Meanings, Communities, Conversations?

There is no real point to this post. Or rather, there are a collection of points, but no closing argument. I feel like rambling.

The poll for what I should read next is still open.


There was a moment when I was tempted to refuse the Hugo Award nomination for Best Fan Writer.

Not, you understand, because I don’t feel honoured to have my work considered among the best work of the year, but because I’ve always been uncomfortable with the word “fan” as an abstract descriptor. I am a fan of things, but they are specific things; I’m a writer, a student, a researcher, a historian, a reader, a viewer, a participant in a variety of conversations; I have been (and will be again) a martial artist, a climber, a teacher.

But as an abstract descriptor, the fan that the Hugo Awards refers to seems to me to be part of a historical and cultural continuum, a culture of “fandom,” about which I feel ambivalent at best.

I accepted the nomination: of course I did. I think my work is of good quality, and to do otherwise than accept would dishonour the people who also believe in its quality. But I don’t do that work for love: I do it because I’m paid.

I don’t make enough money from writing about science fiction to live on, but the money did make up roughly 1/9th of my total income last year. (I’m the holder of an Irish Research Council postgraduate scholarship for a two-year period, which is public information. The amount of the scholarship is also public information, available on the IRC’s website: you can see for yourself what the other 8/9ths amount to, if you’re curious.) I wouldn’t write so much without that financial inducement: it is work, even though it’s work I mostly enjoy.

I don’t believe in working for free unless I’m getting more enjoyment out of it than the effort I put in.

And I put quite a bit of effort into this kind of work.


There are far more people who read science fiction and fantasy, or consume science fiction and fantasy related media, than there are people who are actively involved in the conversation about science fiction and fantasy: than are part of the community of discourses, or care about awards.

There will be perhaps 5,000 people attending the London WorldCon this year, of which over 3,500 will be from Anglophone countries. If we say that they represent 10% of the population of Anglophone persons seriously engaged with conversations, and communities, specifically surrounding science fiction and fantasy published in book form, that gives us a figure of 35,000 Anglophone persons who have more than a passing stake in that conversation.

(For comparison: there were 17,000 votes tabulated in David Gemmell Legend Award this year.)

Let us be more generous and even less realistic, and say they represent 5%. That makes 70,000 Anglophone persons.

I think this figure is far too high. Nonetheless it is only a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who have read A Song of Ice and Fire or one of the books of the Wheel of Time, or who like to read a science fiction novel, or a fantasy novel, along with the other novels they might pick up on occasion. (It is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to SFF television or movie fandom, or comic book fandom, although – of course – the Venn diagram overlaps.)


I still find being part of the conversation rather odd.

Until I was in my late teens and read a library copy of Niven and Pournelle’s wish-fulfillment nonsense Lucifer’s Hammer Fallen Angels, I had no idea that people discussed science fiction and fantasy or felt any more sense of community around it than, say, the aficionados of detective mysteries. Niven and Pournelle’s outing didn’t encourage me to think highly of the in-group of rose-coloured-glasses’d nostalgists they portrayed; it wasn’t until I was leaving school and interacting with the internet as a would-be-writer* of the genre that I found interesting people who were making interesting points.

I signed up for a Livejournal account to be able to leave comments. I made friends through the medium of the internet – this startled me, because I had never been very good at friends, and I still find myself suspicious and distrusting of the phenomenon.

Some years later, one of those friends asked me to contribute reviews to Ideomancer.com. Later, I pitched a series of articles to Tor.com because a)I wanted to prove to myself that I could and b)I needed some pocket money. The same for my first reviews for Tor.com and Strange Horizons.

The internet fell on my head once or twice, but only in a middling fashion. And then after a couple of months running where I’d left a comment on a Tor.com “Booksellers’ Picks” post pointing out the disparity of female names to male, I received an email from a lovely person at Tor.com** asking if I’d contribute a female-focused column.

I didn’t dream of turning the offer down.

(I’m still waiting for them to realise they’ve made a terrible mistake and change their minds.)


In the last couple of years, since 2011, the nature of my participation in the conversation has changed. I know more people, by name and by reputation; I talk to more people, especially on Twitter. I no longer quite think of myself as peripheral, an observer, someone who doesn’t belong in any of the conversations. Just barely, I’m learning that I can claim the space to have opinions.

There are sets of overlapping discourses. Call them “fandoms,” if you like. I’m not happy with the word “fan” applied to myself, because it doesn’t reflect my self-perception. But I’m really glad to be able to participate in the conversations around science fiction and fantasy, and to have encountered so many interesting, marvelous people in the course of those conversations.

For all the differences in the discourses, it’s still a surprisingly closely-linked set of conversations.


I’m not happy with the toxic trolls and troll-sympathisers – Correia, Day, and Torgersen – who are on the ballot this year. I’m going to judge their work by their behaviour: I don’t need to give them any more attention than they’ve already received.

I don’t need to spend any time reading the works of people who behave like assholes unless I’m being paid for the privilege.


Tor Books, by the way, have announced they’re offering the entire Wheel of Time series in the electronic Hugo Voters’ Packet. The HVP was started in 2006, on a purely voluntary basis, by John W. Campbell Best New Writer nominee John Scalzi: it still operates on a purely voluntary basis, with the rights-holders making their work available to the voters at their discretion.

The rights-holders, in this, don’t actually get paid for what they offer in the HVP, which makes Tor Books’ decision a pretty generous one.


*I got better. Mostly. These days I stick with nonfiction. One day, maybe, I’ll have time to have a real hobby again and consider writing a space opera for my own amusement…

**I won’t mention names, because I haven’t asked if that person minds being named.

6 thoughts on “Meanings, Communities, Conversations?

  1. Pingback: 2014 Hugo Nominations – the reactions | Far Beyond Reality

  2. I know zip about the Hugo awards for anything but the majors, but I had always assumed “fan writer” (based on the people who got nominated) was actually about “writing for the fans”, rather than “writing BY fans”. In which case, you rock!

    And no, Tor isn’t likely to think they made a mistake asking you to write a ‘female-focused column.’ I’m still reading it, still expanding my horizons, and still a guy :-)

  3. I nominated you for fan writer – for the articles you wrote here in 2013. They (like this one) were both thoughtful and thought-provoking.
    Also frequently hilarious :-)

  4. I cheered aloud when I saw you’d been nominated; Sleeps With Monsters is one of my very favorite columns on Tor.com.

    But I still don’t understand the “fan” categories, since in my early fandom circles a “fan writer” was someone who writes fanfiction. It was rather a shock to realize, in my mid-20s (when I found Tor.com, actually) that there was a whole SFF fan community I’d never known about, with zines and such (and what went in those zines, if not fanfic? Surely book reviews and commentaries couldn’t take up all the space…)

    I’m realizing now that commentaries can take up that space (at least on the internet–I’ve still never seen a zine in the wild) and I’m glad of it. Commentaries and critiques have encouraged me to think a lot more deeply about the books I read, to engage with them from a different angle. I think it’s a valuable one.

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