The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Seventeen: Fans

I’m writing you today from Toronto, where I am because a bunch of very nice Canadians decided it would be a groovy thing to pay for my plane ticket, put me up in a hotel, and fete me for a weekend as one of their guests of honor at the SFContario science fiction convention. Tonight, I’ll do a reading, and people who like my books will show up and listen to me preview an upcoming book and then blather on about my life. Over the next few days, while I’m at the convention, I’ll get to do even more of that. Usually when you go on and on about yourself for days, you’re labeled — not without reason — as an insufferable jackass blowhard. But not only am I encouraged to do this, indeed, this is part of why I’m here.

Having fans is awesome.

It’s also dangerous, of course, for the sort of attention-seeking monkey I and many other creative types are. Jamming this sort of appreciation into our brains is likely to encourage a positive feedback loop of personal entitlement and self-regard wildly out of proportion to our actual worth as human beings. And then we become assholes. That is in fact the precise, technical term. You can look it up. But that’s very definitely more about that person than it is about the people who appreciate his or her work. Fans don’t make people assholes, people become assholes when they misinterpret enthusiasm for them and their work to mean that the normal strictures of being a decent human being don’t apply to them anymore. All fans do is say “That thing? That you do? I like it.”

This is nice, and can lead to nice things. When people like the things you do, they very often support them, often by buying the things you create (or otherwise putting money into things involving you), and encouraging others to do the same. This can lead to bills being paid, a mortgage being topped off, groceries being put in the pantry, and children getting things like shoes and a college education. It can also lead to you being able to keep doing that thing that makes the fans happy, whether it be books or music or TV shows or whatever it is they like. And since you were probably originally doing that thing because it made you happy to do it, this is typically not a bad thing at all. If in life people want to pay you to do the thing you always wanted to do, and want you to keep doing it, you should probably be appreciative of that.

But wait, I hear you say, you’re the same person who’s thumped on fans for being out of line with writers. Doesn’t this make you a hypocrite, or at least not able to keep track of you’ve said before? I don’t think so. Like authors, fans are people too, and just as the objects of fans’ affections can get sucked up into their own sphincters regarding their importance to the world, so may some fans occasionally transmute their enthusiasm into “I made you; you owe me.” Some people, creators and consumers alike, struggle with being jerks. It doesn’t mean that as a class, fans are not important to a creative person’s career, or that they shouldn’t be thankful for them.

Personally speaking I think I’ve been very lucky. My fans don’t typically seem to be the problematic sort. In meeting them, here and out in the real world, they usually seem like what they are: People who like my work and appreciate what I do and hope I keep doing it. I make an active attempt to return the favor by not letting my own personal ego monster out of the box too often. I’m genuinely happy and honored that people like my work and that in one way or another it has meant something to them, and I don’t want them to think that I take that lightly. It helps that I’m a fan too — I have my own list of writers, musicians, actors and other creative folk whose work has made my life better. I’ve even gotten to meet some of them and say “thanks.” It made me happy to see that they were happy I liked what they did. I want to be able to express that too, to the people who like what I do.

(It also helps a lot that in science fiction and fantasy, the fan-creator line is highly permeable and always has been. So many fans have become friends, and some of my fans have become pros who I in turn have become fans of, and some of the pros who I have admired for years have become friends and even fans as well (at least, that’s what they tell me). This community has been one of the great joys for me in becoming a science fiction writer; I hope writers in other genres get the same sort of dynamic, and if they don’t, well, that’s a shame.)

I’m fortunate to get fan letters from time to time, so consider this me returning the appreciation. Dear fans: Most sincerely, I thank you and am thankful for you. Thank you for reading, and thank you for letting me and my work be a part of your life. I hope I get to keep doing it. It’s my plan, in any event.

(P.S.: Did I mention I’m in Toronto for the SFContario science fiction convention? It starts tomorrow! You should totally come out.)

37 thoughts on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Seventeen: Fans

  1. Incidentally, that picture is of me saying “ZOMG DAVE KLECHA!” Who is as it happens a fine writer of science fiction, and whose first professional sale I had the honor of buying for Subterranean Magazine. The picture was taken by Alethea Kontis, who is also a very fine writer.

  2. You keep writing ‘em, we keep buying ‘em. It’s almost like an ecosystem, except that nobody has to disembowel anything. Well, except maybe the Thomas Covenant books.

  3. Right on, mjfgates! And thank you John Scalzi – a very interesting topic choice since fan entitlement is an issue that’s going on (wrecking) on another fan site right now.

  4. So, here’s a semi-related question for you then, Mista Scalzi:

    Although this isn’t quite as common for writers (save, perhaps, Neil Gaiman) as it is for actors, there’s often a contingent of fans who go beyond liking a person’s work into liking that person as, well, a person (at least what parts of themselves they show to the public.) Assuming fan behavior is otherwise polite and reasonable, do you think there’s anything inherently wrong with that?

    I’m not talking here about invasive celeb gossip and paparazzi and such (or famewhores who seek that stuff out to make money or inflate their egos. See: Kardashians.) More just fans who like what they see of a creative person beyond their work, and are pleased when they hear of good things happening for that person, sad when they hear of bad things, etc.

    I ask because there seems to be an ongoing debate in fan circles about whether that sort of thing is appropriate. Some argue that who a creative person is in their offtime should be of no interest at all to fans, others argue that they appreciate a work more if they know more about the person making it. It’s ramped up in recent years with so many folks having public Twitter or FB accounts, going to cons, or otherwise communicating with fans about things other than exactly what work they’re doing or promoting at the time.

    I personally think it’s great that fans are getting to see a more human side of creative people, so they understand that they’re not demigods, nor soulless playthings. I’d love to see the days of treating folks like untouchable royalty end, because so many of the rotten ones get away with (literally, in some cases) murder because of their fame or talent. Likewise, I’d like to see an end to fans who demand way too much of their idols because they think of them as superhuman, or somehow immune to being treated with disrespect. (One actor I like has a FB page with frequent commenters taking him to task because he’s not giving them individual attention. Because of course he has nothing better to do than send birthday wishes to 2500 people!)

    So what’s your take on this: Better to appreciate the work and leave it at that, or to allow for getting to know (a little bit, of course) the person behind the job?

  5. Surely A Mediated Life, one can be friendly with a writer at a convention room party, or enjoy his bacony cat photos, without scaling his fence and offering to share water.

  6. I’m glad you appreciate your fans, Scalzi. And I’m glad yours seem to be “reasonable people”. While you touched on the idea that some fans have of “I made you, you owe me”, has that ever affected you personally? Some of those fans cross the line even further and engage in stalker behavior, whether it’s writing inappropriate letters/emails, attempted phone contact, trespassing on the creative person’s property, etc. Have you ever personally experienced that negative side of having fans?

  7. MIke: Of course. Like I say, assuming the same respectful behavior one would show any other stranger.

    The question, really, is whether it’s appropriate to even consider a creative person beyond their work and what self-promotion they do related to that. For instance, I’ve seen the argument that cons and Twitter and other sorts of personal contact between fans and creators only fuel the celeb media frenzy; that if we want to get rid of trashy reality TV and tabloids, we have to consider actors, writers, etc., only in the context of their work. Not, I think, that the person arguing this thought every creator ought to be J.D. Salinger, just that there isn’t as much professional distance between fan and creator as there supposedly should be.

    I think there’s a smidgen of merit in that idea. I’ve seen some fans, used to the kind of contact they get from Twitter-happy celebs like John Barrowman, get angry when other actors aren’t as forthcoming about their non-work lives, or don’t talk to fans as much. I’ve seen others call an actor a “diva” for asking for an appearance fee (plus the usual room/board/travel) to go to cons. And Eddie McClintock (Pete on Warehouse 13) once told me that his reps advised him not to interact too much with fans on his Twitter and FB accounts, because it opens the door to people who won’t respect his boundaries.

    Obviously, there are some horrid and invasive fans out there, and people who gladly consume the products of invasive celeb media. This is especially true for anyone with a high babe factor, or a lot of appeal to younger fans who might not behave as well. But I’m not sure I’d buy the argument I’ve seen that the solution for this is to build an impermeable wall between all fans and creators, with their only connection being the creator’s work.

    I think it’s pretty clear in cases like Eddie, and our lovely host here, that there are plenty of creators who are quite open about themselves and happy to have contact with fans. Still others are pretty obviously closed off. But my question is what should an average, respect-minded fan do when it’s not so clear exactly what a given creator wants? Default to no contact, and no interest in their non-work lives? For myself, I’ve tried to do my best to take cues from how they’ve acted in the past, and factor in things like exactly how popular they are and thus how tired they might be of getting pestered. But sometimes, it’s really hard to figure that out.

  8. I’ve heard the phenomenon described as “starting to believe your own press releases”, and yeah, it’s pretty sad when it happens. I am really good at X (writing sf/f, being clever, speculating about baseball) and lots and lots of fans hang on my every word. Therefore I must be totally awesome at many other things (pontificating about economics, evolutionary biology) and cannot be mediocre or wrong in those areas. Plus, many of my fans will tell me I am awesome at those too! I will brook no disagreement!

    It’s sad, and it’s driven me away from a lot of creators whose works I liked back before they bought ego-embiggening pills off the Internet. Glad you are keeping reality firmly in mind.

  9. A Mediated Life:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people having an interest in the lives of their favorite celebrities (to use the word loosely in the case) outside of their work, although I think that interest should be tempered with the knowledge a) that they don’t actually know anything about these people in real life, b) that as their favorite celebs are humans, they will inevitably disappoint fans by not being the ideal people fans have created them to be in their heads. I think it’s probably smarter to focus on the work, but I’m not sure being a fan is always about what’s smart.

  10. Also I think that John can get away with the interaction he does because outside of personal appearances he’s removed himself from circulation to rural Ohio. Put him in New York or LA where the shear numbers of people you interact with on a daily basis is bound to increase your chances of meeting someone who has an unrealistic concept of what it means to be a fan. Living in a place like that makes it prudent to maybe be a more private person unless your seeking that kind of attention.

  11. “Better to appreciate the work and leave it at that, or to allow for getting to know (a little bit, of course) the person behind the job?”

    A Mediated Life, given that you’re asking this question on John’s blog, where he writes about his personal life, are you in any real doubt about his opinion about this matter?

  12. Rick:

    You may overestimate the scale of my notability. I’m not nearly famous enough to be at the “random encounter with fans with boundary issues” stage, and wouldn’t be even if I lived in New York.

  13. I have had the great misfortune to have had dealings with a couple of celebrities whos work I admire. I watched over time as they went from being pretty decent people to inflamed assholes and I blame the constant reinforcement they get that they are the center of the universe and source of all goodness and light. In one case it became obvious in their work & really short circuited their career, the other was able to separate their ego enough so the work did not suffer. But it really did spoil my enjoyment knowing what jerks they were.

    One of the first things I noticed about you on this blog is a sense of proportion, I don’t suspect you will fall into the trap no matter how many sycophants whisper sweet nothings in your ear. I hope that stays true.

  14. Fiction fans, in particular, have trouble with the idea that they “don’t actually know anything about these people in real life” because they feel like they’ve been through an experience with an author whose book they love. That can lead to one of my pet peeves, people quoting a character and attributing it to the author.

  15. Clarence Rutherford:

    Well, you know. I have an ego, and I occasionally do jackassed things. I don’t need sycophants to lead me to error. I can get there on my own.

  16. Mike Resnick is fond of saying that if ever a Big Time Genre Author needs a reality check, all (s)he needs to do is step outside of the convention hotel, and walk a few blocks. The world beyond the convention is merrily oblivious — even if an author has won multiple Hugos and/or Nebulas and/or enjoys tremendous prestige inside the convention. Barring having your name prominently attached to a successful motion picture, even if you’re a very-successful author, you get to (mostly) keep your anonymity. Which is, I think, one of the truly cool things about the business. Because while everyone says they want to be famous, nobody really stops to consider what that entails. Or how their lives might be adversely affected. Especially those who spend their hours in front of the cameras.

    On a different note, I liked this quote from John:

    It’s also dangerous, of course, for the sort of attention-seeking monkey I and many other creative types are. Jamming this sort of appreciation into our brains is likely to encourage a positive feedback loop of personal entitlement and self-regard wildly out of proportion to our actual worth as human beings. And then we become assholes.

    This is — IMHO — the great honey trap of all professional “exposure” industries. Motion picture, television and musical entertainment stars are probably the most notorious for assuming their shit doesn’t stink. Followed closely by professional athletes. I imagine the allure is almost irresistable: you’re making wads and wads of cash, you have the press and a fan base eating out of your hand, why not tip over into assholitude? Who is going to tell you you’re doing it wrong?? Certainly not your entourage nor your hangers on nor your hard-core fans; all of whom have dedicated themselves to convincing you that you are the center of the universe.

    I think this is where having a stand-up spouse can make a difference. Someone who has been with you and has known you for a long time — preferably, from before the onset of fame and money — and doesn’t give a damn how awesome you think you are. (S)he will cheerfully put the smack-down on any and all ego trips. Issue humility-inducing STFUs. A built-in vanity and narcissism patrol, and if there’s bona fide love and affection, no need to worry about the motivates of the one doing the policing.

  17. Well, you know. I have an ego, and I occasionally do jackassed things. I don’t need sycophants to lead me to error. I can get there on my own.

    I am afraid I resemble this remark — all too well.

  18. I found this blog after reading the OMW series, so I was a fan of the work well before I had any inkling about the author. What I’ve particularly enjoyed about this blog is the peek behind the scenes at the “creative process” and the business of being a creative person. For this completely non-creative, logical analyst type (i.e. I love listening to music but have absolutely no musical ability, and can only marvel at “how’d they know to wrap the lead guitar around the vocals like that!?!?”), it’s been an exposure to something I’ve wondered about but never been able to understand. So thanks from this fan for more than your published novels.

  19. Wealthy people often socialize incognito, so that they don’t confuse real friends with people who want some kind of access to their money. Famous people, even minorly famous people, don’t have that advantage. There’s nothing wrong with fans being interested in writers as human beings, and even becoming friends. It happens all of the time. But from the other side of the relationship, it can be hard to tell who your fans are and who your friends are, and easy to fall into the habit of believing that everything you do is cute and charming because so many of your “friends” appreciate it. Probably some day soon we’ll have to stage an intervention for Dave Klecha. His fame was already going to his head before he appeared on Whatever!

    For me, ever since I started meeting authors and getting to know them as people, I’ve avoided attempted to meet or get to know most of my favorite authors. It’s just not a meaningful relationship. In fact, it’s less than meaningful. It’s actually kind of demeaning. If you meet them and make a connection, they still don’t know who you are the next time you meet. And if you meet them and they disappoint you, it’s hard to keep enjoying their books. So I’m kind of a bad fan, but I’d like to think I’m a good friend.

  20. I follow a number of authors’ blogs. Some of them are kind enough to respond personally to comments fans leave therein. I am happy if I can contribute positively to their lives, especially if it results in them writing more of the stuff I like to read. I try not to conflate ‘fan’ and ‘friend’, especially if I don’t know how the object of my fannish devotion might react, and realize that one does not necessarily mean the other.

  21. And I am thankful that you didn’t look askance, and actually gave me permission, to Squeee! at you enthusiastically at last year’s PenguiCon. Now that I’m over the “OhMyGod I’ve met one of my favorite writers!!!” jitters, I hope to actually engage you in something resembling intelligent conversation in the future.

  22. Catherine Shaffer:

    …”It’s just not a meaningful relationship. In fact, it’s less than meaningful. It’s actually kind of demeaning. If you meet them and make a connection, they still don’t know who you are the next time you meet.”

    Please tell me you did not just say that! You’re expecting a presumably famous author with a multitude of fans to actually remember you specifically the next time you show up at a book signing? What makes you such a Speshul Snowflake? While I’d certainly love it if, for example, Douglas Preston recognized me the next time I show up for one of his book signings (I’ve been to two already, and I always try to sit in the front row when he speaks), I’m not so convinced of my own Speshul Snowflakeness that I think he’s obligated to single me out for a hello just because I’m a faithful fan.

    I certainly hope I misunderstood what you said. If I did, I apologize. If I didn’t…tsk tsk!

  23. Thanks for the feedback, folks. I think it’s an interesting thing to chew over, because there are so few other cases in life with so much one-way exposure and communication. Theoretically, this might also apply to a popular local barista one sees regularly, but doesn’t otherwise have social contact with, but baristas aren’t also likely to be besieged with people treating them disrespectfully and thinking having chitchat over a business transaction equals friendship (though this sort of thing happens all the time to attractive young women in any profession.)

    That said, as also pointed out, I think there’s a certain amount of isolation involved in fame, especially when that comes with money. It could well be that a given fan and creator might, were they in different circumstances, be very good friends, but the unequal relationship inherent would always taint things. Creators must always wonder whether new friends like them primarily because of their work, fame or money. And since it’s virtually impossible to tell whether someone’s interest is genuine under those conditions, the only two options are keeping everyone at arm’s length or making more contact to test the waters at the risk of being used or exploited. And sadly, it’s not just fans who carry that risk. Anyone who has even the tiniest stake in one’s career can’t ever be trusted as a true friend. Being famous may theoretically widen one’s pool of potential friends due to greater exposure, but in reality, it actually cuts more people off because of the potential for ulterior motives. Bleh. (And this must really suck for anyone who thought that getting into a creative profession would win them more genuine attention.)

    I think I can honestly say that there are some creative folks I like as people (what I know of them, of course) and would like them even if their careers suddenly tanked, or if we woke up tomorrow and they were plumbers or accountants instead. But because there are thousands more people like me whose interest is based largely in their work or fame, there’s no way they could–or should–take the risk of picking out this one fan to have more contact with (even if they did know enough about me to pick me out of the crowd, and most of them don’t.)

    And it’s because I do like them, and have respect for their human needs that I wouldn’t ask them to do that, even if it is kind of sad that a potentially good friendship there could never happen. (It’s even more sad when it’s obvious that the person in question is having a rough time and could use a good friend. Having a random actor cry on my shoulder about his love life in a Twitter DM is kind of disconcerting, as well as frustrating.)

    I do wish fame weren’t like this. Creative people are often very sensitive souls, and it sucks that doing what they love inevitably changes how they have to deal with friendships and relationships. The best I can do as a fan, IMHO, is to recognize their humanity and appreciate it enough to understand their limitations where I’m concerned. Damn shame, I think, that more fans can’t or won’t do that because they place more importance on the career (and the perks thereof) than on the person doing it.

  24. I thought about going to The Con, as I’m in Toronto; not being a con-goer, and not being THAT interested in pestering you about “Why isn’t Redshirts on shelves yet? Why don’t you have 3 more OMW books out yet? Why don’t you have a Twilight/Modesitt/Stross mashup involving sparkly retired lobster commandos fighting Mormon time travellers yet?”, well, not gonna pester…

    You’re pretty lucky not to have hit anything freaky coming from fans. Although perhaps that’s not entirely luck, as this blog means you have some ongoing involvement, which hopefully cuts down on the creepier options.

    The “best” tale ever (from the whole “horror” perspective, where worst is best) was when someone threw a cup of warm vomit at Alan Dean Foster. I gather he’s quite a gentle man, from whence this sort of thing came as a total surprise.

    You’d expect angered fans to be looking for creative ways to torment, let’s say, a prickly character like Harlan Ellison, but not Foster.

    But there certainly is relevant difference. People that *want* to have some interaction with you can do so, and the Gentle Mallet of Correction provides some relevant feedback to show, at that level, what’s Rather Too Much. Feedback loops are a good thing in a lot more ways than one…

  25. John, I like your work and appreciate what you do and hope you keep doing it. In particular, Old Man’s War is one of my top fave sci-fi reads, and I can’t think of a reason it wouldn’t always remain so. : )

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