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“I’m not a fan, I just enjoy his work” said a friend over lunch.  For quite a while, that was my knee-jerk approach to the idea of “fanhood” as well: it’s either something other people do, or it’s a lapse in taste by a decent critic. Fans are voracious but undiscriminating, always happiest when an artist is trotting out the same stuff once again.   They obsess over personality and get distracted by irrelevant details.   Reading reviews, the “fan” often seems to be an invisible presence to be vilified or at most politely indulged.  “Whilst the fans will enjoy it, this isn’t anything new…” is a common rhetorical move, used to establish the critic’s own credentials by separating them from the general herd.[1]  Aside from unfairly excluding a group of people, the problem with this attitude is the way it drags in a whole system of assumptions which underlie a lot of writing on literature and TV.

To put these assumptions crudely: fans are interested in content and story, whilst critics appreciate form and structure.  Fans wallow in the invented worlds of literature, whilst critics seek to connect them to reality.   Fans see characters as real people, whilst critics read them as representations.  Fans enjoy the spectacular, whilst critics relish subtlety.  This broadly fits into a rather unpleasant Modernist account of art – there are the cultured and then there are the “masses”.[2]  It also segues very comfortably into sexism, with “masculine” values of analysis, judgement and abstract thinking set against “feminine” traits of emotionalism, fickleness and triviality.  Not every sentence which distinguishes critics from fans carries all of this baggage, but it’s waiting nearby ready to be claimed and loaded on.

This model is nonsense, of course.  It doesn’t work on a personal level – did any critic start writing because they were attracted by the formal aspect of an art form, and thought it was undertheorised?  Every half-decent critic knows what being a “fan” feels like, otherwise they’d never have amassed enough experience and information to start writing.  What’s dismissed as an irrelevant detail today, only interesting to geeks and anoraks, may well turn out to be the basis for a new theory of the form.    And it doesn’t work on a group level either – fans are just as capable as being analytical as the critics.  It was fans (some of them, at least) who called out Sherlock for sexism and were happy to speculate on a female Doctor Who.  Both of these involved an extremely “critical” approach to the works as they existed and the ability to imagine them otherwise.  The idea that fans can be sidelined as passive recipients of culture, who gratefully accept what they’re given, just won’t survive an encounter with reality, in whichever dimension.

But however dubious this distinction between “fan” and “critical” attitudes is, it might not make sense to abandon it altogether.  Certainly the sexism, the elitism and the general snobbery need to be extirpated in short order.  But there are situations in which “the fans” feel the need to identify themselves as such.  Reading  Adam Robert Thomas’ piece on Mass Effect 3, I was struck by how many of the comments thanked him for articulating what the fans felt about this game, which the critics were refusing to understand.  If every reviewer stopped using the word “fans” tomorrow, all our culture wouldn’t suddenly be open and equally accessible to everyone.  Some people would still get tickets to previews, access to galleys, invitations to private showings and be paid to give their opinions.  So do “the fans” need the distinction to define themselves just as much as the critics do, as a way of pushing back on the way culture is organised and distributed?  And if they do, do those arrangements translate into a distinctive set of attitudes, ways of consuming culture and critical virtues which are specific to fan groups – or is does every fanzine aspire to being the next Rolling Stone/ London Review of Books/ Empire when it gets big enough?

This is the first in a series of posts I’m planning on fans, fandom and fan culture.  I’m particularly interested to read your comments on these pieces, and they’ll affect the way the series develops.  Future instalments include pieces by Lisa Stead on women’s cinema fan culture in the mid-century, by Laura Buttrick on gaming fandom, by Rhian Jones on fangirlism in music, and by Stavvers on whatever Stavvers feels like.  I’m also planning to write one trying to locate the idea of fan fiction in a longer historical/literary context: how it connects with literary pastiche, Biblical Midrash or medieval romance.  If you have any ideas about areas you’d like to see covered – and/or if you’d like to write a piece yourself, do please get in touch.

[1] Paul Prescott’s essay “Inheriting The Globe” sets out a parallel example of reviewers using another section of the audience to define themselves against – in this case tourists at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.  P.G. Wodehouse also tackled the subject in “Fair Play For Audiences”, come to think of it.

[2] A distinction memorably exposed in John Carey’s “The Intellectuals and the Masses”, which makes links between the art philosophies of T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf et al, and the idea of exterminating the “masses” which haunted the twentieth century.