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The Con Panel: Its Uses and Limitations

A few weeks ago I attended Darkover Grand Council Meeting, a Science Fiction/Fantasy convention held in the Baltimore area. This was the con’s 35th year and it offered a bountiful variety of activities, from music to crafts to meditation sessions to a regency ball. Of course, the convention also had several tracks of programming that included many panel discussions on topics ranging from “Placing Your Story in the Here and Now” to “What Comes After Zombies.”  I spent most of the weekend attending panels, and I was struck by how different they were from the panels at what I consider to be my home convention, Readercon. This led me to spend some of my time thinking about the nature and utility of convention panels for fantastic literature.  As I listened, took notes, and let my mind drift amongst the ideas, good and bad, that the panels produced, I wondered what use the con panel has in our hyper-connected age, what a panel can offer an audience and what makes them fall short sometimes.

This is not a strict review of the panels I attended at Darkover Con, nor is it meant to be a simple comparison between that event and the con experience that I know (and treasure) from Readercon.  As I sat through the panels over the course of three days I found myself  pondering how panels work, what makes a panel worthwhile, and why we do, or perhaps do not, need them. Con panels are often a gamble to attend, even with a focused topic and an expert groups of panelists.  Factors such as interpersonal relations between panelists, amount of preparation, time of day, and composition of the audience can all affect a panel’s performance. And that is what a panel is, a performance; this is inherent in the way it is composed and enacted in the convention setting.

A panel usually has 3 or more participants and a moderator; the panelists sit at the head of a room with chairs in rows lined up opposite them. Often there is some physical feature that heightens their separation from the audience, like a raised stage or a table. The panel is framed formally by introductions of the topic and the individual panelists and directed from there by the moderator, whose individual style varies. The panelists then discuss the topic for most of the time allotted and then take comments and questions from the audience.

I know that most readers are aware of how a panel works, but I wanted to lay it out because the more I think about this format the more I find its uses and limitations to stand out. What is a con panel’s purpose anyway? It serves several functions: it allows people to hear prominent members of the field talk about a wide assortment of subjects; it allows panelists to be seen and heard as prominent participants  in the field; it creates a situation for the exchange of ideas between the audience and the panelists; it functions as both a prestige event and as a form of informative entertainment for a convention. But what do all of these functions add up to?

I have seen panels where the participants tackle a subject head-on with wit and verve. I have also seen panels where participants stated that they weren’t sure why they were on the panel and felt they had little to contribute. I have witnessed heated exchanges, lengthy tangents that diverge significantly from the topic, sudden moments of inspiration, and long, detailed discourses that substantively inform the audience. I have watched panelists with more visibility or prestige shut down other panelists’ views, and seen others create a dialogue that makes you scribble frantically to get it all down. But none of these things are inherent in the panel as a form or event. Most of the factors that determine the outcome of a panel are external to the panel itself.

There is a level at which the convention panel seems antiquated and simplistically hierarchical. Panels have been a part of SFF conventions for a long time and have not undergone much change in their format. They maintain a separation of panelists from the audience and elevate, in more than one way, those panelists. Participation is often seen as an obligation, not just for what panelists get in return (anything from a hearty “thank you” to the coverage of convention expenses), but because of the implied expectation that service on panels is a duty for writers, editors, professionals, and prominent fans. These performances reinforce the role of panelists as part of the creative class of the field. Panelists give their knowledge and opinions to the audience; there is an act of exchange going on during a panel, not just of ideas but of status. Panels are a temporary social situation that structure how people in the field relate to each other, and they do this in stark terms that are often critiqued or redefined in informal conversations.  And yet, those terms are maintained and reproduced across conventions year after year.

This very basic framework of the con panel continues to have utility; it is familiar and everyone knows their role. But a con panel is not just an exercise in rote performance; it is also an opportunity to address issues on the minds of people in the field. The relative simplicity of the panel format allows for lively discussion for those participants who want it. It permits participants to demonstrate their proficiencies in the field because the format is one where all present have a well-defined part reinforced by adherence to proper social conduct. Within its parameters panelists often have a measure of freedom to voice their concerns and insights (and, sometimes, their assumptions and prejudices), while at the same time being potentially constrained by the status and vociferousness of other participants (both on the panel and in the audience).

One of the things that bothered me at Darkover Con was that the panels seemed poorly attended; in at least one panel the audience outnumbered the panelists. In another panel an audience member monopolized the proceedings by discussing their self-published novel at length. Sometimes the audience/panelist ratio made for a more casual interaction across the formal divide, but there was more often a feeling that, for several reasons, the panels were more of a formality than an opportunity to discuss the field. Darkover Con is small, with several activity tracks, but while this contributed to the attendance level of panels it does not explain the feeling of rote process. I’ve attended panels at Readercon that were packed yet felt just as formal. Regardless of the audience size this problem keeps appearing as a tension between the formal considerations and the chance to create conversations that bring participants into fruitful dialogue.

Is the panel format becoming less useful, at least for some conventions? Perhaps we need to consider and try out new ways of bringing people together to discuss the field.  It could be something as simple as a small discussion group where the formal divide is broken down, or a discussion with one facilitator who actively involves the audience in the conversation. Do we need the implied ratification of status that a panel contains in an age of constant social media interactions? As professionals, fans, and mediators become more connected through electronic communication, aren’t there other things we could do at conventions to foster dialogue? While I still sometimes get a lot out of a panel, I think there are many other ways to talk about what we love that will create more opportunities to enjoy and understand the stories and ideas that we come together to share.

2 Comments on The Con Panel: Its Uses and Limitations

  1. Jeff VanderMeer // December 6, 2012 at 3:13 pm //

    I wonder if we even need writers at the cons. It seems wrong to have them there when by default they will be assigned a certain status regardless of presence on panels just be the very fact of having book-objects associated with their name-privilege. This will throw off everything hierarchically no matter how you organize panels or non-panels. Unless you organize some kind of ritual humiliation process to somehow even everything out in the minds of every participant. Or maybe it’s simply that the audience should be on the stage and the panelists should be down below, with the audience looking down at them.

  2. I’m glad you said that panels serve a hierarchical purpose as it has always seemed to me that con panels are a form of recognition for having achieved a certain level of visibility in the field.

    If you’re well-known to fans then you will be asked to be on a panel. If you’re really really well-known to fans then you will have a panel built around you (see David Brin’s Asian SF panel at the last worldcon, which should have been entitled ‘how can we help David Brin to sell books in China?). This social aspect also explain why calls for gender parity are met with the puzzling response that the existing model chooses the best potential panelists and that messing with that model would necessarily weaken the convention.

    As someone who has been to a few cons over the years, I must admit that I have never seen a good panel. Ever. I’ve seen good interviews, I’ve seen good one-person shows where an author simply talked about stuff for a while but the second you move beyond 2 people on the stage, things become a mess. A mess that is invariably 6 months behind comparable online discussions and a mess that never ever prompts discussion outside of that particular room or that particular convention. I can’t remember ever seeing a con panel drive online discussion.

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