Criticism Contra Fandom

There’s an anti-fandom sentiment accelerating, especially among self-styled critical types, that I think might turn into a defining counterpoint for the next generation of fabulists. The assumption that all creations are built to find fans, and to serve them… and that a rabid fandom is the cardinal reward and validation for artists… those assumptions have been operative for long enough that it’s really high time they were challenged and dissected.

The articles I’ve seen on this topic are multiplying steadily.

Just yesterday, Davin Faraci wrote about fandom being broken. This follows a week after the AV Club’s piece on fan entitlement. I traced the thread back a bit, and found some other sharp pieces of criticism on this topic: a piece in Ribbonfarm late last year about nerds having bad taste, Jay Allen on the irrationality of Star Wars fandom in Boing Boing, a 2014 Telegraph piece on how The Hobbit represents the idyllic counterpart to Lord of the Rings’ worldbuilding, and perhaps the little split atom at the heart of this broad critique, a 2007 piece by Mike Harrison on the malignant nature of obsessive worldbuilding: very afraid.

The general shape of this critique is something like this: fabulist and speculative fiction is being drowned in its own narcissistic tendencies, including obsessive worldbuilding and self-seriousness. These are enabled and massively compounded by rabid fan-bases who, increasingly, tend to make demands: demands for more detail, demands for self-consistency, demands for representation and gratification of their own desires for the worlds and characters. Of course, there’s also an economic link: Twitter, corporate media, and franchise marketing provide the fertile soil for this sort of entitled consumerist fandom, and for the mass media’s pandering response to it.

These critiques are passingly persuasive… like all broad critiques, they make a lot of sense when considered from a sympathetic frame, but can fall apart when subjected to the scalpel of counterargument. The biggest flaw in this critique is that it’s entirely negative, and purist, and, in a sense, nostalgic for more traditional sensibilities. This gives it the slimy sheen of conservative demagoguery and denial. The indicted entanglement (or perhaps “codependence”) between creators and consumers (with distributors also implicated) isn’t going to go backwards. We’d best find a way to make it work better as it goes forward, eh?

On the plus side, I appreciate the principles behind this anti-fandom critique. Among the many subtexts, these critics are saying that they understand, and appreciate, the unique role of the artist in the creative process, and they are defending it against expansive fandom. It’s the most recent essay, Fandom is Broken, that makes this defense most explicit, equating runaway fandom with Stephen King’s monstrous Annie Wilkes.

Against the postmodern instinct, these critiques are an attempt to reassert the three unique roles that drive artistic production: CREATOR-CRITIC-AUDIENCE. Here’s the three-way relationship expressed graphically, as a triad:

The critics are attempting, rhetorically, to constrain a runaway “fandom” pole and defend the autonomy of the creator, which is a noble campaign (if a bit quixotic in this age of universal access). If you look at this whole thing ecologically, it only makes sense: as the Creator/Audience binary collapses, and Gatekeeping seems to disappear, and taste loses its authority, it seems like the CRITIC pole is being squeezed out and eliminated entirely. This critical counterpunch against fandom almost seems like its last stand.

And criticism won’t effect its own survival by trying to retrench the old relationships between the other two elements.

But this is a necessary phase we have to pass through. Criticism may, in the end, survive in the changing landscape, and even help to shape it along the way. It just needs to overcome its own conservatism, so it can help us figure out what a productive fandom can look like, and what creation looks like in an age of universal access.