Philcon 2013 Report

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. Fuck around and find out.

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November 18, 2013

Panel shenanigans.

Philcon was fun! Our prime objective was to see our friends and that was definitely achieved–the lobby at the Crowne Plaza is eminently amenable to lobby-con with lots of space and comfortable seating.

And before I get into anything else I want to acknowledge the hard work of the convention committee and all the volunteers and program participants. Putting on a convention is a difficult and often thankless job and I understand that.

I also understand that there is a very long convention history that I do not know and which informs the culture of the convention. I respect that and look forward to hearing more about it. However, I’m going to go ahead and talk about my experiences, and share my perspective too–hopefully I’ll be able to provide a window into what the convention looks like to a new attendee.

I’d particularly like to thank Hugh Casey for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me and Sunny Moraine–we appreciated his time and insight at a time when he was unimaginably busy.

Ok, so:

Harassment Policy

Before the con began, a few positive changes were made to the policy page. (I mentioned my concern with con policies here.) The con added more explicit language around consent (“Be polite and ask permission before moving forward with a relationship. Stop if someone says no.”) and that someone making a complaint would not be forced into mediation. These are both great things to see in the policy!

However, I still believe the harassment policy could be even stronger and more supportive to attendees. (While I do understand that state and municipal laws are quite thorough on this subject, I am not convinced that the convention actually wants to go down that road.) Better visibility of convention staff and volunteers and clearer information on how to report and to whom would also increase the power of the policy.
Just because no one has reported harassment doesn’t mean that harassment hasn’t happened. The social and structural barriers to reporting are very high, especially in an environment that is as susceptible to the geek social fallacies as a SF convention can be.

Social Media

There was live-tweeting, as one does. I wish that there had been more people live-tweeting because, well, a handful of people can’t cover an entire convention–and I would have loved to hear about some of the panels I wasn’t able to make it to or about other people’s experiences of the con.


That said, there were problems.


Accessibility was poor. The room the readings were in was completely inaccessible to people using mobility devices (I understand that the usual room wasn’t available due to a problem with the emergency elevator). There were not taped off areas for people using wheelchairs or scooters and in at least one case, someone using one of these devices had the choice of blocking the aisle or sitting in the back of the room–they chose to block the aisle. There were very few signs directing people to the different places in the hotel where events were being held. There was a map in the booklet but not in the pocket program. The location of the Meet the Prose party was, essentially, a hallway with tables in it.


There was at least one last minute time/schedule change that caused a panelist to miss a program item.

Some of the panel descriptions were poorly written–a prime example is a panel I wasn’t able to go to that everyone was calling “The Menopause Panel”*. The description was terrible and I know that at least one of the panelists was planning on demolishing it (I wasn’t able to attend the panel for personal reasons, so I hope she did!). Some of the panels felt like time travellers from ten years ago, especially the one on Heinlein. The panel on political correctness turned out to be very good but I know that I wasn’t the only one worried about it being a train wreck (since the phrase “political correctness” is usually a dog whistle for “let’s be assholes”).

*Edited to add: I have been told that the menopause panel turned out to be an honest question from a writer who was experiencing some of the things described in the description and that once the panelists learned that, they spoke to those issues and it was a great panel.

And see that picture up above? Do you see how great whacking chunks of the program were rearranged for an extra reading? And despite the huge gender disparity in panels and readings, the extra reading was given to a man. I am, however, pleased to report that people who did receive readings in the program graciously shared them with others–it was a generous gesture and also, I think,one of self-preservation: an hour is a very long reading.

Cultural Misunderstanding

It was not adequately explained anywhere in the program materials that program items scheduled after 10 pm are often intended to be less serious–so when I showed up at what I thought was going to be a serious discussion of taboos and the forbidden in literature and instead got a very different type of discussion that was much less serious than I believed it would be I was taken aback and my commentary reflected this.

This is the sort of cultural thing that needs to be explained; I’d been to late panels the evening before and while they were a bit free-wheeling, there was also good discussion being had. If expectations are not clearly communicated to all parties, then misunderstandings will happen.

In Conclusion

I understand, again, that the people on the convention committee are doing the best they can, often with very limited resources. I also understand that there is, perhaps, a group of people who do not feel that there are any problems with the way the convention is currently being run.
However, I believe that a refusal to change and evolve will lead to no more Philcon at some point in the future. According to this article, there were 800 attendees. It didn’t feel like that many.

I was thinking about making some suggestions, but after a week of thinking about it, I’ve decided against it, for a couple of reasons. The first is that there are lots of online resources that the convention committee can use to improve their convention and attract a more diverse and engaged membership.  The second is that I don’t think they’re willing to listen to me–I never received a response to my email about the harassment policy, not even an acknowledgement that it was received–and I have enough walls to beat my head against in my life already, I don’t need to add another.

I won’t be going to Philcon next year due to a prior commitment to World Fantasy (which is having its own problems right now) and it’s doubtful that I’ll be attending in 2015 unless things significantly change.

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