Posted by turmarion
Last time we looked at the rise of mass media and the resultant birth of pop culture as we know it. Over time, as even cheaper forms of print came into being (penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and pulps) and new media were developed (movies, radio, and television), there came into being the phenomenon we know as fandom.
“Fan”, of course, is originally an abbreviation of “fanatic”. A fan is fanatic about his favorite books, TV show, band, or whatever. The term originated in America in the late 19th Century–not surprising, since America at that time was rapidly becoming the epicenter for all the various media that made fans and fandom possible. “Fandom” appears around the same time, but is very rarely seen until the second half of the 20th Century, becoming more and more common from the 1970’s onward. “Fandom” is the subculture of fans of a given franchise, property, or other media entity. Such subculture includes, but is not limited to, networking among fans, fan clubs and societies of various sorts, fan-produced magazines (“‘zines”, often produced on the cheap with mimeograph machines in decades past), fan-written fiction (“fan fiction” or “fanfic”–with modern technology, fan films have become common, too), fan conventions (“cons”), cosplay, and various forums, discussion boards, and zones on the Internet.
Though the followers of The Sorrows of Young Werther, as we’ve seen, had some of the characteristics of a fandom, the first fandom in the fully modern sense of the term was probably that of the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle always had mixed feelings about his most famous creation, appreciative of the fame and money that resulted, but wishing to be known for what he thought were his more serious works. Tired of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle killed him off in the 1893 short story “The Final Solution”, famously having Holmes plunge to his death at Reichenbach Falls in combat with arch-nemesis Moriarty.
Somewhat to Doyle’s surprise, fans staged demonstrations of mourning in public, and began agitating for more stories about their favorite character. After eight years of increasing demands from the fans, Doyle finally caved in, publishing The Hound of the Baskervilles in serial form between 1901 and 1902. Even then, Doyle explained this in terms of internal continuity as a remembrance of Watson of an earlier case. Holmes–or so Doyle insisted–was still “dead”. Even that didn’t work very long. Thus, in 1903, in the story “The Adventure of the Empty House”, Holmes turned up alive, explaining that he had actually survived, having gone into hiding thereafter until it was safe for him to reveal himself to Watson and re-enter public life openly. Doyle continued to write Holmes stories for most of the rest of his life. Such was the power of fandom!
Sherlock Holmes fandom has continued to exist to the present day. At the present time, however, “fandom” has a strong connotation of science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction fandom came into being in the 1930’s during the pulp era. The science fiction pulp magazines had letters columns, which became forums in which fans could discuss, critique, and interact with each other, despite being far separated in where they lived. This lead to exchanges of letters directly between fans and authors and ultimately to the World Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939. The World Science Fiction Convention–better known as Worldcon–has met yearly ever since, except during World War II. It has been one of the major forces in science fiction fandom, and the template for the convention scene. Gradually, conventions–“cons”–on every conceivable science fiction, fantasy, or other pop-culture area, have proliferated and become more and more mainstream in American life.
I think there are some interrelated reasons for this. Throughout the 70’s, the main vehicle for science fiction and fantasy was literature. With some exceptions, movies tended to be shlocky, Buck Rogers-style sci-fi (I deliberately use that term, considered by fans to be derogatory, instead of the respectable “sf”), and there were no really successful science fiction television series for decades (recall that even Star Trek lasted a mere three seasons, and gained its influence initially as an underground, cult phenomenon). Further, without the technology to view and review videos at home–this was before VHS and DVD–discussion and analysis of film and TV was difficult if not impossible for the average fan. Star Trek conventions were a thing in the 70’s, of course; but by and large, the convention scene was more focused on fans meeting authors, authors and others giving talks, panel discussions, and so forth. Thus, the principle medium of fandom was still the written word.
Gradually, beginning in the 80’s, things began to change. The enormous success of the Star Wars franchise, coupled with the drop in complexity and price for special effects produced by increasingly sophisticated computers, resulted in a flood of science fiction movies on the big screen. Their quality varied, but generally they were a notch above the serials of yore. Meanwhile, successful science fiction series started appearing on TV for the first time, with Star Trek: The Next Generation most prominent among them. With proof of the viability of science fiction and fantasy series, the number of such shows has increased ever since, and up to the present science fiction and fantasy remain a major component of TV, as well as of big-screen cinema.
Technology played a big role in all of this, too. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the introduction of devices that allowed us to re-watch movies and TV shows indefinitely altered our viewing habits and our relationship with pop culture. Home video tape machines, in both the Beta and VHS formats, arrived in the 80’s, allowing us to own our favorite movies and tape what was on TV. DVD’s, introduced in the 90’s, being more compact, allowed us to own entire seasons of our favorite TV shows. The Internet, which transformed from a relatively niche platform for universities and government into a part of almost everyone’s daily life, made possible fan forums and discussion in a way that pulp-magazine letter columns never could. It also provided a home for fan written fiction (fanfic), websites devoted to every possible fandom, easy publicizing of the increasingly larger number of cons, and, with the advent of streaming, an ever greater access to movies and TV series. From a relatively under-the-radar cult phenomenon, fandom and fan cons had become an integral part of mainstream society and culture. Practically all cities of any size (and even some relatively small towns) now have yearly cons of various sorts and various sizes. Cosplay has gone from being associated with the most hardcore and eccentric fans to a perfectly mainstream activity. Fandom is no longer a fringe part of our culture–rather, these days, it seems that everyone’s a fan of some sort.
I have referred before to “lifestyle fantasy“. This is the phenomenon of people actually living out their favorite science fiction or fantasy stories to the extent possible in the real world. This is manifested in various forms and to different degrees, and includes, but is not limited to, cosplay, live action role-playing (LARPing), making the writing of fanfic and attendance at cons a central part of one’s life, joining organizations such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, attending Renaissance Faires, and in some cases, structuring one’s life in such a way that one can dress, speak, and behave in accordance with one’s fan preferences in everyday life. In the days of Goethe, lifestyle fantasy was possible, or even desirable, to only a few. The first burst of lifestyle fantasy,”Werther fever”, was seen by the arbiters of cultures as an anomaly. Throughout most of the following two centuries, fandom and lifestyle fantasy, to the extent that anyone outside them noticed them at all, continued to be viewed as aberrations, at best weird appendages of pop culture. With the changes in technology and the mainstreaming of fandom and fan culture, lifestyle fantasy, while still not quite the norm, is a much bigger and more accepted part of life in the 21st Century than it ever was before. The number of people who, while not quite lifestyle fantasists themselves, are still deeply involved in fandom–“fellow travelers”, one might say–is much bigger, probably in the millions or even tens of millions. For many fans, be they lifestyle fantasists in the strict sense or just hardcore fans, fandom and fan life is more than just an avocation or hobby. It’s a major, perhaps defining, part of their lives. It’s almost like a religion; and that’s what we’ll talk about next time.
Part of the series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“
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