I hope you have real people in your real lives who can hear your thoughts, be your friends, support and comfort you, read your marvelous words, and love you. Go to them.–Shannon Hale
Last week, author Shannon Hale wrote a post titled “I am not accessible.” It’s a very honest, straightforward response to fan emails threatening that if she refuses to respond personally to their messages, they’ll no longer read her books.
I can’t even wrap my brain around the logic: I love Shannon Hale’s books so much that I emailed Shannon Hale, and therefore if Shannon Hale doesn’t email me back I’m not going to read Shannon Hale’s books that I love so much.
I’m not even going to touch that one, except to remark that if I had more time on my hands, I think I could turn that statement into a pretty kickin’ palindrome. Instead, I want to get at what’s lurking beneath the surface of such a fan response, not just for Hale, but for every published author who deals with this kind of thing, and for celebrities in general.
Hale observes that some of her fans wrote “nicely” about boycotting her work, while others weren’t so polite. She’s being diplomatic and very, very generous. I don’t care how “nicely” you say it–the message “respond to me personally or I’ll no longer support you professionally” is a kind of emotional terrorism. And an author’s personal response to one of hundreds or thousands or millions of messages should have nothing to do with a reader’s enjoyment of that author’s work.
Maybe I’m just kooky. Perhaps I feel this way only because so many of my favorite writers are dead. I would look like a raving maniac if I started throwing hissy fits because Tolkien never returns my calls and the Beowulf-poet doesn’t follow me on Twitter. But I’m also not a “fan.” I’ve resisted the term my whole life, because I don’t like the suggestion it carries that I can be categorized and somehow understood by any random person who knows the stark, demographic facts of what I prefer.
I like a lot of stuff. I love a lot of stuff. But I am not a fan of anything, and I think that part of my resistance also comes from my understanding of the etymology of the word. “Fan” is a cute, innocent little monosyllable. But the word “fan” in the context I’m talking about derives from the word “fanatic.” We’ve shortened the word, attempted to strip away some of its negative connotations by abbreviation. We human critters like doing this stuff. We post and text messages like “WTF,” “OMG,” and “ROFLMFAO” without actually saying the words that might offend someone. It’s a fairly safe, extremely watered-down way of cursing or swearing. And we’ve done something similar with “fan.” We’ve neutralized the original force of the word, stripped it of its potency.
My big honkin’ Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines “fan” as “an enthusiastic devotee, follower, or admirer of a sport, pastime, celebrity, etc.” This is pretty innocuous. The entry also identifies the root of “fan” as “fanatic,” but “fanatic” isn’t nearly as cute a word. It’s defined as “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal,” and the dictionary offers up synonyms that include “zealot, bigot, hothead, militant.” Because I am a nerd, this is an unabridged dictionary, and it also suggests connotative meanings, including “overweening or excessive devotion,” “unbalanced or obsessive behavior,” “single-minded partisanship” and “combative.” Where all this gets really fun, though, is in the Latin origin of the word, which the dictionary cites as “fanaticus, pertaining to a temple, inspired by orgiastic rites, frantic.”
Before all my self-identified fangirl and fanboy friends decide to disown me, I feel like I need to point out that I’m not talking about every single fan. I suspect that fan culture can be divided into fans–enthusiastic devotees–and fanatics, who are something different.
The truth of the matter is that much of fan culture has become fanatical. That’s not to say that fans are the only fanatics out there; we still reserve the term “fanatic” for people we hate and fear, those “others” who threaten us with their enthusiastic devotion to religions, ethnic groups, moral codes, ways of life, etc. with which we disagree. But we’ve stopped applying it to people who’ve devoted their entire lives to a TV show, a film, a band, a brand, or a celebrity with the kind of wholehearted fervor that others reserve for God or country. After all, this kind of pop culture isn’t the same thing–is it?
It’s fascinating to me that the Latin root has such strongly religious connections. Modern fandom can seem like a religion at times, and it often functions that way, too. Fans group together because of similar beliefs in the rightness and superiority of Browncoats, Season 3, the original versus the reboot, sparkly vampires over non-sparkly ones. They make pilgrimages to distant cities to attend conventions where relics will be on display. The founders of the faith are there, too, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
I’m not bashing cons (please don’t hate me, fan-friends). I think that for a lot of fans, they’re fun, exciting, entertaining. But for fanatics, they take on far deeper meaning. The show or film or comic becomes the prime source of identity, the thing that both connects a person to others (with similar preferences) and cuts that person off from the great mass of the uninitiated–the unwashed masses of us who haven’t memorized the one-liners and the succession of actors and the vast cosmic sweep of the mythologies of imagined worlds.
I write fantasy. I’m not knocking people who make stuff up. There’s an allure to fandom–it offers instant belonging, a sense of unity, of being part of something greater. And, let’s face it–those of us who tend to be drawn to imaginary worlds, whether they’re peopled by Wookiees or hobbits or just one guy alone in a spaceship with a kind of creepy computer–we often know what it’s like not to be the “cool kids,” not to belong, to feel marginalized and laughed at and misunderstood. It’s not necessarily because we wear the glasses or make the As or don’t get picked first for the dodgeball teams. I think our common distinguishing characteristic is that within our minds, we see worlds that are much, much realer and more vivid than the one around us. Sometimes those worlds are lovely, sometimes dark, but they’re always utopian in at least one sense–they operate by knowable laws. In each universe, certain things do or don’t happen. There’s a logic to each, an order and knowability that isn’t always obvious in the messy real world.
But the challenge for anyone living the life of the mind, whether that mind lingers on calculus or starships or Regency England, is knowing how far you can retreat without disconnecting from reality. Because, like it or not, I will never charge down that hill with the Rohirrim to a glorious death in battle. I am here, now, wiping my kids’ bottoms and cleaning up after my geriatric dog and loving my fading grandparents. In the worlds of Tolkien or Lewis or McCaffrey, Rowling or Martin or Hale, I am unrecognizable, unnamed. I am a red-shirt, if I am present at all, fading into the background along with all the other wipers of bottoms and cleaners-up after dogs and lovers of old people. On second thought, I’m probably not even a red-shirt, because at least red-shirts get the occasional one-liner or tragic death onscreen, and I’ve never seen any of them wipe a tiny tush or scrub dog barf off the sofa. My life is offscreen, in the margins, because it is messy and real. And when I forget that, I am in danger of marginalizing the real, messy people around me. The people who actually care whether I answer their emails.
I said earlier that I’ve resisted the term “fan” for myself, though it could probably be easily applied to me. I know a ridiculous amount about Middle Earth. I can only imagine how annoying it is for my husband to watch Sherlock with me, because about every five seconds, I excitedly burst out with something like, “That’s a play on the title of the third novella!” or “there was a situation exactly like this in one of the later stories, but the writers have changed it in these five ways!” or “that thing he just said was taken verbatim out of A Study in Scarlet!” Perhaps this is a little fanatical, but still I resist the word. Because I am not my love of any one thing, no matter how freakin’ awesome it is.
I feel for Shannon Hale. She’s not one of the self-styled rockstars of YA fantasy, though with a Newbery Honor book under her belt and some of the most gorgeous prose out there, she could be. She’s a mom and a housewife who puts her family ahead of her career and still manages to kick out breathtakingly beautiful works like Book of a Thousand Days. And, as she says in her post, that’s it. She can’t be everything to anyone. And I think it should be enough that she’s brilliant and amazing and probably spends as much time shoveling Legos as crafting sentences.
I love her books. I love them. They are amazing and lovely and true. But I don’t love Shannon Hale. To love her, I’d have to know her. We’d have to hang out and talk Jane Austen and babysit each other’s kids and show each other the scars on our soles from stepping on one too many sharp-edged plastic bricks. As both a reader and a writer working toward publication, Hale’s post resonates for me in many ways, but the main one has to do with ownership.
Fan. Add “atic.” Sounds like “attic.” Madwoman in the attic. She’s crazy, that poor ex-wife of Rochester, and her madness manifests itself in laying claim to something that’s not hers–the husband who’s disowned her. It’s not a perfect parallel–I don’t think Shannon Hale is disowning anybody, as much as she might be tempted to–but it’s thought-provoking. It is madness to believe that we can truly lay claim to anyone else, and at least in my experience, the people who want to appropriate others are the ones who are least willing to own themselves as they are. But the fanatics of fan culture do this over and over–they stake a claim to an author, an actor, a singer, a show. This disturbs me for the sake of the fanatics, who sometimes cut themselves off from real people as Hale suggests, but also for the subjects of that devotion.
There’s a lot of discussion on the interwebs these days about how women own their own bodies. How whites shouldn’t appropriate black culture. How non cisgendered folks shouldn’t assume they get what it’s like to be discriminated against because of their gender or sexual identity. These issues of ownership are important–so important, in fact, that we need to apply them to everyone, including those fortunate few who’ve achieved more than fifteen minutes of fame. We don’t own the authors/musicians/athletes/directors/actors/etc. we love, and we don’t really love them. We love what they’ve done, what they represent to us, but we don’t know them and they aren’t ours. And being, in whatever way, “in the public eye” is not the same thing as belonging to the public.
I have no claim on Shannon Hale, other than the claim of any reader on a writer–to expect her to tell stories that I will want to read. That’s it. And to expect anything else of another human being living her life in the margins of the real, messy, beautiful world is fanatical indeed.