I: The Secret Shame
When I went to college, just like when any other kid goes to college, I had to go through a weeklong freshman orientation which consisted of at least one in-detail walking tour of the not-terribly-big campus, a couple of mandatory presentations from various echelons of the administration, and an interminable procession of icebreakers and mixers. All of these lattermost activities had the ostensible purpose of helping all of us meet new people, with subtle variations ranging from getting to know a little bit more under the surface of the other couple dozen guys on my floor of the dorm, to at least becoming passably acquainted with the dozen or so girls who lived directly above us, to simply mingling with another hall or two from different dorms across campus in the vague hopes that a recognizable human connection or two might emerge, even if most of the names and faces would be half-remembered at best.
Anyway, this was in the late summer of 1992 which means I’m reasonably certain it pre-dates the phenomenon of speed-dating, but I do remember one icebreaker which involved a hall’s worth of girls tromping out to our dorm, with each pair of roommates walking up to a different door and knocking on it, talking to the two guys within the room, for about two minutes until the girls’ R.A. blew a whistle and every pair of girls moved one door down the hall and new two-minute conversations began. By necessity these conversations were pretty superficial, with most of the information volunteered in response to the same stock questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what are you into?
If I sound at all dismissive of the mixer aspect of freshman orientation it’s probably residual attitude from when I was 18, because by then I had pretty much settled on a self-image which was equal parts self-loathing and self-congratulatory; I knew I was a little too off-center to be the most popular guy around, but I also felt reasonably confident in my ability to find and make friends with like-minded peers. I didn’t feel like I needed the mixers and I saw them as weird bit of forced socialization. But I played along, to a certain extent. For example, in a scenario like the speed-door-knocking I was just referring to, when asked what I was into I would make a vague reference to the fact that I “read a lot” and quickly turn the question around again. This was the safest possible way to play it. On the one hand, I was at the beginning of four years at a school that you need to be fairly nerdy to get into, so being an avid reader was utterly unremarkable. It also might have been a little truer in my case than most, since there is a difference between reading as much as you need to in order to pull down A’s, and reading just for fun. And in my split-second assessment, I knew that as nerdy as being a self-professed reader was, the other things which could have vied for position as my answer – collecting comics, playing Dungeons & Dragons, listening to heavy metal – were stonecold conversation killers best kept to myself.
And to a certain extent that hasn’t changed, lo these 18 more years of life experience in trying to push the needle further away from self-loathing and closer to, if not the smugness of late adolescence, at least a nod of satisfaction. My musical tastes have broadened enough that I can talk intelligently about genres that don’t all involve distortion and double bass drums. Comics have become so mainstreamed that I no longer automatically assume people are luring me into a humiliation trap when they pose a question about the medium for which they assume I will have a ready (and exhaustive) answer. And D&D, other RPGs, minigames and the like may still be weirdly impenetrable at a glance, but I don’t think they’re exclusively the domain of freaks so weird that they couldn’t come up with something better to do on a Friday night if they tried. (Not that I have much going on Friday nights these days either way. But still.)
However, just because I’ve made peace with the eccentricities and curious interests which my recent-high-school-grad self would have rather died than take pride in, doesn’t mean that I’m not still capable of secret shame. If I ranked all of my various forms of geek expression in order with the most embarrassing at the top, number one on that list would blow away everything beneath it combined. Purchasing and displaying overpriced action figures? Not a big deal. Hoarding packaging materials to repaint as obstacles for homemade tabletop strategy games? Kind of odd, I grant you, but not appallingly so.
Number one on the list would be fanfic.
It is entirely possible that after all that build-up, some of you got to the payoff there and went “um, what?” (Which of course kind of begins to prove my point about how this particular furtive pursuit is from way out past the fringes of normalcy.) After all, I never talk about fanfic hereabouts on the blog. Partly that’s because of the aforementioned shame, and partly because, gah, where would I start? Yet I’ve always suspected that sooner or later I would get around to posting about it and, as usual, it seems that linksurfing has once again forced my hand. In the past couple weeks I’ve run into references to fanfic everywhere I turn: in webcomics I follow, in essays about interactivity and art, and on professional writers’ blogs. (Regarding that trio of links, the first one is cute and amusing and goes to the first installment of an on-topic storyline that lasts at least six days, the second one is interesting and edifying, and the third one probably won’t mean much to anyone but I was on a roll there.) Everybody’s talking about it, and far be it for me to resist jumping in.
So I’m giving the blog over to the subject for the whole week, and I’m not really even going to try to tie it in to the usual day-of-the-week themes I tend to follow. So if me dissecting a somewhat disreputable corner of the teh interwebs and what it means to me sounds a mite off-putting, consider this fair warning! No hard feelings and I’ll see you Saturday or next Monday or whatever. But if you’re game, then I will break down what fanfic is, why it’s situated so far down on the geek-scorn continuum, how I got into it and stayed into it despite it so clearly owning the hell out of my personal self-scorn continuum, and all kinds of fun stuff like that.