Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why Readers Are Better than Fans

I like to read. A lot. Three of my favorite authors to read are Neal Stephenson, Tim Powers, and George R.R. Martin. (All are science-fiction/fantasy authors -- I am a geek at heart, and perhaps in face and social grace, as well.)

But I wouldn't call myself a fan of those authors. I call myself a reader.

The distinction between the two is significant, I think, and it's a good one to keep in mind if one plans to have a career in writing, in oratory, in the arts, in sports, or in politics, where fans happen. For instance, President Obama has fans, and thanks in part to them, he's now in the White House. If he hasn't yet, he will someday appreciate the difference between fans and supporters, and if he is wise, he will wish more for the latter than for the former.

It is good always to remember that fan is short for fanatic, and that longer term might be a fairly accurate one.

One of the better recent depictions of a fan in pop culture is brought to us by Brad Bird, the writer-director of The Incredibles. In the film, the chief villain, Syndrome, starts out as Mr. Incredible's "biggest fan," a boy eager to play to side-kick. As boy and as man, Syndrome has high expectations for Mr. Incredible, and waxes bipolar in fits of praise and condemnation for the man: He thinks Mr. Incredible did a great job beating his machines, and likes that the hero hid under the bones of another superhero, but Syndrome is scathing when it appears Mr. Incredible called for help, a move Syndrome sees as "weak." Stalking away, he proclaims, "I've outgrown you."

Bird is tapping into real fan behavior here, as it's something with which folks in the film industry are well-acquainted: the fan has wild, unpredictable mood swings. Make him happy, and he'll lick the bottoms of your shoes. Disappoint him, and he'll take an electric drill to your kneecap. But don't count on a middle ground: There isn't much of one. One of the most telling characteristics of a fan -- one of the best ways to tell him apart from a reader, supporter, or viewer -- is that he rarely if ever says, "Eh. It was okay." Either the heavens parted for him, or it's hellfire time.

I started thinking about this while checking up on one of the authors I mentioned earlier: George R.R. Martin. I'm fond of his "Songs of Ice and Fire" series, which features long, carefully plotted books, and long gaps of time between installments -- each novel appears to take twice as long to write as the one before it.

The next novel in his series, A Dance with Dragons, has been in production for quite a while, and has encountered several delays. This has ticked off his fans, who, like Syndrome, are loudly proclaiming, repeatedly, sometimes several times a day, that they are done with him (for a small taste test, see here, and here, and here). They have said some rather horrible things about the man, prompting some rather defensive posts on his Web site and on his blog, and in response to those posts, they've decided to take offense. Meanwhile, his readers (who are not the same as his fans) are patiently checking for updates, and when they see that the book isn't done yet, they move onto other things.

(An aside: If you've read any of Martin's series, here's an explanation for why each novel is taking longer to write, and why we should expect that trend to continue for the rest of the series. Simply put, it's easy to churn out sequels when one is writing to formula. I do not say this as a put-down to formula writing. Star Wars, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter all follow a formula that Joseph Campbell calls the "monomyth" -- a single story structure that is pretty easy to follow and remember. The skeleton of the story was written for them in old myths, ages ago. I love all of those stories, despite their adherence to formula. But Martin isn't writing that kind of story. Most monomyth stories follow a hero from common or humble backgrounds, who is called to adventure, trained by an elderly wizard or mentor, treated to some sort of "magical" flight, given a gift that will help him in his quest, and thrust at least temporarily into death's domain, only to return and win. Usually, there's a prophecy or oracle involved. Once an author has mastered that story pattern, he can write it forever, and hardly anyone ever notices that Morpheus, Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Obi-Wan are all basically doing the same job. If Martin were writing monomyth, he'd certainly be done by now. But he's not. Martin has dozens of characters, none of which can properly be called a "main" character. All of them are plotting and engaging in intrigues. With each novel, he adds some new faces, and takes away others, usually in bloody and permanent ways. Each book has hundreds of pages of tricky, scheming details, none of which are easy to remember because none of them follow an easily memorized, familiar pattern. Martin doesn't like old patterns. He wants his work to read more like history, like something as complicated as the real world. As a result, each time he writes a novel, he makes his back story more complicated. So the next novel has to take all of that stuff into consideration, and stay consistent with it. With each novel, this will get more difficult to do. I do not know whether Mr. Martin, as talented as he is, will be able to finish what he has started. I can't think of many authors who could at this point. Okay, this parenthetical is over. Back to my original point ...)

George R.R. Martin is discovering the difference between fans and readers, and is probably realizing that, although fans can really boost his royalties, it's the readers who keep him sane, and who seem to appreciate how monumentally difficult his job is to do well. His note, which ticked off fans and ignited a flood of support email from readers, might have seemed rash; perhaps it was. But if it drives away bipolar fanatics while keeping readers friendly (as it seems to be doing), then in the long run it's probably a healthy thing. That said, author Patrick Rothfuss, who seems to be having similar fan difficulties, might be better at eliciting reader sympathy than Mr. Martin is: His opening comic strip, at the top of a post about fandom, is priceless. (Interestingly, it makes a reference to Martin, and Martin has mentioned Rothfuss's comic in return.)

This brings me back to Obama -- and to my main point. Yes, I do have one. Here it is: President Obama has arrived in the White House largely due to fans. Not supporters. Not political alliances with people who've decided to tolerate him. Fans. (Yes, supporters, etc. exist, too. But they aren't where his muscle comes from at the moment.) Many of his former fans already are angry with him, and I suspect it's going to get worse -- because they're fans. They won't brook political compromise. They will have a hundred unrealistic expectations, and he won't meet them, because he's ... well, human, I suspect. He won't meet their timetables for getting things done, particularly when it comes to first-time-voting fans who mistakenly believe he's been President since his election in November.

The media keep talking about the prospects for Obama being assassinated by a racist with a rifle, and I'm sure the Secret Service thinks about that possibility a lot. They're paid to do so. But if the Secret Service are truly on the ball, they're also going to start to get tougher with the crowds of Obama fans at public events. If Obama Girl shows up, they're going to frisk her carefully, and ought to.

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