Beam 07 : Hidden Ideologies

J O S E P H  N I C H O L A S

jnicholasSome Comments on Recent Fanzines

Introduction

That editors are committed to particular ideological positions (although they may not name them as such) is not in doubt.  (Editors should have ideologies, otherwise why publish?)  But I wish to argue here that the implicit nature of these positions has the effect of reducing responses to them to arguments over points of difference on the editors’ terrain instead of the fundamental challenges to which they should be subjected.  In my view, the editors thus conscript the respondents into both default acceptance of their ideologies and collusion in their advance.

I stress that I have no objection to ideology per se: I wish to see it foregrounded and acknowledged.  But I should enter a caveat: this is a preliminary sketch of a perceived situation, and the evidence selected to illustrate it is hence limited to a number of the most recent (and reasonably widely available) examples.  Consideration of all the potential evidence would almost certainly result in a document several tens of pages in length.  That may be a project for my retirement from full-time employment, now set for five months hence, so you never know….

The Arguments

Fan History

(A note before we start: depending on the writer, “fan history” variantly appears as either one word or two.  For consistency, all usages here adopt the two-word option.)

I have an awful feeling,” wrote Lilian Edwards in Chunga 21, “that…I might find [these zines] were all full of fan history.  I’ve expressed before my almost-loathing for how a fandom built however loosely around a literature of the future seems in recent years to have become obsessed with excavating and cataloguing its past.”  The quote is taken partly out-of-context — the rest of her (short) article concerns how old-fashioned and non-interactive a printed paper fanzine appears in today’s internetted world — but the comment is nevertheless apt.  What is this fascination with the Breendoggle, say, or how many people attended the supposedly legendary party in Room 770?

I declare an interest: I once wrote a fan history myself – a heavily ideological jaunt through the British fanzine fandom of the 1970s, depicting it as the eventual triumph of the trufans over the semi-literate hordes of the serconists.  A quarter of a century later, however, I had a different view; I quote myself thusly from the fourth and final issue of International Revolutionary Gardener:

[fan history] has no theory or ideology: it sees its purpose as the accurate accumulation of undisputed facts, with the aim of establishing an unchallengeable record of what happened when and to whom, without ever addressing the why or how … it presents us with merely an annotated chronology, offered to us in place of a coherent and structured narrative.”

Perhaps that’s as sweeping as my earlier venture into fan history, and as sweepingly negative as was previously sweepingly positive.  (In any case, I was more concerned with the virtues of the revisionist approach to history in general rather than fan history in particular.)  But sweeping overviews seem to be the norm in writing fan history — one picks one’s period, identifies the founding principles and the revolutionary moments, generates a narrative which tries to subsume all within it and ignores everything which doesn’t fit….and then chooses a name of a resonance intended to remind readers of Harry Warner’s comment about Sam Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm.  The Golden Age, the Trufan Rebellion, the Great TAFF War: periodisation, as it’s called in historical research and writing.

Periodisation in fan history recently reared up again in the shape of Andy Hooper’s (grandly-named) Chronology of Science Fiction Fan History, written in response to an attempt by Arnie Katz to overturn the numbered fandoms invented in the 1940s and 1950s.  Two versions of the chronology have appeared in his Flag, the second attempt being necessary to correct the errors in the first pointed out by the readers.  (As a matter of record, the revised chronology occupies two US quarto-sized pages in Flag 6, while the the list of corrections provided by the readers takes up almost three.)  The second attempt still contains errors (it lists me as a major 1970s fan, for instance, while omitting many other rather more notable British fans of the time), and Andy has since stated that that he may publish future versions online, so that they can be continuously corrected, expanded and updated.  (I suspect that were he to do that he’d find that he was the only person doing the correcting, expanding and updating, in the process turning what might have been a one-off chronology into a never-ending attempt to incorporate yet more personalities and events in a ramifying Linnaean taxonomic system.)

However, the principal objection to this particular exercise isn’t the errors which result from trying to survey British fandom from eight thousand miles away based on a partial selection of its fanzine output and/or those few of us who appeared in US fanzines.  The principal objection is the fact that the application of a common linear chronology to US and British fandoms acts to erase the differences (social, cultural, historical) between them and thus misrepresents the nature of their relationship by creating for them a shared past which for some periods and some groups simply didn’t exist.  For example, the chronology applies the label of the Trufan Rebellion to the 1970s, noting that the period was characterised by backlashes against the style of fan activity which had prevailed up to that point.  However, the lineaments of the rebellion in New York could not have been the same as those of 1970s London because the two fandoms had different motivations and were pursuing different goals — and had as their leading lights personalities who for much of the period were simply unaware of their trans-Atlantic counterparts.  (Never mind the also-rans such as myself – we were vaguely aware of a North American fanzine fandom somewhere “out there”, but saw little need to engage with it because our focus was British fanzine fandom and to what might be made of it.)  Indeed, even the label “Trufan Rebellion” is problematical – the US fans may have thought of themselves, at the time, as trufans, but did the Rats and the Gannets?

The number of the chronology’s dissonances — that is, the number of periods in which the same name is applied to the English-language fandoms on both sides of the Atlantic despite the fact that they were pursuing different aims and ends — could be multiplied, but the point is the same.  The chronology’s implied ideological proposition that events and personalities unique to British and US fandoms can be subsumed into a larger English language schema is therefore false, and to merely offer corrections to it — as many fans did; as, indeed, I did — is to fail to challenge that.

A Digression: The Use of Colour

Lilian Edwards’s article in Chunga 21 complained about the Web 1.0 rather than Web 2.0 appearance of electronic fanzines:

generally, in web 1.0, people took hard copy text – e.g. company glossy brochures, university prospectuses, manuals — and stuck them up in HTML.  They were passive and static texts and mostly people never read them and they went horribly out of date.  In Web 2.0, social media emerged and information became dynamic and interactive (and searchable and contextual) … e-zines are usually, in my experience, basically PDFs of hard copy zines posted on e-fanzines.com.” 

One obvious question might be why people publish as a PDF something which never appeared in paper form, but only as page templates on a computer monitor; the obvious answer is that this allows them to be published in full colour, which would otherwise be ruinously expensive.  Some of what appears on Bill Burns’s efanzines site is quite remarkable – anything edited or designed by Peter Young leaps to mind: his Big Sky 1, which appeared in March this year, and the three issues of Journey Planet he guest-edited could almost be object lessons in how to design fanzines to make the fullest possible use of the tools the software provides (it’s also noteworthy that, although published as a PDF, Big Sky was formatted specifically to be read on a rectangular screen).  But some of what appears on the e-fanzines site has clearly been assembled by people whose only idea of “publishing in colour” seems to be to use as many different colours as possible, in whatever eye-searing mix they can manage.  Arnie Katz’s Fanstuff, for example (for a terrible example).

If this was a KTF review, I would now be exploding in flames and saying that words alonezine pic cannot for one moment describe how awful it looks.  Actually, words alone cannot describe how awful it looks – whatever talents Arnie may have, graphic design isn’t one of them.  Reading between the lines of “My Favourite Four-Color Flops” in Fanstuff 36 suggests that his colour design principles have been lifted wholesale from the superhero comics he says he discovered in the 1950s, which if so might be the inspiration behind the flat slabs of bright colour (sometimes pastel, sometimes not) with contrastingly coloured lettering which make up both his front pages and the title pages of the various articles in each issue – a terrible assault on the visual senses (the acid colours of a superhero comic may fade with time, but those of a PDF never will).  One can’t read an issue in other than short bursts because they make one’s eyes swim.  Did no one ever suggest to him that, to appropriate an old advertising slogan, less may actually be more?

Theories of Fandom

Lilian Edwards should look away now, because fan history makes up a good chunk of Fanstuff’s content — whether to create a Tucker Award, whether F Towner Laney was a homophobe, Dick Lupoff’s memoirs, Andy Hooper on “archaeofanac” or fanzines of the past, a discussion of famous fannish crises of the past (such as the Breendoggle — again), and quite a lot of stuff addressing the obviously terribly important question of the nature of Insurgentism.  That is, a quasi-movement which appears to have been invented by F Towner Laney in the 1940s and the principles of which include amongst other things thinking and acting for yourself, distrust of fan politics, and not being pseudo-Campbellian (i.e., not putting a price on the cover of your fanzine).  Well, all right, the last is a bit trivial – but my jaw drops at the idea that it should be thought worth restating these principles getting on for three-quarters of a century later, as a model for fan activity in the present.  If the principles of Insurgentism are to be revived at all, then it should surely be via a re-interrogation of them, framed in the revisionist light of the present; a genuine historical reassessment, in other words.  A blank restatement of them is more-or-less an invitation to resubscribe to them – and, judging by the letter column, that’s just what the respondents do.  Challenge is entirely absent (ironically so, given Insurgentism’s instruction to think and act for oneself).

Rather more insidious than this, however, are the references to and reverence for Trufandom which permeate each issue, even though Arnie never expressly sets down in print what he means by this term.  We get instead statements such as that in Fanstuff 29 that “Trufandom will continue to have a tight connection to its own fan history and traditions” (the traditions being of course assumed rather than spelled out), editorial exhortations on the title page such as “it’s more fun in the game than on the sidelines” and “fandom is a way of life, not life itself” (aphorisms at best, merely gnomic rhubarbing otherwise), and peculiar predictions that by 2023 Trufandom will have become a subset of Science Fiction Fandom (sic) which in turn will be a subset of Pop Culture Fandom (which in Arnie’s view seems to encompass everything but science fiction — which if so would violate set theory: a fandom cannot be both a subset and not a subset of another).  The implied exclusiveness of this Trufandom model should be obvious, but there are two clear lessons one takes from its covert advance herein: firstly, that trufandom is the only legitimate fan activity; and secondly, that trufans are to be considered as equivalent to an elect, all others being lesser mortals without the temple.  (Another irony, given Insurgentism’s instruction that fan groups should not seek to interfere with the activities of others.)  Here again, the letter-writers offer no dissenting view – are they asleep?  Do they realise what they’re being invited to endorse?  Or are they lockstep loyalists to a version of the old Soviet Union’s democratic centralism, in which the politburo decided and the party executed its commands in the name of the proletariat?

Another Digression: Frequency of Publication

Electronic publication has to a great extent abolished the idea of a publication schedule – one can now publish what and when one likes, as the mood dictates, without worrying about page-count and (of course) costs.  Unfortunately, this has tended to have a thumpingly negative effect on the actual quality of what is published, tempting people to rush into print the moment an idea strikes, without giving it time to develop further, without considering whether it might be better expressed if approached in another light, and perhaps without considering whether it’s worth publishing at all.  Against that, of course, self-publication has always allowed scope for rubbish to flourish — those with a longer fannish presence than mine may have seen the fanzines (“PADSzines”) produced by the Printing and Distribution Service established (nominally under the BSFA umbrella) by Charles Platt in the 1960s to cater for would-be publishers who had no access to printing facilities of their own: they sent in their stencils, he duplicated them, no one can recall a remotely readable document ever emerging from the process.

Enthusiasm might be thought a possible counterweight to this, of course: if you can convey a sense of excitement and commitment about what you’re doing, it might override the appearance of haste and the sense of incompleteness which attends the writing.  This may be the default attitude of Chris Garcia, who seems to publish a new issue of The Drink Tank every week and is now up to his 356th issue, which begins thus:

JN03So, this issue is kinda packed!  First, I should mention that the cover is from that old disk drive I have saved so many things off of!  It’s from the amazing Selina Phanara, an artist who I say is one of the best reason to go to Loscon art shows!  She’s awesome!  That piece down below is a Mo Starkey.  I’m shocked there is art that I haven’t used on that old machine!  Wild!” 

Wild indeed – a grammatical infelicity in the second sentence, a typo in the third, and one reaches the end of the paragraph almost too enervated to continue.  Has he never heard of proof-reading?  Has he disabled the spell-checker on his PC?  What is responsible for the apparent belief that he shouldn’t try to do better by his readers, that it is acceptable to give them something this slipshod?

The following statements, also from the 356th issue, are strictly sic:

SO, this issue is about the Hugos (and more LoCs than I’ve had in YEARS!) and fandom and costuming and such and stuf! … I love takign pics of people at museums because they have a weird way of interacting with exhibits! … To me, that’s an utter and complete sham of an award and are indicitive of why there is so little gleam to the Grammies … Though, admittedly, both have many other memersip benefits … You may note at no point do I say we only need The Right People voting, I’d like to see us increase who does the voting, and I’d like to see more young voters especially, but no matter what, Administrators need to manage that like they do in other awards.”

The last sentence doesn’t parse.  But then this is clearly a PADSzine.  In colour.  With lots and lots (and lots) of exclamation marks.

The Fan Hugos

Arnie Katz’s Fanstuff, mentioned earlier, appears quite frequently.  So does Taral Wayne’s Broken Toys, although (as one might expect, given his artist background) it’s considerably cleaner-looking and better laid out.  As a personalzine, it’s the usual mixture of stuff, much of which reads like someone looking back over their life (not surprising, given that he recently entered his seventh decade) and setting down for others’ benefit the things he remembers with the most pleasure – tales of his fossil-hunting boyhood, for example, the trials and triumphs of collecting particular favourite authors (Isaac Asimov, in this case), thoughts on catching up with box sets of old TV series from his youth, alongside a little bit of fan history (some Canadian, some not – such as Bob Tucker again) and (this year) a considerable amount of whingeing about the current state of fandom.  The particular issue which seems to have exercised him most is what he clearly believes is the traducing of the fan artist Hugo by nominations for a jewellery maker and a wannabe semi-pro (the semi-pro won, perhaps following a campaign not unlike that run by Phil Foglio when he took the fan artist Hugo in the 1970s), and leaving Taral beside himself with rage that old mate Steve Stiles had been overlooked yet again.  Why haven’t the Hugo administrators Done Something to prevent this, he wants to know.  These people have no real link with fandom, he avers.  They sell their stuff at conventions for M-O-N-E-Y, which just Proves Things.  (He made the same points at the same length in The Drink Tank, too.)

I remember some very similar carrying-on (by others) when a podcast was nominated for a best fanzine Hugo some years back.  I can’t recall whether or not it won, but the issue here isn’t whether something other than a painting or a drawing, or a sheaf of printed paper, was nominated but the bafflement and anger expressed by many older fans both that such could be regarded as a legitimate fan activity and that the Hugo Administrators had somehow failed to apply “the rules” correctly – i.e., to exclude these upstarts and interlopers from Hugo consideration altogether.  To which one answer might be that an award which fails to recognise the changes in the artistic endeavours it’s honouring (for example, the splitting of the Dramatic Presentation award into long and short forms, a similar split for best editors, and so on) is an award which will rapidly lose its relevance.  Another answer is that art encompasses a great deal more than a two-dimensional representation of a spaceship or a furry humanoid (perhaps that should be non-representation, given that neither actually exist in reality) – what about sculpture?  Textiles?  Music and song?  Stained glass?  Even (horrors) jewellery?

In this case, however, we are being invited to agree that there can be only one form of fan art, with the invitation being based on an oversight and a misdirection.  The oversight is the omission (calculated? who knows) of all the other forms that art can take, and the misdirection is the irrelevant, non-sequitur assertion that these people can’t be fan artists because they’re not proper fans.  I have failed to note anyone in his letter columns making these points.

A Third Digression: Trip Reports

It will have been noticed that in recent years there’s been a sharp upswing (in percentage terms) of the number of British fans visiting US Corflus.  (We’ve been to two, in 1988 and 1990, and were the only British fans present.  Strictly speaking, I was the only British fan present.)  This has in turn been responsible for the publication of reports of these visits, by various fans, some of them de-gafiated revenants last seen in the 1970s (Rob Jackson, Mike Meara, the Charnocks).  The one thing many of these reports share is their length and level of detail – detail about the convention, the hotel, the conversations, the road trips before and after, the scenery, the weather, the wines sampled, the souvenirs bought, the problems with the hire car companies, the colour of the toilet paper, the complexity of the walking route to the restaurant or the comic shop…. it is mind-numbing.  Literally: one plods dutifully through a ten or twelve-page report of someone’s “adventures” in a potentially interesting corner of the New World, and reaches the end feeling so hosed down with facts and factoids that one has no more idea of the new terrain than at the start.  Where, oh where, is the editing?

All parts of these trips were undoubtedly of interest to their authors – but it does not follow that their readers will be equally as interested in everything they did or saw, or that everything should be regarded as of equal value and importance.  Without differentiation, none of it will stand out; it will be the same grey meh.  What’s needed here is for the material to be approached as though it needed some fictionalising, so that it is turned into an actual narrative, as opposed to merely dumping the contents of their trip diary (probably written up on their laptops every evening) into an e-mail and banging it off to their editor of choice.  Yes, it would take more work; but yes, it would be much more readable.  And shorter.

As I’ve said several times elsewhere, I blame the longer and longer length of the books and trip reports set before us on the fact that no one now has to physically type words onto paper.  Once, the very act of having to hand-correct a manuscript and then type out a second copy helped to impose concision, and forced writers to focus on selecting the right words to convey the mood; now, authors can just add words, and then more words, and then yet more words, until their hard drives are full and they have to buy another.  Stop, for heaven’s sake!  Less can be more!

Some Conclusions

A further quote from Lilian Edwards’s article in Chunga 21, on the non-interactivity of traditional fanzines.  She discusses the various things which might be tried to “optimise” fanzines for Web 2.0 (hypertext links, comment facilities, FB feeds, Retweet buttons, mobile and iPad apps), acknowledges that it would take a lot more work than uploading a PDF, but then offers this analysis:

[The fanzine hard core] mostly don’t like FB and aren’t on Twitter as far as I can tell … A lot of them are retired and have time to read a zine and sit around and think about it and write a loc over a few weeks maybe.  But the modern world is interconnected and fast and short of time and so will be the modern fan.  By hiving e-zines off to a standalone ghetto of efanzines.com fanzine fandom has rebuilt for itself an electronic ghetto as removed from mainstream ‘fannish’ life as technology used to be from ‘mundane’ life.  In an era where the geek is king and where all the things we used to be reviled for – sf, technology, nerdishness – have become the new black, it seems really sad that fanzines seem to have become ever more semi-detached.”

FLAG ZINE PICThe obvious conclusion that everyone reaches for at such moments in an argument is that Fanzines Are Dying – except that fanzines have been dying almost since they were born, as fan groups dissolve and vanish, leading editors gafiate, promised final issues never appear, and chaos generally reigns.  But I would suggest that at this particular moment of fanzine history there really is an emerging split between the old and the new, between what Lilian called the “post-millennial generation” of fans who use Web 2.0 and the “pre-millennial” generation which does not.  An illustration of this split may be seen in the Fanzine Countdown on the back page of every issue of Andy Hooper’s Flag, listing the fanzines he’s received since the previous issue: study it as hard as you like, but the number of new editorial names which appear therein is so low as to be non-existent.

Another conclusion – which will almost certainly be much more tendentious – is that the focus on fan history one finds in a number of fanzines, taken together with attempts to promote the virtues of a particular form of fan activity and defence of the fan Hugos, is less about fan history per se than an attempt to protect and promote an older model of fandom (a model which may be perceived in some quarters as under threat of extinction from the baying hordes without the citadel – aka Pop Culture Fandom, probably) and, through that, to validate their own role in it.  (If Pop Culture Fandom is ignoring them, the argument might run, at least their friends might listen.)  It might therefore follow – and this is probably even more tendentious – that the elisions and omissions noted in the various ideological positions outlined above might have been selected specifically to force respondents to debate the issues on the terrain favoured by their authors, thus excluding any challenges to them.

But (as I said at the start) this is a preliminary sketch rather than a fully stated case, and one consequence is that my evidence base is narrow – indeed, I may have chosen my evidence to support my conclusions rather than permitted them to rise naturally from the data.  But on the other hand, no one now undertakes research without having some specific goal in mind. 

What’s yours?

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