I’ve been reading the ripples of response on LJ to J.K.Rowling’s announcement about the sexual preference of her character Albus Dumbledore, and some of it has made me think about the more distressing aspects of fandom and why I now feel so far from something that was once an important part of my identity.
From childhood I was a fan, first comic books, fantasy books, then scifi and in particular Star Trek. This was roughly the period of the late sixties through the early seventies. I remember going to cons and debating whether to blow my meager money on a balsa wood “carve your own communicator” kit, or on slide mounted 35 millimeter frames of footage from some effects shot, or on fun fur so that I could sew my own tribbles . I remember waiting so see Asimov speak at the banquet room of some midtown hotel. I remember how Trekkers used to look down on Trekkies, and how true Scifi fans looked down on both of them while still remembering to look down on the fantasy fans.
I remember how indignant I was when I contemplated the way the suits cut the good parts out of Ellison’s script for “City on the Edge of Forever”, and then how thrilling it was to sit in an audience and have Ellison express his utter contempt for me and all of my peers, and I remember my disappointment when Bernie Wrightson stopped drawing “Swamp Thing”. These were things (books, TV shows, comics) that I cared about, that I felt were made for me and they had been ruined by uncaring, venal people in corporate offices.
And then it stopped. I still read science fiction but I stopped going to cons. I read comics, but I stopped collecting them. At first I chalked it up to the stuff: it had all gone bad, there were no good books anymore, it was too much trouble to keep up on everything that was happening. But as I look at it now, something else really happened. I started making things. I fixed my gaze on being an artist. And my relationship to all the stuff I loved changed.
What I’m seeing in so much of the twinned rejoicing and/or contempt which is greeting the announcement is the ferocity of fandom’s judgment; judgment about what Rowling’s motivation could be to make the announcement now, what this will mean in terms of fanfic, what would have been the right way to portray Dumbledore’s affections, about those easily duped masses who care about Harry Potter as opposed to all the really good young adult fantasy out there.
Fans believe that the creator enters into a contract with the consumer of the creation. Creators are supposed to care about what the fan thinks, they are supposed to maintain the consistency of their creation. They have made a playground for the fan to operate in and they can’t go around changing the rules or moving the swing-set without good reason. Yes you might have started the thing, but there are other people involved now, and they have got something to say. When I discovered some new enthusiasm in my years of fandom it was like a sacred communication on a secret channel that only I had the receiver for, a validation of the pain I had negotiating the world. What I loved, I grew protective of, and what I protected, I felt I owned.
Fans judge what is a proper handling of character, what is a satisfying resolution to a story, what is the right way to run your business, who is and is not mercenary. They know how to write a moving episode of a television series, or who should not get the job of inking Iron Man. The tut-tutting of fandom is incessant, with some enduring themes: The mass of people don’t like anything of value, success spoils the modest, all forms decline from an apex that is located at some point in the fan’s past (the best work in a form is never being done right now), any cultural product could be perfected if only the powers that be listened to the fans, detail and exactitude are paramount, and any opinion, if asserted with enough vehemence can strip the masks from pretenders and reveal the true nature of the world. At its best, this is a moral argument about the making and consuming of culture.
It’s a cliche to say that a fan is in a love relationship with the object of his fandom. A cliche, but true and it’s a love relationship of a particular kind: one in which the beloved is debased and compromised but perfectible and utterly dependent on the lover’s continuing approval for its validation. Fans are in the throes of passion, responding to works of art with longing, anxiety and devotion. This is a fine attitude to have towards works of art (or culture, if that sounds too highfalutin) as long as you never plan on making any.
When I teach drawing the first thing that students have to let go of is their self judgment. I tell them “Be prepared to make many, many bad drawings. If you are unable to tolerate making a bad drawing you will never make a good one.” It’s fine to have role models, artists you respect and wish to emulate but an artist has to know how and when to use their role models to get what they need out of their own work. The surest way to fail as a creator is to set some shining example of perfection in front of you and then spend all your time measuring the horrible gap between your example and what you’ve done. When you are engaged in that measurement, you are not paying attention to the thing in front of you, the thing you’re engaged in making. My students are so consumed with the drawing they’re not making, they literally can’t see the still life in front of them. Those that learn to have a productive non-judgmental relationship with failure stand a good chance of going on to becoming artists. Those that can’t usually stop making anything.
When I started to work towards becoming an artist I had to drop the security of my righteousness about how other people made things. It was keeping me from an understanding of the nuts and bolts of how things worked. I couldn’t keep seeing works of art and artists as shining Idols, anymore, to be knelt before or kicked over, at my whim. I had to stop reading my aversion to certain works are being a a personal betrayal of my trust on the part of their makers.
I’m not a fan any more. There are still works that I find thrilling, and in fact I spent much of last Sunday weeping over the ending to Osamu Tezuka’s manga Buddha. Knowing how drawings work doesn’t stop me from being wonderstruck by how Tezuka can make paper and ink arouse such a profound feeling of empathy in me. But on Thursday, when I went to the restored edition of Blade Runner, I didn’t feel moved to cheer every name in the opening credits, unlike many of my fellow audience members, and I didn’t feel personally vindicated when the whole thing was over.
Most of the works of art I encounter weren’t made with me in mind. The novelist wasn’t thinking “That Nayland notices temporal inconsistencies, so I better take care of those”. They were struggling to fix on the page a complex thought that began for them in an indistinct feeling. To they extent that they succeed, I can find it thrilling and a model for my own struggles. When they fail, I can look elsewhere, but that failure still serves as just as good a model.
I guess that means I’m not a fan anymore. Call me an enthusiast. Or maybe as Moe says to Homer: “I’m more of a well-wisher, in that I don’t wish you any specific harm.”
Live long and prosper, y’all.