Fandom: Its Value to the Professional

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Commentary
Title: Fandom: Its Value to the Professional
Commentator: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Date(s): 1985
Medium: print
Fandom: focus on science fiction, Darkover
External Links:
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Fandom: Its Value to the Professional is a 1985 18-page essay by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

It was printed in the book "Inside Outer Space: Science Fiction Professionals Look at Their Craft."

Some Topics Discussed

  • science fiction used to be a scantly respected genre
  • Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula Le Guin, and Joanna Russ who are "clinging to their intellectual credentials from academia"
  • science fiction community has grown very large and people don't know each other anymore, nor do they all speak the same language like they used to
  • science fiction is now much easier to find, even university classes are teaching it
  • science fiction fans used to be readers only as they didn't have a lot of television or movies to watch
  • in the good old days, "when you met another fan, you were instant friends — even instant family in many cases"
  • name drops some fans who started in media zines: Susan Schwartz, Alicia Austin, Jean Lorrah, Diana Paxson, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Ruth Berman, Shirley Maiewski, Hannah Shapero and George Barr
  • Harlan Ellison and his rejection of fandom
  • is fanac a waste of time for a writer who wants to become a professional?
  • deciding to step back from Darkover fandom
  • "I remember once telling Jacqueline Lichtenberg that it was time to stop wasting productive work hours (she had then two little children) on Star Trek fiction and start using her time for serious professional work." Writers have all kinds of excuses for not writing, and getting committed to a heavy-schedule of fannish activity is one of the best. I ought to know."
  • fanzines as practice writing
  • the dangers of becoming stagnant

Excerpts

I have a great deal in common with such science fiction "greats", as Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg and Donald Wollheim — amid others too numerous to mention: I came up through the ranks of fandom to become a pro writer. My first works, like theirs, were published in the letter columns of the old pulp magazines; later, in the pages of hectographed or mimeographed fanzines published by other young science fiction or fantasy fiction enthusiasts. Many of these fans, like myself, aspired to be professionals, and many of them actually made it; those I have mentioned, and many more. So many of these science fiction and fantasy professionals came from the ranks of fandom, back in the days when science fiction was still a rather minor genre, that I once lightheartedly quipped that reading the 1965 membership list of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) was like reading the 1955 membership list of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA).

This is not nearly as true as it used to be. In the years since 1966 or so, more and more writers are entering the ranks of science fiction and fantasy who have never had anything to do with fandom, and who tend, in fact, to be a little scornful of organized fandom, even when they attend its conventions and accept its rewards. Writers such as Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula Le Guin, and Joanna Russ, clinging to their intellectual credentials from academia, are often gracious to fans when they must interact with them, but they do not, as do I and most of the others mentioned above, recognize their origins in fandom; and such writers as Gene Wolfe and Stephen King, while they may use fandom for publicity purposes, are occasionally snide or sarcastic about it. Fewer and fewer fans aspire to become professionals in any field or if they do, it is harder to get in touch with their fellows.
I published my first fanzine on a pan hectograph which cost me five dollars, paying a dollar for a ream of paper, thirty cents for a special hectograph ribbon and about a dollar for thirty three-cent stamps to mail it out with; and I joined in the cry of rage when paperback books went up to thirty-five cents, certain that no one would ever pay that much for them. (Just to keep perspective, a stamp is now twenty cents; paper is about ten dollars a ream, and my latest novel is advertised to sell at $3.50. The newest Montgomery Ward catalogue doesn't even advertise hectographs for sale anymore, and the cheapest mimeograph I've seen is about three hundred dollars instead of the $21.95 model I bought way back when.
Fandom, of course, still remains as a support group. It goes even further; at the last World Science Fiction Convention there were, I think, eight thousand fans, all of whom had at least something in common — they all cared enough about some aspect of the convention to buy a ticket and come to the hotel. That's very reassuring. Of course, there were a lot of them who also were interested in such peripheral fannish items as comic books, Star Wars games or Dungeons and Dragons game pieces, horror films, video games, L-5 colonies, or the Society for Creative Anachronism, costumes and the masquerade . . . you name it. There is still a hard core of fans interested in science-fiction writing, and - in professional aspirations; but you can no longer walk up to any fan at a convention and assume that he or she shares your desire to work professionally in the field. Even if she wants to turn pro some day, she just might want to work as a lights technician for George Lucas instead of selling a story to Analog.

Many writers now, even those who came up through fandom, have very little to do with fandom as such. There is, for instance, a great difference, or so it seems to me, between the people who came into fandom

through Star Trek and those who came in back in the days of the old pulps. There is at least some good reason to think that it was Star Trek that made the difference. Those of us who were old-time fans and still dearly loved the television program quickly found out that Star Trek fandom was quite different from ordinary fandom.
Harlan Ellison, in one of his speeches, has attacked fandom for attempting to stereotype any writer as forever after somehow "belonging" to them, as if the writer had a duty to continue to write what his fans wanted. This is one of the very real dangers, and must be respected. The fact that I have chose to remain attached to fandom as a part of my "roots" does not imply that Harlan must consider himself bound in honor to do the same; and there is something to be said for the attitude of total indifference to one's admirers, especially where the alternative is remain bound by their wishes and desires.

This is not to say that the Darkover books I have written by what I choose to call popular demand are worse books than any of the ones I wrote, and keep writing, to please myself. The demand of my personal public and my personal fandom, which can, become very demanding indeed, has required me to go into new areas which have been previously unexplored. It is true that I occasionally wonder whether, if I had not been bound to Darkover by sentimental ties and a very real desire to please my fans, what else I might have been writing which might have been better.

[...]

Fandom, then, at least for the writer who has achieved this kind of cult following, has some distinct uses for the writer. The floods of Star Trek fiction have encouraged such writers as Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Jean Lorrah, Ruth Berman, Shirley Maiewski to reach for the professional milieu. But it can be argued that the Lichtenbergs ahd Lorrahs, the Susan Shwartezes [sic] and Diana Paxsons, would have achieved fame and professional status in any case; talent will out. In the absence of Darkover, Star Trek, Deryni or Pern fandom and fiction writing, would not these writers have found some other way into the desired professional status? Did not these fandom-style endeavors rather divert and delay these writers from the undivided pursuit of their professional goals?

[...]

Just recently I have discovered that the level of fan publishing I have been doing in Darkover fandom has been draining energy I need for my professional work and commitments, and so I have, dissolved my personal involvement with Darkover fanzine publishing.
There seems to be a level of about three thousand words a day beyond which I cannot increase my fiction output that tops off at about fifteen to twenty pages a day. On a strictly temporary basis I can sometimes raise this amount — once for four days on end I wrote thirty-plus pages a day but that was followed by a week or more of inactivity; the sponge had been squeezed dry and had to be refilled. I am no Erie Stanley Gardner or Barbara Cartland, to dictate a whole book over a weekend. The time I spent on fandom would have had to be filled with something, and it's hard to argue that I should have spent it knitting afghans or watching television. I did once write a novel in eleven days but the less said about the quality of that particular book, the better!
What are the other benefits of fandom to the actual or potential writer? The first, of course, is feedback. The fanzines are a good place to get your first work published, and to get into the habit of sitting there at the typewriter, of actually applying the seat of the pants to the seat of, the chair and turning out words: For a beginner it is good to know that the editor needs your work so badly that he/she is not going to be critical. After a while you get to where turning out words is, quite literally, no sweat; you can sit down and just do it. When you agonize over every word because it might mean money or a chance at the big time, you may be too timid to write because if you wrote you'd have to submit it and if you submit it, it might get rejected. Writing for fanzines, less is at stake; even if you get rejected, you can say "Who the hell is that editor to reject me? Just a fan like me!" and the rejection isn't so serious. And when you have had a couple of hundred fanzine articles, letters, reviews, and stories in print, you begin to realize what writing is all about, and it's easier to expose yourself to the hard realities of the marketplace.
Professional fiction, by its very nature, must appeal to a very broad base of interest; and this is more and more true as more publishers are swallowed up into conglomerates and distributed through mass market places such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. I feel that by being accessible to my fans, I have given them a place to talk about some of the especially sensitive subjects on which I can only touch in my books. It is easier, and safer, for these young people to talk about women's rights, homosexuality, unusual approaches to religion, gender roles in society, and extrasensory "perception on Darkover rather than in the worlds of suburbia or middle America where they themselves live. Many, perhaps most of my fans live as misfits among, their churchgoing, Barbara-Cartland-reading, soap-opera-watching peers, and find little support for any attempt at looking for a window on a larger and less constricted world of thought. I know how they feel. I too grew up in that kind of world and was emotionally battered when I tried to find something bigger and less constricted; and I found a world where I could find people who had thought about these things and were not afraid to talk about them. And the world,!
I must confess myself quite partial in this assessment of fandom. I owe so much to fandom, from friendship to first exposure, from my first taste of professional confidence to a strong voice of support whenever I falter in my dedication to my chosen profession, that it would be worse than ungrateful to turn away from it. Some people seem to feel that at a certain age or professional level, a writer, should turn his or her back on fandom, concentrating on professional activities only. Maybe they are right. I have never been very good, though, at doing what I "should" do. My latest fannish endeavor, editing the Darkover fiction magazine Starstone, sharpened my knowledge of how to write short fiction by seeing others make all my mistakes, I was encouraged to avoid them, and for the first time in my life I can now write short stories and send them out knowing they will be sold. Until about five years ago, my short stories sold by accident, and I never knew why one story would sell and the other would pile up a dozen rejection slips. This endeavour led to the increase in my short-story sales, and also led to the editing of the two Darkover anthologies which in turn seems to have led to the editing of a completely professional anthology, which I have just turned in to DAW Books called Sword and Sorceress.
Granted, many fans are juvenile. But young people grow up. And it's true, fans can be a nuisance, and they can make heavy demands upon their idols.

I get accused of exploiting my fans for sales. Not very long ago, a very bad review of my best-selling novel The Mists of Avalon implied — no, it came right out and said - that it had gotten on the bestseller lists only because I had circulated publicity so widely to the Friends of Darkover, and every Darkover fan had obviously bought, copies. Now this, of course, is absolutely absurd. Even at its largest, Darkover fandom, taking in not only my own mailing list but everybody who has ever bought a copy of any Darkover fanzine, would encompass about fifteen hundred copies. That wouldn't have accounted for a quarter of the first printing; far less the seventy-five thousand copies or more which have sold. Nor

would such papers as The New York Times been very likely to give, favorable reviews because of the influence of Darkover fandom — not a single Darkover novel has ever been mentioned in the Times.
... if fans present the danger of keeping their idols frozen or locked into a single pattern, they also present a challenge and an opportunity. Fandom gives me the opportunity to hear the opinions of women younger than my own daughters; if I keep in touch with their needs and wants and tastes, I will not slip into the past, writing complacently of what I have always written, but will respond to what they are saying to me and of me. Some people think that in Darkover fandom" I am simply surrounding myself with "adoring fans" and getting soothing strokes add endless egoboo (a fannish term for, pridefully soliciting compliments, coming from the words "ego" and "boost"). That's far from true; my fans are my most challenging and demanding audience and never hesitate to let me know where I fall short of pleasing them. Some of them have attempted to prove and, have actually proved, that they can write as well as I do myself in my own field. And certainly they give me plenty of blunt and challenging criticism.

The writer who listens can learn, like any performer, as much from the boos and whistles as from the thunder of applause. These are, the straws in the wind that warn, of changes in the needs of the readership, that demand a writer grow with changing times and changes in the readership, that help the perceptive writer learn and grow. The writer, like any artist, who loses touch with the audience is already dead.

I want to live a long time.