Fans, Fandom, and Fanfic: a View from the Gallery
Fandom is a truly weird phenomenon. Not that this is a bad thing - quite the opposite, in fact. Fandom is quirky, interesting, fun, and at times, annoying or sad. This is an opinion based on 21 years of involvement in fandom: some rather heavy involvement, taking up a lot of time (with fannish activities such as writing fanfic or articles for fan newsletters, attending fan get-togethers, calling other fans on the phone or writing emails to them, participating heavily on mailing lists, and so on); and some peripheral involvement (such as reading occasional stories, checking the occasional website, talking about that particular show only if it comes up, that kind of thing). And it's this semi-participation that makes it possible to see the shows, and fandom, from the 'outside'.
And what do I think when I see fandoms from outside? Well, quite often I think, "Are these people CRAZY?" My first exposure to this was when I began in Starman fandom. I would read the dissections of scenes, the trivia quizzes, the letters to the newsletter, and I'd think, "Why would these people go so crazy over a show?" And then I realized that I did exactly the same thing in Star Trek fandom (I'm talking Classic Trek here, Starman's only season was in 1986, before there WAS any other kind of Star Trek). So why was it okay to be a completely crazed fan of Star Trek, and not of Starman? Obviously, it's perfectly okay to be a crazed fan of any show you like, and I later got completely immersed in Starman fandom myself. (Though I have to confess I will never understand why sitcoms or second-rate drama series have fandoms.) But here's the rub: it's often difficult to apply another group's fannish behaviour to oneself or one's own fandom, even though all fandoms share many characteristics. So a fan of, say, Highlander, will think it's perfectly okay to discuss Adrian Paul cutting his hair but think the Sentinel fans are a bit loopy for going into mourning over Garett Maggart's locks.
But it's also possible to do things the other way round; i.e. think to oneself, "Is it any more crazy to mourn the loss of Blair's hair than to mourn the loss of Duncan's?" Of course, it's not. But if one can do that - look at one's fannish behaviour from *outside* - then one begins to see all sorts of disturbing trends and behaviour in fandom that one had never noticed before. And that is the main thrust of this column.
Fans can be very cruel. They form cliques and shut others out. They take great pleasure in 'showing up' newbies who sign onto long-lasting mailing lists. They ignore posts by listmembers they don't like or 'misinterpret' their posts in order to shut them up. They enjoy dissing characters who are liked only by a minority. They play games of one-upmanship. Now I know that this all takes place in "real life" as well, but it's not nearly so easy to detect and much easier to ignore, i.e.: so what if my neighbours have M-Net, a satellite dish and a BMW? As long as they don't run their BM into my front wall or play M-TV at full volume, what do I care? I don't interact with them the way I interact with people on the Net. I know more about people who are on some mailing lists with me than I do about the people who live next door.
Despite the Internet, the fan community is not too large. Well, let me qualify that. If something bad happens in one fandom (such as the plagiarism incident from a couple of years back), very soon all the other fandoms out there will know about it. It's like gossip in a small town: it gets around. And when this kind of thing is going on, it's easy to see when fannish behaviour mirrors the worst behaviour from the real world, not the best.
Some fans think they are better than others. Come on, we all know it's true. Fans who came on the scene *first* consider themselves to be authorities on the TV show (and/or list culture) and dislike 'newbies' who come in with different opinions. I remember when certain Trek fans only considered the opinions of fans who, like them, had been fans since the series started in 1966. Now, while it's certainly helpful to be a 'first-generation' fan (as in that everything that happens in that fandom and the fanfic for it is new and exciting), that is no reason to scorn people who aren't. While having met actors from one's favourite show may have been fun, and a good experience, why should people who haven't had this luxury be relegated to the bottom of the totem pole? Sure, people who run fan clubs for various shows or actors put in a lot of work which should be recognized, but this doesn't mean that they are any better than any other fan or should be accorded special privileges aside from those necessary for the running of the fanclub. And yet these things happen. I know; I've seen it too many times.
And this brings me to fanfic. The same people who participate in these cliques and hierarchies within fandom tend to try to impose their will on the writers of fanfic. Now I don't mean they tell people what to write; far from it. What I mean is, stories which fit best into the 'fanon' for a particular show are the stories which find their way onto 'recommended' lists and are the ones which people are going to read. Stories which are just as good, but take a different, innovative, or non-fanon approach are ignored, dissected in a nasty manner, or the authors are flamed.
Even worse, lately I have noticed a trend in which groups of fans get together and decide which fanfic will be accepted and which won't. It doesn't seem to matter whether fanfic by their favourite writer is actually good or comprehensible, as long as "the language is beautiful" or "the images used were striking". It doesn't matter that a writer who may have written some bad stuff has improved - if that writer is on the 'out' list, then that writer will be attacked and vilified regardless of the quality of their actual *story*.
On mailing lists people say, "Discuss the story, not the writer." But it doesn't work that way. When *every* story by a certain writer is torn to shreds simply because that writer once wrote a somewhat incomplete sentence, there's something wrong somewhere. When an incomprehensible story by an 'in' writer is praised to the skies simply because it's by that particular writer, there's definitely something wrong. And when new writers or opinions are ignored because of the simple fact of them being new to that fandom, well... Need I go on?
I don't get it. Why is it impossible for some people to evaluate each story on its own merits, and not pre-judge it because of who it was written by? I realize that we all judge; it's in our nature. But just because writer A might have written a few stinkers doesn't mean we shouldn't give her a chance. Just because writer B usually writes brilliant stuff doesn't mean that we have to praise a stinker from her. And just because a person with a differing opinion on a mailing list is a newbie doesn't mean we must automatically disregard what she has to say, or deliberately misinterpret her words so as to put her in her place. Don't tell me these things don't
Fandom is an extremely enriching endeavour, yes. But I think many fans participate in and perpetuate the ugly side of fandom without even realizing it. We should be aware of our actions in any given fandom so that we don't make the mistake of subscribing to a clique or mob mentality without even knowing it.
happen; I've seen them with my own eyes. And I've seen them all too often.