If you’ve been on Twitter at all in the past week, you’ve undoubtedly seen links to dozens of posts recapping last week’s RT Booklover’s Convention. I flew down to New Orleans to attend RT for the first time this year, so now it’s my turn to add my $.02. Since I was attending the con as a troll in a wheelchair, my recap is going to go long on accessibility and panel content and short on the shoe pictures and selfies. (Regrettably, I have no selfies to share. Wish I thought to ask people to take some with my phone. Oh well.)
If you’re feeling tl;dr, I had a bit of an adventure getting there and getting around in my wheelchair, I mostly enjoyed the panels but wished fewer allies were speaking as experts and New Orleans is kind of the best.
For someone who uses a powerchair and knows that travelling is a pretty big hassle, I made a pretty serious mistake and did not figure out transportation from the airport to the hotel ahead of time. If you were also under the impression that you could get a wheelchair accessible cab at the New Orleans airport, let me tell you that asking for such a thing at the cab stand gets you a look like you just asked for a coach and six. Instead of getting a cab, I had to make a reservation with the airport shuttle company, who has one wheelchair accessible van, which had just left the airport. My flight landed at 1:40 pm on Tuesday. I didn’t get to my room until almost 5:30. Woof.
Once I got to the hotel, I was greeted by a wall of sound like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I stayed in the Marriott the con was held at and the combination of marble floors, low ceiling and a shit ton of chatty romance readers and writers made the lobby into a complete fucking riot of noise. When I got back to the hotel after dinner (and you can’t get a bad meal in the French Quarter. Even Popeye’s was good.) Isobel Carr marched out of the mob and pulled me into the group she was sitting with. I don’t speak very clearly to begin with and the noise made it incredibly challenging to talk to people. To make myself heard, I had to shout as loud as I could and people had to put their ear in front of my mouth. It was equal parts frustrating and exhausting. (I did meet author Olivia Gates and see pictures of her fabulous cats, though, so there were bright spots.)
The con itself was basically fine accessibility-wise. There was always room in the back of panel rooms for me to park my chair, the corridors were nice and wide and escalators made for uncrowded elevators. I had plenty of time to travel between panels and there was quiet space available around the second floor for me to chit-chat with people I bumped into. Anyone I asked for help was super eager to help and people generally respected my space and let me get through the crowd.
There were a few accessibility issues, of course. While people were great with me – the thin, visibly disabled woman in a powerchair – I didn’t see that courtesy extended to the scooter users. The seas parted for me to get on an elevator, but people would pile into elevators before scooter people and not give them space to get in. @Fibrobabe told me this happened to her a few times, causing her to miss her assigned elevator (more on the elevators below). Additionally, Heidi Belleau told me people got snotty with her at the book fair when she asked people to let a scooter user get to her table. Clearly I was being read as “good” disabled deserving of sympathy and help while the scooter crowd was being read as lazy fakers who should take the stairs. It’s reflective of wider societal biases against fat and invisible disabilities, but it might help for RT to include something in their con literature or put up signage encouraging people to give elevator priority to people with wheels and to make sure disabled people can get around them in halls and aisles.
The elevators at the Marriott were kinda weird. Instead of pressing an up or down button then hitting a floor button inside the elevator, you’d put the floor number into the number pad in the picture then go to the elevator letter displayed on the screen. The elevators had no buttons in them. Being unable to lift my arms high and hit buttons quickly, I couldn’t use the elevators without help. Best I could do was hit the 1 with my forehead. Hitting the wheelchair button gets you a bunch of ???? and a computer voice saying “command not understood.” (I’ve since learned from Sassy Outwater that you hit the wheelchair button before pressing the number buttons to get the speech-enabled mode for visually impaired users. Here’s a video.) People were always happy to help, but it was annoying to always have to flag people down then play “What? I couldn’t understand you.” I can operate regular elevators on my own, for the record.
Finally, the book fair was kinda bad for me and my wheeled brethren. The crowd was thick as pudding. There were lines everywhere. Lines for popular authors choked the rows of signing tables and the lines from the registers stretched back into the signing room then snaked around the rows of tables. People sitting on the floor going through their books made already crowded aisles narrower. A guy was constantly making announcements over a loudspeaker, making it hard to talk to authors. It was a crowd control nightmare. Managing crowd flow at a once a year event held in a new space every time sounds like a pretty big fucking challenge, so I’m sympathetic to the organizers. If I’m adding my suggestions to the mountain of book fair opinions, I’d suggest they let disabled readers go in early to beat the crowd, keep the aisles clear, shitcan the announcements and encourage authors/publishers to find a way to sell ebooks.
I made it to more panels than I thought I would. Almost all of the panels aimed at readers looked ridiculous and/or insulted my intelligence, but I saw lines for them that went from one side of the hotel to the other, so maybe I just hate fun. Most panels I went to were well attended, but the only one that was so packed that people were standing was the reviewing, blogging and blog design panel. There really seemed to be an appetite for blogging content, so I hope RT adds more blogger panels to next year’s lineup.
Here’s a quick and dirty rundown of the panels I attended:
Across the Color Lines – Multicultural Romance Past, Present and Future
Mala Bhattacharjee (RT Book Reviews, Features Editor)
Sandra Kitt, Jeannie Lin, Alisha Rai, Farrah Rochon
This was probably the best panel I attended. Everyone on it was speaking from experience and Mala (aka Suleikha Snyder) kept people talking and laughing. Sandra Kitt was the star of the show. She drew on decades of experience writing multicultural romance and gave incredibly thoughtful answers to Mala’s questions. Her comments about hating the term “multicultural romance” and how it pigeonholes romance with POC characters still has me thinking. I also enjoyed the amusing/infuriating story about her publisher putting white people on the cover of the Italian edition of her book while leaving the couple black in the translation. Such a mess publishing makes of things.
Challenging Readers to Read Challenged Heroes
Jillian Chantal, Gail Delaney (Desert Breeze Publishing, Owner/Editor-in-Chief), Tammy Falkner, Hildie McQueen, Judith Starkston
I went into this one expecting it to be a shit show and that probably was the right approach. Had I gone in expecting insightful, informative content, I’d have been disappointed that all but two of the panelists were non-disabled and no one ever mentioned ableism. Since I was expecting Phantom Waltz-level ignorance, the just sort of meh discussion neither enraged nor satisfied. Aside from what the two women with hearing loss had to say about living with the disability, it was just a bunch of non-disabled authors talking to each other about why they chose to write disabled heroes (I twitched at the author who said she likes to “challenge” herself), how they did their research and whether disabled people gave them any feedback (only one person mentioned having a CP/beta with the character’s disability read her manuscript for accuracy.) The best part of the panel was the audience comment from Sassy Outwater, who said that the “miracle cure” ending only makes for a happy ending if you’ve written a character who is diminished by disability.
EROTICA: Pushing the Boundaries
Shayla Black, Toni Blake (aka Lacey Alexander), Lindsey Faber (Samhain, Publisher), Lauren Hawkeye, Christina Lauren
This wasn’t a bad panel, but I thought it was kinda boring. The woman next to me was playing 2048 on her phone the whole time, so it wasn’t just me. I’m not really sure what it was supposed to be about and the questions were mostly from the audience and totally all over the place. I arched an eyebrow at the Samhain editor’s response to a question about noncon where she said that rape fantasy is about giving up control to a handsome man, not getting overpowered in a parking garage. She and I must read a different Literotica. A discussion about slut shaming and victim blaming involved a Lorelei James book, Cowgirls Don’t Cry, and I kind of want to re-read it to see if I still hate the prologue.
YA: “Pride and Joy”: GLBT in YA
Sarah Rees Brennan
Jenna Black, Melanie Brockmann, Suzanne Brockmann, Malinda Lo, Scott Tracey
I found this panel super frustrating. I was attending mostly to hear from Malinda Lo, who has lots of fabulous stuff to say over at Diversity in YA. While Lo did get to speak a bit (she called out the genre for its biphobia) and Tracey got to talk about how he liked the write books where a gay character goes on adventures unrelated to his being gay, the panel was sort of taken over by Suzanne Brockmann, who I guess has a YA title coming out. So instead of hearing Lo talk about getting lesbian YA published, I got to hear Brockmann talking about creating Jules as a “gay best friend” to gently convert her conservative readers, answering audience questions about co-writing with her daughter and plugging Glitterland. Her presence on that panel is like putting me on a multicultural romance panel to talk about being a great ally for reviewing MC romance for a white audience. Not a fan.
An Open Relationship: How Bloggers Can Best Work with Publicists
Erin Galloway (Berkley/NAL, Associate Director of Publicity & Marketing) Sarah Wendell (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Blogger)
Lord knows what made me attend this one, since I’m all fuck the establishment, man, but I ended up really glad I went. It was just Sarah from SBTB and a publicist from Berkley/NAL talking about what a publicist does and how bloggers can work with them. Galloway made the blogger-publicist relationship sound really appealing and low-pressure. When I asked a question about contacting a publicist to get a heads up about the kinds of books I read for LITM an amusing thing happened. Sarah perked up and said, “Love in the Margins? Oh my god, are you Ridley?” We don’t follow each other on Twitter or interact much at all, so I was surprised she knew who I was. I chatted with her afterwards and she was just super easy to talk to. Her blog was the first romance blog I read regularly, so it was really cool to meet her.
SCI-FI: It’s Not Your Mama’s Science Fiction!
Catherine Asaro, Jenna Bennett, Ilsa J. Bick, Mary Robinette Kowal, Beth Revis, Sarah Zettel
The title for this panel was basically the worst (I mean, my mom’s a big Bradbury fan, are you saying there’s something wrong with Bradbury?) but I’m a romance reader who’s used to awful packaging and I didn’t let it deter me. I wish I had better hearing and a way to take notes for this one. My spot in the back was next to a door to a busy hall and a couple of the panelists were really soft-spoken so I missed a lot. What I did catch, I enjoyed, especially their answers about world-building, truly getting into the different mindset of a SFF character and why paranormal romance is just about impossible to do well and find the right balance of romance and world-building. I also liked Sarah Zettel’s comments about how she made a veiled Muslim woman a starship owner and engineer as the heroine of her book. It was a response to the xenophobia and racism she saw in the wake of the Gulf War and “I couldn’t do anything to stop racism, but I could send a Muslim woman into space.”
Book Reviewing, Blogging, and Blog Design 101
Lea Franczak (USA Today Happy Ever After)
Rachel Rivera (Parajunkee), Mandi Schreiner (Smexy Books, Blogger)
This was the most crowded session I went to. Every seat had someone in it and people were standing in the back. It was run a bit differently than other panels as there wasn’t really a moderator asking panelists questions so much as three people giving a presentation one after the other and answering audience questions. The first speaker was painfully boring. She seemed to be reading from a printed out Powerpoint presentation, which is never engaging, and her advice on reviewing included “always be courteous” and “avoid profanity.” Reader, I lol. Mandi was much more engaging when she spoke about networking and promoting your blog. Her advice to contribute meaningfully on Twitter and in comments on other blogs and to not only talk about your own blog and your own reviews could just as easily apply to authors as well as bloggers. Rachel didn’t get to speak for long, but she encouraged bloggers to think function first and then worry about looks. Audience members gave a firm stink eye to white text on a black background and I begged people to think of accessibility and include alt text on images.
The Making of a Book Cover: A Behind-the-Scenes Look
Deeanne Gist, Jenn LeBlanc (Illustrated Romance/Studio Smexy, Owner), Scott Nova (Cover Model)
This was the only reader track panel I attended and it was fun but fluffy. Author Deeanne Gist talked about the cover making process using her book A Bride in the Bargain, which her daughter modeled for, as an example. The book is a Christian historical about an Oregon lumberjack sending for a mail-order bride from back east, which explains the ax on the cover. LeBlanc talked a bit about what she does as an art director – staging, posing, image manipulation – and I arched an eyebrow all the way up when the Times Square WWII picture with the sailor accosting the nurse was shown as cover image “inspiration.” After Nova talked a bit about the model’s POV, he posed with an audience member for a photo shoot. It was awkward and amusing at the same time. She was dressed in a period gown and hat and was basically the same height he was. He was good about cracking jokes to make her more comfortable and I think she looked like she was having fun up there.
The first day of RT I was a stressed out mess on the verge of a panic attack. It was really fucking loud, there were people everywhere, everyone seemed to know everyone else and Game 7 of Boston vs. Montreal was looming over my head. Attending some panels, bumping into people I knew and watching Boston choke like a bunch of Presidents Trophy winning chokers (but who’s bitter?) allowed me to settle in and enjoy the scene. I loved meeting people in person that I speak to online and I had some great chats with friends both new and old. RT was a super positive place, with everyone dressed up and complimenting each other, and there aren’t too many opportunities like that for women. Vibrant, novelty-colored hair is apparently a thing right now as I swear half of the attendees had hair colors not seen in nature. Ombre, streaks, highlights, lowlights – it was better than a salon portfolio of style ideas. (Pretty sure I was the only orange, though.) A lot of the swag was meh, but the USB with 600 free books as part of the registration was AWESOME. Huzzah for free books that we print disabled folks can use!
Being in New Orleans was a huge part of the fun, so I’m not sure about going to RT in Dallas next year. Panels only seemed to run from 10-12 and then 1:30-5 and the parties didn’t appeal to me as I’m just not an “organized fun” person. In New Orleans I got to spend my non RT time eating beignets, drinking a bloody mary and walking around the French Quarter with my husband. I’m sure Dallas is a lovely city, but I doubt the Dallas Hyatt is in as walkable an area and you know the food won’t compare. If I could travel solo, I’d probably just go. I need to travel with the husband, however, and it’s going to be hard to sell him on a week of loafing around Dallas. So, we’ll see.
I had a lot of fun at RT and I’m really glad I went. Cool people, awesome city, great food and romance novels. B+