On Friday, August 19, the MidAmeriCon II staff expelled Dave Truesdale from WorldCon for violating the Con’s Code of Conduct.
Truesdale is the editor of Tangent Online, and his publication was nominated for a Hugo in the best Fanzine category this year. (File 770 won this category.) Truesdale was moderating, or supposed to be moderating, a panel called “The State of Short Fiction.”
The panelists introduced themselves, and Truesdale wanted to open with a statement. His statement ran about ten minutes; he was worried, he said, about the state of short fiction because there were so many “special snowflakes” who had graduated from University of Perpetual Indignation (I may not have that right, but there’s audio) and were so sensitive that they were outraged by everything. He pulled out a handful of cheap necklaces of round beads and said that sometimes, when you are offended, there is nothing else to do but clutch your pearls, and then you would feel better. He was going to put the necklaces on the table, so that if people felt offended during the panel they could have some pearls to clutch and then they would feel better.
He wasn’t even halfway done, because then he started reading a long statement that was a quote from David Hartwell, he said, or maybe somebody who spoke to David Hartwell once, and it went on for quite a while, until fellow panelist Sheila Williams from Asimov’s Magazine challenged him. As she continued to make points he tried to cut her off not once but twice. The audience got unruly, people walked out, and the panel never really did discuss the state of short fiction.
I wasn’t there. I talked to someone who was, though, a writing friend named Allison. Allison specializes in short fiction. I asked her how she felt about the panel. “It got totally derailed,” she said, “and I never did get to hear about the markets, or the state of short fiction.”
(By the way, I follow Allison on Twitter, and she is both thoughtful and hilarious. Find her @AMulderWrites.)
Someone complained to the Con Committee, which I have just learned is abbreviated by the cognoscenti (which I am attempting to impersonate) as Con Com, and they investigated. The upshot was that they expelled Truesdale from the rest of the convention.
I assume that there is more to this story than a bad moderator hijacking a panel, or recording the panel without telling his fellow panelists (or the audience) that he was doing so. Because of privacy rules, we will never know. Certainly he isn’t the first person to be a bad moderator on a panel, but, as someone who went to WorldCon largely to attend panels, I do want to talk about that for a bit, because that’s what makes me mad.
WorldCon registration is not cheap. When you factor in travel and lodging, we are now talking “expensive.” There are resources for Con memberships, although almost no one is offering fellowships for four nights lodging at a major hotel. Many people go specifically to hear the panels, so there’s a desire to get, basically, your money’s worth.
Then there’s the role of a moderator. The moderator’s job is to help the other panelists address the panel’s subject; to make sure everyone gets to speak, to help them sound brilliant and insightful, to keep the panel on time and make sure the audience’s needs are met. In fact, I probably have those in the wrong order. The moderator’s job is to make sure the audience’s needs are met.
Truesdale put his desire to engage in some performance art ahead of the needs of the audience or his panelists, and that is not cool.
What he did may have been funny. I have been enjoying the phrase “pearl-clutching” for a while now (because it’s everywhere) and the idea of bringing fake-pearl necklaces for people to clutch is a cute visual. There’s a “however” coming; however, when you have planned enough in advance to have purchased props, you have made a conscious decision to subordinate the panel topic and the audience needs to your desire to perform.
If Truesdale were a tie-dyed-in-the-wool liberal, haranguing about the corporatization of the Democratic Party while tossing “Feel the Bern” bumper stickers into the audience, it would have been just as selfish and just as bad.
I went to at least one panel where the panelists didn’t seem prepared and the moderator was uninterested in the topic. I have been on a panel, at a different convention, where our moderator seemed to zone out for about twenty seconds, leaving dead air. (In fact, he was on the Con committee and also moving houses, and he was genuinely exhausted.) I completely understood why he spaced on us. It still wasn’t okay.
Moderation is not about content, it is all about process, and your content may not even get mentioned, if the panel is opinionated enough or the Q&A lively enough.
Moderation is a skill, it requires discipline, and no one is forcing you to do it, so if you feel so strongly about the topic that you can’t put your opinion second, you should not agree to moderate that panel. If Truesdale wanted to fling around beads and speechify, he should not have agreed to moderate. Then he could have become the real moderator’s problem and not the audience’s. (My sympathies to whoever that hypothetical moderator would have been.)
I have the feeling, though, that if Dave Truesdale had been on the “What’s New in the Solar System” panel, he would have found a way to pull out his handful of clutch-pearls.