Interview with a Fan Activist: Chris Barkley

Chris Barkley has been active in fandom since 1976 as a member of the Cincinnati Fantasy Group, has attended 27 Worldcons and several hundred other conventions, and is currently employed at one of the best bookstores in the U.S., Joseph Beth Booksellers. (And I’m totally not just saying that because I want them to keep stocking my stuff!)

Chris has been working hard to try to establish a Best YA Novel Hugo Award. You can visit the discussion page on Facebook.


1. You described yourself as a fan activist. How does this differ from the SMOFs of legend? What tasks and trials must one complete to become a fan activist?

Well, I’ll put it to you this way; I would NEVER admit that I am a Secret Master of Fandom. I don’t think that I am; I don’t have any control over anyone nor do I have desire to. I was a convention chair once (in 1986) and I was quickly cured of that peculiar malady.

To be perfectly serious, I don’t think anyone who does identify themselves as a SMOF does either. People who embrace that term are basically people who run sf conventions. They do so because it is fun (at least some of the time), they provide a valuable service to fans and they continue a distinguished tradition that stretches all the way back to the Depression Era.

In the past 15 years or so, I would describe my activities as that of a fan activist. (This is not to be confused with the term “fanac,” an older slang term for fannish activities.) I truly became an activist when I read an Octoober 1998 Entertainment Weekly a feature article on the “Sci-Fi’s Top 100

Needless to say, I was appalled by the choices of the EW staff (The Jetsons, #52 were ranked over Babylon 5, #97; C’MON MAN!) and the next thing I knew, I was busily concocting my own top 100 as an article for Mike Gyler’s File 770.

The very first thing that I learned as a fanzine writer was that I had to develop a very thick skin. No matter how well thought out and written you may think your article and point of view is, there will ALWAYS be some antagonist or snarky person out there, trying to do anything in their power to bring you down and mount you on their wall like a trophy.

As an activist, I feel as though you have to walk a fine line; between your utter conviction that you are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong AND feeling flexible enough in your beliefs where you can admit that you are wrong or can compromise on a position you take.

Paradoxically, I really don’t relish being in the spotlight. I have not been rewarded nor have I taken any credit for the work I have done in Worldcon press offices or on Hugo Award categories. I am not a celebrity nor do I have any desire to be one. I am of the opinion that those sort of distractions undermine my integrity and work. I relish my privacy. I try keep to myself grounded, not act in very pretentious manner or make a spectacle of myself. I say try because I have been guilty of that in the past.

The primary thing I keep in mind at all times is that in the long run, the only power I actually have is to persuade other people to either try something (like my current project for a Young Adult Category Hugo Award) or to do the right thing (voting for motions at a public meeting, sometimes under very hostile conditions).

2. Diversity in SFF fandom. Do you think it’s a problem, and if so, where do you think that problem comes from and what can we do about it? If not, what are you seeing that makes you feel that way?

I really don’t know, honestly. I have been in fandom and attending all sorts of conventions since 1976. I have never encountered any racial discord or had any problems with anyone in fandom. Having said that, the majority of the conventions I have attended over the years are literary based and it has not escaped my notice that I rarely see minorities at them, even at North American Worldcons.

I have seen a number of minorities at anime, media and comics based conventions. I know for a fact that minorities read sf and fantasy since I work full time in one of the best bookstores in country. It’s no secret that lit fandom and their conrunners, on average, are much older than other genre conventions. Simply put, I don’t see much a future for fandom unless they conduct more outreach to younger fans and minorities.

3. For the past two years, there have been complaints about accessibility and disability issues at WorldCon. Institutional memory seems like a serious problem for a convention run by different people each year. How can we do a better job making sure Worldcon is accessible to all fans, and to encourage all conventions to do the same?

The problem is that the individual Worldcon convention committees are doing an inadequate job in supporting the people in charge of Handicapped Services, both with money, equipment and staff. It’s really dismaying to see the same thing happening over and over again nearly every year.

Someone should chronicle all the complaints, mishaps and mistakes of the past dozen or so Worldcons and package it up as a manual for running Handicapped Services.

4. What has been your most exciting or rewarding experience as a SMOF fan activist?

Well, honestly, I feel a little vicarious thrill during the Hugo Ceremonies every year when they announce the winner in the categories that I had a hand in creating; Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form/Short Form, Best Editor Long Form/Short Form and Best Graphic Story. (I was also a proud co-sponsor of the Best Fancast as well.)

When I began working on the Hugo Award categories back in 1999, I simply to make the Best Dramatic Presentation fairer by separating out big budget nominees from smaller productions. As my work progressed with other categories, I became enamored with a newer and more important goal in mind; make the awards more diverse, competitive, engaging and lively to everyone.

I am not foolish enough to think that the changes I helped in to existence will last. I certainly hope they don’t. Time, history and sf literature have a common theme, constant change. Good or bad, it’s inevitable.

5. I’ve talked to several conrunners who described a siege mentality, an Us vs. Them conflict between the people doing the work and the rest of the world. The conrunners feel unappreciated. Fans feel blown off or attacked for trying to talk about problems. Have you seen this, and if so, how do we get past it?

I have sampled the comments from conrunners and their critics over the past year or so and it’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for those SMOFs (who run a number of literary based conventions and nearly all of the Worldcons), some of whom I have known for many years, because they have NOT opted to adapt to modern times. There is practically no transparency evident, save for the Business Meetings at Worldcons that are posted online.

The SMOFs have operated most their debates and deliberations involving conventions off an email listserv for over two decades. As of this writing (17 October 2013), they do not have a Facebook page nor do they appear to operate on Twitter, Reddit or any other social networking sites. They are mostly older (like me) and while a goodly number are adept with modern technology, they don’t employ it very well when they encounter any criticism.

I have been a subscriber to the SMOFs list for a good long while but I rarely check the daily digest nor do I participate in any of the various discussions that are usually going on.

The latest case of blatant SMOF malfeasance is what happened to a Wisconsin based fan, Amy McNally. When my partner and I could not mount an effort to go LoneStarCon 3 to submit a proposal for a Young Adult Book category, Ms. McNally, whom I did not know beforehand, submitted her own proposal independently.

It would be an understatement to say that she was rudely treated; she was berated online, on her Live Journal account and in person at the convention. She was repeatedly told that she did not know what she was doing, that the YA issue was dead, that she and her opinions and ideas were not wanted. The proposal was dead on arrival at the LoneStarCon Business Meeting but a study group (of which I am a member) was formed to present a report at the Loncon 3 BM.

I knew EXACTLY how she felt because I went through because I went through a similar baptism by fire when I graced my first Business Meeting at Chicon 2000. Amy McNally is a victim of SMOFs who have been entrenched in position of authority for decades and now think they know what’s “best for fandom.” You can’t heap too much shame on those people, in my opinion.

The only way traditions like the Worldcon and Hugos will have any future is if the people who are interested and feel frozen out of the process continue to provide civil and constructive criticism and stay involved in fandom. If this doesn’t happen, and soon, there will be very little chance of the Worldcon surviving beyond 2020.

What we need is MORE dissent, MORE thinking outside the box and MORE diversity in fandom, not less. The sooner SMOFs realize this, the better off we’ll all be.