Back in the 80s, I had twin teenage obsessions: music and reading. My small town didn’t have a bookshop. There was a tiny WH Smiths with a rubbish selection of books, even then. There was a small record shop, which I found intimidating, run by scary old people and stocked with scary old people music- Pink Floyd, Hawkwind and the like. I bought my first Smiths album in Our Price in Watford. I got most of my books from jumble sales and the library.
Amongst my small group of misfits from the big hair, shoulder pads and conspicuous consumption of the 80s, being short of money was no shame, and we shared books, records, tapes and clothes. I had a mono record player that cost £8 from Argos, and friends would come round and we’d listen to music in my bedroom. When it eventually broke, I got a cassette deck for Christmas. It wasn’t great quality, but that was fine.
A few years ago I was in a coffee shop in Canary Wharf, listening to a man from a financial services firm telling two women from a recruitment firm that he didn’t want applications from East End Bangladeshi Muslim candidates. Of course, he didn’t say that. He told them:
* X points at A level (ie no Access courses or other alternative qualifications that might indicate a not straightforward route to HE)
* A degree, 2:1 or above, from a Russell Group university (ie not from a former polytechnic)
* The firm was portrayed as “sociable”, that is, with a drinking culture.
I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the way exclusion was so carefully ensured. We don’t need to be open about it; the people on the inside can simply make inclusion impossible.
I start with this information because it was possible in the 80s to be a fan without owning stuff. My credentials as a fan of indie music were not questioned because I didn’t own an album by The Pastels, or indeed, because I didn’t own a record player, or shelves and shelves of books. I moved a lot as a student and in my early 20s. I left behind books or records, or sold them. It’s hard to move boxes of books and records by bus! But somehow my experience was it was who you were, not what you owned, that was important as a fan.
I have been thinking about this a lot recently. When I first joined Twitter, I found a lot of the fan communities that had originally been on message boards. This was great; there were no gatekeepers approving your posts; there were no esoteric rules about introducing yourselves to the Queen Bees and Kingpins before joining in. But I noticed a big difference in the music fandom: the obsession with consumerism.
The return of vinyl has been great. It is true that records as objects have a beauty that is not there with mp3 files. It is true that unless people buy their music, small bands and independent labels can’t keep going. However, owning a record player, having the space in your home for a record player, living near a record shop, being able to get to the record shop, being able to physically get into the record shop are privileges. I was told over and over again that I couldn’t be a proper fan because I didn’t own physical stuff, that my radio love, 4000 music files on my iPod (all paid for, as many as possible direct from the band’s website!), my shelves of CDs weren’t good enough. I disengaged from a lot of the music fandom, only re-engaging with the Save 6 Music campaign.
Until recently, the SFF fan community fan conversations have been more about “have you read/ watched?” than “do you own?” However, unless we are careful, the subtle ways to negate experience and exclude can happen here too. There is, no doubt, a canon in SFF. You can’t be a real fan unless you have read certain authors. But these authors are undoubtedly often problematic. As a straight, white, middle class woman, I don’t want to read books with no women characters. Does this make me less of a fan? Are we insisting that fans of colour read authors with appalling attitudes to race? Are we insisting that gay fans read books where gay characters are portrayed offensively? And what about fans for whom buying books and consuming films and TV is economically difficult? Are they to be excluded because they haven’t done the background legwork?
ComicCon, Nine Worlds and LonCon3 made enormous efforts to be open and welcoming. All my conversations with Dysprosium, EasterCon 2015, have convinced me that they have made efforts to be inclusive of people with diverse needs. But we as fans need to challenge class and economic privilege that excludes.