The Fandom Question

In the Challenge Cheryl series of articles, Andrew Wheeler asked:

Cheryl, you seem to have a real love-hate relationship with fandom. (And maybe it’s not entirely on your own side, either.) What is it for you about organized fandom that’s particularly admirable and horrible — and is it noticeably different between the US and UK?

Love-hate relationship, eh? That sounds serious, but actually there are very good explanations for it. The first point I’d make is that the whole idea of “organized fandom” is really rather silly. “Disorganized fandom” is more believable, but the truth of the matter is that “fandom” is made up of very many disparate groups of people, and it is quite possible to be popular with some of them and not popular with others. This is complicated by the fact that several of these groups like to pretend that they are “fandom” and everyone else is not. There are certain social groups in which I am quite happy to have it said that I am not “a fan” because I don’t fit the very narrow requirement that the group in question has for membership. More of this later.

In the meantime, explanation #2, which is that I have a love-hate relationship with fandom in much the same way as John Scalzi appears to have a love-hate relationship with SFWA. Scalzi clearly believes that SFWA is a good thing, otherwise he would not spend so much time arguing about how it ought to be run; but at the same time he has very deep disagreements with some of its current leadership. Much the same can be said about me and fandom. There are Andrew Burt-like people in fandom too. They don’t like me, and I’m not too happy with them either.

But let’s get back to Andrew’s core question. What is admirable about fandom, and what is horrible? Well, an obvious starting point is that fandom is, by and large, interested in fantasy and science fiction literature, and so am I. That, however, is a trite explanation. A much more significant point is that fandom is based on a volunteer culture. That is a little unfashionable in some circles these days. There are young fans who seem to genuinely believe that there is no point in getting involved in running conventions and the like unless you can make a good profit out of it. Sadly there is no way that such a profit can be generated and the current style of fannish convention maintained. If you want to make money out of conventions you have to move towards a Creation Con or Dragon*Con sort of model. The fact that so many fans are willing to lend their considerable skills to putting on events such as Worldcon, or producing excellent fanzines, for no reward other than a delight in a job well done is, in my view, genuinely admirable.

Somewhat less admirable is the fannish habit of ghettoization. There are far too many fan groups that believe that they are the “one true” fandom, and that everyone else is an imposter. Fanzine fandom (as lampooned in my Barmy Cats stories) is perhaps the worst offender here, but they do at least have a sound historical argument for their claim. Other groups can be equally exclusionary at times. It is a source of considerable amusement to me that my Hugo win was attacked on both fronts. The older, more conservative fans complained that Emerald City wasn’t a proper fanzine and should never have been let on the ballot in the first place, while younger fans complained that I only managed to get on the ballot because I was part of the secret cabal that controlled the Hugos. As always, being shot at by both sides generally means that you are doing something right.

When people talk about negative aspects of fandom they often focus on the supposed “fannish character” and its basis in the social cluelessness and tunnel vision of the geeks and nerds. Certainly you see a lot of this online. There is a tendency to over-dramatize, a lack of perspective, and a habit of arguing from the personal to the general. Some time ago I developed a set of Laws of Fandom. Like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, these probably don’t work very well, but they hopefully provide plenty of material for endless discussion. The Laws are as follows:

  1. Never accept accident or incompetence as an explanation when a bizarre and complex conspiracy can also be advanced to explain the known facts.
  2. One data point indicates a dangerous trend that must be resisted; two data points indicate a sacred and holy tradition that must be preserved.
  3. If a tree falls in Central Park, New York, is seen to fall by 100 New Yorkers, is captured on film by CNN and the video of the fall is broadcast around the world, but I wasn’t there to see it, then it didn’t fall.

You can see things like this all of the time in the blogopshere. With the expansion of blogging, and more particularly commenting on blogs, to the general population, I have come to realize that these laws apply to all human beings, not just fans.

Finally, on the question of UK/US differences, I think the main characteristic of UK fandom is that it is a much smaller community. Britain has a much lower population, and British people seem much more reluctant to self-identify as science fiction fans. Consequently it is much more likely that someone in the UK can be identified using the classic fannish put-down of “not part of our community”. People in the US often say that about other fans, but those fans all have their own communities of which they know they are members. In the UK I think it is rather more likely to be a true statement.

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