Making So Fi, a sociological fiction zine

Saturday 1st July, 2017

Ashleigh Watson

So Fi, a sociological fiction zine, launched on June 24 2017 online and at the London Radical Bookfair. This zine brings together 21 sociologically-imaginative short stories from writers around the world. You can read the zine online at https://sofizine.wordpress.com.

I decided to create the zine as part of my Endeavour Research Fellowship, part of the Australia awards scheme, which I’ve spent the first six months of 2017 undertaking at Goldsmiths, University of London. I won the Fellowship to work on my PhD (a practice-based project bringing together sociological imagination, Spinoza’s relationality, and fiction writing as an arts-based method to research notions of culturally meaningful society) here with Les Back.

One April evening after a supervisory meeting where Les enthusiastically encouraged my zine idea as a side project, I went back to my office and whipped up a quick sub-page on my website, tweeted the details, and crossed my fingers for at least one submission. The call travelled and within weeks I had twenty great submissions (plus one of my own). I edited the pieces with the authors and put the zine together with cardboard, scissors and glue.

Patricia Leavy, a former Associate Professor turned full-time author and leader in the arts-based research field, contributed a great editorial on why she writes and how her first novel came together. She says, ‘When I became a sociologist I had the aspirations many of us have – to jar people into thinking and seeing differently’, but after a while the ‘reality came crashing in. Like most academic research, no one would ever read it.’ This is when she turned to fiction.

Leavy’s first novel drew extensively on interview research and autoethnographic data. Many writers in So Fi used a similar approach, fictionalising from existing research data and from time spent in the field.

Writing his So Fi story ‘Excuse All the Blood’, Keith Khan-Harris drew on fieldwork completed in Israel in 1998 for his PhD on extreme metal scenes. He says, ‘Nothing like what I describe in the story happened to me! However, the piece reflects the ambivalences about being “true” and “authentic” that pervade extreme metal scenes in Israel and elsewhere – and also pervade my own ethnography’. The main character is ‘very loosely’ based on one of his interviewees. He says, ‘“Excuse all the blood” is the text of a real suicide note by ‘Dead’ of the band Mayhem, whose death in 1991 was a seminal event in the development of black metal worldwide in the early 1990s. The myth went round the scene that Dead had killed himself out of disgust at how black metal had lost its trueness, its integrity, as it became better known.’

Sarah Raine’s piece ‘The Dancer’ was written for an experimental writing group she is part of which meets regularly to talk and write about music. She says ‘it was inspired by one chapter of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturns: Five stories of music and nightfall, entitled ‘The Crooner’. In encountering the dancer in the stark glare of the midweek, I used fiction to explore notions of identity performance undertaken on the northern soul dance floor, and the ways in which the nocturnal self (Grazian 2005) is reconsidered.’

Rather than explicitly fictionalising research data, other authors turned their sociological imagination to the art of fiction and everyday life.

Paul Aitken who wrote ‘Appointed’ says his story ‘addresses individual rights in a collective society, privacy and ultimately - as is eluded to in the case of Mr Potter - the inevitability of conformity to the norms of the world around us.’ It’s an idea he’s keen to develop into a comic or novel, about ‘a near future in which the moral and political compass of society is set by doctors rather than politicians or the clergy’. He says, ‘in my opinion, a fancy coat and a respectable title can lead to a person being more highly respected than their intelligence, moral fortitude or capacity for common sense might elicit under normal circumstances. Mr Potter - the story's protagonist - is eccentric only in that he does not conform to societal norms, which are - in the case of this world - consistently visiting the doctors and taking prescribed drugs.’

For ‘Dreamscape’, Frederic Suffet composed an annotated version. He says the story ‘concerns the growing awareness on the part of one sociologist of the ascendency of social constructionism as a reigning paradigm in sociology, and how (in my view) that paradigm developed from a research strategy to a social or political philosophy. This is set against a background – evoked by the newspaper headlines and the repeated expression, There was a war overseas, etc – in which certain problems seem never to change.’ He says, ‘it also concerns some recent events that have been on my mind, mainly because they involve issues of freedom of academic or artist expression, and the way social constructionism as a political philosophy has been entangled with them, sometimes quite explicitly. They include, among others, the protests against a painting shown at the Whitney Museum in New York and the conflict over an article published in the feminist journal Hypatia. The dream part of the arc ends, obviously, on a note of resistance by the dreamer.’

Frederic also says, ‘If you were to call the story autobiographical, I wouldn't argue at all. But as I'm a sociologist, not a psychoanalyst, the only psyche I have available to explore for story material is my own. There may be other sociological stories somewhere in there, but this is the one that presented itself.’

This really resonated with me. As I said in my own editorial note, ‘I use “I” a lot in my writing. Maybe I’ll never escape that hang-up’ – if it is a hang-up – ‘being a full selfie-stick and iPhone addicted 90s baby. But when I write sociological fiction I do it to figure out what I think about something.’ I know the parts of my piece that I think exercise sociological perspective. I remember moments during the writing when I was feeling this sociological imagination. How you read the story though might change the text. As Frederic says, ‘there may be other sociological stories somewhere in there’ – in that same piece. This is what I really love about sociological fiction. For me, there’s an unfinished feeling to all the work. Not that the stories aren’t finished, but they’re not closed. They’re open. They float questions. They engage us in sociological imagination.

I hope you enjoy reading the stories as much as I have. They’re all free to read at https://sofizine.wordpress.com. There are DiY print versions online too.

If you’re keen to submit a story, please keep your eyes peeled for a submissions call around September. So Fi edition 2 will be launching in late 2017.

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