Toughminded Straighttalking Viciously Elitist Ivory Tower Blues
Abi Frost

There's probably better entertainment going than the spectacle of a fanwriter going on the defensive -- a slightly below average episode of Crossroads springs to mind -- but if you really want to see it, the surest way is to call the person of your choice an elitist.

The muscles of the neck and jaw stiffen a little, the back straightens in the biped's inadequate attempt at the feline arch; the lips, uncertain whether to compress into the pursed position or to stretch into the primate's teethbaring grimace, twitch helplessly. The voice (possibly or possibly not at the prompting of the brain) protests that its owner is NOT; is NO-SUCH-THING; pays the heed normally expected of those in his or her position to the fall of every sparrow, the turning of each worm; merely, perhaps in the circumstances pardonably, tends to spend more time with old and dear friends than with strangers. While larynx and tongue and mouth are thus engaged, the hand creeps to pocket or handbag, anticipating the placatory sound; 'But you will, won't you, let me buy you a drink?' (Unless the accuser -- the legendary Little Jenny Fan -- has heeded the advice of that unlikely Proops, Rob Hansen, and got her round.)

Yet, if the encounter is at all typical, all this muscular, laryngal, economic and (possibly or possibly not) cerebral activity is wasted, empty, mere ritual; for there is nothing whatever wrong with being an elitist. Hallelujah, I'm an elitist -- and I say so.


As a matter of fact, I'm not sure that either party in this dispute is using the word in the sense in which it would normally be used by the 'educated speakers' invoked by the harassed lexicographer. Leaving aside the embarrassing question of where that leaves them, consider the following:

'I only drink with my friends' and 'I only drink with the best writers' are both utterly defensible, indeed laudable, positions, though perhaps their holders might find some compromise inevitable in the real world. Only, however, when they together constitute an exercise in an elementary logic textbook do they imply: 'Therefore, my friends are the best writers'. Some fans may live under the benign delusion that their drinking mates are indeed the giants of literature; but unless they have some spiritualistic access to the Great Pub in the Sky (there to offer Joyce and Johnson friendly advice in points of etymology) or entirely materialistic access to the best literary parties (in which case, what are they doing at the Tun?) a delusion it is. Fans love to compare fannish writing to roughly similar work done for money, naturally to the latter's disfavour. Time and again we read 'good enough for the literary journals' 'Kettle better than Clive James' 'Journalists (though to be uncharacteristically fair one should not put the blame in its entirety on to the shoulders of these miserable drunken uncaring cretins, who have singlehanded brought the English Language if not the nation to its knees; one must also consider the scandal of the Hugo Awards) have no sense of literary style.'

As one who reads the literary journals (and the serious weeklies, which are I think what is meant when 'literary journals' are invoked); who thinks that good Kettle and good James are each other's equals (though can't help wondering if Leroy could -- er -- cope with three or four deadlines a week); who is a working journalist (albeit of a specialist kind) and the child and grandchild of journalists; in my meekest tone I say:


Anyone who thinks that the readers of (say) the Spectator would, if offered one week an average fanzine article, cry loud hosannas at the new world of beauty therein revealed can have only two excuses. Either they have never read the Spectator (or any periodical of similar quality); or their senses have been so dulled by years of Heinlein and 2ndhand Wave that they are unable to discriminate between the excellent and the mediocre (or, for that matter, the mediocre and the atrocious).


It is of course delightful to think of yourself and your friends as an elite. But though many are called, few are chosen; and never, it seems, have so few had to put up with the resentment of so many. The many resent the few's exclusiveness: they suspect that the fewite's cry 'But these are my friends' is not the whole truth. They are right, in a sense, though not in the sense they mean; the few, like aristocrats marrying Gaiety Girls, happily admit those they see as attractive, talented, interesting, pleasant to have around; why, they even speak to Phil Palmer, who claims to regard them all as the worst thing this side of Dennis Thatcher. But the many don't see their lack of these qualities as relevant (I doubt if it occurs to some of them that these are desirable qualities); they think they have been rejected because they are 'not good writers'. It is this, above all, that they resent.

First, they resent being barred by so unfair a criterion. It is easy to accept that some win favour through sweetness of nature, physical attractiveness, charm, wealth, or noble birth; these qualities, they reason, they could gain for themselves if they chose. But the ability to gather a few ideas into a coherent argument, to form them into sentences according with the accepted and accommodating rules of English grammar, to choose words with imaginative precision and to put the apostrophes in the right places; this is a precious gift, handed out sparingly by a mean and capricious God.

On consideration, though, the individuals that make up the many each see this unfair barrier as the more unfair. They perceive themselves as, as it were, in the position of those white South Africans who (I think through some disorder of the liver) over-night turn black; whether the barrier is fairly erected or not, they are on the wrong side! Jack is as good as his master -- or at least Jack can't see any difference. For did not Jack suffer, did he not choose silence, exile, and what might be construed as cunning? Has he not known the solitude of true genius -- and, thereby earned, the right to admission in the company of the elite?


A shilling life will tell you all the factoids. Typically, Jack learnt at an early age that his vast intelligence set him apart from the other boys. (They are all boys, these whining scribblers.) Never mind. He consoled himself with his sense of wonder, his conning of Hermetic texts not accessible to the rabble; revelling in the future sufferings of the football players, birdpullers, debating society stars under some frightful supergalactic dicatatorship lovingly described in the smelly pages of interminable Space Sagas. Later, he thought, he would find friends of his own caste, when he went to read Computer Studies with Russian and Sociology at something that fraudulently called itself a university.

But even the white heat of this revolting polytechnic could not forge Jack into a social success. Interminable still assured him that solitude was the badge of the superior being (Ezra Pound was a fixer, Marx was a pubcrawler, Woolf loved gossip, Bertrand Russell screwed every woman in sight ... they can't have been all that bright, can they?), yet he longed for the company of his equals. Then he discovered a BSFA flyer, and went off to meet like minds ... only to find that they regarded him as the scum of the earth.

He learnt 'fannish slang', only to find that they didn't use it; he bought drinks, but drank them alone; he put out a fanzine, but they didn't want to read it. And those who had to read it, being under some kind of obligation to review the things, ignored his sufferings and his agonised initiation, and concentrated on its lack of qualities that he couldn't comprehend.


It is not Jack's fault that he took refuge in that phoney egalitarianism that refuses to acknowledge that in works of art (which fanzine articles are) there is such a thing as innate quality. No doubt it is difficult for somebody with a pseudo-scientific background (as all these Jacks are) to evaluate, rather than simply to enumerate. They lack any literary background; they have no critical standard. And if you cannot evaluate a piece of work, you must measure the process of creations the labour and suffering put into it by its maker. And Jack has accumulated an infinity of labour-and-suffering-units; the miserable adolescence of the spotty swot, the bleeding digits of the one-finger typist. These alone make Ulysses look like a Keats and Chapman story. The education that might have made him a writer -- or made him give up before he made an idiot of himself -- was stolen from him by fraud.

Anyone whose secondary education took place during all or part of the Wilson/Heath years will remember it all. We were on the receiving end of a mass of propaganda about the need for Britain to produce more scientists, the irrelevance in the modern world of the old 'liberal arts', 'public school/Oxbridge' values. Literature, languages, history, were 'girls' stuff. Jack and his fellow sf readers, I would guess, are those who fell for all this.

Well, here we are in Wilson's golden age, and what good has it done us? We are not merely spiritually poorer than we were then, but materially so. All this pseudo-science has not made it possible for all to have jobs, or for some to sit at hone and read books without starving. All this metrication, computerisation and technologese, and you can't buy a pair of shoes that lasts six months. All these Certificates of Secondary Education, and when Greg Pickersgill tells people to apply some thought to their writing, they all think he's demanding slavish imitations of SBD.

(And when I express mild fears that some of them may make said slavish imitations, those who should know better think I'm saying SDB[*] was no good.)

I am amazed at the number of people about who seem never to have read anything at all but sf and fanzines. People who are willing to listen to talk about 'critical standards' in these two fields but dismiss the critical standard -- the world's great literature -- as 'main stream'. People who will say that (say) Nicholas is a good or a bad critic, but have no idea what the act of literary criticism is. (I refuse to comment on the question whether Nicholas has.)


What distinguishes the 'fannish elite' (at least, those whose elite status derives from their writing) is precisely that they do not take this attitude. A refusal to keep their minds in the ghetto characterises these people, no matter how hard some of them promote 'pure fannishness' in their fanzines. (Why do they? I do not know. And on this occasion, I'll let them off telling me.)

If the rest are ever to make the grade as writers, they will have to take time off from their home computers and read some of the works of the best writers, and try to analyse how their writing works. If necessary, they should seek the help of the best literary critics (this fanzine recommends William Empson, Edmund Wilson, and TS Eliot sometimes). Unless you can criticise, you cannot write above the Daisy Ashford level.


One fanwriter who has paid his Eng Lit dues is Malcolm Edwards, and one should take his pronouncements seriously. His pious exhortation to us all 'do our best' has been quoted all over the place, with complacent admiration. Never one to resist the temptation to place a pin and a balloon in close proximity, this fanzine fearlessly asks:

Why did a sensible chap like Malcolm line himself up with the phoney egalitarians? Oh, Malcolm knows, of course he knows, I refuse to believe that he doesn't know, if you say he doesn't know then he'11 sue you, the awful truth:


Seb Coe with a hangover can outrun Cyril Smith on roller-skates. Poor maimed Red Rum can outjump the donkeys on Southport Sands. Malcolm Edwards knows perfectly well that he can outwrite the average fan with one hand tied behind his back, Gerry Webb's dog biting the other, and a joint stuffed up his nose. He also knows, though (I suspect), that if somebody doesn't tell the yobbos to try harder, they'll actually get worse. So in the circs, the best thing is to fall back on their favourite myth.

Oh, DYB, DYB, DYB, and you can all become King's Scouts. Really DYB, DYB till you go blue, and you too can relieve Mafeking. And if, with all your DYBing, your con report or your article on Elitism -- the Curse of Our Cities somehow does not come up to scratch, the editors of Pong and all the greats of nth Fandom have the answer; don't worry, just write another draft.

The second, third, one-thousand-and-third draft is one of the great comforting myths of the fannish traditionalists -- I suspect, once again, because it's a matter of quantity of effort rather than quality of work. Writing direct on to stencil attains a magical status; those who can do it are treated as beings of power, those who don't are warned not to try, lest they get stuck in the spirit world when the wind changes. The inept writer is offered the panacea of endless re-writes. Polish, trim, titivate your prose; an oxymoron here, a classically balanced clause there, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

It won't do, of course. Not carborundum, not Goddard's Silver Dip, not the embroiderer's gilded scissors nor the topiarist's secateurs, not Adelaide Bartlett's arsenious powder, not Mary Quant's Nearly Natural Face Finish shall turn a heap of shit into the jewels of the Pharaohs.

And no more will criticism, or the knowledge of real literature. But at the root of criticism is the ability to recognise a heap of shit at sight, and to flush it away where it belongs without sentiment; then later, with luck or something, to see that what one has written is not a heap of shit but a pile of rubbish; maybe then, find in what seemed a pile of rubbish a useful store of recyclable materials. And so on, I suppose, until we see a good stone pyramid; or until the analogy becomes even sillier than this. Still,

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.


Out of the pose, Frost, away with Amis/Waugh rhetoric, the crazy verbal fancies of the Edwardian essayists; two things remain to be said.

1) The above is scattered liberally with unannounced and unexplained literary allusions. Tough luck, illiterates.

2) I have taken up fanzine reviewing in Ansible, and in the first attempt, made clear my dislike of feeble, imitative 'crudzines'. Yet still they come, from people who must have seen what I wrote. Just goes to show -- people won't believe adverse remarks apply to them.

Why has my hair gone long, curly, and auburn -- and why is some growing on my face? Are these desert boots on my feet -- what happened to my dainty satin flatties? Why has my Robert Wyatt record turned into Robert Johnson? Why does my window look out at South Ealing? Why is this page stopping where it says Quarto?

Brother Gregory -- I think I know how you felt in 1979.

* Oh, you remember Stop Drinking Brown; bloody ace fanzine. Why aren't there any like it today? (Sorry, Greg.)

New River Blues 6 (1982)