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Sub-Cultural Darwinism: Some Thoughts on the Rise and Fall of Fandoms

July 10, 2012

Over the past few months, I have been slowly pulling together some thoughts on the question of why it is that certain pop culture institutions prosper while others decline. Traditionally, when people talk about these types of issues they do so from one of two perspectives:

Firstly, they assume that the health of a sub-culture is indistinguishable from the health of the industry that serves said sub-culture and so discussions tend to revolve around issues relating to the expansion and contraction of said market. For example, when people talk about the health of tabletop roleplaying games, they talk about the number of books sold and the number of companies in business. Thus, when the d20 license created a boom in the market that convinced existing fans to buy more stuff, people mistakenly confused this boom with an expansion in the boundaries of gaming fandom.

Secondly, they assume that the creation myths that spring up around a certain sub-culture are entirely correct and so explain all variations in popularity level purely in terms of distance from the original context of creation. For example, when people talk about the decline of written science fiction, they often talk about the lack of interest in space exploration despite the fact that science fiction can fill a number of cultural niches other than as a form of bargain-basement agitprop for the American space programme.

In my view, both approaches are hopeless blinkered and incomplete as they fail to acknowledge the fact that each fandom effectively in direct competition with every other form of fandom.

Think of it this way:

You are a teenager and you have a certain amount of talent and energy left over after your academic and/or professional endeavours. What you do with those remaining reserves of talent and energy will be determined by what it is that interest you.  What interests you as a teenager growing up in the 21st Century will be determined by a number of factors including the culture of the day, the values of your parents and peer group, and which activities are financially and geographically available to you. For example, you are unlikely to develop a huge interest in winter sports if you live in the tropics. Similarly, if you grow up in an upper-class family then you are more likely to acquire an interest in tennis than you are in muscle cars.

Based upon these interests, you will be inclined to attach yourself to one or several scenes as a means of a) interacting with people who share your interests and b) accruing social capital. Which scenes you eventually join is, of course, your choice but all potential scenes are effectively in competition for your talent, your energy and your financial input.

Pop-cultural institutions (or ‘fandoms’) are successful only in so far as they as capable of attracting a constant stream of new fans and encouraging said fans to devote their resources to the advancement of said scene. The bigger, more vibrant, more inclusive and more democratic a scene appears, the more likely it is to recruit new members. For example, anime fandom is currently on the rise as the subject matter is cool and because anime fandom is young, inclusive and filled with people from a variety of genders, sexualities and ethnicities. Conversely, written science fiction fandom is dominated by old, straight, white, American men who are frequently hostile to people who are none of these things.

Given that a) anime features a huge number of science fictional stories and b) anime fandom appears far more inclusive and mindful of teenaged sensibilities than that of written SF, why would a teenager decide to join written science fiction fandom?

While I have thus far limited myself to examples drawn from my personal experience of different forms of fandom, the principle of pop cultural Darwinism applies across the board. Written science fiction is not just in competition with anime and console gaming but with sports, music and political activism. All pop-cultural institutions are in competition with each other because all pop-cultural institutions serve a similar set of psychological needs in that they allow individuals to assert their identity through association with a particular tribe or activity.

This idea that all fandoms exist to allow people to satisfy a set of basic psychological needs is perfectly captured in a short scene from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993). In this scene, one of the primary characters finds himself trapped between the socially conservative institutions that have grown up around high school American football and the more radical and hedonistic institutions that have grown up around listening to 70s rock music. As a member of the 70s counterculture, the character wants to get drunk, get high and get laid. However, as a member of the high school football team, the character is expected to make a pledge denouncing such activities for the good of the team. When the character’s team-mates attempt to apply peer-pressure to the character in order to get him to pay lip service to the conservative values of high school football, the character points out that he only joined the football team in order to meet girls and he could just as easily have met girls by learning to play an instrument and joining a band.

The challenge facing all pop-cultural institutions is that of perpetual renewal. In order to remain attractive to each new generation of fans, fandoms must convince each new generation that their institutions are the ideal vehicle for those fans’ psychological needs. If fandoms do not look like places where teenagers can acquire social status, exercise their creativity and maybe get laid then chances are that said fandom will enter terminal decline.

An interesting example of what can happen when a fandom enters decline can be found in French popular culture.  As I pointed out in a piece I recently wrote for Locus Magazine about French graphic novels, French popular culture has a written SF scene but this scene is small and its output is completely overshadowed by works of SF that are translated from English. Conversely, French comics are enormously vibrant and their influence on how we think about science fiction stretches beyond France and Europe and all the way to Hollywood and Japan. In an excellent piece for about the French comics artist Moebius, Tim Maughan says:

It wasn’t just Hollywood and Europe that would be touched by Moebius’ influence — somehow Metal Hurlant would make its way to Japan also. Anime legend and Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki considered himself a life-long fan, and the two would become good friends and mutual admirers. In 2004 they held a joint exhibition of their work in Paris, and the two were recorded discussing each others’ work, with Miyazaki saying he discovered his friend’s work “through Arzach, which dates from 1975 I believe. I only met it in 1980, and it was a big shock. Not only for me. All manga authors were shaken by this work…even today, I think he has an awesome sense of space. I directed Nausicaä under Moebius’ influence… We were really amazed when we saw Moebius’ drawings. How to explain that, we had discovered a new way to look at the world.”

The cultural vibrancy of a particular form is intimately bound up with the cultural vibrancy of its associated fandom: Because the French comics scene is vibrant, it recruits more talented youngsters and many of these talented youngsters contribute to the vibrancy of the scene in both professional and amateur capacities either by opening shops, writing reviews, organising conventions or learning to become writers and artists. It is precisely because the French comics scene is more vibrant than that of French written SF that French-speaking teenagers with an interest in science fiction grow up wanting to be Moebius and not Roland Charles Wagner.

Given that this blog post is really nothing more than an opportunity for me to lay down a few thoughts in a (more or less) ordered fashion, I cannot pretend that this way of thinking about fandom is in any way intellectually robust. It may not even be a particularly novel way of thinking about popular culture. One obvious shortcoming is that it fails to acknowledge the fact that, while fandoms must undoubtedly appeal to the young in order to survive and grow, it is not only the young who have needs. This idea that there is nothing morally wrong with tailoring a fandom to suit the needs of senior citizens is put forward with admirable frankness by the fan artist Taral Wayne in the November 2011 issue of Mike Glyer’s File 770 fanzine (PDF). As Wayne puts it:

Adhering to an outmoded model that appeals to no one under the age of 40 binds fandom to our own mortality. But from a purely selfish standpoint, so what? When I’m gone, what difference does it make if fandom survives at the cost of becoming something that isn’t going to honor my memory any- way? Fandom as an abstraction that must outlive me, reminds me too much of other banners man- kind has foolishly followed… often to bloodshed and disaster.

According to Wayne’s Wikipedia page, he first joined SF fandom in the early 70s and has spent his life being creative, making friends, accruing social capital and presumably getting laid in and around written SF fandom. As fans of Wayne’s generation have aged, they have used their demographic weight to ensure that the institutions of SF fandom remained focused upon their needs rather than the needs of later generations of fans. As Wayne argues, what does it matter if his generation drives SF into the ground? He is an old man, he will soon be dead and what matters after he dies is none of his concern.

My first reaction upon reading Wayne’s comments was to view him as a profoundly selfish and reactionary man whose attempt to smear any and all forms of social change with the brush of ideological mass murder is as crassly self-serving as it is morally imbecilic. However, upon further reflection, I will at least acknowledge that the morality of the issue is more complex than it first appears.

In an article that appeared in The London Review of Books, Malcolm Bull argues that one of the reasons why a political solution to the problem of climate change continues to elude us is that while climate change will affect future generations more heavily than it effects our own, our political institutions are set up to serve only the needs of the current generation.  As Bull puts it:

The current generation has nothing to gain from reducing emissions and every subsequent one has more at stake than its predecessor. In game-theoretical terms, this means that the current generation has no incentive to co-operate even if every other generation were willing to do so, and that the same will be true of the next generation if the present one has failed to co-operate and passed the buck instead.

In order for written SF fandom to become culturally vibrant its institutions must attract new generations of fans. However, in order for the institutions of SF fandom to attract younger fans, these institutions must prioritise the needs of younger fans over the needs of older and existing fans. The problem that Wayne and Bull both touch upon is that it is not in the interest of existing older fans to change fandom’s institutions. The case for morally prioritising future generations over current generations is far from obvious particularly when these future generations might not even exist.

If the moral case for constant cultural renewal is unclear then the aesthetic case is downright impenetrable.

One of the more intriguing side effects of an aging fandom is that as fandoms age, the more widely read the average fan becomes. The more widely read the average fan becomes, the more likely it is that they will want to experience something new. Thus, an aging fandom can also be a more jaded and sophisticated fandom and a sophisticated fandom is likely to be a more demanding fandom. This link between demographics and aesthetic sophistication accounts for the rise of postmodernism in popular culture throughout the late 1980s and 1990s.

The aesthetics of postmodernity are those of excruciating cleverness. What I mean by this is that postmodernism assumes that everyone has read enough, seen enough and played enough to be bored. The correct reaction to a successful piece of postmodernist art is not ‘that is beautiful!’ or ‘that is intensely moving!’ but ‘clever… I see what you did there’. For example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer deconstructs the tropes of the traditional horror movie but in order for this deconstruction to appeal, people must be familiar enough with those tropes in order to be annoyed with them. The same principle is evident in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Moore deconstructs the super hero comic but in order for the deconstruction to be meaningful, the audience must first be familiar with the traditional and un-reconstructed super hero comics where super heroes were both unquestioningly patriotic and seemingly unaware of their reactionary status. Obviously, people unaware of the source materials can appreciate both Buffy and Watchmen on a non-postmodern level but the satirical and ‘clever’ aspects of these works assume that fans will have read enough of the old shit to be bored by it.

A young fandom is a fandom content to experience stories for the first time and a fandom content to experience stories for the first time is also a fandom that does not require particularly sophisticated takes on traditional forms and narratives. It is only when people start to get a little bit older and a little bit more jaded that the old stories begin to seem boring. Thus, a popular culture attuned to the needs of older fans can also be culturally vibrant; this is what we mean when we talk about forms and cultures reaching a certain level of maturity.

The aesthetic difficulties associated with aging sub-cultures only become evident once this first wave of maturity and ‘cleverness’ begins to lose its appeal. As audiences and creators become more sophisticated and the need to appeal to younger, less sophisticated audiences becomes less pressing, many forms of popular culture begin to turn away from the world and in on themselves. An excellent example of this kind of cultural decadence is Grant Morrison’s widely celebrated All-Star Superman.


Morrison’s take on Superman is gleefully iconoclastic in so far as it flamboyantly rejects the dominant paradigm of presenting super heroes as psychologically flawed and conflicted individuals. This fashion for tortured superheroics originates in the 1980s when works such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns attempted to resolve the tension inherent in the fact that adults were reading about super heroes despite knowing full well that costumed vigilantism is a disastrously bad idea. Miller and Moore attempted to resolve this conflict by acknowledging both the morally problematic nature of costumed vigilantism and the fact that you would have to be fucking insane to think that putting on a rubber pervert suit would ever solve anything. What makes both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns ‘clever’ and postmodern is the fact that they acknowledge, exaggerate and satirise the problems of their own form.

The problem with this particular piece of cleverness is that it proved so popular and influential that it effectively replaced the approach to super hero comics that it claimed to be deconstructing. Thus, American comics moved from being simple-minded and quasi-fascistic moral fantasies in which the good guys always win to being simple-minded and quasi-fascistic moral fantasies in which the good guys are always miserable psychopaths standing in the rain. Bored with the preposterous and hypocritical angst of the post-Watchmen era, Morrison set out to create a comic that celebrated the enjoyably uplifting weirdness of pre-Watchmen super hero comics. The problem with All-Star Superman is that in order to fully appreciate it you have to be familiar with both the traditional Superman comics that Morrison is celebrating and the increasing staleness of the dark and postmodern turn in American comics initiated by the likes of Moore and Miller. If you are aware of the source materials and share Morrison’s boredom with grimdark psychopaths in cloaks then All-Star Superman will seem both provocative and long overdue. However, if you are only a casual comics fan or young enough to be new to the form then All-Star Superman is likely to come across as little more than an impenetrable mess of disconnected plotlines and meaningless images.

Works like All-Star Superman only function if their audience has previously consumed and understood dozens of other works. As a result, works like All-Star Superman are usually the preserve of a scene’s cutting edge where the most jaded and most sophisticated fans cry out for something new that panders to their very specific tastes. What makes works like All-Star Superman so dangerous is the fact that the needs and interests of a scene’s cognoscenti are generally very different to the needs and interests of a scene’s most recent converts.  The more the aesthetics of the avant-garde come to dominate a form, the more inward looking and inaccessible a form becomes. The more inaccessible a form becomes, the harder it will be for that form’s fandom to recruit new members leading to a death spiral in which aging fans and creative find themselves incapable of renewing either the scene or the artistic form attached to it. This creative and social death spiral is what we talk about when we talk about a culture becoming decadent.

This gradual progression from youthful vibrancy to creative maturity and finally into cultural decadence reappears throughout human history. The failure to strike a balance between increasing sophistication and the need to remain socially accessible accounts just as well for the increasing irrelevance of written science fiction, table-top RPGs and superhero comics as it does for the decline of entire art forms such as opera which, though once vibrantly populist, is now nothing more than a heavily-subsidised excuse for vulgar displays of wealth and geriatric snobbery.

Needless to say, while inaccessibly clever postmodern art is one side effect of an aging scene, another side effect is art that panders to older people in quite simple-minded ways. One excellent example of this type of thing is John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War.  Though first published in 2005, Old Man’s War compares unfavourably with works of science fiction published over thirty years earlier. Indeed, despite appearing in 1974, Joe Haldeman’s Forever War comes across as a far more mature and sophisticated piece of writing than John Scalzi’s take on an almost identical set of tropes. However, rather than slithering into the public sphere as a self-published eBook, Scalzi’s novel was nominated for a Hugo and has since been optioned by a major film studio. One explanation for the novel’s popularity is that, aside from being a very old-fashioned science fiction novel, Old Man’s War is also a vehicle for the escapist fantasies of an aging SF fandom. Indeed, the opening act of the novel features a group of OAPs who join the armed services in return for new youthful bodies that allow them to eat like pigs and fuck like minks before embarking on a new career as heroic soldiers fighting to save humanity from a morally simplistic alien menace. To top it all off, the novel’s primary protagonist ends the book by falling in love with a clone of his long-dead wife.  A further example of grey fan-pandering is Jo Walton’s Among Others, which landed a Hugo nomination for its fantastical take on the experience of being a British science fiction fan growing up in the 1970s.  Much like Watchmen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, younger fans can enjoy both Old Man’s War and Among Others albeit on quite a superficial level.  In order for the full effect of these works to be felt it is necessary to be old enough to yearn for a younger body and to remember pre-internet fandom with some degree of nostalgic fondness. 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. Indeed, despite being nearly 36-years old I was very much aware that I was not the intended audience for either novel.

Given that works like Old Man’s War, All-Star Superman and Among Others not only find audiences but also vast amounts of critical acclaim, Taral Wayne’s question re-asserts itself: Why should mature and decadent art forms seek to renew themselves? Where, if anywhere, does the impetus for change come from?

One solution to the problem is to acknowledge that social institutions, much like commons, nation-states and multinational corporations are more than the sum of their collective human parts. Social institutions exist on a different plane of abstraction to humans and so to reduce the ethics of social institutions to the ethics of individual humans is to make a category mistake. As individual humans, it makes perfect sense for us to think purely in terms of our own lives but social institutions are not the same things as human lives and to treat them as such is to somehow miss the point. This is why Taral Wayne’s selfishness seems morally abhorrent: written science fiction fandom does not belong to him and his fellow old fuckers so what right do they have to run it into the ground?

In his LRB article, Malcolm Bull sifts through a number of political models in which the rights of future generations are placed on something approaching an equal footing with the rights of the current generation. One of the models he sites is that of Lenin’s socialist vanguard:

Lenin’s account of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat was founded on the idea that it embodied their objective class interests in a way they could not yet do themselves. In this manner, as Georg Lukács puts it, ‘the party, on the basis of its knowledge of society in its totality, represents the interests of the whole proletariat (and in doing so mediates the interests of all the oppressed – the future of mankind).’

Fans and creatives have a duty to remain accessible and relevant to future generations because they are not the owners of the ideas and institutions that they employ. Fannish and creative endeavours only have value in so far as they contribute to the advancement of a field and force its forms and institutions to remain relevant to the problems of the day.

Everybody has needs and everybody feels entitled to have their needs both acknowledged and serviced at all times. The problem is that a lot of the time, the only way for people to have their needs serviced is by drawing resources away from other people and so deny them to right to have their own needs serviced. By rewarding works that pander to older fans and failing to update aging institutions in a way that makes them both accessible and attractive to younger people, established fandoms run the risk of falling into a state of decay and disrepair.

The problem with this moral argument is that in order for it to gain any traction, one must first place some value on a) particular social institutions and b) the rights of future generations to use these generations to service their psychological needs. As someone who consumes a lot of popular culture without really identifying with any particular fandom, I feel little or no gravitational pull from either class of entity. If people stopped writing science fiction novels, I would read science fiction comics, if people stopped writing science fiction comics, I would watch science fiction films and if people stopped making science fiction films, I would watch science fiction anime, play science fiction games or eat in a science fiction restaurant. Similarly, if science fiction stopped servicing my need to make sense of an ever-changing world then I would turn to crime fiction, world cinema or regency romances.

The ethics of popular culture are the ethics of the Darwinian swamp: when a form falls out of synch with the changing face of society it must either evolve or run the risk of dying out. Standing outside the swamp, it is easy to look on as families, species, forms and scenes rise and fall. The anguish of their decay and triumph of their progression is muted by our distance from their daily lives. However, to stand outside the swamp of popular culture is a deliberate choice and a privilege, a privilege that really should not obscure the reality of emotional attachments that humans have to their scenes, their fandoms and their cultural institutions.

EDIT: In light of the comments on Metafilter, I have added a rejoinder to this post here.

  1. seitei permalink
    July 11, 2012 4:24 am

    (long-time reader, first-time replier) just wanted to say thank you for yr essay. i always find yr posts thought-provoking.


  2. July 11, 2012 6:28 pm

    I have a hard time finding well-written critical analysis, so your essays are always refreshing.
    “The ethics of popular culture are the ethics of the Darwinian swamp” sums it all up nicely. I wonder how much control we have over our fandoms. Innovation seems to pop up like a genetic mutation, inspired mostly by boredom or fatigue over the same old thing repeated over and over again.

    Suggesting that someone revive a dying fandom doesn’t seem like the best strategy. It never seems to work that way, and for the artist who has made his or her name with a particular style, leaving that style could be suicide. It shouldn’t be, but it often is.

    It is sad to see a fandom languish. Each offers their own unique insights. I enjoy literature because of the depth of introspection that you can’t find in a game or movie, at least not yet. But I tire of reading the same thing over and over again just as I tire of watching the same movie but with different actors.

    One reason I left comics so long ago was that some years after the postmodern drift, they seemed to devolve into a bunch of Wolverine types slashing their way from cover to cover with almost no dialogue. Sin City had an interesting look, but I couldn’t get past the “miserable psychopaths standing in the rain.” I wish I hadn’t left comics as I’m sure there are a lot of great titles and interesting ideas.

    Here’s hoping for some genetic mutations.


  3. July 12, 2012 3:27 pm

    Hi Plozancich! I’m very gratified that you enjoy my writings :-)

    My inspiration for the piece was a quote, usually attributed to Voltaire, that history echoes with the sound of hob-nailed boots running up the front stairs and satin slippers sneaking down the back stairs. The idea behind the quote is that there is always someone out there who is meaner and hungrier than you and if you don’t keep yourself mean and close to the ground, you wind up getting soft and replaced by someone who wants it a whole lot more than you do.

    When I look at mature fandoms like comics, tabletop RPG and written SF, I see a fandom and a set of creatives that have grown soft and complacent. The creatives know that they have an audience and so they begin writing stuff that is only intelligible to that audience and the audience itself gets older and more convinced that what they’re doing is awesome and it’s up to other people to adapt to them.

    One of the things I try to do in my life is to have compassion and understanding for people who aren’t me and the people who aren’t me that interest me the most are today’s young… people who are basically shit upon, mistreated and demonised by today’s politicians. I put myself in the shoes of a teenager and I look at all of these fandoms and wonder WHY THE FUCK WOULD I WANT TO GO TO GENCON OR WORLDCON?

    If you’re non-white, you’ll be excluded. If you’re a woman, chances are that you’ll be ogled, groped and patronised. If you’re gay or foreign then you better hold on to your hat because the jokes at your expense will be coming in thick and fast. Why would I join these things? answer is that I wouldn’t…

    The thing about cultural spaces is that they have a natural lifespan. the hobnailed boots become silk slippers, the silk slippers become bare feet and the bare feet become hobnailed boots again. Today’s youth may find nothing in comics and tabletop RPGs but give it ten or fifteen years and these cultural spaces will have opened up (i.e. the old fuckers will have died off) and the institutions (if still standing) will be easier to change and to adapt to new situations.

    Fandoms are born and die all the time… this is unavoidable. As someone who feels alienated from every single fandom going, this suits me as I can move from scene to scene and do what I want but for those who are invested in the fandom, change is not necessarily a good thing… as Taral Wayne makes clear, change is fucking terrifying!

    You’re right that it’s sad to see an old fandom die but the death of a fandom also contains the seeds of resurrection.


  4. Mary Kay permalink
    July 13, 2012 3:57 pm

    One problem you are overlooking is that sf fandom’s institutions, especially its conventions, are run by volunteer fans. Why should we older folks spend our time, energy, and money putting on a con we don’t enjoy for the purpose of attracting people with whom we have nothing in common? Let them start their own as, indeed, they have done/are doing.


  5. July 13, 2012 5:01 pm

    Mary Kay,

    I struggled with this argument as I was writing this piece and, to be honest, I couldn’t come up with a completely convincing argument. However, the reason why no argument convinced me is that I do not consider myself a part of any fandom and so lack the requisite amount of emotional investment to give a fuck either way :-)

    However, if you are invested in the institutions of a fandom then surely you care about their future… you care about the legacy of your generation… you care about being part of something larger than both yourself and your generation. For example, when someone wins a Hugo or an Oscar, they are not just winning a popularity contest, they are winning the same popularity contest as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, John Ford, Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn. By saying ‘We don’t need to reach out to younger fans’ you’re essentially saying that you don’t care if the institutions you embody survive you and that you don’t care if young fans never get the same experiences of fandom as you.

    That just strikes me as very sad and very selfish.


  6. Mary Kay permalink
    July 13, 2012 8:26 pm

    Nope. I do care about the institutions (conventions) I’m involved with. What I don’t want to do is change them into something else, into something I don’t enjoy. And as long as I’m working on them I won’t. The needs and desires of younger f&sf fans are very different from those which spawned the literary cons I enjoy. They live in a completely different world. Institutions developed for/from a world that no longer exists? Well, they may very well wither away; nothing is permanent. I’m not telling people they can’t have cons of a type they enjoy, more power to them. But I’m not interested in going and certainly not in working on them. We made our cultural institutions; now they get to make theirs. (This should not be construed that younger folks are not welcome at older literary cons. Anybody interested in what we’re doing there is more than welcome!)
    MKK–who IS invested in them, 36 years worth of investment


  7. Mary Kay permalink
    July 13, 2012 8:46 pm

    It suddenly occurs to me that I should mention that this is a very hot and charged topic in f&sf con running circles right now. I speak for no one but myself. Some of my friends agree with me; others do not.


  8. July 13, 2012 9:36 pm

    MK — My problem with that position is that you *didn’t* make these institutions. They were handed down to you by the generation of fans that came before you (assuming that is that you are not in fact in your 90s). The generation of fans who came before you (and the generation before them) received something, contributed to it, and passed it along when the time came… what you’re saying is that you’re quite happy to break the chain because you don’t like the idea of change.

    I agree that younger generations are making their own things, but what they’re making are institutions that bear no relation at all to written SF: They’re building wikis for TV series, they’re translating manga that aren’t available in English, they’re running conventions that dwarf Worldcon and which are filled with a diverse group of younger people. They’re building institutions and NONE of those institutions have anything to do with written SF. Their energies could have gone into written SF fandom but instead they’re going elsewhere because the generation of fans that currently controls the institutions of SF fandom would rather see them burn than change.

    In many ways, this reminds me of the debate we are currently seeing in Britain over the welfare state: The generation that fought WWII cared so much about its children that it worked to make sure that it would have a full welfare state and free university tuition… the generation that benefited from all of that loved freedom and opportunity so much that it decided it was too good for their children.

    Fans of your generation are very much the same… you love SF fandom so much that you have decided it is too good for people of your children’s generation.


  9. Mary Kay permalink
    July 13, 2012 11:15 pm

    Sigh. Well not really. Our cons are very different than earliest. I am in fact 60. And all those earlier fans were much more oriented around zines than cons. And zines are REALLY a subculture in its final throes

    I’m not saying I object to change. I’m saying I object to giving my time, energy, and money to something I don’t enjoy. I have no objection to anyone running the kind of fandom/cons they like. That’s all I want to do after all.


  10. July 14, 2012 7:40 am

    I’m sure they were more zine-focused than current cons but when your generation took over, they modified the institutions to suit their needs. I understand that you might not have the energy or the desire to help fandom’s institutions renew themselves, but are you actually working to preserve the status quo? One solution would be to simply… let go.

    As for Fanzines… ugh… don’t get me started on them. the Hugo for best Fanzine is a perfect example of fandom’s failure to renew itself in order to include younger audiences. For the last 10 years, hundreds of SF-related blogs and online communities have risen and fallen and the Hugos have not been in the least bit troubled by their existence.

    As someone who did try to ‘get on’ in fandom at one point… I found this incredibly alienating as the implication was that no matter how many reviews I wrote, interviews I performed or essays I produced, I would never be acknowledged because a) I published my work in blog form and b) I wrote about actual SF rather than fannish gossip. Because of this failure to react, many bloggers who would once have become respected critics and sercon providers now consider the Hugos little more than a geriatric popularity contest.

    The original spirit of fan-writing continues and is hugely productive and vibrant, but most SF institutions would rather be about drinking real ale than acknowledging the stuff that younger fans are interested in doing.


  11. July 18, 2012 10:59 pm

    FYI, I put this article up at metafilter and there’s been a pretty good discussion of it over there, with John Scalzi also weighing in: here’s the link.


  12. Luis Frost permalink
    July 26, 2012 9:23 pm

    I have nothing to add, I just feel like I need to give you kudos on such a great essay. I had never thought about analyzing fandom like this, it’s a neat idea. So, kudos!


  13. Daveon permalink
    September 14, 2012 3:26 pm

    In many ways, this reminds me of the debate we are currently seeing in Britain over the welfare state: The generation that fought WWII cared so much about its children that it worked to make sure that it would have a full welfare state and free university tuition… the generation that benefited from all of that loved freedom and opportunity so much that it decided it was too good for their children.

    Ah! Thank you for that, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why a lot of what is going is familiar and this helps a lot.

    That said, being a product of the very end of free University and Grants, I’m more than minded of the politics of the 1980s where legacy of the welfare state, free university and so much more was torn apart by it’s apparent heirs in an orgy of political navel gazing. The pursuit of the perfect ideals left the door open for the Conservatives and then New Labour to guy everything.

    The sight of Stephen Twigg and Lorna Fitzsimmons voting for Tuition Fees still rankles, especially after their ham fisted efforts to block those laws before they got into government.


  14. September 14, 2012 6:11 pm

    This is a very interesting essay.

    However, it feels as though you are conflating quite a bit too much, “popular culture” and “sf/f fandom.” Nor am I sure if you’re distinguishing between pop and popular.

    I am also puzzled by you declaration that choosing to remain outside popular culture is a signature of privilege. It seems from other parts of the essay you may mean that this choice is because you are very white and wealthy and have chosen opera and ballet.* Which isn’t what you actually said in that statement regarding choice. Or did you mean “not-white, not Engish-speaking, not middle-class?** But you didn’t say that either.

    Thus my puzzlement.

    Thank you for a very interesting essay! (I’m not and never have been connected to or involved with fandom in any way — so have no dogs in this fight, except finding the works you mentioned as pandering to a particular fandom too boring to read!.)

    * To one familiar with the world of ballet and opera – omanes — sf/f fandom has nothing on them!

    ** If that is what you mean, there’s a whole lot more going on that, i.e. see The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao; see Afro-latin music; see Samba Schools; see kaduro dance clubs.


  15. September 14, 2012 9:07 pm

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. The stuff about postmodern “cleverness” resonated with me; but…

    Don’t you think a vibrant subculture will have both the extremely self-conscious meta-referentialist stuff for hardcore fans, and the naive, unselfaware “gateway drug” art objects? Look at movies — there’s indie stuff that references films and film-making techniques of the past, and tentpoles that make more money and are mostly rehashings of previous work (with better SFX).

    Perhaps part of the problem in fandom is the way that these communities of outsiders can still manage to heap scorn on those less “in” than them. Take for instance the scorn directed at people who like Twilight but have never read Jane Eyre (or Anne Rice, for that matter).

    I wonder if the rising flood of self-pubbed novels will bring a resurgence of naive genre fiction (since genre seems to be dominant in the category). But as long as self-published authors are snubbed by SFWA and reviewers, the relationship with fandom may be fraught.


  16. Taral Wayne permalink
    September 15, 2012 9:14 am

    I knew my five minutes were due, and here they are! And you can be sure that I counted the seconds jealously. It is odd to see oneself quoted outside the fan press. In part because no quotation, however long, can every fully represent one’s thoughts. In this case, you caught me in File 770, expressing in terms as indecorous as possible, an idea running contrary to the current of thought in SF fandom. Most fans are anxious that SF fandom continue long after they are gone, and worry that they cannot attract like-minds to their hobby. Right off the bat, there is a conceptual problem … fandom is not a hobby, it is a collection of several, marginally related hobbies ranging from costumes to computer games to amateur publishing. New fans are recruited continuously… but no matter what your starting point in fandom, the newcomers are *different*. As a result, a tension exists between factions who see change as their only salvation, and those who see no point in obsoleting themselves. Of course, what goes unspoken in my remarks in File 770 is that change will happen, regardless. The trajectory Science Fiction fandom has taken over the last 40 years is clear and unmistakable. As the idea behind SF became absorbed into the mainstream culture, so fandom has become more and more an enclave for increasingly mainstream people. The only way to have stopped that process for fandom would have been to stop it for Science Fiction, as well. That possibility probably ended when they rolled credits for the first episode of Star Trek on TV. If not, then certainly when Star Wars first opened on the big screen. You no longer have to be a social misfit or on the cutting edge of ideas to read (or view) Science Fiction and so recent generations of fans are no longer so alienated, bookish youth or eccentric loners banding together in the only sort of society they feel comfortable in. I think what rankles old school fans is not so much the sheer size that fandom has grown to since the beginning of accelerated growth, but that inevitably the old crowd will loose control of things. The process has been underway for a long time, but has dramatically accelerated in the last few years. The time will come when the shibboleths of the old days will no longer be recognized, and an adage that is almost as old as fandom itself — that it is a proud and loney thing to be a fan — will be no longer even remotely true. In fact, the forms of fandom are so nearly universally applicable, the time has probably come when fandom doesn’t even need Science Fiction. Anything will do. San Diego Comics Con, anyone? Not to your taste? How about Burning Man?


  17. September 15, 2012 1:00 pm

    Very thought-provoking. I think you might have explained a great deal about civilization in one essay.


  18. Alan permalink
    September 15, 2012 1:45 pm

    I feel the author has latched too much onto nuture at the expense of nature. I would wager that many people fall into reading sci-fi because it dovetails with the way they’re wired biologically, not because the sci-fi fandom army drafted them.


  19. September 16, 2012 5:28 am

    Actually, now that I think about it, people have noticed things like this before. I’m especially thinking of Greg Costikyan’s “Grognard Capture”. Apparently his original site has been infected with malware or something, but here’s a good summary:


  20. September 16, 2012 8:43 pm

    Foxessa — Some people in my position look at their alienated status as proof of being disenfranchised. They lack social capital, they lack status and they lack power and they see this as proof that they are not privileged. You get this argument quite a lot in confrontations between white people and social justice advocates.

    In my opinion, my privilege allows me the luxury of remaining on the margins of culture. I don’t need to be ambitious or pursue status in order to put food on the table or maintain a comfortable standard of living. I have no social capital, no connections, no status and no power because I never had to learn to toe the line in order to climb the ladder. I could walk away and that is what I have always done.


  21. September 16, 2012 8:49 pm

    AKHoffman — You’re right… vibrant sub-cultures are those that allow multiple levels of engagement. If you’re new to the scene, you can discover the classics… if you’re familiar with all the staples, you can move on to variations on those traditional tropes and techniques. A vibrant sub-culture never loses sight of its mortality and so never loses sight of the need to recruit new members BUT a vibrant sub-culture is also aware that new adherents will burn through easily-accessible ideas and demand more complex works.

    I think YA needs to be seen as a realisation that written SF and its fannish institutions are no longer interested in the young. Genre YA is constantly re-inventing the wheel because most written genre is pandering to an experienced and aging audience. Similarly, the institutions built by YA fandom are geared towards the young because written SF’s institutions have no interest in pandering to those young people.

    YA genre is precisely the naive genre you’re talking about but it has taken the creation of a new literary subculture for it to emerge fully.


  22. September 16, 2012 8:56 pm

    Taral — I agree with pretty much everything you say. One fascinating data point in this debate is the phenomenon known as trufandom. One publication that identifies itself as embodying a trufandom spirit is Arnie Katz’s Fanstuff:

    If you read through the letters and articles contained in Fanstuff you find an amazing social phenomenon, namely SF fans who have no interest in SF and who spend their entire time moaning about how everything has gone to shit since the 60s and how today’s youth need to pay homage to fans of old before they are taken seriously. On the one hand, Fanstuff is hilarious as Katz and his buddies have no power, no influence and no right to demand homage from anyone. On the other hand, I think that Katz puts forward a viewpoint that is actually quite common in established fandom and which is echoed in one of the commenters above: This is our fucking clubhouse and you’re not welcome.


  23. September 16, 2012 9:00 pm

    Alan — This is a blog post, not a scientific paper.

    Having said that, I do actually allow for the idea that different people will be drawn to different types of activity for reasons other than the structural health of a particular scene. for example, if you look at the French SF scene you will find that while there are disproportionately few french-language SF writers there are a lot of comic writers who write about SF. I would argue that this is a product of different levels of cultural vibrancy: young aspiring French writers with an interest in SF either went into writing comics or started writing in English.


  24. Taral Wayne permalink
    September 17, 2012 12:40 pm

    What you couldn’t possibly know is that Arnie Katz is himself controversial within the Old School fandom. Many do not agree with his definitions of “trufandom” or “core fandom” or whatever he calls it that week. I myself have been poking a bit of fun in my own fanzines at Arnie’s determination to define something that seems all but undefinable. Even should all his readers, myself included, arrive at some definition we agreed on, what would it change? The other 95% of the people who call themselves fans would go doing exactly what they were doing as though no such discussion of fandom had taken place. But, Arnie has been a known oddball among a group who has historically been odd to start with. He’s been making much the same futile analysis of fandom since at least 1968…

    It is easy to understand the Old School way of thinking, actually. You need only think of fandom as what it was between the Second World War and, say, Star Trek. The most important thing about it was that it was small, and shared a narrow number of outlets. You could read it in magazines, read it in books and, every few years, watch the most recent movie. (B-movies with blood-sucking monsters from Venus were usually lumped in with monster movies — SF movies that were not about monsters were rare until “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Once you jumped it, you soon knew everyone by name and sooner or later met a large part of fandom in person.

    I grew up with the tail end of that fandom. It was already growing exponentially when I joined a fan club in Toronto in 1971, but the number of fans who took an active role in fandom were still a finite number. The other thousands of fans read SF (and fantasy) or bought a membership at conventions, but did little or nothing else, and could usually be discounted. It was customary to divide fandom into particpating members and passive consumers.

    However, more and more people caught on that being an active fan was a good idea. Since most Old School fans had many interests, they were usually open to new ideas brought into fandom. In time, activities that originally seemed mariginal became new traditions in fandom — hobbies like costume making, playing board games, playing amateur music. As well, peripheral interests like comics, Tolkien, Lovecraft, jazz records and feminism were welcomed. Of course, SF fandom could not meet the needs of a dedicated Trekker or Dr. Who fan, so they spun off their own conventions. So far, so good.

    Fandom grew bigger and bigger, even so. It was more and more acceptable at large conventions to try to incorporate all interests under one roof, at least to some degree. An important driving force was the search for greater economies in running conventions — the more people that attended, the less per capita expensive the facilities grew, and the more perks could be added to membership. Larger cons also appealed to the egos of the people running them, who got to handle larger sums of money and socialize with the professional guests to a far greater degree than the common members. It was at this point were some friction began to appear.

    For the older fans — who might in fact be only 20 or 25 in the 1970s — it was as though fandom were a small town you had moved to, where everyone was friendly and waved hi to you on the streets. But the small town was visibly growing bigger. If you were active as a fan writer, artist, publisher, filker or costumer, it was as though you belonged to the town bowling team. But then there were two bowling teams in town. Then four, then ten, and then there was clearly zero chance of your team winning the town trophy any time soon. This is the basis of much of Old School Fandoms’ resentment of fandom having grown so big.

    As usual, there are two sides to the issue. I myself don’t like dealers’ rooms that are nothing but books — how many many more SF books to I want to buy? My apartment is stuffed with them already, and I can only read so many a year between Worldcons. I happen to like a dealers’ room to have other stuff, pertaining to other hobbies I have. The other side of the issue is that there shouldn’t be too much stuff that isn’t printed SF or it ceases to be an SF convention. On the one hand, a cultural fair, on the other hand a strictly literary event. The opinions of Old School fans are strung out along that spectrum from one end to the other.

    No Old School fan resents Trekkies, comics fans, media fans, and every other sort of fandom having it’s own events, or even having a token presence at a regular SF convention. But at some point they balk at paying money to get in the door and finding only very little they paid to see. Would there not be similar complaints if the aficionado of Dr. Who or Twilight were to pay $40 for a membership at a Who or vampire convention, and discover that 70% of the con were something else?

    It comes down to appropriate balance. A little diversity in a specialized event is a good thing, but to be swamped by it is not. Where the balance point is, depends on who you ask, unfortunately, so there will never be a definitive answer … no matter how long Arnie Katz seeks one.


  25. Taral Wayne permalink
    September 17, 2012 12:48 pm

    “The other thousands of fans read SF (and fantasy) or bought a membership at conventions, but did little or nothing else, and could usually be discounted.” — Let me rephrase that. “…and could be spoken to pleasantly at cons, or befriended, but had little influence.” I don’t want to make it seem as though unfamiliar faces were simply snubbed — they were not and are not.


  26. September 17, 2012 5:17 pm

    Tarall — Don’t worry… I do realise that Arnie Katz is not the king of fandom :-)

    Your image of fandom as a lovely little town that expanded into a weird and misshapen boomtown is really quite arresting and one that my (admittedly limited) experience and research lead me to agree with. I can totally see why someone would want to live in that particular town and why people would yearn for its return.

    The Fanstuff crowd lived in a village that grew into a town but rather than engage with the town’s residents they spend their time complaining about how the new arrivals have ruined village life. Rather than win people over by argument and example, they throw up their hands and rail against the new arrivals who fail to show them adequate respect. The talk about fancestors and new arrivals having the serve a kind of fannish apprenticeship is weird beyond words… I may like some of the shops in their neighborhood but I don’t want to live there and I definitely don’t think that I should be hazed before entering.

    Despite my horror at some of the opinions expressed in Fanstuff, my feelings towards old school fandom are actually quite sympathetic. I totally understand why they would feel aggrieved and I understand why they remain stuck in the past… I just don’t think it’s healthy to mourn an old way of life to the point where you’re actively harming the way of life you have.


  27. Taral Wayne permalink
    September 26, 2012 12:47 am

    Sorry about the long delay. Putting anything off by a day usually results in a week going by…

    I’m curious how you ever discovered Arnie Katz in the first place. As SF fanzines go, his “Fan Stuff” is fairly esoteric. Arnie specializes in chatty little zines of a few pages that come out indecently often, in theory keeping the excitement level and feedback rate high. I do something similar myself, tough I’m content with monthy rather than weekly. If you’ve found “Fan Stuff” on then you’re aware that there are a great many other zines, most of them larger, far less frequent, and on completely different wavelengths than Arnie.

    The fanzines on eFanzines break down into a number of different kinds. Solme are actually about science fiction and fantasy, (though the site also lists *some* zines from other fandoms such as comics and Dr. Who) and publish lenghty articles. Others are devoted to the personal journalism of SF fans — which often involves gossip about fandom and convention reports. Some fanzines are news and reviews oriented. And, of course, there’s the popular “mix of all the above.”

    As for the small town metaphor, your observation that older fans complain about the newcomers sidesteps the issue of desirability of growth in the first place. You haven’t asked the question why why should have to live in a metaphorical larger urban environment if we don’t want to? It isn’t as though all the other fandoms — Who, Twilight, Trek, comics, wicca, gamers, furries, etc, etc, etc. don’t have their own cons. Why is that SF fandom has to be the one that is host to everybody? If a forum for all types of fandom is wanted, there is already DragonCon, SDCC and other 20,000+ attendee events for that experience.

    Nor do SF fans with parallel interests — I have more than one myself — have to limit themselves to one sort of convention. Anyone can buy a membership in the local anime or comics con, including fans who have been to an SF con recently.

    I’ve grown tired of the debate, however. Obviously it isn’t Old School Fandom (entirely my term for it) nor old farts like me who will determine what fandom will be like in the future. It’s the under-30 set who will turn fandom into an amorphous, mainstream circus if that’s what they want … or preserve its unique character, if they value it at all.

    Why so many people seem to feel there is some obstacle preventing them from participating in SF fandom I don’t know. I’ve rarely seen instances of outright rudeness toward anyone who foolishly admitted in public that he thought Stargate was the best SF ever on the air. He might become involved in a spirited debate, though. From Trekkies and Who-ies, if nobody else… It is true that Old School Fans do not automatically respect every opinion or taste, however elementary it may be. I suspect that its fandom’s critical nature that puts so many noses out of joint so easily — how dare you imply that the Transformer Robot movies weren’t every bit the equal of 2001: A Space Odyssey?


  28. September 26, 2012 2:22 pm

    Taral —

    I encountered Fanstuff in the aftermath of the Readercon thing. A lot of people were talking about the shadowy world of established fandom and I followed a rabbit hole to the Fanstuff heart of darkness. Prior to that, my familiarity with fanzines was limited to Ansible and the Drink Tank, both of which strike me as infrequently-updated blogs.

    As far as I am from ever agreeing with the world-view espoused by Arnie and his friends, reading Fanstuff and contributing to it did help me to understand the appeal of fanzines. When you run a blog, you churn out content and occasionally you get a comment and occasionally someone will write a response on their own blog. I enjoy the process but it is quite lonely work as feedback is rare enough that you can’t really bank on it as motivation. Conversely, if you write into Fanstuff you get the next issue sent to you and people often respond to what you have said. I can totally see why that model has proved remarkably effective in building social networks.

    As you say… plenty of different types of fanzine out there.

    With regards to the small town metaphor, I completely see where you are coming from. I’ve been to a few of conventions and the larger they are… the more uncomfortable they make me. Big gaming and anime cons are full of youthful energy and opportunity but they’re also incredibly impersonal… it’s like wandering around a city. I lived in London for most of my life and while I’m told that’s a place that is full of opportunity, I never saw much of it.

    While I completely understand the desire to keep things small, I do find it somewhat distressing that a) no thought is being given to what will come when the current inhabitants of the small town get really old and b) what of the younger fans who might like to live in that town and help do up some of the derelict houses? I can understand the urge to stop fandom from turning into a series of corporate events but surely this isn’t an either/or situation?

    My concern is that, by failing to lower those barriers of entry and encouraging people to add their identities to the small town, younger fans are going elsewhere and old school fandom is headed for a cliff.



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