Boldly Writing by Joan Marie Verba
As you may have gathered from past posts, I am not only a huge proponent of fandom, but also hugely fascinated by the history of fandom. As someone who does not remember the world before the Internet (but definitely the world before wi-fi), the sheer effort involved for fans to do what I have always taken for granted is downright inspiring. On top of that, I am constantly fascinating by the fact that fandom is such a female-dominated space and that it is rarely depicted as such in mainstream culture. (And if it is… well… Supernatural fandom, I’m looking at you.) In any case, a recent foray into fandom history led me to Joan Marie Verba’s Boldly Writing, and further down the rabbit hole I joyfully leaped.
Boldly Writing is Joan Marie Verba’s documentation of Star Trek fanzines and fandom from 1967, the year she discovered and began collecting fanzines, to 1987, when Star Trek: The Next Generation went on the air and the fandom incorporated the new series into its love of the old. As the mother of all fandoms develops, it ultimately codifies the modern experience of what it means to be a fan.
When I reviewed Harry, a History, I did so glowingly, but with a disclaimer that I couldn’t speak for those not involved in Harry Potter fandom. I invoke that disclaimer now. If you’re not interested in fandom or new to the whole kit and kaboodle, a fairly efficient and warm breakdown of Star Trek fanzines over a period of twenty years isn’t going to be your best introduction. That said, I loved every moment of this, interrupted as it was by my trip to Ireland. (I couldn’t bring the .pdf along, alas.)
I spent much of my reading in a blind haze of recognition. Star Trek is famously the fandom that birthed slash by pairing off Kirk and Spock in fanfiction (since 1974!), but did you know that fanfiction earned its reputation of being composed mostly of wish-fulfillment gay porn in the 1980s? (Bring it, search terms!) Did you know that all other modern fandoms grew, more or less, out of Star Trek fandom? That the phenomenon of people “dropping out” of fandom due to adulthood and marriage was a concern even then? I could really go on and on, getting more and more excited. I’ve never had a fandom mentor; my parents didn’t read me The Lord of the Rings as a kid, I never watched Star Trek with my brother, and I didn’t know anyone else as a kid. So it’s very easy for me to feel like fandom is an activity of the young and, most fallaciously, an activity of the now. To read Boldly Writing is to see women experiencing the same joys and problems that I do now, thirty years ago, and it’s that connection that made me love it so much. I’m probably going to get myself an actual copy sometime quite soon, as it functions a bit like a reference book.
But let me present that from a slightly different angle. The First Fandom, the science fiction community that started in the 1930s, was largely composed of aspiring male writers; Star Trek fandom, however, was (and continues to be) dominated by women, no matter how inaccurately the fandom is portrayed in the mainstream media. As Verba calmly and warmly documents key moments in fandom during her twenty year period, a tension arises between fans who prefer the hard science fiction and those who maintain that the story of Star Trek is the story of three friends. Interestingly, this tension doesn’t get gendered until fairly late… and it’s mostly dismissed. This is a space where fans feel comfortable starting ‘zines with feminist perspectives, creating female characters where the canon didn’t, and tentatively writing queer material. I think we often assume loving something, especially a media property, means loving it unconditionally; but in the mother fandom, we have people critically engaging with the text and coming out with more joy and food for thought. And at the end of the day, that’s why I love fandom so much—it’s the sheer joy of engaging with a text that holds up to your scrutiny as much as it is the entertainment value.
Okay, I realize that review is more gushing about fandom than actual review, but that comes from the fact that Verba pretty much lets the experiences stand for themselves, occasionally including some pieces here and there. She mentions her experiences at certain cons and her reaction to certain pieces of fanfiction, but she keeps herself to the side, allowing others to speak for themselves. And they do, and it’s fantastic.
Bottom line: If you’re not in fandom or are new to the whole thing, this isn’t the way to introduce yourself to it. But if you’re part of fandom and enjoy fandom history, Boldly Writing will be a delight, connecting you across decades to the mother fandom and all the glories, fights, and silliness therein.