‘Broads with Swords’ – a stupid title for what proved to be an excellent panel at World Fantasy Con

You may – or may not – be aware of the damn silly title given to the ‘Women in Fantasy’ panel at the World Fantasy Convention, held at the start of this month in Brighton. The full brief read as follows

Once upon a time the heroic fantasy genre was—with a few notable exceptions such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett—the sole domain of male writers like Robert E. Howard, John Jakes and Michael Moorcock. Those days are long gone, and it seems that more and more women writers are having their heroines suit up in chain-mail and wield a broadsword. Who are these new writers embracing a once male-dominated field, and how are their books any different from those of their literary predecessors?

Now, advance reactions to that varied. Most were variations on ‘Good grief, whoever wrote this really doesn’t read epic fantasy AT ALL, do they?’ Some, looking at other similarly potentially provocative descriptions in the programme, decided to give the benefit of the doubt and read these as tongue-in-cheeky, looking to provoke lively discussion. Others were to a greater or lesser extent offended by apparent lack of professional courtesy, and not just with regard to this particular panel. Some were sufficiently offended to boycott ‘Broads with Swords’, and indeed I’ve seen some express an opinion that authors should have refused to take part in this panel.

Well, I cannot speak for my fellow panellists but for myself, I agreed to do this panel expressly to give the lie to any notion that strong female characters in fantasy are anything new, or that the only way for a woman to be a strong character is to take up armour and blade and essentially pretend to be a man. I’ve written 15 epic fantasy novels exploring those particular ideas (among a good few others), and was reading books with a far more intelligent and nuanced view of women in high heroic settings for decades before that. I’m also not about to give an inch of ground to the tedious misconception which still persists in rearing its hydra-heads that epic fantasy is only written by blokes for blokes.

As it turned out, my fellow panellists, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Gaie Sebold, and our indefatigable moderator Laura Anne Gilman thought much the same. All of them excellent writers in their own right, I should add, and well worth checking out if you haven’t come across their work thus far.

Happily, a packed room full of people had decided they could trust us to tackle this subject, irrespective of the panel title. I’m not going to recap the discussion here, because The Writers’ Greenhouse, has done an excellent job of noting the key points and most especially the many, many fine authors whose work was recommended. Do click through to read the whole post.

Indeed, I think the only thing that could have possibly improved that panel was having at least one male perspective on these questions – but WFC sees no need to avail itself of the benefits which panel parity brings to programming, alas.

Oh, and Robin Hobb signed my advance proof of Royal Assassin which I have treasured since my bookselling days in 1995… (my convention fangirl moment)

As to the rest of WFC2013, newcomers went away very, very happy, full of joy about talking to real authors! So many free books! So many interesting and famous people to hear talk, including but by no means limited to Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Joanne Harris, Susan Cooper etc etc. So that’s excellent, and hopefully bringing new folk into UK fandom. There were also considerable numbers of European fans there, and it was lovely to meet them too.

I had enjoyable dinners with various friends, and also a lovely lunch with a generous fan. I got to see many of my lovely American pals, and to make some new ones – it is great to be able to put a face to an email/twitter/fbook friend. I made time to schedule meetings with a couple of key folk I wanted to talk to, and had an impromptu and potentially very useful encounter with someone else, so that’s my professional writer boxes ticked.

The David Gemmell Legend Awards went with a swing, hopefully making even more people aware of the Awards, and the ‘Legends’ anthology was launched afterwards amid much good cheer and celebration. Through the weekend, publishers did a stellar job with parties and launches, so those were great fun, er, apart from the ones crammed into the low-ceilinged and painfully loud night-club-bar space. I couldn’t hear myself think in there, let alone speak, which was a shame because I’m pretty sure that’s where I missed some folk I wanted to talk to. There were soooo many people…

Like most established con-goers and/or authors I spoke to, I do have a few ‘however’s…

I came home with not only tired feet – to be expected – but tired thighs and knees. I can’t recall when I was last in a convention hotel with so many flights of stairs between where you were and where you wanted to be – and that’s over and above the ‘official’ accessibility problems with the venue which were considerable, and frankly in this day and age, inexcusable. And yes, having chaired an Eastercon, I know exactly how difficult it is to find a UK venue to host such a large event. Still no excuse. Also, signposting and information about facilities needed to be a lot more prominent. The two other seating and drinking spaces other than the eye-wateringly expensive and noisily crowded hotel bar were largely empty any time I went into them and that’s not good.

The mass signing was fairly shambolic, with lots of empty author seats. I learned later that hotel security around the official start time were insisting that authors trying get in to take a seat, must join the line of con-goers waiting to come in, and since there was no way for said authors to prove that they were actually, y’know, authors, a good few just gave up and went away. Authors who’d turned up a little bit early, or a little bit later, had no such problems though. So a bit more forethought and planning on the organisation there could have made a significant, positive difference.

I have no clue how well attended, or otherwise, the whole stream of programming devoted to Arthur Machen was. Though I did find myself chatting to a chap who turned out to be a major Machen fan, involved in the official society, and he was asking me, genuinely puzzled, why there were so many panels dedicated to Machen, were fantasy fans really that interested…? I couldn’t possibly comment – genuinely. Personally I know very little about Machen and have less interest.

So that, in brief, was my World Fantasy Convention. Just one last note. If you’re ever heading for Brighton yourself, and want to stay in a delightful, comfortable and quiet little hotel, check out Brighton Wave. That’s where I stayed, and it was brilliant.

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