Letters from the Past (Part 2) plus a Rant

Åka the proprietor of the blog, Läst och tänkt i annien dropped into translate:

Läst och tänkt i annien means read and thought in annien, where annien is my “idioverse”, the universe as perceived through my eyes. It is mostly about fandom, books, physics and strange or peculiar things.

I was reflecting over the fact that annien seems to be inhabited by so many more men than women (i’m a physicist and sf fan), and that maybe the books i read are likewise unequally populated. at the same time I happened to see the link to you from mumpsimus, and threw it in together with the other things. i also liked the first letter, but quoted asimov because it tied in better with the science and science fiction theme. I want to avoid too long quotes.

That was it, i think. Just ask if you want to know anything more.

Thanks for making these letters available! I have sometimes read or heard about what kind of discussions that occured in the magazines, and as a piece of history it is fascinating. Now I just want to read some old letter columns about the role of science in society and literature, to see what kind of opinions people had on that.

Thank you!

The letter columns of old sf magazines are wonderful, and yes, the role of science and literature does get debated. (Though by far the most common kind of letter merely rates the stories of a previous issue.) But even the most seemingly banal letter reveals a lot about the thoughts, feelings and ideas of the time. I found the letters columns of Astounding and Thrilling Wonder Stories the most active and interesting.

I’ve been hoping that since my book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was published there’d be more work on the culture of science fiction that goes into archives (public and private) looking at the letters and editorials in sf magazines as well as the stories and, as importantly, looks at the fanzines. So far, there still isn’t nearly enough. (Though if anyone comes across any such work—do let me know!) But I keep hoping.

Anyone doing work on sf is only doing half the job if they don’t look at sf culture. If you’re writing about sf now, that means you have to look at all the online debate not just published stories and novels. It’s what I encouraged the essayists to do for my collection Daughters of Earth.

But it’s difficult. Most scholars working on sf don’t have access to collections—there aren’t that many in the world—and most collections don’t have large (or any) holdings of fanzines. Private collections (particularly of fanzines) are even more inaccessible, often stored in the attic, garage, boxes under the house: all of which are unlabelled. Tricky. And on top of that many of those magazines and fanzines are falling apart. Particularly the ones from the war printed on inferior paper.

But it’s work worth doing and more to the point it’s fun. Reading those letters takes you back to a whole other world, one full of surprises, I wasn’t expecting to come across such strongly feminist letters in the pages of an sf magazine from the 1930s and yet that’s exactly what I found.


  1. steve on #

    “But it’s difficult. Most scholars working on sf don’t have access to collections”

    I suspect it’s also difficult because there’s enough trouble for many scholars (at least those affiliated with institutions, rather than independent) to justify studying sf literature, let alone the culture around it. In the literature department I recently left, the single scholar interested in science fiction (like the one interested in comics, and the one interested in detective fiction) was given such an absurd of grief, even denied tenure, because his work wasn’t valued that I can only imagine the result had he tried to justify reading letters about sf rather than the literature itself.

    Of course, I’m basing this on a narrow survey, so I’m not sure how much this is the condition of individual institutions, and how much it’s endemic.

  2. Justine on #

    That’s interesting, Steve, because I had exactly the opposite repsonse to my work. That is, I was taken more seriously because I was working down in archives getting my hands dirty, travelling, interviewing people, not just sitting around reading stories.

    I think part of that was the interdisciplinary nature of my work, which is really more cultural history than lit crit (which to be honest really isn’t my thing) so I got approval and support from historians, sociologists, cultural studies people, media studies people etc. etc. as well as the literature people. Certainly my doing archival work was what got my research funded in the first place.

    I do still hear about scholars struggling to be taken seriously for studying popular culture, but I also increasingly hear people doing more traditional literary studies bemoaning the fact that what they do isn’t sexy enough to get funding and wishing they could switch to sf or manga or something.

  3. steve on #

    That’s a good point about interdisciplinarity. There’s definitely more space for unusual work in the interdisciplinary program I teach for now than in the lit department at the same institution. Which is exactly what I like about it.

  4. Justine on #

    I suspect the traditional English/Literature departments are in their dying days. I sure hope so!

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