I spent the weekend at Bookcon, an event for people who really, really love books (and sometimes, the celebrities who write some of them). The event is absolute streaming mayhem between freebies, panels, special events, and more, in an environment filled with heady booklust and starry-eyed celebrity worship — the lineup this year included people like Mindy Kaling and YA darling John Green.
Let's talk more about those panels, though. Last year, Bookcon was heavily criticised for the fact that every single panel was entirely white. Every. Single. One. People of color rose up to protest, creating the We Need Diverse Books campaign (which later blew up into a much larger movement) and pressuring the convention into a hastily-assembled panel to discuss diversity in the industry — notably, it was stuck in a small downstairs meeting room and it overflowed almost immediately.
I guess readers really do want diverse books. And it's not just about diverse books, but about diversity on panels and in industry events, an issue that's been coming up more and more, especially when it comes to challenging white men to rethink who they panel with. This issue came up for me at Wiscon this year when I realised that I'd been assigned to a panel on reforming policing that was comprised almost entirely of white people, and I indicated that I didn't want to be on a panel that was so heavily white-weighted. Unfortunately, many people don't think about this when they accept invitations to panel at conventions.
Last year, the World Fantasy Convention was rightly criticized for panel lineups that skewed heavily white and male. South by Southwest has faced the same critiques — and when women are on panels, they get to enjoy the pleasure of being interrupted and talked over. Amazingly, Denver Comicon had a panel on women in comics that had no women on it.
A discussion about panel parity — focused on equal numbers of men and women, sadly, not on full diversity on panels — arose in the science fiction and fantasy community, but it's broadly applicable to conventions at large and it's becoming a growing issue. Which made me curious to see how both Book Expo America and Bookcon handled the issue this year, thanks to the very high pressure on both events — and notably, they started out well, with diversity panels for the industry (BEA) and readers (Bookcon). It turns out that the industry's powerful really are starting to think about these issues, which is an immensely positive sign.
But here's where things get interesting, because let's talk about John Green. For the three people who don't know who Green is, he's a wildly popular young adult author (he wrote "The Fault in Our Stars," recently adapted into a pretty major film, as well as "Paper Towns," also adapted, and about to be released). He's also the force behind a number of pretty great projects, and he's a perfectly nice guy — we've corresponded a few times on varying matters and he's great to interact with.
However, like a lot of white men in publishing, he enjoys considerable social and institutional privilege, and he's becoming more aware of that, and really trying to situate himself within that privilege. At last year's Bookcon, he actually discussed the controversy over the lack of representation on panels and at the con, and agreed that the industry needed to address it. He even made it clear that he was committed to appearing on diverse panels.
Unfortunately, he makes mistakes, sometimes big ones, like a lot of people attempting to act in solidarity with various groups. And at Bookcon this year, he made a huge one: He appeared on an all-male (though thankfully not all-white) panel to promote "Paper Towns."
The panel included cast members, the screenwriter, and the composer. Oddly, it did not include the female lead, Cara Delevingne. Let me repeat that: A panel promoting a very anticipated film (among the YA crowd) did not include the female lead. Now, she's filming another project right now and she's a busy lady, so it's entirely possible that she really genuinely did not have time to appear at Bookcon, or didn't want to. But are you telling me that no other women worked on this movie?
Because IMDB certainly seems to think that there were other women on the cast. And are you seriously telling me that every single one of these women was approached and declined to appear? Because I find this highly unlikely.
And are you also telling me that Green didn't see the panel lineup ahead of time? Because every single time I've paneled at a convention or been asked to speak, I've been provided with a list of who I am paneling with, and I've corresponded with them about the panel. And in cases where I feel the panel is not sufficiently diverse, I've spoken up for panel parity and/or stepped down in the interest of promoting a replacement panel member who's more appropriate. This is pretty basic, easy stuff.
That Green neglected.
After being called out on it, he was apologetic on his Twitter, but in pretty vague terms.
What does it mean to say it "won't happen again"? And really, seriously, you're telling me that an incredibly forceful person in publishing doesn't get informed about panel lineups ahead of time, and can't ask for them?
This is exactly the kind of thing we mean when we talk about panel parity and awareness. People can't sit around trusting that other people will do the work for them — you need to actively take steps to address diversity and lack of representations in your industry. When you have that much power, you have the ability to use it for good in a way that others do not, and you have an obligation to do so.
This isn't just a John Green problem. This is an industry problem. This is a social problem. We're not going to achieve panel parity if we don't acknowledge that it's an intersectional issue, and if we don't pressure people to actively engage with the problem. Participants at events like these must ask organizers about the makeup of their panels. Guests of honor at events must do likewise.
If organizers won't provide this information for some bizarre reason, it's incumbent upon people in positions of power to drop out, to decline the invitation on the grounds that they have concerns about representation. I can guarantee you that after losing a few keynote speakers, panelists, and guests of honor, conventions and other events are going to get on it with discussing panel makeup frankly with their invitees.
Because when I see young women flocking to Bookcon to meet their favorite authors, pick up advance reading copies of books they're excited about, and go to panels, I see a huge and impressionable audience. What does it feel like to go to an event and see no one who looks like you in a position of power or success?
This is an issue that came up last year, when women of color pointed out that young women of color weren't seeing any authors or other pros who looked like them represented — which sends a really striking message to people wanting to become writers or work in publishing. After all, if no one who looks like you is present, it's pretty clear that the industry doesn't want you.
And for people aiming to change the lives of young adults and build a better society, pushing for equal representation — for more diverse books, for more diverse staff at publishing houses, for parity on panels and at industry events — is not just a nice thing to do. It's an obligatory thing to do.
This is not rocket science, people.