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Is 4th Street Fantasy Convention a Dupe for Viable Paradise?
When it comes to writing workshops that center science fiction and fantasy, Viable Paradise is held in great esteem—right up there with Clarion and Odyssey. For a week every October, twenty-four students chosen by audition meet to workshop a section of writing, learn from lecturers, and bond in the hopes of becoming better writers.
This is an experience that many writers describe as a turning point. Or a jump-start. Or a galvanization. But every year as the tuition price rises higher and higher, this much-beloved workshop becomes—cough—a non-viable option for the majority of Americans. Are there any options for those who can’t afford the tuition?
My Viable Paradise Journey
I attended Viable Paradise in 2016. Back then, the tuition (which doesn’t include airfare, room and board, or other travel related expenses) was $1300.
This might be the opposite of your experience, but three days before submissions closed for the year, I had inadvertently googled “writing workshop New England” and found out about the workshop. (Thankfully I had worked on MFA applications the autumn before, so I had pages ready to go.) At the time I applied, I didn’t know a goddamned thing about Viable Paradise. Who were these VP people? I asked myself. I hadn’t read any of the instructors’ work before applying. (In 2016, the instructor lineup was fairly different than it is now—a grizzled crew with some who had been published since the early 80s.) So I handed $1300 to people I didn’t know, who had published books I hadn’t read, on the off chance that maybe this writing workshop would lead me closer to the nexus that is ✨writerly career fulfillment.✨
As a twenty-four year old, I felt utter terror when I paid that giant sum out of pocket, worrying that it would be the stupidest purchase I would ever make. I believe at the time I was making $15 an hour. My parents didn’t support me in my writing, and they had always pushed an anxiety of money onto me, as though financial security could (and probably would!) be ripped away at any moment.
The problem with putting down a giant sum of money is that, well, all you can do is hope it will be worth it. You hope it won’t be a scam. You hope you won’t feel like a total idiot when it’s all over.
So was it worth it? Yes! I think. At the time, $1300 (plus lodging) felt like a sickening amount of money to spend on myself. But because of the nature of the investment—into creating relationships with other writers, allowing myself to affirm that yes I am a writer and that is valuable (after being rejected from nine MFA programs), and becoming part of a larger network of “alumni” of Viable Paradise, many of which have become my friends—I can’t think of a better way I could’ve spent the money. (It’s not like $1300 could get me out of renting. And I’m fine with my Macbook pro from 2012.)
But the price isn’t $1300 anymore. It’s $2450. And, odds are, it will only continue to go up.
(If you’re currently shouting, “but it’s so much cheaper than Clarion! Or Odyssey! Or an MFA!” – sure, I agree with you. But those aren’t financially accessible to most either.)
Paradise… but at what price?
If the tuition to VP had been $2450 when I applied, I don’t think I would have gone. If I balked at $1300, I’m just not sure I could’ve justified the expense at $2450. It’s a viscerally frightening number. And it definitely makes me think of that Federal Reserve survey, which found that nearly 4 in 10 Americans didn’t have $400 in savings, and nearly 1 in 5 didn’t have $100.
So Viable Paradise is not for the bottom half of America. And honestly, maybe I should’ve realized that sooner. People who attend Viable Paradise are (generally), very fancy yuppies. They are white collar workers, many of them in tech. In my class, there was representation from very large corporate brands–people who worked for Apple, Google, Amazon, and Nordstrom. In positions that made them good money. That may be the majority of people that can afford to go to VP.
And that makes me… sad. Diversity is important, isn’t it? Look, I like educated, money-secure people as much as the next person, but what about aspiring writers who don’t fit that schematic? What if they were really good and they also wanted that affirmation and camaraderie that so many of us found at VP… but they were poor? Or even like, lower middle class?
If there was one thing that I thought VP could do to assist people who were not in this high class of earners, I think it would be to have two sessions a year—one being virtual. Theoretically, a virtual event would save attendees travel costs, lodging costs, and possibly cut down on tuition. They would only need to get enough time off of work to attend. (Which is its own problem, but it would definitely widen the pool. And they could also have some of the lectures be pre-recorded to watch at a later date.) But a virtual VP has yet to happen. There are two partial scholarships for people of color, but there are no scholarships for people-who-are-poor.
There is one benefit to the alumni of VP being so well-moneyed, which is that the alumni are willing to lend a hand (or a virtual $30) to people who get into VP. If you get into Viable Paradise and you are worried about funds, by god, do yourself a favor and post about it on Twitter. And on the VP slack. Start yourself a gofundme or some such and see what you can get. I’ve seen thousands of dollars fund in days to get people to VP.
So maybe Viable Paradise is tenable for people-who-are-poor. If they get lucky, apply early, and the alumni care to smile upon them. But is there another option?
Consider, as an alternative, 4th Street Fantasy Convention
Last June I attended 4th Street Fantasy Convention for the… fifth year in a row? (We’re ignoring the covid years.) 4th Street Fantasy is a small, single-track convention held in the Doubletree Hilton at Park Place in Minneapolis. (Single-track meaning there is one schedule of panels happening—no difficult choices.) With attendance capped at 200 persons, and a single track, the convention offers an intimate deep-dive into fantasy for readers and writers alike. The panels are thoughtful analyses of the fantasy genre, great for writers looking for more of a 201 level rather than a 101. And the facet of 4th Street that I find most compelling is that the panelists are very frequently the same people instructing at Viable Paradise.
For alumni of VP, this may be of no surprise to you. The instructors of VP are a tight-knit group of friends who also (at least in part) run the 4th Street Fantasy convention. Many volunteers at 4th Street are alumni of VP, as well. If you are looking for many of the aspects of Viable Paradise, but you just don’t think you can afford the tuition, 4th Street Fantasy might be the bang for your buck you’re looking for.
((Special thanks to Alec and Kelly for numbers regarding hotel rooms. 💖))
(Special thanks to Erik for a description of the most up to date Viable Paradise meal situation.)
There are differences between what you get, between 4th Street and Viable Paradise, obviously. 4th Street is a 200-person (max), single-track convention, which usually doesn’t have a workshop element, or the intimacy of a small group of twenty-four. 4th Street may be less bougie, as it’s not on Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s not an audition-only workshop like Viable Paradise is. Going to 4th Street Fantasy may not have the “prestige” of VP, but in many ways it is similar.
In both venues, you can make writerly friends who are interested in fantasy. (Unfortunately for science-fiction buffs, 4th Street does focus more on fantasy than it does on SF, but science-fiction certainly does come up during discussions. Most people are amenable to talking about it.) Viable Paradise might be more intimate, with more social bonding and a class-focused slack or discord guaranteed where you can interact with your new writerly comrades. But 4th Street also has a discord. (An official one and an unofficial one.) And while at 4th Street you can befriend people from many different places, including past VP classes—not just one group of 23 writers.
The real connection I began to see between 4th Street Fantasy and Viable Paradise is that they have a lot of overlap with their lecturers. The diagram below illustrates major speakers at 4th Street fantasy for the year 2023, as well as speakers who overlapped in both 4th Street and VP, and speakers who could only be found at VP.
Hopefully you can start to see what I mean from that diagram. There are so many writers of note who come to speak at 4th Street Fantasy—including many from Viable Paradise! There is no lack of intelligence at 4th Street Fantasy. Obviously, if you are going to Viable Paradise just because you really wanna get a 1-on-1 with Steven Gould, then yeah, I would recommend going to VP because you’re not going to get that at 4th Street. But otherwise? Comparable. There are dozens of writers at 4th Street who are more than willing to share writerly advice and guidance if asked nicely about it.
Depending on who you are, Viable Paradise is not necessarily a better deal than 4th Street. VP is a different experience with its own cons. For example, having to negotiate a full week off of work. Or that terrifying tuition price. Or the stress. (I, personally, found Viable Paradise to be stressful. Everyone was nice. I’m just a high stress person.) It has its own pros, too–mainly, coming with a guaranteed network of writerly people who are all in the same boat as you with regard to wanting to improve their craft.
If you are a writer with work you’re stuck on and you want to “take your work to the next level,” then, yes, Viable Paradise might be a better choice for you with its workshop element, 1-on-1 critique, and network of alumni. If you’re looking for an institution to pat you on the back and say you’re a good writer, it might also be the best choice. BUT. When I attended Viable Paradise, the instructors told us that the workshop wouldn’t teach us anything that we couldn’t learn elsewhere eventually. And this is true: You can learn writing anywhere. From craft books, workshops, seminars, or simply by doing.
Not being able to afford the Viable Paradise tuition doesn’t mean you won’t become just as great of a writer. You just might need to explore other options.
May I recommend 4th Street Fantasy?