How to BNF without Tears

by Walter A. Willis

(from BEM #1 April, 1954)

At this title I suppose there will be a howl of derision from the neofans in the audience. (If there are any, that is; Neofans are as rare as ladies over forty.) What, they will shout with indignation, has a bloated BNF to complain about, compared with the wretched Neofan?

Very well, let's consider a day in the life of this wretched Neofan. Brighteyed, the little fellow wakes early, listening for the tread of the postman. His ears are so sensitive to this faint sound that he will leap out of bed, every nerve quivering, when the man is a hundred yards away ..... whereas before he became a fan a whole battery of alarm clocks barely fluttered an eyelid. (Observe, parents, how the manly and educative hobby of fandom not only improves the mind, but sharpens the senses. No other hobby can make this claim.) While he waits he takes from under his pillow that wonderful letter he got yesterday and rereads it for the 85th time, savouring every intoxicating word. "Saw your letter in Peri," it says, "Wasn't bad." Such adulation!

He has read it only fifteen times more when he hears the nerve-shattering sound of the postman's rubber heels rounding the corner at the end of the street. He dashes downstairs, but waits behind the door. He fancied the postman looked at him a trifle oddly the last time he met him halfway down the street in his pyjamas. It may have been only because it was snowing at the time, but all the same he doesn't want to run the slightest risk of offending the postman.

Instead he lifts the flap of the letterbox and peers through. He does this more cautiously than he did yesterday, when he got the morning paper shoved halfway down his throat. Some mornings the postman passes callously by, and the whole day is ruined. All that is left is to watch him despairingly out of sight in the hope that he'll realise his mistake and turn back; and then go back to bed full of a black hatred for the inefficient bureaucrat and the people who are getting his mail. But this morning the postman, that great-hearted and intelligent public servent, undoes the latch on his garden gate and comes up the path. The Neofan gazes hungrily at the bundle of letters in his hand, trying to guess how many of them are worthless trash and how much is real fan-type mail. Then he retreats hastily into the hall. One day last week the postman wondered why he wasn't hearing any sound of the letters hitting the floor inside, and peered through the letterbox himself. Guiltily the Neofan remembers the unfortunate man's scream when he saw a pair of gleaming eyes two inches from his own staring at him from the darkened porch. So he lets the letters hit the ground before he pounces upon them. There are no less than three this morning -- oh joy! But bitter disappointment supervenes. The first two are heartless frauds. No one can estimate the hate that rages in fannish hearts for football pool promoters and detergent manufacturers.

But the third is a real letter. He tears it open. It's from Ken Potter himself! The Great Man writes, with a truly democratic lack of condecension and what looks like the burnt end of a wax match; "Liked your letter in my last issue. If you want to try an article I might consider it for publication in my next magazine."

Fame! Glory! Immortality! Never taking his eyes off the letter, the Neofan floats upstairs, into his clothes, and eventually off to work or school. Here he spends the whole day in an ecstatic daydream in which he turns over in his mind polished phrases and pungent epigrams for The Article. It will set fandom by the ears. It will make history. Fearless, trenchant, outspoken, it will make his name ring through fandom. That evening he writes it out and sends off the eighth version, special delivery, registered. Then to bed to count the days that will elapse until publication, every one to be filled with the delicious pleasures of anticipation.

Consider now a day in the life of the BNF. He too is driven from pillow to post, but since he was up to two o'clock in the morning finishing an article he had promised for ten days ago, the postman has to knock twice to waken him. He staggers down the stairs, observing with a sinking feeling that the porch is covered with a layer of various sized envelopes. Kicking them aside he opens the door to see what the confounded man is still knocking about. It is three more letters from America on which excess postage is due. He totters upstairs for the money, wishing that American fans knew as much about their postal regulations as he does. Then he gathers the mail off the floor, looks at the return addresses, and stacks it on the hall table while he goes to shave. Judging by some of those names it'd be safer to have the razor out of his hand before he opens their letters.

Later, fortified by his first cup of tea, he nerves himself to start on the mail. Some of it he can put to the side without opening. A complimentary copy of a US prozine, for instance. It was nice when he began to get free issues, but his conscience demands that he send a letter of comment on each one, and he hasn't had time to read last month'yet. Some of the letters are from his friends, and he puts those in his pocket to be enjoyed later. Some are from self-appointed enemies, and he puts those aside until he feels stronger. The rest are from Neofen. Some of them want subscriptions to his fanzine. Some want information. Some want material for their fanzine. Nearly all of them are rude. He wonders for the hundredth time why so many Neofen are rude. Probably each of them thinks that all the other Neofen write servile, adulatory letters, and that the BNF receiving this refreshing piece of impoliteness will be so impressed with the writer's fine independence of spirit that he will fall over himself to cultivate his acquaintance. He puts the letters aside and starts on the fanzines, opening the right staples with unerring instinct and a nail file. Some interesting first issues, one containing an article by himself. Part of it is almost legible, and contains only 15 typos. Hello, here's a copy of Potter's latest magazine, and there's an article about himself by some Neofan. Oh dear. It's one of those fearless, trenchant and outspoken ones, resounding with phrases like " not afraid to criticise " .... " high and mighty BNF " .... " egoboo-sated " .... " over-rated " .... " the so-called Big Names " .... He wonders for the hundredth time why so many neofen think that the way to the top is by pulling other people down. More trouble.

Now, on the way the BNF handles this mail depends whether he shall stay in fandom or retire suffering from chronic disenchantment like so many others. To a certain extent it also, which is more important, determines the future of fandom itself. And this is a responsibility that some BNFs take quite seriously; some of them spend more than half their time dealing with Neofen. Since their names and addresses are widely known they are the first contact many potential fans have with fandom, and in addition, their reactions to new fanzines carry undue weight. So I am going to suggest some rules which you might consider following when you become a BNF. (All that is necessary to become a BNF is to maintain a reasonably energetic standard of fanactivity for approximately two years.)

Fanzines. You won't be able to comment on them all, but try to comment on as many first issues as you can, and always find something to praise. Of course you might get a sarcastic letter back saying the faned knows his zine was lousy and you must have damned bad taste. This has happened more than once to me, but never mind, you may have given just that necessary encouragement to some budding Lee Hoffman. No first issue is a true criterion of a faned's worth. Bob Tucker's first fanzine was by all accounts one of the worst ever published.

Requests for material. Here you'll have to select the fanzines that look most promising, and most congenial to your style of writing. And of course you will have to consider yourself. Absence of typos, promptness of publication, presence of reader's letter section for egoboo, and so on. But there are a couple of general rules. First, never write for a hectoed fanzine. They have no future, and the sooner the editor realises it the better for him and everyone else. Besides, their circulation can't be more than a few dozen, so you're wasting your time. Second, never write for a first issue. Most first issues are never published, most of those that are published are illegible, and most of those never see a second issue. Let the editor prove himself first. If he can't produce a first issue singlehanded in the fine old tradition he can't have the vocation to make a good faned. (There are exceptions to this rule, of course, as when you know the editor well enough to have confidence in him, or he knows you have just embezzled the TransAtlantic Fan Fund and have booked your passage to South America.)

Letters. Always be polite and kind to Neofans. The usual result of this is that the ones who wrote you a polite first letter, write a second just as rude as the usual first one, but that's because they are trying too hard to be fannish geniuses. Persevere and usually they begin to write naturally and may turn out to be quite nice people.

Feuds. Humourous attacks on you should be encouraged -- they add to the interest of fandom, rank as egoboo, and might give you something to write about. Malicious attacks should be ignored, unless they're from another BNF. If there is some misunderstanding you feel should be corrected, write a short mild letter to the editor of the fanzine that printed it. Don't make it long, or faneds will use this as a means of getting material; and don't be vicious or you'll be accused of bullying. Humorous remonstrance is the right approach, if you can manage it. It's hard though, for while egoboo soon loses its effect on a BNF, malice always hurts.

If you excercise neverfailing tact, be kind and helpful to everyone and preserve a high level of fanactivity, you may be able to maintain your position in fandom without losing ground -- until Convention time. This will be your worst hour of tribulation. It's hard for a BNF, especially if he's normally rather a shy person, to remember that these two days every year he is a celebrity and must try to master the technique. Everything you do will be noted, misunderstood, and held against you in the Conreports. If you spend your time with another BNF you will be accused of monopolising him/her or being monopolised, depending on which of you is the more famous. If you stay quietly among your own friends you will be accused of cliquishness. If you run around introducing yourself to people you will be accused of conceit. If you just sit quietly you will be accused of being aloof and stuck up.

The only really satisfactory way of coping with Conventions is to stay away, following the precedent set by oldtime BNFs D. R. Smith in England and Harry Warner in America. But if you feel you must go wear a false beard. Unfortunately this method is now impossible for British Conventions, on account of the danger of being torn to pieces by bloodthirsty provincials in mistake for Bert Campbell. Frankly, I don't know what the answer is for British Conventions now. I suppose the only thing to do is keep in the background as much as possible, while grinning vaguely at everyone all the time. In other words try to remain only half aloof from the proceedings. It may not be as successful as the old method, but ....... er ....... half aloof is better than no beard.

Data entry by Judy Bemis