Various discussions on the web, including one that’s quite the eye-opener on the Journeymen of Fandom group on Facebook have begun to ask and examine whether or not there really is a generational divide between Graying Old Fandom (Baby-Boomers & the Greatest Generation) and the so-called Younger Set (Generation Kids NOT Vacating Lawns).
I am fearless in the pursuit of truth and understood a long time ago that wearing clothes liberally sprayed with Scotchguard is a near-perfect defense against hurled vegetable matter (though rotten eggs are always problematic). Which is to say that I foolishly believed that suggesting there was a difference between merely liking something and being a fan of something would be a well received comment, one that might go on to bear fruit of the defining-that-difference variety.
We’ve got a short growing season here in New Hampshire.
With that lesson in humility behind me (not to mention clothing fresh from the laundry) I continue to brave the rotten tomatoes, heads of cabbage and clumps of cauliflower in pursuit of understanding. I wonder how well it will go over when I suggest that there are certain things that Fans do that others (shall we call them non-fans, or stick with the time-honored Mundane?) do not.
There is nuance here though, so bear with me.
There are Mundanes who do Fannish things. (Just buy a ticket to any arguably science fictiony would-be blockbuster film to see what I mean. MOST of that audience – unless you’re at a pre-release midnight special – are NOT FANS. Even if they do laugh in the right places. Stay to the end. Just about everyone still in the theater with you IS a fan – or whatever poor mundanes they happen to hold sufficient sway over.)
Let me back up and cover some hopefully unnecessary ground. Not being a fan is OK. There are several reasons why this is so and also why it is a good thing. For starters, if everyone were a fan, there would be no need to identify fans as separate from other people. For another, it is a simple fact that when people join a subculture, one of the reasons they stay is because they have gained entry to something special. They feel special, do special things, hang out with other people whom they (and the rest of that subculture) have elevated to special status. “Special” is another problematic word. It unfortunately often morphs into meaning “better”, though that isn’t what it is supposed to mean. All it means is that you and those other special people share something that is important to you while many (most) others do not share that common bond. You’re better than Joe Blow because you’ve read every single word in Science Wonder Stories and have many multi-colored ribbons hanging from your name badge? Special (in all its varied senses), maybe. Better? No. Privileged? Perhaps in the narrow sense that you’ve discovered something that gives you joy and those others have not awakened to the possibilities. Maybe they are into barbed wire collecting – about which you know nothing.
There are Fans who do Mundane things. (Why, just the other night I went to a demolition derby with my wife, stood on a Star Wars Premiere length line to get in and spent a couple of hours hobnobbing with the hicks – cheesey-fries, nacho-hats, corndogs and country music all – some of whom were wearing fan-related T-shirts or toting SF film-related toys – but that didn’t make it a convention…). It is not the specific activity that makes something Fannish. The demo derby could have been a fannish event, but was not. My presence (as awesome as it was) was insufficient to turn the event into something it was not.
I don’t think Nathan Fillon or GRRM could have turned that trick either (to mention two other kinds of influencers: Fillon the actor who played a popular character on a popular though short-lived SF TV show and George R. R. Martin, the author of many SF and fantasy works whose Game of Thrones is seemingly the world’s most popular genre franchise: Martin was and is a fan as well as an author and cultural icon; I’m not sure where Fillon stands.)
Not even a preponderance of fans can turn something fannish when it is not. There are numerous reports of conventions taking over the majority of a hotel and convention center while sharing the space with everything from Baptist conventions to High School sports championships and I can assure you that neither the Baptists nor the sports stars dropped whatever it was they were doing to learn the latest on the state of Military Sci Fi or browse through the Huckster’s room in search of that one pulp issue that will complete their runs. Maybe a handful did, but for the majority, it meant nothing. Fodder for hotel room chatter at best.
But. Fans can make anything Fannish. I know fans who bring their supposedly non-fannish interests to their work – in fanzines, through convention panels, special excursions that take place during conventions, even creating niche fandoms within fandom. Star Trek fandom started as one of those. It was different from mainstream fandom because it was a (yuck) television program. But it was also a television show that (yay) had episodes frequently written or based on works from people we know and love (fans turned pro) – Harlan Ellison, Frederic Brown, Norman Spinrad, Ted Sturgeon, David Gerrold, George Clayton Johnson. Fans imbued a television show with fannishness because they chose to treat it as something special.
Fans can and have made a whole variety of different things fannish through their personal interest and their desire to share. Lime Jello. Bubble pipes. Propeller Beanies. Railroads. My Little Pony. Space Shuttles. Messages to the Stars. Fans have learned that there are at least two basic requirements for joining and maintaining a fannish existence. They are a willingness to engage and even embrace new things and an ability to effectively share and communicate that interest.
Openness. Communication. Sharing. These are hallmarks of the fannish experience. Communication is certainly the most visible and perhaps the strongest trait; fandom started with letter writing that morphed into fanzines and APAs, that gave birth to online chat forums (the first was the SF Lovers forum at Rutgers U.), to blogs (Jerry Pournelle claims to have penned the first one) to podcasts, twitter, online magazines, writing groups, image sharing sites, crowdfunding and social networks.
Openness was called for early on by the founders of many of the original clubs and, while some early clubs did have women, and POCs and (closeted) gays, these early founders were excited by their shared interests and were eager to hook up with anyone traveling in the same direction. Perceiving themselves as outcasts, they recognized the foolishness of applying society’s judgments to their own activities. Yes, it was largely lip service – we’ve come a long way baby- society’s expectations of what openness, equality and diversity are have grown since the mid 1930s. However shaky it may be, at least they laid the groundwork. A tradition that can be worked on and improved.
As you can see, the lines are very fuzzy. And they ultimately rest on individual perceptions of how closely one does or does not adhere to a fuzzy set of requirements. Some think that you can’t be a fan if you haven’t walked the tortured Jo Phan path and embraced the Magic Duplicator. (If that reference is obscure, you must not be a fan…) Others think that epubs are acceptable susbtitutes for Magic Duplicators. Others consider convention attendance and work are mandatory…while a whole bunch of others (numbering far more than the previous) are completely unaware of those requirements and yet consider themselves to be fans, even if only in some vague, nebulous way.
So. How do you BE a fan?
Like this stuff. Like this fantastical, awesome, other-worldy stuff. Read it, watch it, listen to it, write it, draw it, sculpt it, rhyme it, sing it, record it, perform it, publish it, code it, fund raise for it, discuss it, comment on it and argue over it.
Declare your love and engagement. So what if others don’t think you qualify: being a fan includes the privilege to disagree with other fans. We’d not be here if fans hadn’t disagreed – violently at times – and we’re stronger and better because of it.
Have some respect for your interests: take the time to learn a little bit about its background. There’s a long, varied and interesting history to be found there, filled with all manner of interesting, eccentric, brilliant people who did all manner of interesting, eccentric and brilliant things. (If history bores you, here’s an enticing tidbit: a lot of that history was involved with porn. NOW go look it up.)
Engage. Reach out to other people who might share your interests. Write letters. If that’s too old fashioned for you, send an email. Visit websites. Comment. Join groups on social networks. Go to a convention. Try, every once and a while, to step outside your comfort zone. Grow. Expand. Be that bear that climbed another mountain.
Be positive. That not-a-fan over there isn’t someone who “just doesn’t get it”, they’re someone who just doesn’t get it, YET. They’re fertile ground. They’ve already got the interest. They’ve already demonstrated the minimal requirements of intelligence, sense of wonder. The glass is at least already half FULL.
So how do you “be a fan”? If you are reading this, you already are. Now its time to go out there and be a BETTER fan.