What is a Fan? A Response to Justin
Justin Landon of Staffer’s Book Review has assembled some interesting thoughts on the apparent over-abundance of self-proclaimed (and predominantly unpublished) ‘writers’ in the genre community:
During a live recording of Mur Lafferty’s podcast at Balticon she asked the audience, “who here is a writer?” Roughly, 75% of the audience raised their hand. Admittedly, Lafferty’s audience is writers, since her podcast’s title is “I Should Be Writing”, but throughout the weekend nearly everyone had a story in the hopper. There were dozens of panels composed entirely of “the writer”. Unfortunately, there were only a few with publishing credentials. Most weren’t published by anything larger than my garage (and some weren’t even self-published). This is not a comment on the quality of self-publishing (or indie publishing, or whatever). Self-publishing is a perfectly viable route to take. But, why should fans care about “the writer” until they have people reading and buying? Until then, “the writer” is a fan. . . just like the rest. Would anyone pay to listen to themselves?
This post puts me in a rather interesting position as while I agree with many of Justin’s complaints and observations, I think he is looking at this particular problem from entirely the wrong perspective. In fact, I think he is conflating two very different issues.
1. The Problems with ‘Conventions’
Unpacking Justin’s post, I think the core of his complaint is that convention panels are all too often a boring mess and I could not agree more. In fact, I am genuinely struggling to think of a single panel, interview, or talk that did not strike me as a wasted opportunity. I can remember Gwyneth Jones saying that she was raised by cyberpunks but beyond that my memories of live genre events are dominated by small nervous people saying small nervous things that were completely overshadowed by the often fascinating and enriching discussions I happened to have in the bar afterwards. I also agree with Justin that this is a real problem for the genre community as it means that, in order to benefit from conventions, you have to either have a set of pre-existing social ties or be the kind of person who talks easily to strangers and who wants to pay an often large amount of money in order to be bored rigid and ignored? Most people get enough of that at home.
Where Justin and I part company is at the level of causes: Justin seems to believe that convention panels are boring because convention programmers fill them with aspiring writers. While I agree that it’s intensely problematic that everyone and his cat now thinks they’re a writer because they’re working on a novel about a kick-ass airship captain, I don’t think the problem of convention panels can be solved by con-runners somehow becoming better at policing the boundary between ‘fan’ and ‘writer’. In truth, being able to write well and being able to talk well are two entirely different skillsets.
Two of my favourite literary podcasts are Julia Rios’s Outer Alliance podcast and Michael Silverblatt’s syndicated radio show Bookworm. The most striking thing about these shows’ interviews is that while some authors can talk brilliantly about their work and culture as a whole, others come across as being well… somewhat less than brilliant. Silverblatt is known as an almost peerless interviewer and one of the reasons why I nominated the Outer Alliance for this year’s Hugo Awards is that Rios is one of the few interviewers in the field to encourage people to talk about themselves rather than their latest publication. Aside from suggesting that being able to bring the best out of someone in front of an audience is a skillset of its own, the disconnect between quality of interview and stature of interviewee suggests that even if con programmers were to fill their panels with nothing but professional authors, they would still in no way guarantee decent content. In fact, two of the most notable conventionfails of 2012 involved professional authors:
The first took place at the 2012 Worldcon during a panel about the state of Asian science fiction. The panel featured a Chinese panellist, a Chinese-American panellist and the veteran Hugo Award-winning science fiction author David Brin who reportedly took it upon himself to transform the entire panel into a brainstorming session designed to help him sell more books in Asia:
Brin turns to Primlani and tells her that he’d like her to form an outreach organization which will put together publishing contacts and the like so he can get published in India. I know Brin is from the generation of writers who are all “In my day, fandom was happy to be my butler just so they could bask in my presence.” but this really took the cake. Primlani reacts by falling back on the “well there is no monolithic market in India.” (And yes, Brin brings it up later and discusses how important it is that this happens, just not important enough for him to do anything.)
Brin may not have written anything worth reading for the best part of a decade but he is undeniably a substantial talent and a professional author but if you paid to see an Asian SF panel and discovered the shuttle crash that ensued, I doubt your problem would be with the people on the panel who were not famous professional authors.
The second notable conventionfail took place at the 2012 Eastercon where the established and award-nominated science fiction author John Meaney introduced the annual British Science Fiction Awards with a misguided and offensive attempt at a humorous monologue. The Twitter reactions speak for themselves but Alex Dally MacFarland summarises the monologue thusly:
We got Lauren Beukes being reduced to her looks, we got Ian McDonald being somehow capable of talking to Beukes even though she’s so so good looking (gosh, maybe McDonald sees Beukes as a human being?), we got something about Israelis liking to punch people in the face and how strange it is that someone called Lavie Tidhar could write a book called Osama, we got male allies being called “new men” in a very mocking way, we got a woman liking muscle cars OH MY GOD HOW BIZARRE, we got an impression of a stereotypical working class plumber whose girlfriend likes to go to Ibiza, and by that point I was walking out the door. Given that I was sitting by the door, I can tell you that quite a lot of people were walking out.
Clearly, John Meaney is not quite as skilled a talker as he seems to believe he is but neither his racism, his sexism nor his inability to entertain an audience seemed to have prevented him from being made Guest of Honour at Bristolcon 2012 a few months later.
What Meaney and Brin demonstrate is that while you can devote as much time as you want to policing the boundary between ‘fan’ and ‘writer’, this police action would in no way guarantee good convention programming as an ability to talk entertainingly in front of an audience has never been the thing that distinguished authors from ‘writers’ and ‘fans’. In fact, many people would argue that an ability to perform well on convention panels is part of what makes someone a great fan.
Just as a speaking in front of an audience is a skillset, coming up with interesting programming ideas and assembling panels is a skill that con-runners take years to develop. It must be incredibly tempting to revisit successful panels from the past or to simply build panels around trusted names in the expectation that they will simply carry the show. Good programmers must not only be familiar with the important issues of the day and the skills of the panellists at their disposal, they must also be able to strike a balance between different personalities and different levels of reputation so as to ensure that aspiring panellists get their chance to shine, learn, and become the great panellists of tomorrow. Convention programming is a substantial skill cluster that is in no way reducible to an ability to tell the difference between real writers and mere wannabes.
And as for Justin’s final question: Yes, I would happily money to listen to someone like myself as long as they had something to say. In fact, fans are often more entertaining panellists than professional authors and they do it purely for the love of the game.
2. The Problems with ‘Fans’
Justin is quite right to suggest that the genre community is infested with aspiring writers: Set up a blog that occasionally deals with genre and chances and you will be deluged with requests to review books that are both self- and professionally published. Establish any form of social media presence and you will attract legions of people who are not nearly as interested in making friends as they are in selling their sordid little stories. In fact, ‘writers’ are now so common in the online genre community that they are beginning to distort the values governing that community.
It is a simple truth that the social conventions governing conversations amongst friends are fundamentally different to those governing professional interactions: Between friends, social interactions are driven by honesty and the frank exchange of views and ideas but professional conversations are about convincing people to buy things or at the very least making people think that you are a good person with whom to do business. Turn up at a professional gathering and loudly slate not only the competition’s product but the state of the industry and chances are that people will simply stop working for you.
The number of writers and ‘writers’ in the field is now so vast that many of the field’s more casual and free-spirited social conventions are being challenged by those who would see them replaced by an attitude of universal professionalism. Online shit storms such as the mythical YA Mafia and Stop the Goodreads Bullies (both discussed with considerable insight by the wonderful Foz Meadows) are fuelled by a feeling that writing negative reviews is not just socially unacceptable but ‘unprofessional’ in the sense that it might (or should) harm an aspiring writer’s potential literary career. In fact, the 2012 BEA Book Bloggers convention was reportedly dominated by the idea that reviewers somehow existed purely in order to help the publishers sell stuff. As Ana from Book Smugglers put it:
We just wish that the ones running the show would understand that bloggers attend this conference not to hear about how great they are at being cheerleaders for authors and publishers. We attend because we want to meet other bloggers, because we want to listen and participate in a dialogue between bloggers and the industry, because we want to learn from other bloggers their tips and tricks of the trade, best practices, and how to become better at what we do best: write reviews and spread the word about books, both good and bad, and on our own terms.
Even worse, the conference also featured a panel on critical reviews and one of the panellists was an “author’s rights” lawyer who, according to Jane at Dear Author:
Proceeded to scare the crap out of bloggers about possible libel suits.
Though not one of ‘Our’ conventions, the BEA Book Bloggers Convention did evidently reflect the growing belief that being negative or harsh is at least ‘uncool’ if not ‘unprofessional’ or outright ‘illegal’. This is a profoundly worrying attitude and while negative reviews are still acceptable to a lot of the online community, there is definitely a sense in which they are under pressure and so people who regularly write them often find themselves in a position of having to defend their right to honestly express how they felt about a particular piece of writing. Persist in your negativity and chances are that you will wind up getting up getting dog-piled by angry fans who may or may not have been encouraged to do so by angry authors and editors.
This plague of professional positivity is profoundly problematic but the reason so many unpublished (and unpublishable) ‘writers’ are desperate to present themselves as professionals is that the role of ‘fan’ has become increasingly devalued.
While the roots of the word ‘fan’ may lie in fanaticism, it is now more likely to carry connotations of passive consumerism, questionable taste and psychological dysfunction. In his original post, Justin makes it abundantly clear that he does not consider himself to be either a writer or a ‘writer’ but nor does he lay claim to the label of ‘fan’:
I’ll be the first to admit I write a little bit, but if someone asks me what I “do” I’ll answer two ways. Either, (a) I’m a blogger or (b) I work in politics. Nowhere in that discussion will I say I’m a writer.
In truth, I am much the same… I am happy to be described as a reviewer and a critic but chances are that I would bristle if you were to describe me as a fan. The reason for this is that while ‘fan’ carries quite a few negative connotations in general, it is particularly problematic in science fiction circles as traditional fandom has very clear ideas on who and who is not a ‘real fan’. In fact, trad fandom is so zealous about policing the boundaries of its culture that some fans even go so far as to label themselves ‘trufen’ in an effort to put some distance between them and all the shit-munchers who spend their time reading books, going to conventions and generally engaging with all the cultural spaces that have grown up around science fiction. And if you think that’s crazy, I direct your attention to The Enchanted Duplicator, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress or Satanic Bible for true fandom:
As the revelation came to him, there was sound of golden trumpets in the air, and he heard again the voice of the Spirit of Fandom.
“Yes, Jophan,” it said, “you are now a True Fan: and it is yourself that has made you so, as it must be. And now you will realise the second great truth — that this is indeed The Magic Mimeograph, and it will produce The Perfect Fanzine. For –” and now the song of the trumpets filled the air, ringing out across Trufandom to the far mountains — “FOR THE MAGIC MIMEOGRAPH IS THE ONE WITH A TRUE FAN AT THE HANDLE.”
And Jophan found that it was so . . .
As the response to this year’s post about the Hugo Awards hopefully demonstrates I have something of a conflicted attitude to traditional fandom: On the one hand, I admire the history and institutions that have grown up in science fiction fandom since the 1930s and hope that they will survive for another eighty years. On the other hand, I feel that traditional fandom has become so attached to its own history and institutions that it would rather see those institutions die than allow them to change in a way that would encourage younger people to join them. As one older fan put it in a comment on a post I wrote about fandom:
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.
Clearly, traditional fandom and I are fundamentally incompatible and yet, I actually think that many members of the genre community could learn a lot from the way that traditional fandom did business before it all descended into secretive mailing lists and ‘nice guy’ sex pests. In particular, I think that genre culture should start reclaiming the word ‘fan’ and use it to denote not some inferior species of genre-lover but someone who actively participates in making genre culture a more interesting and vibrant place despite having no professional skin in the game. Fans are not passive consumers… they are the people who keep the conversation going.
Reading an extensive fan history such as Rob Hansen’s history of British fandom Then is a bit like working your way through Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men: Ages pass and with them fannish empires rise and fall. Young angry people explode onto the scene in one paragraph only to reappear a few pages later as stern authority figures fighting an unwinnable war against time and demographics. Sometimes the concerns of these fans seem trivial to the point of impenetrability and other times they speak directly to the challenges of our day. Fandom is not just old, it is ancient and with those shattered decades has come profound respect for the stuff that takes place between books.
I was drawn into the orbit of science fiction fandom when I decided to take a break from grad school by writing a few reviews. At the time, I was hanging out on an RPG forum and someone I knew there was a regular reviewer and I decided to try my hand at it. Gratified by the idea of seeing my name in print, I started sending reviews to different venues and eventually set up a (now defunct) blog to serve as a kind of clearing-house for my various reviewing activities. Once I had a blog, people started linking to it and once people started linking to it, I started linking back and then the flame wars started… ten years later and they’re still raging even though the book reviewing has since slowed down.
If this period of my life has yielded one insight into blogging it is that book reviews themselves do not actually matter. Most reviews are poorly written (and often corrupt) monologues that interest only the person who wrote them but a good review can strike a match that sets the entire blogosphere on fire. When we talk about the genre as a community, we are not talking about interviews, giveaways and criticism, we are talking about the times when we all look up from our books and start actually talking to each other. The howls of outrage over sexual harassment, lady editors in swimsuits and rabid jungle cats are not just shit storms and slap fights, they are the times in which the music of genre changes from a series of discordant solos to a single rousing chorus. Reviews and interviews matter… of course they do… but they only matter in so far as they help to generate wider debate. It is in the moments when we’re at each others’ throats that we truly come together as a community. What traditional fandom understood is that being a fan is not about cheerleading for the publishing industry or climbing the greasy pole to SFWA membership… it is about keeping the conversation alive.
I feel that by reclaiming the word ‘fan’ and using it to refer to anyone who actively contributes to the great genre conversation in a non-professional capacity, we would not only be helping to rejuvenate the rich cultural history of traditional fandom, we would also be reminding ourselves that you do not need to be a professional in order to be a part of this community and that sometimes talking shit on the internet is fun and not part of some structured plan to improve ourselves and our career prospects. It’s okay to do stuff for fun… it’s okay to talk shit on the internet… it’s okay to be a fan.