April 08, 2014

How Can You Not Have Read Blah? - A Meditation on the Many Roads To Becoming a Fan

Editor's note: since Alan continues with construction -- thankfully most of the loud parts are over --  I've asked some other staffers to contribute From the Office pieces for the next few months.  Don't worry; all the rest of us are just as opinionated as Alan, and he'll be back with his own special brand of analysis in a few months.  But meanwhile, enjoy this guest piece from Na'amen Tilahun.  Na'amen is a writer & reviewer and has been a bookseller at Borderlands for four years.  You can check out his blog at http://naamenblog.wordpress.com/.  (Please note that while Borderlands is probably the only bookstore in the world with its own SWAT team, and that Alan and I will personally back any of our employees in a street fight, their opinions are their own and don't necessarily represent the store. - Jude Feldman)

by Na'amen Gobert Tilahun

Since I've worked at Borderlands, I have had a lot of random, short conversations about SF/F (science-fiction/fantasy) and its creators almost every day at work.  In the course of recommending titles or discussing authors it's inevitable that someone I've not read will come up.  Most people breeze right by it, but there's always someone who will widen their eyes, look at me bewildered, and ask, "How can you work here/like SF/F and not have read **fill in the blank**?"

I'll usually smile, shrug, and say, "Well I was reading other things."  About 25% of the time this leads to the customer asking me what I was reading and me turning them on to an author they don't know about.

The rest of the time, it becomes something different.

I've been a SF/F fan forever; the first things I remember reading all had speculative elements to them, but I didn't hang around with other fans until I was an adult.  I knew one or two other people who were into sci-fi but we didn't go to cons and online spaces were just becoming gathering spots.  While I love the friendship of other fans: being able to dissect books we've read, sharing excitement over a new novel in a beloved series, arguing over which character is the real hero of the story . . .  I enjoy all of that but in some ways I'm thankful that I grew up ignorant of fandom as a whole because it meant I was never exposed to those "must read" authors or the CANON OF GREAT SF lists that you have to read to be a "true fan".  My parents' strategy for dealing with my voracious reading appetite was to give me a monetary limit of $20 and let me loose in the book store.  My early reading was based on sitting in the bookstore/library for hours, reading the backs of books and picking up any that looked interesting enough.

As a result I have an eclectic and varied sf/f reading history that rarely matches up with anyone elses' perfectly.  I've read a lot of Mercedes Lackey and barely any Heinlein, plowed through much of Joanna Russ in my teenage years but none of Clarke actually grabbed me.  The teenage hero I most loved was Menolly from Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger trilogy and I read L. J. Smith long before her current bounty of Vampire Diaries-inspired fame.  I disliked Tolkein's elves but loved the elves of Elfquest. The stories that I was interested in included people that looked like me and the people I loved, which included a lot of women, people of color and queer people.  I found the SF/F that provided that and dove in regardless of who wrote it.  I've always been more into the worlds created than the author behind the creation; it's one of the reasons it's always easier for me to think of books I love rather than favorite authors.

I could try and explain my reading history to the person pushing a "classic" author on me, but generally it's easier to give a nod, a smile and a "I just couldn't get into that stuff." It's only when someone keeps insisting that I can't be a real fan until I read so and so that I'm honest about my preferences.  I like to read about worlds where I exist, where the characterization of marginalized people is broad and complex, and where emotionally hurtful stereotypes don't appear every other page.

Those who press on after this response are a hardy bunch. They'll often try to explain why the ideas in the novel are worth pushing through the bad stuff.  I'm not denying this can be the case for some pieces of media/literature, but the ideas have to be interesting and engrossing enough that you ignore all the bits that make you twitch.  I also propose a moratorium on the "a man of his time" defense against racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, any -ism really.  The reason for this is the fact that you can usually find creators in that exact same era who are doing better, pushing limits farther and writing marginalized people as people rather than as broad offensive stereotypes.  Saying someone is a "man of their time" positions the past as a time when everyone was just a big ball of prejudice and ignores that people have always fought for equality, to be seen as human, and they have always had allies, in every period of time.  I would respect this position more if people owned the problematic nature of what they loved then explained why the story is still important to them without trying to erase the issues inherent in it.

The idea that there's a particular list of books/authors out there which you _have_ to read is also problematic because it assumes that culture is static.  Depending on when you came into reading science fiction, the ideas and themes being focused on could be very different.  The ideas and issues that SF/F struggled with in the 1910s versus the 1950s versus the 1990s might have some similarities, but context and personal perspective can be just as important or more important than ideas being explored.  Depending on the era you came of age, the age you came to reading, where you were living in the world, and what was in print at the time, what influenced you as a fan has the potential to be very different.

This is not a denigration of the past or of older books; three of my favorite non-genre authors are Jane Austen, Kate Chopin and Agatha Christie.  I'm also not against going back and reading the "classics" of the genre, but I refuse to do so simply because a group of people believe them to be such.  I really like C.S. Lewis although my favorite novel is THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW rather than any of the later Narnia books.  I've recently started reading Zelzany's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER and am enjoying it.  On the other hand I vaguely remember someone in my family buying me The Lord of the Rings when I was in my teens, after all I was into fantasy and wasn't this the quintessential fantasy?  I think I got maybe twenty pages in and I've never been able to do more than that.  Part of my resistance might have been that by the time I tried to read Tolkien I'd already read authors who were playing with the Tolkien milieu *cough*Terry Brooks*cough* and it wasn't as fresh to me as it might have been to an older reader or a reader who got it earlier in their reading career.  (*That is actually not a slam against Terry Brooks. I read a lot of his books growing up and still have a soft spot for some of them.)

There are few things that depress and anger me more than seeing someone being talked down to as a SF/F fan because they don't know this book, or that film.  Many of us came to SF/F for the same reasons -- the wonder of imagined worlds, magic, and potential future technologies -- and to posit that there is only one true way to be a fan, or even five or ten ways, is a tool to exclude people.  Not to get too far into the latest kerfluffle in SF fandom but in my opinion this is where a lot of these arguments start: with the idea of authenticity and what "true sf/f " really is.  Much like the idea of the "fake geek girl", it's gatekeeping; if you haven't read this author, you're not a true fan and I don't have to listen to what you have to say or let you into our little club.   It may be shocking that a genre that's supposed to be about alternate possibilities, magic spells, alien intelligences, the development of A.I. and god-like beings among us could have such rigid ideas of what makes a "real fan",  but anyone involved in the community knows that we are often all-too-human, with all the foibles we try and expose in our fiction.

My answer, which is only one answer among many, is that anyone with enthusiasm and love for anything SF/F is a fan.  Instead of judging what they are reading/watching/love, how about asking them why they are into a certain thing; why do they love that work. Contemplate why their history in SF/F is so different from yours and remember something we all learned growing up: different isn't necessarily wrong or evil, it's simply different.

Postscript: So here's a challenge.  I've read some of the mainstream canon.  Would you take the time to read one or two of mine?  A random sample of authors whose works have influenced me are below.  This is a far-from- complete list.

Gloria Anzaldua
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Raphael Carter
Suzy McKee Charnas
Jo Clayton
Bruce Coville
Diane Duane
Lois Duncan
George Alec Effinger
Kate Elliott
Maggie Furey
Sally Ann Gearhart
Jewelle Gomez
Sharon Green
P.C. Hodgell
Nalo Hopkinson
Lee Killough
Ellen Kushner
Elizabeth A. Lynn
Lee Martindale
Naomi Mitchison
Cherrie Moraga
Patricia Kennealy Morrison
Tamora Pierce
Christopher Pike
Diana Rivers
Joanna Russ
Melissa Scott
William Sleator
Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Margaret St. Clair
R.L. Stine
Martha Wells
Mary Frances Zambreno

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