Popularity, Award Worthiness and What It Means To Be A Fan

File 770 continues to be a great source for coverage of the attempted lycanthropization of Fandom by those who have chosen to call themselves puppies.  (I find it particularly bizarre that they’ve chosen the Dog as their mascot, as according to westernized versions of Chinese astrology, I was born in a year of the dog and the attributes assigned to such are: Loyal, sociable, courageous, diligent, steady, lively, adaptable, smart.  (I like westernized Chinese astrology!)

Of course this is science fiction and we know that astrology bears about as much resemblance to astronomy as alchemy does to chemistry (e.g. not much), but I do find it interesting that the behaviors demonstrated by the puppies do not track very well with the attributes of the Dog.  I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which ones.  There’s quite a few to pick from.

Anyway. No.  Sorry.  We’re not done with the puppies for at least two reasons:  1. they’re not done as is daily and amply demonstrated on the web and 2. they will NEVER be done, which requires constant vigilance and engagement by those who are opposed to their position(s) and their goal(s).

The reason they will never be done is pretty straightforward; their view of reality has few actual contact points with actual reality and they have chosen to believe that outside forces (namely, people like me) are responsible for that lack of compatibility.  There are only two ways to reconcile this kind of divide: accept that the individual and their actions are largely responsible and work on changing about the only things a human being can effectively change (themselves), or the path of the puppy.  Externalize everything and then attempt to beat it to a bloody pulp in the vain belief that doing so can make it change.  This is an old, old custom still present in one form or another in many religions: assign your sins to a sacrificial animal (human animal as well) and then slaughter it.  The fact that it has never worked is enshrined in its ritualized nature.  (Isn’t there an expression about repeating behaviors and expecting different results being the definition of insanity…or at least illogicality?)

It’s an unfortunate reality, but the only defense against this kind of behavior is constant push back.  If ignored, it spreads and gains undue influence and far more energy and resources must be devoted to countering it than that which is expended through constant vigilance.  It’s like taking out the trash.  You don’t like to do it, it’s a pain in the ass, sometimes it takes more energy than you can muster, but letting it build up attracts vermin and disease.  (Of course, that’s just an analogy….)

Today, File 770 drew my attention to two net pieces that touch on this subject.  The first being a statement over at Chaos Horizon.  Brandon Kempner is attempting to gain insight from GoodReads and Amazon “popularity” indices in regards to the Hugo and Nebula Awards.  He notes the following: “massive popularity, particularly when joined with negative reviews, can be a negative rather than a positive.”  (For the record, I believe the work Brandon is doing is good and valuable.  The following addresses a point raised by his work, not his work itself.)

Earlier in his piece (the statement is related to Earnest Cline’s Armada but is generally applicable) Brandon notes that the negative reviews stem from reader’s views that Armada is too much like Ready Player One and too reliant on 80s nostalgia.  Not having read either, I can’t judge the merits of those reviews, but I’m more concerned with the concept of popularity and its relationship to award worthiness.

The fact is, “popular” does not mean “good”.  Toilet paper is “popular”, but Sturgeon’s Pruzy’s Pot is GOOD (listen to it).  Folger’s and Maxwell house are the most popular brands of coffee in the US.  But Kona (properly picked and roasted) is GOOD.

Part of our problem does seem to be that a lot of folks lacking discernment do believe that “popular” equates with good.  This is herd mentality and indicative of individuals who have problems with nuance and deep thought. But the real problem, at least as it relates to fandom, is that fans long ago understood that “popular” very often means BAD, or, at the very least, designed to have popular appeal, which often means appealing to the lowest common denominator, requiring little thought, light engagement…throw-away.  Not a gourmet meal, just something to keep you going.  Fodder.  And fodder is never worthy of an award.  Because it’s popular, but not necessarily good.

Fodder is fine.  Without it the human race would have perished millennia ago, but it is the rare masochist who actually enjoys eating gruel every single meal.  I personally enjoy many “popular” works in books, in film, on television.  However, the way I introduce those works to my fellows is perhaps indicative of the difference between popular and good.  For fodder, I’ll say something like “I enjoyed it, maybe you will too.” For a good work, I’ll say something like “This was really good.  You should check it out.,”  Of course my definition of good is not the same as anyone else’s definition of good, and sometimes I, like everyone else, do confuse the two out of enthusiasm, but in general it is understood by fans that GOOD is at least one step up from fodder – for people who understand the difference.

Who are the people who understand the difference?  When it comes to science fiction and fantasy literature (and probably its expressions in other media as well) it’s Fans.

Who are Fans (or rather, at least in this context – Trufans)?  People for whom FIAWOL actually means something.  Which brings me to the second piece that File 770 drew my attention to today.

An author named Dawn Witzke has chosen to blame George R.R. Martin for her choice in becoming a puppy.  In a blog post titled “Taking Sides“, Dawn states, in response to a GRRM comment on NotABlog “You see, the Hugos are nothing more than a popularity contest among the paying members.”

Further on, Dawn also states “And “fandom” is no more qualified to vote for the best SFF books than those of us who are life-long readers of the genre who have never attended a con. (Psst…not everyone has loads of cash to blow on attending cons.) For some of us, a free library card has been our only access to the genre we love. Whether you like it or not, poor people are fans too, Mr. Martin.”

Dawn concludes with this “I do want to thank you, Mr. Martin. Without your rich elitist bullshit, I might have continued to sit on the sidelines again this year. Instead, I will be forking over the cash for a membership, because those of us who can’t afford to blow money on cons are just as much true fans as those who can. So you can go stuff it in your asterisk.”

To be honest, I think Dawn is involved in a cynical attempt to ride GRRM’s coattails in an effort to raise her profile; others in the File 770 comments have pointed out that Dawn apparently became a puppy well before writing the above but, while relevant, these are not the points I want to address.

What I am concerned about is this misapprehension about what being a real fan means.

Dawn focuses on economics, tying the perceived elitism of Tru-Worldcon/Convention-Attending-Fans to their economic ability to attend conventions, something she claims not to have been able to do.

Convention attendance alone does not confer Trufannishness upon an individual.  And I will bother to point out that plenty of poor fans – myself included – managed to attend conventions DESPITE their poverty because – and I think this is a key point – doing so was MORE IMPORTANT THAN EATING.  In my personal case attending conventions was also more important than paying the rent on time, getting paid for missed days at work, going to the doctor for that persistent whatever, and a whole host of other choices I made in which I prioritized FANDOM over many of life’s so-called necessities.  That almost certainly makes me “weird” by mundane standards, but then that’s kind of the point.  Trufans make many of their decisions based on their fandom, not on the strictures of mundanity.  In fact, many of us consider the sacrifices we’ve made in life FOR fandom to be badges of honor and wouldn’t have it any other way.

When this kind of behavior is viewed from a mundane point of view it is seen as odd, nonsensical, anti-social, stupid, pointless, obsessive, crazy.  When viewed from within Trufandom, it’s run of the mill normal behavior.  Of course you risked you job to attend all three days of the con – who wouldn’t?  Of course you’ve moved to a smaller apartment so you can buy more books.  Of course you left your well-paying job to try to make it as an artist, writer, fantasy-jewelry designer (because the end result will be making your life all about fannish pursuits).  Who wouldn’t?

Trufans are people who have “found their bliss” and are following it.  Mundanes and small-F fans – even those who regularly go to the library to check out the kind of literature they like to read – are those who have chosen, for one reason or another, to allow the real world to interfere with their following of that bliss.  They make compromises that favor “reality” rather than their passion.

Most of the people inhabiting this planet go that route. A small handful, Trufans among them, do not.

So in that sense (and yes, I’ll say it) Trufandom does represent an elite.  It’s a self-selecting elite, a tiny minuscule fraction of each generation that has had the fortune to be exposed to science fiction fandom, found that it lined up with their passions and decided to make sacrifices in order to pursue it.  They’ve created institutions and traditions that support and reward those passions, one of which is Worldcon and the Hugo Awards.

Another of which is the belief that at any time, others may decide to follow their own bliss and ought to be allowed to do so without interference (the real world already places enough obstacles in the way).

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