It wasn't what I expected.
As I've said before, I've been to a lot of comic book conventions. I have little patience for most of the superhero fare that's considered "mainstream" in the comics world, but I am a great fan of the more "literary" work (Clowes, Ware, Hernandez Bros, et al) as well as better SF stuff that crops up there (Morrison, Ellis, Gaiman, et al). I had no reservations about going to comic book conventions because comics are a medium, not a genre, and while at the larger cons there are people dressed up as Batman, there are also quiet corners where the folks in plastic framed glasses get together and talk theory. And best of all are the small press cons like Mocca and SPX where the indies come together free from the rank and file "underwear perverts" (as Warren Ellis likes to call superheroes).
I honestly didn't think there was anything like that in the SF world, because SF is a genre. For a long time, I thought any SF con would be like a comic book convention where they only let the superhero fans in.
I was very wrong.
I knew ReaderCon was the con specifically for readers (and writers) of speculative fiction books, as opposed to other SF conventions which include TV and movies and gaming and so on. What I guess I didn't anticipate was how thoughtful and intelligent those readers would turn out to be. It's not that there weren't people there who believe the height of greatness is writers like Herbert, Heinlein and Tolkien, or people who were into the latest teenage vampire novel— there were those folks and plenty of them. But there was also a significant percentage who read the kind of books I do, Kelly Link and Brian Francis Slattery and the New Wave SF writers. There were even a bunch of people there who write the kind of books I like, and I felt honored to meet the likes of Jeffrey Ford, Samuel R. ("Chip", apparently) Delany, Gene Wolfe and the guest of honor herself, Elizabeth Hand. I think the fact that someone like Hand could be the GOH illustrates just how willing this con was to embrace the unusual, the intellectual, the experimental. Hand is a writer who has never stayed still, who is always tied to write a book different from the last. (With the possible exception of her Work-For-Hire work; I was shocked to find out she had done the novelization of 2004's Catwoman. But I suppose doing things for the money is the price you pay for being experimental and unusual.)
JF Quackenbush's fear that the convention would be full of raging mongloids who think that big words are a sign of elitism proved not to be the case at all. There was even a panel called "You Don't Know Dictionary" which was all about big words and how to use them.
Where else could I find three people, two of whom I'd just met and one of whom I met briefly once before, and argue seriously about the relative merits of Thomas M. Disch, Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard? Where else could I talk to an elderly gentleman about the literary qualities of gay porn? (This was Chip Delany, who after a successful career as a New Wave SF writer, has spent thirty years trying to coopt the "porn" label in his extremely explicit novels. Says Delany, back in the nineteenth century people objected to romanticism because it appealed too directly to the emotions, rather than the detached austerity of classicism. An argument for porn runs similar to an argument for Romanticism, says Delany; a direct appeal to sexual arousal should not be viewed as a barrier to art.)
Though I complained in my initial post about the silver haired-ness of the con goers, a lot more relatively younger people filed in on Friday and Saturday; perhaps jobs had prevented them from coming on Thursday. Still the group was mostly people over thirty, (when one panelist complained about this, and a person in the audience said he was 17, applause erupted, as if in this one boy's hands rested the fate of the entire genre), but to me this was okay. This wasn't a con for kids to dress up in costume and run around. The only person in a costume at all was Caitlin R. Keirnan, 10-foot-tall in goth regalia and purple tentacle mask, and one got the feeling that she just kind of dressed like that normally.
No, this was a convention for grown-ups. I really came to appreciate that.
The smallness of the convention also gave Twitter an interesting extra dimension for me. Because I was Twittering the whole time using the hashtag #ReaderCon, a number of people who were following that hashtag recognized me from my nametag or user icon, resulting in a lot of interesting conversations with people I wouldn't have met otherwise. In fact, my online presence was in some ways key to my experience of the con— almost everyone I knew there beforehand was someone I'd met online. Without that I would still have had a good time going to the panels and such, but the social element would have been completely different if not entirely absent.
Unfortunately, things are going to change next year. There will only be one "track" of programming (one panel or reading at a time), and the Guest of Honor will be "you and all your friends" with the panels made up by the con goers. I asked the convention organizer, Eric M. Van, why this was, fearing the economy had put some major dent in attendance. On the contrary Van told me that attendance was holding steady at around 700 people. The change is that Van himself can't do it anymore, so next year they're slimming things down to make it easier to organize. "I'll give it one or two more years," he said, "After that, if someone doesn't step up..." his elipsis punctuated with an ominous shrug.
Will there be any more ReaderCons like the one I experienced? Will there be any more ReaderCons? I guess we'll wait and see. But I have to say, I've been to maybe a dozen comic book conventions, and other assorted book fairs, book festivals, and one Book Expo of America. ReaderCon is without a doubt the most fun I've ever had at an event like this. And if it ceases to be, it will be a damn shame.