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Sub-Cultural Darwininsm: Some Metafiltered Follow-up

July 19, 2012

Last week, I attempted to jot down some thoughts about the ecosystem supporting popular culture and why it is that some fandoms are more successful than others. The result was this post right here.

Yesterday, someone was kind enough to link to that post on Metafilter resulting in some lengthy and fruitful discussion. Given that a) I do not have a Metafilter account and b) none of the comments have filtered down to my actual blog, I thought it might be fun to respond to some of these comments in the form of a blog post.

The first point I would like to respond to is by someone named Frowner.  Frowner opens his lengthy and thought-provoking response with an attempt at psychological interpretation:

There’s a lot of….undercurrents in this piece. The one I notice particularly – as someone about the same age as the writer – is the fear of being old. The mean little asides about “servicing” old fans, the assumption that books about the past are inaccessible and irrelevant to young people, the assumption that being old means that your concerns are boring and trivial, the assumption that being old means you’re selfish and that the young must fight you – those are the marks of someone who knows that he is no longer young and hasn’t yet resolved the issues this brings up for him. Not that resolving those issues is easy, or that we should all stop writing until we’ve got them wrapped up.

I am not an academic and so I do not feel compelled to make any claims to either objectivity or universality. I do not write from atop a mountain of logic and reason but from the bottom of a deep dark pit of subjective experience.

Frowner is quite correct that my life experience has coloured my perspective on this issue but the experience in question is not that of a difficult passage out of youth. In truth, I have always been completely at home with the idea of aging and I have always thought of myself as being slightly older than I actually am (I am 35 and have been thinking of myself as middle-aged for at least a couple of years now). In truth, the experience that informed the writing of that post was of a youth lived in service of a much older person… namely my mother.

Every time I switch on the radio and every time I check my news feeds, I am confronted by evidence of increasingly bitter and vindictive inter-generational conflict. When the World War II generation returned home, they set about creating a set of institutions that would allow their children to enjoy freedoms and opportunities that they themselves had never experienced. The World War II generation created the NHS because they didn’t want their children to live with the costs of illness… the World War II generation built council houses and provided free university education because they remembered what it was like to live with their in-laws. The World War II generation provided everything for their children and their children are in the process of undoing all that work. Indeed… the baby boomers so loved freedom and opportunity that they decided to keep it all for themselves and when the young react to that, the boomers paint them as scroungers and savages. Given the political climate of the day, I feel compelled to pick sides and both my principles and my experiences tell me that today’s youth need all the help they can get. They need that help because if they don’t get it, then chances are that they will wind up like me.

The second point that Frowner makes is that:

Also, there’s a sort of contradiction in this essay: one needs to have read about the past to participate in formal experiments, but books like Among Others […] are to be rebuked because they are about/set in the past.

I do not see a contradiction here as my original post draws a distinction between the products of a mature cultural scene (where people are widely read enough to produce art that is a politicised reaction to earlier works of art) and the products of a decadent cultural scene (where the intertextuality of art becomes so dense and so widespread that the works become impenetrable to those who are freshly arriving on the scene). The demographic forces that propel a scene from youthful energy to mature sophistication are the same as those propelling a scene from mature sophistication to decadent solipsism and these forces are an entirely natural phenomenon. My point was not that all demographic shifting is necessarily bad but that unchallenged and unconstrained demographic shifting always results in cultural irrelevance as everyone stops producing art about the world and begins producing art about themselves and the art they have read. Works like Among Others and Old Man’s War are products of a decadent culture as their appeal lies chiefly (but not exclusively) with people who are old enough to yearn for a second youth or remember fondly the days when everyone got very excited about Robert Heinlein and nobody had thought of the internet.

The third point I would like to respond to is made about a third of the way down the page by someone named Tyllwin. Tyllwin responds to Frowner and asks:

That’s another sort of oversight from the original article that I was less inclined to pull out: the extent to which he avoids the basic question of generational conflict going on: How many 50-year-old Heinlein fans are going to accept a 16-year-old as an equal participant? How many Twilight fans want one of those 50-year-old Heinlein fans hanging around? You want to play a tabletop RPG with someone 3 times your age or 1/3 of it?

My thesis is all about generational conflict! The question of whether or not a fandom becomes decadent is chiefly a question of whose needs take political precedence: The needs of existing (and therefore necessarily aging) fans or the needs of new fans who may not even be born yet. By seeking to satisfy their needs rather than make institutional changes that will allow the long-term survival of fandom’s institutions, existing fans are quite explicitly sticking two fingers up at both today and tomorrow’s youth. The question of whether or not this is morally acceptable behaviour is, in my view, similar to the moral questions surrounding global warming. Should today’s fans make way for tomorrow’s youth? Should today’s voters sacrifice their best interest for the interests of the next generation? As I said in my first response to Frowner, I think it is pretty clear how the baby boom generation feels about sacrifice: They are happy to benefit from the sacrifice of others but they seem entirely unwilling to make similar sacrifices themselves.

As to the question of why old white men would want to spend time with younger people… I think this actually cuts to the core of written SF’s accessibility issues.  Let me begin by recounting something that happened to me recently:

I live in a town in the south of England which, though not exactly small, is certainly small enough that you notice when you keep running into the same people.  The other day, I was walking from town to the supermarket and I found myself walking behind a group of teenaged girls who turned around and looked at me.  We then all happened to go into the supermarket where they saw and smiled. Then they saw me again as we walked away from the supermarket.  After walking homewards for about 20 minutes, I realised that I was about 20m behind one of the girls who evidently lives in my neighbourhood. Mindful that I am quite a tall man and that these girls had already ‘run into’ me three time, I made the decision to take the long way home lest the girl think that I was stalking her and get freaked out.  When I got home, I told my partner and she pointed out that a) it was the middle of the day and b) I don’t exactly look like a rapist. In truth, my desire to not ‘freak out’ the teenager had less to do with my appearing like a stalker and more to do with the fact that I clearly felt uneasy around teenaged girls.

My feeling is that many of the accessibility problems confronting written SF fandom have more to do with this kind of awkwardness and in-group preference than they does with any deliberate policy of exclusion. One of the more hideous characteristics of human nature is that we tend to stick to people we know… in fact we even tend to value concrete personal relationships over abstract principles, which is why convention organisers evidently struggle when asked to adopt a deliberate policy of inclusion rather than simply filling panels with people they know.  Today’s older fans grew up in an environment that was mostly white, mostly straight and mostly male.  They are not comfortable around women, POCs and GLBTQs because these people have been largely invisible for much of their tenure in fandom. Racefail started when a bunch of white fans and authors waded in to defend their friends from accusations of racism and xenophobia. Again, people would rather help their friends than be inclusive or just and that is, as far as I can tell, a fundamental flaw in human nature hence the need for rules and laws that a) force people to look beyond their immediate peer group and b) punish people and institutions who refuse to acknowledge and address the long-standing privilege of certain demographics.

Frowner is quite correct when they say:

But it’s the same set of questions with political activism. Modern Western society is age-segregated very finely – consider how school works and how almost all your friends are likely to be exactly your age. Consider the neurological-determinist rhetoric of child and young-adult development, all of which emphasizes the tremendous differences between a teenager and a person in their early twenties, or between a ten year old and a twelve year old, as if there can’t and shouldn’t be friendships across these ages. This is all very, very novel – it is not how society worked a hundred or two hundred years ago. So anyway, people get very little practice being friends with people of different ages.

When all of your friends are straight, white males and you go out of your way to be cool to your friends, don’t be surprised when people start accusing you of racism as that sort of hostility to the unknown combined with preferential treatment for the known is, in my honest opinion, where most prejudice comes from.

The Final point I would like to address is John Scalzi’s attempted rebuttal of my suggestion that Old Man’s War is a book for old people:

I don’t have much doubt that Jonathan McCalmont is not the audience for Old Man’s War, but it’s not because of an age issue. Unlike Mr. McCalmont, who has a hypothesis but no data outside his own anecdotal experience, I have roughly seven years of marketing, bookseller and reader information to go by. Everything we see on our end suggests the book sells well across the board, including into younger demographics. Indeed, the reason Zoe’s Tale exists is that Tor wanted me to write something with a YA sensibility (i.e., fewer “fucks” and somewhat toned down violence) because they knew younger readers were already reading the previous books and wanted to get a book in the series into middle school and high school libraries to take advantage of that market. So, in short, Mr. McCalmont’s thesis is bunk, at least outside of his own head. […] This sort of thing is par for the course for Mr. McCalmont, in my experience of reading his genre criticism. His apparent lack of knowledge regarding the real world of genre and publishing economics tends to undercut his various hypotheses. He writes a fair game, unless you know how the game works.

I must admit that this response has somewhat flummoxed me as I made no comment at all on who had actually bought Old Man’s War and so Scalzi’s publishing data has no bearing whatsoever on my argument. Indeed, Scalzi’s parting comment suggests that he has somehow managed to confuse the role of the critic with the role of the business journalist.

My point was never that Old Man’s War made bumper box with sci-fi seniors but that the themes of the book are such that it speaks more loudly to older fans than it does to younger ones.  Indeed, the fact that Old Man’s War struck a chord with aging SF fans should be evident from the fact that the greybeards of Worldcon placed it on that year’s Hugo shortlist for best novel.

The themes of Old Man’s War are profoundly nostalgic.  For starters, the book harkens back to the rip-roaring SF war stories of Heinlein and Haldeman who were writing in the 50s and 70s respectively. However, while Heinlein presented war as a glamorous world of fascistic self-actualisation and Haldeman presented it as a font of alienation and cultural slippage, Scalzi presents it as a place one goes to recapture one’s lost youth. The characters of Old Man’s War escape their life as pensioners and receive new bodies and new careers, developments that allow them to feel as young and as potent as they used to. While there is nothing preventing a young person from both reading and enjoying Old Man’s War, my contention is that they will not enjoy it in the same way as someone who yearns for the second chance in life afforded the characters in the book. This is not about who bought the book… this is about who the book speaks to and that has nothing to do with publishing data and absolutely nothing to do with Scalzi’s motivations for writing the book.

Another interesting aspect of Scalzi’s response is the hint of defensiveness about his argument. To my mind, there is nothing inherently wrong with writing a book that appeals to old people just as there is nothing inherently correct about writing a book that appeals to younger audiences. Much like Jo Walton’s Among Others and Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear, Old Man’s War has struck a chord… it is just a shame that the chord in question is that of a post-War generation that is not only growing increasingly old, increasingly selfish and increasingly solipsistic but also increasingly insistent that their beliefs and prejudices be honoured by the rest of society.

5 Comments
  1. July 19, 2012 12:41 pm

    “Another interesting aspect of Scalzi’s response is the hint of defensiveness about his argument.”

    In my experience, when flaws in your argument are pointed out, you have a notable tendency to attempt to describe an emotional basis to those who point them out. This appears to be your way to discount them. It’s a logical fallacy, and if you’re not aware of it, then you should be, as it continues to undercut your ability to argue well.

    Likewise, this:

    “I made no comment at all on who had actually bought Old Man’s War and so Scalzi’s publishing data has no bearing whatsoever on my argument”

    Is a not very convincing way to avoid the fact that you did say this:

    “If you are young enough that you can still eat like a pig and fuck like a mink despite your ignorance of offline fandom then chances are that both Old Man’s War and Among Others will seem strangely inaccessible.”

    Your assertion here is that Old Man’s War is likely to be inaccessible to younger readers. Well, then, what is one excellent way to test this assertion? One way would be to look at the data regarding who is buying and reading the books. And in fact the data suggest rather strongly that the books is perfectly accessible to readers who can, in your words, eat like pigs and fuck like minks.

    You pre-emptively attempt to argue against this by asserting “This is not about who bought the book… this is about who the book speaks to.” But this is a not very good argument. I would be very interested in what better metric you have regarding to whom the book speaks and in what quality, than sales data which suggest young(ish) people are buying the book. Adult science fiction is not the Young Adult genre, in which sales data are skewed by adults buying gifts for children; there’s a reasonably strong correlation between who buys adult science fiction and who reads it. Which is why indeed the publishing data have a bearing on your argument. It’s clear you may not be aware of this, however, or simply choose not to acknowledge it.

    Now, as to this: “While there is nothing preventing a young person from both reading and enjoying Old Man’s War, my contention is that they will not enjoy it in the same way as someone who yearns for the second chance in life afforded the characters in the book,” well. This is obvious and non-controversial. Different people will get different things out of the same work. But this also a different assertion than you made in your previous entry, in which you suggest that young(ish) readers are likely to find the book “strangely inaccessible.” So, which is it? Will they find it “strangely inaccessible,” or will they read and enjoy it, just in a different way? “Different” in this case is not at all equivalent to “inaccessible.”

    Finally, this sentence:

    “Indeed, Scalzi’s parting comment suggests that he has somehow managed to confuse the role of the critic with the role of the business journalist”

    is indicative of what I see as a major problem for you. A critic is not a business journalist, but an intelligent critic engaged in his or her purported field should have some general understanding of that field, including its business side, to give his or her critical assertions credibility. In this particular case, your assertion regarding the likely accessibility of Old Man’s War is not borne out in the sales data (or for that matter, in my personal sampling of people who have come to tell me they have read the book, which, while anecdotal, is as the author almost certainly larger than your own anecdotal sample). This is not, for reasons enumerated, a trivial point as regards your assertion.

    Now, you are perfectly within your rights to continue to assert your critical hypothesis after having been made aware that there are data to strongly question it, as you certainly seem to be doing. What that suggests to me, however, is that you are more enamored of your hypothesis because it fits your particular worldview than you are interested in testing your critical hypothesis against reality.

    One suggestion if you choose to respond to this comment: See if you can do it without ascribing a prejudicial emotional undertone to me when you do so. I am curious if you can.

  2. July 19, 2012 12:58 pm

    Hi John :-) Long time no speak!

    If I attribute a particular emotional context to your words it’s because I’m surprised that you bothered to respond at all… you’re a busy guy and all I really said was that OMW is a fantasy about getting a second chance at youth and that such fantasies are most likely to appeal to people who are in fact old. The fact that you went out of your way to respond to these comments at such length suggested to me that you may feel a little bit defensive about this side of OMW’s appeal. If I’m wrong then I apologise but I’m sure you can see why I’d reach that conclusion… right?

    As for the use of stats to refute my suggestion, let me put it in simple terms: I bought the book and while I thought it was pretty fun, it didn’t resonate with me. It didn’t resonate with me because I am not yet old enough to yearn for a second youth and because I generally struggle to find much pleasure in the spiritual solace of escapism. Now… where do I show up in your statistics? I bought the book… I doubtless show up in your publisher’s stats… where does my lack of emotional connection with the book’s themes show up? Is there like a pie-chart or something?

    I’m sure that young people are buying OMW by the truck-load… but I’m also sure that they do not find it as easy to connect with the book’s themes as people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Why am I so sure? because I remember what it was like to be a teenager and because I don’t connect with stuff aimed at demographics either older or younger than me. That’s not a matter for publishing stats… that’s a matter of human psychology.

    I will continue to assert my hypothesis and I will continue to do so in the face of your data because I do not believe that your data is salient to what it is I am discussing. If I were making claims about market penetration or numbers of copies sold to particular demographics then I would stand irrevocable refuted by your hard scientific facts but I am not talking about sales data, I am talking about the emotional impact of art.

  3. July 19, 2012 6:41 pm

    “The fact that you went out of your way to respond to these comments at such length suggested to me that you may feel a little bit defensive about this side of OMW’s appeal.”

    Heh. I responded on Metafilter because I’m a longtime member there (10 years as of next month), comment on threads there with regularity and often in detail, and as a member of the community I try to respond when other folks there ask me a question. I responded here because it was a follow-on to the Metafilter post. There and here, I responded at length because I think your assertion is not correct, and when pointing that out it’s reasonable to offer enough information that you and others reading can see the reason for it.

    Writing these responses is not particularly onerous in terms of time; they make a nice recreational break from everything else that I’m doing. We can leave the idea I see writing as a break from writing for another time.

    “I remember what it was like to be a teenager and because I don’t connect with stuff aimed at demographics either older or younger than me. That’s not a matter for publishing stats… that’s a matter of human psychology.”

    Leaving aside that you seem to be narrowing the conversation to deal only with teenagers rather than people merely younger than the older fans you see as OMW’s target audience, two things here.

    First, it’s not a matter of “human psychology,” it’s a matter of YOUR psychology, which is not necessarily the universal experience. There are plenty of people who don’t have the slightest problem connecting with material aimed higher or lower than their market-defined age demographic. One of my 13-year-old daughter’s favorite films is the 1939 version of The Women, which is manifestly not pitched to her age, either in content or in era (it’s one of her mother’s favorite films, which is how she learned about it). On the opposite end of things, you have the phenomenon of “Bronies,” twenty- and thirtysomething men who go nuts for the new My Little Pony series that here in the US show. on The Hub, a cable station targeted towards children. My daughter’s opinion of My Little Pony, I would note, is rather less enthusiastic than the opinion of the “Bronies.”

    Second, this construction of yours seems to elide the possibility that creative works have the elements that can resonate differently for different audiences, i.e., that the same work may have an effect on different groups (or people) for entirely different reasons. As regards OMW specifically, where you see a story about the yearning to have a second youth at whatever cost — which is in there, so you’re not wrong about that one element — others have seen a story about a man being in love with his wife, still others see a straightforward military action adventure with aliens and lasers and explosions, and still others (incorrectly, in my opinion, because it was largely written before the event, but even so) see a parable for post-9/11 political thinking.

    Which is to say there is more than one door into the story, and it’s entirely possible for different audiences to connect to different elements, and to connect to some more than others. I have an audience of military readers, for example, most of whom are young men, for whom (anecdotally) I know the story works because they see John Perry’s military ethos mirror their own. I have an audience of women readers who have told me they appreciate it because they see the women in the book as fully (or, at least, MORE fully) developed characters than they usually get in military-themed SF. I *do* have an older audience, who grooves to the idea that their age and assumed wisdom is an advantage. And so on and so forth.

    And again, these multiple audiences are reflected in the sales data, which is why I point it out, and why I point out that it renders your hypothesis incorrect, or at the very least woefully underdeveloped. The sales data in point of fact point to what you say you want to address: The emotional impact of art. In this particular case, the data show that people of all sorts are buying the book, and continue to buy the book (it sells nicely, week in and week out), which suggests that the book is working — i.e., having an emotional impact — across a broad spectrum of readers. If your hypothesis ignores that to assert that the book’s emotional impact is solely or primarily focused on one group, then once again, you have the problem of trying to fit reality to your critical hypothesis, rather than testing your critical hypothesis against reality. Which is why I think your hypothesis fails in the end.

    (Bear in mind, incidentally, that all the above is aside to the issue of whether OMW is “good”; something can be popular and have an emotional impact without being a superior work of art. I *like* my book, but I think it’s fine that other people like it less, or not at all.)

  4. John Fulton permalink
    October 8, 2012 10:24 pm

    I thought authors weren’t supposed to respond to their critics. I seem to remember this advice coming up on Whatever more than once. Scalzi’s responses make this seem like good advice since he comes across as defensive to the extent of missing McCalmont’s point completely.

    McCalmont was exploring how fandom, or any social institution, can become decadent and lose it’s concern for future readers/members. The themes in Old Man’s War stand as a decent example for what he was trying to say. His ‘hypothesis’ wasn’t first and foremost about Scalzi’s book. OMW is just an example. Perhaps there are better examples. There are certainly a huge number of SF works that could demonstrate the decadence of the genre. Scalzi may not like OMW being used as an example of genre decadence but the idea that present SF risks decadence is a strong one. Scalzi’s idea that he sees reality more clearly because he knows what OMW sales figures are is a weak one.

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  1. Sub-Cultural Darwinism: Some Thoughts on the Rise and Fall of Fandoms « Ruthless Culture

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