On fandom, and the liking of things

cccrowdFandom has been getting talked about a lot lately. There have been statements made by the vague body that is fandom, followed by contradicting statements saying that that part of fandom isn’t the real fandom, and thus should not be listened to, leading to other voices within the fandom community trying to draw boundaries within fandom, articulating which parts of fandom are which, which leads to a better articulation of who is allowed to say what about what.

The whole thing feels like a much-less-alarming version of what’s going on in Crimea right now, where suddenly Russia is saying that this huge tract of land is basically theirs because a lot of them speak Russian and have a Russian identity, and you know what, maybe the Ukraine never actually left the USSR at all. Meanwhile, in Kiev, everyone’s trying to try and quantify exactly what makes an autonomous republic, and is the Ukraine legitimate? Is Crimea? How do you tell them apart? And so on, and so on…

How the hell do you draw lines around this stuff? How do you define such a large body of people?

I’ve been told that fandom is actually really easy to define. Do you like The Thing? If so, then you’re a fan. If you don’t like The Thing, then you’re not a fan. End of story.

I wish it was that easy, but I feel like that’s not quite true, not anymore. Fandom’s gotten elevated in the past ten or so years. It feels like it’s no longer, “Do you like The Thing?” but rather, “Do you like The Thing, and are you willing to buy airfare and a hotel room and hang out for days and nights discussing The Thing, forming relationships inspired specifically by The Thing, and when you go home do you create extensive, elaborate online communities for this world formed around The Thing?”

It’s different now. The digital age allows us to like things on a higher level than ever before. Being a fan no longer means like a thing, it means liking a thing To The Maxx™.

And when you like a thing To The Maxx™, suddenly you’re invested in it. It’s like teenagers saying they don’t care about politics, but then ten years later they’re working and they do their taxes, they suddenly say, “This costs what? And it’s being spent on what? Well then shit, we had better be doing the things I want to have done with this stuff!”

Fandom means having skin in the game now. It means having a budget set aside in your daily life for doing fan shit. You have to ask yourself, “Can I afford to like The Thing to the extent I’d prefer to this year?” To a certain extent, it’s a ridiculous question, yet it’s a true one.

And this, I think, is why we’re seeing increased (but not completely new) arguments over fandom agendas, over the liking and the creation of The Things. We want to see our personal agendas and beliefs exercised and realized in our pop culture. We’re paying in tons of money toward pop culture, so it had better do the shit we want it to do, right?

This leads to the current state of affairs, which is, I think, the normal state of affairs whenever it comes to large groups of human beings marshaling and spending their resources. It’s just far less systematized than voting or holding share in a company. Hell, we can’t figure out how much to charge for art, much less how to use money to make art say the stuff we’d like to be said. (A depressing idea, really.)

Where does this leave me, the writer? Completely alone, as far as I can see. I don’t feel like I’m a part of this. That’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s just kind of weird.

The reason for this separation is that – in my own opinion – if you really want to be a writer, if you really want to create, then you need to be clinical in how you view your art and culture. When I really started writing, it suddenly became a lot harder for me to fall head over heels in love with books and movies and TV, because I’d trained my brain to dissect and seek out weaknesses. Suddenly, nothing was perfect, nothing was mind-blowingly-amazing, because I could now see the thumbprints in the clay and the strings that made the puppets dance.

And I’ll probably always see those things now. I’m never going to like a thing To The Maxx™. I can’t anymore, I don’t think. That organ has atrophied or withered away. If someone says to me, “OH MY GOSH I LIKE THIS THING SO MUCH RIGHT RIGHT,” my instinct is probably going to be to say, “Yes, it’s good, but…”

Things are no longer perfect. Maybe because if they’re perfect, I can’t learn from them. But there’ll always be a distance there, like how a doctor can’t love a patient and still have the mindset to put a stent in their aorta. I’ve turned my brain into an artistic chop shop, which isn’t exactly a lovely place to hang out and discuss fiction.

So for me, this intense passion that’s the nature of fandom is less and less accessible. I’m on the outside looking in through soundproof glass: I see a lot of people yelling, but it’s hard for me to feel too involved in it.

There’s one firm dividing line, then: those who can still like a thing without abandon, and those who can’t.

***

When I was at World Horror last year in New Orleans, I felt pretty out of place. I was the guy wearing a bright pink button up and linen slacks in a room full of people wearing various shades of black and gray. I looked more like I worked for the damn hotel than like I was going to the convention.

I still enjoyed myself, and I enjoyed the discussions I heard and took part in, but I could tell these people were About This Stuff in a way that I just wasn’t. It was like saying, “Yeah, I watch football,” and then going to a fantasy football camp and realizing, whoa, these people are just on another level. I was inadequate. Like, these people were going to go home and keep talking to each other about this stuff until the next World Horror rolled around. I was just going to go home and write.

Then I happened to meet a much more established writer than me. This was a dude who’d been in the vanguard during the horror (and publishing in general) heyday of the 1980’s, the sort of writer that the current writing crop probably all wanted to be when they got started. I hadn’t read any of his books, but he was a terribly nice gentleman, so we got to chatting.

I brought up the sort of weird alienation I felt coming to things like this, the strange existential dread I had where I was aware that I was not like these people, and yet I was supposed to be making the stuff that they liked. I knew in my head that I was writing stuff for everyone, for all kinds of people, something that’s applicable to humanity in general rather than people like me, but it was still odd to see it right in front of me, these people I wasn’t like, and know that I was writing for them.

He looked at me and said, “That’s because they’re not your people. They’re not. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they are.”

It was a startling thing to hear. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think about it a lot, even today.

46 comments on “On fandom, and the liking of things

  1. I was around in the eighties, as well, and I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in the way cons were run then and the way they are run now. Of course, I was drinking very heavily back in the eighties, so some of my perceptions might be distorted; however, it seems to me that the conventions were more about the writing profession and how to develop as an author. I remember agents used to attend conventions to find new clients.

    Then I didn’t go to cons very much for a long time, because booze, and I have only started attending again within the last five years. The dynamic seems to have swung from authors sharing with fans to fans sharing with authors. This shifts the focus from the actual work, whether it be art or stories, to the fan and his or her appreciation of that work.

    It’s been interesting to compare the two periods. At times, I’ve found myself at a loss in explaining the difference to a close friend of mine who also attended a lot of cons in the eighties. I think I’ll point her to your post. Thanks, you said a lot of what I’ve been thinking over the last few days.

  2. Katherine Lampe says:

    The fans aren’t your people and their thing is no longer your thing. The process of creation is probably your thing, and your people are the others who create. It’s a much smaller community, and often difficult to find the three or four members of it with whom you really connect, but so worth it. I can talk writing with my besties for days.

  3. Active creation of any kind (i.e. art) will always lead to a state of mind that involves the absolute dissection, dis assembly and destruction of everything that is, will be, and has come before. Most artists create as both simultaneous expression and reaction, with some digestion in between. Given that, once one embarks on the path of the “artist” (or “unemployed bum who thinks about things a lot”), fandom becomes rare, if not impossible. I’m not comparing myself to you, but as a writer of film and maker of film, I haven’t truly enjoyed a film on anything but a “that was fun” level in ages. The possible exception is Gravity. It had flaws: if I wanted to, I could dissect it, but by the sheer confluence of craft, artistry and my own psychology within 20 minutes it had me feeling like a 12 year old who had been told to shut up and sit in a corner, and I did, marveling at how big and important all the adults seemed. Your book, The Troupe, hit something at a similar confluence. I loved American Elsewhere, I couldn’t put it down. But the Troupe — owing to the fact that I am a reasonably new father, and somebody who for the most part did not/still does not/ know my own father, and doesn’t like what I *do* know about — well, on a few occasions the book reduced me to tears. With that, plus the quality of writing and the completely original nature of the fantasy within, it gave me an experience beyond the usual semi-intellectual, vague-emotional plot-points connection to material, that, as we get older (and hopefully develop more and more self awareness) is incredibly rare.

    I have no fucking idea what my point is anymore. Oh, right. Artists have a hard time being fans. When something connects with us, it’s awesome and incredibly rare. That’s it. Mostly just agreeing. Your book actually squeezed some tears out, but I still don’t think I’m TOO THE MAXX. I think it’s a symptom of age as well as artistry. If you have a child, how in the holy fuck if you’re a rational human, can one’s own perception of someone else’s artistic fantasy/fancy take that much precedence in your life when confronted by the very real unfurling of your child’s experience with the world? (Sorry son, I can’t show you how fucking incredible dinosaurs are because i have to go to the ‘which Doctor was the best debate”)

    That being said, as a fan, my pledge to you: I’ll BUY your books (on the first day, too) as opposed to pirating them. Promise. If you’re ever in Toronto reading, buying crack, whatever, I’ll probably be there (and hook you up if you’re jonesin’ — I used to be an addiction counselor, I still got the hookups, right?). Also, if while in Toronto I see you being ripped apart by a pack of hyaenas, if there is a pipe around and a convenient place to put my coffee, I’ll kick it over to you.

  4. I think you can see deeper lines between creators and fans with every ‘generation’. GRRM can from fandom. Brent Weeks did not. Know what I mean?

    • Stefan (CR) says:

      What do you mean by that? Surely Weeks was a fan of fantasy before he started writing the Night Angel Trilogy? Or are we talking capital-F Fandom? An Engaged Fandom?

      Just curious what you mean. (I consider myself a fan of many things, but tend to maintain a modicum of distance from all of them, too – having not attended cons, reading very few other blogs despite writing one, not engaging with Debates and/or Rants/Scandals, etc.)

  5. Katje says:

    “not your* people”

    I think that is the dividing line — whether or not you can love something with abandon and throw your all in after it. Money, time, spirit, energy, all of those things that some of us take a step back and go “whoa, no”.

    Some days I think it’s sad that there is no longer that pure, unadulterated joy in something. Other days the elitist snob comes out and snickers.

  6. Just some thoughts, I might be wrong:

    A) Robert, to be blunt, when was the last time you were in a group of people and thought, “these are my people, I totally belong”?

    That may just be projection on my part–I wasn’t super-comfortable as a Jew in Hebrew school, I’m not super-comfortable as a Jew in San Angelo, etc. Some of this has less to do with the community than with me.

    B) I think we need to distinguish “fan” from “fandom.” You can be a fan any way that you want; you can like what you want; everyone who tries to delimit what it means to be a fan can go eat a bowl of dicks.

    But fandom has a communal aspect and part of that is sharing… something. Toni W. over at that “screw those PC fuggheads” post was rightly made fun of for thinking that Heinlein was the communion wafer you had to eat to get into fandom. But I can’t argue with the structural aspects of that thought: if you and I are in a fandom together, that means we share something. That we can talk about something.

    Where Toni and others go wrong is in thinking that they can limit that shared something to a fixed object and in thinking that the fixed object was always fixed. And part of the anxiety is in feeling not just the splintering of that object (blah blah Golden Age of Television blah), but the loss of cultural cache, even if it was only ever subcultural cache. So now, Toni and such not only have to keep up with Night Vale podcasts and TV shows with yellow signs, but they don’t get any ego points for having read all of Heinlein in the original Geek.

    C) To your specific situation, I’m reminded of something Stan Robinson (fuck me for a name-dropper, but there it is) said at WorldCon about the almost Oedipal nature of sf fandom: literary authors may love and be inspired by other literary authors but they rarely meet them and aren’t exactly fans of lit fiction as a whole; but sf authors were often sf fans; so part of the joy of the con experience for the fan is to meet and be disappointed by the author: “You’re no high priest with special knowledge, you’re just some schmuck. Hey, I’m just a schmuck–maybe I should write my generation starship with Cthulhu novel after all!”

    Hmmm…. maybe part of what creates the notion of fandom is that participatory impulse. (And so part of the generation gap is when Toni W. looks around at people cosplaying and is all, like, “Did you even write a Heinlein-esque pastiche novel about a plucky starship captain?”)

    • To be frank, I probably feel most at home with other writers. That’s dispiriting to say, but the discussion is different. It’s less, “Do you like this thing with me?” and more “Can you BELIEVE this bullshit?!”

      It’s kind of funny, but I feel like fandom is created by the mutual liking of a thing, but writers tend to hang out because of mutual dislike of a thing. Humorously enough, the thing they mutually dislike is almost always writing itself, along with all of the complications that come with it. I suspect that this is probably because writers tend to operate alone, and the revelation that their fears and anxieties are common is a huge relief.

      • To be earnest, why aren’t writers and academics (and ex-academics turned writers) always getting together to bitch? The dynamic seems similar: solitary work and revelation of shared anxiety and bonding over dislike. In academia, every once in a while you’ll get a “her theory of moral interest is really exciting,” but more often it’s bonding over post-talk drinks with “his work on mapping literature is so fucking reductive, why is everyone talking about it?”

        (I’m lying: no one says someone else’s work is “exciting”; at most you get “interesting” which is the equivalent of saying “happy birthday” on Facebook–it’s a bare recognition that the other person exists.)

        Do you also do that thing where you’re watching a show with your wife and you say, “Oh, this is setting us up for the twist” and then she hits you for spoiling the surprise? I’m training myself not to say everything I think about structure while watching a show. But when Mrs. Hughes puts up a postcard for a beach, what am I supposed to do–say nothing?

      • I have a good friend who’s a fairly major (as major as these things can get) poet in Canada, and operated Canada’s first and biggest (RIP) literary blog. His Facebook wall is either fun stuff his kids did, or the complete avalanche of bullshit associated with writing. So I think you hit the nail on the head.

      • bringreaner says:

        I’m still kind of a huge fan of some Things…

        Though admittedly I can see their flaws and I like to talk about them (and sometimes it is hard to find people to talk about the flaws with). But I also like to talk about what I love about them…does this mean I’m not a real writer? D;

      • jimfarina2014 says:

        I think you’re right, Robert. I too feel “most at home” with those of my own ilk, and your comments regarding the common anxieties we share is pretty damn insightful. I really appreciate your style!

  7. Alex O'Cady says:

    I’ve struggled with that myself, particularly on Tumblr where if the thing you like is even remotely problematic, it’s going to get pointed out. However, I’m a writer myself, but I’ve never lost that ability to love a thing with abandon. It takes some compartmentalizing at times, acknowledging problems and consciously choosing to overlook them, but for the most part I’m pretty successful.

    There is a pervasive idea in fandom that in order to love something, it has to be perfect in your eyes–if someone makes any sort of criticism it’s often taken as an all-out attack on the show/comic book/character/etc. I prefer to acknowledge where my media fails and love it all the more for the things it does right. Mistakes are a part of being human, and there will never be a perfect, completely unproblematic yet still immensely enjoyable piece of media. It’s impossible. So I make the choice, over and over again, to love a thing despite it’s mistakes. To me, it’s an important choice not just in fandom but in life in general. No one is perfect, after all.

  8. Enjoyed reading your article. This little pedant would like to point out that interventional cardiologists and thoracic surgeons put “stents” and not “stints” in aortas.

  9. fireandair says:

    Lately, I’ve started thinking that a “fan” is someone whose response to art is to make more art. Not to purchase more shit related to it, not even to spend money on plane tickets — not to consume, but to produce result of consuming their favorite art. Fans do shit.

  10. Your post reminds me of WordPress.

    Some people on here write very specific blogs, many of them technical and/or requiring a deep understanding of a subject. They usually do not get many Likes or Follows but the ones who hit those buttons “get it.”

    Then there are people who write specifically for the Likes and the Follows. Their blogs are not what you would call deep–maybe observant at best–but it isn’t hard to discern a conscious avoidance of deeper waters in the writing. Don’t want to lose traffic.

    Publishing is similar though many believe it’s not. They’ll tell you to paddle around in the shallow end to secure those Likes, Follows, and royalties but that’s actually the hard way of doing it. Do it that way and you struggle to be something you’re not in order to fasten yourself tightly into a career of ghostwriting for yourself to keep the kind of people happy that you wouldn’t want in your backyard for a barbecue. That crowd is a fickle, puerile pile…and now they’re your boss.

    The fun option, the smart option, is honing your true gifts and genius, becoming a confident studmuffin in your genre/field/medium, allowing your small but fierce following to self-market, and then reclining back into a comfy position of loyal admirers who’s love funds your creative tangents that enhance your bottom line.

    Moral: don’t write crap just because people are reading crap. People are reading good stuff, too, better people. You just can’t see them while you’re focusing on the crap munchers.

  11. I think a lot of people are afraid of that discovery, that the people they share a common interest with are not “their people”, so they fake a lot of other interests. It’s kind of sad when people get rid of what makes them unique just to fit in.

  12. ksfinblog says:

    The creator spoke and you listened; writing is crafting an alternate dreamworld and only a few are capable of creating them so vividly; the rest just follow around in a trance.

  13. Ted L. says:

    I get what you’re saying, but at the same time I’m like you in the pink suit. Though, I’d prefer to be in a white tweed suit walking on ten foot stilts like Switters in the book, “Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.” You are almost always out of place walking on stilts.

  14. I play in a heavy metal band and when we tour, everyone we meet talks about music and almost nothing else. It’s OK for a few hours, but when you’re on the road for a week or two at a time, it can get a bit tedious. Thankfully, our fans only wear our t-shirts. They don’t dress up as us. At least not yet!

  15. I just found your blog through this really great post and I’m glad I did. I look forward to working my way through your other entries and learning more about your writing.

  16. Talaria says:

    I love how you articulate the general – but then you had to give an example : (
    I’m a critical-thought fan. It’s literally a drag to be a writer and have to write about dogmatism (fandom).

  17. Fan is short for ‘fanatic’. ‘Fandom’ makes fanaticism look like mere sanity!

  18. chunter says:

    My peeve about any fandom is like those boundaries you describe, most normal people like property X and Y about Some Thing, but not property Z. Inevitably, you will meet people who like Y but not X, and you will meet some jerk who is appalled by the fact that you don’t like Z. “HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE Z?!! Z IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING!”

    Remember that “fan” is shortened from “fanatic,” and you know what a fanatic is. Fanaticism is socially unacceptable for a reason.

    Best wishes and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  19. I’m not a fan of fandom.
    It’s eerie to witness the fish bowl-
    The science experiment.
    It’s eerie to take part somehow, though knowing the deep dark truth of it all!
    I’m a fan a of people!
    And I like your honesty. Thank you.

    So– when it hits the fan—
    I’m guessing there’ll be a new kinda “fandomonium!”
    Too bad by then-
    Capitalism and global economics power will be null and void!
    Contraditicting- but yes-
    It was a thought!
    Ahh well-
    Treasures in resting-
    And a fan to cool down!
    Tight and squishy – smother -
    I need to breathe!
    Thanks, I’m a fan x

  20. I like how you work through “fandom” and the quote from the writer you met in the end. I agree with what some other commenters have said: there is a difference between the culture creators, and the fans of the culture that’s being created. I have been to a couple of gaming conferences, it was a very cool experience but like you I didn’t really feel like they were “my” people. I was there as “press,” mainly taking photographs and such to assist a journalist friend. I wasn’t necessarily there as a fan or a creator, but I was there to observe and document, to analyze, and yes, to participate, but that was only secondary. I felt much more comfortable with the people around me when I went to an event that was for media only, the crowd in that case was much less desperate, pushy, hungry, and much more congenial. Cheers!

  21. thewayniac says:

    The whole reason we become writers is because we are a fan of some Thing. Most of us, it’s the ability to create an alternate universe for the reader, but for some, it’s to escape the excessiveness this new generation of fandom has become. We can hide behind our words, but in the end, negative or positive, we are writing about something we are passionate about, which keeps us fans of Things. Nice work. Looking forward to more.

  22. It’s an interesting subject. Do you see the large girl in light blue near the front of the crowd in your photo – I am intrigued and strangely moved by her and the relationship she has with her obsession. She is an example of fans THEMSELVES being interesting. Female pop fandom has been analysed by sociologists as having more to do with friendships; the object of the fandom is a focal point for a friends undertaking activities together. By contrast, the girl in the picture seems to be very alone. I wonder what they are all looking at?

  23. Gry Ranfelt says:

    I’ve heard from very experienced writers that some day we return to being able to like something completely. I dearly hope so!
    There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a show and going “BUT YOU NEED TO DO THIS; THAT’S STUPID!”
    That’s how I feel about Game of Thrones Season 2 (the tv series.)

  24. Interesting article. Followed.

  25. Amlakyaran says:

    very great article… Thanks

  26. mgraybosch says:

    You’re not alone. I don’t participate in fandom for the reasons you mentioned, and for other reasons.

  27. […] of doing mythology work like I was supposed to, I read an article about fandoms. Then I decided to write this about it. My friend is making me write a fanfiction about some […]

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