March 13, 2014

On fandom, and the liking of things

cccrowdFandom has been getting talked about a lot lately. There have been statements made by the vague body that is fandom, followed by contradicting statements saying that that part of fandom isn’t the real fandom, and thus should not be listened to, leading to other voices within the fandom community trying to draw boundaries within fandom, articulating which parts of fandom are which, which leads to a better articulation of who is allowed to say what about what.

The whole thing feels like a much-less-alarming version of what’s going on in Crimea right now, where suddenly Russia is saying that this huge tract of land is basically theirs because a lot of them speak Russian and have a Russian identity, and you know what, maybe the Ukraine never actually left the USSR at all. Meanwhile, in Kiev, everyone’s trying to try and quantify exactly what makes an autonomous republic, and is the Ukraine legitimate? Is Crimea? How do you tell them apart? And so on, and so on…

How the hell do you draw lines around this stuff? How do you define such a large body of people?

I’ve been told that fandom is actually really easy to define. Do you like The Thing? If so, then you’re a fan. If you don’t like The Thing, then you’re not a fan. End of story.

I wish it was that easy, but I feel like that’s not quite true, not anymore. Fandom’s gotten elevated in the past ten or so years. It feels like it’s no longer, “Do you like The Thing?” but rather, “Do you like The Thing, and are you willing to buy airfare and a hotel room and hang out for days and nights discussing The Thing, forming relationships inspired specifically by The Thing, and when you go home do you create extensive, elaborate online communities for this world formed around The Thing?”

It’s different now. The digital age allows us to like things on a higher level than ever before. Being a fan no longer means like a thing, it means liking a thing To The Maxx™.

And when you like a thing To The Maxx™, suddenly you’re invested in it. It’s like teenagers saying they don’t care about politics, but then ten years later they’re working and they do their taxes, they suddenly say, “This costs what? And it’s being spent on what? Well then shit, we had better be doing the things I want to have done with this stuff!”

Fandom means having skin in the game now. It means having a budget set aside in your daily life for doing fan shit. You have to ask yourself, “Can I afford to like The Thing to the extent I’d prefer to this year?” To a certain extent, it’s a ridiculous question, yet it’s a true one.

And this, I think, is why we’re seeing increased (but not completely new) arguments over fandom agendas, over the liking and the creation of The Things. We want to see our personal agendas and beliefs exercised and realized in our pop culture. We’re paying in tons of money toward pop culture, so it had better do the shit we want it to do, right?

This leads to the current state of affairs, which is, I think, the normal state of affairs whenever it comes to large groups of human beings marshaling and spending their resources. It’s just far less systematized than voting or holding share in a company. Hell, we can’t figure out how much to charge for art, much less how to use money to make art say the stuff we’d like to be said. (A depressing idea, really.)

Where does this leave me, the writer? Completely alone, as far as I can see. I don’t feel like I’m a part of this. That’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s just kind of weird.

The reason for this separation is that – in my own opinion – if you really want to be a writer, if you really want to create, then you need to be clinical in how you view your art and culture. When I really started writing, it suddenly became a lot harder for me to fall head over heels in love with books and movies and TV, because I’d trained my brain to dissect and seek out weaknesses. Suddenly, nothing was perfect, nothing was mind-blowingly-amazing, because I could now see the thumbprints in the clay and the strings that made the puppets dance.

And I’ll probably always see those things now. I’m never going to like a thing To The Maxx™. I can’t anymore, I don’t think. That organ has atrophied or withered away. If someone says to me, “OH MY GOSH I LIKE THIS THING SO MUCH RIGHT RIGHT,” my instinct is probably going to be to say, “Yes, it’s good, but…”

Things are no longer perfect. Maybe because if they’re perfect, I can’t learn from them. But there’ll always be a distance there, like how a doctor can’t love a patient and still have the mindset to put a stent in their aorta. I’ve turned my brain into an artistic chop shop, which isn’t exactly a lovely place to hang out and discuss fiction.

So for me, this intense passion that’s the nature of fandom is less and less accessible. I’m on the outside looking in through soundproof glass: I see a lot of people yelling, but it’s hard for me to feel too involved in it.

There’s one firm dividing line, then: those who can still like a thing without abandon, and those who can’t.


When I was at World Horror last year in New Orleans, I felt pretty out of place. I was the guy wearing a bright pink button up and linen slacks in a room full of people wearing various shades of black and gray. I looked more like I worked for the damn hotel than like I was going to the convention.

I still enjoyed myself, and I enjoyed the discussions I heard and took part in, but I could tell these people were About This Stuff in a way that I just wasn’t. It was like saying, “Yeah, I watch football,” and then going to a fantasy football camp and realizing, whoa, these people are just on another level. I was inadequate. Like, these people were going to go home and keep talking to each other about this stuff until the next World Horror rolled around. I was just going to go home and write.

Then I happened to meet a much more established writer than me. This was a dude who’d been in the vanguard during the horror (and publishing in general) heyday of the 1980’s, the sort of writer that the current writing crop probably all wanted to be when they got started. I hadn’t read any of his books, but he was a terribly nice gentleman, so we got to chatting.

I brought up the sort of weird alienation I felt coming to things like this, the strange existential dread I had where I was aware that I was not like these people, and yet I was supposed to be making the stuff that they liked. I knew in my head that I was writing stuff for everyone, for all kinds of people, something that’s applicable to humanity in general rather than people like me, but it was still odd to see it right in front of me, these people I wasn’t like, and know that I was writing for them.

He looked at me and said, “That’s because they’re not your people. They’re not. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they are.”

It was a startling thing to hear. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think about it a lot, even today.