The Alpha and the Omega and Me

We're not often in at the death of things in fandom. For a start, things tend not to die. We cling to traditions of anything more than a week old with a desperation that suggests our very identity will be shattered if we let it drop. We conspire to keep things artificially alive, shambling beasts whose eyes have been eaten by crows, whose flesh has flaked away in handfuls, yet who march interminably on with a juddering gait their begetters could never hope to recognise. Eastercon is like that, Novacon may well be. They cannot die, we will not permit that mercy.

More often, though, things just fade away. We are a practical anarchy, we follow no rules. At least, we don't tend to stick to any posted timetable. So we do not notice if a mailing date is missed, though years after we might look around and scratch our heads and wonder whatever did happen to Rastus Johnson's Cakewalk? By then, of course, it is far far too late. The thing has not died, just drifted off into some irrecoverable ether.

So death is not common. We know not how to celebrate it.

Mexicon died, of course, but only after a titanic struggle. Those who cannot understand the sweet release stood broad and resolute about the plug we wished to pull. But pull it we did, and Mexicon achieved a certain honour in the manner of its going. Of course it was not a death prescribed from the moment of its birth: Mexicon had no life beyond the next moment. But it was a death foretold, and it was in the moment of that foretelling that Attitude was born. Now Attitude itself has died.

We come to bury Attitude, how much do we praise it?

The first thing to say is that though it feels like Attitude has been predicting its own demise right from the word 'go', that wasn't, in fact, the case. All that Mike Abbott promised in his editorial in the very first issue back in May 1994 was to 'think about it some more'. How quickly they did think about it, how soon they decided on self-immolation as the only appropriate course, is not that easy to tell. The decision had certainly been made by the time of Attitude: The Convention, but things were somewhat vaguer when the whole enterprise started.

Since Attitude is virtually unique among fannish enterprises in laying out an agenda with a clear end and closing itself down when it had reached that end, it is worth examining that agenda, assessing its success or otherwise through twelve issues of the fanzine and one convention. Except that it is not immediately clear exactly what vision did sustain Attitude across the last four years. As I said (and as certain correspondents pointed out in the letter column of issue 2) the plan wasn't exactly as clear-cut as all that. There was the six-point programme laid out by Mike Abbott in that first editorial:

1: Produce a dead good fanzine

2: Produce another dead good fanzine

3: Repeat step 2 at regular intervals

4: Run a wizzo convention

5: Err…

6: Think about it some more

If you have a coach and horses handy, I'll show you a few convenient holes you can drive it through. And although Mike spent his entire editorial expanding on this - 'The convention is planned for 1996' - and John Dallman and Pam Wells took it further still in their respective articles, you came out of all this scene-setting with little real idea of what is meant by a 'dead good fanzine' or a 'wizzo convention'.

We are left, therefore, with leading by example (and if Andy Hooper is, by issue 7, raising the spectre of Attitude as a focal point fanzine, then some sort of example is surely intended). 'Fanzines matter,' John Dallman told us in that long-ago first issue. 'They aren't the heart of the monster that is fandom any more, but they are still its memory, and sometimes its imagination.' The memory wasn't that much exercised in Attitude - except for John Clute's curious trilogy of articles in the first three issues about the importance of the community of fandom within the wider community of sf, which comes from the perspective of one who has spent almost his entire career within the sf community but outwith the fannish - but the imagination was. Every single issue had its fanzine review column, and there was a fanzine review panel at Attitude: The Convention, a consistency that is entirely laudable.

Slightly less laudable in its effect was the determined practice of the Attitude cabal to use a different voice every time, a number of them not regular fanzine readers. ('For I'm no fanzine fan' - Kari, issue 2; 'Apart from the zines done by my friends I don't really see that many others' - Jim de Liscard, issue 3; 'I am not a fanzine fan' - Fran Dowd, issue 4. These are not necessarily bad columns - Fran's in particular is detailed, thoughtful and makes sensible use of the outsider perspective, which is what I think the Attitude cabal wanted - but three in a row is a diet that needs leavening. After all that, Ann Green's doughty 'I am a fanzine fan' in issue 5 came like a very welcome breath of sanity.) I know what they were trying to do, it was stated again in issue 1, about the closest Attitude ever came to a genuine statement of intent, when Mike Abbott said that Attitude 'wants active involvement, just like you get in the best bar or lounge conversations. We want that buzz too.' Attitude was about generating involvement, and they did that very successfully. The list of contributors over 12 issues was immense, the size of the letter column was always a joy to behold. But sometimes, as was the case with fanzine reviews, this breadth of involvement seemed to be achieved by the sacrifice of depth. With no consistent voice there was no context by which one might more thoroughly read a critic's judgements, sufficiently to draw one's own conclusions. Nor do there seem to have been any guidelines laid down by which we the readers might at least sense that the reviewers were looking for something coherent and consistent in the fanzines they reviewed - I still have no idea what Kari was looking for in the fanzines she reviewed.

Three first-time, non-involved reviewers one after another right at the start of the whole enterprise also didn't help to establish a tone or a standard for those who came after. Despite the heroic efforts of some of the reviewers tossed into this maelstrom, the very best fanzine review columns in Attitude were those by Andy Hooper (issue 7) and Mike Abbott (issue 9). Mike's stands out not, I hasten to add, because of the way he engaged with one of my own fanzine review columns (though that was the sort of engagement I've always hoped for), but because he was the most frequent contributor to Attitude and so had established a tone and personality through all that which carried into his reviews. We get more out of his reviews precisely because we know how his thinking works, we understand the standards he espouses, we recognise where we might agree or disagree with his judgements. Andy, on the other hand, takes the time to create a context, to establish and think through a coherent position: 'If fanzines don't provide us with clues toward some greater mystery, or if we do not at least act under the assumption that they do, it can be very difficult to regard them as being worth as tortuous an exercise as this column promises to be.' They both allow us an idea of what measure of salt we need to take with their criticisms.

So, what emerges from these 12 columns (or 13, if you include the review panel at Attitude: The Convention; or 11 if you exclude that and the column in issue 12 which both limited their reviewers to one fanzine rather than providing a survey of the field)? Well, reviewers in the earlier issues consistently liked Rastus Johnson's Cakewalk, those in later issues consistently like Plokta and Banana Wings, though the fanzine which comes out top of the league in terms of favourable reviews is probably Attitude itself. (I'm sorry, I know the reviewers were all from outside the cabal - though some of them were sent the fanzines for review by the cabal - but there is something queasily incestuous about this.) So, do we assume that the standard by which Attitude would have us judge itself is against a fanzine which does exactly what Attitude does? Well, it seems that by its own standards, Attitude was a winner.

This is, of course, unfair. Attitude had already set itself a standard in Mike Abbott's remark I quoted earlier from issue 1 when he laid such emphasis on involvement. If that was their goal, they succeeded tremendously; Attitude generated active involvement from more people across a wider range of fandom than any other fanzine I can remember, at least for the last decade or more. Whether that is sufficient to produce a focal point fanzine, as Andy Hooper hinted and as the cabal pretty obviously intended is open to question. Range didn't always translate into quality. The fanzine certainly encouraged the three editors to produce the very best work any of them had done to date, but other contributors didn't always match that level. Some of the writing was frankly dull, some needed expansion, others needed a much heavier editorial hand. But then, it would be a rare fanzine indeed in which every piece appealed to every reader, and the hit rate was impressive enough to clearly rank Attitude with the very best fanzines of our time. If it was not always 'dead good', it was at least 'good'.

But, of course, the enterprise was not simply to produce the fanzine, it was also to run the convention. And looking at what Attitude had to say about conventions, it is surprising to see how much of the fanzine was devoted to conventions: page-for-page, far more than was devoted to fanzines. This is surprising, in part, because conventions don't normally get this much attention, but more because so little of it actually sticks in the memory. One reason for this emerged during the panel on conventions at Attitude: The Convention, when Kari, speaking from the floor, told us we should not criticise convention committees because of all the hard work they do for free. So baldly stated, this is a twee and silly argument, yet it reflects a point of view that is prevalent in fandom today. Reading through all the convention coverage in Attitude, you would be hard put to find a genuinely critical statement (which means, in turn, that would-be convention organisers would be hard put to find what needs to be put right, what needs further thought, what else should be done). The clue, of course, is in the language we use: we have fanzine reviews, implying some critical comment analogous to book reviews, but convention reports, implying simple coverage of the facts, mere journalism - though to be fair there do seem to be more than enough fanzine reports without anything but the most perfunctory critical content, such as those by Ann Green (issue 5) and Steve Brewster (issue 6).

In fact, in terms of serious coverage of conventions Attitude started well, if unexpectedly, with Pat Silver's report on Sou'Wester (issue 1). Although she clearly considers some things far more important than I do, and has little or no time for things I consider vitally important (i.e., she is wrongheaded), this is actually that very rare beast in conreps, an attempt to engage with the machinery of the convention itself. She still finds herself unable to be critical at all, one is left with the distinct impression that here was a convention perfect in every respect; nevertheless, she started running with a baton no-one else has bothered to take from her. Although, from a slightly different stance, John Richards in issue 3 made an invaluable contribution to the convention debate with the sort of behind-the-scenes confessional that seems to have become his métier.

One reason that an analytical approach to convention reporting is hardly prevalent is the fact that the workings of the convention account for 50% or less of what makes the convention a success. As Tommy Ferguson says (issue 4): 'a lot of money is saved up and time invested in enjoying myself.' I and you and all of us have had perfectly good times at conventions that were, in and of themselves, perfectly ghastly. So it is natural that the experience of convention going has tended to predominate in convention reports over the technical question of the success of the convention. Thus Pat Silver's piece was balanced by Catherine McAuley's report on the first MisCon. It is curious but perhaps not entirely coincidental that this small convention with its emphasis firmly on the involvement of everyone in everything should have produced the two best conreps judged as pieces of fan writing: Catherine's in issue 1, Mark Plummer's in issue 5. While the 'What I Did On My Holidays' school of conrep - first I did this, then I did that, and so-and-so said… - was largely absent from the fanzine, the notable exception being Janet Wilkins's tedious account of Octocon in issue 7, the conreps that did appear didn't always stand up as fan writing in their own right. The trouble is that such experiential convention reports depend for their effect almost entirely on the fan writing skills of the author, they are works primarily of fellowship and entertainment. Without the talents of, for example, Catherine or Mark, they add nothing to our knowledge or appreciation of conventions (in the general or the particular) while being, all too often, unutterably dull. The end result being reports like that by Rhodri James on the filk con Obliter-8 (issue 8), in which the writer is totally uncritical and clearly enthusiastic, yet which leave you heartily glad you were nowhere in the vicinity.

Bearing that in mind, therefore, it should surprise no-one that the most memorable writing about conventions was concerned with Mexicon (John Dallman, issue 2) and Novacon (Pam Wells, issue 4). John's diptych - an experiential report that captured perfectly the run-down, fin-de-siecle feel of Mexicon 6: The Party/Wake, coupled with a discussion of the impetus to conrunning that was inspired by the Mexicon Debate - was entirely disinterested and clearly represented a thoughtful, well-considered approach to the subject. Pam's article was more involved, beginning with a superbly judged assessment of the character and perception of the convention, but losing it somewhat when the article transmogrified into a fairly routine experiential report of Novacon 24. But what made these two (and the John Richards article in issue 3) especially good was that they were prompted as much by an issue as by the con. Both blend experience with analysis, the personal (who fell over when) with the universal (what the programme did and how it worked), and while neither aspire to the fan writing heights, they do at least say conventions are worth discussing, not just lauding.

More interesting in its way, however, was the multi-voiced report on The Scottish Convention (issue 6), because it presented a fresh way of engaging with the convention. Now this played no part in any critical convention debate - none of the contributors made any serious effort to discuss the machinery or the presentation of the convention, beyond the familiar complaints about the abominable acoustics that echoed and re-echoed from one voice to the next. Nor did it pretend to be exhaustive or even accurate reportage - a couple of contributors spoke only of their journey there (movingly, in Sandra Bond's case); some were elliptical (David Cooper in full: 'Some of the numbers added up, some of the numbers didn't.'); and the programme seemed to consist entirely of Samuel Delany talks and the gay programme strand. But what it did succeed in wonderfully was revealing that the Worldcon was not one convention but 5000, and that one person's experience was likely to relate only tangentially, if at all, to anyone else's.

They tried much the same sort of thing on Attitude: The Convention in issue 11. Admittedly, this was probably the only way of reporting on themselves, but with a smaller convention and a smaller constituency (and, I suspect, rather more words per contributor) you don't get variety so much as consistency. There is more intersection (if you'll pardon the word) of experience, so you don't get the sense of oblique glimpses of a complex organism, rather you get the sense of people sharing a common experience which may be nice and warming and 'fannish' but it hardly seems to necessitate the approach. More valuable was the related exercise, a couple of issues earlier, of a multi-voiced anticipation of the convention; an exercise that was, in my experience, unique. I'm not sure it was a success. Looking back on it I can see how all the things set out on that particular market stall actually did reach some sort of fruition at the convention, but at the time, while I was commuting between bar and programme rooms in Great Malvern, I had no very real sense that what I was seeing reflected, other than very loosely, what I had previously read about. The discussions that took place in the two programme rooms felt very much as convention programme discussions always feel, as if they had sprung into being in that artificial moment and ended as the audience dissipated; they did not feel as if the way had been prepared, as if the discussion was growing organically from what had already started. It may be that that particular lack of success doesn't really matter in the general run of things, but it was a pity, it was, in its way, the only genuinely innovative thing about Attitude: The Convention, the thing that justified the transition from fanzine into convention.

Attitude: The Convention succeeded in the way that Attitude the fanzine succeeded. It created and sustained involvement - though with a deliberate top limit on numbers, that involvement could not be anything like so wide as the fanzine appeared to generate. It succeeded in being good enough to make the attendees feel good, small enough to make them feel involved, elitist enough to make them feel part of the elite. It didn't innovate in the way that, I think, the cabal intended. The majority of the programme items that had been laid out on the market stall of issue 9 came into being as programme items familiar from other conventions - not in detail, maybe, but in the sort of questions raised and answers offered. I know that those of us involved in the fanzine review panel could as easily have put on exactly the same performance at any other convention in the last 20-odd years: we cherry-picked a few fanzines, but we didn't actually address the nature of the fanzine. If Attitude: The Convention was a genuine reflection of Attitude the enterprise - certain flourishes, like 'Stance, Erudition, Scorn', suggest that was always the intent, though it takes a patient rereading of the entire cycle to see that the reflection was in more than just these dressings - then it seems that Attitude was not about anything particularly fresh, but was rather concerned with taking the familiar - the familiar contents of a fanzine, the familiar constituents of a convention - and doing them well. They did do them well. Maybe that leaves the whole thing with a rather old-fashioned feel about it - and certainly there was a stretch during the middle of the run when Attitude, despite a few individual articles, felt distinctly tired - but maybe that is what we mean by a 'dead good fanzine', a 'wizzo convention'. We don't always want or need things to be fresh, there is no real craving for innovation - so long as we get care, so long as sometimes we get genuine quality and most of the time we don't get dross, what more could we want. Attitude's quality to dross ratio erred, if anything, on the side of quality: that was generous.

If I have concentrated in this review on fanzine reviews and convention reports (as well as other less pigeonholeable coverage of fandom and related issues), it was in part because this occupied a disproportionately large percentage of their output, and also because in considering their attitude towards these fundamentals of fannish life we might the better judge their own fanzines, their own convention, by their own standards. But if we do that we must not neglect the eclecticism that was one of the most significant features of the fanzine in particular. They gave a home, for instance, to excellent serious articles on sf and fantasy and the writing of the same by such as Jenny Jones (issue 2), Maureen Speller (issue 3), Gwyneth Jones (issue 6), Mary Gentle (issue 7), Geoff Ryman (issue 11) and, my particular favourites, Colin Greenland on outlines (issue 5) and M. John Harrison on The Course of the Heart (issue 9). There were more idiosyncratic pieces, ranging from Linda Krawecke on buying a dog (issue 1) to Martin Tudor providing an unexpectedly scholarly assessment of Alexander the Great (issue 8), by way of Alison Scott and Sue Mason on their underwear in issue 7. And if the fanzine did have a tendency to seriousness and, dare I say it, stuffiness, this was regularly off-set by comedy, particularly the occasional irruptions of Mike Siddall and Mike Abbott. Above all, we should not forget that Attitude featured some of the very best fan art we have seen for a good long time, most notably from D. West, Dave Hicks, Brad Foster, Ian Gunn and Steve Jeffery. Most of that eclectic range of articles found some echo - if oft-times pale and distant - in the programme of Attitude: The Convention, so it was particularly disappointing that they did not find some appropriate way to incorporate fan art more effectively into the programme also.