I appear, for once, to have some sort of verifiable credential on the topic about which I’m writing but I also know that I don’t have a good grasp of the long history/tradition of fanwriting. What is a fan writer, what constitutes fan writing, is fan writing a genre of writing or does it come down to (lack of) money or to the channel of distribution? Also, what does the sport of rugby have to do with this?
The official Hugo rules actually say very little:
Any person whose writing has appeared in semiprozines or fanzines or in generally available electronic media during the previous calendar year.
It doesn’t say “non-professional” or amateur. There is an implication from other categories with “fan” in it that implies non-professional is a key element of the term “fan” but the inclusion of semiprozines belies that implication. A semiprozine may pay its contributors and hence according to the rules a fan writer could be paid for their writing.
But those are the rules and I don’t regard formal rules as a good source of meaning. Rules are useful for delimiting meaning when we need sharp categories to settle disputes but they aren’t the ultimate source of meaning — if they were we would have no way of judging whether we have written good rules or not.
I think there are a number of ways people parse “fan writer”:
- Writing by anybody in the role of being a fan
- Writing by a fan rather than a professional writer
- A person who writes for fandom
- A person who writes fannish things i.e. within the genre of fanwriting
John Scalzi’s Whatever blog or George RR Martin’s Not a Blog hit three of those four but not the second. I see some concern about fan writing including the blogs or other channels of professional writers but I think those two examples strongly hit other (perhaps more vague) senses of fan writing. Both Scalzi and Martin are heavily involved in fandom. However, the professional aspect is a sticking point for some. I’ll come back to that.
A different issue I’ve seen discussed is what people expect from fanwriting. For example, I’ve not seen anybody explicitly say that fiction does not count as fanwriting but when looking at examples of what people expect from fanwriting, fiction doesn’t count. Fanfiction in particular, despite clearly being non-professional and for fans and of fandom(s) is not typically recognized as fanwriting in the Hugo awards. More recently I saw, frankly puzzling, notion that fan-orientated journalism/news-curation etc such as Mike Glyer’s work at File770 isn’t fanwriting, whereas I’d see that as canonically fanwriting (i.e. if I draw a big loop around what might be fanwriting, that is safely in the heartland and away from the outer borders).
I think people have developed an expectation of fanwriting being non-fiction writing in an essay format of matters to do with science fiction/fantasy and in particular:
- discussion of the state of the genre
Which, OK, can all be fanwriting but not definitively. I wouldn’t think of Damien Walters’s Guardian columns on SF/F as being fanwriting even though his columns there often hit at least two of the possible meaning I listed above. I note also, as The Guardian isn’t behind a paywall, those columns count as generally available electronic media.
Not-paid-for makes for simple criteria (although as I note, not actually in the Hugo rules) but I don’t like that. I’m unambiguously an amateur and not just in the sense of not getting paid but also in the sense that this blog is purely a hobby (and also in the sense that I make no effort to create a polished product!) But amateur status is the essence of privilege — this is a hobby I can afford to have in terms of time and money and security. I don’t have a lingering student debt, I don’t have to work a second job, I don’t have childcare commitments (and when I did I had no time for anything fannish). Trying to use not-being-paid as a criterion becomes terribly exclusionary as well as hard to police in the era of Paetrons, Kickstarters, etc.*
Likewise, the purity of motive in evaluating fan writing can become a pernicious form of gatekeeping. I don’t disagree with a point Patrick Neilsen Hayden is reported as making that fanwriting is a genre in itself and not a junior level of professional writing but it is also NOT-not a “junior varsity” either. In other words, fanwriting can be its own very loose genre AND also be an entry point. Again this mirrors an aspect of fan-fiction — it is a genre or species of writing in itself that requires its own skills some of which are not easily transferred to or from professional fiction writing but it is also a space where potential professional writers learn their craft or find their talent.
Looking at the different types of writing done by this years Hugo nominees for Best Fanwriter, I think the mix was pretty good. It shouldn’t only be essayists and reviewers but it certainly should include them and include people whose working may be partly monetized (either as gigs at paying sources or via online crowd funding options). As a category I think it is in an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ state — a circular definition that fanwriting is what fans see as fanwriting works fine for the Hugos crowdsourced eligibility mechanism. My main dislike of “Best Fanwriter” as a category is that it focuses on the person rather than the work but “Best Fanwriting” would bring all the definitional issues above to the forefront and I suspect the category would collapse under its taxonomic weight.
Alternatives to fanwriting or additions to the category, might include:
- A Best Related Work – Short Form as a space to reward essays, reports, speeches etc
- A micro-ficition award
- A fan-ficiton award
But, I can’t say I find any of those particularly compelling as ideas.
Wait! I promised some point about rugby at the beginning! Actually I know very little about rugby despite growing up in a family with deep connections to Rugby League and also being brought up in one of the strongest centres of Rugby League in the world and somehow now living as far away as possible from where I grew up and STILL live in a place that is mad for Rugby League. Anyway, Rugby League split from Rugby Union as codes of football because working class players needed some pay to keep playing. There’s a metaphor there about priviliege, the use of amateur status as a means of social exclusion and possibly something about cabbage ears. Luckily I don’t have an editor to tell me I need a better metaphor and a snappier conclusion.