Is Your Club Dead Yet?

Reprinted from File 770 #127, November 1998 

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 most successful 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.

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21 thoughts on “Is Your Club Dead Yet?

  1. Very interesting article. Parts of it remind me of an article in Steve Jackson’s Space Gamer magazine written by a friend of mine named Mark Schulzinger. He predicted that gamers would leave the hobby when they began hitting their 30’s and 40’s but would return after their careers ended. The activity in the clubs you refer to above sound very, very similar. It will be interesting to see if the grognards return to fan clubs as they do to wargaming.

  2. The Baltimore Science Fiction Society ( has begun hosting more monthly events in the past few years that have been bringing in newer and younger members, such as a critique circle for writers, a monthly book discussion, and board game and anime nights. We also bring in authors to our clubhouse for presentations and discussions, and are hosting a book launch party for Daily Science Fiction.

    The ultimate point of a club is to socialize with your friends, but if groups have activities that are inviting to newcomers, they can avoid the atrophy described in the article.

  3. This is something a lot of fans wonder about. As I experienced, a reason why a lot of clubs cease to exist is, that they are focused on a very small group of people or, more often, to a single person. This person does all the work and when this person puts all his/her power into the club, everything is finde. But if this person becomes a Mum/Dad, his/her parents are ill, the job causes trouble or any other reason why (s)he has to concentrate on other matter than the club, the whole thing does not work anymore. And a lot of info is just known to this person, so if (s)he has a lack of time, it may be impossible to find out details for other members. (Please excuse my English, I am Austrian.)

  4. Very interesting, but a few points I think were under-examined:

    The world has 3 times the population it did when these clubs were formed. If membership has not grown apace, it follows that the clubs have only 1/3rd the appeal they did in their clubly youth. If interest was approximately steady in the population at large, active club participation should be around 3x what it was in the Olden Daze.

    Computer user gropes, er, groups, have the same issue: 1) an aging membership (the average age of members for those general PC user groups I’ve been associated with is, believe it or not, around 70!!) and 2) the fact that it’s no longer a distinct and identifiable phenomenon. Computers are now everywhere, ubiquitous as toasters, and as the president of our PCUG said of the problem of attracting new members (in the past decade we’ve shrunk from 50 regulars to fewer than 10) … “No one wants to join the toaster club.”

    Woodturner clubs are growing (somewhat propelled by the growing market for usable handcrafts), but there again the average age of membership is “Retired or older”. In our local group, I think there are only two members (out of about 65 people) who are under 60.

    It seems to me that with all the opportunity for “belonging” afforded by the internet, there’s no longer that desire to belong to a local group that used to drive many of these specialty-function clubs. When you can find like-minded people via internet the world over, there’s far less drive to find and join a local club, and that drive remains primarily the province of people whose social habits matured before the internet changed how we interact.

    Signed, a 60 year old, 24-year LASFS member now living in another state.

  5. Hi everyone. I’d like to introduce you to the NESFA Short Story Contest for 2015. We encourage new and aspiring writers to enter their stories, to receive helpful feedback, and possibly win some sweet prizes, like free books from NESFA Press, and even a free membership to Boskone, as the grand prize. For more details, check out the link to the contest on our website at Thanks for visiting us online!

  6. PS. I lied, it should be 31-year LASFS member. Higher math, geesh!

    @ Michael S.: the one book I’ve bought from NESFA press was very nicely done, quality all the way. Cheers!

  7. Rezlac is just a kid. I joined LASFS in 1966, and my membership card was signed by Dian Girard (then Pelz, then Crayne). I just never came to meetings, because I live in NYC.

    What was true when you wrote this is even more so today. *Sigh*…

  8. The N3F was founded in 1941…next year is our 75th anniversary. Two of our original members are still alive and present in the club. This puts us slightly behind WorldCon 1, four of whose attendees are still alive. We have been down to a single duespaying member, but are back. We now have membership in several foreign countries, a monthly newsletter, an occasional genzine, a bimonthly apa, a short story contest, and more.

  9. Hello! I would like to put out some of my imput on this matter. Indeed things have changed since the early days of fandom. I was interested in Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, T.V. shows, and movies ever since I was young. For the most part I had no connection with most people in that respect in school and high school as I grew up like many of us. Then with as we all know the movie “Star Wars” was the blockbuster that came out to finally connect generations of current S.F. and F. fans together to enjoy together our similar interest. Of course there was Star Trek, the original series that would have connected like interests together, but didn’t have the impact like “Star Wars” had on all of us. Then in my teens I discovered much to my delight a local Science Fiction Club in Ottawa, Ontario. Canada called “O.S.F.S.” otherwise known as “The Ottawa Science Fiction Club” in my city. I was so happy to finally meet a whole group of people who enjoyed similar interests as I had. It was such a joy to get together at the monthly meetings, and some of us would host informal parties at our homes and invite members over to talk, dispute, and enjoy our similar interests together. And of course the S.F. and F. conventions were put on by the local fandom groups as well, not by the companies like we see now. The traditional conventions still due exist, but are they still having the impact like the old ones used to have. That lasted for a great number of years until understandably may of us grew older and other responsibilities ending up taking up our time, whether it was due to college or university, jobs that didn’t allow us any time to attend the meetings, etc., and moving away to other cities or towns. Plus not being able to continue to have our monthly meetings at any locations available like we used to be able to have. And basically we just didn’t have any time to get together for whatever our personal reasons were. And as we all know with the impact of the computer via emails as opposed to the monthly newsletter that we received in the mail, that form of communication changed as well, not always for the better. Funny as we now know how that goes. A greater faster form of communication, but ironically now the less people want to get together in person like we used to, to connect with each other. But also don’t get me wrong. Computers are a wonderful tool used presently by all much to our benefit indeed. Maybe the various S.F. and F. groups around North America, etc. really should get together about this matter, turn it around, and get back together with each other in person, in large numbers, and relive the great days of fandom like we used to.
    So really only we can do our part to connect and communicate with each other to make that a reality.
    What do you all think of that? Would like to get feedback on that matter.

  10. This was an interesting article to read and I have to admit that I’ve faced plenty of the road-blocks noted when I went to check out various fan and social groups in my area.

    I shared the following bit with some of my friends:
    “I’m looking for community, but find cliques among the members of the groups I’ve checked out, the current members are of an age group, social status (not just based on income, but other factors such as primary being parents or grandparents, or of a particular religious bent, for examples), or carry some manner of significant bias where the only newcomers who will feel comfortable socializing with such a group are others who are very like-minded, and/or there is an invisible barrier that long-time members create due to their long established relationships and shared history that’s difficult to impossible to penetrate.

    “Couple that with the fact that it’s rare to find a group that works to include and find a way to incorporate the new individual’s talents and skills into the group, and then provide proper recognition for that effort. Or as the article stated quite well: ‘Fans may lose interest when their talents have too little room for expression in the organized life of the club.’ And as Matt A. Smith added, ‘… unless they [strangers/potential new members] plainly offered something to make it worthwhile to the longtimers to reach out to them (physical attractiveness, artistic skill, or deep pockets, for example.)'”

    Another issue that I think is a hindrance to groups these days is the drive to cater more to the extroverted person. As an introvert I’m easily overwhelmed by a lot of social activity going on around me, particularly when I don’t know anyone else there and barely know what’s going on around me. As such I’m more inclined to hang back and carefully observe. I do better when I can develop a relationship with one or two others that take me under their wing and help me settle into the group.

    As an individual in my mid-to-late 30s, while I grew up with computers and the Internet has been a large part of my life, I also remember socializing and connecting with others pre-Internet-boom age. The Internet has changed how we socialize (or don’t for that matter) and network.

    I think the Internet can be a boon to such groups and organizations, particularly for promotion and outside-of-meeting/event networking and communication, but in the end it’s the PEOPLE and the COMMUNITY that they create that make or break a fandom club (or any manner of social group).

  11. For 26 years we had a general used bookstore just a few miles from the clubhouse. Whenever someone was in the SF section, I would talk to them to see how interested they were in SF. I constantly talked up the club, and gave out LASFS business cards. In almost every case when I talked to someone who had gone to a meeting the story was the same. After attending one meeting, they never returned because there was nothing about Science Fiction. I suggested to the club powers-that-be that a large sign (possibly on the door to the back building) listing the programs for next four or five meetings, and that at least one feature a well known SF writer. This may well have brought them back for a another meeting. LASFS grows on you. After a few meetings you start to know people and see more of what LASFS really is. At that point you are either hopelessly addicted, or you run screaming in terror. Since most of the guests are there because of an interest in SF, not fandom, there needs to be a reason involving SF to get them to return. My idea was greeted with positive response, but never seemed to be implemented. The club of the 70’s & 80’s was a vibrant group, with frequent new blood. By the turn of the century the meetings were the same few people doing the same things. The Sense of Wonder for the club was gone, and I had dropped from attending almost every meeting to showing up only a few times a year. For an enthusiastic reader/fan this was not the venue I wanted. The whole point of this long-winded comment: THERE NEEDS TO BE SOMETHING INVOLVING SF EVERY MEETING, OR HEAVILY ADVERTISED AS COMING UP IN THE NEXT FEW WEEKS. I am now putting away my soapbox. Mike, thanks for File 770. I is a very valuable contribution to SF fandom.

  12. The National Fantasy Fan Federation has grown by about a third in the last year and a half. We are launching new projects, most recently

    The National Fantasy Fan Federation is reviving its large zine TIGHTBEAM as an all fiction.poetry/art/review electronic zine.

    Orientation? Tightbeam will target publishing excellent fiction, excellent art, fiction reviews, and a lively letters column.

    Fiction? As Editor, I plan to follow the editorial standards I followed when I edited Eldritch Science some three decades ago. Were these standards any good? In the course of nine issues, I lost at least three of my regular writers to major commercial science-fiction novel-publishing houses.

    So what are the standards? First, there is a minimum length limit of 7500 words. I am actually open to publishing works of up to novel length, though I don’t expect to do so very often.

    Second, Tightbeam is open to tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural mystery, as well as poems and artwork with similar themes. Tightbeam characters are expected to act, not the passive observers. Tightbeam plots should weave a believable conclusion, not abandon the morass of unresolved hints.

    I am not interested in publishing:

    1. Rolegaming stories in which the roll of the dice is still audible. Stories inspired by rolegames are acceptable.
    2, The master detective and his faithful amanuensis are acceptable; Holmes and Watson are not.
    3. Explicit erotic or pornographic material.
    4. Tales in which the protagonist is simply a witness — panoramas of alien worlds — or in which the protagonist is overwhelmed by events, having the free will of a snowflake in the path of an avalanche.
    5. Political tracts disguised as works of fiction.
    6. Works of horror and terror in which the focus is on shocking the reader with gore and pain.

    Poems are expected to have both rhyme and meter, e.g.,
    The setting sun, her golden rays
    Strike towering cloudy casements high,
    Sets airy castles all ablaze,
    Draws fiery shades o’er twilight sky,
    Gives burning sign that night creeps nigh.

    Contact me [email protected] for submission data. We are a strictly amateur group. You will not be paid.

  13. I expect the reason the Lunarians haven’t penned a “club suicide note” is more to do with New York stubbornness, not giving anyone the pleasure of dancing on the corpse. That or no one will be left to write it. Don’t get me wrong, no disrespect meant to the club, which has plenty of people I would like to consider friends, and I stopped attending more because I had other projects needing my time.

    Back when I *was* active in the Lunarians and (likely more significantly) Lunacon, I had specifically considered what areas I’d need experience in to become Con Chair. Not so much because I had some burning desire to be chair, but rather because it would eventually be my turn once all the competent folks had done it five times each. I suspect it’s not just that a limited number of people take a stranglehold on positions of power, but also that some of us are willing but just unable for various reasons.

    As a counterpart to one suggestion that there is diminishing interest in “special interest clubs”; I have to wonder then how there can be 4000 people attending a Harry Potter convention (significantly more specialized than a SF club or convention) while a club/convention that can offer a wider variety of content dies a slow, painful death.

  14. I’m impressed with the level of research and thought that went into this. And it’s nice to think that, while LASFS may have trouble finding a meeting place that we can afford, it probably won’t die altogether. Maybe we’ll end up meeting in somebody’s home. Or maybe the “aftermeeting” will become “the meeting”.

    (Lee and I have offered our home. By taking the cars out of the garage, we could easily accommodate 30 people. Actually more: we’ve held filksings with about 25 people, and the instruments need extra room. If evenly split between our living room and the garage, I think we could hold 40. But we’re south of the Santa Monica Mountains, and the current active membership is mostly north, so that’s a major obstacle. We stopped going for the same reason: getting through Sepulveda Pass of a Thursday evening is a major pain.)

    If LASFS becomes an “aftermeeting only” club, it might be late enough that we could get over the hills and attend again.

  15. Man I have been a member of only two city clubs. The Dallas Futurians ~1953-1958 and the Houston Science Fiction Society ~1965 – 1980. The DFS was an oonrry… group. Kind of a rumble for about 5 years that ended at Southwester Con in Dallas in 1958 when Orville Mosher was elected president and the club voted itself out of existence. (Not with Orville’s vote!)
    The HSFS still kind a sort a exists , as a breakfast club that has been meeting every Saturday since 1983.

  16. I think these clubs are failing because they are not realizing how clubs are maintained. Each club needs a central fanzine, published monthly, and as long as that is coming out the club is registered as doing well. Formal meetings rather than fun get-togethers are an aid for local clubs. There should be club activities, such as interchanges with other clubs.

  17. File 770 is (and long has been) a great zine. This was a well researched and informative article.

    I’ve seen several s-f/fantasy clubs come and go in my corner of Virginia over the past 45 years. In analyzing the reasons for their demise, I’m minded of a line from Kipling’s “In the Neolithic Age.” He said, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays / And every single one of them is right.” I’m pretty certain it’s usually some combination of factors that contributes to the demise of these clubs. I would also say that many of the things that help kill clubs can also help promote their growth or continued existence.

    The increasing popularity of speculative fiction in popular culture exposes more people to it, which should mean larger numbers liking the stuff enough to want to find out more about it and talk with other people who have that interest. But of course there are more leisure activities competing for limited time, too, and ways of sating some social desires other than by physically attending meetings. Then, too, fandom keeps branching, with more and more specialized interest groups pulling at fans who often have a liking for several different flavors of genre literature, media, and activity.

    Groups that incorporate or at least allow material that is not directly related to s-f in their meetings may turn off purists who want the spotlight to be on that one thing, but they may also attract people who would like more diverse social activities rather than just a concentration on a single topic. What some regard as tangential or unrelated topics may seem natural associations to others. For instance, I was originally baffled about why Georgette Heyer Teas and Regency Dances were a feature of WorldCons.

    Yes, groups may fall apart when the one or few people who have been putting forth the energy and effort that kept them going move away or experience other major life changes. But this can also provide opportunities for others who had not been players (for any of a variety of reasons) to step in and make changes that open up membership or change the perception that old fogeys are in charge.

    Thinking that the club is run by a tightly connected clique may cause some newcomers to walk away, but others may want to be affiliated with what they think is a desirable group or even see it as a challenge to make themselves part of it.

    I agree that in many areas, conventions have taken the place of clubs as the primary focus of activity for those interested in s-f. It’s a trend that has been growing at least since the ’60s.

    If there’s a formula for building and maintaining a vital club, I think it’s this: Determine what fans want and how you can best deliver it to them. Let potential members know what you offer. Remain aware of changing fannish opinion and fashion in your area. Be flexible and never stop recruiting.

    It’s all much easier said than done, just like anything else worthwhile.

  18. Between 1995 and 1999 the world wide web really started coming into it’s own, available to the average personal computer owner in a big way. For example, In 1996 both Hotmail and the message system ICQ came into being as well as many other services to connect the average person. I’m certain there is a direct correlation between the rise of the internet and the decline of social clubs of these types. It seems no coincidence that these dates align with those of the above reported club implosions.

  19. The N3F, founded 1941, is still alive and well. We are just short of 250 members at the moment. Meetings would be challenging; in any state or province, we have only a few members.

    Recent years have seen a great increase in N3F activities. We currently publish ten fanzines, including a news zine (founded 1941), a review zine (founded 70 years ago, an anime zine, an old films zine, The N3F Review of Books, an APA (founded 70 years ago), a fiction zine, a history of fandom zine, a commentary zine, and FanActivity Gazette on fannish doings. We have a half-dozen, give or take, social group pages. Member Jeff Redmond runs the ‘Science Fiction’ group on Favcebook, which is not an N3F group, but does have 71,000 members.

    We do encounter elderfen with odd ideas about what the N3F does. For example, there are people who think our major function is introducing new fen to our Fannish Way of Life, but it has been many decades since we have had any activity in that direction.

    We have not recently had any major fanfeuds. An outburst over a proposed path for recruiting new members — still in the proposal stage much of a year later — led to three members dropping out and four other members joining.

    Bring young people into the hobby? Write new SF books that tweenagers enjoy reading.

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