On Being A Fan

Dan Hartland writes about reviewing within the sf community, following the comments on his review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

For those of you unaccustomed to science fiction reviewing, here’s a rule of thumb: reaction to a review will always hone in on the point most applicable to the community that reads science fiction, rather than anything which might relate to science fiction itself. In a way, this is inevitable in a field of criticism largely conducted by enthusiasts, and in a genre so thoroughly sealed off from respectability (national newspapers frequently review crime fiction, but rarely give science fiction more than a passing nod).
Some years ago, Niall Harrison, aforementioned editor of Strange Horizons Reviews who doubles as editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal of record, Vector, interviewed me for a fanzine article he was writing. He asked me whether I self-identified as a ‘fan’. My instinctive response was in the negative: being a fan, I argued, meant putting aside some or all of one’s critical faculties.

A Manchester United fan may gripe about team selection, but he will probably never abandon his team. If you’re going to talk seriously about books, you need to be able to abandon the ones that are bad. Being a fan is like carrying the card of a political party: it asks you to bury your misgivings and stick up for your crowd against the other bullies in the playground.

I rise to this shamless bait because it’s been a while since I talked about reviewing, rather than posting reviews. So: I am a fan.

Martin Lewis has already come close to articulating the first point I’d make in response to Dan, which is that while there are sf books (and authors) I love, I’m not a fan of the books, I’m a fan of the form. Or, more specifically, I’m a fan of the potential of the form. I read a lot of science fiction because I know what science fiction can be, because I know that it can engage me in ways other fiction does not. That doesn’t stop me thinking plenty of sf novels are bad, though it might (okay: does) lead me to disagree with non-fans about the merits of specific books.

Martin also suggests that Dan’s initial rule of thumb is predominantly an artifact of the review format: a given review-reader is unlikely to have read the book under discussion, but may still have an opinion on generalizations expressed in the review. This is undoubtedly true, so far as it goes, and I doubt that talking about the community around fiction instead of the fiction itself is unique to the sf community, but here I think Dan still has a point. I don’t think community standards and traditions are inherently bad things, but if we’re going to fret about the potential for sf to become recursive and overly self-referential (as witness the past few years’ recurring angst about the need for “entry-level sf”), we have to at least be wary of the possibility that sf criticism can go the same way. Which, incidentally, is one reason I ask Dan to write reviews for me.

But I don’t think it follows that community affiliation is itself a bad thing. Without wanting to dive fully into the question of whether or not there are absolute standards of goodness and badness in literature, I find myself sympathetic to the notion that if someone enjoys something, and can explain why, then that something has value. So for me the trick, and the challenge, is to explain why, as a fan of science fiction, I like (and dislike) the science fiction I do. To explore what it means to read from the perspective I read from, and to try to communicate that understanding to other people. (It seems to me this is where Michael Chabon is coming from, for example, however much I might quibble with his results in practice.) Or, to directly respond to the last point of Dan’s I quoted above: what’s so bad about sticking up for your crowd against playground bullies?

10 thoughts on “On Being A Fan

  1. I don’t consider myself a fan. This is true on two levels.

    Firstly, there’s being a fan in the sense that you have an attitude of exaggerated deference or respect towards particular people. I do not share this mindset. I consider myself to be a part of a conversation but the value of the paticipants in that conversation is based upon what they say, not who they are or what they might have said in the past.

    Secondly, there’s being a fan in the sense that you are part of the community that created the institutions of genre fandom. As should be obvious by now, I have significant difficulties with this idea. On the one hand I value many of the institutions (and people) but on the other hand there are many institutions and community values that I find rather puzzling. To extend the ‘conversation’ metaphor, I’m happy to be a part of some of the on-going conversations within fandom but I tend to resist the suggestion that I’m part of a family or a gang because I enjoy that conversation.

  2. I think putting aside critical faculties needs careful unpicking. I don’t get this notion that fans aren’t critical – but there seems to be a consumption despite being critical. I also think we are conflating fan of x and an x-fan here, which isn’t quite the same thing.

    I can certainly point to people who have stopped supporting their team (in fact there was a rival to Manchester United set up) and to people who tore up their Labour party membership cards.

  3. The metaphor of football team as genre is utter rubbish because all football teams aspire to the same aims whereas each genre aspires to grow within itself. Science fiction in particular aspires to go where other literary forms cannot, and it is the mis-understanding of this fact by non-fans that confuses them, both in their perception of any one particular book and in their perception of science fiction fandom. A review by a fan is invariably written in the context of other science fiction, whereas a review by a non-fan is invariably written in the context of the experienced world.

  4. What round of Dan versus the genre cooties are we on now? It’s a shame there aren’t many comments on Dan’s review, but I think that’s because (as Martin says) not everyone has read the book, not because we’re all gibbering fanboys.

  5. Jonathan: on your second point, I don’t think my fannishness prescribes how I feel about fannish institutions; some of them I think are good things, some of them I’m probably as baffled by as you.

    Andrew: I think fans certainly can be uncritical, but you’re right, I think consumption-despite-criticism is an equally common response. I’m not sure I quite follow you on the distinction between fan-of-x and x-fan, though …

    Dale: I can sort of agree with your last point, as long as you’re not saying that non-fans never write in the context of other sf, and fans never write from their experience of the world. But as broad strokes you may have a point, and I think both perspectives are useful.

    Liz: I think this is round 17.

  6. I think there will always be a bias in favor of one’s field of study; people rarely spend much time on things they hate. Folks who’d rather pluck their own eyes out than do math are unlikely to be engineers, people who would happily swim with hungry sharks over taking in information via the written word are not going to be literature majors. Likewise, very few literature professors are going to say that we should ignore books because video games are the “literature” of the future (although possibly some have, now that I think about it).

    Anyway, I think folks choose to review/criticize/read/study things that interest them more than things that don’t (once they’re out of school, at least) and as such will always have a bias towards whatever field that is. However, I don’t that that ever stops people from saying “this is very good X, but that is very bad X.” Basically, I agree with Niall. We can be boosters for the field while not being shy about pointing out crap (or at least RUMIR stuff) when we see it.

    BTW, I thought I was a fan until I started getting more involved with Worldcons. Now I understand that there’s a huge layer of implication behind the word “fan” in the context of “fandom” that doesn’t include me. I guess I’m simply an enthusiast. I can live with that.

  7. For what it’s worth, I’m very much of the school that believes “fan” is a matter of self-definition. If you identify as a fan, you are one, whatever anyone else says (and vice versa).

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