Why I don’t fan-boy (much) over The Hobbit or Trek

The other week Peter Jackson met fans in Wellington for a sneak part-preview of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Even Smaug was there – well, the pet lizard, Hermes, they used for mo-cap sequences, anyway.

I am a huge enthusiast for Tolkien and Jackson. But I didn’t don my magic elven cloak (the one that renders you invisible against green grass, green sky, green rocks and green water) and go along. I don’t cosplay. I don’t go to conventions. I don’t have a book filled with autographs from the Guy In The Red Shirt or the set-sweeper for Star Trek: The Original Series, who’s made a living from convention fees ever since.

Partly it’s because I’ve been at the receiving end to some extent. As an author I get approached every so often by strangers. Setting aside the odd incident in which a would-be author thinks I’ve written one of ‘their’ books, sees red, and barrels over to take a pop at me – which has actually happened – most of these people are friendly, but I never quite know what to say. I just do stuff. It involves a lot of hard work and doesn’t make me special.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...
Ordinary Kiwis at the Hobbit craft market, late 2012.

I think this is true of most writers. They are professionals whose job happens to be creating stuff –  who have normal lives and do their own supermarket shopping. Actually that’s true of the whole entertainment industry. A few years back She Who Must Be Obeyed and I lived a block or two from an actor who was known internationally. My wife knew his wife slightly, and we used to run into them in the local video store. They were totally normal, unassuming and nice people.

As far as I can tell, modern ‘fandom’ emerged in the 1920s on the sci-fi magazine boom. It took on life in the 1970s – largely fostered by Trek.  Back then it was seen as a symptom of maladjustment. ‘Trekkie’ became a perjorative, usually taken to mean socially inept nerds who couldn’t function in a normal world and relied on their obsession with somebody else’s fantasy to define their identities and social interactions.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'
I had to go prone to take this picture of Hobbit market stuff. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

It’s likely, I think, that a proportion of fans then did fit that category. But not many. Certainly I don’t think that characterises fandom these days. It’s been mainstreamed, commercialised, and evolved into a way for people to express their enthusiasms. (That’s another reason I don’t go to conventions – they’re so crowded you can’t get in the door).

So why do fans become ‘fans’? I think it’s an indication of the power that stories and settings have to evoke emotion. It’s a way of sharing that experience with others who think the same way. It’s an endorsement of the ability of writers, movie-makers and actors to create emotional transfer and capture an audience.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: the final NaNo prompts for 2013, more writing tips, and more.


10 thoughts on “Why I don’t fan-boy (much) over The Hobbit or Trek

  1. I think you give a good theory as to why people become fans, but something else that’s worth noting is that ‘fandom’ is changing the face of publishing as well. For example, I’ve noticed on more than one publishers’ websites (especially Indie publishers) that they state outright if authors aren’t willing to attend conventions (at their own cost) and interact with fans, etc., they’re not the right publishers for said authors. Being available to fans is becoming a job requirement for authors. Gone are the days where you could just lock yourself in your room and write. For us introverts, or guys like me who live 10 000km from the nearest convention, that poses a bit of a problem.

    1. It’s the ‘at your own cost’ aspect that’s the killer for this one. Returns on books are slender enough. Until recently, if a publisher wanted an author to do something promotionally, they’d cover the costs. I recall one ‘signing tour’ I did in which the publisher paid for the flights, hire car etc. But that doesn’t seem to be happening any more. Sign of a changing industry I think.

  2. “As an author I get approached every so often by strangers.”

    I’m an author as well. Never approached. Envious.

    I too am a huge fan of Tolkien, Jackson, Lucas, (superheroes, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.) Although I did become Clark Kent at a recent school activity (I’m a teacher), I remain, ever and always, Scott Summers (but Scott Summers is the name of an X-Man). I marvel in the stories, the charcaters, the writing, the words…the craft. These things impress me, not the capes.Besides, I don’t look good in tights.

    All the best.

    1. It’s not that great to be recognised! I’d way prefer to be anonymous. It happened again today – ran into someone I didn’t know (but who was known to the people I was with). ‘You’re the historian’, he said. I really didn’t know what to say. Always happens. Funny how I’m perceived; I view myself as a ‘writer’, but I guess most of my books being history – well, it creates an image, I guess, and people like to classify.

      For me the whole ‘superhero’ genre was given dimension by ‘Watchmen’, which has to be one of the most amazing pieces of genre literature ever written – and, justly, was on Time magazine’s top 100 novels of all time.

  3. I once shared an office with a producer who had a previous life as a well know character from Doctor Who. He would regularly be flown around the world to appear at conventions, take part in panel discussions, record DVD extras etc. It was weird to think that he commanded such a following decades after his appearance in the series and that some fans would hold him on a pedestal.

    It isn’t surprising though – for the reasons you have given. In my opinion sci fi ‘fans’ are no different to supporters of a sports club. It is mostly about their sense of identity and sense of belonging, and as you say, this is then controlled and commercialised.

    1. Yes, there’s a lot of the ‘sports club’ in fandom. Apropos your producer colleague – it’s indeed kind of weird to think that 30-odd years after appearing on that show, he could still draw an audience. And yet isn’t that an amazing endorsement of the power of ‘Who” to capture…now into its second and maybe third generation of audience. Just wonderful to think there’s a show that can do this, actually. What gets me is that it’s never been reinvented – it’s just pushed ahead with a linear storyline which to me says they got it pretty much right first off. I’ve been a fan since the Troughton years – and for all that I ‘diss’ bad science on TV, anything that can travel anywhere through time and space and is bigger on the inside than outside gets my vote! Wonderful blend of drama and whimsy.

  4. I think in many cases, characters are like real-life heroes. Ask a soldier who is awarded a medal of valor and they will tell you, “I was just doing my job.” People see what the character did as something they could never do so a idolization/fantasy is created to life vicariously through the character. By dressing up and portraying the character, the person can grasp a bit of that fantasy for themselves. There are several actors that I would love to reach out to and ask questions about their craft. But, I fear looking and sounding like a ‘fan’.

    1. Yes, you’re right – we often elevate the character that way. True of written fiction too – I’m thinking back to 1920s stories of ‘Bulldog Drummond’ and similar. I agree entirely about the difficulty of approaching anybody involved in a ‘non-fan’ way. And it would be interesting to know how some of these people approach the ‘craft’ of it. I think a lot of the stories they get asked to tell by fans simple don’t address this at all – they get questions about on-set trivia or narratives of how they got to do the job. The actual techniques and deeper side of what they’re doing doesn’t seem to surface.

  5. I tried going to Star Trek conventions a few times. After a while, i just got bored. It’s the same old vendors offering the same old kitsch (black holes for money). Cosplay struck me as a similar expense I couldn’t afford nor needed. The speakers were fun and interesting. All in all, I would’ve had more fun tossing a common football around. I guess I’m not cut out to be a trekker. Still, I would never miss a Star Trek movie nor a Hobbit movie. The stories and the visuals are too fantastic to pass up.

    1. I agree – the movies are the main experience. And the speakers can be interesting…but the rest – I guess it’s keying off our imaginations in a way but a lot of it is commercial. I’ve visited the Weta Cave a couple of times, which is filled with product associated with the various movies Jackson and his studios have made. Nice to look at, but if I wanted to spend $1000 on a ray gun (and yes, that was the price tag) I’d want it to actually work… 🙂

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