Reader Request Week #7: Unruly Fans

Kenneth B asks:

Have your experiences with SF Fandom been mostly positive? Negative? Some mix of the two?

The question was prompted by my recent re-reading of Harlan Ellison’s essay “Xenogenesis,” wherein he describes some of the indignities he and other SF writers have suffered at the hands of fans. (The worst anecdote: a fan throwing a cup of vomit in Alan Dean Foster’s face). Just today I was reading some of Robert Heinlein’s letters and came across this passage in a letter to his agent in re being invited to be a guest of honor at a 1959 convention:

“…while it is an honor of sorts and good publicity, science fiction fans in crowd lots can be pretty poisonous. I was guest of honor once before and, on that occasion, there were present a small group who specialized in whittling people down to size. There were so rude that I did not enjoy it.”

I’ve never been to an SF convention, and, given the horror stories I’ve heard writers tell about cons, I’m pretty ambivalent about ever going to one. Just wondering what your experience has been.

My personal experiences with fandom has been pretty positive, I have to say. I’ve been going to conventions since 2003 (when I attended Torcon 3) and in recent years I’ve averaged about six a year, with half of those being when I’m in a guest of honor slot or equivalent. In those eight years I have yet to have any fan (or any pro, for that matter) do anything untoward to me. No one’s thrown a cup of vomit on me, stiffed me on a dinner, or verbally abused me in any significant fashion.

Indeed, quite the opposite: People have brought me fan art, and gifts (many but thankfully not all relating to bacon) and it does seem wherever I go there are spontaneously appearing bottles of Coke Zero, the memory of which I, in my current state of Lenten* deprivation, particularly cherish at the moment. And I have had many excellent conversations with fans, with or without vast amounts of snark involved. Fans at conventions seem glad to see me in a general sense, for which I am appreciative. There have been some who have been unintentionally clueless, but I’ve met unintentionally clueless people outside of fandom as well, so that’s pretty much a wash.

Also, I don’t know. I know a lot of people in fandom whose primary relationship to me is not that they are a “fan” but that they’re friends, because they’re smart and interesting people who share a significant subset of the things I enjoy, and so why wouldn’t I like them as people? The fan/pro construct in science fiction is one I don’t actually have much time for, to be blunt about it. I’ve met too many people I really like to subscribe to anything approaching an “us and them” mentality when it comes to fandom.

This is not to say “oh, everybody loves me,” or that I haven’t occasionally shown my ass in a fan uproar. Some people don’t like me; I have indeed shown my ass. But the people who don’t like me don’t seem to lurk about at the conventions I attend, waiting for me to show a moment of weakness before they spring into action, cup of vile liquid in hand. I leave to others to speculate why that may be so; I’m just glad they don’t.

Nor do I worry that such an action is coming. Eight years and a few dozen convention attendances is enough to know that the vast majority of fans are not the sort to be unmitigated assholes. They’re at a convention to have fun; if you’re a writer at a convention, most of them want you to have fun, too. I’ve not read the Ellison essay referenced and therefore don’t want to gainsay his experience or likewise minimize the fact the people have done dickish things to authors. Some people really are pricks. But in my experience, at least, this is not anything close to standard practice. Maybe times have changed.

In any event, if the reason you’re not attending a convention is that you’re worried about roving bands of People Being Appalling, I’d say not to worry about it too much. Go and have a good time. It’s what I do.


46 Comments on “Reader Request Week #7: Unruly Fans”

  1. Note:

    The name “Harlan Ellison” hath been invoked, which inspires some to paroxysms of spittle flinging. I say unto thee, avoidest thou the making of cheap and easy shots upon him, which will serve only to prove the accuracy of his essay, and degrade the discourse of the thread.

    Lo, I have spoken, and verily I raiseth the Mallet of Loving Correction, for smiting.

  2. Threw vomit??? Hadn’t heard about that one. Jebus farking cheese…. I just… Wow.

  3. The Foster vomit incident has always freaked me out quite a bit. I can’t fathom how he could have ticked off some proto-Star Wars uberfan or such to the point of making someone think to do such a thing.

    In part, this comes as a proper undermining of the whole “Good Ol’ Days” thing; one might kind of expect such things to happen in these modern days when kids have gotten so disrespectful of their elders, but no one ever used to, erm, oops.

    It fits in somewhat, though, with the furore over William Shatner’s “Get a life” speech. The “Trekkie fandom” phenomenon seemed to kick off a whole craze where it was acceptable to go dramatically over the top. Not that this was new, either. Women screaming and otherwise “going mental” about the Beatles was seen earlier still.

    It still seems to fit pretty well with “Get a life!”…

  4. I haven’t been to any large conventions, but I was recently at a small event featuring George R R Martin. In general, it was very informal, cozy and enjoyable, were it not for one person at a Q&A that asked an abominably rude question. There was some nervous laughter from the crowd and a long pause from Mr Martin as he gathered his thoughts for a reply that wouldn’t contain numerous F-Bombs (I certainly would have used a few). I don’t know if the questioner was really a thoughtless prick or just clueless about how offensive/inappropriate his question was. The experience certainly hasn’t soured me to attending other events or larger cons, but it is certainly one I won’t forget.

  5. Another point: I’ve seen a number of people talking about ‘The Greying of Fandom’. The claim is that the average fan these days is in their 30s or older, not predominantly high school/college age like they evidently were up until, oh, probably the late 70s or so. And, the older people get, the more likely they are to get some clue as to how to behave in public. So it is quite possible that conventions today are much more congenial than they were back in Heinlein’s day.

  6. I suggest proto-Star Wars uberfan because Foster was responsible for novelizations of the tales. I can imagine someone getting overwraught over some perceived abuse of the True Story. And Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which now doesn’t fit very well into Lucas’ universe. But that surely wasn’t obvious to the point of being “vomit-worthy” back then…

    Actually, that makes less sense than it being a Star Trek uberfan ticked off over the novellas for the animated series.

  7. Actually, point of fact, I suspect one or two people might look down upon Scalzi (or anyone else) for not dressing up. I’m sure he’s one handsome dude, however, while some of the things worn at cons have become skimpy in recent years, possibly due to anime influences, some dressing up is still expected. Health codes and other legalities require it.

  8. If I remember correctly, somewhere near “Xenogenesis” in The Essential Ellison is an essay by Ellison listing some of the hilarious things he’s done to people who pissed him off, things like IIaRC mailing someone a dead gopher. The placement of that essay wrt “Xenogenesis” was imo a work of art.

  9. What an interesting response. In the past, I’ve been adamant that I would never attend a con, for fear of “scary people,” for whatever value of “scary” you want to apply…I don’t think I really knew myself. In the past ten years, I think I’ve moderated my viewpoint to “I don’t think I’d be comfortable going to one,” mostly because I’m still somewhat closeted as a sci-fi fan…I don’t like the idea of a business associate, or, I don’t know, my high-school English teacher, somehow finding out I went to a con. I’ve heard too many stories of people having a really good time at SDCC, or PAX, or smaller local cons, though, and I think I’m going to eventually have to man up and just go to one.

  10. That fans are older, and therefore are “better behaved”, is a possibility (though if true, alarming for the long-term future of fandom).

    Perhaps, though, there’s some selective memory at play, too. Understandably, too–one cup of vomit is probably far more memorable than thousands of eager-eyed but respectful fen.

  11. tim @6: Having been to many SF cons in my wayward youth, I have to dispute that it’s an age thing. Anecdatally, in my wayward youth I encountered no shortage at all of middle-aged and older folks who felt that their many years in fandom meant that they had moral authority to treat the young’uns like crap, and of course there were plenty of what the kids these days call “creepers”, differing only from the non-fan variety of creeper only in their tendency to blather about line marriage.

    There’s a type of person who is socially awkward and/or damaged who is attracted to SF/F. I don’t think that they’re the norm, and one of the things it’s easy to miss in “Xenogenesis” is that the incidents described are notable for their horrific and repeated nature – but not for their frequency. It’s not as though every single fan is an asshat. And of course given group dynamics, and particularly geek group dynamics, the community is not very competent at policing itself.

  12. One thing to remember about Ellison’s Xenogenesis column is that all of the stories started off talking about how great 99+% of the fans are. And then they launch into a story about the < 1% crowd.

  13. I now want to order “I have never thrown vomit at Scalzi” ribbons for Penguicon…

  14. James Davis Nicoll: If I remember correctly, the gent the gopher (and the recipe for Dead Gopher Stew) was sent to was the comptroller of a publisher that had refused to pay for material they had already accepted and published after multiple attempts to get payment were ignored. Under those circumstances I’d be tempted to send annoying through myself.

  15. Take one convention weekend and instead, attend a paintball tournament. I guarantee, “vomit in a cup” will no longer be an issue.

    Interestingly, I began my con-attending in the mid 70s with Trek cons and quickly moved from there to “real” SF conventions. My regular con-attending days ended in the late 80s (though I did manage one every year or so between then and now).

    My experience was (and of course YMMV-widely) – there was more social awkwardness, immaturity and inappropriate behavior displayed at the trek and ‘commercial’ cons than at the real deal. I had a chance to see most of the worst as I usually volunteered to work conventions and, more often than not, ended up on security details.

    (What’s that sound? Sword fight in the hallway. OMG! What should we do? Nothing. Nothing? Nah, they both know what they’re doing.) I attended cons during the era when weapons did not have to be checked at the door.

    My experience has also been that when a con has a very good, experienced staff, rudeness and inappropriate behaviors are quickly, quietly and efficiently handled.

    But you get what you get at a con. Find one where you like the atmosphere and the regulars (usually most of the staff) and you’ll find a nice home-away-from-home you’ll be wanting to go back to frequently.

  16. I’m going to share a story that makes me sound bad. I’ve gone to a number of conventions & generally managed to keep my squealing silliness contained. About a year ago I was in the Dayton airport & there was a guy who from my vague recollection of book jackets looked like John Scalzi. I got as far as checking twitter on my phone* before going “this is so incredibly creepy, don’t be this person”. I’m glad I had that thought because, really, who wants to be pestered in the airport? At least I’m not as bad as my friend who started bawling uncontrollably when she met Neil Gaiman.

    *free wi-fi is about the only amenity of interest in that airport.

  17. I tried google with no success. What does the phrase “shown my ass” mean in this entry?

  18. @ 20

    Alternatively, John does actually have pants that do not fit well anymore.

  19. Nope, no cheap shots upon the personage of Mr. Ellison, I kinda like the guy. However, having witnessed some of his behavior at a couple of Southern Cal cons lo these many years ago, I dast say that he *may* have had it coming.
    On a tangental note: John, I have always considered you perfect for reviving “The Glass Teat”. Oh, boy, that would be a fun read!

  20. I’ve been to a number of conventions — Arisia, Lunacon, Disclave — and found that people are mostly quite friendly, through frequently in a somewhat socially-unskilled fashion. Just about anyone is willing to discuss a book, movie, or game they love with total strangers, and the larger cons have orientations for people who are attending their first con.

    An awful lot of people with Asperger’s Syndrome are drawn to science fiction, so we do have a fairly high number of people who are willing to drone on an on, without realizing that they’re boring people. But in my experience, that’s about as bad as it gets. Beats the hell out of a cup of vomit, any day. :-)

  21. I would be curious as to the influence of blogs and the presence of authors on the internet in regards to this issue.

  22. @bigcat39 — It’s been a while since I read the essay (it’s almost physically painful) but I seem to recall that most or all of the incidents Ellison described were things that had happened to other authors, not to him.

  23. In the world and regional cons I have attended, I have not seen an incident of a fan being rude to an author. I have seen multiple instances of rudeness on the part of an author who must not be named.

  24. I’ve been fortunate enough to have gone to 2 Worldcons – 1988 and 1989 (New Orleans and Boston). I can’t think of any reason not to go to one (if you can afford it)! I had a wonderful time. I met several authors, and my only regret is not going to any since. I don’t recall any bad incidents. This of course was several years before the Internet was widely used…if only I had known what was coming!

  25. “People have brought me fan art, and gifts (many but thankfully not all relating to bacon),”

    Okay, I have created a new resolution. One day I will:

    *bring you a banana dacquiri (in a Pat O’s glass)
    *bring Terry Pratchett a panda
    *bring Neil Gaiman a moonpie
    *bring Wil Wheaton some (imitation) bacon

    You guys will all get to enjoy what’s usually some other author’s swag, just for the sake of variety. I hope you like banana!

  26. i would theorize that the internet has a lot to do with modern conventions having more of a fun and friendly atmosphere. before, if you were a fan of something and had controversial or trollish ideas the best place to share those with others would be at a convention, but nowadays it’s much easier to use the internet as an outlet

    also, with a lot of authors and celebrities having blogs and these open dialogues, fans feel more like they are real people who you could be friends with, and not just some nebulous famous-person entity

  27. I’m not sure that fandom is ‘greying’ as much as the greying parts of fandom seem to have trouble considering Kids These Days With Their Anime and Their Joss Whedon TV Shows and Harry Potter Fanfiction as part of what they consider ‘fandom’.

  28. Fans do behave badly, but…

    The Westercon that triggered Harlan to write “Xenogenesis” didn’t quite play out the way he described it. Patty Wells, the chairman of this year’s Worldcon (Renovation, the 69th Worldcon) was working ops there (her first convention), so she experienced it up-close-and-personal, as did my husband who attended the con.

    While, yes, there were fire alarms and evacuations, they weren’t triggered by a fan, a convention member or even a hotel guest. Someone from outside the con and outside the hotel kept trying to get in to parties and being ejected by party hosts and con security. Hotel security kept letting him back in to the hotel. Eventually he got so pissed about being denied his booze he pulled a smoke detector out of the ceiling. This triggered an alarm. An attendee heard the alarm and pulled one of the fire alarm handles (no, not the brightest thing to do when you don’t see evidence of a fire) which escalated the call in the alarm system. As it turns out, there was a failure in the alarm system (two pulls should have triggered a full building alarm, not just on some floors) and an actual fire in the fire suppression system (you can’t make this shit up!) so nobody was charged a false alarm call. The hotel behaved pretty badly, not just in not handling their security problem, but also harassing convention attendees (including a few pros, ask Diana Paxson about it some time) during the evacuation and the clean-up afterwards.

  29. While it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a con, I really have to say I’ve got nothing but fond memories and a good handful of amusing stories from the experiences. I also met many folks who I went on to become close friends with, alongside a few authors who were some of the most entertaining and interesting folks I’ve encountered — David Brin enthusiastically pointing out that his then nascent male pattern baldness was the scientifically proven consequence of high levels of testosterone comes to mind.

    Never once did I encounter a situation where fans were anything other than exceedingly polite, and there were plenty of times where guests engaged gregariously with us into the wee hours of the morning, often as not in conversations that had nothing to do with their professional works. Mind you, this was also back in the days when there were at most three or four hundred folks coming through the doors over the entire weekend, and the late night crowd never exceeded a few dozen.

    But even in those bygone days, everyone had stories about Harlan…

  30. I’ve attended both regular and fandom-specific cons. The best time I ever had was at The Witching Hour, a Harry Potter con/symposium in Salem a few years ago – congenial people, I made some new friends, and generally had a blast. Worst time was at a Boskone in the early 1980s where my then-boyfriend was called on his really bad behavior toward others, too many people jammed into a room, and a guy who was stoned out of his gourd showed up with his pet rat (also stoned).

    And the weirdest time I ever had was when a woman at a Star Trek convention first told me she was a bigot and hated non-whites (which made me wonder why the hell she was at a Trek convention), then told me she was a born again Christian and wanted someone to write a story where Mr. Spock became born again.


  31. For the timid, let me supply a different perspective. I finally realized that though I often have fun at conventions, I don’t enjoy conventions, I just manage to grab some fun in the middle of them, usually by getting away from them. It’s partly crowd and noise, partly the sense of being publicly on (same reason I prefer large cities to small towns; I would love to be invisible). The Aspergery fannish personality grates on me very strongly in person, and I seem to be one of those oddball writers who only likes to see some other writers some of the time. So conventions are work, and when I have to, I go to conventions when someone twists my arm hard enough, and put on my Work Face and my Be Nice In Public Face and do my damnedest to keep them on, and hide in my room or in interesting side conversations somewhere off the premises when I have to, which is maybe 1/3 of waking time.

    SO I shouldn’t go to conventions, much, and should go only to smaller ones when I can.

    But I’ve never met a scary fan, and only occasionally a rude one. The ones who like my work have been pleasant and gracious, and so have the ones who didn’t (sometimes they’ve been almost excessively polite; really, folks, it’s okay to tell me that you’re not keen on brutal sexual violence. I can accept that not everyone is). In fact the fans are often more fun to hang out with than the writers, because they’re a more diverse lot (fulltime writers lead mostly dull lives, largely made up of sitting and typing; many people in fandom do something or other fascinating as a job or a hobby).

    A few times I’ve been on a panel where someone hostile turned up, and I was the focus of the hostility. I’m an old ex-professor, and I’d say the frequency and intensity of hostile undergrads was an order of magnitude higher; certainly I never ran into anything I couldn’t defuse or handle. I guess if you’re very easily intimidated or have a phobic reaction to the idea of being on the public spot with a hostile person talking to you, that might be something to worry about, but again … phhht. I can count the number of times that’s happened, and I went to my first convention in high school. (There was an extra seat in Moses’s chariot and I wasn’t doing anything else that weekend. Harlan Ellison was the GoH). And thinking back over a career …. meh. Six times I can remember someone being unpleasant to me from the floor when I was on a panel.

    If you like crowds and noise and unusual conversations, if the convention fans you know from online seem like people you’d like to meet in person, I’d say you might as well go. Chances are you’ll have a good time. If you have my reactions to things, well, then, not so much. But as a factor in your decision process, the scariness of fans and conventions should be about zero. It’s not my thing, but it’s safe and about as courteous as anywhere else.

  32. My personal experience with you, John, is that your are a mainly amiable, trouble-defusing sort.

    My personal experience with Harlan — who was never but tolerant, polite, supportive, and kind to me — is that he has a combative, take-no-prisoners streak.

    You are alike in that both of you are committed, professional craftsman and seem each to be vigorously loyal to your respective friends.

    Others’ mileage may differ, yet that’s my take, on my admittedly limited, at-hand interaction with each of you.


  33. My experiences at cons have been far more mixed, I’m afraid, which is the main reason when I attend one I make certain my badge is not front and center, name out.

    I’ve seen fans stand around Dan Simmons, who was at a party trying to have a personal conversation, waiting for a split second when they could intrude and ask for an autograph.

    I’ve been in private conversations with Harlan a number of times and had fans approach, wanting an autograph. In each instance, Harlan has politely suggested the time he would be available for signing, and told the fan he’d be happy to chat with him/her then. Message not received. In the couple of cases I’m thinking of, the fan then stood near us, attempting to listen to our conversation until one of us, each time, suggested he remove himself from our vicinity.

    On a personal level, if I have my name badge out, I’m invariably pitched by unpublished or (so they believe) under-published authors, presumably too green to realize that we’re but a small press, and not their key to fame and fortune. If that’s not the case, I’m given advice on what we’re doing wrong as a press, and who we should be publishing.

    Still, I go, because I get to hang out with friends like John, and Doselle Young, and meet interesting newer writers like Griffin. It’s a trade off, and laying this out may make me seem like an incorrigible asshole, but there you go.



  34. I read Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin’s blog and they seem to get quite a bit of nasty comments from fans. They basically both said it only takes 1 bad fan experience to ruin your week. George actually wrote that someone said “you better not die like Robert Jordan”. That is pathetic, especially since they were friends. Why throw that in his face?

    They ran into the problem of, writing books that people got really attached to, then taking a long time on the next book. So some of the crazy fanboys got mad that they did not get the book they feel they are entitled to. If GRRM wanted to maximize his profit he could have finished the series already with mediocre books and just banked the money.

    I listened to an interview with Jim Butcher. His Dresden books were turned into a failed series on Sci-Fi. Some of his fans got mad that he allowed Sci-Fi to butcher his books. His response was, I support myself with my writing and that series is paying for my daughters education. I can identify with that. He is running a business and has bills to pay. You might get a similiar response if Old Mans War turns out to be a bad movie.

    I have a hunch that Romance writers might get it to the worst. Imagine how angry women will get if their great romantic hero gets killed off or something. The horror.

  35. I have a hunch that Romance writers might get it to the worst. Imagine how angry women will get if their great romantic hero gets killed off or something. The horror.

    “You murdered my Misery!”

  36. Imagine how angry women will get if their great romantic hero gets killed off or something. The horror.

    Didn’t Stephen King write a novel along those lines … ?

    I think Neil Gaiman might’ve written the most memorable and concise rebuttal to the Martin fans’ sense of entitlement.

  37. @John
    Your comment’s avatar reminds me of Tinkle from Zelda Windwaker, so you could try dressing up as him for a Con sometime. Just add glitter. :)

    That blog post is excellent, and I think Martin and Rothfuss should take advantage to redirect their whiny fans to it.

    I’ve been to 3 cons, one local SF/F one that was more geared for aspiring writers (which I’m not.) But everyone there was extremely polite.
    The other two were Blizzcons, and the fans were surprisingly congenial considering how bad chat can get in World of Warcraft. I think it’s because it was structured so that there was always so much to do that you barely had time to purchase a beverage let alone waste time causing a ruccus.

  38. I’ve met Harlan Ellison once and once only, in San Francisco so long ago that I am now uncertain of the year. He didn’t chew the furniture, he didn’t obviously abuse anyone whilst I was in his company and came across as a perfect gentleman. The fact that I recognised him and asked politely for a moment of his time did not appear to cause any adverse reaction either. Maybe I caught him on a bad day, who knows?

  39. Perhaps there has been a real change in cons, or perhaps in US cons. They used to be a common place for fans and authors to actually interact and speak with each other, not a place where authors/publishers became unhappy with fans attempting to interact. One of my nicest experiences ever was how sweet and engaging John Brunner was, as he spoke to lots of fans/strangers at Seacon. I’m still relatively shy and yet I find that authors at Eastercon are happy to talk to/ chat with fans/readers/strangers.

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