There’s This Thing Called “Fandom”…

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Every morning, after making coffee, feeding the dog and making up my notes for the day, I sit down and read File 770’s latest posts.

I used to read the NY Times first thing in the morning.  When I still lived with my parents, this was cause for my mother to banish me from the breakfast table:  “no one needs to hear your bullshit this early in the morning” was close to the way she put it if memory serves.

That paper was almost always guaranteed to get me off to a fine, snarly, life sucks and now I have to deal with it, attitude for the day.

Which is why I eventually switched to File 770.  Almost always guaranteed to get me off to a fine, happy, pun-sensistive, aww look at the cute cat (why are they reading that?), positively fannish start to the day.

(If the references confuse you, it is obvious that you do not read File 770 every morning.)

This is not however, despite evidence to the contrary, a promotional piece for Mike ‘Big Bionic Heart’ Glyer’s daily blog, nor his fanzine, which has won 12 Hugo Awards for either Best Fanzine or Best Fan Writer, plus at least two other awards – a special committee award and the Big Heart (just this year),  That’s some contrary evidence, huh?

(If the references confuse you, it is obvious that you have much to learn about fandom.)

No, this post is about the ever eroding, perhaps soon to be forgotten, sub-culture and society known as “Fandom”.

Not “a fandom”.

THE Fandom.

The Fandom that started, perhaps as early as April 1st, 1926, when Amazing Stories was first placed on the stands.  The Fandom that certainly started on December 11th, 1929, when a group of “kids” got together for the first meeting of the Scienceers club, the Fandom that created fanzines (and glommed on to APAs), the Fandom that created “literary” conventions (the first ones taking place in 1936 and 1937), that led to the first Worldcon in 1939 and the Fandom that is directly responsible for just about every formal and informal expression of geek and nerd culture we are familiar with today – from comics (where’d Superman come from?  [Super Hero comics] The minds of two Fans – Siegel and Schuster – who jointly published what may have been the first fanzine),  to media fandom,  (what saved Star Trek and helped get it to the point that it would justify it’s own fan following?  Two fans – the Trimbles – who met under the Number One Fan’s piano at a party, helped revive one of the oldest clubs (LASFS) and worked on both fanzines and conventions), to the UFO sub-culture, (what helped make UFOs a thing during the 50s and 60s?  [Not that we’re all that proud of this.]  A fan – Palmer – who was an early member of one of the first clubs and may have also edited the first fanzine), to monster movie madness, (what elevated Horror films and monster movie magic to incredible levels of popularity?  A fan – Ackerman – and his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland).

I could go on with other examples, from “Makers” to “My Little Pony” (and that’s just the ‘M’s), but from what I’ve laid out already, it should be dawning on the uninitiated that this “Fandom” has been a lot more influential than they’d realized.  Those listed above and other off-shoots of the original Fandom have created the geek landscape we inhabit these days, ComicCons, AnimeCons, FurryCons, fanzines serving other arts, and on and on.

Fandom created an environment that gave “adults” permission to obsess over “childish pursuits”.  Once others saw that it was OK to walk around a hotel looking like someone who belonged on the set of Metropolis (Morojo’s “futuricostume” for 4SJ – the birth of Cosplay, another geeky thing Fandom started), it was all over but the shouting of “Smooooooth!”

But perhaps I ought to back off a little and give a little foundational information.

The 3rd iteration of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia (put together and maintained by Fans, btw) identifies Fandom as –

“The active readership of sf and fantasy, maintaining contacts through Fanzines and Conventions.”

Not to be pedantic, but I want to note that not only is this a good starting definition of Fandom, it also pointedly does not mention any media other than the writtten word – not TV, not film, not the graphic arts, nor costuming, nor audio works.  Only reading.

That begins to sound exclusive until you remember all of the offshoots I’ve mentioned previously.  On the other hand, it is an important aspect of Fandom.

First – remember the era in which Fandom began.  The first commercial radio broadcast had only taken place a handful of years before Fandom started.  Television was a futuristic wonder, nearly three decades away.  Talkies (films with synced audio) were just hitting the movie theaters.  “Superheroes” would not exist for another decade.  There wasn’t much else for them to do but read (and make the occasional mail rocket) and write and publish, and then get together and talk about reading and writing and publishing.

Second – without putting too fine a point on it, and with the exception of illustration – all of those other media are “derivative” in nature, at least insofar as their basic underpinnings are concerned.  You don’t have a play, or a radio play, or a teleplay, or a movie script or a comic book or a graphic novel, without the story.  You don’t get Cosplay or actors to revere without the characters they portray or depict and you don’t get those characters without…writing.

(This basic requirement for entertainment of all kinds is probably the reason why most writers remain vastly undervalued;  everyone NEEDS them, but no one dares let them know how important they are.)

There’s one other thing about the Fans who established Fandom that needs mentioning.

Fandom amalgamated around the shared interests of the readers of science fiction and fantasy, but it cemented because those individuals needed a social outlet.

To a person, they all felt like (and largely were) outcasts from the mainstream.  Science Fiction was not then the marginally well-regarded souce of Hollywood blockbusters and most successful televisions shows it has become today.  Most everyone thought that its readers ought to be ASHAMED to admit that they read that crap.  Spaceships and beings from other worlds were nothing but the fever dreams of people who were not right in the head, despite the daily wonders of early 20th century industrialization.  Hairy palms.  THAT’S what you got from reading that stuff.

Early fans were marginalized – self or otherwise – and early on they learned that if they were going to have friends and companions to share their passions with, they were going to have to dismiss the artificial societal barriers of race and class and religion.  It was enough for someone – anyone – to express an interest in Science Fiction, to gain initial, perhaps grudging and certainly provisional, acceptance to the community.  (Why grudging and provisional?  Because they had to make sure that the individual was really a Fan.)

And one more thing.  Once Fandom had gotten through its initial formation and figured out that it was an actual thing, it realized that it had a mission.  Science Fiction was about envisioning the future.  So far as the fans were concerned, it was doing a mighty fine job.  Perhaps, they thought, Science Fiction could be used not only to envision but to influence, to shape, perhaps even to create the kind of future we all ought to be living in.

What kind of future might that be?

If you’ve read the early works of the genre, you will have at least some inkling.  It is a future possessed of intelligent and self-aware robots, a fully inhabited and very diverse solar system, vast galactic empires, aliens smarter, more advanced and wiser than ourselves, one-world governments, a near absence of religion, technologies both tremendous and accessible, along with one other thing.  The basic underlying assumption of nearly all Science Fiction written and read during those early years was this:  the future would be better. It would be kinder, it would be gentler, it would be more understanding, more adventurous.  It would certainly be fraught with peril – stepping into the unknown is kind of like that – but nothing that our erstwhile, well-educated, fit and healthy, well-adjusted and generally happy descendents could not handle with confidence.  (I am of course eliding the fact that their future was largely envisioned as anglo, white male, Euro-centric, but I would like to believe that if the genre had been as diverse back then as it is now – which we know is not yet representative enough but is on the path –  and owing to the basic values the early fans expressed, that their future would have been envisioned as diverse and open as we would like to see it become.)

These assumptions – that the future could be shaped by envisioning it and that doing so with positivity would naturally lead to a positive future – along with the influences I’ve mentioned earlier, form the underpinnings of what we know today as “Traditional Science Fiction Fandom”.  (The fact that it needs to be delineated in such a way is evidence of its erosion.)

Take a look around.  So far as the envisioning part goes, those early Fans were right.  We’re living in their future (most of the early fans ended up writing or editing in the field).

So far as the positive part goes, not so much.  It’s one thing to put the idea out there and another to turn it into a reality.  One thing that greatly impacts that transition is money.

The early Fans had none.  At the time, hardly anyone did.  It was the time of the Great Depression.  Owing to the economic circumstances and their desire to express themselves creatively, Fans figured out all kinds of different ways to get by AND follow their passions.  They pooled resources, they “volunteered” their services to each other, they begged, borrowed and stole.

They learned that they could follow their passions largely without taking the economics into consideration.  Somehow, they’d keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table (even if it was only rice for a month) and meanwhile, the important work would get done, the future would provide.

They also learned that when the economics are taken into consideration, the dream gets distorted.  It may not get distorted in a bad way (though that’s usually the case to one degree or another), but it does get distorted.  And this bothered them.  The art was more important than the money (you could make money digging ditches, but in most cases doing so wasn’t art); fanzine publishers didn’t  measure their “success” by how many paid subscriptions they’d gathered, they gauged their success by the quantity and quality of the letters of comment they received from other Fans.  Sure, you had to bring in something in order to keep going, but, you know, if worse came to worse when it was time to roll out the next issue, someone could always be counted on to cough up a few stencils, print if off on credit, figure out a way to get a few dollars into your pocket.

The import was associated with the quality of the work, the amount of effort given to the community.  Fannish credibility and import were based on the merits of contributions to Fandom, not any other measure.

And those are many of the reasons why Fandom has evolved the way that it has, and may also be the reason why it it is, perhaps “eroding” is the best word, today.

Some of these early underpinnings of Fandom are finding great expression these days.  Our community’s push for greater openness and diversity is, to all appearances, leading the arts these days.  Those who argue that it still has a long way to go are absolutely correct.  But those concepts have found fertile ground and they are growing.

Other concepts though, not so much.  The community is under a lot of pressure to take economic factors into greater consideration.  Potential fans are encouraged by greater society to measure the success and importance of something based on the size of numbers and/or the dollars those numbers generate.  This media convention sees over one hundred thousand attendees on a weekend, why “waste time” on this other event that’s never had more than 7,000?  Why did that thing get an award when these other things’ authors made so much more money?  How come they don’t charge for autographs – if the stars can’t make money they’re not going to show up, why do they say they want greater diversity yet seem so standoffish?  Why….

Because Fandom has grown up being about doing it’s thing regardless of what the mundane world thinks about it, how it should run itself and regardless of whether or not it is viewed as a success or a failure.

The one thing that Fandom still has to learn to do is to communicate with the “outside” world.   The opening up of geek culture has created legions of proto fans, but we’re not getting to them.  Their first exposure to something resembling Fandom is usually a large, greatly hyped and marketed event that is internally devoted to making money.  Not to building and maintaining a unique community.

There’s nothing wrong with that by itself;  putting on an event that allows people to gather and share their enjoyment of fantastical things.  They also serve as safety valves, drawing in a lot of people who would not make for good “Fans”; fellow travelers, sure, but not TruFans, letting them enjoy their nerd interests in a safe environment, without negatively impacting Fandom.

If Fandom wants to grow (which it must in order to survive as its own unique thing), it now has to take the next step.  It’s poised to do so.  The past several years has seen it weather serious attacks and emerge stronger and more energetic.  Fandom has to step outside of itself and into the world of proto fans;  it has to figure out ways to get its messages into those larger media events and skim off the cream.

We can no longer rely on the old method of slow accretion, of waiting for Fans to find Fandom.  We have to go out there and show Fandom to them.  The ones for whom Fandom is a good fit will make the way through the door, but we’ve got to open it up for them.  Better marketing of our conventions, a “Fan presence” at large media cons, programming geared towards informing new Fans of their origins and presenting Fandom as an actual thing with a history and a purpose.

“Eroding” was not the correct word.  It should have been “Poised”.  On the brink of slow dissolution or perhaps its greatest opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

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