Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Blair Witch Panel

Kathryn Cramer has aptly named my last Worldcon panel "The Blair Witch Panel". It was so weird, friends. So weird. She actually didn't stay for most of it, but what she did she she captured on film.

Go take a look.

I'm not sure I can explain what happened. I mean, I was there, yes. I saw and heard what happened, but it was just all so weird right from the start. Admittedly, I didn't arrive knowing exactly what to make of the topic (something about Cultural Memory) or with much prepared to say. I knew I wasn't moderating, so hoped that however was would give some shape to it. Alas, there was no moderator.

Okay, perhaps we could still pull it together, though, right? Blind Lemming Chiffon picks a guy out of the audience (I don't know who he was) and he jumps up to moderate. We start to define the topic and terms and realize that none of us really have them defined. We're just making it up. Patrick Nielsen Hayden points this fact out. Good point, but already he's getting grumpy. Audience starts trying to help. Blind Lemming Chiffon has a grand idea that the topic can be summed up by a song that a friend of his wrote. He asks her to sing and she jumps up to do so. As the guitar comes out Patrick bolts for the door, muttering curses. The woman... sings a song about... oh, I don't know. Who could listen? At this point I'm just watching the exodus of audience members, wishing I was one of them.

Geoff Ryman, to his credit, tries to get some shape to the discussion. Perhaps unfortunately, though, he mentions race... Oh boy, suddenly we have a race panel! One woman in the audience in particular stands up talking about how she doesn't "see" color, and then follows this with all sorts of offensive, prejudiced comments, complete with some body jive and the mention that though she grew up in LA she's since escaped to Alaska...

And so passed the session. I don't know that we made a bit of sense. I have to say, I really, really wanted to leave. I only didn't because it struck me as disrespectful to the people that came to see the panel and were still sitting there. If there's an upside it's that those people were still there at the end, and they seemed to feel a sense of camaraderie with us for having survived it.

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Blogger Mark Lavallee said...

Beautiful. Just beautiful. If I would have been there... I would have been rolling on the floor laughing.

I would have laughed like a dog!

And of course, kept the camera shooting the whole time. Panel and attendees. Just to capture the expressions on their faces.

Just... beautiful. :)

11:39 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Laughter would have been good. Most of us had looks of horror on our faces throughout...

11:46 AM  
Blogger Bryan Russell said...

Um... is the preparation for a panel usually that haphazard? Random writer or spec-fic related personages selected and put together on a topic with no information provided beyond the odd title of the panel? It seems ripe for just such disasters. Don't they at least provide a sort of synopsis of ideas to ground the discussion and provide a framework? Lol, right now it seems sort of like a writerly Improv gig. Here's a topic... go! Entertain the crowd... (before they go mad zombie on the poor panelists...)

Wish I could have heard the song, though. Keep thinking up lyrics...

Oh cultural memory
I love you sooooo
The way your societal resilience
Makes me change my cloooooothes!

Good stuff.

12:08 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Ah, Ink, would that you'd been there...

Honestly, panelists are given nothing more than the two of three line description of the panel that the audience sees. It's up to us to make something of it. Usually we do. A moderator may organize things ahead of time, or we may just show up ready to go. It can work, but doesn't always.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Jim C. Hines said...

Wow. I've been on bad panels before, but nothing with this level of surreal crashing and burning.

From now on, I think all of our panels should come with their own soundtracks!

1:37 PM  
Blogger Bryan Russell said...

If I was there I could have done harmony! I'm sure no one would have left then. The macabre is always popular.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

I hope you'll be able to dine out for years on this story.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Bryan Russell said...

Also kind of wondering why a blues musician was on a spec-fic writing panel... Is that sort of thing typical?

3:44 PM  
Blogger Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Is that why you looked so shell-shocked later in the day.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Antiqueight said...

Thank you, I'd read the tweets and seen the photos but still hadn't heard which panel or why it was such a disaster.
Your explanation is appreciated and now I shall wander off to cringe while I wait for the video of the event to upload.


8:23 PM  
Anonymous C.C. Finlay said...


Just wait until the next time we're on a panel together. I'll have a whole different approach to moderation then.

7:50 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


This might have had something to do with looking shell-shocked. But so, honestly, might the whole award thing...


Please don't tell me a video of it is coming! The Terror...


That sounds ominous...

1:27 PM  
Blogger Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

For the record, what Patrick said as he left the panel was "I'm not good-humored enough for this." He'd been running a low-grade fever for a couple of days, and was aware that he was somewhat more irritable than usual.

IMO, the musical interlude was only a symptom. The actual problem was Mr. Chiffon, whose habit of taking every idea or interpretation ventured by the other panelists, reducing it to an oversimplified version of itself without regard for accuracy, and then recasting it entirely into personal and/or individual terms, amounted to breaking or deflecting the nascent conversation -- over and over and over again.

Only after Mr. Chiffon had gotten the discussion completely bogged down, to the point where it was thrashing around feebly in search of a foothold, did he call his friend up out of the audience to sing a song that had nothing to do with the panel's topic. That's the moment everyone will remember, but it was the initial muddle that gave the musical number its stunning impact.

I was sorry but not surprised to hear that there were more problems later on. A panel that can't get a coherent discourse going is like a train that can't get up to speed when it's passing through hostile territory: anyone who wants to can latch on to it and start making trouble.

4:52 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


True enough, I meant "muttering curses" in a rather vague sense. It's not that I really heard what Patrick said on the way out. I just seemed like a curse muttering moment in general. For that matter, I guess I was muttering curses. Silently, but still...

I do think the panel got better later on, even with the distractions. But we never entirely recovered from that opening. And, yes, it did mean some people felt perhaps more than the usual leeway to hijack the direction of the thing.

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

Actually, I think you're a hero for having stayed for the whole thing.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

I'm glad the panel saw some better times.

To my list of people deserving sympathy I've added David Kushner, the fill-in moderator, and the filker, whatever her name was. All they did was volunteer to help.

After the panel was over, I got into a conversation with an attendee who'd recorded the entire thing from start to finish. I encouraged her to make it publicly available, and I'm still hoping she'll do so.


"Geoff Ryman, to his credit, tries to get some shape to the discussion. Perhaps unfortunately, though, he mentions race... Oh boy, suddenly we have a race panel!"

That was arguably inherent in the published program description:

Cultural Memory, Societal Resilience and Change: How important is cultural memory? Does it support or hinder social change? Does it matter whether it is given up voluntarily or taken away by force?

It's hard to overemphasize the importance of clear, well-written panel descriptions. The specimen in question doesn't qualify. It's way too abstract. There are no indications of scale, or of the actual subject matter the person who suggested it had in mind.

A description like that gives the panel two options. One is to ignore the specific phrasing, and instead discuss interesting subjects in the general vicinity of the topic.

The other option is to pattern-match some concrete subject matter that can be addressed by the description as written. I don't think David Kushner was aware that by sequentially considering the possible literal meanings of the statements in the program description, he was steering the panel toward the latter option.

That's why I was so concerned about interactions between the early definitions being discussed, and that last lurking question. There aren't many general-knowledge subjects that pattern-match "cultural memory taken away by force," and you're unlikely to get a panel lineup where every panelist can intelligently discuss the loss and persistence of cultural memory bound up in superseded religious practices following a major wave of conversion or reformation, or the history of adjacent powers trying to suppress Gaelic-speaking, Polish, or Catalan cultures. What you're left with are instances where lighter-skinned dominant cultures have tried to forcibly suppress the cultures of darker-skinned people living among them.

As I'm sure you've noticed, once a panel gets to talking about race, it's hard to get it to talk about anything else.

"One woman in the audience in particular stands up talking about how she doesn't "see" color, --"

Translation: "Hi! I'm white, so I don't have to think about color!"

As an online moderator, I've heard that line way too often. There are cognate versions for people who don't understand objections to hate speech that incites its hearers to violence.

"-- and then follows this with all sorts of offensive, prejudiced comments, complete with some body jive and the mention that though she grew up in LA she's since escaped to Alaska..."

Ignorance is a privilege from which stupidity naturally follows. It's not enough to observe that, but it's true.

Would this by any chance be the same woman who was ranting about some actor from the original version of Battlestar Galactica?

I have got to get hold of that recording.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Vicki said...

Not all cons leave the panelists in quite that vague a situation. Some encourage moderators to contact the panelists beforehand--that's a chance to do anything from asking whether someone can bring a watch, or is everyone okay with photography, to attempting to define the subject a bit more, if it's too vague, broad, or narrow.

It's also common to ask panelists to gather in the Green Room beforehand (though this works better in smaller cons, and spaces, than a worldcon); that helps make sure everyone turns up in the same room, but can also be a chance for someone to say "can we please not talk about X, it's all I've done this weekend?" or "I think Y is relevant, if someone else knows enough about it to describe it clearly."

None of this guarantees anything, of course: but much of it can help.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

I've probably been too severe with Blind Lemming Chiffon. He was in over his head, and badly confused.

No one ever mixed ammonia and bleach who didn't start out wanting to get the bathtub really clean.

9:14 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Ah, sainthood... On the other hand, your departure added a memorable sense of drama to the whole thing. So thanks for that. Part of me left with you, just not the physical part that had its butt in the chair.


You make lots of great points. And, yes, race was inherently woven into the topic. It's just such a hard thing to keep control and focus on in a discussion. So easy to go off on tangents and/or to cause insult.

I mainly mentioned Geoff because once the conversation went completely into race-related issues he turned to me and apologized for providing the opening.

Yes, I think that woman one did get emotional when remembering an actor from Battlestar Galatica...


You're absolutely right. In general there's nothing stopping us from being better prepared ahead of time. I've been on panels where we were in touch ahead of time, organized, prepped, etc. Not a bad thing. But that just doesn't work for everyone all the time. In this case, the panel was on the last day, so I imagine prepping for it was low on our priority list considering all the things that came before.

Meeting in the Green Room is a great idea. My most successful panel this time around - moderated by Guy Gavriel Kay - did just that. It was great to get even ten minutes of prep ahead of time. But... for quite a few of my panels this time that was impossible because of being booked back to back. And... on more than one panel the moderator had dropped out, but the rest of the panel hadn't been informed about it.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Greg said... First I've heard of this. Nothing I was on went this badly, but some of the organization in general frankly left something to be desired--on one panel I could have done without having to shout over the kids who were (quite reasonably) shouting and having a great time playing in the room right next door to ours (which was open to our room). And I would think that at something like Worldcon, a panel on the business of writing including George R.R. Martin might have been better placed than in an area smaller than my living room at home (the audience was practically in the panelists' laps). Heard a number of other such stories too...though none as good as yours, David. But remember: Campbell Award! I imagine that helps make the memory a little better. :)

2:53 AM  
Blogger Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

Thing about meeting in the Green Room is that you have to walk to the Green Room, then walk to your panel. For some of us, that's a lot of distance to cover.

5:18 PM  

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