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.
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.
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.
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.