Phantom Discourse

Originally published in Squib, edited by Victor Gonzalez. Copyright 1997 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

There's more to history than what happened. We exist from moment to moment in a shifting web of stories we make up as we go along: what has happened in the past to bring us to this point? What futures are likely to proceed from it? Our improvised scenarios are terribly important to us – we make decisions based on them – but we discard them in a moment to make room for new ones; and as soon as we do so, the old configurations collapse and fade from memory. If it weren't for primary sources and contemporary accounts, much historiography would consist of finding new ways to say "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Over a decade ago (what Terry, forever frozen in time, refers to as "last year"), I was one of the fans whose names appeared in an ad urging Hugo voters to vote "No Award" in the Best Fanzine category. I hadn't thought about that episode in years, but reading Terry's piece brings it back to me. As I recall, there had been Best Fanzine Hugo campaigns mounted on behalf of a couple of service publications – one Trek- oriented, one by and for costumers. The basis for this campaign, or at least the promotional material I saw at the time, said (approximately) "-It's about time these communities got more recognition!-"

I wish Terry were still here so I could argue with him. I'd tell him it was never about dictating fannish tastes and styles (as though anyone could). Speaking for myself, I just didn't like having the Best Fanzine Hugo used to promote some other unrelated activity. That is, if fans felt that a zine that was ostensibly about costuming was also, in its own right, the best fanzine published that year – the liveliest, best written, most engaging, all that stuff – then fine; no problem. But I couldn't see the justice of a proposal to vote en masse for a fanzine about costuming if the sole point was to promote costuming. By that same logic you could campaign to give Best Novel to a book because it had exceptionally cool costumes on its dustjacket.

This distinction seemed perfectly clear to me, and still does. It didn't travel well. I can't remember whether it surprised me that it didn't. What I do recall, vividly, is how often during those years our lot of fanzine fans were accused of trying to force other fanzines to adopt a trufannishly correct mode of fanac. We repeatedly pointed out that we couldn't force anybody to do anything, period the end. It didn't help. I find myself getting irritated by this all over again. The longer I think about it, the more it comes back to me.

So much depends upon technology and the means of distribution. At that moment in fannish time there was a lively fanzine scene, but we still felt a little isolated and a bit besieged. Fandom kept getting bigger, and paper and postage kept getting more expensive, and with the best will in the world there was no way a traditional fanzine – run off on mimeo, available for trade or The Usual – could go out to more than a fraction of the fannish universe. I remember explaining to some British fans that part of the reason US fanzines contained so many fanhistorical references and jokes was that we were signaling to each other over large gaps of time, space, and social distance, like a hilltop semaphore or nautical flag hoist spelling out F-A-N-N-I-S-H D-I-S-C-O-U-R-S-E H-E-R-E. And all the while the older discourse we referred to was receding further and further into the past; a young fan could only read those old fanzines if he knew another fan who already owned copies of them.

In retrospect, it was inevitable that we should have been resented. But in our own youth we had fallen in love with fannishness and never gotten over it. It was (and still is) a bright place in our imaginations, and the strangest and most unshakable of ideals. Our critics gave us nothing we could love in its place.

It's 1997, and most of my fanac happens in rec.arts.sf.fandom. A lot of us wound up there. Now that I've gotten used to online communication, there's a level on which I can no longer understand why I didn't simply say, "No, I'm not trying to force your fanac into a mold; I just think your writing sucks. That's not the same thing at all." Which thought obscures whatever I would have thought in its place, back in the mid-1980s, and so that bit of the past has become invisible to me. I cannot reconstruct it.

Nor can I sort out everything Terry meant. For instance, who exactly was he talking about? It wasn't just me-and-mine; we never said that everything being done now (then) was done better twenty or thirty years earlier. For starters, we were publishing at the time, and thought our fanzines were pretty good; for another, we'd seen a lot of old fanzines. There's enough particularity in Terry's grumbling to make me think he has someone or something specific in mind, but I can't ask him about it now.

And, not for the first time, I can't figure out Terry's own take on the whole thing. Did he have a position, or was he just observing one pattern and matching it with another? Terry was like that. When he turns up in my dreams (and he does), it's seldom as himself; he's always on the inside of the text, not the outside. He inhabited it when he was alive, and he haunts it now.