What is the N3F, anyway?

By David Speakman, N3F President

To understand what the N3F is, it’s probably easier if you start by ruling things out. First, let’s start with the name: N3F (or NFFF) stands for National Fantasy Fan Federation.

What N3F is Not:

The N3F is not “National” – whatever that means; we are not limited to the U.S. Almost from our inception, we have had an international membership. Currently the only “nation” we represent is that our members are part of the figurative nation of speculative fiction fandom.

The N3F is not focused only on Fantasy Fans; when we were founded in 1941, science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and supernatural horror were all lumped into an umbrella term called “fantasy.” Our members are fans of all forms of speculative fiction.

The N3F is not a Federation of clubs; we are one club. When we were first envisioned, the N3F was seen as a coordinating council of regional clubs. We don’t do that. We never did that.

What N3F is:

The N3F is a club that tries to coordinate activities among our members that are either impossible to do alone or are not as fun doing alone as they are with other fans. Some of these activities include participation in one of our fanzines, our round robin correspondence chains, our writers exchange, and our amateur press association. Additionally, we offer an outlet of expression for fans who are not willing to wait a year or several months until their next fan convention.

A Colorful History

About every generation or so the N3F morphs into a new kind of organization to fit what fans want at the time. In the past 70+ years – we have had a colorful past. But instead of shrinking away from our mistakes, we prefer to acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on better because of those lessons.

A Painful Birth (1940s and 1950s)

You want to join a group that was dreamed up by an 18-year-old boy and his 22-year-old pen pal? That’s what N3F is.

The seed for our club germinated in the autumn of 1940 when an 18-year-old named Damon Knight wrote a letter to Art Widner, the 22-year-old editor of Fanfare, a fanzine put out by the Stranger Club of Boston.

In their ensuing correspondence, they were dismayed by how the mainstream media covered fans and fandom. As Art Widner would explain, it was demeaning media mocking “these guys who read that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.”

The two decided there should be a national organization – a “serious” organization – “a real respectable organization that could deal with respectable people,” as Widner described it.

Damon Knight wrote an article entitled, “Unite or Fie!” that Widner published and endorsed. More than 60 people responded, expressing interest for such an organization. Widner brought in his friend, Louis Russell Chauvenet (inventor of the word, “fanzine”), who was 20 at the time, would eventually agree to be voted in as the club’s first president.

The idea was for the N3F to serve as a coordinating governing body for all of fandom with regional and local clubs forming a federation that existed under the main group. The N3F was to serve as the face of fandom – finding individuals who could speak to the general public without scaring them or being mocked by them. Additionally, the club wanted to levy “taxes” – in the form of dues – that it would use to coordinate with hotels and publishers to pool resources to get better rates for science fiction conventions and pulp magazine subscriptions.

From the get-go this group of young men tasted failure on this grand scheme. As anyone who has run a convention or a con track or moderated a panel discussion (or even witnessed any of these) herding SF fans makes herding cats look easy. Most of the original founding members left the organization – considering it a failure. Damon Knight once said he and Art Widner co-founded “the dumbest organization in all of fandom.”

The early N3F members did have some successes, though. They published a few N3F books and sponsored or co-sponsored fan conventions and con events or started fan traditions that are still in use … in updated forms … today.

After some bumpy times and political infighting the club fell into the hands of a few leaders who acted more like dictators rather than coordinators of activities, the type that turned off the kind of fans who wanted to have fun and promote the cause of science fiction – and make it better. By the 1950s, the N3F was awash in scandal and the membership rose up and drove out the leadership.

Members also started leaving as it became increasingly obvious that Damon Knight’s grand scheme to have a national and international governing council for fans and fan activity would never work. Membership fell to less than 50.

The Countercultural Revolution (1960s and 1970s)

Even though the politics and scandals of the 40s and 50s ended, N3F as an organization did not, despite calls from some to do just that. Instead, new leaders emerged who were focused on coordinating current fans and reaching out to new fans.

It was during this time that the club launched Tightbeam – a letterzine. In the pre-Internet age, unless you published your own fanzine, the only way to reach out to other fans was through written letters either directly or to fanzines. Tightbeam was a zine devoted almost exclusively to letters and correspondence and it was the only reliable national zine that would publish *everything* a writer wrote – unedited – for all to see.

This hit a nerve in the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s. Membership swelled and new committees formed and the club’s focus changed to that of being an introduction – a Welcommittee for young and new fans into the culture of fandom.

Other activities started at this time were a writer’s exchange, writing contests, round robins, and support for new writers.

But the scandals of the 1940s and 1950s were not forgotten among the Big Name Fans, and N3F was not trusted beyond a limited role of being an introduction to fandom for newbies.

Not helping N3F’s case among some of the more elitist fans was the club’s embrace of TV and film SF. Many of the same people who pooh-poohed N3F also looked down on science fiction films and TV fandom – thinking that those fans were exploited by studios, whereas publishers would actually listed to input from serious and constructive (sercon) fan criticism. Among them, N3F’s embrace of pop culture fandom further drove a wedge between the organization and Big Name Fandom.

During this time, the N3F would still sponsor con suites at WorldCon and created fandbooks – guides geared to new fans to introduce them to SF fandom

Although N3F’s moves did not impress many in capital-f Fandom, its membership grew during this time from less than 50 paid members to a membership roster of more than 300.

The Computer Revolution (1980s and 1990s)

The height of N3F membership numbers happened in the mid-1980s when more than 400 members paid annual dues to the organization. It developed its own self-contained ecosystem almost completely separate from mainstream SF fandom.

Although N3F members would attend cons, the organization with such a huge membership on the verge of being unwieldy started focusing inward rather than on outreach that marked one of its primary reasons for being in 60s and 70s.

The advent of computer word processing and desktop publishing made production of our newsletters less time consuming and cheaper than ever. That means they got BIG – some issues had more than 100 pages.

By the 1990s, N3F was chugging along strong on its own, an island separated from fandom in general except that its Tightbeam was the only real national outlet of note to allow communication from average fans with a large chunk of fandom on a national or international basis.

Then, a computer inter-network that had only been used by defense contractors and research universities opened up to the public. With the advent of hypertext markup language, that network became what we now call the Internet and World Wide Web (www.).

As if overnight – one of N3F’s primary strengths vanished. With email, email groups, Internet chat rooms, and easily updated home pages that would later become “blogs,” waiting 2 months for N3F’s next Tightbeam became quaint … and increasingly unneeded as more people opted for instant e-communication rather than snail mail.

As more and more casual members started moving to the Internet and away from mailed letters of comment, N3F faced a new crisis and membership again started to dwindle.

The Internet Age – Where N3F stands today (2000s and 2010s)

Like all fannish organizations in general, the N3F struggled in the 2000s to find a place in the new millennium where internet groups largely usurped the role fan clubs traditionally held in the hearts and minds of fans.

After a rocky start where N3F started a retooling process, we found a solid footing in our traditional strength: coordinating fans to enable people to do things together that are impossible – or not as fun – to do alone.

Over the decades (we will celebrate our 75th Anniversary in 2016) we’ve honed a few skills and strengthened a few strengths. Whether it’s providing a creative outlet for fan artists or writers in one of our fanzines, or coaching writers and would-be fanzine publishers or providing an outlet through our round robins for measured, thoughtful conversation among fans that is impossible on internet forums, we do that. And we do it well.

And … you are welcome to join us. ✵