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Reply From D West

Since, as Helen McCarthy so sweetly (though not so accurately) puts it, I was "a famous fanwriter in the sixties and seventies" I suppose that by this time I ought to be used to the bizarre responses which can come from fanzine audiences. All the same, despite the many years of harsh experience, I must confess to being more than a little baffled by some of the present CONRUNNER crop. What on earth is wrong with these people? Are they really and truly incapable of understanding any written statement longer than a cartoon caption? If so - if they are unable or unwilling to pay attention to much more than half a sentence per page - why in God's name do they bother to write back at all?

Not surprisingly, I don't agree with Malcolm Furnass's "Isn't D West boring?" but this summary verdict does at least have the merit of being succinct. The article is not to his taste is dismissed and that's the end of it. This is reasonable enough in its way. Why waste time on something which you find insufficiently interesting? Unfortunately, the good sense of such economy of effort seems not to have occurred to Marcus Rowland who does waste his (and everybody else's) time by responding at length to an imaginary article only coincidentally similar to the one I actually wrote. The strange obsession with single room rates is entirely his own concern, not mine. I neither know nor care whether single hotel rooms cost more or less than they did ten years ago. If Rowland had bothered to read the first page of my article he might have grasped that the main thrust of my argument was concerned not so much with absolute cost as with value for money.

Jonathan Cowie seems determined to miss the same point. Mind you, anyone who can solemnly quote an 'inflation' figure to three decimal places then apply this to con registration costs of "five or six pounds" or "around 9" to prove that "in today's money that equates with 19. 60" obviously has a mind above mere details. The elasticity of arithmetic which starts with rough approximations and somehow finishes precise to a penny is a rare and unusual sight. (I'm taking this nonsense seriously because other people certainly will.) However, a precise 'inflation' figure (an artificial concept if ever there was one) may be useful for index-linked savings, capital gains tax allowances and political pointscoring in general, but to apply this general, notional percentage change to a single item of expenditure incurred by a small but widely differing group of individuals is simply a statistical fraud. A straight comparison of today's hotel and con registration costs (per individual) with those of ten years ago is virtually meaningless, since it ignores both the changes in membership of the groups concerned and the changes in their levels of income. The only meaningful comparison is between costs applying to the same people at more or less the same time. Reserving this, I am quite prepared to agree that basic hotel and registration costs need not be substantially more than they were ten years ago. (They could even be less, given the increase in hotel space and therefore competitiveness.) On the other hand, it is undeniably true that large conventions do cost more (in every way) than small ones. Just to spell it out (yet again) the argument is not about whether conventions cost too much (or more than they used to) by some (hypothetical) measure related to (mythical) average income, but whether they now cost too much in the sense of having ceased to be worth the money. Whether or not the Eastercon is regarded as 'affordable' is only partly a question of personal wealth. As I said (also on the first page of my article) I've been to Eastercons when I was virtually penniless, and on more recent occasions I've stayed at home when I could easily have afforded to go.

Oh, I do love these people like David Bell who loftily refer to "errors of fact" then conveniently forget to specify just what the said errors might be. Mind you, I suppose a complete refutation of all my vile heresies could be lurking unseen somewhere in the jungles of his prose. It's a little difficult to disentangle the meaning from sentences such as: "had Eastcon taken place ten years ago his complaints would have been more relevant, and maybe even more pointless". (I've heard of hedging your bets, but this seems to be overdoing it a little.) Insofar as Bell is comprehensible at all he seems to be saying that Eastercons should provide a bit of everything so that fans don't have to spend even more money by attending lots of special-interest events separately. But surely the special-interest fans will attend their special-interest cons anyway? It's likely to be the Eastercon which is the expensive extra if money is short. Aside from setting up this dubious choice, the argument seems to come down to the usual nebulous notion that the Eastercon has some sort of moral obligation to cater for absolutely everybody.

Jut why? Why? I'm still waiting for someone to come up with a good reason (or any reason at all) for lumping together anything and everything (regardless of quality) having the most distant connection with SF. Are we to expect Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? 'What are the criteria? Are there any criteria? It is the complete absence of any sign that they have ever given as much as two seconds thought to these questions that makes me so sceptical of the good faith (or good sense) of Eastercon organisers. The apparent policy of including anything at all with potential customer appeal (and sod the clever stuff) inevitably suggests that hauling in the customers is the main aim. Dressing this up as 'public service' or 'bringing people together' or whatever simply begs the question: what's it all for? Jonathan Cowie speaks of the Eastercon as providing "a feel for our genre's scope" and "the company of our peers". well they may be his peers, but a great many of them are certainly not mine. I exercised unusual self-restraint in writing that article, and conscientiously crossed out all the original references to media fans as "illiterate scum" and "mindless dolts" but I suspect that one or two sensitive souls may have detected my underlying disapproval.

Helen McCarthy certainly did. She spares me the cruel reminder that I am at least two inches smaller than Dave Langford (even on the rare occasions when I stand up straight) but otherwise I get the full treatment. I am first planted firmly in the fandom of twenty years ago ("I believe he was a famous fanwriter in the sixties and seventies") as a toothless old tiger ("no longer a very active beast of prey") then shoved back to the thirties as male chauvinist member of a "boys-only club" fandom "steeped in the best traditions of all those boys boarding school stories" and finally booted back to the 16th century, where, as a critic of media SF, I am the equivalent of contemporary detractors of Shakespeare. More generally, I am "terrifyingly predictable" and guilty of "sub-intellectual snobbery" plus "sweeping statements" and "simply ignoring what was actually said and planned in favour of what better suits his thesis".

The trouble with all this is that it's not very good. Indeed, considered as a hatchet-job it is quite distressingly inept. Taking a detached view, I always rather regret the perennial deficiencies of my critics. I suppose the only way I'm ever going to be given the works properly is if I use a pseudonym and write it myself. 'The only other people who are smart enough to do the thing right are also smart enough not to disagree with me very much in the first place. Well, having been cast as a teacher, perhaps I should give a few lessons.

There are two basic methods one can use to put the boot in on an opponent: one can destroy his intellectual credibility by proving his facts or arguments are wrong (knows nothing - boy's a fool); or one can destroy his personal credibility by turning him into a figure of fun or object of derision by way of satire, insults and mockery (who cares what he knows - boy's still a fool). It should be noted, however, that both methods do require a certain amount of skill and finesse in application or they may well rebound upon the attacker and leave the intended victim relatively unscathed. In both cases the essence of success lies in making a point which is unanswerable - unanswerable either because it is patently and undeniably true or unanswerable because it is the kind of vague slur, gross generalisation or satirical flourish which denial does not affect or even serves to strengthen. (This second approach may seem the easier but is actually far more difficult, since comparatively few people have the necessary qualities of verbal ingenuity, calculation and ruthlessness in exactly the right proportions. Unskilful practitioners are apt either to self-destruct by turning themselves rather than their opponents into jokes or by choosing a 'victim' who turns out to be rather better at the job than they are.) Note also that in the first case (intellectual credibility) the unanswerable point must be a fact which is specific and checkable, whereas in the second case (personal credibility) it should be sufficiently non-specific to be uncheckable against any firm reality. Also in both cases the fault assigned to the victim should not be one which is simultaneously found (or findable) in the attacker.

This last is a point which McCarthy should particularly remember in future. It was less than clever of her to go for that rather laboured routine about my supposed fixation in the period of boys school fiction when both the plays she makes on my name and the general tone of uncertain hauteur sliding into spiteful petulance suggest a far greater juvenility on her own part. (This declared unfamiliarity with the general use of surnames raises questions as to the extent of her own reading. Since the practice is common in books, magazines and newspapers, her acquaintance with print must be remarkably limited. Anyway, I trust she will now be sufficiently consistent to rebuke the wicked Jonathan Cowie for referring to me as 'West'. It's true that the SUNDAY TIMES refers to even our glorious leader as plain "Thatcher" but surely I can hope for something better than that in CONRUNNER? About time I got some respect from you peasants...)

Also not clever was to accuse me of "simply ignoring what was actually said" and misrepresenting EASTCON publicity as recruiting Trek fans under false pretences. Well, if the cap fits... In reality, a check of the text reveals that nothing of the sort "was actually said". The paragraph McCarthy presumably has in mind (six pages from the end, starting "If media fans want only media content... " It would help if Sorensen numbered his bloody pages..) mentions neither EASTCON nor Star Trek but simply says that media fans who sign up for an Eastercon in expectation of the kind of material their own cons provide are likely to end up feeling short-changed. This strikes me as a completely justifiable comment. Eastercons have always been notoriously vague about the exact details of their intended programme and since multi-streaming (under whatever name) came in they've been even vaguer, rarely offering much more than a general impression that there will be "something for everyone". Inevitably, new customers tend to assume that the unspecified elements will be in line with their own experience - which in the case of fans signed at media conventions means media content. As I said in the article, the result may well be that no one is altogether satisfied - except the organisers who have pulled in more bodies. Eastercon organisers may disclaim responsibility for mistaken anticipations, but the fact remains that by recruiting at media cons they tacitly encourage such misapprehensions to their own advantage. The heat of McCarthy's denials (and her immediate false assumption that I was specifically targeting both EASTCON and her old Trek connections) suggests nothing so much as the defensive paranoia of a bad conscience.

I suppose the various slighting references to my fanwriting (also tried else where) and the attempts to cast me as an old-fogeyish male chauvinist are meant to fall into the unanswerable Vague Slur category. However, they are too easily checkable against reality - and thus come up looking rather silly. Too many people know my fanwriting record (and even those who don't are likely to suspect that there is more to it than McCarthy finds convenient to acknowledge) and too many people are aware that the characterisation of my fan associates as a "boys-only club" is simply absurd. (If it's true, about fifty percent of my fan friends must be long-time transvestites. Well, live and learn.) The net result of this nonsense is to make McCarthy herself look pettishly ineffectual: she'd like to deliver a crusher but can't quite manage the weight. (Moral: if you can't say anything really and truly bad about your opponent, don' t say anything at all.)

As for all the guff about "sub-intellectual snobbery" and my general anti-media narrow-mindedness - that merely serves to confirm my original verdict. I said, if you remember, that there were Trek fans who "apparently considered Star Trek to be some kind of cross between the Bible and Shakespeare - or rather they might have done if they had ever read anything" except Star Trek novelisations." Being, in her own words, "terrifyingly predictable" McCarthy promptly equates such criticism of Star Trek with reactionary criticism of Shakespeare himself. I suppose this does prove that at least she's heard of Shakespeare, but readers who have progressed beyond Star Trek novelisations may regard the comparison she makes as confirmation of my first thoughts on the critical faculties of media fans:

"Either they maintain a special set of standards for their object of worship (a matter of necessity when measurement by the generally applied rule would show it falling woefully short of perfection) or their belief in its ideal character rests upon a lack of knowledge of anything except material which is even worse."

I am not entirely uninterested in media subjects (see my article "Video Futures " in a recent CRITICAL WAVE) but I do most definitely decline to put my brain into cold storage for the duration of every Piece of TV garbage. It really will not do for McCarthy to try on the idiotic argument that written SF is no better than media SF because it includes trash like Perry Rhodan and the Gor novels. Such stuff certainly exists, but it represents only the bottom end of the written SF range, whereas in media SF it's all like that. And if this judgement makes me an "elitist" or an "intellectual snob" I am quite happy to accept the labels. Better an elitist than a mindless dolt.

So, the final report on McCarthy, H. (3C) has to read: Willing, but does not pay sufficient attention to her Vague Slurs and Gross Generalisations - must try harder.

Still, at least she was (presumably) sober when she wrote the letter. The only charitable explanation for Martin Easterbrook's effort is that he was pissed out of his brain. (Perhaps some kind friend should remind him of the old adage: never drink on an empty head.) He certainly seems to be extremely confused about what he thinks, what he's read, and what he's doing. (But what's new? Perhaps the same kind friend should stay on hand to tie his shoelaces and be ready to help him cross the road.)

Where on earth does he get this notion that I was putting myself forward as "the spokesman for fanzine fandom"? As I was careful to say (on the next to last page- maybe he didn't get that far) "I speak only for myself in this article". That seems plain enough, and considering the amount of space I devoted to arguing that fandom is a matter of individuals rather than the collective it might even be considered superfluous.

And where or earth does he get this nonsense that "Central to D's criticism of myself is the statement that "Easterbrook is not now and has never been a fanzine fan"? Gosh, did I say that? Well, yes, I did - but Easterbrook seems to have been remarkably blind to everything else on the same page. A check reveals the context as consisting of comments on Easterbrook's remarks about fanzine fans who "slunk off into the wilderness" and his peculiar habit of reclassifying them as something else on the numerous occasions they also ran conventions. I quote:

"Low and vulgar persons might suppose that the definition of 'fanzine fan' would remain more or less constant, but apparently it is subject to considerable variation according to the Slunk Factor. A non-slunk fan (as, for example, one who ran a convention instead) obviously does not count as a fanzine fan at all. Similarly, Easterbrook himself is not now and has never been a fanzine fan despite writing for CHICKEN BONES and publishing SMALL MAMMAL."

This seems to leave Easterbrook with a choice between acknowledging himself as dimwits or dishonest. Is he really so incredibly stupid that such a passage needs to be marked SATIRE AND SARCASM in the margin? Of course if he writes and publishes fanzines he 's a fanzine fan himself -the whole point was to take the piss out of his apparent schizophrenic confusion on the whole subject of definitions.

(Jesus. What can you do with such people? Boy's not even a fool - not smart enough. I give up.)

And all the self-righteous whinging about the heavy costs incurred by conrunners does not impress me in the slightest. I am all in favour of conrunners recovering their expenses but if they don't do so that's their own damnfool fault, and no cause to play the martyr. Any competently run convention should be able to handle it. As for conrunners risking their own money - bollocks. What conrunner ever had to come up with a significant amount of money? (40 is less than a fanzine fan spends on a single issue. Some people spend it on a meal.) When cons go broke it always the same old story: someone else will pay. I stand firmly by my original contention: conrunners are exercising power without responsibility and playing very expensive games with other people's money.

And so (skipping swiftly past Ian Creasey and Ethel Lindsay since they had nothing unfavourable to say) finally to Joseph Nicholas. I always feel a certain kindness to my old mate Joseph since he is one of the few who shows signs of having read my articles all the way through. (Also, he uses words like "hegemony", which always helps to divert the wrath of readers elsewhere.) But I am now grinding to a halt, and disinclined to do any more than note a certain amount of disagreement with his views on fan history. (For Martin Easter brook's benefit: I included the historical material in my own article because I long ago learned to distrust the "Everybody knows that" routine. It usually turns out they don't know anything of the sort - or will act as if they don't, unless you shove it right in front of them.) This is a topic which is probably more interesting to some other audience, so I will merely say that the trouble with fan history is that nothing can be regarded as inevitable, since any trend (good or bad) can be shifted onto some new course by a very small number of people. Fandom really is about individuals, not the collective. But other than that - we'll just have to wait and see.

Bloody hell Malcolm Furnass was right - this is boring. I suppose I could go on to write another article - plenty of topics barely touched - but I'm exhausted.

I probably won't be at Novacon having no Nova Awards to collect this year. (The Leeds Group has declared a Free Vote to encourage the rest. Now's your chance to exercise your democratic rights etc. etc. and vote for CONRUNNER, if only on the strength of its fantastic lettercolumn. Gosh, you could even vote for Martin Easterbrook.) Anyone who still wishes to come down on me in person with fire and sword will have to wait for MEXICON next year. Meanwhile I intend to take to drink and fanzines. And reading books. You lot can read the article again. Or for the first time, in some cases.

Yours for Peace Love and Tolerance with a few special exceptions.

Kill a Media Fan for Jesus

((Well, that was an interesting exercise in diplomacy - of the Iraqi variety I think. As I stated earlier, I 'd like to stay fairly neutral in all this but I'd also like to make plain my reasons for giving so much space to this debate: I am very concerned at the way I see conventions being put together by people who are either just going through the motions or are simply copying some other con. I want everyone who is involved in conrunning to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

I started doing Conrunner because I found myself spending more and more time in my other fanzine "Mince" (anyone remember that?) trying to write down my reasons for running cons. Now I find myself in the position of publishing other people's reasons for doing so. The question that is posed by both Martin Easterbrook and D West is whether people who are running conventions would perhaps be better diverting their energies into other forms of activity -fanwriting perhaps? I'd be delighted if someone volunteered to take over the editorship of Conrunner so that I could switch to some other title. If old fanzine fans vanish to raise families and old conrunners just keep running cons, I wonder what old conrunning fanzine editors do? They go to bed. See you at Speculation.))


This page updated on 09 July 1999