What It Is We Miss When We Don’t Read Fanzines8 min read
Every year, in the spring, there is a ritual. The coming WorldCon announces the Hugo nominees. The ritual is not the announcement, but the reaction. On Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs around the world, the questions appear: Why isn’t name-blogger-x up for Best Fan Writer? or How could the voters not have nominated podcast-y? Every year these questions pop up. In 2011, a few people went so far as to assure their audience that it was all right that they had never heard of any of the Best Fan Writer nominees because they hadn’t heard of them either. This despite the fact that all had written dozens, if not hundreds, of articles for fanzines around the world, not to mention major sites like Tor.com, SFSite.com, or the Forbidden Planet blog. All but one had been nominated before. None of them were bloggers; none of them mattered, it seemed.
Which is a shame, as the best fan writing in the world today happens in fanzines.
There is no question in my mind that there is more writing by fans today than ever before, although less of it is happening in traditional fanzines (you can discover more about the Fanzine Tradition at https://zinewiki.com/Fanzine). At one point, fanzines were the sole repository of fan writing. Now, much of it happens on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. That’s a positive and a negative. The positive aspect is that more people in the fandom community are participating in the art of writing. The drawback, at least from the point of view of a fanzine editor, is that fanzines are doing good stuff, but attracting a narrower audience. It happens, perhaps because many see the fanzine as a dated artifact. Some fine fan writing is happening in blogs, but the finest fan writing still happens in zine form.
The writing that takes place in blogs tends to aim wider, because they can hit more (and different) eyes more easily than a zine can. Zines can, and often do, focus more tightly on fandom, on the comings-and-goings of fans, conventions and zines, and they do so in ways that are less bound by the moment. There is an immediacy that exists in blogs that doesn’t really exist in most zines, although something like The Drink Tank (https://efanzines.com/DrinkTank/ ) or Fanstuff (https://efanzines.com/Fanstuff/index.htm ) might have the frequency to feel ‘blogish.’ Zines tend to live and die off of a feeling of completeness; each issue is a package tied together capturing not a moment in time, but a continuity. This feeling is where I say fanzines have it all over blogs. You are brought into a form that feeds off itself, the interaction of layout, art, and writing. Blogs feel less ‘complete’ in that each post is typically separate, exists for itself and may not tie in to anything else in the blog. While zines have comment sections, typically letters and emails from readers compiled for the following issue, a blog tends to have individual comment sections that are only reacting to that single post.
There are a great many blogs that deal with the field of science fiction and/or fantasy. A Dribble of Ink (https://aidanmoher.com/blog/ ) by Aidan Moher is an excellent look at the field of SF&F, not only by Aidan himself, but from several other big names in the field. It’s an exceptional example of how one can look at science fiction from an online fandom point of view. It doesn’t tend to deal with fannish concerns, such as conventions and the motions of fandom, but there is some damn fine writing.
The Book Smugglers (https://thebooksmugglers.com/ ), an excellent blog edited by the brilliant Ann Grilo and Thea James, is one of the best sources for book reviews out there; its reviews are remarkably thorough. These are what fanzine fans today might call ‘sercon,’ short for SERious & CONstructive, the kind of writing that a lot of zines have done away with in their pages in favor of more fannish material, i.e. material pertaining to the realm of fans and fandom.
There are still some fine zines that focus on sercon material, including the exceptional SF Commentary by Bruce Gillespie, now in its 42nd year. A PDF version of many recent issues is available at https://efanzines.com/SFC/. They look at the field of science fiction and various authors and books with a critical eye worthy of the major genre conference papers. The contributor list for every issue ranges from widely known pros to fans. Bruce’s other zines, Steam Engine Time and Scratch Pad, (both at https://efanzines.com/SFC/ ) are more personal but feature the same level of excellent writing, though they tend to be more fannish in their approach.
Joe Major’s Alexiad (https://efanzines.com/Alexiad/index.htm ) is another zine with a fine sercon slant. Joe, a former Hugo for Best Fan Writer nominee and an excellent reader, provides articles and reviews of science fiction novels, as well as other material that may be of interest to fans, including exceptionally good reviews of candy bars. If there is a candy bar fandom, the reviews that appear in Alexiad are some of the finest pieces written in it. The reviews of novels, both in and out of genre, are exceptionally pointed and considered, and that makes for amazing reading.
There are a number of writers who write both for blogs and zines that give powerful views on the field as a whole, such as Niall Harrison, Liz Batty, John Hertz, Graham Sleight, and Steven H Silver. They can all be found writing about science fiction in various venues, both online and in paper and paper-like formats. Zines like Argentus (https://efanzines.com/Argentus/index.htm ), Journey Planet (https://efanzines.com/JourneyPlanet/index.htm ), and various others can be found on eFanzines.com.
On the other end you’ve got fannish material. Many blogs, even those with a slant towards review and literary material, will take an occasional step into the world of fannishness. There a great many LiveJournals that deal almost exclusively with fannish content. One of the better-known fannish blogs is File770.com, by long-time fan and multiple Hugo Award winner Mike Glyer. It covers fandom thoroughly in a diverse number of areas. Mike’s fanzine File 770 started in the 1970s and continues today, using much of the same material as the blog. His regular writers include John Hertz, James Bacon, John King Tarpinian, and Andy Porter, which allows File770.com to get a wide-format view of fandom’s news happenings. The writing here ranges from short news pieces to long articles and the occasional review. To read them both, you can see the difference between the blog concept and the zine concept in perfect contrast. Mike’s work on the blog is informative, but when coupled with art and articles that are geared towards a longer-lasting presentation, it shines. It won another well-deserved Hugo in 2008.
Andy Hooper and Randy Byers are two of the best writers going today, and you can read their work in Chunga (https://efanzines.com/Chunga/index.html ) which the two of them edit along with carl juarez. The material they publish tends to go into many different areas, but all maintain a feeling of connection to fandom. They publish material from a great many other fannish writers, including Hugo-winning legends like Ted White and Stu Shiffman. Trap Door by Bay Area fan Robert Lichtman (https://efanzines.com/TrapDoor/index.htm ), Askance by John Purcell (https://efanzines.com/Prior/index.htm ), Relapse/Prolapse by English legend Peter Weston (https://efanzines.com/Prolapse/index.htm ), and Procrastinations by John Coxon (https://efanzines.com/Procrastinations/index.htm ) are all exceptionally fannish zines that still allow for writing in a wide arena of topics, but all feel as if they’re a part of fandom and fannish discourse.
The paper-only fanzine Banana Wings, and the highly techno-soaked zine PLOKTA (https://www.plokta.com/plokta/index.html ), are two of the finest zines, with Banana Wings featuring excellent writing from its contributors and editors (2011 Hugo for Best Fan Writer Claire Brialey, and the awesome Mark Plummer), while PLOKTA includes exceptional layout, art and writing from the world-famous PLOKTA Cabal group of contributors.
The Hugo for Best Fan Writer nomination lists have been dominated by writers for traditional zines. Fine writers like John Hertz, Claire Brialey, Steven H Silver, James Bacon and even Christopher J Garcia are best-known for their writing in zines, though Garcia, Bacon, Hertz, and especially Silver, can all be found on various online sites. Jim C. Hines, who is nominated for the first time this year, runs a very well-regarded blog, as did 2008 Best Fan Writer winner John Scalzi. Cheryl Morgan won in 2009, and while she ran a wonderful fanzine in the distant past (Emerald City, still available at https://www.emcit.com/ ), she won in Montreal based on her writing for various sites and her own blog. Fred Pohl, who won in 2010, did so based on his work on https://www.thewaythefutureblogs.com/. James Nicoll found himself on the ballot twice, being best-known for his posts to USENET in the 1990s and currently for his reviews and LiveJournal. Brialey’s win in 2011 could be seen as something of a throwback as she is almost entirely represented by her work in zines, something that has not been the case for Best Fan Writer for several years.
The Hugo for Best Fanzine is slightly different. Over the last decade, nine different titles have won Best fanzine. In 2009, the fiction zine Electric Velocipede won, followed in 2010 by the podcast StarShipSofa (https://www.starshipsofa.com/ ) in 2010. The Drink Tank, a PDF-only zine (for the most part…) won in 2011, which was something of a shock.
Many question why a fanzine is still relevant when compared to a blog that has thousands of readers. One reason is that the voices you will find in a zine like The Drink Tank are different from those that you’ll see in blogs, especially in the area of artists and writers. You will find many writers who live in both worlds, but often the material they’ll produce for one form is much different than for the other. I have noted several writers, myself included, who produce work for zines that are designed to be a bit bigger, less brazen perhaps, and more presentational. The other is that zines have roots in fandom that are not as strong in blogs, leading to a focus on events like conventions and fandom history that you’ll not find in many blogs. Many bloggers have become that ranting commentator who never actually participates in the events they react to; a claim held often against many zine writers of earlier days.
Zines today are places where content that is meant to stand through time ends up. It is rare that a blog post, once it goes beyond the first page of posts, gets much traction. It may as well have not happened in many readers eyes. A zine has permanence, stands like a half-buried statue: often ignored and sometime maligned, but there, present, waiting for notice. It is in zines that our shared history exists, where wonderful expressions are found that are not merely NOW! Sadly, it seems that today’s readers are far more interested in NOW! than they are in permanence, in continuity, in completeness. Some can only see that Fanzines were once something grand, but now are outmoded, passed in importance by blogs that can carry the latest info as quickly as possible. Those that read zines, and this appears to include a fair number of Hugo voters, understand the power of what is presented there, and many vote accordingly. The balance between work meant for the moment and work meant to stand for time is marked and people seem to trench defiantly on one side or the other. Both approaches are valid, and while one may over-shadow the other in number of participants, it is important to remember that great material may be found even in the shadowed valleys we may not want to pass through.