Fanorama by Walt Willis

The Post-NEBULA Columns

from ZENITH No. 7, December 1964:

“An excess of credulity is an excellent fault in females, assuring as it does the perpetuation of the species.” I found this remark in my notebook, without any initials after it, so that now I'm not quite sure whether I said it, or Dr. Johnson. Mind you this is not a problem which I run across very often, and before someone jumps on me for bigheadedness on this occasion let me hasten to point out that many of the pronouncements attributed to the famous Doctor are just as stupid as anything I could say. They would be ignored as those of an opinionated old boor, if it weren't for the famous name and that pontifical style, which I think I was imitating. One thing I do know was that the Doctor couldn't have been thinking of Beryl Henley, and I'm pretty sure I was.

Beryl, you will remember, wrote an article about reincarnation, and I said in this column that I had always thought of it as a crackpot idea. Subsequently in a letter somewhere Beryl defined fandom as a place where being called a crackpot could make you feel ten feet tall. Well good for her, I thought. And good for us, I added; here we have a likeable girl who is a good sport, can write well, has a sense of humour, and doesn't take criticism of her work as a personal affront. You don't get people like that coming into fandom every day. She is my very favourite ten foot tall crackpot.

So it was with pleasant expectations that I started to read LINK 1 (Beryl Henley, 59 The Fearnings, Crabbs Cross, Redditon, Worcs, 1/- per copy), especially as it was billed as a humourous fanzine. Unfortunately as it turned out, it seems as far as I was concerned to have one defect which was quite serious for such a publication. It wasn't funny. I admit that if you fed it into a computer you wouldn't get this assessment, because it has all of the superficial attributes of humour. The style is informal, it deals with interesting people in potentially amusing situations, and it even has the characteristics of the best type of fannish humour— wild logic, allusiveness, running gags, word-play, and an element of fantasy. What we have here, I concluded, is the raw material of humour. It is an interesting lode, but it has just been dug up and left there in a heap.

It's unfair to criticise anything as subjective as humour without giving an example, so let me quote from a paragraph dealing with Beryl's part in an amateur dramatic production:

“I dropped an ad-lib line which I'd been saving for weeks, and ruined me Injun Dad's war-cry. ‘I call braves!’ he ranted, ‘and we make war on these paleface weaklings. Too long they have trodden us down!’ ‘Pore soles!’ I howled. ‘Collapse of chief.’”

Now I know that nearly anything goes on the stage, especially in amateur dramatics, and I am prepared to admit that this was a very good pun at the time and probably brought the house down. I am concerned only with the literary presentation of the incident to us. From our point of view, sitting as we are reading it in cold blood (an uncomfortable situation at the best of times unless you happen to be wearing waterproof trousers) this is not a very good pun, partly because it has only one layer of meaning. A pun is successful to the degree in which it reveals unexpected associations; all this one shows you is people's feet, which were there anyway. Worse, the word “pore” clutters up the scene. I thought for a moment this was part of the gag, some reference being intended to the pores in the skin of the soles of the savage's feet, the sweat from which is supposed to enable them to walk on burning coals. Whether this is so or not, the momentary doubt is fatal. In fact I think the only reason “pore” is there is to provide a signpost to “souls.” It might have been better to say simply “the heels,” which while not very good either would have avoided that fatal doubt.

But in any event all that we the reading audience get from the account is this single pun, which looks weak in print. For us the humour of the incident can lie only in the effects of the pun, and for this “Collapse of chief” is inadequate. For one thing an author must describe a character before we can appreciate his reactions—even such a simple surefire piece of slapstick as a man slipping on a banana peel will not be funny unless we have reason to think the victim was pompous. It was necessary here, I think, to portray the other actor as pedantic, humourless and perhaps over conscientious about learning his lines, so that we have some interest in his reactions. And then those reactions should have been described as vividly as possible. As it stands the account is like rendering the famous episode of Harris and the missing can-opener in Three Men In A Boat as “Then we saw a passing stranger try to open a tin.”

All this may seem like using a steam hammer to crack a very small chestnut, but humour needs as much attention to detail as poetry. For instance the ambiguity of the word “pore” above originates in a basic defect of Beryl's style, the notion that there is something intrinsically humourous about colloquial mispronunciation. This may occasionally be true when it is used unexpectedly, but not when the whole thing is written that way in what is presumably an attempt at casual spontaneity. This is a laudable ambition, but doomed. In fact casual spontaneity is a very difficult style to achieve, requiring much hard work. All we have here is a first draft.

I was so frustrated about the humourous part of this fanzine that in desperation I actually read the serious poems at the back. Generally serious poetry in fanzines has the effect of sending me into a sort of coma, from which I awake to find myself reading some other fanzine, but not this time. Beryl's poem shows she can write very well when she works at it. It is in the form of answers to that Zen Buddhist saying, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” which has always seemed to me such a silly meaningless question as to make one suspect that the entire wisdom of the inscrutable East is just a load of old codswallop, but Beryl's answers are not silly.

Indeed, they show a sensitivity and ability to handle words which makes one realise that the first draft we have just been reading may be one of a very good humourous fanzine indeed. To believe that humour is easier to write than poetry shows nothing worse than an excess of credulity, which is, as I or Dr. Johnson said, hardly a fault at all.

CON 1. Chris Priest, “Cornerways,” Willow Close, Doddinghurst, Brentwood, Essex. 1/- per copy.

It seems to me that British addresses get more cumbersome every year. How is it that three words are often enough to pinpoint one house in the entire sub-continent of North America, whereas for these tiny islands we need envelopes that look like miniature gazetteers? Oh well.

This fanzine comes complete with a book of matches, a striking innovation, but the editor himself feels it needs a lighter touch. I feel that his little Department of Useless Information is more effective than many longer and less original attempts at humour. He offers a free lifetime subscription to anyone who can find a profitable use for one of these fascinating items, and I would like to make my own bid in respect to the statement that St. Pauls is sliding down Ludgate Hill at a rate of half an inch per century. I have read that in America people make fortunes by finding tiny inaccuracies in land deeds, so that they can, for instance, go and demand that a half inch strip of the Empire State Building be torn down, and it seems to me that the headlong descent of St. Pauls must by now have produced some quite profitable discrepancies.

I hope I win because this is a very likely-looking fanzine. One of the scientific items shows signs of over credulity—the only thing one can be certain of in newspaper reports is that they have got their facts wrong—and the fiction is quietly regrettable, but the remainder of the contents, which are all science-based—including the sixteen pieces of apparatus necessary for demonstrating the Second Law of Thermodynamics—show intelligence, literacy, and a refreshing degree of originality.

Walt’s comments on Beryl’s fanzine drew this response from her in ZENITH No. 8:

When Pete told me that Fanorama in ZENITH 7 dealt almost exclusively with LINK, I alternated between being terrified and elated. Well, I told myself, even if he pans it to hell-an'-gone, at least we'll get some clever and constructive criticism.

I was keenly disappointed. Not because you found LINK unfunny; a sense of humour, as you said, is a subjective thing, and very elusive of definition. In any case, as you will have observed from the LoCs in LINK 2, you are in a minority.

Not because you referred to LINK as “an interesting lode which has just been dug up and left there in a heap.” I accept that assessment without rancour ....

No, my disappointment was three-fold.

  1. A steam-hammer to crack a very small chestnut? Walt, it sounds more like a man digging for gold in a field of buttercups. Why search for hidden significances which were never intended to be there anyway? I'm a Midlander. I speak with a Brummie accent. And I wrote “pore” because that's the way I pronounce the word. That's all, I assure you! It wasn't meant to be a “very good pun.” Nearly a whole Z-page to analyse two words to death ... what a waste of Willis!

  2. Anyone who had not read LINK before reading Fanorama would probably assume that the zine was a solo job. It wasn't. As editor, I cheerfully carry the cans and accept the brickbats, but if there is any praise going—even the faint variety that is said to damn—I want it shared. I did not produce LINK alone. In fact, had it not been for the encouragement, and promises of help from Mary Reed, Anne Campbell, Archie Mercer, Doreen Parker, Mike Higgs and Ken Cheslin—plus the concerted nagging of assorted Brummies, and Charles Platt!—it's doubtful I would have tackled a zine as yet.

  3. No wonder serious poetry usually sends you into “a sort of coma”: “ ... shows she can write very well when she works at it.” But as far as poetry is concerned, I don't work at it. At least, not initially. I don't write poetry, it happens to me.

Anyway, thank you for the nice things you said. I stress that this is not intended as a letter of self-defense, I'm not protesting against your criticisms. It's just that I expected so much more from the doyen of zine reviewers. You're not quite as mute as if your soul were dead ... but this certainly isn't the type of music I'd anticipated hearing from my position as a supplicant outside Tara's walls.

May I also take you up on a remark you made in your review of Chris Priest's CON? “The only thing one can be certain of in newspaper reports is that they have got their facts wrong.” Even if that statement was made tongue-in-cheek, and I hope it was!— (a) it's a sweeping generalisation of the kind I dislike most, and (b) it's blatantly untrue. You are, I think, due to have Gray Hall at least, breathing brimstone all over your pet shamrock! I have no personal peppercorn to grind here—I packed up hacking for a newspaper in 1958—but I can assure you that any journalist who does get his facts wrong quickly finds himself between the Scylla of editorial wrath, and the Charybdis of the indignation of those who have been misreported. With, occasionally, the Damoclean sword of a threatened civil suit to add to his predicament.

Last revised: 26 September, 2006

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