|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2008-9|
Against the Graying of Fandom
That’s probably a strange place to start an article about Fandom. Even stranger when I’ve made it clear that I’m going to be taking on one of the biggest assumptions in Fandom: that Fandom is getting older. But I promise you, it’ll all come clear by the end.
So I’ve also got to lay something else on the table. I don’t have the hard numbers. I can’t prove empirically that Fandom is safely and securely young enough to continue beyond my own lifetime. But I’ll offer all the anecdotal evidence I can muster, including a few attempts to trace attitudes about the graying of Fandom among the generations. Sometimes, I’ll cite folks anonymously. This could be for one of two reasons. The first is that I can’t recall exactly who said something, and don’t feel the need to go look it up. Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter that much. The second is that some things I’ve been told were somewhat private (How private, for instance, is a conversation in a consuite?), and I wish to err on the side of respecting that whenever possible. When folks have repeatedly and publicly said something (especially in print), I don’t mind using their names, but not all of the attitudes I want to discuss come into the open quite that much.
I will hopefully demonstrate to you that Fandom is not getting older, it’s just not happening in all of the same places that it did twenty years ago. We’re out there, forming clubs, running cons, and having a fannish good time. Take a look.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve heard maybe as early as the 60s, fans began worrying about a trend in Fandom towards an older average age. The worry seems to be that if this trend were to be too pronounced and prolonged, there soon wouldn’t be any young fans left, and then Fandom would shrivel up and die. I find this hard to believe about the 60s, as it was the dawn of an era of massive influx for Fandom – Tolkien, Star Trek, and Star Wars each brought great big helpings of new fans to the table.
So many new fans, in fact, that there were complaints about these being barbarian invasions. While this wasn’t the first such time in Fandom’s history, it was certainly among the more significant manifestations of the phenomenon. The “barbarian invasions” have continued, of course, and it’s not hard to consider a Fandom without the three aforementioned interests, let alone gaming, anime, furries, and the various creations of Joss Whedon. Along with art, comics, costuming, computer games, and a host of smaller interests, there’s a lot to be discussed aside from the traditional written fiction and mimeographed fanzines. Fandom is a much more diverse environment than it was fifty years ago.
This has, in some circles, created a backlash. When the suggestion is raised that a convention should include interests beyond books and zines, and oh, okay, maybe an art show, the cry will go up that those other interests attract folks who aren’t “real” fans, who aren’t the sort of folks the established fans want to hang out with, and that it will lead to things like the Boskone from Hell, Dripclave, and any of a thousand other misfortunes. Size, say the established fans, isn’t the only indicator of the health of a convention, and may not be any indicator at all.
And yes, I know there’s something ironic about looking first to the conventions for the future of Fandom while writing a fanzine article, but I think that, given their tendency to advertise outside of closed circles of Fandom, they stand the best chance of attracting new fans. Clubs may attract members by word of mouth or perhaps through localized advertising (bookstores, local weeklies, and the like), and zines by beingpassed from one person to another (with online linking significantly improving that situation), but conventions feel a need to self-promote, and tend to do so enthusiastically (or die off due to gafiation). It is the convention which is most self-consciously involved in finding new fans.
So if size isn’t an indicator of the health of a convention, what is? The common answer from those fans who want to stem the barbarian tide seems to be that it’s how much they can personally enjoy the convention. That’s fine, but if your personal enjoyment is largely tied to seeing the same people year after year, and nothing else is motivation for participating in the con, it will eventually fade away. Perhaps it’s a function of being young, but I still enjoy making new friends, even if we don’t talk exclusively about the specific things I enjoy most. Hell, I appreciate broad conversations. Hopefully there’s nothing wrong with that. While the attitude that size, and ultimately the convention, can be sacrificed in the name of a temporarily more enjoyable convention is viable for any given con, it is not compatible with the complaint that Fandom itself is graying, and that this must be dealt with. Some conventions must periodically grow large, and it is best if these are conventions with plenty of overlap with other conventions (as well as a strong presence for other fanac). A convention in isolation, no matter how large, does very little for Fandom as a whole.
And to what degree are the “barbarians” a bad thing? I’ve spokenwith plenty of other conrunning fans, and very rarely do I hear that they initially came to Fandom directly through an isolated interest in written SF. I’ve met some who started with Star Trek, filk, the SCA, anime, or, as I did, gaming. Others, I’m sure, had broad interests that seemed to converge in Fandom, and once they attended that first con, they had found home. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the period between the first time I attended a convention and the first time I went to any sort of event other than gaming and parties was three years, and that change was entirely because of being hung-over enough that the panel room was a good place to sit with plenty of water and no sunlight. But it turned out to be a lot of fun, too.
So, assuming we accept that these young fans are out there, have interests other than written SF that are often more prominent than their nascent interests in written SF, are capable of being brought into the fold of Fandom as a whole, and ought to be, how should this be accomplished? Well, for one, a break with the attitudes of superiority would help.
I reckon fanzines would have a lot more appeal to young folks if they didn’t do so much to reinforce the idea of their readers and creators as a proud, lonely sort. I’m going to do something I really dislike here, and dig into linguistic associations – real or imaginary, intentional or accidental – in my criticism of the term “Core Fandom”. Arnie Katz has frequently stated that he doesn’t mean for the name “Core Fandom” to imply that its constituents are superior to other fans, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions – but I’ll still argue that there are implications to the term which make it rather off-putting. “Core” implies a central position, which itself implies a greater importance, which can be a little bit off-putting to newcomers. When I first encountered the term, I assumed it meant the fans who are the most involved – fans who’re involved heavily with clubs, cons, and zines. It took a bit of confusion, and some
reading, to sort out that this was not in fact the case, and that only one of those activities was the purview of Core Fandom. Were I to discuss the core tenets of an ideology, I doubt anyone would hesitate to think I was discussing the ideas most important to it. So while I love the activities essential to Core Fandom, I detest the name. It’s been a long time since fanzines, letter writing, and their direct descendants were the most important game in town (harboring a only purported constituency in the hundreds, though I suspect there are probably a thousand fans or more who still at least read fanzines). Let’s move on to a term that doesn’t serve to make fanzine fans look like a bunch of arrogant jerks – a term that wouldn’t serve to alienate young fans from fanzines. If the fanzine crew is really eager for a term that reflects how the scope of their activities has extended beyond fanzines, how about “correspondence”?
But it’s certainly not just fanzines which suffer from an air of superiority. Conventions, particularly in the fringes of Fandom, can become theobjects of scorn for older, established fans. At this year’s SMOFcon, I heard a conrunning type say, “I don’t do anime cons – I don’t like fifteen year-olds.”That made me stop and think. I’ve read all sorts of stories about how a young neofan (a word which has probably outlived its usefulness) in some decade or anotherstumbled, young and uninitiated, into his or her first convention, was welcomed warmly by much older, established fans, and knew that he or she had found home. A fair number of them experienced this at a Worldcon, but many others found it at regionals. So what’s changed about Fandom that now, fifteen year-olds must be outcasts? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’d sure like to know.
And not all convention fans feel that way. Folks like Rich Dengrove and George Wells (and many others, but these two particularly so) are eager to meet young fans and interact withthem. George can talk to children better than just about anyone I’ve ever met, and Rich is open enough to new ideas that we got him to come play Wii at Capclave. But in spite of their openness, it’s not always easyfor a young fan to know they can be approached. And there are multiple factors working against that connection forming, even though they’re willing to make it. The most unfortunate one is that a lot of young fans just aren’t interested in hanging out with a group of their elders (more onthis later). No effort of the elders will change this, but building a truly blended group could circumvent it some. The other obvious one, which can be corrected, is that a young fan may not think his or her elders are approachable because of previous scorn from other elders. To that end, I beg all of you not to be that curmudgeon.
In another example from SMOFcon, an older fan lamented that NESFA was not a place that would be very interesting to younger fans – that it had become just a bunch of old folks sitting around their clubhouse and comparing medical problems. If I, as someone who had never been to an SF club meeting before, had walked in on such a gathering, I doubt I would have been particularly inclined to come back – though a sufficiently welcoming attitude could have made a difference there. The major factor in my enjoyment of my second Deep South Con,
which was similarly dominated by older fans (and it being at OutsideCon meant that the consuite and conversation were the only attractions), was that I had already read the 1997 Southern Fandom Confederation Handbook, and was up to speed on fanhistory, and wanted to become a part of it. I’m not sure if similar documents exist in other regions, nor if they have any means of reaching the youth. At this point,< I’d wonder if it might be wise to attempt such documents for other regions, and perhaps one for Worldcon. Could a World Science Fiction Society Handbook be produced? Could it be distributed in such a way that new fans could get their hands on it and get excited? Could the appropriate SMOFs be chained to their keyboards long enough to produce such a tome? I don’t know, but I may someday look into such questions with some depth.
So how much weight lies on the elders to bridge the gap? Well, a lot of it, for various reasons. The first is that it’s hard for those not already in Fandom to understand what it is and want to connect with it. To this end, I make a habit of trying to drag friends along to club events and conventions, and of putting zines in their hands. I try to see those younger than myself as full members of our society, though at times I’ve been guilty of spending less time with them in the interest of hearing their parents’ stories (self-deprecating aside: this may be why I don’t have a girlfriend).
I’m also not sure that an attempt from my generation to bridge the gap would be effective. I haven’t found, in my short study of fanhistory, any major effort from a younger generation to breathe new life into Fandom, with two possible exceptions: Laney’s Insurgency and Ellison’s Seventh Fandom. Neither of these would be a particularly good model to imitate – the Insurgency was aggressive and teemed with vitriol, while Seventh Fandom was self-absorbed and at times ignorant of fanhistory. Both quickly found their detractors. A successful youth movement in Fandom would need to be calm andself-aware to avoid the mistakes of its closest fanhistorical counterparts. The unlikelihood of success if a youth movement were to attempt to bring together thegenerations serves as a further reason for a need that any such action should come from, or at least involve, the elders.
But, as you can see, I’ve been holding fast to one of the assumptions I promised to challenge. So let’s ask the burning question: Is Fandom graying? Well, that depends on what we mean by “Fandom”. The three useful options I can see here are: 1. the set of all fans who see themselves in a continuous community stretching back to the letter from Forry Ackerman to Jack Darrow, 2. the set of all fans who are in a continuous community stretching back to that letter, or 3. the set of all fans who have successfully communicated with other fans, and continue to do so. I think the answer to the question, given sufficient evidence, is rather easy to figure out if we use the first definition of Fandom (in which case the answer is yes) or the third (in which case the answer isno). The second definition is harder to figure out, though, as it includes parts of the fannish community that have no idea who Forry was, let alone that Fandom goes back to the 20s (even before there were conventions, clubs or zines in it). But here’s a useful example to demonstrate why it might be an appropriate definition: say that a fan, fully aware of the scope of fanhistory (if not the minutia) starts a club with several other fans. The first fan was clearly in Fandom, no matter which definition we use.
But this second definition acknowledges the rest of the club as part of Fandom, whether or not the first fan has imparted to them a knowledge of fanhistory, and they and their successors will continue to be a part of Fandom even if the first fan leaves before passing along his knowledge. This club could even start a zine and a con without knowing about the tradition they belong to. Definition 2 holds that they would still be a part of Fandom.
So what’s at stake by using such a definition? Well, for one, it keeps the definitive characteristics of Fandom in the activities of its participants rather than in their knowledge base. It also allowssomething else to happen: Fandomcan split into unconnectedgroups which are each still a part ofFandom. Actually,this can still happen under any of the definitions, although a splinter group in the first definition would have to maintain a knowledge of its origins, and it seems harder for multiple groups to do that without being aware of each other.
And as if the universe itself wanted to make sure that I had some example of a group of Fandom distinct from another, I got just such a surprise this weekend. I’d been seeing steampunk as a growingmovement, both in North Carolina and in reports from such far-flung locales as California and England. I’d had the impression that it was mostly distinct from Fandom as we know it, despite having fannish origins. My understanding of the presence of established fans at such conventions was that they had noticed the steampunk movement as one of fellow travelers, and gone to meet them. Heck, I’d even been at a steampunk night at a local nightclub with some of the members of our local SF club (RTSFS – the “RT” stands for Research Triangle) without thinking that the others present at the event were likely to be fans. Boy was I wrong.
I was listening to an interview on my alma mater’s student radio station, WKNC, with members of a couple of musical groups who would be performing at the Clockwork Ball, a steampunk New Year’s Eve party, who were waxing poetic about how much fun dressing up steampunk can be (you don’t have to tell me twice). Then, the DJ asked them what the connection with punk was. Both musicians instantly cited steampunk’s origins in SF literature, including the coinage of the word in the loccol of Locus. Not only were they definitely fans (after all, they wanted to communicate with other folks interested in SF, even if primarily a particular branch of it), they were connected to Fandom as we know it. Let this be a lesson to all of us: The Kids Are Alright.
Would not knowing about Locus have made these kids any less fans? I say no. I was a fan for years before I knew about Locus, and I’ve still not picked one up. But there was something that distinguished these kids from most fans: they were on a radio station, being interviewed about an event they were putting on, and were being treated like they, and anyone who came to their event, were on the cutting edge of cool. And this treatment came while they were talking about dressing up in Victorian clothing, playing homemade keytars, and singing songs about piloting zeppelins.
So here’s what really strikes me about these kids: they’re already doing fanac. While widespread interest in a particular event in SF literature and media, such as Tolkien, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Twilight, may spark an influx of new fans, some of whom may stick around, those new fans usually need to be won over to the idea of clubs, fanzines, or conventions. These fans – most of whom, I would guess, are new – have already taken it upon themselves to organize events and groups (I wish I had a picture of the steampunk interpretation of the JLA to demonstrate this – I’ll have to settle for one off the internet from an event I attended), and even to dig deeper and learn the origins of their new traditions.
Fandom is alive and well, and, I would say, distinctly not gray. I can only hope that established fans in those segments of Fandom which are graying (Worldcon, some of the longer-running conventions, some clubs) will take the time to get to know the newer fans out there – the kids starting up their own conventions all over the place or holding steampunk nights at their local watering holes – and meet them as equals. It’s not enough simply to preach the word of Worldcon to them – we must learn to embrace their fanac, too. We must go to and enjoy their conventions, clubs, and events. When they produce zines, we must swap with them. To that end, I’d like to talk about a few of the kinds of places to find these fans.
I’ll admit an unfortunately limited knowledge of young Fandom outside of the South. It’s rather hard, really, to learn much about it when I’m busy running a bid. The attitudes and rules surrounding bidding almost necessitate paying disproportionate attention to older fans (though I suppose proportionate in regards to the money and votes they wield). But I’ve found a few things. The first is that they’re already at the conventions everyone else is attending. I’ve seen tons of young folks at cons as diverse as Philcon and Concave. They were definitely in the greatest force at Chattacon, of that sort of convention, and seemed to be quite interested in hanging around the consuite communicating with each other.
The second is that they’re in some of the places that older Fandom knows about, but has written off. Think Dragon*Con. I understand that the old bad blood over that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, but I implore Fandom not to write off the young fans attending Dragon*Con as media-obsessed entertainment-seekers. I met a few of those down there, but far from exclusively. There were even a few SMOFs hiding amongst the throngs.
Third, I’ve found that they’re holding their own conventions. The two I’ve got the most knowledge of are WhatTheHell?!Con in Greensboro, NC, and ConNooga in Chattanooga, TN. WTH?!Con is a free event on Guilford College’s campus. They only have the budget for one significant guest per year (the sort folks far and wide would have heard of) and seem to shift this around between different sorts of interests. They do, however, have several local and regional creators in attendance, and there seems to be a free flow of conversation amongst these creators and the fans, and between fans and each other. ConNooga isn’t free, but seems to have a similar grab-bag of guests, and is held in the same facilities as ChattaCon. I didn’t make it down, but a few friends did, and they all had a good time, and reported it as a youth event. I doubt anyone at either of these events would look askance at a gray-haired, veteran fan pulling his or her chair up to the table and joining in the conversation – though I also doubt it’s happening much.
But maybe there’s an event like this near you, or you see an advertisement for a Steampunk night somewhere in your hometown. I implore you to try it and see if you can make new friends. Learn about the sorts of fun they’re having, and try to genuinely share in it. It’ll give you a little more credibility when you tell them about the things you enjoy. Can I guarantee it’ll work? Nope. But doesn’t it seem better than just hoping that young folks will discover the parts of Fandom you love?
So I still owe you one. I haven’t quite explained why I started with the Lyle Lovette lyrics. Here’s the deal: there are plenty of young fans. They’re out there, having fun. They can do it with or without the grand traditions of Fandom. They’ll still be having fun, and will probably make plenty of their own traditions. I personally think there’s a lot of value for my generation in the grand traditions of Fandom. But they have to see that, and realize it for themselves. It won’t be enough to shout at them that they’re ignoring their past, or to simply say, “Oh, the gamers will come and help pay for all this.” If you want them to be a part of the community, include them in it. Yes, I know that requires getting them to show up, and we can keep working on that. I’ll do my best to help with that, and all I’ll ask from you is to be open to us when we do show up. After all, as the song shows, if we get a bum deal, we’ll go elsewhere.
& Steve Francis