Do Fandoms Need Awfulness?

Stephen Bond, “Ob­jects of Fan­dom”: the­ory is that for some­thing to at­tract fans, it must have an as­pect of truly mon­u­men­tal bad­ness about it.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a ro­bust pot­boiler, tongue-in-cheek, very com­pe­tently done. I think it’s en­joy­able, but even among those who don’t, it’s hard to see the film at­tract­ing ac­tual de­ri­sion. Bore­dom or ir­ri­ta­tion, prob­a­bly, but noth­ing more. Star Wars, on the other hand.… From one per­spec­tive, it’s an en­ter­tain­ing space opera, but from a slightly differ­ent per­spec­tive, an im­per­cep­ti­ble twist of the glass, it’s laugh­ably awful. Ut­terly ridicu­lously bad. And it’s this very bad­ness that makes so many peo­ple take up arms in its defence.

...It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine a fan of An­i­mal Farm, the Well-Tem­pered Clavier, or the the­ory of grav­ity. Such works can defend them­selves. But bad­ness, es­pe­cially bad­ness of an ob­vi­ous, mon­u­men­tal va­ri­ety, in­spires de­vo­tion. The qual­ity of the work, in the face of such glar­ing short­com­ings, be­comes a mat­ter of faith—and faith is a much stronger bond than mere ap­pre­ci­a­tion. It drives fans to­gether, gives them strength against those who sneer… And so the fan groups of Tolk­ien, Star Trek, Spi­der-man, Ja­panese kid­die-car­toons etc. de­velop an al­most cult-like char­ac­ter.

“Uh oh,” I said to my­self on first read­ing this, “Is this why my fans are more in­tense than Robin Han­son’s fans? And if I write a ra­tio­nal­ity book, should I ac­tu­ally give in to temp­ta­tion and self-in­dul­gence and write in Twelve Virtues style, just so that it has some­thing at­tack­able for fans to defend?”

But the sec­ond time I turned my thoughts to­ward this ques­tion, I performed that oft-ne­glected op­er­a­tion, ask­ing: “I read it on the In­ter­net, but is it ac­tu­ally true?” Just be­cause it’s un­pleas­ant doesn’t mean it’s true. And just be­cause it pro­vides a bit of cyn­i­cism that would give me ra­tio­nal­ity-credit to ac­knowl­edge, doesn’t mean it be­comes true just so I can earn the ra­tio­nal­ity-credit.

The first coun­terex­am­ple that came to mind was Jack Vance. Jack Vance is a sci­ence-fic­tion writer who, to the best of my knowl­edge, I’ve never heard ac­cused of any great sin (or any lesser sin, ac­tu­ally). He is—was—the supremely com­pe­tent crafts­man of SF: his words flow, his plots race, and his hu­man cul­tures are odder than other au­thors’ aliens, to say noth­ing of his aliens. Vance didn’t have his char­ac­ters give con­tro­ver­sial poli­ti­cal speeches like Hein­lein. Vance just wrote con­sis­tently ex­cel­lent sci­ence fic­tion.

And some of Vance’s fans got to­gether and pro­duced the Vance In­te­gral Edi­tion, a com­plete col­lec­tion of Vance in leather-bound hard­cover books with high-qual­ity long-last­ing pa­per. They con­tracted to get the books printed, and when the books ar­rived, enough Vance fans showed up to ship them all. (They referred to them­selves as “pack­ing scum”.)

That’s se­ri­ous fan­dom. Aimed at work that—like An­i­mal Farm or the Well-Tem­pered Clavier—is merely ex­cel­lent, with­out an as­pect of mon­u­men­tal bad­ness to defend.

Godel, Escher, Bach—maybe I’m prej­u­diced here, and I’ve heard a word or two said against it, but re­ally, I don’t think the fan­dom that it has stems from it be­ing fre­quently at­tacked. On the other hand, there aren’t an­nual con­ven­tions for fans of self-refer­en­tial sen­tences, so maybe it’s not as much of a data point as I might like.

Star Wars re­ally did have some­thing go­ing for it that Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t, namely, it in­tro­duced a lot of im­pres­sion­able minds to sci­ence fic­tion. Or space opera, if you like. The point is that the ro­mance of space is not the ro­mance of arche­ol­ogy.

On due re­flec­tion, I’m not sure that ut­ter ridicu­lous mon­u­men­tal bad­ness is all it’s cracked up to be.

But there are an­nual Star Trek con­ven­tions. And there are not an­nual Jack Vance con­ven­tions. Dou­glas Hofs­tadter might be far more widely be­loved—but Ayn Rand has more fa­natic fans.

If Jack Vance had been so clever as to keep all the po­etic phras­ing and alien so­cieties, but now and then have his char­ac­ters make crazy poli­ti­cal speeches—if he had de­liber­ately in­tro­duced an as­pect of mon­u­men­tal bad­ness—would he now be wor­shiped, in­stead of just loved?

Can any­one think of a true, pure coun­terex­am­ple of a rea­son­ably fa­natic fan­dom (to the level of an­nual con­ven­tions, though not nec­es­sar­ily suicide bombers) of some­thing that is just sheer good pro­fes­sional craft­work, and not com­monly crit­i­cized? And of course the acid test is not whether you think it is just sheer good crafts­man­ship, but whether this is widely be­lieved within the broad con­text of the rele­vant so­cial com­mu­nity—can you have fa­natic fans when their ob­ject of wor­ship re­ally is that good and the main­stream be­lieves it too?

I do think that Stephen Bond’s Ob­jects of Fan­dom is point­ing to a real effect, if not the only effect. So in the same vein that we should try to be at­tracted to ba­sic sci­ence text­books and not just poorly writ­ten press re­leases about “break­ing news”, let us try to be fans of those merely ex­cel­lent works that lack an as­pect of mon­u­men­tal awful­ness to defend.