by Victor M. Gonzalez
Good fanzine writing is mostly good essay writing.
Although humorous vignettes, straight reporting, short-form reviews and interviews also fill up space, personal writing is the bulk of most fanzines, and is possibly the reason we read and enjoy them. Convention reports, fanzine and book reviews and tales of the household kitty (or mouse) all fall into the "personal essay" category.
I've found that I forget most fan articles within hours of reading them, but that the exceptions are usually what I consider well-written personal essays -- Christina Lake's Never Quite Arriving #5, for example. It is a rare fanzine. It invariably made me smile, it was educational, and I really dug the writing. Good use of detail, and the right ones, mostly.
Of Monday night at the Los Angeles worldcon: "Even the fan lounge was dismantled, and what was left of the food, chips and beer taken out to the comfy chairs in the foyer where a circle of fans partied unconvincingly to the accompaniment of farewell hugs and smothered yawns."
Of a restaurant near Mexico City: "One the way out we admire the huge vats of soup, where if you watch them being stirred long enough you can see the heads and other parts of animals emerge."
Never Quite Arriving is a trip report, as Christina travels the United States and Mexico. It starts near Boston, in a household of computers, children and adults, as Christina buys a car. Then to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, a 12-day party tour. A road trip across the eastern half of the U.S. follows, and some letters round out the fanzine. The Steve Stiles cover -- Christina ascending stairs through a trap door, traversing four worlds -- is fantastic.
Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding in the reading of fannish essays is the size of the intended audience. I have no problem with those who write for their 20 or 30 closest fan buddies. But I wonder why the same essay is sent to 400 people. Writing for a small group is an example of the beauty that results when a tremendous amount of information is indicated through context without direct statements. To a small audience, the fannish audience, the mention of a name brings forth connotations of personality and character that -- if the person isn't known to the reader -- would have to be spelled out. If the fanzine is really aimed at 30 people, and you're not one of them, much of the context will go over your head. The more contextual condensation the writer employs without actual description, the smaller the intended audience becomes.
Being outside the audience creates disconnection. Related to that is the level of detail. A conversation aimed for 30, no matter how rife with ennui, insults and knowledge of corruption, is tedious to those outside.
And, by the way, I think this applies regardless of the size of the intended audience. It's fine to write for a smaller group of people, but don't expect the rest of us to understand it. If it's written in Greek, few fans will bother to translate, no matter how funny it is.
It would be too simple to say there is a division in fandom between those who only write about their immediate group and those who expand to appeal to a larger mass; and Christina couldn't have fallen into that trap anyhow, as she was separated from her group. And, I hasten to point out, there are plenty of fannish essays that manage to talk about local events in an interesting way. Sometimes it is merely a matter of imagining what your fannish friend across the country will get out of what you're writing.
That is where Christina succeeds. Perhaps because everything she writing about is new to her, it's all presented with enough context for almost anyone to understand.
Writing for a more distant audience is not easy. It isn't always the best thing to do with the material at hand. I believe that a joke capable of making your friends fall off their chairs is worth putting into print, no matter what the venue. But, as D. West put it in that very analytical, personal essay written years ago, it depends on what arena you prefer to play in. If the bigger arena isn't appealing, that's fine with me.
I think Christina's tales of Mexico would be accessible to anyone. The only character she knows that the reader doesn't is exemplified by her rather impulsive actions. The stuff on Toner and the worldcon is accessible to any fan with a basic American fannish education.
Of her confused and delayed meeting with Shrimp Brother One in the Las Vegas airport: "What a relief to finally find a large guy in an olive-green t-shirt waving to me as I got off the bus. Tom Springer, I presume. Well, after that, what could we do but go to meet Tammy and relax with a few beers etc."
That's about all that could be said for Springer, and I even know what "etc." means. So maybe that quote isn't the best example of what I'm talking about.
And in the interests of full disclosure, I admit that my name is mentioned in the fanzine, and I've never met Christina.
But, despite being corrupted by knowledge and egoboo, I think Vegas fans are presented as the energetic, unfailingly trufannish souls they are. In her report, Christina says something about what makes the Vegrants interesting, even to those who haven't had the pleasure.
Christina spends some time comparing her impressions in person to those she had encountered in print: "As if they weren't real people but cartoon fan personas who lived the complete fannish life. Not a group of friends socializing who sometimes have a great time and sometimes get stressed with each other, who have jobs to go to, watch TV and get on with life, but Fan Family who quip merrily with each other about Rotsler and Tucker and behave like they're characters in a piece of '50s fan fiction."
I don't think Christina's being critical there, and I'm not either. I enjoy a portion of Wild Heirs every issue, and I can't fault Las Vegas fandom for lack of output.
If I were to be critical, I might point out a couple spots in Christina's narrative where I stopped for a few seconds. One is her farewell to Mexico City: "I know there is crime. I've seen all the different kinds of uniformed police and soldiers on the street, seen the beggars, whole families of beggars with young children in tow, but even so, Mexico is beginning to get to me."
And about a belated trip to the AIDS quilt in Washington D.C.: "I walk around in that mellow slanting late afternoon sunlight, feeling both melancholic and uplifted. When most of the quilt pieces have been put away I help in folding one, lifting a corner and laying it down gently in the centre. Then I walk away, back toward the bustle of 'Taste of D.C.,' glad that I had made this little pilgrimage."
Both of these passage seem to resolve themselves a little too simply: open, complex questions that collapse in a few lines of rhetoric.
But, I think these things -- which just jarred me a little -- are indicative of an honest writer. I have the strong sense, while I'm reading her fanzine, that Christina is trying to communicate to me the most interesting things she can recall. What flaws exist help say something about her that we didn't know before. And that's a valuable thing, if you give a damn, because no one can be viewed as human if they don't exhibit flaws.
In any case, I ended up giving a damn about Never Quite Arriving. I suspect I'll remember it for a while. I can't say that about most fanzines.
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