For the past several years, local Jeremiahs belonging to a lot of well-known clubs have been warning that the end is near. I could run a column in this zine titled “Club Suicide Note of the Month” and never fail to fill it. What is going on?
All of the writers are club officers, sincerely trying to reverse a downhill trend. Though thousands of miles apart, they are fighting the same problems: A massive fall-off in attendance; All the work of keeping the club going left to an overworked handful; Fewer and less interesting activities; Empty treasuries.
Science fiction clubs are not immortal. Many of us have personally experienced the birth and death of some fledgling group. The attention-grabbing difference is these writers are sounding the death-knell for sf clubs that have met for over 20 years.
What’s more, these warnings come at the same time that fandom at large wonders how long it is destined to continue. Everybody hears about “the graying of fandom” and sees how the average age of Locus readers creeps up from year to year — from 36 to 43 since 1988. We’re not foolish enough to think we won’t get old, but where are the new, young fans? Even the newbies are gray. When Lou Tabakow was an old lion, we were the neos. Who will inherit everything we’ve invested in this way of life?
The popular notion is that the decline in clubs can be explained by the same theories offered about the ultimate fate of mainstream fandom — but is that true? And how do fans feel about sf clubs today? This article explores both questions using direct comments gathered from members.
Apocalyptic Visions of the Last Days of Fan on Earth: S.T.A.R. San Diego used to have a hundred fans at meetings, now they’re hovering around 30. In January 1998, the New Jersey SF Society gave up its meeting place: there were no longer enough dues-paying members for them to afford it. LASFS attendance has dropped by one-third since 1990. Attendance at many clubs peaked years ago and has tailed off dramatically, including at one of Albuquerque’s two sf clubs:
Roy Tackett: Albuquerque has the Albuquerque SF Society, which I founded in 1963, and Alpha Centaura, which came along in the early 1970s. AC was originally a Star Trek club and had about 400 members. That’s a bunch. It has dwindled down to about 15 now but still meets regularly every month and Star Trek is seldom mentioned.
The ASFS meets monthly also and has 25-30 members. It puts on Bubonicon every year (with our 30th coming up this year.) There is some overlapping of membership between the two clubs. ….I would say that both are stable.
The sf club concept was popularized in the 1930s through prozines like Wonder Stories, whose editor, Charles Honig, launched the Science Fiction League in 1934. The formula is simple. Fans show up, elect a president, make announcements and review the latest sf, and adjourn to eat. Once they raided the sherbet mine at Clifton’s Cafeteria, nowadays they consume mass quantities of pizza. The old formula still works at BASFA (the Bay Area Science Fiction Association):
Kevin Standlee: Around 10-25 people attend the meetings, which are held [each Monday night] at a Round Table Pizza parlor. There are regulars who can be expected to be there nearly every week and others who attend only now and then. The main part of each meeting is usually the reviews of what folks have been reading and watching.
It primarily exists as a regular weekly social meeting where fans can gather to talk with each other…. BASFA’s lack of ambition actually makes it easier to hold together, because we’re not constantly asking the membership to do things other than have fun.
At troubled clubs something has torn the social fabric and the simple, proven formula cannot hold people together any more. When it happens at a club that was once large and ambitious,the remaining members grieve over the major changes imposed by failing attendance. For them, withering to BASFA-size is a terribly discouraging change.
On the other hand, you never see one of these club suicide notes from a NESFAn. That club remains energized by the orthodox recipe for science fictional success: a belief that science fiction matters, backed up by hard work on book publishing, discussion groups, conventions and fanzines, balanced by many social gatherings. Did the distressed clubs lose the key to their success? Or are people not relying on sf clubs to meet their needs?
Didn’t I Join an SF Club? Whether speaking of the doom of clubs or the death of fandom, some fans blame both on the fact that fandom is not about sf anymore. Pat Gulley, a member of PorSFis (Portland, OR), warned members against this trend in her 1996 Pulsar editorial:
…In the case of our club, the frayed edges are starting to happen. The old rhetoric ‘you don’t have to know anything, just come and enjoy, why not run for elected office, let’s go to a new restaurant after each meeting, when are we partying, is there kid care, what’s going on in another club, what about gaming, how’s the science fiction center doing, read any comics lately, what’s at the movies, aren’t the science fiction movies and tv shows awful, did you catch Seinfeld….’ Hey! WHERE’S THE SCIENCE FICTION? All that stuff is part of the conversation of a social get-together, some is part of announcements, but is it why we joined a Science Fiction Club? I feel this present agenda is why we are sliding away from what should be the main focus of a club that calls itself a SCIENCE FICTION CLUB….
…The key word here is purpose. The club should have it and something must be expected from each of the members. I really think that’s why we lose so many new faces to OryCon: it has purpose that reaches fulfillment yearly. Nothing is expected from PorSFiS members. It has to be among the top reasons why it’s so easy for people to lose interest…. If you have any doubts, look at some other clubs like the L-5, The Baker Street Irregulars, Sisters in Crime, the Lions Club, Kiwanis, Wilamette Sailing Club, Portland Skyliners-The Tall Club, Parents Without Partners…lots of purpose.
Of course! Clubs are ailing because they’re no longer really about science fiction! When “mainstream fandom” stops participating in its core activity, who can be surprised by the lack of new “trufans”? We’ve become no different from the Moose, Elk and every other lodge competing for mundane members. Or so I enthused.
When I read Pat’s letter I felt lightning-struck because I recognized the same mindset in my home club, LASFS: obsessed with everything except science fiction and wondering why its attendance has fallen off by one-third in the 1990s. I could hardly wait to borrow Pat’s soapbox to make my own plea to restore the exciting ideas of science fiction to the center of club activities.
Then I thought again. I joined LASFS in 1970 and witnessed its explosive growth. The reality of those times was a bit different than you would suppose from Pat’s argument.
My quest through the pages of ’70s fanhistory found rather different role models than Pat’s theory would predict. Certainly, if it’s science fiction purism you seek, you can search the history of LASFS in vain for something to go back to.
You’ve probably read Harlan Ellison’s description of the place that LASFS met in for awhile in the 1960s, before I joined. “The Hill” was a big, weatherbeaten house immortalized in “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”:
Gothic, hideous, with grass half-cut and the rusted lawnmower sitting in the middle of an unfinished swath — as if the half-cut grass were a placating gesture to the outraged tenants of the two lanai apartment houses that loomed over the squat structure on either side.
Boundless enthusiasm for mind-altering substances, not a fanatical devotion to literary excellence, is the legend that survives about fans who lived at the Hill.
LASFS in 1970 was experiencing one “barbarian invasion” after another as it was discovered by local pockets of self-invented fandom: the Third Foundation, CalTech students, Granada Hills High School students — and USC “experimental college” students, like me. The first clubhouse, purchased in 1973, was immediately outgrown. Its successor was bought in 1977.
Were all these fans attracted by a focus on sf? Yes and no. There’s always been just as much — or as little — sf as anyone wants at LASFS. A fan could tie into a state-of-the-art sf and science discussion with Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Dan Alderson and others. (After all, it was LASFSian Flieg Hollander who first proved that the Ringworld is unstable, before moving on to UC Berkeley.) But current films, comics, costuming, gaming, local bus schedules, air dates for recording tv reruns, ammo reloading, and silly news reports (“the Committee on Surrealism in Everyday Life”) have been discussed just as passionately and as often. I must admit that what made me join LASFS was the chance to go with Joe Minne to the after-LASFS poker games at Larry Niven’s house….
When LASFS attempted its own sf discussion group in the mid-1970s (attended by Milt Stevens, Elst Weinstein, Dan Alderson, Marty Massoglia and me), we abandoned it after a few months. While the club drew 104 members to the first meeting in its original clubhouse and kept on growing until it bought a bigger property in 1977, our sercon discussion group never grew at all.
Skyrocketing attendance at LASFS was not the byproduct of any organized attention to the genre. Nor was there a correlation between attention to sf and the growth of clubs in other cities, for example, Minneapolis:
Denny Lien: MinnSTF has “always” (at least from 1971 when I moved to town and joined until mid-1995 when I stopped showing up) been pretty much a social club with very brief business meetings and no programming, and sf-related conversation was never necessarily a dominant theme at any given meeting/party anyway. So by the definition that appears to be assumed here, we’ve been spending at least two-and-a-half decades in decline/crisis, and certainly nonetheless seem to have been pretty robustly healthy for almost all of that time….
Tending to lean more towards the sercon than faanish side, I was ready to embrace Pat Gulley’s argument. Instead, I am skeptical. The kind of attention these clubs give to sf hasn’t really changed. We cannot bring back the days of explosive growth by retrieving the devotion to sf known in the days of yesteryear.
In fact, as I reviewed my memories of what science fiction fandom was like when I first got involved in the early 1970s, I began to suspect that the anemic state of science fiction clubs in the 1990s is not due to fandom’s failure to achieve its goals, but is the penalty for its success.
Defeat Through Victory! However few clubs keep sf as the focus of their activity, all of them depend on sf to filter people into fandom (and membership) in the first place.
I started this article looking for the grand theory that explained the rash of “club suicide notes.” Pat Gulley’s theory didn’t hold up under analysis. Then something Leah Zeldes Smith wrote online made me wonder: Could it be that the fatal problem is not at fandom’s center, but at its boundary? Perhaps sf can no longer be the medium that filters people into fandom once the gradient between sf and mass culture disappears.
One evening, Leah Zeldes Smith went to a business dinner with a marketing consultant, a judge, and another fan. The conversation turned to the relative merits of various sf TV shows and movies (mostly panned), recommendations of books, the failure of the modern day to live up to childhood predictions of the future, and the gloominess of modern sf vs. the optimism of Asimov. Then it segued into Walt Disney, the stock market, and the effectiveness of various local PR agents. Leah realized:
These people were engaging in nothing more than smalltalk with chance-met strangers about subjects of modern cultural literacy. Had I had a conversation like this with strangers 20 years ago, we would have been hailing each other as kindred souls, taking down each other’s phone numbers and I’d have promised to send info about fanzines or cons. But it was nothing like that at all. The only thing that inspired either of them to take out pencil and pad was my recommendation of a Greek restaurant.
Science fiction has become such a prevalent part of mass culture that it’s no more difficult to find a fellow enthusiast than it is to find a Democrat or Republican. With opportunities for fanac on every street corner, why do people need to join a club?
There’s practically no reason at all if you agree with Moshe Feder’s famous comment:
Moshe Feder: It was the outside world’s scorn that was crucial in leading fans to band together. As that scorn has diminished, so has fandom’s attraction. It was the goal of early fandom to make SF universally popular. Judging by the list of all-time mostsuccessful movies, by what one finds on TV and on the best seller lists, that goal has come as close to being achieved as is practical. That success has rendered fandom obsolete. Why should a kid seek out an SF club or write a LoC in order to discuss the exciting ideas he finds in SF when he can do it with almost any kid in his class, even the girls?
Whether one believes that prospective fans are attracted by fandom’s unique emphasis on sf, or get rejected into fandom because of an unacceptable obsession with sf, the mass acceptance of sf must be seen as short-circuiting the psychological forces that fandom relies on for new recruits.
Dave Kyle properly diagnosed the blight on modern fandom years ahead of any of the rest of us in his superb Fan Guest of Honor speech at the 1983 Worldcon (now available in Joe Siclari’s Fanhistorica 5.) In his view, true fans are people with a Sense of Wonder, an emotional responsiveness that points the way for our logical minds, and also a Sense of Mission, a special, vigorous characteristic that makes an enthusiast more than just a reader. Kyle said in 1983 that “we all have a Sense of Wonder,” but as for the Sense of Mission, “few of us have it now.”
We had a mission, a sense of purpose, we had found a form of literature which liberated us and which could liberate the rest of the world — if only the rest of the world could know about it. To us, science fiction was a miraculous Aladdin’s lamp of hope. Our mission was simple: sing the praises of science fiction…. Because of our beliefs, filled with the power of our dreams and sure of the infallibility of science, we supported causes which had high purposes and benevolent and humanistic goals.
The Sense of Mission is missing today for obvious reasons: “After all, we have achieved our goals: to make science fiction known and acceptable to the general public.”
If You Can’t Live Without Me Then Why Aren’t You Dead? ©Lynn Maudlin
So, if the roots of fandom have been severed, why is it the tree still upright?
In spite of having brilliantly described the problem, Kyle did not grasp the full implications of the psychological truth he had discovered, which is that the vitality of fandom comes from having a Sense of Mission — period. The original catalyst of fandom’s Sense of Mission was love and loyalty for science fiction. But other things can also catalyze fannish activity — including the commitment to perpetuate fandom itself.
Once the sociology of fandom came into being, the rest was “just engineering.” Fans applying what they’d learned in sf fandom also went out and founded fandoms for comics, media sf, mystery fiction and Regency romance novels. Nor did it pose any problem in starting a fandom if the genre was already fully accepted by mundane Americans.
Joining fandom is an option that only a tiny minority have ever pursued. When pulp magazines reported circulations of hundreds of thousands of copies per month, there were only a few hundred fans, period. Today, when sf is popular with millions, there are thousands of actifans. So many people are interested in sf that, somewhat like the primordial “nutrient soup” once theorized by biologists, fannish life is bound to spring forth.
In fact, that’s been happening all along: Lee Gold’s Third Foundation, and the library-sponsored group I joined in 1967, are just two examples of the many clubs that formed without input from trufandom.
Important from the perspective of Feder and Kyle is that the promise of a new generation of fans includes no assurance they will perpetuate the fandom owing its traditions to Speer, Ackerman, Warner et al. From that viewpoint, it is necessary that clubs survive whose leaders are socially networked into mainstream fandom and will introduce newcomers to our history.
Why Clubs Survive: What are fans getting from the local club that keeps them coming back meeting after meeting? That’s fairly obvious: socializing and friendship. Clubs also satisfy some people’s desire to become attached to a tradition or identify with a history. In short —
Sourdough Jackson: It’s COMMUNITY. DASFA is a lively social group that happens to revolve around SF fandom. Without our meetings and parties, and our friends at those meetings and parties, there would be something irretrievably missing from our lives.
Clubs build community through face-to-face social interaction. They answer our human need to be among other people. Though other forms of fanac (fanzines, apas, newsgroups, etc.) also promote friendship and fannish identity, they never fill that well of loneliness in the same way that being present in person at a club meeting (or a convention) will.
Other Media: Lionel Wagner of OSFS tried to blame his club’s shrinkage on e-mail lists, chat rooms, web pages, and other Internet technologies:
The Ottawa Science Fiction Society is evolving into a loose association of like-minded people in cyberspace…. Monthly meetings will continue in a desperate attempt to maintain some personal contact. Attendance is so sparse, they could be held in private homes.
Lionel Wagner (e-mail quoted in BCSFAzine 295-6, December 1997)
But in the course of blaming cyberspace for OSFS’s low attendance, Wagner winds up emphasizing that there are members “desperate” for personal contact. The human need for face-to-face, in-the-room-with-you personal contact cannot be fully satisfied by a computer experience, or by a letter, phone call or other remote communication.
I don’t believe the various Internet activities compete against sf clubs’ most important attribute, in-person socializing. Don’t forget there are hundreds of fans out there having no difficulty staying active as club members and active on the Internet at the same time. I’m skeptical that fans ever find themselves making a choice between cyberspace and the local sf club.
It’s COMMUNITY: “Community” is a feeling that people know when they find it, and comes in a wide range of styles.
As I mentioned, you never see “club suicide notes” from NESFAns. You also never see them from Lunarians, which is more remarkable because club minutes portray the group as being one of the most contentious since the Laney LASFS, yet the club is going strong:
“‘The secret of managing a club is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the five guys who are undecided.’ Casey Stengel.” The Lunarians Meeting Notice, February 1998
Fannish organizations come together like an army of condottiere, a few from here, a few from there, each group deciding to join for different reasons. Individual fans have a range of interests. Clubs admit and reflect that diversity. They also develop a rough consensus about the activities that will be supported with club resources. Yes, even a science fiction discussion group that appeals to only half a dozen fans might be tolerated if it keeps them around….
Because of the paperback sf boom of the late 60’s and the media sf boom of the mid-70’s, we’ve become accustomed to seeing large numbers of people respond to the merest hint of organized fandom. And when a club is enjoying explosive growth, as LASFS did during my first 15 years as a member, people’s struggle to get connected with the social life of the club isn’t evident in the membership numbers but in the visitor records. One afternoon I went through about 700 guest cards collected by LASFS registrars in the 1980s and learned that less than 10% of guests ever came to a second LASFS meeting. It’s tempting to wonder how large LASFS could have grown if we’d worked harder to get to welcome our guests. Australian fan Paul Ewins finds the same challenge facing his local club:
The last expansion [of the Melbourne SF Club] coincided with the boom in the Star Trek clubs following the local release of ST:TNG…. Over the past few years there had been an unwillingness to go looking for members, probably through sheer apathy and perhaps because in the last boom new members had come looking for us. While the club is now in stable shape, it is likely to decline again if we get another apathetic committee that sits around waiting for things to happen.
Those who are not content to take their chances waiting for new members to wash up on the beaches of their personal desert islands have to actively work at building relationships with guests and new members. Joyce Katz wrote that Las Vegas fandom was started from scratch through forging individual relationships, what some would call “friendship evangelism.”
A welcoming atmosphere is created by conscious effort. Sometimes literally: for example, LASFS outlawed smoking in the meeting room in a controversial vote. However, seven smokers immediately quit coming to meetings, which reminds us that politics and feuds are also poison to a club.
T. Bruce Yerke, looking back on the 1930s LASFS, wrote: “The activity was undiluted with cynicism, vicarious motivation, and petty jealousy which later wrecked the [club].” Meetings drew 50 fans a week in 1941, but once problems struck, attendance gradually dwindled until there came a meeting in early 1945 when only Laney and Ackerman were present. (Plenty of more recent feuds that might serve as examples will go unmentioned in hopes they won’t be revived in these pages.)
There are many strategies for getting people to come once to an sf club, but really only one reason for them to return: enjoyable social interaction.
Where You Find Them: By the way, the best strategy for building a club where you’ll want to stay is this: recruit people who are already engaged in the activities you enjoy.
Scott Patri delivered a clear-minded and eloquent sermon on the importance of bringing readers into fandom, in Fosfax 176:
We cannot return to the past, nor wallow in the reminiscence of it, but we must bring the spirit of those days to the present if we are to survive. Reading is a part of it, for it was the word that fired the imagination, while the visual just makes us react, and the reaction is to purchase and sell, not to dream or think.
Barney Bernard, a LASFS legend, went to bookstores and put club business cards in the science fiction books. These days, we hope to get a table at UCLA’s annual bookfair: some members are collecting donations to pay the hefty entry fee. An idea that clubs could adapt locally is the Bucconeer committee’s science fiction contest for students.
Web pages are also a good example of advertising a club to people already engaged in an activity members enjoy. Fans designing web publicity for clubs need to keep in mind Avedon Carol’s critique of convention advertising: “They advertise to people who’ve seen movies about aliens. They should be looking for people who feel like aliens.”
Clubs need to avoid advertising themselves as if they are another form of passive entertainment, thereby attracting people who will transfer to club membership the habits learned in theater seats. From the viewpoint of club survival, their presence is a two-edged sword: they attend and pay dues, but they frustrate the fans who keep things going. As Rich Kuhaupt wrote, “Ironically, there’s never been a shortage of criticism for the gallant few who have tried to keep S.T.A.R.’s flame burning, while those who have criticized sat back and demanded, ‘Entertain Us!'”
The Magic Goes Away: So far I’ve been arguing against some of the suggested explanations why a number of sf clubs have lost a high percentage of their members.
(1) Purpose: I’m not convinced clubs pay less attention to sf than they used to.
(2) Mission: Fandom has not been doomed by public acceptance of science fiction: as sf’s popularity and respectability has multiplied, the size of mainstream fandom has multiplied — as a constant, tiny percentage of the overall audience.
(3) Formula: Healthy and troubled sf clubs are more alike in their style of organization than they are different: it’s not like some use poorer methods than others.
But I do have two observations to make about Oldpharts and Outlanders that might have something to do with the membership problems some clubs confront.
Oldpharts: I believe a lot of these troubled clubs have in common that they were formed 20-25 years ago in the boom time of the 1970s. A crop of longtime members have hit age 40 and decided to redirect their energy to unrealized ambitions outside of fandom. Younger fans aren’t filling the gaps in the ranks the way they used to. When most of a club’s members are fortysomething, the club only attracts newcomers who feel comfortable socializing with people of that age group.
Dennis Doms: About survival: I think one reason is the range of ages of active participants in KaCSFFS. Youth and energy combined with age and treachery is a good combination.
Most organizations that I have been in weakened perceptibly when the influx of new (active) people dropped below a certain level (though you also need the continuity of longer-term members).
Another thing clubs have to overcome in order to attract new members is the unwelcoming appearance of longtime members’ established relationships:
Matt A. Smith: As an organization of people who’d known each other for five, ten, even fifteen years, [S.T.A.R.] was virtually impenetrable to strangers unless they plainly offered something to make it worthwhile to the longtimers to reach out to them (physical attractiveness, artistic skill, or deep pockets, for example.) [Interphase, August 1997]
The relationships and shared history of remaining core members, some of them club founders, may be an invisible barrier to new members.
Rob Ross: S.T.A.R. has degenerated into a number of small “cliques” that go off and do their own thing, while paying lipservice to the larger whole that makes S.T.A.R. [Interphase, August 1997]
Outlanders: While clubs certainly lose members whose interests or responsibilities (family, work, religion) change, I have noticed clubs also have a circle of formerly active members who remain attached to its social life although they no longer come to the actual meetings.
Outlanders is admittedly not the best handle for these fans — the historic Outlanders were an independent, very fannish Southern California group in the late ’40s. But some fans became Outlanders when LASFS didn’t appeal to them anymore, and it is in that LASFS-centric sense I am applying their name to this section of my article.
LASFS members have always gathered for an “after-meeting” at a local coffee shop or restaurant.
Glenn Glazer: Even groups as successful as LASFS and NESFA have the structure of an actual meeting somewhere followed by an “after-meeting” which allows for both formal and informal social dynamics to occur…. I can’t speak for NESFA, but with some few exceptions LASFS meetings are pretty dull. Why anyone still goes to them is because of the people who attend them. In other words, I don’t go to LASFS to hear the reading of the Menace [Minutes] (easily the funniest and best part of the meeting), I go to see my friends on a weekly basis. [Interphase, August 1997]
But within recent memory, a core of members have formed the habit of skipping most of the club meetings and going straight to the after-meeting.
A number of clubs have a “cometary halo” of once-active locals who have remained in its social orbit. If these clubs knew how to rekindle their interest in the club, there would not need to be such a desperate search for new members.
No Room At The Top? In the midst of this angst about why clubs lose members and can’t seem to replace them, I will point out that it could be even worse, and there is a reason it’s not.
A malady that strikes clubs with a lot of veteran members is a kind of “leadership gridlock” that happens when a club is full of talented workers but has a finite number of high-profile jobs. A few exceptionally gifted new members are immediately catapulted into leadership. Others with ambition are in for a longer haul. Fans may lose interest when their talents have too little room for expression in the organized life of the club.
I’m intrigued by Tom Veal’s comparison of contemporary fannish demographics with those in 19th-century France:
…Society can cope as France did in the mid-1800’s, when it experienced similar demographic trends. The young can accustom themselves to painfully slow advancement, with some finding solace in their avocations or pleasures and the rest growing into the sour malcontents portrayed by Balzac. [Chicon 2000, PR#1]
Few large sf clubs have sour malcontents who have been locked out of leadership roles by more senior members because most of them run a proprietary local convention, or have an overlapping membership with a local conrunning group. The formation of con committees within these clubs expands the number of leadership jobs, relieving the “leadership gridlock.”
Interestingly, in one town where there is no central club anymore, the locals recognize that their Worldcon bid committee is providing a club-like social structure:
Alex von Thorn: [In Toronto] there is no overall science-fiction club similar to NESFA, LASFS, etc….
In practice, functioning concoms play the role of social club, with monthly meetings, e-mail discussions, parties, and other events….
The proprietary con provides an outlet for the ambitious, and good work for competent fans who would not be content to sit on the sidelines.
But of great interest is what will happen in Minneapolis where a club convention that provided an outlet for the gifts of newer fans is being recaptured by an earlier generation of leaders:
Joyce Scrivner: Minicon is being worked on. The ‘council’ of twelve has a two year commitment to the immediate changes and a five-year commitment to action. They are mostly older and mid-age fans locally, though. The changes have flaked off many of the newer and younger fans from being (visible at least) at committee meetings. There is a wide variety in the age range, but most of the admitted committee are older fans returning to work on the committee again, not younger fans coming for the first (or third) time. It’s too new to see what’s happening here, but it is being actively pursued.
Death Will Not Release You: Since “club suicide notes” abound, you’d think that in the two years I’ve been working on this article at least one of these clubs would have disbanded.
Instead, in every instance what has happened is that the remaining members have adjusted and continued on a smaller scale. S.T.A.R. San Diego has left its hilltop meeting location for a nomadic existence at local pizza parlors. (Though isn’t it a little redundant to be meeting at the Round Table Pizza in La Mesa? — which is Spanish for “the table.”) Attendance has stabilized around 30, with a healthy percentage of new visitors. OSFS has not evaporated in a flash of pixels: it still meets, and has even managed to find an editor to resume publishing a paper clubzine. Etc.
It helps keep things in perspective to remember that few sf clubs have ever pulled 100 regularly-attending members. Many “large, successful” clubs draw fewer than 40 to meetings. The majority of clubs are smaller yet. No matter their size, almost all clubs necessarily lead a nomadic existence, meeting in homes, libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, condo association rec rooms and student unions. Clubs rely on a relatively small number of people to hold things together. They have limited income from dues and donations. For all of these reasons, uncertainty and change are the norm in an sf club.
Whether fans suffer from insecurity and stress when these limitations affect club life depends on each individual. Denny Lien laughs it off with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Minn-Stf has spent “two-and-a-half decades in decline/crisis.” That contrasts with Don Glover’s dire prediction about NWSFS which led off this article:
With the club standing on the brink of complete breakdown, we must either find a way to revitalize the organization, morph it into something that works, or shut it down as a relic that has outlived its time.
Don Glover the Younger, (Westwind, March 1997)
It is bemusing to set his prediction alongside comments Greg Bennett made in 1987:
I think the NWSFS has lost its identity with literary sf. Their hold on the necessary sound business practice that enables the organization to survive is tenuous. And they have no goals. When I suggested they consider a few long-term goals, such as getting a clubhouse, enlarging the membership base, improving Westwind, or hosting a major SF convention, the response was generally that those goals weren’t worth pursuing because they were unachievable.
Greg Bennett (letter to File 770, October 1987)
The April 1998 issue of Westwind announced that NWSFS’ May Social would include “Kuhoda Garden tours; Hot Tubbing — bring your swimsuits and have fun! A fannish tradition revived — an Eye of Argon reading, complete with tank of helium….” Does this sound dead to you? Me neither. Changed from, and not so ambitious as, the NWSFS Greg Bennett originally shaped, perhaps, but the heart is still beating.
The message is: as long as a club continues to fulfill enough members’ needs for friendship and social opportunities, it will keep going, though its purposes and membership may fluctuate.