I read my first fanzine in 1961 or 1962, but another fourteen years passed before I made it to my first convention, the 1976 Eastercon in Manchester. Since then I've been to over forty cons -- anything from two to five a year every year -- but after attending all the Eastercons from 1976 to 1986 I dropped the date from my calendar. I wasn't in Birmingham in 1987, in Liverpool in 1988, or in Jersey in 1989. I won't be in Liverpool in 1990, and it seems unlikely that I'll be in Glasgow in 1991. These days the Eastercon is strictly for the birds: the annual weekend for laying another egg.
So what changed? Why is the convention which used to be the Main Event now something to be set aside with no more than a faint twinge of regret?
Lack of money? Lack of interest? Well, although conventions can be both expensive and exhausting I still like going to them, and although a chronic cash shortage has often demanded precarious balancing acts on the edge of insolvency it has never been an insuperable problem. When I really want to go I usually manage somehow or other. In 1977 I went to Coventry with £5 and a paper bag full of sandwiches. In 1984 I went to Brighton with a box full of copies of Fanzines in Theory and in Practice (now out of print), but having forgotten the sandwiches was obliged to borrow 50p from Pete Lyon until I could start hawking the goods and raise the price of a crust. Most of my Eastercons have been financed in some similarly opportunist fashion, relying on sales of artwork to seekers after culture, disposal of books to auction bidders with more money than sense, or just plain good luck with the gambling. (It's a real test of True Grit when you know that your poker hand had better not be second-best or there will be trouble with the hotel bill.) But in 1987 and 1988 an inheritance meant that I could perfectly well have afforded to attend both Eastercons in style with no worries at all. (To dispel any rumours of great wealth I must point out that the money is long gone now. It was the usual story: I spent some of it on drinking, gambling and chasing women, and wasted the rest.) Instead, though I went to other conventions (including the 1987 Worldcon) I spent my Easters at home.
Again, why? The short answer is that these days an Eastercon seems to offer only doubtful prospects of providing value for money. (Yes, I haven't been since 1986, but remember that the agents of the Leeds Group are everywhere.) It's sure to be expensive (and for those on low incomes even attending on the cheap means that one is spending money which more properly should be reserved for tedious things like food and electricity bills) but it's far from sure to be worth it. Dire necessity aside, I am in fact fairly casual about money, but like most people I object to being taken advantage of. The cost is the same, but there is all the difference in the world between buying someone a drink and having the same person pick the price out of your pocket. To put it bluntly: at an Eastercon I feel that I'm being exploited -- that I'm spending a lot of money, but that most of it is going for the benefit of others, and that any enjoyment I myself experience is likely to be incidental. Indeed, personal enjoyment has become almost irrelevant: the whole business is partly a meaningless tribal ritual (origin forgotten and purpose now obscure) and partly a rather expensive way of furnishing ego-gratification to the comparatively small group running the event. Somewhere along the line what used to be a party given for everyone's enjoyment has changed to the sort of Public Relations event which is run not so much for the attendees' pleasure as to demonstrate how very wonderful are the organisers. Unlike most PR image-building exercises, however, this is one for which the guests themselves have to pay at the door.
The Eastercon has become a lunatic game locked into its own tail-chasing spiral of absurdity: ever-larger numbers of people must be brought in to finance an ever larger programme which is necessary to bring in the ever-larger numbers of people necessary to finance an ever-larger programme... and so on ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The whole enterprise is becoming completely pointless except as a means of feeding the sterile power fantasies of the persons in charge: it is action purely for the sake of action, like the obsessive and profitless pursuit of ever-higher scores by those addicted to games machines. Few of those currently associated with Eastercons seem to have any clear idea at all as to why they are so involved. The rationale they present in public (and even in private) is often self-contradictory, usually based on very questionable (but never questioned) assumptions, and invariably self-serving. Beneath all the vague and confused flourishes of sales-talk and self-justification the real message is depressingly simple: we want you to spend lots of money so that we can have fun playing around as organisers. In other words: cons are for conrunners, and the punters don't matter so long as they furnish the numbers to keep the game going.
The predictable response to these assertions is likely to come in three main forms: indignation, obfuscation, and vituperation. It will be said that I am unjustly maligning a fine body of public servants: that Eastercons are not run for personal glory but for reasons of pure and shining altruism upon which also depend the health (or even the survival) of SF and fandom; that a survey taken at 2a.m. in the bar on Easter Sunday proves beyond doubt that Eastercons are perfect and that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds; and that in any case what does a rotten, arrogant, cliquish, elitist, fannish fanzine fan know about these things?
What indeed? The difficulty with discussing cons and conrunning is that for many people the whole subject is always liable to disappear in a fog of muddled reasoning, personal resentments, defensive paranoia, inaccurate history and plain ignorance. In particular, a kind of conrunning theology has developed which seeks to sanctify its own prejudices by assigning stereotyped roles which by circular argument are then used as 'proof' of the original assumptions. (Only true believers can know what is true; anyone who denies this is not a true believer; therefore they cannot know what is true. This proves it.) On the one side (supposedly) are the 'fanzine fans' or 'fannish fans' (a bunch of malevolent cliquish idlers who do nothing but complain and would plunge fandom into a hell of elitist literacy if given half a chance), while on the other are the 'convention fans' or 'conrunning fans' (the Good Guys who do all the work and without whom conventions and fandom would collapse). This murky jungle of mythology and twisted terminology needs some clearing before the real issues can even be understood, let alone debated in any useful way. It is true enough that 'fanzine fans' and 'conrunning fans' do represent often-diverging strands of active involvement (as distinct from largely passive consumption) in fandom but both their roots and their differences need to be looked at in a way less tainted by preconceived ideas.
It would be absurd, however, to pretend that this article is written from a viewpoint of Olympian detachment. I have no ambitions to feature at conventions either as an organiser or as a performer, and I have no vendetta against any of those who do, but it should be obvious enough that I am far from being on the side of those who classify themselves as conrunners. I have therefore made no attempt to exclude expressions of personal feeling and no attempt to employ those tricks of style which try to suggest a greater degree of objectivity than really exists. After all, one of the main points I am seeking to make here (and one you should note carefully now, in order to make what follows more intelligible) is that too many fans are deceiving themselves (or attempting to deceive others) with the claim that they are acting out of altruism, or in the service of some (not very clearly specified) Higher Cause. In fact, most of their motives are far more personal. So are mine. The basis of fandom is the individual, not the collective. We will all get along a great deal better when this truth is acknowledged.
The first acknowledgement to make, then, is that I myself am a fanzine fan. As mentioned, I spent fourteen years reading fanzines (and meeting only half a dozen fans) before my first convention, and though I have no wish to renounce congoing I know that fanzines will always form the strongest element of my attachment to fandom. On the other hand, involvement with fanzines has not excluded involvement with conventions. In 1979 I was on the committee of the first Yorcon, and during a fit of temporary insanity I even mounted an unsuccessful Eastercon bid of my own (on which more later). Experience suggested that committee work did not suit me (and vice versa) so I have declined any such openings ever since, but I have worked for conventions by appearing on programme items (half a dozen times), providing written or drawn material (for fifteen or more conventions, including the 1987 Worldcon), and even performing such lowly tasks as putting things in envelopes, general gophering and sitting at registration desks.
My record is not too dissimilar to that of many other fanzine fans. In fact, I can think of few fanzine fans who have not 'paid their dues' by assisting on or running one or more conventions. This should not be a surprise, since a fanzine fan is an active fan by habit and almost by necessity. You can't stay involved with fanzines very long unless you make some sort of contribution, and it is no more than natural to extend this to include conventions. The only surprise is that anyone should state or imply (in the teeth of both history and current experience) that fanzine fans are nothing more than critics speaking from the sidelines, or that their connection with conventions has been entirely given up to others.
Yet this is the story which seems to pass for gospel in some conrunning circles. This Martin Easterbrook (co-chair of Eastcon) declares in Abi Frost's CHICKEN BONES:
Fanzine fandom became inward-looking when it felt itself swamped by the influx of new fans after Seacon 79. Many of the best fan writers became inactive after Seacon, and a rather self-important style of writing became fashionable, which was very off-putting to newcomers, and, I suspect, to some of the previous generation of writers. Seacon also introduced a lot of new people to conrunning.
In the following years, a conrunning fandom began to emerge, having less contact with fanzines. Within fanzines, there is a tendency for new generations of fans to displace the old. Fanzine fans seemed unilaterally to decide that the conrunners were attempting to do this, and in response slunk off into the wilderness to die amidst general wailing and self-pity. This left the surprised conrunners as victors in a battle which never took place -- but still subject to general sniping about the lack of skills which fanzine fandom had taken with it into exile. Far from exulting in the situation, conrunners were reduced to trying to lure back any fanzine fan they could as fanroom organiser or fan GoH.
This version of events is worth looking at as a sample of the way in which perceptions can be twisted out of shape both by preconceived ideas and choice of imagery.
For such an inward looking bunch who were swamped by the influx of new fans the fanzine fans certainly did astonishingly well by promptly winning the bid in 1980 for Yorcon 2. Even more surprisingly, there then followed Yorcon 3 (1985), Conception (1987), Lucon (1988), and Iconoclasm (1989), all heavily infested by the strange cult of elitist worshippers from that darkest of all fannish hells, Leeds (Easterbrook's phrase), not to mention the three Mexicons (1984, 1986, 1989) and the Siliconss (early 80s) and many Novacons (throughout the decade), all likewise infested with fanzine fans. Still, I suppose that one sees here all the fine subtlety of the Higher Conrunning Criticism. 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 (well, he never slunk, did he?) despite writing for CHICKEN BONES and publishing SMALL MAMMAL. It all goes to show that life is much more complicated than us simple folk ever realised.
Reverting to less stratospheric levels, however, it must be said that the fanzine fans' mass slunk does seem to have been limited to no more than a decline in enthusiasm for the Eastercon. It must also be pointed out that running conventions is only one of the things fanzine fans do, and that not being in charge of all the Eastercons would hardly count as a crushing blow, as it might do to those having no active interests beyond conrunning.
Easterbrook sees it differently, declaring that many of the best fan writers became inactive after Seacon. The implication here (together with "swamped") seems to be that this was directly linked to the "influx of new fans", which for some reason caused the fanzine fans to turn their backs on the rest of fandom or leave altogether. But exactly how many is many and to what extent does it exceed the dropout rate for any other period? After all, good fan writers also became inactive in the 50s, the 60s, and the 70s, and in each case (as in the 80s) good new fan writers came along to fill the gaps. Fans come and go all the time, but the reasons for going are usually more personal than related to any particular event in fandom itself. The traumas of running a Worldcon (or any convention, for that matter) may well give people a distaste for further involvement, but in most cases it is at least as likely that those apparently thus killed off were already on their way out and simply made the convention their last appearance either as a final gesture or because they had been hanging on to fulfil their obligations. Where there is not even a single pivotal causatory event (as with the fanzine fans slunking off into the wilderness to die) the language seems even more fanciful and absurd.
This paranoid notion of fans being somehow 'driven out' does surface regularly in fanzine fandom itself, as when it is alleged that the saintly martyr W has been forced into retirement by the dastardly persecutions of X and Y. Apart from wondering why W is such a spineless wimp (when all X and Y can do is make rude noises) one also wonders why there is such a very long list of fans who have dropped out despite being widely praised and admired. Adverse criticism may sometimes be the final straw, but common sense suggests that fandom is a part of life, not the whole, so there is nothing very extraordinary about a shift of interest and activity to other areas. It is a very blinkered view that assumes effects in fandom can have no causes arising elsewhere.
Quite apart from common sense, what about statistics? I am always rather puzzled by stories of the vast hordes of new recruits brought in by the Worldcons. Are these people being kept hidden in a secret cold-storage vault somewhere? Eastercon membership figures have been going up (somewhat erratically) since the mid 70s (see the list in CONRUNNER 9) but comparison of the totals for 1980 and 1988 with those for 1978 and 1986 shows rises hardly higher than might have been predicted for any non-Worldcon period. (There is naturally a dip in the growth curve for Eastercons held in the same year as a British Worldcon.) It is quite possible that the Worldcons recruited nobody at all, and that the thousand or so 'new' fans who turned up on each occasion were once-only visitors drawn from the minimally involved fringes or from media fandoms, to which in due course they returned.
Certainly the impact of those few (perhaps 100?) who did come back next year was so slight as to be practically invisible. Who cares about a few more faces in the crowd? Where passive consumers are concerned the exact total has little significance except in terms of overcrowding the bar.
Easterbrook's tabloid headline version of history (FANZINE FANS FLEE INTO EXILE -- CONRUNNERS SWEEP TO VICTORY) has been dealt with at length because it seems representative of a certain kind of confused thinking. In essence, this consists of arguing in terms of metaphors, then taking the metaphors as being literally true. Fandom is presented in military or political images as a series of battles, invasions, revolutions or power struggles involving groups who seize or lose both tangible assets and totalitarian systems of control. The mention of a "battle which never took place" is not so much an indication of realism as a confirmation of the underlying dominance of metaphor. The 'battle' never took place, indeed, but the writer is unable to avoid thinking in terms of opposing armies, and the terminology dictates the shape of his perceptions. The pictures evoked by such use of language are misleading, if not completely false. (It is doubtless news to many fanzine fans that they are in 'exile'. Doing something else is the equivalent of going to Siberia?) The result might not be so bad if the metaphors were at least well chosen, but they are careless cliches. Reality is being rearranged by sloppy rhetoric.
Fandom is not some sort of monolithic corporate body or State with the power to direct or limit its subjects' actions. There are no armies which fight battles, capture territory, defeat enemies, and conquer whole populations. Fandom is a free market in which the customer can always say No and go somewhere else. There is no military or political discipline and there are no alliances except the personal. Membership of such sub-groups as conventions, local clubs and the BSFA, is purely optional, and these bodies have no real powers and no real assets other than the voluntary subscriptions of the members, which are subject to change of mind and cancellation at any time. There is no central funding, no central reserve, no central taxing agency, and no central system of compulsion or constraint. In short: there is no Government. All fans are free agents, and there is no mysterious mechanism of control which can be seized by one party to compel the obedience of the rest. The only limitations placed on any fan's actions are the general rules of society and the limits of the fan's own talents, energy, finances and time available. The only sanctions one fan (or group) can apply to another are criticism or neglect. Say No to someone with real power and you may risk being deprived of your job, your property, your liberty, or even your life. Say No to other fans and you risk nothing worse than rude words or being ignored. 'Power' in fandom is an illusion which depends on nothing more substantial than force of personality. In other words: fans are controlled (if at all) only by threats to their personal vanity.
Apart from semantic confusion, a major factor promoting delusions of fandom-as a-State is probably the practice of Eastercon bidding. This might be called the General Election Fallacy. Group A's bid gets more votes than Group B's bid, therefore Group A has won the election and swept to power, whereas Group B is powerless, impotent, forced into exile, etc etc. Unfortunately, the parallel is a long way from being valid. Under our very wonderful parliamentary system of elected dictatorships the Party which wins a majority in a General Election can do more or less as it damn well pleases, and everybody else has to pay taxes and follow orders or go to the wall. The winning side comes into command of real assets and real mechanisms of control. Under our somewhat farcical system of convention bidding the group which wins the bid can do more or less as it damn well pleases -- but so can everyone else. An Eastercon bidding session settles nothing at all except which group of bidders (or their co-opted successors when the originals drop out) has the majority approval (of those present at the bidding session) to put on a convention (somewhere or other, God and hotel managements willing) billed as 'The Eastercon' at some time (probably Easter, though some Eastercons have been held at Whitsun) in the year after next. The losers of the bid (and the much larger group of fans who didn't even vote) are not thereby debarred from exercising free choice in every other area. Indeed, they can stay at home if they feel like it, or they can mount an alternative convention of their own (such as Elydore) on the same date. They might even call it 'Eastercon', since the legal position on exclusive rights to the name (the only asset) is by no means clear.
An Eastercon bidding session is not so much a General Election as a piece of consumer research: a rather arbitrary opinion poll taken to establish whether or not there is enough basic support to make a particular project viable. The weaker bid drops out because in theory its defeat indicates that market forces are not running in its favour and therefore withdrawal rather than direct competition is the more sensible choice. In practice a low turnout of voters and/or a close result has often suggested that it would be just as sensible (and fair) to decide by tossing a coin. Whatever the method, the only really important point is to get a clear result and thus avoid wasteful arguments, delays, or duplications of effort.
Common sense alone should indicate the very limited significance of convention bid voting, but there still seems to be a notion in some quarters that to win is to be handed some kind of mandate to speak for or make demands upon the whole of fandom. In his Worldcon bid promotion piece (or Eastercon bid writ large) in CONRUNNER 12 Vince Docherty provides a sample of this line of thought:
There is a matter of trust when you take on a project like this, people believe that they must support it in order to 'keep the side up', some for purely personal reasons, others because they believe a bad Worldcon will give them a bad name as well.
Whatever the reason, if we choose to bid, then we also choose to take a large part of British fandom with us, willingly or not. (I know that this is one of Ian's criticisms of the bid, libertarian soul that he is.) So when we choose to bid we have to be sure that we have taken account of that trust.
However I am not saying that we don't have the right to direct so much of fandom in one direction. On the contrary, it is our 'right' to bid if we want to, running conventions isn't democratic. We are doing what writers do when they write, or the people who started the BSFA did -- we are trusting that what we want to do is actually what other people want to do or to see. And we are also trusting that if they don't want us to do it, that they will tell us and stop us.
This passage suggests that Docherty is wasted in fandom. Only a born politician (or a born dickhead, if that isn't a tautology) would have the effrontery to present such a farrago of empty nonsense, simultaneously prating of "trust" and soliciting support to keep the side up while declaring that everyone will be dragged along willingly or not in any case, and too bad if they don't like it, because running conventions isn't democratic. However, though he has certainly picked up the politician's style, he may be lacking the politician's ability to sense just how far one can go in insulting the intelligence of the voters. With promotion like this I don't expect to see another British Worldcon this century (yes, this is me returning the trust and telling him I don't want him to emulate all those writers and BSFA people just for my benefit) so there seems no need to do more than fervently endorse the objections already raised by Ian Sorensen.
The main point to note here is the assumption that a winning bid can claim (and by implication deserves to claim) an almost automatic support from fandom. Apart from being offensively presumptuous this is also foolhardy, since it assumes an authority which does not exist, even in terms of moral obligation. People may go to a particular convention (whether a Worldcon, an Eastercon or media con) because it appeals to their tastes, but they are never compelled to go, and it seems unlikely that they go as a matter of principle. Where's the obligation, unless they specifically pledged their support? As Ian Sorensen has pointed out, the fate of any Worldcon bid is decided by American votes. Only a very small proportion of British fandom has any say in the matter at all. British Eastercons are not much better. There are just 70 people who may feel morally obliged to support Speculation next year because they voted for it. Again, this is the General Election Fallacy: the winning bid sweeps to the seat of all power, and even the non-voters must go along.
Lisanne Norman has a similar idea when rebuking critics of Eastcon in CONRUNNER 12:
If people are prepared to put such an effort into knocking us and persuading folks not to attend, then it says very little for their opinion of a democratically elected convention. Obviously they put their personal sore loser values against the wishes of fandom. This is just the sort of tactics that the Mary Whitehouses of the world employ with their attitude of "I know better than you what is good for you." Why should small factions of fandom hold the rest of us to ransom? if they feel so strongly that Eastcon is not for them, surely they realise the proper and democratic way to change things is to put their energies into getting a bid for '92 together and presenting it to fandom at Eastcon.
There seems to be a certain lack of self-awareness (or a double standard) here, since those small factions of fandom who hold the rest of us to ransom with their attitude of "I know better than you what is good for you" sound remarkably like convention committees in general and the Eastcon committee in particular. The wishes of fandom are invoked, but why should those who did not vote for the bid favour an outcome which does not represent their wishes at all? And why should they keep quiet? Even our winner-take-all parliamentary system permits the losers to complain and criticise. (In fact, that's what they're supposed to do. Opposition MPs have not just a right but a positive duty to get up and make themselves obnoxious to the Government of the day.) The system favoured here by Norman is not democracy at all, but what the old Communist Party used to call 'Democratic Centralism': the Comrades dutifully raise their right arms for the Central Committee's policy recommendations and thereafter keep their mouths shut and follow the Party line with no deviations at all, none whatsoever. Something similar is still practised in milder form by Trade Unions, where it goes under the name of 'solidarity'.
So when did we all join the Union? Or the Party? If one does join such an organisation then one may indeed make an agreement to follow certain rules and accept certain limitations on behaviour (such as acceptance of majority decisions and curtailment of completely free speech) but neither I nor anyone else ever made such an agreement on coming into fandom. As a fan I act as I please, I speak for myself, and no one at all tells me what to do or not do. Obviously, if I behave in certain ways I may make myself unpopular and suffer the consequences, but neither the offence nor the punishment is defined in any rule book. One might refer to the usual practices of fandom as 'rules' or 'standards' or 'traditions' but they are really nothing more than pragmatic responses to the requirements common to those involved in a particular situation. For example, the practice of giving away fanzines for 'the Usual' (meaning letter of comment, contribution or trade) is simply a recognition of the fact that the return being sought is reader-response, not cash. Nobody swears an oath to do this, and no high moral or ideological principle is involved -- it's just common sense used to satisfy personal needs in a practical manner.
As the quotations should indicate, the most marked characteristic shared by Easterbrook, Docherty and Norman is their tendency to treat fans in collective rather than individual terms. Up to a point this is legitimate, since one could hardly make any general statements at all without using terms of this kind (and I'm doing it myself in this article) but once again there is a danger that figures of speech will be confused with facts. This is not unimportant, since the way in which fandom is perceived inevitably sets the pattern for the way in which fan activities are approached.
The fatal mistake here lies in the assumption that the sharing of one or more interests, tastes, preferences or practices necessarily implies some form of group solidarity, common policy and collective identity. Inevitably, group classifications and labels are used as a matter of convenience, but the very limited significance of such labels needs to be clearly understood. Fandom has plenty of factions, cliques and ingroups of old pals, but these are personal alliances, and very often cut across the lines dividing categories such as 'convention fan', 'fanzine fan', 'media fan' and so on. It has to be repeated (again and again and again) that these categories (and fandom as a whole) are not political parties, not Trade Unions, not armies.
Naturally, one can hardly be called a fan of any sort if one never has any involvement with one or another aspect of fandom, but this common-sense qualification aside, membership of fandom is largely self-bestowed and self-defined. This does not mean that one cannot discuss (and criticise) points of view ascribed to labelled groups within fandom, but one has to bear in mind that one is addressing a group of opinions held by individuals (perhaps) rather than a group which is in any real sense united and bound together by an oath of allegiance or a rigidly defined code of principles. The label is more the title of a rather nebulous collection of abstract ideas than a reference to an actual organised body with fixed rules, policies and objectives.
To a fanzine fan it always seems rather odd that (routine paranoia aside) anyone should ever see fandom in terms of disciplined power structures. After all, even the most organised of conrunning fans would probably have to admit that the course of fannish co-operation rarely runs smoothly (see the latest collapsing con committee), while fanzine fans themselves are notoriously a bunch of self-centred egomaniac prima donnas who can rarely refrain from savaging each other and throwing screaming fits of artistic temperament every five minutes. One has to take a look back into history for explanations both for the myth of fandom as a unified group and for its current actual divisions.
Those people born after 1965 or thereabouts probably have only a vague appreciation of the changes which both SF and fandom have undergone. Until the launch of Novacon in 1971 there was only one regular convention (of any sort) per year, and the 1965 Worldcon could attract no more than six or seven hundred fans. The present situation is not much more than twelve or fourteen years old. Media fandom began its growth in the early 70s, but it was not until the second half of the decade that conventions of all sorts (and attendance figures) really multiplied. This expansion had less to do with the conventions themselves than with changes in social conditions (notably a widespread rise in disposable income) and an improvement in SF's public image. SF still tends to be treated dismissively in some quarters, but before the 1960s it was on much the same level as the sleazier sorts of pornography. (Not entirely unfair, since some SF publishers also handled soft porn.) Various factors promoting greater acceptability included: basic credibility provided by the space programmes (Sputnik in 1957 to Apollo in 1969) and other technological developments (computers, micro circuitry etc. from the 70s); endorsement by respectable critics and publishers (Kingsley Amis 1960 Faber, Gollancz etc); widespread exposure via TV (Doctor Who from 1963, Star Trek from 1966, Gerry Anderson from 1965) and cinema (notably 2001 and Star Wars: both completely cretinous but visually impressive and taken seriously by the public because they cost a lot of money); and above all the expansion of further education and the whole Pop Culture explosion of the 60s which eroded the distinction between High and Low culture. (The Beatles deserve as much credit as Michael Moorcock and New Worlds for the development of 60s British SF.)
As the various dates indicate, there was a certain time lag before all these influences took effect; a reminder that social history is not a matter of sudden and decisive events (battles won, monarchs dropping dead) but of overlapping trends and gradual changes which (being undirected and unconscious) may not even be recognised as such at the time.
In all of this fandom was a follower not a leader of developments. In the beginning fans were few -- a couple of dozen growing to a couple of hundred -- isolated, and self defensive. They had one convention a year; few had cars; even fewer had telephones. Inevitably they produced fanzines: partly just to maintain contact, partly because in the early days scarcely anybody outside the SF magazines gave SF any attention at all. In the beginning virtually all fans were fanzine fans.
Here I must point out that there is in fact a difference between a fannish fan and a fanzine fan. In practice (today) the two are most often one and the same, but in theory it is quite possible to be one without being the other. Apart from its general use as an adjective for anything pertaining to fans in general 'fannish' has a special sense signifying an inclination towards non-solemn forms of activity involving social contact with other fans (whether in print or in person) but not necessarily having any overt connection with SF. Fannish fans go to conventions and spend the whole weekend in the bar getting drunk and exchanging scurrilous gossip. Fannish fanzine fans do the same but then go home and write an article about it including all the witty remarks they only thought of three days later. Sercon fans (from serious and constructive) on the other hand disapprove of such follies and when not attending programme items engage like-minded persons in earnest discussions of the latest epic by Arnold Tharg, or sit in corners actually reading the bloody thing. Sercon fanzines (now seen much less frequently) contain a con report summarising the programme, a set of safely-dull book reviews and an editorial stressing the importance of convincing the world that SF is Serious Literature.
As with fanzine fan and convention fan the distinction between fannish fan and sercon fan is somewhat one sided. Virtually every fan starts as some kind of serconist -- and virtually every fan who stays around for more than a year or two acquires at least a touch of fannishness. There's not much alternative: continuous undiluted consumption and discussion of SF is enough to rot anyone's brain. It's an observable fact that strictly sercon fans very rarely last: either they move on to the professional level, become more or less fannish, or simply give up altogether. However, because fannish fans have adopted a more casual attitude to SF it should not be assumed that they have abandoned it altogether. All that has happened is that they have exhausted the more obvious possibilities and become more selective consumers. SF may be a literature of novelties, but after a while (as convention programme organisers must discover every year) it becomes more and more difficult to think of anything very new to say about it. For fannish fans, it is no longer necessary to talk about SF all the time: the subject has become assimilated into the background of their lives and can be taken for granted. (Hence the existence of fanzines which never mention SF at all. But it's there, it's there.) Unfortunately, this is one of those mysteries which is not easy to explain (since if you need to ask the question then you are unlikely to understand the answer) and it tends to give rise to a mixture of bafflement and resentment among those who certainly don't want to join such a rotten club anyhow, but object to feeling somehow not qualified. (Elitism! Barriers! Closed circles!)
The one thing all fans do have in common, and the one thing which inspires them to seek each other out, is that they are faced with an uncomprehending world. Contact with other fans is necessary because these are the only people who know what one is talking about. SF has often been described as a ghetto, and since not all SF readers are fans it could be said that fandom is a ghetto within a ghetto. This sense of being set apart, of sharing the kinship of an oppressed minority struggling for survival in a hostile universe, has always tended to promote the notion that fandom is the kind of collective organisation whose members have (or ought to have) a commitment and a duty to serve both certain causes and their fellow fans.
The trouble with this point of view is that it confuses a taste in common with a cause in common, and raises personal preference and personal convenience to the level of moral principle. One more time: fandom is not a 'Trade Union', a political party or an army. Fans have as much and as little in common as homosexuals. As individuals deviating from the social norm they tend to associate with each other partly in pursuit of their objects of desire (more readily available in like company than elsewhere) and partly because only among their fellow deviants can they cease to be forever on the defensive. (It's always a relief to come out of the closet.) Likewise, neither co-operative enterprises, nor friendly relations, nor recruitment of new members is really anything other than a reflection of self-interest. Certain social arrangements are just common sense, and getting along with your neighbours is less exhausting than perpetually quarrelling, even where the less-than-lovable are concerned. Similarly, being pleasant or helpful to new fans is not much more altruistic than a salesman being pleasant or helpful to potential customers. Whether specific persons do fandom much of a favour by joining may be open to question, but it is certainly true that neither do they owe it any special debt of obligation. If newcomers receive a benefit it is only because this suits everyone's purposes: fans need other fans, whether as accomplices, audiences, victims, or just plain old extras for the crowd scenes. However, it is important to note that while fans certainly need some other fans, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that this means they need all other fans. On the contrary: no one is indispensable and there is no obligation to treat them as if they were.
Fanzine fans, and particularly fannish fanzine fans, have always had a somewhat clearer perception of fandom's essentially self-centred nature, perhaps because a fanzine is very obviously nothing more than a vehicle for expressions or assertions of real or assumed personality. (It may also be Art, in a small and ephemeral way, but what else is Art except a more refined version of the same self-conceit?) Sercon fans can continue to delude themselves that their efforts are All For SF (or whatever) but no such refuge is available to the fannish fan, who has largely abandoned any overt concern for the supposed subject matter. Very evidently, what goes on in fandom is a game which provides enjoyment to the individual players but serves no more exalted purpose. Fandom, as I once put it, is about Performance: the game played with style.
Still, even when fans know all this, the half-buried (but never quite obliterated) heritage of the ghetto and of their first innocent sercon enthusiasms always tends to push them towards more or less spurious lines of self-justification. Yes, I blush to recall that even I have played the hypocrite and spoken up for SF as Serious Literature, despite a secret conviction that Ursula Leguin is really rather boring. We are all guilty. One result is that many people are introduced to SF fandom under what amounts to false pretences: it is sold to them as a kind of cosmic fellowship of like-minded souls all working together both for each other and for the greater glory of Science Fiction. The reality being rather different, some new entrants are rapidly disillusioned and make an early exit. (That plaintive voice asking why nobody seems to want to talk about Isaac Asimov must be familiar to everybody.) Some people, however, never quite get the difference between fact and Public Relations fantasy sorted out, perhaps because to maintain their self-esteem they require the continued support of justifications which are seen as intelligible and acceptable to as many others as possible.
To put it bluntly, many fans are half-ashamed of their connection with fandom. They are aware that to outsiders their interests and activities may seem laughable or childish or downright idiotic, and in self-defence they feel obliged to lay stress on actions and motives which can be presented in a more favourable light. Any unusual pleasure indulged for its own sake is apt to be disapproved of as a vice and inspire feelings of guilt. Such things are only respectable if everyone does them or they're part of a new diet or they give you cancer. Life is serious. (You think you're here to enjoy yourself?) Not many people are ready to brazen it out and admit openly that yes, silly or not, they are fans, and it's all purely for their own selfish pleasure, and sod the good of SF and the good of everyone else.
Such an admission would have been regarded as rather letting down the side in the early days of fandom, when it was felt that fandom's duty was to boost SF, not to endanger its already precarious status by frivolous and unseemly behaviour. This attitude still persists to some extent, but has undergone various shifts over the years. The 1950s saw a considerable outbreak of fannish fanzines, followed by something of a sercon reaction in the 1960s, when 'New Wave' SF set the ideal. By the mid 1970s the purely sercon fanzine (such as Pete Weston's SPECULATION, which folded in 1973) was in decline, having been overtaken by events. SF had become mentionable, if not respectable, and the appearance of critical forums elsewhere (such as Foundation from 1972) meant that although SF criticism never entirely disappeared from fanzines it lost its central role as provider of a public rationale for the existence of fandom. Consequently, the onus of such justification was perceived as having shifted to conventions, and since there was no longer a sercon channel of introduction into the more esoteric areas of fanzine fandom the new fans (always initially more sercon than fannish) were doubly motivated to turn any urge for active participation in that direction.
Martin Easterbrook dates the emergence of conrunning fandom from after Seacon 79. Strictly speaking this may be true if the reference is only to those who acknowledge the label themselves, but there were certainly a number of fans in the 70s (such as members of the Birmingham group) whose principal or only involvement was with conventions. There was also the Glasgow group fronted by Bob (fake) Shaw, which ran the first Scottish convention in 1978. This was the really significant event (if you must have one) since it was run by (and for) people who were outside the faction (consisting largely of fanzine fans) which dominated most other conventions of the 70s. In effect, conrunning fandom was born in Glasgow.
And what were the fanzine fans doing meanwhile? Being arrogant and elitist, of course, as any conrunning fan will tell you. And perfectly true, too. Fanzine fans are arrogant and elitist, if by that is meant that they are indifferent to the opinions of those outside their own particular game, regard themselves as the only complete fans, and believe in the application of critical standards to all forms of SF, fandom and fanzines. Yes, fanzine fans think they are the best. The rotten bastards.
Quite so. It is interesting to note that whereas fanzine fans will sneer at conrunners as limited, ignorant, incompetent or lacking in critical discrimination, the counter attack most often takes the form of accusations of arrogance, pretentiousness and elitism. The first group is self-confident enough to attack the other's range of abilities, but the second group tends to evade the issue of competence and concentrate on Bad Attitudes. This suggests that a problem for conrunners is that while they certainly do not like the fanzine fans' assumptions of superiority they are not at all certain that these assumptions are unwarranted. They know too well that the fanzine fans can do all that they can do -- and more besides. This is not comfortable knowledge, and leads on to the awful suspicion that, as in the old cartoon, they are in the position of the man on the couch being told by the psychiatrist: "Well, you are inferior."
This kind of basic insecurity is the key to a great deal of fans' behaviour. Every fan has the problem of coming to terms with the position of being a member of a low-status minority. Consciously or unconsciously, there are two ways in which this can be handled: aggression and appeasement. The aggressive (or out-of-the-closet) line is in effect a counter-claim of superiority: fan values represent true enlightenment and the rest of the world is just plain stupid, ignorant, and not worth bothering about. The appeasement line, on the other hand, starts from the assumption that fandom is simply the victim of misunderstanding and misrepresentation: the world would love us if only they could be brought to see that we are really just normal people -- admittedly with a few unusual tastes, but basically worthy citizens and not freaks and nutters at all.
Obviously, this is a simplification. The two responses are not always mutually exclusive. (Also there is a wide range of variations according to personal factors: some people are more insecure than others, and some are just too dumb to notice.) Paradoxically, the situation was simpler when SF's reputation and acceptability were much lower. Early fans knew beyond doubt that they were mutant outsiders: perhaps superior, perhaps misunderstood, but certainly isolated. This meant that (like it or not) appeasement was a long term ideal rather than an immediate option, and they were forced into the somewhat schizophrenic position of seeking possible future validation in non-SF terms (SF as Serious Literature blah blah blah) while at the same time developing a purely fannish set of values and measures of status. This dichotomy has been complicated rather than resolved by the rise in SF's public acceptability and the consequent rise in the number of fans. SF is rather more acceptable than it used to be, but being a fan is still not something so commonplace it needs no further validation. When fans were few there was at least the satisfaction of knowing that to join fandom was to step into an exclusive society: every fan was a member of an elite. (Though it was always the case that some were more elite than others.) Nowadays a fan can easily be no more than just another anonymous face in a crowd of passive consumers -- a position which does nothing to raise the sense of personal worth. Many people do, in fact, drift along merely as consumers, treating their involvement as no deeper than that of spectators at a football match, but there is always a significant minority for whom this is not enough: they want not only to be at the game but to be in the game as players. Active fans have two problems: they must validate their activity first to the outside world, and second to their fellows in fandom itself.
Bearing in mind that this is a large generalisation I would suggest that conrunning fandom developed because those concerned saw this as their main (or even only) option both for validating their participation in non-fan terms (appeasement) and for raising or establishing their status within fandom itself (aggression). Conventions may have their bizarre aspects, but the organisational side is intelligible enough: it's just normal, respectable work. Non-fans can be expected to understand this, and they can also be expected to understand that those who do this work are Important Persons, and that the conrunners' hierarchy (from Chair to gopher) is a reflection of their position as an elite set above the undifferentiated herd of mere members. (Hot damn, made it to the Big Time!) When the conrunners first came into fandom (in most cases in the late 70s or the 80s) the fanzine fans were spread rather thin over a fan population which had grown to the point of being able to sustain more and larger conventions. Hitherto, making a name in fanzines had been the only readily-accessible route to a more-than-local reputation. Now, conventions seemed to offer such an opening. It would be too much to suggest that all conrunners are fanzine fandom rejects, but certainly there seems to have been a strong element of reactive jealousy involved. (There was also the fact that many of the newcomers had media enthusiasms -- as in Glasgow -- which did not fit well with the heavy fanzine bias towards print.) Hostility and general paranoia about 'barriers' and 'closed circles' is not at all new; the only difference here is that instead of getting over it (or getting lost altogether) the conrunners were led by a combination of circumstances and their own inclinations into setting up a status system of their own.
Rotten elitists -- won't let us in your club? So we'll start our own!
Yes, everybody has a Bad Attitude. The trouble is, though, that there's a large difference between the Bad Attitude of someone who runs a fanzine and the Bad Attitude of someone who runs a convention. The former is easily taken care of (at no cost) by hurling the offending object straight in the bin, but the latter has its effects (at considerable cost and for a considerable number of people) over a whole weekend. The motives of those who produce fanzines may be good or bad, but either way they're of of no vital significance to others. The motives of conrunners, however, are liable to be of much greater, more direct and more widespread concern.
So why are they doing it? (At last) Why are conrunners running cons?
The first reason often given is that conventions promote the good of SF. This is nonsense. The SF industry would not be affected in the slightest if there were no conventions at all. At the most generous estimate there are perhaps 2000 congoers in Britain. This probably represents less than one percent of the SF market. Naturally, publishers (and authors) don't mind taking advantage of the chance to drum up a little extra business, since conventions do offer an unusual concentration of customers in what is generally a widely spread and hard-to-reach market. (It's also a good excuse to spend a weekend getting pissed on expenses.) Pushing the product at conventions may be cost-effective, but it's a long way from being vital, except perhaps to some of the book dealers. As for wider public promotion, anyone who thinks conventions give SF a better name is living in a dream world. The press and TV never manage to get much further than Bug Eyed Monsters, flying saucers, and females wearing four square inches of tinfoil.
The second reason given is that conventions are vital to the continued existence of fandom, since they are the only source of new fans. This is a rather dubious half or quarter-truth. "We're all aware that conventions are almost the only source of new fans" says Vince Clarke in CONRUNNER 12, blithely passing over the question of where they all sprang from in his own early days. In fact I'm sure that conventions are not a primary source of recruitment at all. Autobiographical notes in the last Novacon Programme Book reveal that not one of the six committee members attended a con until after they had had some other form of contact with fandom, and this seems typical. So far as I'm aware, I don't know a single fan whose original contact was made by attending a convention. Conventions are a second stage, not a first. This makes sense when you think about it: not many people are likely to chance jumping straight into a rather expensive event they know nothing about. (Note for con organisers: advertising directed at the general public is almost certainly a waste of time and money.) SF cons are ill-defined: they don't have an easily conveyed brand-image or a single clear selling line that will appeal to those with no previous information. As far as pulling in the members goes, one Guest of Honour is probably as good as another, since they may all have their admirers, but no single person has guaranteed universal appeal. (The position is probably different with media cons, where the much narrower focus means that the principal figures assume a far greater importance. Seen one SF author, seen 'em all, but Spock is presumably something else.) This is a chicken-and-egg situation, and undoubtedly there is a feedback effect, but I would say that the expansion of fandom in the last fifteen years has been due to recruitment by personal contacts, the BSFA, local groups (particularly University SF societies, many of which did not exist till comparatively recently) plus some crossover from related areas (Tolkien, fantasy, media) which did their own basic recruiting. The function of conventions is not to recruit, but to consolidate the new fans' involvement by introducing them to a wider range of acquaintances and giving them a general good time. How this should be done and how effective it may be (when it is evident that there is a considerable yearly turnover) are other questions.
Finally, there is the most contentious (and confused) claim of all: that conventions are run as a public service. At this point argument is apt to become very tangled. On the one hand, it is certainly true that many people enjoy the pleasures provided by conventions. On the other hand, these pleasures are by no means free, but are bought with the attendees' own money and quite often depend on the attendees' own efforts. On the third hand (this is SF, remember) the cost of a convention is partly subsidised by the unpaid labour of the organisers and programme participants. And on the fourth hand, if any conrunners try to tell me they do the job solely out of altruism and the overflowing kindness of their hearts I will flatly call them liars or refer them to medical attention.
Nobody runs conventions as a public service. Convention are run because running conventions satisfies certain needs of the convention runners. The real question is how far the satisfaction of the conrunners' needs is compatible with the satisfaction of the needs of everyone else.
For me, this is far less a matter of efficiency than of attitude. A convention is primarily a fairly informal social event (no? you want a formal non-social event, perhaps?) and such events depend far more upon the guests' faith in the good intentions of the host than upon a perfect delivery of the entertainment. If you go to eat at a fast food joint then the service had better be good and the food right because the place has no other claim to consideration. If you go to eat with a friend the food may be nothing special and half an hour late, but such deficiencies are not of the first importance. Yes, efficiency always helps (and an outright disaster is no fun at all) but efficiency as an end in itself can actually be counter-productive when it leads to organisers seeing members simply as raw material to be processed through the machine: grab them off the streets, feed them whatever crap keeps them happy, sign them up for next year. Why should anyone bother with that kind of thing? If a convention's business is nothing more than the slick delivery of a package of SF-related items to an audience of passive consumers then it isn't offering much of a bargain. For the price of an average convention I could buy a dozen hardbacks or thirty or forty paperbacks or go out and get drunk every night for a couple of weeks. Or I could be really cheap and just stay home, read a book of SF criticism and watch a few SF movies on video.
The odd (if not completely crazy) thing about the conrunners' approach to conventions is that they are treating a non-profitmaking event as if it were a commercial enterprise. (I am not suggesting, here or anywhere else, that conrunners derive any personal financial gain from the cons they run. I did suspect one case several years ago, but later information suggested that this was just another instance of the usual financial fecklessness rather than anything actively dishonest. Conrunners may have aspirations towards commercial style, but they're often a little careless with the commercial substance. Well, it's not their money.) UK CONVENTIONS Plc would naturally try to drag in as many people as possible, on the principle that more members means more profit, but without this motive there seems no sensible reason why conrunners should favour an expansion in numbers. More members simply means more work and more risk. (Deficits for the 1984 Eurocon and the 1987 Worldcon.) There are no real economies of scale. A larger con demands a larger (more expensive) hotel, and the masses have to be fed a larger (more expensive) programme. The latter is a very dubious benefit, since over-expansion in the attempt to provide something-for-everyone simply means that everyone also gets a large allowance of material that doesn't interest them at all. Even in the unlikely event that they love the lot, it remains physically impossible to be in more than one place at one time. Multi-stream programming is rather like being invited to pick a meal from a very large menu then being told you have to pay for every other item listed as well. The claim that large conventions are desirable because they provide more opportunities for a better programme needs translating: large conventions are desirable because they provide conrunners with more opportunities to enjoy themselves expanding the programme, and never mind anything else.
This is rather sadistic, but I'd quite like to see Vince Docherty and Henry Balen (or any other group of dedicated conrunners) try mounting a large non-bid British or European convention (as Ian Sorensen suggests). They could call it BEUROCON. Or BUREAUCON. (Memo: form a sub-committee to consider the appropriate spelling.) In particular, I'd like to see them test their organisational genius against the hard facts of commercial realities, with their own money at risk.
A British SF convention run on a profitmaking basis looks a very shaky proposition. It might be done once -- because once is surely all it would take before the unpaid participants realised they were being ripped off and demanded a share of the loot. (There were a couple of commercial ventures in the 80s which simplified matters by collecting memberships for a while then just disappearing.) The subsequent escalation in costs would make a repeat impossible, particularly in the face of competition from cheaper amateur events. Still, I have to confess that something very like this horrible idea occurred to me back in 1979 when I floated a bid for an openly profit-making Eastercon. (Proposed site the Bradford Norfolk Gardens Hotel, site of a Star Trek con later this year.) After eleven years I am a little hazy on the details of both motives and methods, but I think that (apart from the cash) I was chiefly inspired by impatience with approaches to conrunning which seemed to feature all the limp vices of amateurism with none of the compensating virtues of dedication and imagination. It is now impossible to know, of course, but I doubt that my convention would have been an outstanding improvement on most others of the time, and by virtually making an institution of the us-them producer-consumer relationship it would certainly have been a retrograde step. Fortunately, the bid was rejected. (I wasn't even there, being confined to the bathroom with a severe case of Convention Dysentery. I was certainly ill, but I have since wondered if this was my body's way of attempting to kick some sense into my brain and save me from myself.)
In its way there was a certain daft logic to my proposal to sharpen up conrunning by introducing the profit motive -- but only if one accepts that the main aim of a convention should be to run on efficient and business-like lines. But what logic is there to a convention which aims to run on such lines not for the sake of profit, not for the sake of the attendees, but only in order to gratify the organisers' passion for the act of organising itself?
Consider this: whatever you say about fanzine fans (and whatever you say I've probably said something worse myself) the undeniable fact is that they pay for their own pleasures. Fanzines go to the recipients for nothing, and if they are of no interest they can be hurled straight in the bin. (And there's never any necessity to hold fundraising events to bail out bankrupt fanzine publishers.) Running conventions, on the other hand, demands that a lot of people (not just the organisers) lay out a lot of money. A convention committee will have the spending of around £15,000 for an Eastercon, and something over £100,000 for a Worldcon. But the true cost of a convention is not just the amount a committee has at its direct disposal but the total of all the spending without which the convention would not take place. Conrunners are asking not just for £15 or £20 for registration, but also for whatever you spend on travel, the hotel, and the amount you lash out on sandwiches and glasses of mineral water. If 800 Eastercon attendees spend a further £120 each on their weekend the total goes to £100,000: if 5000 Worldcon attendees spend £200 each, the total shoots past £1 million. I reflect on this, and then reread the pieces by Vince Docherty and Henry Balen in CONRUNNER 12: these guys want over a million quid spending so that they can have the pleasure of fooling around with flow charts. That's the Worldcon. The Eastercon is the same thing on a smaller scale. Either one, conrunning is rather an expensive hobby. Expensive for other people.
Yes, but it's a hobby with benefits for other people, isn't it? Well, in a way. There's an operation in stockbroking known as 'churning the account'. This consists of using a client's account to buy and sell as many stocks and shares as possible. The client may incidentally benefit, but the real aim is to give the broker a good return in the form of dealing charges and commissions. When conrunners promise bigger and better conventions with ever-wider-ranging and more elaborate programming they are simply churning the account, the return in their case being the imagined enhancement of their own importance.
That's a metaphor, but there are times when I wish that they were literally putting money in their pockets. It would be less ludicrous and degrading than the spectacle of people playing at being amateur bureaucrats. Conrunners in action, running round in a sweat of excited self-importance, are a disheartening sight. There is something deeply distasteful about people who want to be cast in the role of petty officials in an authoritarian hierarchy, ordering around those below and deferring to those above. Least attractive of all are the 'security' persons, whose main aim in life seems to be the acting out of some peculiar fantasy involving much meaningless use of walkie-talkies and the repeated harassment of all persons not wearing their badges pinned between their eyes. The nadir was 1984, when the 'security' goons were completely useless for everything except hassling the attendees. (The only consolation was that they even did it to a couple of committee members.) My attitude to security at conventions is similar to my attitude to bouncers in bars: if they're really necessary I don't want to know the customers, and if they're not necessary at all then I certainly don't want to know the management.
Then there's the dark mysteries of Tech Ops. "Yes we ARE professional in our approach" sternly declares Pat Brown in CONRUNNER 12, but rather spoils the effect by ending:
Finally it has just occurred to me that whilst the tech crew is there to serve the con, the con is also there to serve the tech crew as much as it serves the other special interest groups. We get as much fun out of being techies and having the opportunity to play with all sorts of interesting kit as e.g. costume fans get out of their particular interest.
Anything less like a 'professional' approach than this would be hard to imagine. Fancy telling a customer that only jobs involving 'interesting kit' could be considered, because anything else would be an infringement of the 'professional's' right to be served by the customer. A tech crew is a 'special interest group' like costume fans? Well, one must point out that costume fans provide their own costumes. In my innocence I always supposed that microphones and such stuff were there for the limited purpose of making panelists audible to the audience, not as a programme item in their own right. But apparently technical gear must be provided for techies to play with -- just as walkie-talkies must be provided for 'security' people to play with, and whole conventions must be provided for conrunners to play with.
No chance of running out of raw material, either, thanks to good old two-year bidding. By Christmas this year the ardent conrunner will have three prospective Eastercons to fool around with: Speculation in 1991, the already-bid-for con of 92, and the upcoming bid for 93. This is the sole function of two-year bidding: to keep the nonsense going full blast. Of course, there are a few side effects: two years later the convention itself may have a new site, a new committee, a new Guest of Honour, and a new programme. In fact, if it bears any resemblance at all to the original bid this is likely to be counted as no more than a happy coincidence. Two-year bidding is such a stupendously daft idea from any practical point of view that perhaps I should stop crediting conrunners with a desire for efficiency. Plainly, all they are really after is the generation of more and more activity -- and never mind the sense of it all.
Ostensibly, the main purpose of two-year bidding is to enable hotels to be chosen and booked well in advance. This gives the committee a whole extra year to sit around doing nothing particularly useful (since there is nothing particularly useful they can do with no hard information on numbers and possible participants) except worry about earthquakes, price rises, and the possibility of the hotel finding a better customer. Big hotels are run by Men in Suits, who prefer to handle bookings from other Men in Suits (such as the annual conferences of the Social Demerol Party or the Amalgamated Union of Test Tube Blowers) rather than a bunch of weirdoes and scruffs. SF Cons are good for bar-takings, yes, but they demand low room rates, and more respectable patrons (who are charging it all to expenses rather than paying personally) could well be more profitable. So, if something better comes along, the hotel suddenly discovers that the person who made the original agreement was not authorised, that due to unforeseen circumstances costs have gone up 50% and so on and so on, until the convention finds itself in the street. (Sometimes, as with Eastcon, they don't even bother much about excuses.) The hotel doesn't worry about legal action. They know very well that the con committee, as a temporary partnership, has neither the means nor the will nor the incentive to sue unless the convention date is so close that there's no time to find another site. Unlike the real corporate customers they won't even be in business next year, so who gives a shit?
Still, two-year bidding does give the conrunners that extra year to haunt all the other cons, signing up as many people as possible. Here's another vexed question: is this passion for members due to hard necessity, a reflection of some form of confused but sincere idealism, or just another manifestation of the conrunners' compulsive urge to maximise numbers in order to maximise their own importance?
The claim of necessity can be dismissed out of hand. Plenty of conventions with only a few hundred members (Mexicons, Novacons, Eastercons before about 1975) have been able to feature varied programmes with a good supply of professionals and all the amenities. The test question for any programme items ought to be: if it costs so much money, why is it so necessary? Expensive items are scarcely ever necessary at all. A small convention will often have a sounder financial base than a large one for the simple reason that it is in a better position to get good terms for function space and does not have to pay for the duplication of equipment and facilities demanded by multi-stream programmes. Large conventions have larger totals to spend but this is no great gain when they simply squander the money on expensive set-pieces or subsidies for every last 'special interest group". (Not that they ever throw any money to Hanging Out in Bars Fandom, damn it.) Cash is not a substitute for imagination. (And it's not much help if you're financially incompetent in the first place -- just increases the scale of the deficit.) Putting blind faith in 'production values' and spending piles of money may be all very well for Hollywood, which can recoup the lost millions from later and more successful ventures, but conventions get no second chance. (Or should we be permanently ready to receive the begging bowl?) No competently run convention should ever go broke, and no competently run convention needs more members. If members have to be hunted out of hiding and press ganged off the street then the convention plan was wrong in the first place.
Conrunners also tend to promote the Eastercon as the convention with a place for every kind of fan and every kind of fandom and the one occasion on which fans of all sorts are encouraged to come together and share an event (Helen McCarthy, CONRUNNER 12). Underlying this idea of fandom as a group-minded collective (rather than a collection of bloody-minded individuals) there is a quasi-evangelical tone: the Eastercon must save souls by bringing the unenlightened into the Blessed Church of Fandom. No one ever seems to look beyond this semi-religious reason to explain why it is such a wonderful thing to have a convention which includes not only friends, acquaintances and people you might reasonably want to meet, but also six or seven hundred complete strangers.
In CONRUNNER 11 McCarthy (perhaps worried in case she is falling in her moral duty to fandom) takes several pages to reject Bob (fake) Shaw's idea that conventions should make a special effort to recruit from ethnic minorities. As she indicates, this is a daft idea and also somewhat condescending (since it assumes that the said minorities can't manage for themselves) but the irony is that Shaw is really doing no more than push McCarthy's own line of thought to its absurd but logical conclusion. If Fandom is Salvation then everybody should have a crack at it. Get out there and drag those sinners in off the streets! Spread the Divine Light and Mercy! Let them all be washed in the blood of the Eastercon Lamb! Glory, Glory!
Perhaps the notion that fandom is a kind of moral crusade is perfectly sincere. Perhaps it's just more muddled thinking. Either way, it certainly fits very nicely with the conrunners' urge to go empire-building, since it positively affirms both that bigger is better and that Eastercons have an obligation to include absolutely everybody. Myself, I didn't join fandom as either a social worker or a missionary. I'm quite prepared to agree that I'm in it strictly for myself. So why should I care whether or not the masses are saved? By all means turn no one away, but why go out looking for all these unnecessary extra bodies?
Because fandom is all about sharing, and that includes even media fans? Well, I see no reason at all why I should be expected to feel any bond of kinship with such people, or why the Eastercon should be expected to make concessions to their narrow, limited and fundamentally low-grade tastes. What have I in common with these aliens, or they with me?
Like the distinction between 'fanzine fan' and 'convention fan' or 'fannish' and 'sercon' the distinction made between 'straight SF fan' and 'media fan' is somewhat onesided. Virtually all Straight SF fans are at least familiar with what media fandom's originals have to offer. (I missed The Prisoner, which must have been shown on a night when I was always at the pub, but otherwise I think I've seen the rest.) Media fans, on the other hand, often give the impression of knowing (or caring) very little about anything outside their own idolised speciality. In 1979 I went to a Star Trek con in Leeds and in a spirit of scientific enquiry spent some time talking with several Trek fans. They 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. People like this have about as much breadth of outlook and discrimination as collectors of Bubblegum cards. 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.
TV SF has rather less intellectual and artistic merit than the average soap opera, since it lacks even the basic qualification of having some slight connection with probability or reality. There is no compensating element of extra imagination. The ideas are old, tired and secondhand. The stuff is simply junk, and derivative junk at that. Media SF is certainly not good Art, and as far as I'm concerned most of it isn't even very good entertainment. These confections have so little real content that they are critical nullities: any discussion is simply an endless recapitulation of trivial details. One either sits around swapping the cards and worshipping the amazing bubblegum concept, or one walks away.
Media fans have had their own conventions for years. Fine -- what consenting adults wish to do on their own territory is no concern of anyone else. But by the same token, what gives the media fans a claim on anyone else? One never hears of, say, Star Trek fans making a special effort to appeal to those who aren't interested in Star Trek. Quite reasonably it is assumed that if you go to a Trek convention then Trek is what you want and what you ought to get.
If media fans want only media content then they are being short-changed when the Eastercon is sold to them on the something-for-everyone basis that it includes their interests. If, on the other hand, they do have inclinations towards a wider outlook then it is unreasonable for them to expect any special treatment. If the Eastercon really is a general interest convention then it has no more duty to satisfy media-admirers than it has to satisfy the admirers of specific authors. So, unless the the Eastercon is a media convention, the media fans are being taken for a rice, and the recruitment of Eastercon members by the promise of media content is nothing more than a piece of shabby opportunist salesmanship. I suspect a good many Eastercon attendees come to realise this, which is one reason for the turnover. The media fans are disappointed to get less than they were led to expect, and the Straight SF fans are irritated by the dilution of the programme and the introduction of large numbers of people with whom they feel little in common. The only real benefit goes (as usual) to the conrunners, who have bigger numbers with which to play bigger organisational games.
Some years ago, in conversation with one of the Glasgow conrunners, I asked why Glasgow cons always seemed to have such a heavy media element. "Ah well, that's to attract the local walk-ins who won't come unless we have media stuff." But why were the walk-ins so necessary? "Well, if we didn't get the walk-ins we wouldn't be able to afford the media stuff."
There, in a couple of sentences, is the whole pointless, circular vacuity of the conrunners' philosophy. Running conventions is an end in itself, therefore the only real consideration is what will maintain or expand the conrunning process. Satisfying the attendees (often revealingly referred to as 'punters') is necessary only to raise the numbers and ensure repeat business. Conrunners prefer to present themselves as public servants, but it would be much more accurate to describe them as public parasites: like tapeworms their one desire and function is throughput.
In the olden days (when I were a lad and cons was cons) a convention was simply a festive occasion, a party for the renewal of old acquaintance and for entertainment in the form of debate and exchange of ideas on the subjects of SF and fandom itself. Doubtless the organisers were always touched by factors mentioned earlier (i.e. vague ideas of promoting the Good of SF and the need to validate their own membership of fandom) but they were not organising for the sake of organising. The work was considered relevant and necessary only insofar as it served the purpose of promoting the enjoyment of convention members. Indeed, in those earlier times the people who ran conventions were often not particularly enthusiastic about their involvement: it was a case of rather resignedly taking on a job someone had to do, like going to the bar to fetch the drinks. This sometimes led to a rather lackadaisical approach, but it had the merit of honesty: the organisers did not prate about high motives while simultaneously servicing their own egos. Helen McCarthy (again) has some interesting words on motives in CONRUNNER
One of the problems which dogs any form of organisation in fandom is that, however much we organising bodies may protest that we're there to get the job done most of us aren't -- we're there for the same reason everyone else is in fandom, that we want an emotional response from it. We want to be loved, or admired, or looked up to, or even feared; we want to be part of the inner ring, parade our influence, delicately point out how people will put themselves out just to help us and how we can bring a unique importance to this fanzine, this con, this party. Some of us are conflict junkies, never content unless we're fighting some desperate battle: some of us are so unwilling to risk revealing a hint of inadequacy or vulnerability that we hide behind a shield of cool, contempt, or indifference, occasionally flinging a barbed shaft over the edge but never emerging to allow any involvement or admit any responsibility.
As an outline of the basic situation of almost any fan this is admirably lucid, but unfortunately it is the kind of self-knowledge conrunners seem to keep locked away in a sealed compartment without ever considering the full implications. In effect, McCarthy here acknowledges (despite many words elsewhere implying collective duty and identity) that the real roots of fandom rest on the satisfaction of personal selfish desires, but she falls to grasp that this affects conrunners rather differently from (say) fanzine fans.
The point must be made yet again that the selfishness of fanzine fans costs no one else a thing, whereas the selfishness of conrunners costs other people rather a lot. Also, while fanzine fans are well known for occasionally "flinging a barbed shaft" it matters very little whether or not they "admit any responsibility" since they don't have any responsibility. Conrunners, on the other hand, do have a (self-chosen) responsibility, and if they abuse this responsibility by putting their own passions and needs (as listed by McCarthy) above the need to get the job done then they betray their trust. It's really very simple: if money is paid on the promise of certain services then there is a contract, and if those services are not delivered then the contract is broken. Nobody pays fanzine fans, and there is no contract which lays down what they have to deliver, but it ought to be clear that if I pay my money for a convention then I am paying for my enjoyment, not the enjoyment of the organisers. Conrunners can't have it both ways: if they want to pose as public servants then they have to be public servants and run conventions strictly for the attendees, and not to satisfy their delusions of bureaucratic grandeur, their fascist fantasies of 'security' or their penchant for fiddling with microphones. Otherwise. I'd like a rather better explanation as to why I and everyone else should continue to put up the money which makes all their funny little games possible.
In the end, conrunners are in a rather sorry position. Running conventions is hard work. It is also a generally thankless task, and those who think conrunning gives them an elevated status are sadly deluded. Fanzine fans are never particularly impressed, partly because most of them have done the trick themselves and partly because such activities are rated as secondary to fanzines (and Performance) anyway. Most of the consumer fans are also prone to take the organisation for granted (except when they want to complain). Probably half the attendees at an Eastercon would have trouble identifying the committee (let alone those in lesser roles, who really deserve more respect, since they do dull jobs for even less chance of ego-satisfaction) and they will probably have forgotten the lot in a month. Sensible fanzine fans (if you can imagine such a thing) know that their reputations are transient and confined to a small, specialised group; conrunners should realise that their own fame is even more limited and ephemeral.
Perhaps they feel that this is the best they can do. At least as conrunners they have the comforts of titles, job descriptions and places in an ordered hierarchy. Like the Civil Service it seems to offer the sort of career structure in which diligence rather than talent is the main requirement. Learn the rules, follow orders, keep your nose clean, and you too can join the elite of conrunning fandom and blithely drop phrases such as 'on the chart' and 'punter satisfaction'. Fanzine fandom, on the other hand, is nothing but a jungle with no rules at all. If you do nothing they ignore you; if you do the wrong thing they sneer at you; even if you manage to show talent some jealous bastard will try and tear your head off on general principles.
Alas, poor conrunners -- nobody really gives a toss about them except their own kind. All their mighty triumphs exist only in their own minds and, like footprints in water, are lost and gone almost in the moment of realisation. Rather humiliatingly, if they want to be memorialised they have to rely on those dreadful people who write things down, the fanzine fans. It's unfortunate that conrunning requires such expensive and cumbrous machinery. Even the smallest convention is not something which can be created extemporaneously and casually to suit the mood of the moment, like a fanzine. Anyway, the natural inclination of conrunners is always towards the larger, not the smaller. Where conventions are run for the pleasure of the attendees there's no incentive to push up the figures, since once over a certain (quite low) level there is no increase in enjoyment but a steady increase in work (Novacon understands this very well, and at one time even considered restricting memberships. Rotten elitists.) Where conventions are run for the sake of conrunning, however, a small convention is just the launch pad for ambition. Conrunning as a way of life means multiplying the functions for conrunners, and the easiest way to do this (and to rationalise it at the same time) is to discover that there is a 'need' for more and bigger conventions, then make this a self-fulfilling prophecy by signing up everything that breathes and shows the slightest sign of potential interest in SF. (If it's a media fan it doesn't even have to breathe.) And as the ultimate prop to self-esteem one can throw in a convention devoted to the running of conventions: the perfect closed circuit of self-validation.
Too bad that the trend for convention membership figures in the next few years looks likely to be downward. The assumption that Eastercon totals would automatically rise every year was never exactly safe, and it must now be considered downright foolhardy. I expect the Eastcon total to be no higher (and possibly lower) than Follycon two years ago (same site), and the Speculation total next year to be lower than the 1986 Albacon (same city). Right or wrong on the first part of this prophecy it might be a good idea for the Speculation team to take a look at the gap (both for Contrivance and Eastcon) between the number of people who joined and the number who actually turned up. One can expect some of those who are joining but not attending to stop joining at all. A lot of people have found themselves caught in a credit squeeze in the last year or two, and this is liable to get worse, not better. Poll tax, increased charges from privatised industries, rising inflation, high interest rates (which I expect to see rise again before Christmas, ho ho), all put the pressure on non-essential spending. Doubtless the Government will be looking to discover a pile of money to hand out just before the election in 1992, but they may not have enough left by then to make the voters feel any richer. German reunification, full entry into Europe, the decline (and possible collapse) of the Japanese stockmarket, and factors at present unknown -- all these may conspire to bugger up the happy scenario. Economic prediction is about as accurate and reliable a science as astrology, but one must say that the stars don't look too propitious. Also, any time now the dip in the demographic curve plus the economies in further education will start to bite: less school-leavers and less students with less money.
No, this is not a Death of Fandom prediction, more a Zero Growth of Fandom prediction, with natural wastage possibly making for a decline. The picture will be clearer in a year or two. The snowball effect whereby more and bigger conventions offer more and bigger chances to pick up new members may start to melt away quite quickly. The primary sources of recruitment (local groups, BSFA etc) may be less affected, being cheaper, but congoing itself is likely to become much more selective, with the smaller cons in a stronger position both because they have more financial flexibility and because they have more claim on the loyalty of their members.
Large conventions do not promote a sense of allegiance. They are events conducted on the us-and-them basis of producers servicing consumers, and they inspire as much loyalty as a chain store. They can be intimidating or alienating even to those familiar with the milieu, and newcomers lacking some additional source of support or point of entry on the social side may feel disinclined to repeat a rather uncomfortable and lonely experience. (I am not particularly gregarious or socially adept, but I had no problems at my own first convention simply because although I had never met most of the attendees previously I knew a large group through fanzines.) Those who are treated simply as customers will feel no compunction in taking their business elsewhere as soon as they see a better bargain.
To treat the Eastercon as a commodity to be marketed is to make a fundamental error about its nature. It is not, and cannot be, the same in detail from year to year, and therefore if one sells it on the basis of details (inclusion of this or that 'special interest') in one year then one must do the same next year and the year after -- all this directed at a market which may change its interests or shift its custom to other alternatives. Putting the Eastercon on a targeted sales-appeal basis deprives the Eastercon of any special status whatsoever: in any one year it will be only as good as the package it has to sell, and if the organisers have picked the wrong ingredients, or better and cheaper offers are made elsewhere, then there is no reason to expect continuing customer loyalty. Selling Contrivance on the strength of Jersey's charms as a holiday resort may have worked in the short term, but it may come to be seen as not such a wonderful move when people stay at home on other occasions because they consider Birmingham or Liverpool don't have the same tourist attractions. Start to live by the market and the market sets all the rules -a situation which may be acceptable when the aim is profit, but which is positively insane when the profit motive is absent, and doubly insane when one considers that every Eastercon is a one-off event risking its neck with no reserve from the past and no potential gains from the future to guarantee solvency.
The Eastercon used to be the Main Event (even after other cons came along) partly by sheer weight of tradition, but mainly because it was the most extended meeting (effectively three days against Novacon's two) run for the enjoyment of SF fandom. It inspired loyalty not because it included specific elements or items (whether media content or a fan room) or even because it was particularly flash, but because it was an event one could attend in the reasonable confidence that whatever the defects there would be a sincere attempt to give satisfaction on a fair and equal basis. Eastercons were not run for the benefit of organisers -- they were run so that everyone could have a good time.
There is a very real distinction here which the conrunners of today either do not see or choose to ignore: the difference between service regarded as part of the cooperative give-and-take which is the basis of all social relationships, and service supplied in the commercial spirit of businessmen seeking to sell products and create markets in order to maximise the the returns to themselves. The returns for conrunners come not as cash but as obscure forms of ego-gratification, but the ripoff is the same.
The conrunners may, of course, indignantly reject every word I have said -- but they ought to be aware that they do have what politicians euphemistically refer to as 'A problem of presentation'. I speak only for myself in this article, but I am quite sure that there are others who share at least some of my views. In its present form the Eastercon has ceased to command any special loyalty or esteem: it is merely a larger-than-average convention which has come to depend on a fresh sales-pitch every year. Sooner or later the sales-pitch will be misjudged (or will have lost all credibility) and the event will take a nosedive. And what will the conrunners do then, poor things, poor things?
That may be my answer: sheer entropy will sort out the whole mess. Conrunning for the sake of conrunning is a dead end: it has too little real ideological content and too limited a range of possibilities to survive indefinitely. When one takes a photocopy from a photocopy of a photocopy the image degenerates a little more with each step. The decay of conrunning fandom might be even more rapid: natural exhaustion, the staleness of repetition, personal rivalries, loss of faith and the disillusionment of one big bad convention all gone wrong -- the collapse could come quite suddenly.
Well, that's their affair, not mine. I may be arrogant, but I'm also realistic, and I don't anticipate that on reading my strictures the conrunners will necessarily fall about the place with cries of concern and sobs of guilt. ("Gosh, D.West doesn't like Eastercons! We must repent and seek the One True Way immediately"!) I wrote this article partly because I enjoy this kind of analysis and partly because it might just possibly have some effect in nudging others towards the kind of fan activities (and conventions) I happen to prefer. (Novacon is fine, but Mexicon is only once every two or three years, so I'd quite like another convention I can rely upon with a regular date.) However, if my words have no effect at all I shall merely shrug and go about my usual business. Every fan has the right to push for his or her favoured views, but every other fan has the right to say No. I would prefer the conrunning faction to spend their energies on something I regarded as less wasteful and more entertaining -- but I can still follow my own interests regardless of what they do.
This, after all, is the great attraction of fandom: everyone can choose their very own Main Event. What the conrunners should reflect upon, however, is that their Main Event depends entirely on the support of others, a support which could be withdrawn at any time. The conrunners would then find themselves on the same level as the mug punters, obliged to pay for their own pleasures. Does the Conrunner Philosophy have anything to offer which will sustain them in such an hour of trial? If not, they might be best advised to start looking around for some other line of work. A fanzine fan without a convention is like a fish without a bicycle, but a conrunner without a con is like nothing very much at all.