like to write something about her experience at the Con for the Journal. Hopefully it would spark debate, get people talking about it, discussing what they want from FantasyCon. She can contact me at

    As a society, we're trying to be as transparent as possible and to continue developing the organisation and its events. Lets keep that debate going so complacency doesn't set in.

    1. Hi Cavan ... was good to meet you too, and thanks for taking the time to reply with such a considered response. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that there hasn't been progress within the society, and the BFS journal is one example of something that's come on considerably since I first joined four or five years ago.

      Still, I don't think that much of that progress translated into this year's convention, and I don't accept that inclusivity - whether genre-related or any other kind - should be reliant on who does or doesn't put themselves forward as a volunteer. My own feeling is that the committee has an active responsibility both to broaden its membership and to live up to its mandate. Isn't it a little absurd, for example, to suggest that Fantasy fans who attend an event called Fantasycon should have to actively lobby to see the genre being represented there?

      Anyway, please do drop me an e-mail ... I'd still be glad to contribute to the journal, on this or another subject. I'll also pass your comments onto Jobeda and see if she'd be up for doing a piece.

    2. Absolutely the bfs committee has the responsibility to broaden its membership and live up to its mandate, as does the FantasyCon committee. Totally agree with you there - and it's an ongoing process. This years Con will be discussed, suggestions and feedback will be listened to and plans for FantasyCon 2014 will be put into place. That's why posts such as this are great. It's all to easy to be disappointed by an event and then go, ah well that's just the way it is. You haven't, you've written about it and, personally I think it's brilliant. After all that's what happened with the awards last year. Someone wrote about it and people got talking and things got changed. Yup, you didn't think they were anywhere near perfect this year, but they were a darned sight better than last, hopefully more transparent, hopefully more fair.

      Again we'll be looking at how we can take the lessons learnt from this year and implement changes for the awards into 2013. Having two shortlists for the best book awards is one of those. Having one for this years award didn't make sense.

      As editor of the Journal I'll be looking at ways we can get the message out there more about getting nominations in, making sure members feel a part of the process.

      As to the point about 'lobbying', I see where you're coming from, although I think the word is a little strong. Hopefully no-one is starting up an online petition or getting ready to march on BFS Towers just yet. But, as we said at the AGM, if you don't want to volunteer, then please give us your feedback (which you have). Email the FantasyCon committee ( or Di who looks after Con members (, go onto the forum and join in the discussion, go to the Facebook page etc etc.

      We need the feedback to know what people are thinking. And, yes, I'll stand by my point that we also need people to volunteer. Everyone who works on anything for the BFS and FantasyCon volunteers. Totally get that not everyone will want to, but we still need to hear from them so we can continue developing both this and other events.

      And for the record, I'm with you. There should be more fantasy at FantasyCon. I love my horror but I also love my fantasy too and would have loved to see more guests from that genre and more programming to represent the genre. Don't worry, I'll be saying that behind the scenes as well.

  2. The 'get involved' argument holds no water for me. Why would you invest time and money in improving something that seems of questionable value? The sane response to disappointment is surely to keep moving and seek out cooler venues and crowds?

    1. Well, I never said it was the sane response did I? ;-)

      Totally get what you're saying and, yes, it depends if you think its of questionable value. I can only speak for myself in this case. Last year's was my first FantasyCon and I enjoyed it. I thought it odd that the emphasis was so horror-based I admit, but am a fan of both genres. Then there was the mass-meltdown over the awards.

      I'd enjoyed it enough to throw my hat into the ring. Yes, there were things that needed to change but my thinking was that if I get involved I could help them change. I realise that not everyone will have the same inclination or the time to do so, god knows I struggle to find the time myself. And there were definitely more disappointments along the way. There were older elements of the organisation who were downright aggressive to me and the other new committee members. If anything it made us more stubborn I guess. We stuck to my guns and those elements backed off. The attitude on the committee has now changed. The current team are extremely open to change and are making making steps, I hope, in the right direction. Small ones probably but in the right direction none the less.

      For example, next year members will be getting professionally edited short story anthologies. The idea was to do one, but the committee decided we should do two - one horror, one fantasy, so there will be something for everyone.

      And, as I've said, we're working to make the Journal a more balanced material. There will still be horror, of course there will, it was where the Society started, but there will also be a lot more fantasy.

      As I said, this is only my experience, but I cannot recommend getting involved enough.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Interesting stuff, David. Yes, the BFS is still skewed towards the horror end of the genre in terms of membership and that will take more than a year or two to balance. There is a powerful argument for having a twin stream at each FantasyCon to make sure both Fantasy and Horror are correctly represented. Personally, I would try to limit the launches but we must be mindful that for small presses in particular, FantasyCon is a very important showcase and we must give them a voice because the work they do is critical to the health of the genre as a whole.

    As for the awards, you have to appreciate that the shortlists were drawn from the public votes and the jury (of which I was a part) can only work with what it has. And I should point you towards the current balance of the membership and hence the likely balance of shortlists, particularly in the short fiction arena where horror is far more prolific than fantasy.

    Totally agree that the masterclasses should be free and open to larger audiences. Charging is wrong when the convention already charges for membership.

    I don't know if you were at the AGM on Sunday morning but it is a forum to suggest change direct to the committee and it was pathetically attended as always. I may have been the only 'fantasy' representative there among the rank and file members. Change comes from within. Cavan is right, the current committee is very open to change and debate. Please don't walk away. Make your voice heard. That is the way to get the convention and society that you want.

    1. Dare I suggest that the AGM might be better attended if it weren't scheduled to start at 9.30 am and go on till noon?

    2. I for one would have loved for it to start later. After the excesses of the disco, the 9.30 start was daunting to say the least!

    3. Agreed... 9.30 was too early. But the doors weren't locked at 9.31. I didn't arrive til 10 and there was plenty of time to say what I wanted to say.

  4. A lot of the problems would be resolved by simply changing the name to "HorrorCon". I had the same experience about 5 years ago -- everywhere Horror and not a single Fantasy book in sight. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just be honest and everybody goes home happy.

    1. Maybe that would be easier, but it would be avoiding the issue somewhat. I would much rather things moved forward and it developed into a con that can do both. It's definitely possible...

  5. Cavan is correct -- join in and help make the BFS better from the inside. For years, now, active participants tend to be horror fan, with fantasy fans often taking the back seat and then complaining about the lack of fantasy in the BFS and Fantasycon. This imbalance needs to be corrected, and the best way is for fantasy fans to get involved. Yes, it can be daunting becoming involved (and time consuming). But members get more out of a society -- any society -- if they contribute to its running -- as I discovered many moons ago.

    As one-time DH editor I published more horror than fantasy. No because I wanted to. That's because I didn't receive enough quality fantasy fiction. No matter how often I asked for short fantasy stories, it was just a trickle. And that lack of short fantasy seems to be reflected in the wider world of Fantasy Fiction (ie, all types of fantasy), hence the BFS Awards short list. I agree that the nominations do often seem parochial -- how often do we see stories nominated from US magazines such as F&SF?

    I'm not sure about Cavan's accusation that "older elements" were against change. From *my* experience past committees had always looked to improve the society and not be complacent. Maybe there were differences over the method of change. I'm retired from the committee now :-)

    For the record, I thought FantasyCon was very good with a reasonably balanced programme (although I admit I got to see very little of it, sadly). Of course, there could always have been more of this or that -- that's always been the way. And James is correct, SF and fantasy conventions are essential shop windows for the small presses.

    --- Peter

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Peter.

      I do think that last comment highlights one of my essential problems with this year's Fantasycon, though. At the risk of repeating myself, this is a commercial event that people are paying money to attend, open to the public and not just society members or industry professionals. It's hardly fair to say to someone like Jobeda - who bought tickets to an event called Fantasycon, taking on trust that it would be a convention about Fantasy - that she should have gotten involved in advance to address the Horror / Fantasy balance, or that she should have known to expect something that was essentially a small press trade show.

      If new people are to join and volunteer then the society needs to be friendly and inclusive towards them and show itself as something that's worth them investing their time in. For me, and without dismissing successes that have happened elsewhere within the BFS, those are precisely the things that this year's convention failed to do. Other conferences are managing to provide entertaining content geared towards a diverse audience, for more or less the same price as Fantasycon is charging - whilst still allowing publishers and other industry professionals a platform - and if Fantasycon can't do the same then it will inevitably struggle to compete.

    2. Absolutely, and all feedback is brilliant and can be used to raise these points and address them in the future.

      I'm still amazed there *was* a FantasyCon. This time last year it didn't look very likely what with the organisers dropping it and having no home. A year is a long time in the BFS ;-)

      I'm sure when the con returns in two years time it would have moved on again, hopefully addressing a lot of these points. Keep the feedback coming. It's vital to the Society getting it right.

    3. I don't quite see the problem with book launches, provided there's plenty of other things going on, you can go to them or not as you like, surely?

  6. Not so much an accusation as an observation. During any period of change there is friction, bound to be. Plus not saying all 'older elements' were against change, there was a lot of support for what was going on, from folk who've been in the society for years and those who've just joined - and long may it continue...

    I suppose what I was trying to say that getting involved isn't always without its stresses for everyone, but hopefully the results outweigh the teething troubles.

  7. I totally agree with this post, and it's a relief to hear that other people found some fault with the event too. Cavan's responded with some important points too, which is good to see.

    It makes sense that a society would put on an event that mostly suits its members, in terms perhaps of forum-ites & people who actually know who Peter Crowther & Ramsay Campbell are (I don't). I think that FCon is true to its active members, but that far more people attend the Con than are involved in (or even members of) the BFS. Thus, expectations get skewed & are quickly deflated for those not part of the in-crowd.

    I could tell a lot of other people were enjoying themselves, but I didn't much, & I never need to hear another discussion about e-books & gender equality again.

    1. People people could offer feedback on the panels they didn't like and suggestions for the ones they'd like to see. No Con can please anyone, but I'm sure new ideas will come out of it. Just a thought.

  8. Very interesting point of view.
    For my two penneth - 'Masterclasses' are, to me, a workshop. If you offer a 'free' place you run the risk of two things: It being over subscried and, therefore, another panel type event. I enjoy the fact that the facilitator can have more personal contact - hence numbers keeping low. Secondly, in my experience, when a fee is charged it is more to make sure the people who have booked do turn up and anyone who did want to go doesn't miss out on being on the waiting list. Maybe there could be a deposit scheme instead?
    The nominations for the awards were voted by people with an interest in the genre. If you want a more diverse shortlist then more needs to be done to promote the genre as a whole, including the work of the BFS. I'd been reading fantasy fiction for 20 years before I knew there was such a thing as a society for it - and I'm not the only one.
    I am a mere red-shirt, an outsider by comparrison, and have seen the Con move and progress over the past five years. Yes it has a way to go but by using our voices we can get it there. This kind of discussion is invaluable!
    Please forgive my ignorance here but doesn't the horror/fantasy concentration, doesn't that largely depend on what is being published at the time? I think that the launches are invaluable in bringing new writing to the attention of members. Small press is where it all started is it not?
    The repetition of panels is essential for new members I feel. The list of members changes every year and new people are discovering the genre every day.
    This is just my feel for things at the moment.


    1. "The nominations for the awards were voted by people with an interest in the genre. If you want a more diverse shortlist then more needs to be done to promote the genre as a whole, including the work of the BFS. I'd been reading fantasy fiction for 20 years before I knew there was such a thing as a society for it - and I'm not the only one. "

      Indeed. The Organisation needs to be doing a lot more outreach. Of course that takes people to do it.

      Talking of which, I think we're still looking for a new PR officer, if anyone's interested...

  9. I wrote a longer piece but it was lost after signing in...

    All volunteers are working hard to achieve a balance between horror vs fantasy - an argument that has been waging longer than the ten years I've been involved.

    I can state that there were two features screened this year...GOH Joe Lansdale brought along Christmas with the Dead, it's UK premiere I believe and it's not just a horror film it has many other elements.

    Films are screened at the con because I volunteered to do it as an alternative to traditional panels. Manly I use the time to screen short films and this year we had many to offer. Gavin Williams brought along his SF drama Sleepworking, which was so popular we had to screen it twice! Four films due to having no audience were not shown and this included a fantasy from Israel based on a story by Tim Pratt.

    It's not clear wether my film screenings will return in 2014 - WFC does not show movies as a rule - so this years may have been the last of its kind - so thanks to all the folks who have supported me over the years'

    Regards ~ Martin

    1. I would certainly like Fantasycon to show movies. Unfortunately I didn't get to any this year, as I didn't get to a lot of things I would have liked, as was involved in other things and trying to do a bit of socialising. I enjoyed it, but then I've been going for thirty years off and on and know a lot of people there. When I first started I used to sit at the back muttering "Who is H.P.Lovecraft anyway?"

    2. Apologies, Martin, I should have checked my facts there.

  10. OK, weird, but – I’ve just looked over the programme for the event, and there is actually a good mix of subjects – there certainly isn’t a bias towards horror in the panels. The only thing I can see that’s maybe skewed towards horror is the GoH list, and while it would be good to develop that in future years, that could be for any number of reasons – it could be because the people volunteering to organise the event have more horror contacts but it could be about availability or other factors we don’t know about. (And of course the major signing was James Herbert’s, but – kudos to the organisers for getting him there, I say.) Also, I haven’t tried to split down readings or book launches.

    Of course more can always be done, but I commented several times during the event that there was so much on the programme I actually wanted to split into 3 people at some points (sorry, but that would be the horror lass in me!). Funnily enough though, the panel I was most disappointed about having to miss was a fantasy one.

    And Pixie Pants, there’s no such thing as a “mere” red shirt – you guys were brilliant, and vital to the event! I had a great time, enjoyed meeting people from both fantasy and horror camps, and thought the organisers did a fantastic job. And for me, there was a stellar line-up of GoHs. I’m not saying the fantasy content shouldn’t be developed more, but credit where it’s due.

    I think the main issue is that with an event called ‘Fantasycon’, people new to it perhaps don’t expect any kind of split between fantasy and horror (or even SF, in one panel) – they expect it to be purely fantasy, which would be a fair enough assumption to make. With that in mind, perhaps the simplest solution really is to change its name. ‘Horrorcon’ would go the other way and leave out the fantasy content, and ‘Fantasy and Horror Con’ starts to get clunky. Maybe something neutral like ‘Septembercon’ would do the job, with a good explanation of what’s covered on the website. If people are considering shelling out for a con, I’m sure they’ll have time to read a para or two of info.

    Maybe even change ‘BFS’ to the ‘British Fantasy and Horror Society’?

    Ali Littlewood

    1. Yes, let's call it The British Fantasy & Horror Society. As long as it's called the British Fantasy Society it makes little sense to talk about balancing fantasy and horror, because if it's a fantasy society horror has no obvious place in the balance. Give it a more appropriate name so that people know what to expect.

    2. I completely agree, Stephen. It's only because of the society's history and a certain set of shared assumptions that we can sit around discussing a Fantasy / Horror balance; to someone coming from the outside, the question is nonsensical.

      And Ali, I think you've hit the nail on the head. If the British Fantasy Society is going to be the British Fantasy and Horror Society (or even the British Horror and Fantasy Society) then it needs to rebrand itself accordingly. In fact, that's probably something that should have happened a long time ago.

    3. Interesting point. Maybe it should be put forward at the next AGM?

      I'd go for British Fantasy and Horror Society myself rather than the other way around.

    4. Also agree. My mad proposal: the BFS should actually auction off the names "British Fantasy Society" and the "British Fantasy Awards". Let them get bought up by excited fantasy fans who can then do something fantasy-focused with them. (Hell, I'd buy them.)

      The ex-BFS can then use the money to kick off the British Horror Society, the British Creepy Book Club or Miss Shephard's Home for Anaemic Penguins or whatever... plus buy everyone a few rounds at the bar. Everyone wins!

    5. A brilliant plan! Also, I might finally get shot of that anaemic penguin that keeps following me around...