Whence fandom?

My editor at Baen Books, Toni Weisskopf, made some very cogent and interesting observations regarding 21st century English-speaking fandom’s fractured condition. I agree absolutely with Toni that some of these fault lines can be traced directly to the social and political fault lines in the wider English-speaking culture; out of which a good deal of fandom springs. But I also think that much can be explained by examining where people come to fandom from–and through which doors they walk when they enter.

In the old days (meaning, prior to 1960) it was entirely possible for most people who called themselves “fans” to have read many or even most of the same books, seen the same television programs and films, and read much of the same stories in many of the same magazines. Science Fiction (and Fantasy, though it was not quite yet its own distinct thing yet) was a small place with numerous touchstones that fans and editors and writers could all identify readily on their separate maps of the intellectual landscape. There was a commonality of experience as well as consumption, and while not everyone agreed about which course the future would take (the so-called New Wave certainly threw the Campbell era for a loop!) most everyone could at least talk to each other about things the field (et al) deemed worth talking about.

In 2014?

Let me paint you a picture of what I think fandom looks like in 2014.

The above is a Venn diagram, as I imagine all the many separate fandoms might appear if you were to sit down and actually draw them out. One circle represents people who came to fandom through the Harry Potter books. Another circle represents people who came to fandom through the HALO video game franchise. Another circle represents people who came to fandom through Star Trek. Another, for Star Wars. And so on and so forth, across dozens or even hundreds of different games, movies, television series, books, book series, and so forth. In fact, were the diagram above to be rendered in total, it would likely comprise thousands of different circles, and the picture would be so jumbled as to be unintelligible.

The point I want to make (with the diagram) is that, in 21st century fandom, there aren’t any touchstone movies, books, or other properties which every fan, writer, or editor can rely on being known to every other fan, writer, or editor. There is no longer a central nexus for fandom. Oh, to be sure, there are some properties (like Star Trek and Star Wars) which enjoy such overwhelming cultural ubiquity that it’s difficult to find anyone who is not at least aware of them, aware of the characters, the general conceits of the franchises, et cetera. But even here, you can (if you dig beneath the surface) locate veins of fandom which are largely oblivious to these “big circle” properties with their millions upon millions of adherents.

For some fans, the gaming world is where it’s at. They are gamers to the core, not precisely readers per se, nor perhaps even watchers of television and movies. But even among gamers, there are traditionalists (tabletop, pencil-and-paper players, writers, and developers) and there are video gamers. Their two circles can and often do overlap. But among younger players especially, the circle for video games is going to be very large, in comparison to the circle for tabletop.

And we see this pattern again and again: manga and anime fans having overlap to a large degree, while not necessarily having any overlap at all with Cthulu-themed Lovecraft horror fans. Steampunk fans having great overlap with cosplay fans, but perhaps not nearly as much overlap with interstellar Hard Science Fiction fans. And so on and so forth. Depending on where you walked into the “room” you might be on the other side of the floor from someone else who entered opposite you. The things you’re interested in, and the conversations you have with different people, might not share any elements in common. The touchstones simply aren’t there. Different things will matter (or not matter) to different people, and the various circles will often float past one another without there being much rub-off or blending.

The internet accentuates this because you no longer have to go to a convention to meet and greet your like-minded dwellers of your particular circle(s) which interest you. The internet also allows mini-cons and specialty cons to reach out and attract a very fine-tuned sector of the broader consumer audience, much as Star Trek conventions of yesteryear used to attract a very specific kind of fan for a singularly specific franchise.

Now, the one thing pushing back on the “balkanization” of fandom, is the rise of the super-con: DragonCon in Atlanta, and the many Comic Cons, such as Salt Lake City Comic Con or San Diego Comic Con. Events that will literally draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. And not just the hard-core fans, either. The super-cons bring “mundanes” from beyond fandom who are still fans, they just do not identify with fannish culture or history, nor do they even necessarily recognize what it is they enjoy; as Science Fiction or Fantasy. For these “fans outside fandom” they are purely attracted to a popular mass-appeal product, such as a comic book line or comic book movie, a popular television show, and so forth. Things that are explicitly SF/F in context but which have sprung entirely from the mainstream media outlets, drawing more or less mainstream fans.

It’s at the super-cons that one can again get a vague sense of wholeness: all fans of all things merging together for a weekend of intersectionality across innumerable interests.

But even then, the tendency (among attendees) is to focus mostly on what their main interests are: a particular movie, television show, the actors of same, or perhaps a beloved video game line, etc. They will wander through the convention center noting the spectacle of the mass aggregate without necessarily stopping to notice any one thing in particular. Just ask genre bestsellers who lack a presence in television or film how it feels to sit at a book table in the dealers hall while thousands of people wander past, not even recognizing your name, nor your books, nor your face.

As Toni noted so well, “It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.”

I believe this is both good, and bad.

It’s good (to me) because it means the marketplace (for people producing product) is a bull marketplace. Depending on what your goals and aspirations are, you have a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people. Science Fiction and Fantasy are not the closeted industries they were in 1960. Science Fiction and Fantasy have (as I noted in this space before) grown up, moved out of the basement, gone to Hollywood, and taken over the popular culture. Fandom “won” the culture battle because now you can be a fan and not even know you’re a fan! There is nothing odd or distinguishing about you, because everybody likes Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter, right?

It’s bad (to me) because it also means that at the same time people can be fans without realizing they’re fans, there are also plenty of people who have only a dim awareness of the fact that all the other fannish circles exist; much less have validity as a coherent group of like-minded enthusiasts. This tends to breed a lot of cliquishness, clannishness, turf wars, and worse. Ergo, you’re not really a fan unless dot, dot dot. This even manifests within circles as the “hard core” fans at the center resent the dilettantes and the passing fans at the edges, or those fans who like to mix and match their fandom: various interests and enthusiasms rolled into a million and one hybrid flavors.

It also means that professionals (by whatever criteria we choose to use to define the word “professional”) inevitably form prejudices too. Based either on whether you’re traditional published or indie published, which publishing house or agent you work with, whether you write for games or movies or television or magazines, and so on and so forth. Creative people tend to be competitive (often on an unconscious level) so whatever we can do to get one up on each other, we inevitably do. Especially now that there are so damned many competing forms of SF/F entertainment. It’s not possible for any one writer, director, or game company to completely monopolize the marketplace. And there are thousands of people who try to cross over (from fan to professional) each day, through a variety of conduits. With that much competition and so much turmoil caused by so much jostling in the marketplace, to say nothing of larger cultural political concerns, it’s easy to see why the wholeness of the old days has dissolved into the present thousand-countried continent called Science Fiction and Fantasy.

My personal approach (generally) is to celebrate the vastness of the ocean while acknowledging all the islands upon it. I did not come up through traditional fandom in the pre-1960 sense of the world. I came in “sideways” as a child of the 1970s and 1980s who knew SF/F mostly through movies and television and imported Japanese anime. It wasn’t until I began reading Larry Niven (when I was an older teen) that I became aware of the fannish culture and its roots, tracing back through the decades to the first Worldcons and all that went with them. This knowledge was rather revelatory, and I’ve enjoyed very much sitting at the feet of genre historians and super-fans-become-authors like Mike Resnick, who can speak to fannish history: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As Toni notes, SF/F tends to thrive when the circles can find excuses to talk to each other. Nobody is really alone, nor does any one voice (or group of voices) control what is and is not fandom, or what is and is not worth caring about, when it comes to the circles. It’s bottles being hurled into the surf at a rate of one thousand per second, and ten thousand Captain Cooks sailing forth every hour to visit previously uncharted (for the captain and crew at least) waters. Not undiscovered, precisely. Just, places said captain and crew have never been before. And across the distance, healthy commerce and an exchange of ideas can occur.

Presuming the sterilizing forces of conformity aren’t allowed to gain overwhelming traction. Even the best of intentions can pave an unfortunate road. And sometimes the concepts, thoughts, and ideas which disquiet us the most, are the very same concepts, thoughts, and ideas which can be necessary for a) truly understanding all those different fans and creators out in those circles, and b) learning to harness the wild nature of the marketplace for fun and profit, as opposed to launching siege engines designed to batter the many circle(s) into line with a given doctrine, principle, or precept.

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20 thoughts on “Whence fandom?

  1. Well, I’d say the “sterilizing forces of conformity” are what’s finally in decline in sf/f, rather than what’s in danger of gaining traction. When my first fantasy novel was released, after all, it was still a big deal that I was NOT MALE.

    The formal, official, printed “Marketing Strategy” in the publisher’s sales package for my first fantasy novel was: “The author is female in a traditionally male genre.” And that was ALL it said.

    And this was =1998=, for chrissake.

    Nor can I say this really surprised me.

    It certainly exasperated me. I pointed out, upon seeing this “Marketing Strategy,” that I was a Campbell Award winner, I had published over 20 sf/f short stories, I was the award-winning author of more than a dozen novels in another genre, etc. IOW, there were other things to say about me as a writer besides “she’s a GURRRRRL”–and given the many glowing advance cover quotes we’d collected for the novel, there was also a lot more to say about the book than “the author is female.” (In response, I was told, no, my gender was all that was relevant.)

    Of course it exasperated me. But it didn’t -surprise- me. Because I knew what sf/f was like. What it had always been like. What it was still like in (did I MENTION?) 1998.

    And if that sort of “sterilizing conformity” is finally losing its longtime traction in sf/f, then it’s cause for celebration IMO. Or at least a weary sigh of relief.

  2. Really Ms. Resnick? Go to your local bookstore. Ignore Baen. Count the titles then count the titles that fit these three things. 1 male author, 2 white male heterosexual protagonist.3 Not a spin off or tie in. Tell me that there is the kind of bias you think there is. This is not a new thing. The fact that the marketing department at your publisher was stuffed with idiots doesn’t mean a thing about reality. I constantly hear about “old white men” dominating everything and see dammn little evidence, the only place “old white men” tend to dominate is the villain category.

  3. Sanford, I think that part of that marketing strategy Ms. Resnick was so exasperated by is because of the image those publishers have of fans and readers, isn’t it? I mean, there is a stereotype of the white teen male sf reader, pimples and glasses and all, who would break out into screams of “COOTIES!” if they so much as touched a book written by a GURRRRRL.

    Maybe that stereotype is going away. (Should be. Hopefully is.) But it’s a reflection of the perspective, isn’t it? They weren’t going to talk about Laura’s individual talents, accomplishments, etc. That wasn’t important to them. What was important was that she was a member of a particular class of people. So that’s what they pushed in the marketing copy.

  4. Laura: from my perspective (take it or leave it) the sterilizing forces of conformity have merely shifted, not gone away. If once the mood was against female authors bringing their “femaleness” into the boys’ clubhouse, now I suspect the mood is against any and all remnants of the boys’ clubhouse proper: the members, the attitude, or even the perception that a person or thing might in some way be connected to, or apologetic for, the members or the attitude. Thus we have a “cleansing” force in SF/F that is ostensibly marching under a flag of good intentions, but as we’ve seen too often lately, good intentions aren’t enough. Because it seems (to me) that once a person gives him or herself permission to be a complete jerk (in the name of good intentions) then the entire conversation has jumped the shark. It’s no longer a dialogue, as Toni Weisskopf was trying to encourage with her original piece. It’s a bit of a mob. A mob which tends to develop a mindlessness and nastiness all its own, so that even nominal allies (such as Patrick Rothfuss) get slagged, along with the original target(s) of the mob’s ire. Just look at what happened to your dad last year. A less deserving target for that kind of behavior is tough to find, because your dad is a peach.

  5. I couldn’t get all the way through Toni’s post. Not because I disagree, but I don’t relate. To me, the fandom Toni’s talking about is a very small segment of what I consider fandom, so I don’t get the nostalgia or the history, or even the idea that it was ever small enough for there to be a single respect fan who could talk to others.

    My dad grew up reading Heinlein and was by all accounts a sf fan as a teen and young adult, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t know who Bob Tucker was.

    I’m one of those people who walked in through a different door. I wound my way in through 80s anime, Dungeons & Dragons, and Dragonlance books. For the most part, I did not read anything written earlier than the 80s with the exception of Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K. LeGuin (and only because I discovered them through more contemporary publications of theirs).

    Once, just to get a feel for the early stuff, I decided to try some James White, and I did like his books, even though they were clearly dated (computer data on tapes, go!).

    Maybe fandom is fractured, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I like to think of all the little subcommunities out there as places to visit. An Iron Man comic book enthusiast is just as much a fan as a Evangelion cosplayer, a Mass Effect fanfic writer, or someone who’s read every story by Ray Bradbury.

    Since I was in my teens my three favorite forms of entertainment have been books, video games, and anime, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I *like* dipping back and forth between them even though they seldom have the same creative forces involved.

    Why I couldn’t finish Toni’s essay is that I got the feeling she was upset that so many people didn’t seem to care as deeply as she did about the particular segment of fandom that was most relevent to her, and it’s very hard for me to read something when I feel like the writer is too invested to be rational. I can understand she might not be happy to realize that her slice of fandom is a lot smaller than it seemed in the old days, but I think the current state of things is good. There so much out there.

    It used to be every anime fan watched the same shows because so little came over, but now that nearly everything is being streamed within a day or two of airing in Japan, I’ve realized that there were a lot of shows I watched simply because I had no other choice. Now that I can find things that honestly appeal to me in a majority of ways instead of a few, and I’d never go back to the old system.

    I see having a multitude of fandoms the same way.

  6. Laurie, I didn’t read Toni’s essay as bemoaning the variety in fandom, but the Balkanization – that there isn’t enough cross-pollenization going on among fans. I agree, and it sounds like Brad does as well, that having so much variety out there is good. Some of us would just like to see that good shared better, by bringing people together in ways that will expose them to more awesome things they might enjoy. YMMV, this commentary worth what you paid for it, management not responsible for the mollusc’s ramblings.

  7. I get where you’re coming from Brad. I grew up on sword and sorcery fantasy and first dipped my toe into sci-fi as Anne McCaffrey went from dragons to spaceships. But claiming to be a fan these days almost seems to be a contest of credentials in which I have to prove that I have enough familiarity with a given genre to be considered worthy of being an official “fan”. I have had a SFF oriented blog since 2006 and I never post on the darn thing anymore because everything seems to be an invitation to some pedantic argument with someone who disagrees with something I said. I’m so weary that I don’t even use my blogger identity to comment on sites like this anymore because I don’t want to deal with the blowback.

    The really sad thing is that I really don’t want to read much SFF anymore because things are so political and polarized now that I don’t know which authors are going to sucker punch me with their politics in their books- so I avoid everyone. So who really ends up suffering as a result of all this contentiousness? I’m guessing it’s the people trying to make a living off of their writing.

  8. I think there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying, Brad. I enjoyed your blog post, though I devoutly wish you hadn’t had to write it.

  9. What you’re saying is true as far as it goes, but there have been personality conflicts within fandom since forever and it doesn’t explain the hysterical visceral reactions that have been behind the recent dust ups of the last few years.

    To understand what is behind this, just look at the actual people driving it: Farah Mendlesohn resigns over the Ross affair. She sends an email to Cheryl Morgan saying “it is not too late to change this, even if we have to embarrass Mr Ross into withdrawing.” A week later Mendlesohn retweets this for our attention: “White feminist privilege is just the feminist wing of white superiority.”

    There is no one to the Left of that.

    Seanan McGuire’s hysterical reaction to the “white dude parade” is that of a woman known for her staunch feminism. Look at the SFWA bulletin affair and who drove that – radical QUILTBAG feminists who lit up Malzberg and Resnick for being privileged “old white men” and were disgusted by an innocent Red Sonja painting. Look who wrote the Tor gender binary piece: a radical QUILTBAG feminist who the same day Tweeted “cis peeeoooople” in exasperation to the Tor comments.

    Look at the language John Scalzi and Jim Hines have adopted: it is classic third wave intersectional feminism, which I regard as little more than a loosely affiliated racist/sexist cult. Here are words from just one Jim Hines post and comments section: “cis,” “cissexist,” “transphobic,” “cis gender,” “able-bodied neurotypical,” “privilege,” “colorblindness,” “genderblindness.”

    Look at the reaction to the SFF.net thing and who drove that. Kowal is insulted and suddenly it’s typical sexism which attacks all women.

    Even feminists like Janis Ian and Liz Williams are washing their hands of these people and completely PC people like John Picacio and Neil Gaiman are starting to walk away.

    That’s what you’re up against, and in my opinion it has nothing to do with politics, feminism or liberalism, though it is presented in exactly those terms. I leave it to you to figure out what a cishetero white supremacist patriarchy is.

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