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February 2006
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Special Faanish Editorial Department

Back in ye olde days I was an active Science Fiction fan who published fanzines and commented at length on the SF fan community and its activities. Here is one of those commentaries. Make of it what you will.


Every good fanzine should run some fanzine reviews at least once in the course of its career. Having done so, I now feel relieved of my obligation to fannish posterity and feel under to do so ever again. (Which does not, of course, stop me from running them if I happen to decide to.)

I expect that most of you reading this have read Letters From the Earth by Mark Twain. (If you haven't, go out and get a copy and read it.) In it he has a great deal of fun poking into the vagaries of organized religion and expresses grave doubts about the collective and individual intelligence of the Human Race, if any. The vagaries of religion and society gave him plenty of material for satire. It seems a pity, however, that he lived and wrote in the last (nineteenth) century. If only he had lived and worked two generations later and had discovered Fandom - the he would have really had fun. It seems a shame that such a brilliant satirist should have missed the chance to work with such promising material.

Fandom should, I suspect, be counted as a religious community. It has all of the stigmatta. Like religions, it has its core of true devotees who follow the true way and give themselves to it, a larger body that participates but doesn't make it their lives (Sunday church goers) and still others who only casually participate (Easter Sunday Christians.) Like all universal relions it accepts rich and poor, male and female, black and white, demanding fropm them only devotion to the true way and observance of the sacred rituals. Like all religions it has its backsliders and heretics. And, like most religions, it is somewhat squeamish and hypocritical about money.

This hypocrisy arises because the true faith (any true faith - pick one for choice) is concerned with the true way which is independent of economic considerations. Nevertheless the apostles must live in the real world which keeps intruding with irrelevant economic considerations divorced from the essential content of the true faith. As a result there is an inevitable tension, a conflict between what should be and what it is, that expresses itself in an essential hypocrisy. This accomodation between the world and the faith is always made in religions, and it is always unstable. On one side there are those who demand that the faith bend more to the exigencies of the world - which they most often do in practice rather than in words. On the ohter hand there are those in whom the faith burns with a hard asphault-like light and who denounce the inevitable perversions of the true way.

In the beginning the devotees of the true faith are all amateurs - the poor and the very rich who, each in their own way, can afford to be indifferent to the world and to such sordid topics as money and the pursuit thereof. As time goes on the poor are faced with a dilemma - they wish to devote full time to their religion and yet the demands of the world press in upon them - they must fill their bellies. To this dilemma there are but two answers. One is to pull in their horns, to make of their religion a part time thing, to become a sunday Christian. The other is to make relgion their profession, to become a priest, a monk, a bible salesman, a manufacturer of religious artifacts, a Science Fiction author, a book dealer, a publisher of Locus. (Actually, becoming an SF author is not quite the same - it is more like opting to become a deity - keeping in mind, of course, that fen are generally pretty disrespectful of their deities, particularly the minor ones.)

The inevitable advent of "professionalism" creates problems. In its pure form the true faith is indifferent to money and its works. And yet the "professional" must make it pay, willy-nilly. In most professions it is a right and honorable thing that a man should try to make money and not be ashamed to do so. But it is different in the priesthood; it is disreputable for a priest to be concerned with making money and with the problems of the world. Since the priest must eat, devices must be grafted onto the True Faith to extract money from the congregation. By the nature of things these devices will be at odds with the True Faith because they are needed for accounting with the world, with which the True Faith is not concerned. And yet they must be present so that the true devotees may eat, and worse still, they must be rationalized and made legitimate so that the true believers who become "professionals" may believe that they are still walking in the light of the True Faith. The whole thing is a subversion of the original religion, of course, and usually is transparent. But it is a necessary subversion and the "professional" usually manages to find room for it in his beliefs with only minor twinges of conscience.

In time, if left to his own devices, the priest will generally find a way to make his religion very profitable indeed; the cant of one generation becomes accepted doctrine and the basis of departure for the next. Unfortunately for the priest and fortunately for the True Faith he is seldom left to his own devices. There are always those who insist on returning to the original faith, the prophets in the desert, and the converts. This is hard to avoid. The priest depends upon the faith; without marks believers in the True Faith and what it offers there will be no one to extract money from.

The prophets and reformers, those who would defend and restore the True Faith, usually will accept no compromise with the world. This may seem unrealistic; after all, some compromise with the world is inevitable; the True Faith cannot exist in a vacuum. However it is highly realistic. The principle of concession knows no bounds; once one has accepted the blandishments of sin and accounted as not being sin, there is no end to sin. The reformer must demand purity if his demand is to be successful. To be sure, his goal of purity will never be attained; reality does not permit it. The result is a limited accomodation with the world, a modest amount of sin, that represents an equilibrium between the inevitable backsliding and the impossible demands of the reformers.

As I have remarked, fandom bears the stigmata of religion, and this conflict, this necessary hypocrisy, is one of its features. A good example of this is the recurring complaints about the "semiprofessionalism" of fanzines like Algol, Locus, and The Alien Critic. In the rational accounting of the mundane world these are hobbies - obviously amateur. In the eyes of the true believers they represent dangerous backsliding and must be rigorously preached against.

Put it this way: Suppose my avocation is making model soldiers. Suppose further that I discover that there are people willing to pay me money for model soldiers, enough to cover the cost of materials with a little bit leftover. Say, for the sake of argument, that it takes me ten hours to make a model soldier and that I net a dollar on it. Suppose further that this figure of a dollar net does not include an allowance for decpreciation and amortization of the cost of tools. Suppose further that I give some to friends as gifts and that I keep those that I particularly like for my own collection. Is it not obvious that making model soldiers on these terms is not a business in any realistic sense - even a part time business? Is it not clear that this is a hobby that happens to recover its costs? And so it is with these "semi-pro" fanzines.

The purists, however, denounce such things as abominations. They have their point. Fanzines are put out for love. The motivation is, and must be, a desire to publish. It becomes a tenet of the faith that publishing a fanzine is a good thing in its own right. Since they are put out for love, one is not supposed to count the cost. If the cost is not too high this is feasible and an attitude that a concern with money is impure is quite reasonable.

But why, you ask, do these publishing giants strive for such large circulations and expensive fanzines that they needs must concern themselves with money? This brings up the topic of The Buddha Nature and Hugoes.

One of the characteristics of humans is that they seek and appreciate egoboo. This appreciation and pursuit frequently leads to a certain problem. There are many activities in which prizes are awarded. It is human nature to covet these prizes. Hence it is natural for practicing these activities to make attempts to win these prizes. However a conflict arises when the pursuit of the prize is inconsistent with the motivation needed for the original activity. The starkest example of this is in Buddhism, where the usual motivations for attaining the Buddha-nature are inconsistent with having it. The pursuit of the prize always involves a distortion of the original motive for undertaking the activity.

It is this distortion that the purists are sensitive to and denounce. To some degree it is part of our culture to be unwilling to accept a too naked pursuit of the prize, partly because of our Christian heritage, and partly because of an intrinsic awareness of the dangers involved. It is another area of uneasy compromise.

These considerations go far, I believe, in explaing the otherwise irrational nature of certain fannish controveries about certain fanzines and types of fanzines that would otherwise be incomprehensible. And that is comforting. It is nice to feel that there is some rationale behind these disputes.


This page was last updated February 1, 2006.
Reprinted from Personal Notes #3
Copyright © 2006 by Richard Harter

Richard Harter's World
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Hyde County, South Dakota is the Pin Tail Duck Capital of the world. Visit scenic Highmore, SD in 2006!