More and more these days, I find myself aware of ‘fandoms’. Whereas when I was growing up, I would think of a ‘fan’ as being someone who follows a sports team or a band or a particular kind of music, the world of social media seems to have made it a lot easier to construct a community. These days, we see fandoms building up around books, films and TV series. You name it, there is probably a fandom about it. One of my favourite things about this is the plethora of beautiful fan-art that springs up – even books that don’t come with illustrations can get the fandom treatment, making Pinterest and Deviantart a real playground for those wanting to share different interpretations of their favourite characters. Yet, at the same time, I often find myself feeling an outsider to a lot of these communities, that I am not committed to enough to a particular cause to truly qualify as part of the core fanbase.
The first literary ‘fan club’ honoured Sherlock Holmes – The Baker Street Irregulars – and dates from 1934. What is interesting is how fans continue to celebrate Mr Holmes, with the recent BBC modernised adaptation even playing on this with John’s blog. On the show, many of the online following met up during the period when he was supposedly dead to discuss theories about his supposed survival – just as the real-world fans were. From the 1960s and 70s though, fandoms really started to take off, one of the most notable being related to Star Trek, which managed to resurrect a comparatively short-lived television series and transform it into a massive franchise which continues to dominate. With Star Trek though, we have the beginnings of that exclusive community – I was terrified of the series as a child after seeing the blonde one sucked into the black lagoon, but when I started showing an interest in Voyager when I was nine, a classmate told me severely that I was not a ‘Trekkie’ and so I should stay away.
Yet, not long after this, I read Harry Potter for the first time, being one of the fans who very much got in at the basement before any of the hype really took off. I loved the books, really, really loved them. But I also loved other books, so being told by schoolmates that I was ‘obsessed’ by Harry Potter always felt unfair. It wasn’t the only book I read. Being given a Harry Potter calendar for my birthday and a strange hand-made Harry Potter cushion for Christmas was also disappointing – yes, I loved the books, but that didn’t mean that I automatically wanted the merchandise, most of which was based on the illustrations for the American edition, imagery which was not to my personal taste. I felt forced into a fandom and I wanted out. I remember the relief when I was finally able to ditch the cushion. Maybe I’m reading too much into this; these days, I do still have Potter-themed bookmarks, the illustrated editions of the first two books and a Pinterest board where I collect fan art that I happen to think is nice. It made me happy to notice the flurries of Fantastic Beasts related fan art which blossomed over the Internet after the film’s release – I am glad that the Wizarding World has inspired such beauty. Fandoms exist to help people find common ground and I can see why Harry Potter, which celebrates tolerance and embraces difference, has become such a popular fandom ‘destination’. There are also rich avenues of back story which allow for a lot of creative freedom in terms of fan-fiction. If you want escapism, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will see you right. But it’s just that I did my escapism with the books and I didn’t necessarily want any of the extras. My participation had been over-estimated and just because someone is a fan of something, doesn’t mean that they necessarily want all of the tat associated with it.
There’s a reason though why so many of the fandoms are centred around young adults though – it’s a point in your life when you’re trying to figure out what sort of a person you’re going to be. There were television shows about finding the ‘Britain’s Biggest Harry Potter Fan’ which featured young people with bedrooms festooned with the posters and the ornaments and the flags and all of the other things that I had no interest in possessing but which these people clearly used as identity markers. And this annoyed me, because I still felt that I loved the books more than they did – I just didn’t want their stuff. Did it really make me a lesser fan? It was odd to me that something that felt so personal to me could be co-opted in such a different fashion. I papered my teenage bedroom with posters of animals and figures from history who I thought were cool. I was definitely a geek but my attention was spread far more widely. If you’re in the Hunger Games fandom, are you allowed to still be a Divergent fan? Does Twilight preclude Harry Potter? I think of the little One-Directioners with their posters and their hoodies and their calls to a helpline to help them deal with the stress of the band being on hiatus – does being a Directioner give them a sense of security somehow? Other than Girl Guiding, I have never really been part of a ‘group’ – does my habit of flitting from one thing to another mean that I have missed out on some sense of community?
Yet, for all that, I am still baffled by some of the attitudes. It’s only in the past few years that I have started reading Neil Gaiman because again, it was made clear to me that I was Not Welcome. In my third year at university, I lived with two girls who were both big Doctor Who fans, attended Comic-Con and made it clear that I was not part of their community. Eyebrows were raised if I read Discworld, and although I was allowed Harry Potter, generally speaking it was clear that they did not think me fit for fantasy literature. When I expressed an interest in Neil Gaiman, one of them told me firmly that he wouldn’t be my thing and that I was unlikely to be a fan. I trace this back to the fact that when she lent me her copy of Twilight, I couldn’t get over how bad the writing was. I think she took the thing with a heavy pinch of salt too but I can see now that I was insensitive in my mockery of something which she had enj0yed. I had failed to appreciate Twilight, therefore I was not to be allowed near Neil Gaiman. It’s a strange thing because at this remove, I wonder why I took this directive so seriously – I was often made to feel like the spare part in that house share though and I rather pathetically wanted to please, so perhaps I was a little too willing to remain within the box that they had put me in. Yet, this sense in which I was shut out by a fandom which I have now come to enjoy has lingered – if geek culture is supposed to embrace those who have felt excluded by the mainstream, is it not slightly hypocritical that it too shuts out those it deems unworthy?
What I don’t like is the sense of having to do something to be a ‘true’ fan. Occasionally, someone will talk about being a bookaholic and I have caught myself silently thinking that they probably don’t read as much as I do. But so what? There’s no ‘correct’ way to be a bookworm. I realise that I can be very possessive of the books that I love – I think that that’s one of the things that I love about the novel Possession, it does truly capture how a person can be inhabited by an author or piece of work that they love. My main ‘fandoms’ these days would most likely be The Archers and possibly Jane Austen. I love it when I can catch #TheArchers Tweetalong. I will read any Jane Austen biography that I can lay my hands on. But still, spin-offs, sequels and fan fiction leave me cold. The excitement comes though when you meet someone else who gets it – who understands what it means that Rob on The Archers finally got his comeuppance, why we love to hate Susan, or why Lynda Snell’s perennial pantos are better than she gets credit for. It was in search of that feeling that I first started blogging – I wanted to find other people who got excited by the same things that I did, who had actually read the same books that I had. I guess maybe I was searching for my fandom, my own very specific and highly individualised community. Does that mean that I am finally a true fan-girl?