Of fans and geeks

El and Rachel Brown correctly surmised that the fan half of my question was inspired by the bruhaha about whether John Scalzi should be nominated for a fan writing Hugo or not.

For the record: yes, Scalzi should, and I hope he wins for all the reasons that have been described in great detail here, here and here. I’m also not comfortable with people telling other people that they are or aren’t “fans” or “geeks” or anything else. Those are the kind of labels you get to choose for yourself.

The geek half was inspired by my being asked to contribute a story to an anthology about geeks and geekery. My instant response was to say, “No.” Not just because I can’t write short stories, but because I couldn’t begin to think of a geeky story. (Plus no way am I biting the head off a chicken. Ewww.)

Also I was just curious about how you lot define those words. Part of what’s interesting in the great Is-Scalzi-a-Fan debate is that there were so many different definitions of what a “fan” is, which led to much talking at cross purposes. Seems thesame is true of “geek”. Veronica defined it the way I would, but Cecil defined it the way I would define “fan”.

A number of people take “fan” to mean someone who loves something uncritically. I can’t help but laugh at that when I think of the number of letters I’ve had from self-proclaimed Magic or Madness fans who tell me in minute detail the stuff they don’t like about the trilogy, just as much as the stuff they do. Clearly, these are slippery, slippery terms.

Thanks everyone for such fascinating responses.

So why do I call myself a fan but not a geek?

Let’s take the word “fan” first. I’m not a fan of science fiction, which may sound odd for someone who did a Phd on it, which became a book. To be honest the whole PhD thing was never a passion. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer, but as everyone knows there’s no money in that, so I went for an academic career to support my writing habit. The subject of my PhD was an accident. I’d read sf as a kid but I’d read lots of other things too and, honestly, I think the vast majority of sf (film, television or film) is on the nose. Many of the so-called classics of the genre like the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke or Star Trek or Blade Runner leave me cold.

It’s the world building that does it for me with science fiction, being transported to somewhere that is not like the world I know. I get that just as readily from books about places I’m unfamiliar with: Japanese crime books fascinate me; Australian ones not so much. I also get that button pressed by books from the past (Jane Austen, Tale of Genji,1 Elizabeth Gaskell, Miles Franklin et al) historicals, fantasy, westerns and so on. Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson create worlds that are almost completely alien to me. I adore their work.

I love the writings of Samuel R. Delany and Maureen McHugh and Ursula K. Le Guin. But I’m not convinced that it’s the science fictioness of their work that does it for me. I’m just as happy when they’re writing fantasy or memoirs or criticism or blogging or whatever else they choose to write. I love the way they string their words and sentences and paragraphs together. Yum.

If I were to be banned from reading one genre it would be less of a hardship for me if that genre were sf rather than fantasy or historicals. (Naturally, I exempt manga from all these categories.)

I’m also not a fan in the sense that Ulrika is talking about. That is I’m not a member of a community that came together around a love of science fiction in the late 1930s and is still going strong today. Or am I? I definitely feel like I’m a part of the WisCon community. For years I helped with the running of that particular science fiction convention. I was on the ConCom. Can you get much more fannish than that? And, like John Scalzi, I feel very much at home with many members of the science fiction community who definitely consider themselves to be fans.

However, I’ve never written fanfiction. So I’m not part of that thriving aspect of fandom. Nor do I read it. Though there are definitely books and stories I love, like The Wide Sargasso Sea, that are a kind of fanfiction—but the kind that plays around with out of copyright texts and thus gets to be published.

I’m happy to call myself a fan not just because of the WisCon thing, but because there are a lots of things I love. Elvis Presley’s voice. Cricket. Madeleine Vionnet and Hussein Chalayan’s clothes. The writing of way too many people to list here. I love Bring It On and Deadwood and Blue Murder and My Brilliant Career and ES and Nana and Osamu Tezuka and mangosteens and the food of countries like Spain and Mexico and Thailand and Japan and Italy and Ethiopia and the great wines of Australia and New Zealand and Argentina and South Africa and Italy and France and Spain and many other places.

I don’t think the word “fan” implies uncritical love. There are clothes of Vionnet and Chalayan’s that I think are naff, Cricket matches that bore me, Angela Carter books ditto, and Spanish food and French wine I’ve had to spit out.

So why aren’t I geek?

First up, the word is American and doesn’t have much resonance for me. I never heard it as a kid nor “nerd” neither. Not outside of a John Hughes movie. (That’s not true of younger Aussies.)

The people I know who are self-described nerds or geeks have passions for stuff that bores me. Video games, role-playing games, board games and the insides of computers. I have many friends who are into these things and, well, I am not like them in this regard. I do not know what “chaotic good” is, even though Scott’s explained it to me like a hundred times.

I’ve had flirtations with various computer games over the years, but my attention span for them is microscopic, and ulimately I’d much rather be reading a book.

Once I got into Go for about a year, to the extent that I was playing it with a bunch of Go fanatics on servers in Korea, and reading books on it. But it was largely research for a novel I was writing. When I finished writing the book my interest in playing Go lapsed. It’s still by far the best game I’ve ever played, but I doubt I’d even remember how anymore. I haven’t played since 1999.

Many of my geeky friends are also collectors.

I hate stuff. I spend a large chunk of my life recycling and throwing stuff out. I hate things that sit on the mantlepiece and serve no purpose other than to collect dust. I see no point in them. Nor in stuffed animals, or dolls, or collectable cards, or any of that. I love cricket but I have no desire for cricket stuff cluttering up my house and am endlessly giving away the cricket tat people give me (clothes excluded).

If I collect anything, it’s books, but I cull them ruthlessly and often. If I’m not going to reread it, or I’ve had it for more than a year without even cracking the spine and there seems little likelihood that I will, then out the book goes.

Also I have a terrible memory. Always have had. I can’t tell you what year Bring it On came out, or who directed it, or who all the actors are without looking it up. I have to read a book a billion times before I can remember any details about it and even then I’m pretty crap. I just did a test on Pride and Prejudice I don’t think I’ve read any book more times than that one. I got 5 out of 10. I would not be able to tell an original Vionnet gown from a knock off. I do not have the trainspotting gene.

So, yes to “fan” and to “enthusiast” (thanks, Bennett), no to “geek” or “nerd”. I’m also quite happy to be called a “dag”. Yes, I am also a “spaz”. (Though, Christopher, I say to you: Know thyself!) And “dilettante”? Oh, yes, that’s me. I have the attention span of a gnat.2

  1. I confess I have never finished The Tale of Genji despite repeated attempts. The bits I’ve read have been fabulous. It’s just that the book is so damned heavy and hard to read in bed. I know, I know . . . dilettante. []
  2. Except for blogging, apparently. Bugger but this was a long post . . . Sorry! []


  1. John Scalzi on #

    “I do not know what ‘chaotic good’ is, even though Scott’s explained it to me like a hundred times.”

    Cory Doctorow—and all things Cory Doctorow-ish—is a perfect example of “chaotic good.”

  2. Sir Tessa on #

    For me ‘fan’ has connotations of ‘fandom’, which is a minefield, and every fandom I’ve drifted by with mild interest has very quickly put me off getting involved in anyway. I think, to me, ‘fan’ implies activity within the fandom, instead of just sitting and enjoying quietly, which I what I do.

    ‘geek’ has connotations of…well, I don’t know exactly, but I know I don’t wear it.

    ‘nerd’ comes from being a nerd at school. Somewhat outcast, not really mainstream.

    ‘dag’ is a beautiful word and also applies perfectly.

    (I was about to type that as ‘perfically’. Ugh.)

  3. Justine on #

    Sir Tessa: Mmmm, yes, we are all dags. Dags rule!

    But what I’m hearing you saying is that you are not a fan because you do not join things or take part in communities. So really you’re saying that you’re a misanthropist. Yes, grumpy Sir Tessa?

  4. Rebecca on #

    nothing wrong with long posts. 😀

    dag just sounds….really dirty, to my american ears. dunno why. 😛

    i have called myself a fan, a geek, a nerd, a dork, and a variety of other things. i give myself all the labels, instead of just one! ha.

  5. Sir Tessa on #

    I’m a daggy misanthrope at that.

  6. Justine on #

    Rebecca: That’s the beauty of it . . . you get to call yourself whatever you want.

    There’s nothing dirty about dags. (Well, okay, if you’re thinking about the original meaning then, yes, there is, but let’s not go there, eh?)

    Sir Tessa: You are an adorable daggy misanthrope.

  7. Colleen on #

    It’s funny, but I never thought of “geek” as a derogatory term. My husband is an aviation geek, a business geek (he actually likes reading and writing contracts), a wood working geek and on and on. I thought geek just meant something you really liked and you enjoyed doing or learning about. (I would be an aviation history geek, a WWI geek, a polar exploration geek, etc.)

    I also wonder when being a fan meant being an excessive fan. In other words, I saw Star Wars (way back in 1977) in the theater and I was a Star Wars fan. Other than my brother having some models that he built and hung from the ceiling, we didn’t have any Star Wars “stuff” but we liked the movies so I thought that made us fans. Same goes for certain music, food, tv, etc. Aren’t you just a fan if you like something – do you have to be crazy and dress up in costumes and read everything ever written about it and learn to speak Klingon or something in order to be a fan?

    I think these words might have gotten mangled over the years or something. I mean really, how can referring to someone who has more than 10,000 Alaskan flight hours as an “aviation geek” be a bad thing? Not that I’m all worshipful of my husband or anything (perish the thought!) but he’s okay with the term geek – it just means he knows a lot of airplane shit and that’s okay.

    We are also fans of science fiction movies and Guns N Roses. I hope that doesn’t scare anyone – ha!

  8. Justine on #

    Colleen: I hope you don’t think I was implying there’s anything wrong with being either a geek or a fan. Absolutely not!

    You both sound like quintessential geeks. Of course, as I said, people use these terms in lots of different ways. The way I’ve mostly heard “geek” used does not describe my relatinship to stuff that I love. Fan or enthusiast or dag fits it better.

  9. Colleen on #

    Oh no Justine – I didn’t see any criticism, it’s just interesting to me how fan used to mean one thing and now seems to mean another and the same for geek.

    I will admit I’m a Star Trek fan – but don’t ask me to explain all that Klingon dictionary stuff.

    Now those people – they’re what….uber geeks?

    You could hurt your head trying to figure all this stuff out you know!!

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