Do Fandoms Need Awfulness?

by Eliezer Yudkowsky 10y28th May 2009155 comments

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Stephen Bond, "Objects of Fandom":

...my theory is that for something to attract fans, it must have an aspect of truly monumental badness about it.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a robust potboiler, tongue-in-cheek, very competently done. I think it's enjoyable, but even among those who don't, it's hard to see the film attracting actual derision. Boredom or irritation, probably, but nothing more. Star Wars, on the other hand.... From one perspective, it's an entertaining space opera, but from a slightly different perspective, an imperceptible twist of the glass, it's laughably awful. Utterly ridiculously bad. And it's this very badness that makes so many people take up arms in its defence.

...It's impossible to imagine a fan of Animal Farm, the Well-Tempered Clavier, or the theory of gravity. Such works can defend themselves. But badness, especially badness of an obvious, monumental variety, inspires devotion. The quality of the work, in the face of such glaring shortcomings, becomes a matter of faith -- and faith is a much stronger bond than mere appreciation. It drives fans together, gives them strength against those who sneer... And so the fan groups of Tolkien, Star Trek, Spider-man, Japanese kiddie-cartoons etc. develop an almost cult-like character.

"Uh oh," I said to myself on first reading this, "Is this why my fans are more intense than Robin Hanson's fans?  And if I write a rationality book, should I actually give in to temptation and self-indulgence and write in Twelve Virtues style, just so that it has something attackable for fans to defend?"

But the second time I turned my thoughts toward this question, I performed that oft-neglected operation, asking:  "I read it on the Internet, but is it actually true?"  Just because it's unpleasant doesn't mean it's true.  And just because it provides a bit of cynicism that would give me rationality-credit to acknowledge, doesn't mean it becomes true just so I can earn the rationality-credit.

The first counterexample that came to mind was Jack Vance.  Jack Vance is a science-fiction writer who, to the best of my knowledge, I've never heard accused of any great sin (or any lesser sin, actually).  He is - was - the supremely competent craftsman of SF: his words flow, his plots race, and his human cultures are odder than other authors' aliens, to say nothing of his aliens.  Vance didn't have his characters give controversial political speeches like Heinlein.  Vance just wrote consistently excellent science fiction.

And some of Vance's fans got together and produced the Vance Integral Edition, a complete collection of Vance in leather-bound hardcover books with high-quality long-lasting paper.  They contracted to get the books printed, and when the books arrived, enough Vance fans showed up to ship them all.  (They referred to themselves as "packing scum".)

That's serious fandom.  Aimed at work that - like Animal Farm or the Well-Tempered Clavier - is merely excellent, without an aspect of monumental badness to defend.

Godel, Escher, Bach - maybe I'm prejudiced here, and I've heard a word or two said against it, but really, I don't think the fandom that it has stems from it being frequently attacked.  On the other hand, there aren't annual conventions for fans of self-referential sentences, so maybe it's not as much of a data point as I might like.

Star Wars really did have something going for it that Raiders of the Lost Ark didn't, namely, it introduced a lot of impressionable minds to science fiction.  Or space opera, if you like.  The point is that the romance of space is not the romance of archeology.

On due reflection, I'm not sure that utter ridiculous monumental badness is all it's cracked up to be.

But there are annual Star Trek conventions.  And there are not annual Jack Vance conventions.  Douglas Hofstadter might be far more widely beloved - but Ayn Rand has more fanatic fans.

If Jack Vance had been so clever as to keep all the poetic phrasing and alien societies, but now and then have his characters make crazy political speeches - if he had deliberately introduced an aspect of monumental badness - would he now be worshiped, instead of just loved?

Can anyone think of a true, pure counterexample of a reasonably fanatic fandom (to the level of annual conventions, though not necessarily suicide bombers) of something that is just sheer good professional craftwork, and not commonly criticized?  And of course the acid test is not whether you think it is just sheer good craftsmanship, but whether this is widely believed within the broad context of the relevant social community - can you have fanatic fans when their object of worship really is that good and the mainstream believes it too?

I do think that Stephen Bond's Objects of Fandom is pointing to a real effect, if not the only effect.  So in the same vein that we should try to be attracted to basic science textbooks and not just poorly written press releases about "breaking news", let us try to be fans of those merely excellent works that lack an aspect of monumental awfulness to defend.

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