They Are Just Words, But...

An article in "The Sydney Morning Herald" last weekend starts as follows: "In a recent Spectrum review of a book about Nicole Kidman, it was suggested that studying the Kidman mystique reveals something of 'the nature of fandom'...'Fandom'. There's a word you've likely not heard much. Yet you instantly know what it means - without necessarily knowing how you know. It's a nano-blink of inferencing and corroboration."

The author of the piece, Ruth Wajnryb, then goes on to reference a number of Australian dictionaries in search of the word, and, other than The Oxford Australian Dictionary, comes up short. I find this rather peculiar. I don't when I first heard the word "fandom", but it would have to be about 30 years ago, and would have thought it had been in general use in Australia for much longer than that.

Wikipedia defines the term as follows: "Fandom (from the noun fan and the affix -dom, as in kingdom, dukedom, etc.) is a subculture composed by like-minded fans (aficionados) characterized by a feeling of closeness to others who share the same interest...The term 'fandom' is particularly associated with fans of the science fiction and fantasy genres, a community that dates back to the 1930s and has held the World Science Fiction Convention since 1939. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the usage of the term back as far as 1903, with many of its documented references referring to sports fandom."

SF fandom started when readers of the early sf magazines, in the 1920s and 1930s, started corresponding within and outside the magazines' letter columns. At first their major mutual interest was the literature of sf, but, like all such unorganised associations, once people started to meet in person they came to realise they had more things in common than just the initial point of contact. Fandom evolved from these early meetings into a sub-culture that continues to this day. Being a 'fan' is a state of mind more than anything else. It's how you think of yourself, rather than an appellation that someone bestows upon you.

Wajnryb hasn't written her piece as a search for the meaning of the word "fandom" - it's pretty obvious that she does know what it means - but as a way of showing that it is possible for us to understand the sense of a word, even if we can't necessarily find it in our usual reference texts. The problem with that situation is that leads to some major misunderstandings.

Back before the internet spread its almost-instantaneous web across the world, the major method of communication between fans was via the "fanzine" (an abbreviation of the phrase "fan magazine"). In most people's minds the word "fanzine" has rather low connotations - implying the worst in celebrity idolisation - and I'd be remiss to deny that some of them were, and probably are, just like that. So this is another word that implies one meaning to some people and something entirely different to others.

That is never more evident that in an essay series titled "A People's History of Australian Zines", published in Heat 11 - unfortunately not available on the web. Wikipedia says of fanzines that "The term was coined in October 1940 by Russ Chauvenet and first popularized within science fiction fandom". Within fandom the terms "fanzines" and "zines" are inter-changeable, the second being merely an abbreviated form of the first. Yet, for some reason, recent "zine-makers" seem to feel they have invented not only the term, but the whole genre as well.

In her introduction to the series of essays in Heat Anna Poletti boldly states, at the beginning of the third paragraph: "As a genre, zines have their roots in the British punk movement of the 1970s and, some argue, the political pamphleteering of the American Revolution; independent, unmediated communication is the common ground between punks and the political agitators of fledgling America." From this statement I thought she was defining a form of zine that was different from my own experience, which I thought was fair enough, if mildly ill-informed. But then, a page or so later she states: "It is tenable, but perhaps quite parochial, to speak of generations of zine-makers in Australia. Murdoch University Library in Perth holds a collection of science fiction fanzines which stretches back to the 1950s..." Which then leaves me in state of some puzzlement. On the one hand zines have their roots in the 1970s, and yet here they are dating back to the 1950s. Actually, I think the main reason why there are fanzines from the 1950s, rather than earlier, is that the bulk of the fanzine collection at Murdoch was donated by Leigh Edmonds, who entered fandom in the mid 1960s. Being transitory items at best, fanzines have limited life expectancy, and even more limited distribution. Collecting fanzines from the 1940s would have been nigh on impossible, even in the 1960s.

If you were to read the other essays in Heat 11, you could safely come away with the view that the Australian zine world has really only been in existence for the past ten years, and that the only people producing them are wannabe writers looking for a publishing outlet. A little more research into the subject would have unearthed a vast history which is only hinted at here. Leigh lives in Ballarat and is easily found, and Bruce Gillespie, who has been mentioned on this weblog before, lives in Melbourne and still publishes "SF Commentary", albeit sporadically. I'm sure either one would have been a valuable research resource if asked.

I'd rather not come to the conclusion from this examination that certain parts of history are neglected because of their genre associations, but I'm not sure how else to look at it.

I live my days in quiet confusion.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 2, 2007 3:19 PM.

Locus Recommended Reading List for 2006 was the previous entry in this blog.

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