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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Fan: Discussing a Definition (in Dialogue w/ Jonathan McCalmont & Justin Landon)

I've been inspired, you might say, to talk about something I've had the itch to talk about since I started reading the Hugo Awards voting packet.  I blame Justin Landon and Jonathan McCalmont for daring to talk about stuff, especially since they have a skill for ruffling feathers (with love, of course).  Over at Staffer's Book Review, Landon criticizes the SF/F convention circuit for, as he puts it, privileging the voices of those without credibility; though Jonathan McCalmont appears to agree on the issue of quality, his post at Ruthless Culture takes a somewhat different track, arguing in the end that the problem with fandom is its insularity:

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...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.
First, I recommend reading their posts in full.  I've, perhaps inaccurately, summarized their points rather briefly, and I'm certain Mr. Landon will despise me forever for having failed to quote from his article (sorry, Justine!).  Second, I see my own view of fandom falling somewhere within McCalmont's; my criticisms of what qualifies as fan culture have always been informed by my own perceived contribution to the field in the capacity of a non-professional.  But my contributions are not explicitly non-professional, and it is here that I think I diverge from most definitions of fan culture.

One of the things that bothered me about the special Blade Runner edition of Journey Planet (included in the Hugo Awards voting packet) was the editorial perception of fandom:  "However I never wanted this issue of Journey Planet to be another crop of academic articles about Blade Runner. JP is a fanzine, after all, and I wanted to gather articles that give voice to the less academic side to the film’s wide fanbase" (5).  Though the latter half of the quote appears to provide a reasonable motive -- we wanted to explore the non-academic side of things -- the emphasis on fanzine implies that there is something distinctive between the two categories:  fan and academic.

I am all of the following:  a published academic in the genre field, a fan, an aspiring/publisher writer, and a geek.  These are not mutually exclusive categories.  The problem with assuming that they are is the same problem with trying to categorize genre fiction in general:  the distinctions do not exist in any stable form.  It is, after all, entirely possible to write academic articles as a fan, with the perspective of a fan in mind, primarily because an academic does not automatically cease to be a fan by engaging in academic discourse, nor does his or her contribution fall outside of the domain of the fan simply because their contributions are related to their possible profession.*  These seem like distinctions made by people who have an agenda of their own, or who derive some form of use value from maintaining a strict separation, as if keeping academia out of fan production would protect the latter from the former.  Whether Justin Landon and Jonathan McCalmont realize it, their previous posts about fanzines and/or the Hugo Awards have contributed to this very discussion.

Yet the term "academic" has its own fuzzy internal distinctions.  Some academics are actually professionals, engaging with their chosen field in an explicitly professional manner (i.e., they make a living doing it); others are perhaps professionals in trade, but their contributions are informed by their love for a particular thing; and still others may simply find that the culture of academia, particularly in genre fiction, offers its own kind of fan community.  I see myself as a combination of these.  Though I expect to pursue a career in academia, my contributions have always been informed by my love of genre.  I would not have become an English major and pursued science fiction if I had not already developed an interest in the subfield.  There is also the fact that academia is an inherently curious discipline, though it certainly has its own problems of insularity.

To illustrate what I've said thus far, I turn to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (commonly known as ICFA).  Though the vast majority of the content at every ICFA could be called "academic panels," few who attend the conference would say it exhibits the stereotypical functions of academia:  stuffy, fusty scholars who drone on for 20 minutes about yadda yadda this and yadda yadda that.  In the two years that I have attended the conference, the atmosphere has always been vibrant.  Fans (in the traditional sense), academics (who are often just fans who like to think endlessly about the meanings within literary work), and professionals (authors, critics, and so on who, well, are actually published or otherwise notable) all attend this conference.  As I've said before, however, these distinctions are far from absolute, so the types of people who attend are often mergers of supposedly rigid categories:  professional writers present papers; traditional fans head panels about their favorite authors; critics and authors discuss their own work or the work of others; and so on and so forth.  You might say ICFA is a little incestuous...

I've attended and presented at the conference for the last two years (and the Eaton Conference in California the year prior).  There's a reason why I'll keep returning:  this is one of the few conventions where I actually feel at home as a fan.  The discourse of the convention is my discourse.  I can rant aimlessly about my love of Battlestar Galactica just as I can have an intense discussion about the systems of capital (or lack thereof) in Star Trek.  And then there's drinking by the pool and just shooting the shit, as they say, with authors, critics, readers, and so on.  For me, it's the perfect experience, one which I always miss when I have to leave at the end of the festivities.

But I digress.  I'm rambling.  The point is this:  "fan" is not monolithic.  It does not have a stable meaning, and the implication that some people aren't really fans by dint of participating in a different discourse than one's own should ruffle some feathers.  I may not understand the purpose of the content of many fanzines, but I recognize that the people who write that stuff are fans.  I'm a fan too.  A very big frakking fan.

So say we all.


*I say "possible" here because quite a few academics don't actually make a living as academics.

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  1. I am just reminded, always, of what fan is short for: Fanatic. Passion is what determines who a fan is. No passion, no fandom.

    1. True. At its most fundamental, a fan is simply someone who loves something. I'm a fan of cheeseburgers, and if I could get away with writing an academic paper about the influence of the cheeseburger on American culture, I would...

    2. I agree that Garcia's distinction is as conceptually meaningless as it is political in nature, I guess secret clubhouses need secret handshakes...

      I generally stay out of academia's way :-)

    3. I don't really understand why the distinction exists at all, to be honest.