I believe this is the golden age of fandom.
We could have a debate about the quality of current content versus the classics of old—certainly more is being produced today, and “nerd culture” is at its most mainstream—but that debate would exemplify what can sometimes be wrong in fandom: competitiveness, and judgment, and gatekeeping.
What I want to explore is the best of fandom, and I think the best of today’s fandom is the best there’s ever been.
For any out there who might be unfamiliar, “fandom” is a term for a collective group of fans—it can be applied to a specific work, such as the “Harry Potter fandom,” or as a general term for people who express enthusiasm and even love for fictional works—through buying collectibles and t-shirts, attending conventions and midnight screenings, drawing fanart or writing fanfiction. Being a part of fandom is more than just enjoying a work; it’s about the hunger for more, the passion for the details, the connection you feel to others who love the same, and the burst of creative energy that can come from this adoration.
It’s the last two that are more powerful now than they have ever been.
I’m sure as long as there have been creative works, there have been fans. Shakespeare’s plays probably had a dedicated group of followers (including Queen Elizabeth?); and Arthur Conan Doyle’s fandom was so strong and vocal that he had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from the dead. In fact, an interesting book I read about fanfiction—Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison—mentioned that the Bronte sisters wrote fanfiction as their early work (I’m pretty sure; this is from memory).
The earliest form of fanfiction as we recognize it today—“amateur” fans writing stories about their favorite characters or worlds and sharing it with each other for free; as opposed to licensed media tie-ins or adaptations of works out of copyright, both of which share many qualities of fanfiction, but notably not the “free” part—is generally believed to have come from the original Star Trek fandom, who sent out newsletters and coined the term “slash” around the pairing of Kirk and Spock (a.k.a. Kirk-slash-Spock). In these early days of fandom, to love a fictional work so much that you subscribed to newsletters and attended conventions was a mark of an outcast, a “Trekkie,” a geek or nerd before that was an okay thing to be.
But still, people sought fandom out. Because somehow, fiction stirs something in us, powerful and deep and often unavoidable. (I maintain that “sports fandom” shares many of the same traits—costumes and gatherings and trivia and fan creations—without the stigma, but I digress…)
So what has changed to make today’s fandom not only so much more mainstream, but so much better?
The Internet. Oh, that glorious and frightening maelstrom of humanity… The internet allowed people to connect without having to find each other through obscure mailing lists or geographical proximity, and the anonymity helped some people to let their freak flag fly. Passion over The X-Files or Harry Potter as well as the old classics could reach new heights when, from the comfort of your own home, you could find hundreds (if not thousands or millions) of others who shared your love—not only did they not judge you, they joined you.
That joining also gave rise to the power of fanfiction and fanart, more than ever before. Because now, when you loved characters so much you just had to draw them or write a story about them having babies or fighting aliens or whatever your wildest dreams concocted, you could send it out into the world with the click of a button—and the world could respond! Instant gratification, instant acceptance, sometimes for the lucky instant adoration. Fans become creators, and the fandom grows.
This growing fandom, strengthened by their global connections, proved themselves to be a powerful market force—and, in this capitalist world, mainstream society had to respond. What was once the province of fringe groups could now steer culture and generate millions of dollars for properties they loved, and so Hollywood made better material for them to love, and so more people came to love it. Right now, we’re in an age where being a “nerd” is more and more universal—who isn’t touched by some aspect of fandom, whether it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the new Star Wars or Game of Thrones? Certainly, it’s still not for everyone (my parents can’t sit through more than five minutes of anything not-human or speaking a made-up language… somehow I still love them), but they’ve definitely heard about it, on talk shows and magazines and the excited ramblings of their, um, really mature and adult daughter.
Mainstream fandom may burn out, if there are just too many nostalgia-driven remakes and crappy spin-offs and just too much, but I don’t think we’ll go back to the dark ages of nerd shame. For all that people complain about political correctness (or, you know, just treating people with respect), we are slowly, painfully, but steadily moving towards a world of more acceptance and equality than ever before. If what sparks your fandom, your nerd flag, isn’t something the mainstream knows about or respects, it’s still okay to love it proudly. It’s never been cooler to be uncool.
And I think that’s awesome. Sure, it can still be hard; for whatever reason, I’m still plagued by embarrassment when I mention that I like to write, you know, *mumble and blush*, fantasy—even in a world where the first billionaire author wrote about wizards and dragons and troll boogers. But I know that even if some people I talk to aren’t into that sort of thing, I can go online and find thousands who are, and that sort of global connection of niche groups is new to humanity. I think it’s why we’re experiencing an age of acceptance and marginalized voices finally being heard and a demand for equality. Everybody wants to be mainstream, and maybe soon, the mainstream really will be… everybody.
So, okay, fandom’s great—but what about its effect on creativity?
Not all fans become creators, nor do they want to be. But for some, that passion for the original work sparks something in their brain that fuels daydreams—in the form of images to draw, products to create, or stories to write—and I think it’s foolish to run away from that creative energy just because it can’t make a living. (Some would argue even original creative works can’t make a living, but that’s a whole other post.)
Fandom is an awesome way to develop creativity, whether you’re just starting out, polishing up old skills, or fully engaged in original creations every day.
First, it’s easy and fun—there are no rules, no limitations. Want to write a version of the story told from another character’s POV? Go ahead! Want to write a single page about the characters’ wedding? Sure! Want to write only dialogue? Awesome! Want to draw a character kissing that other character, from that completely different movie? No one will stop you.
Second, there’s a built-in audience to support, encourage, and even improve—all of those ideas up there attract an instant audience, just by virtue of being about characters they already know and love. Write original stuff like that and you’ll most likely struggle to find readers, but post the fanfic, no matter how short or strange, and you may just get a great response.
Third, it’s a safe space with little pressure and easy access—no gatekeepers, no agents to impress, and an understanding that this is for fun and friendship, not perfection. You can write a story and put it up online within moments, and have an audience within moments, and even if you’re just starting out and still learning, you can have an experience in fandom that’s fulfilling and engaging. It’s hard to have that when it’s just you and your original work and rejection letters or an uninterested audience.
With all of these advantages, the biggest “danger” of fandom to your creativity is that, well, it’s so much more fun than putting the work into something original. And here’s the thing: if your creativity is best served with fandom, then do that. I know the world seems to only value productivity when it brings in money (ahem, capitalism), but as hobbies go, this is a GREAT one. It uses your creativity, exercises those muscles, connects you with others, and it can be a source of happiness and fun.
I recently fell into fandom in a big way, starting to write fanfiction again for the first time in years for the Arrow (TV show) fandom—if you’re interested, here’s my Tumblr and AO3. And with the amazing response I’ve gotten (more than my original on Wattpad ever got, quite understandably), it’s extremely addicting. Who wants to sit down and outline a novel and then write for months and then send it out and get ignored, when I can sit down and write a couple-page story and post it and within hours have comments and likes and be a part of something more?
And yet… my life goal is to make money from my creative pursuits, and at least for now, you can’t get paid writing fanfiction (Fifty Shades of Grey and the like show another controversial path, but this post is already too long). So is fandom’s addictive qualities a potential creative downfall?
My opinion—not at all. As long as you can keep a balance.
As I said, as far as hobbies go, fanfiction or fanart is a great way to have fun in a loose, easygoing creative environment while still practicing those skills, getting feedback, and finding friends. I think it can probably improve your original works, by virtue of reminding you why writing is fun when it’s so easy to get lost in the difficulty of it. And sometimes you can’t fit everything you want into an original work, or you’re just so taken by a character or world that you may end up with a carbon copy, and in those cases a bit of fandom can release that impulse without derailing your original project.
But you have to have the discipline to take time for your original work as well, and make fandom a hobby (again, if you’re not interested in original works, then full fandom all the time, baby!). Set boundaries for yourself, designating blocks of time or a certain amount of work before you can change gears. This can be tricky with creativity, since it tends to assert its own will and work when it wants, but if you do get sidetracked during your “original time,” then shift back and give up some of your “fandom time” later. Remember that the original works will probably not be as fun or instantly gratifying as fandom, but the payoff of that work and patience may be more worth it than you can imagine.
Maybe even a fandom of your own… 🙂
I think all original creation comes of out of a love for other works, a desire to create something like what we’ve loved, and that same impulse informs fandom (with a bit more direct inspiration). They don’t have to be enemies—they can be partners, for the better of both. Embrace the fan within you, and you might just discover new creative energies that can rejuvenate your original work, or a new friend who can inspire and encourage you, or a way to practice skills in a fun, easy way that’s far more rewarding than drills and journaling.
And revel in the golden age of fandom that we are lucky enough to live in.