Thursday, February 20, 2014

Revolting Against the Middlebrow: Analyzing What Ails the Fandom

Has going mainstream ruined the fandom? A visitor asked this question in a comment on my last post, and I think it deserves further discussion, so if you'll forgive me, I'm going to dive into this mess once again to share my thoughts.

First of all, I'm not sure we science fiction/fantasy fans are fully mainstream just yet. True -- Star Trek and Star Wars have both made it into the pop-culture lexicon. True -- fantasy (and dystopian science fiction) seems to be taking the young adult market by storm. True -- "geek chic" is a now a legitimate trend in the style world. But then there's the family gathering last Thanksgiving, at which one relative, after hearing all of us talk about my intention to enter the Dragon Con parade as part of the Baen contingent, gave me a funny look and said, quote, "How did you get into this weird stuff?" The general population is making peace with our existence. It's even embracing some of what we produce in the visual media. I think, however, that we still strike them as a touch odd -- though simultaneously fascinating.

Now, within the fandom, I have seen two basic responses to this outside interest. On the one hand, you have authors who would like to encourage it by penning the sorts of stories that might appeal to these curious onlookers -- i.e., the "middlebrow" readers. Taking cues from movies and television shows that have garnered widespread attention, said authors tend to emphasize high-stakes adventure and human striving. On the other hand, you have authors who don't seem especially interested in selling their ideas to the masses. They tend to emphasize themes that appeal to "highbrow" literary critics and publishers, including explorations of the academic world's three favorite subjects -- race, gender, and class. Obviously, the dividing line between the two groups isn't necessarily sharp - you can have high adventure and still tackle "social justice" - but it still exists, and where a particular author falls in this classification scheme is a relatively good predictor of what he or she (or they -- after all, I wouldn't want to be accused of mindlessly favoring the gender binary!) thinks about the whole SFWA implosion.

The GHH's, by and large, hail from the "highbrow" group. I strongly suspect most of them majored in the humanities in college and received thorough training in the tenets of cultural Marxism. They have been taught that bourgeois American culture is vapidly consumerist and oppressive, and they have embraced this viewpoint because, let's face it, it flatters their pride to think that they know something the rest of the population doesn't. Read Thomas Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed (or, more recently, Fred Siegel's The Revolt Against the Masses) and you'll get an accurate sense of how they think. If an idea can be grasped by the average "idiot American" - like, for example, the notion that people's judgements should be "colorblind" - the GHH's will declare it fatally flawed in some way so as not to appear "ordinary" and "unthinking." If the average "idiot American" has doubts about a certain alternative lifestyle, the GHH's will adopt its practitioners as mascots to prove their moral superiority. Overall, the GHH's have a deep, deep aversion to any style, behavior, or belief that smacks of the "middlebrow." They are supposed to be "smarter" than that. They are not supposed to be "sell-outs."

It's funny, though: While these writers dearly wish to be "intellectual" and "counter-cultural," they are also human and consequently want to succeed and be validated. So when their multicultural, feminist science fiction doesn't sell, they become resentful -- and that resentment breeds a desire to take power and overthrow the system. After all, as far as they're concerned, the fact that they haven't been noticed and roundly applauded is just further proof that our society - and fandom - is utterly corrupt and in need of a revolution. Persuasion isn't working, so it's time to use force. We'll start with Marcuse's "liberating tolerance" and move on from there. In reality, of course, "middlebrow" American readers aren't avoiding the GHH's works because they're racist/homophobic/able-ist/whatever. I think your average American would accept characters that didn't fit the "white, heterosexual male" template quite easily if they weren't accompanied by radical politics masquerading as a story. Readers don't want to be lectured to, and they don't want to be insulted. They want to be entertained first and foremost; they want to connect to the characters on an emotional level and feel inspired by their actions. But again, the GHH's can't acknowledge the goodwill of the average reader because to do so would destroy the foundations of their carefully cultivated elitism.  

In sum, what's ruining fandom is not that we've "gone mainstream." On the contrary, what's ruining fandom is a resistance to mainstream culture that strokes the egos of many who have built their entire identities around being "different and therefore better." It is oikophobia writ small.      

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad I wrote my comment. This is a good article. I did not mean to imply that it was the exposure itself that corrupted fandom, but fandom's reaction to fame that started the firestorm. Because the spotlight was blaring, folks reacted.

    I had a desire to be brief, and did not explain myself adequately. But I don't really regret it. Had I expressed my intention, the article might have turned out differently. The world needs *this* article. Kudos!