Thursday, August 18, 2016

Ruminations on Entitlement, Fan Culture, and Life in the 21st Century

I've seen this article about fandom and entitlement circulating on twitter, and after reading it and chewing on it for a day or two and digesting it for over a week, and after reading Maggie Stiefvater's essay on self-actualization and Classic Cars and listening to a bunch of audiobooks and watching the Olympics and taking in a whole lot of other media, I have a few thoughts.

These thoughts are primarily directed towards authors and writers and artists and creative people. If you're not one of those people, you might find this interesting anyway, but you probably won't. Either way, it's your time; invest it where you please, but consider this fair warning.

An author owes nothing to anyone, ever, except to tell a good story. And by "good story", I don't mean a happy story, or a story where everyone's favorite character gets the ending that everyone wants. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes, it's a better story if it doesn't happen.

Let me tell you a story.

A while back - it really doesn't matter when - I read a book. It doesn't matter which book. What matters is that it was a great book, and as with all great books, I found myself in its pages. Not the main character's pages, though. No - my story was not the story of fame and fortune and happy endings. Mine was the story of the sidekick who doesn't quite get there in the end. It remains to be seen whether or not this will end up being my story - I still have a pulse, so I've still got time - but when I read this particular book, that was my story, and I hadn't quite realized that truth until I saw it there, in black and white, a message from the author: This is you. This is what happens to people like you: you will leave behind not the mark that will change the world, but the smudge of a mosquito squished against the kitchen wall. Maybe. Maybe not even a smudge. Maybe less than that. Every story needs a good supporting character with a cautionary tale, and you, my dear, are it.

And I thought: This is me. Oh, shit.

Here's a thing that you and I both know: no-one wants to live through that storyline. We all live in hope that, despite our persistence in doing the same ordinary things every day, we will somehow break out of the ordinary and become extraordinary. We are all, as the saying goes, the heroes of our own stories, and we all want to live to see our inner heroes realized. We will be the ones, the narrative goes, who will fix this fucked up world we live in. The narrative is a lie. I understood, when I recognized myself in this C-list character who would never realize his inner hero, that I was not on the path that was going to lead to me realizing mine.

It was an awful feeling.

Here's another thing that I think maybe you know: readers often see books as representing the author's worldview. Sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong, but that's how readers see things. And readers idolize authors.

And in this stupid, screwed up world we live in, readers want to believe that their idols see the world the same way they do. I mean, think about it: we say that God created man in his image, but really, it was the other way around.

Reading that book was the beginning for me of a long, long time engaged in the act of self-reflection. I am still engaged in it. It is painful, and hard, and frightening to think that after almost four decades of doing Life, I have, quite possibly, been doing it wrong.

But - and I think you probably already know this, too - the self-reflection is the point of that book I read. Self-reflection is, I think, the point of books in general. For without self-reflection, how can we grow? How can we become better? And if we do not become better, how can we better the world around us?

Unfortunately, we do not live in an age of self-reflection.

This is the quandary: self-reflection is painful; we live in a society in which the overwhelming worldview is that pain is a thing to be avoided at all costs. We tell ourselves, and our children, that we can change the world. We want to believe that this is true. But personal growth takes effort. Achievement takes both effort and sacrifice. And yet we tell ourselves constantly that effort and sacrifice are too much to ask, and should not be necessary. Why work out every day for months when you can just get liposuction and have the whole thing done, recovery and all, in a couple of weeks? Kids staying up too late is no problem at all - instead of establishing a routine (which could take WEEKS, and deprives parents of their social life), just give them melatonin when you want them to get an early night. You want a book you can't afford? No need to save up - just download it for free. Even as we admire the Olympians, VISA runs an ad telling us that, really, we're winners anyway for picking the right credit card, and those athletes are just making life hard for themselves. And on, and on, and on. When we take this, and add the ease with which readers can communicate with authors online, and shake it all up with a dash of entitlement and a heaping spoonful of frustration, the inevitable result is a fan culture that feels not only entitled, but obliged to press upon creators.

How can Joe Blogs make his obligatory Difference To the World? How can he reconcile the command that has been handed down to him to improve upon what he has been given with the overwhelming cultural message that life is supposed to be easy?

Simple. He pesters the author. If you listen to him, GREAT - he has made a difference to the world! He can check that box. If you don't, well, he tried; it's not his fault. He'll just SHOUT LOUDER NEXT TIME.

The world is full of C-Listers. It always has been, and it always will be. From the mosquito to the mountain goat, the vast majority are destined to live out their lives quietly and pass on without notice. Most people are the definition of average, people who will not get a hero's ending - who chose wrong before they even knew they were making a choice and ended up gunned down by a false friend in a parking lot, stuck in a dead-end factory job, stuck with a dependent who will never be anything but a dependent, just plain stuck. People who find, when they put their classic car into Drive, that the engine has rusted out, and will cost more money to fix than they have available. Or maybe they realize, after driving their classic car in circles for a while, that they've been driving the wrong model. They thought, at the time they bought it, that it was the right model, but they were wrong, and now it is too late, because the purchase of this wrong car has led them to make other choices that further limit their car-driving options. Maybe they have too many kids to cram into the sporty two-seater that they now realize is their One True Classic Car, and while the Ford Edsel is nice, it's just not quite Right, but they only have the time and resources for one car, and while their kids might really enjoy the wild ride strapped to the roof of the two-seater, in the long run, that amounts to child abuse, so they stick with the Edsel, because even if it looks like a beached whale, at least it's reliable, even though maintaining it sucks up all of their time.

The world is full of people who are living lives that are "nice, but just not quite Right". They know it. They just don't know what to do about it, so they look for themselves in books and movies and TV shows and they look to see themselves getting that elusive happy ending, because if they can't get it in fiction, then where else are they supposed to get it? And they harass the creators of those books and movies and TV shows when they don't get that, because the ease of developing an online platform means that they have convinced themselves that they are all Special Snowflakes who Deserve To Be Heard.

Stephen Hawking said recently that it is urgent that humans figure out how to leave the Earth and colonize other planets, and his desperation echoes, on a larger scale, the desperation that lives in the hearts of ordinary men: the desperation that comes with the knowledge that if we do not make our mark in time, then when we die, all that we know and all that we are dies with us. All of humanity, ordinary and extraordinary, will one day disappear in a swirl of matter and anti-matter and we will be nothing but an unread footnote in the history of time. What a waste that would be of Stephen Hawking's amazing mind. And yet, it is inevitable.

All human beings struggle with this. We struggle to reconcile our need for recognition with the reality of obscurity in the grand scheme of things. Everyone just wants to know that a happy ending is possible. Very few people have any idea of how to go about finding it.

But you don't owe them that.

You just owe them a good story. You owe them the opportunity for self-reflection.

Whether they take that opportunity is up to them.


  1. Wow Ishta that's a great post! I think people are happiest when they are striving towards something and making a mark should be the icing not the cake.

    1. Thanks! And I think you make a good point - everyone needs something to strive for. And really, if we zoom way out and look at the very very big picture, even the biggest marks we make are so small as to be insignificant, which I think is a very good reason to look for pleasure and satisfaction in everyday things. Goals are important, but it's the stuff of everyday life that is the cake.

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  3. I am now dying to know what that book was that made you feel like a doomed sidekick in a cautionary tale, but also to take you out to tea and argue passionately that you are NOT a mosquito on the wall of life, either.

    I know you're not asking for pity here, but this is something I care a lot about, because I've been working through a lot of similar issues in the past few months myself. And one of the many conclusions I've come to is that whether or not you or I achieve the current worldly ideal of fame or success, or even live up to our own hopes and ambitions, is immaterial to our worth as human beings or the ultimate value of our contribution to the world. In fact we often get our priorities completely wrong, because our perspective on what (and who) matters and why is so limited. I keep thinking of the episode in 1 Samuel where the prophet is looking at Jesse's tall, handsome, kingly-looking eldest son and thinking, "Surely this is the Lord's anointed," and God warns, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."

    What I've come to realize is that whenever I look at my career or my life from my own limited perspective of what I think matters to other people or what I'd like to achieve, I get fretful and discontent (much like the shippers in that very interesting article, who can't be satisfied with anything less than their personal vision for the characters becoming "canon"). But if I see my writing as a chance to give something to others and enrich my readers' lives in some way, however small, then it doesn't matter if I get the six-figure advance or the publicity or the awards and accolades or not. Because it's not about me, and that's okay.

    I don't know if that makes any sense, but the upshot of it all is that this is a very good blog post, even if it sounds like I'm arguing with you. Also, that we should get together again for tea or lunch or something soon. :)

    1. Oh, thank you! Thank you so much for the time it took to read and comment. Hugs forever for this. And yes, we must get together again soon! We have much to catch up on.

    2. And here's the longer reply: I think in the microcosm of this world, I AM pretty much a mosquito on the wall of life. Put another way: If someone had told me twenty years ago that this is where I would be now, I would have thought they were underestimating me. I have the hindsight and life experience to understand that I got myself here through various life choices that I made, some recently and some not so recently, and that if I want to get out of here, I need to start making different choices. This is my mess, and I have to either learn to love it, or clean it up. (And if you think about it, mosquitoes don't do nothing. They're out there keeping pitcher plants alive and infecting birds with avian flu. But one mosquito isn't going to cause any grand-scale changes. A species will not rise or fall because of one mosquito's existence.)

      On the macrocosm level, though, we're all mosquitoes on the wall of life. If the wall is big enough, even something planet-sized looks like a mosquito next to the wall. Which means that in a counterintuitive sort of way, everything humans do matters equally. (You could look at it another way, I guess, which is that there is always something bigger, but there's no way to ever be satisfied with that line of thinking until you've either blown up the sun or created a new one, and that's more influence than any human has a right to have.)

      So this is what I focus on: This understanding that I am here, now, on this slip of a world, doing the best I can with the time that I have, for no reason other than that I am here. It is all any of us can hope for, and it has to be enough.