Venn Diagrams

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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September 16, 2013

Venn diagram of SFF fandom.

Sometimes these two sets appear to be just one set.
There’s another (possibly more accurate) diagram at the end of this post.

In her most recent column for Strange Horizons (fund drive going on now!), Renay spoke about a facet of fan-author interactions that she finds potentially problematic. Subsequently, both Renay and Ana Grilo of The Book Smugglers have been cast as villains in the latest argument over whether authors should comment on discussions of their own work.

And I’m wondering if some of the disconnect in this discussion is because Renay’s roots are in media fandom as opposed to SFF book fandom. SFF book fandom has always had overlapping fans and authors–that liminality has been part of the community from the very beginning: from the first convention, in fact. Media fandom has traditionally been more leery of interactions with creators; in part because of the power differentials between media conglomerates and fans; there are similarities between the media and book fandoms, but there are also very different norms when it comes to interacting with creators.

I believe very strongly that reviews are for readers. When I write a review for this site, the audience I have in mind is a reader. I’m not here to help the author of that particular work sell books or to provide a blurb; I am here to let readers know what I thought about the book. I prefer to not have an argument in comments with an author over my interpretation of a character’s actions or words. When I review a book, it is the text that matters–authorial intention can be fun to talk about but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The text is what it is and what the author intended is moot.

I don’t think it’s bad form to interact with authors in other ways online, though, which is where my perspective seems to diverge, at least a little bit, from Renay’s. I have friends who are authors and I have, in fact, reviewed my friends’ works–sometimes not at all positively. And because we are all reasonably mature adults, it hasn’t been an issue.

That’s not to say I’ve never run afoul of an author. Many years ago, Jill Paton-Walsh was a member of the LordPeter mailing list and I commented that I felt the Sayers estate was whoring out the characters for cash (I still think this, incidentally). I thought Paton-Walsh had her list settings on nomail, as she generally did except when the group was discussing her books. Paton-Walsh’s reaction to my opinion was pretty spectacular and her sense of entitlement was so astounding–she honestly seemed to believe that the rules of the community did not apply to her–that she ended up being removed from the list.

I’ve been thinking about this overlap quite a bit lately, especially in light of the discussion over at Liz’s blog about full disclosure around the lack of critical discourse in the romance community from authors–among other things. The comments are amazingly thoughtful and it’s a real discussion about the romance community and the problems with the relentless undisclosed mutual promotion that can and does happen in it. This discussion couldn’t happen except in a space where both readers and authors are welcome and its existence highlights the necessity and importance of such spaces.

There absolutely can be a power differential between some fans and authors–there are many cases of authors behaving badly and causing difficulties for readers who had the temerity to dislike their books in public. There’s also the whole STGRB mess (they have a HIT LIST of reviewers on Goodreads–an ACTUAL HIT LIST). On the other hands, in economic terms, readers are the ones with the power: they are the ones purchasing the books or not.

I think this comment from Liz’s post is really important, especially the part about authors getting to be people too–it is unfair and awful to expect authors to NOT be people and react in a human way to their work being criticized. But. There is definitely tension and potential for conflict and I think it is on authors to be sure their contributions are welcome before joining the conversation. And I don’t think it’s that difficult, to be honest–and if you do choose to engage and get a response that isn’t encouraging, then you know you need to disengage and not dig in or call in reinforcements. Rose Fox makes an excellent point about how the words author and authority are linguistically tied to each other and how unplanned authorial involvement in a discussion of their work can stifle conversation.

A reader disliking a book or having a problem with aspects of it and saying so in public is not bullying. A columnist talking about the potential pitfalls of authors coming into reader conversations and citing an example is not bullying. Concern for the degree of coziness that some blogs have with the industry is also not bullying. And it’s also not bullying to object to authors participating in discussions of their work when they haven’t been specifically invited to do so.

It’s also not silencing or attacking and it absolutely is not justification for namecalling on social media. Some of that namecalling has included gendered insults and sexual assault threats. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this development and yet I am.

I don’t have a snappy conclusion, I’m just baffled about why Renay’s column–which I found interesting even as I disagreed with aspects of it–has caused this degree of upset in certain quarters. It seemed relatively mild, all things considered, and it was clear she was speaking from her own perspective and experience and not being prescriptive. How we get from what she actually wrote to these accusations of bullying makes no sense to me.

Another diagram of SFF fandom, possibly more accurate.

Another diagram of SFF fandom.
After all, it’s not like people tend to write books in genres they loathe.

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  1. Liz

    “And I’m wondering if some of the disconnect in this discussion is because Renay’s roots are in media fandom as opposed to SFF book fandom.”

    I’ve been thinking the same thing. And in lots of big book fandoms — Harry Potter, ASoIaF — the author is effectively as remote as a showrunner or TV writer. You move into smaller fandoms, or SF lit fandom in general, suddenly that wall is gone. And you’re in a space where it was never actually there.

    (The distance between media creators and fandom is narrowing too, though. As I speak, a Legend of Korra producer has just reblogged a Tumblr post criticising the fandom’s sexism.)

    Also, can I just say, I completely agree with you regarding Jill Paton-Walsh, and I’m oddly pleased that she saw your comments. Her work is kind of the literary equivalent of the naked emperor, you know?

  2. Natalie Luhrs

    @Liz: I have to say, inadvertently provoking Jill Paton-Walsh into behaving Very Badly is something I’m oddly proud of–in no part because she then went on to found a rival list (yes!) in which she openly laid claim to any and all plot ideas floated on it (because her attorneys told her it was okay!). It was really pretty incredible to watch. Also, I am pretty sure that we’ll soon be seeing a Lord Peter novel based on the shopping list that was found near Sayers’s body–I have Very Strong Opinions about how the Sayers Estate has chosen to maximize the profit on their assets (and they definitely see them as assets to be exploited, not works of literature to be preserved/protected). Most of them aren’t very nice.

    In SFF, authors are almost always fans themselves. And I suspect it does make for a very different experience if you got your start in either media fandom or one of the larger book fandoms where the author/creator is essentially unattainable. My path into SFF fandom definitely was different. I really value hearing from different people and their perspectives and the reaction on the part of some blogger-reviewers is really disheartening,

  3. squishydish

    Just re your second Venn Diagram, a counter-example that springs to mind is Margaret Atwood, who insisted for a while that she wrote speculative fiction, not science fiction, although many readers would disagree with her definitions. She later backed off from that statement somewhat, but I’d still say she qualifies as a non-fan author.
    No other examples spring to mind at the moment.

  4. Natalie Luhrs

    @squishydish: I actually considered making a Margaret Atwood circle off to the side for the second diagram. 😉

  5. Liz Mc2

    Now laughing at the idea of the Atwood circle off to the side. I sometimes say that the reason I’m not yet a Canadian citizen is that I can’t bring myself to be an Atwood fan.

    Thanks for the shout-out to my post. In general, I am not in favor of authors engaging in the comments on a review of their work, unless specifically invited to do so–and I wouldn’t invite it in my space, because I think it tends to shut down the conversations. Valuable conversations can be had with authors about their work, and now that, thanks to social media, the author is less and less dead to me, I’m interested in good ways to create space to have those conversations (most of the ones I see in Romanceland are pretty empty and promo-ish, but certainly not all). I *do* really value author comments when I write about things like author-reader relationships in social media, authors reviewing, etc. Because obviously their perspective is different from mine, and I learn from them. I was glad so many authors felt welcome to comment on that post, and were so honest about the calculations they have to make. It made for a great conversation.

  6. WHM

    This is my favorite post to come out of this whole discussion. Different online communities (public though they may be) have different approaches/parameters/mores. Anyone, author or not, who wants to play with that community should take some time to understand it before joining in. Or not join in. Or ask what the established practices are. It’s really not that difficult.

    Now I know some authors think that because the work under discussion is theirs that means they have some stake in the discussion. Sure. But, to use a clumsy metaphor, even if you come up with and publish the recipe, that doesn’t mean it’s gracious to walk into a house as dinner is being served and then critique the home cook’s interpretation of/execution of your recipe.

  7. Alex Hurst

    I seem to always miss the huge debates and broo-hahas of the industry. I’m coming to this so late…. but I agree with you. I’m an admin of a community that has mobilized to start releasing some five anthologies of short fiction a year, and I am absolutely -terrified- that someone in the community is going to respond to a negative review, or jump into a conversation that they shouldn’t be a part of.

    In light of this recent issue, I actually added a clause to our publishing agreement that they would be pulled from any project if they attacked anyone (I know many, MANY people in the indie community who take ratings very personally. I once received a two-star rating, no review, and sort of shrugged my shoulders… I was told by people that I wasn’t a real author if I didn’t care about that review. I was kind of shocked, because the only reason I mentioned it at all was to say “Hey, look! Thick skin! Yay!”

    In any case, thanks for making such a rational post about the issue. I feel all informed now, and stuff. 😛

  8. jennygadget


    Your mention of Harry Potter also makes me think that some of this is might be a generational issue.

    Adult authors interact with teen and child readers differently than they do with adult readers for very good reasons. Authors of kids and teen books pretty much never argue with kids about their interpretation – it’s just so clearly an asshole move to argue with someone who has a 7th grade vocabulary and no public speaking or writing experience. Not to mention being, you know twelve. Also, by virtue of the age difference, adult authors always feel more remote to kid and teen readers than they do to adult readers, and when kid readers look up to those authors, the potential fallout of crushing those feelings is quite different. Authors of kids and teen books are also more likely to understand the developmental role that fanfiction plays in kids growing understanding of art, and are therefore more likely to encourage it (or at least not diss it). Up to a certain point, anyway. Which then brings us back to the different ways that sff fans interact with authors, versus how fanfiction writers do.

    And JK Rowling rather exemplifies this kind of attitude. She interacts with fans by giving them cookies on websites, says vaguely nice things about her fans and how happy she is that they like to read and talk about her books, and gives a green light to fan fiction (so long as the adults remain respectful of kid-friendly spaces).

    Pre internet, pre Harry Potter, kid readers didn’t have this fan experience. We just sorta sat and read. And even if you did make your way into fandom while still a kid (and many did as teens) you were immediately interacting with other fans that were adults, not just fans that were teens. But now kids – even casual readers – are much more likely to have a fandom type experience while still a kid, and to have it about a book that is kid centered. Which will set very different expectations for fan and author interactions.

    Possibly this is contributing somewhat?

  9. Natalie Luhrs

    @jennygadget: I was writing fan fiction in the late 1980’s about my favorite band–but I didn’t know that was what I was doing and I thought I was the only one who did that sort of thing and I never ever EVER talked about it with anyone because I got enough shit about my favorite band ANYHOW. Then in the early 1990’s, me and my bestie wrote an epic work of fan fic that spanned our college careers and was done entirely by snail mail–and again, we didn’t know that there were other people out there doing the same thing. But that all said, this is a really really REALLY interesting idea.


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