By Isaac Butler
(Editor's Note: It's weird to write one of these before my own piece. Laura Miller has long been one of my favorite critics of any medium. In this interview, we roam what it means to be a fan, her specific fandoms, rising trends in the fan univerise, gender and all sorts of other things. Enjoy!
Laura Miller is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a co-founder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian and other publications, and she wrote "The Last Word," a column, for the New York Times Book Review for two years. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of the "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" (Penguin, 2000).)
The Unending Shitstrom
LAURA MILLER: With fan communities like science fiction, there are these bigger issues where the outside world addresses the fandom in a way they—well, they never like it. Margaret Atwood is a really big thing because she’s a literary author who sometimes writes science fiction. But they’re mad if she calls it science fiction and they’re mad if she doesn’t call it science fiction and get all worked up about it. They have the biggest chip on their shoulder about this whole “mainstream vs. SF” thing.
Part of it is that they’re both aggrieved at being marginalized and really invested in being marginalized. So they don’t really want to be accepted. They want to be angry and self-righteous about not being accepted.
ISAAC BUTLER: That totally makes sense. We actually have a piece in the issue that mentions how the Tea Party and Fan Communities mirror each other. There is something—and I don’t think it’s specific about fan culture but rather about American culture—about binding yourself to other people through a position of unbreachable perpetual victimhood. No matter what the exterior reality is. Comic book fans and video game fans see themselves as aggrieved even though the major industry event is comic con in San Diego.
LM: For them I think it’s less about actual cultural power and more about prestige.
IB: Yeah, I agree.
LM: And prestige is so immaterial. There’s no way to measure it. You can measure how much money The Avengers makes but you can’t measure the respect that it got. I know what you mean about the comics people. Here’s an example of an interaction I've had with comics people.
I did a roundup for Salon of graphic novels. Basically, it was ten graphic novels from that year. The first time I did it, it was ten graphic novels that I was recommending for people who don’t really follow the comics genre at all. I mentioned in the column a few things that wouldn’t be in the list. And one of the things was “No Superheroes.”
I just felt the superhero mythos is taxed out. I don’t want to see another superhero movie, it’s just the same thing over and over again. But I didn’t say that, I just said “No superheroes.” I got this very angry letter from one guy. It was only one guy. I don’t want to misrepresent this. But he wrote something like, “How can you say that there’s nothing worthwhile in superheroes.”
Look, I like a lot of pop things that I feel don’t actually have that much substance. And that’s fine! But with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I want to say “This is just a superhero movie!” It’s better than most of them, but still, this superhero thing? It’s juvenile! Of course it’s juvenile! And we should be able to say that without people yelling at you. The argument against it is simply that you shouldn’t say that. It’s not about evidence that it’s not a callow thing. The argument is always that it’s not fair that you said that.
IB: As someone who likes superheroes and has read and enjoyed superhero movies and comics, I think you can say, “Well, you know there are ways through that juvenilia that you can explore some interesting thematic material. You can say some interesting things. You can ask some interesting questions.” But I don’t think that that argument contradicts that we’re talking about people dressing up in tights and beating other people up.
LM: Yes. The things that I don’t like about superhero comics are shared by a lot of other popular culture that maybe gets more respect because it doesn’t involve men in tights. But I still roll my eyes at the whole “With great power comes great responsibility for self-pity,” thing.
IB: So you didn’t feel that Spider-Man single handedly healed the wounds of 9/11?
LM: (Laughter) There’s this attempt to deny a serious effort to look at the human condition. These are fantasies of mastery. That’s a big thing that makes me not that interested in shooter video games. The fantasy of mastery it’s selling seems like a cheap lie to me. But there’s action movies that do the same thing. It’s just that that particular pandering is something that I kind of roll my eyes over.
I’m not the biggest romantic comedy fan in the world because they tend to be bad, and it’s the same kind of bad. I feel it’s just pandering. Or it’s peddling a myth that people find comforting. Romantic love is supposed to make all these problems go away. You’re left thinking “This couple is together and so all of the conflict they had earlier in this story is cured because they’re fucking now?! COME ON!” (laughter) That’s bullshit!
The Romance Novel: Most Despised Fandom?
IB: One thing that you said earlier that I wanted to return to is this thing that’s happened with some fan communities where there’s this idea that what people really wanted social and cultural capital to accrue to things that they loved. And instead what happened is financial capital accrued to their interest. But social and cultural capital rely on scarcity. So if they’re popular enough to make money, then they can’t by definition generate the kind of social and cultural capital that people want.
LM: With a lot of fans, I think the chip they have on their shoulder is someone that they actually know—their girlfriend, their parents, their friends—gives them a hard time for being into something that’s a bit goofy.
And it seems to me the parallel to all of this is the world of Romance and being a romance novel fan. Because they're the most despised fandom of all! Nothing that these comic book people can say can even begin to measure up to the kind of ridicule that people are subjected to if they like romance. You’ll see people like epic fantasy fans are pissing all over romance fans.
IB: Is that a gender thing do you think?
LM: Oh yeah, it’s totally a gender thing.
IB: It’s interesting because you cover, occasionally, sci-fi and comic books and things like that and high fantasy with that George RR Martin article—
LM: You should bear in mind that I’ve read George RR Martin. And I love Tolkein. But I don’t know that much about epic fantasy. I liked George RR Martin, but I wouldn’t even call myself a fan of that.
IB: Right. But do you write about the romance world as well?
LM: Not really. I have the same issues with romances I do with super heroes. Romance does have some problems that are innate to the form that keeps it from being accepted.
I’ve never seen a super hero thing where I felt, “Wow, I was moved and that really made me think and there was something aesthetically daring” the way I have in certain kinds of science fiction, because science fiction is such a huge tent. There’s a lot of beautifully written, psychologically realistic, daring science fiction out there. I’ve read more science fiction because it has the expansive boundaries of literature.
With romance, I try to follow that world and know something of what’s going on in that world as part of my beat. My first contact with them as a contemporary genre was when I was writing about vampires. This was three or our years ago. For the Wall Street Journal. I was asking “Why are vampires so popular?” I read a lot of them and discovered that most vampire novels are really romance novels.
IB: They’re sort of gothic romances, right?
LM: Well, no! There’s this genre called “Paranormal Romance.” Twilight is sort of a romance and sort of a paranormal. There’s this thing called “Urban Fantasy” and this thing called “Paranormal Romance” and there’s a blurry line between them. Urban Fantasy is basically a detective genre that has all of these fantasy elements in it. So the detective or the hero will be an exorcist and there’s this cosmology where they live in the recognizable world but there are demons. Did you ever watch The Dresden Files?
IB: I know what it is. But I haven’t seen it.
LM: Well, he’s a wizard. But he’s also a private eye. So you can hire him. That was a cross-genre thing that started up in the 90s. But so paranormal romance—(laughter) I feel like a naturalist with these things—paranormal romances are all set in the same world but in each novel in the series, a different couple get together. Whereas Urban Fantasy will often have the same character who is, say, a bounty hunter and she—usually she, sometimes he—has a series of adventures with the same characters. Sookie Stackhouse is a classic example.
LM: Each one of those True Blood books is a little mystery. It’s a serial monogamy story. I quite like the Sookie Stackhouse books because they seem weirdly realistic. She’s like a 26 year old girl and she’s trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. And she gets with this guy who is sexy and dangerous and she also has friends and she’s torn between different subcultures and communities and so this is an example of one that I have actually liked.
But in terms of romance-romance, where a couple meet and at the end they’re in love and it’s happy ever after? That I find to be really false. The subject matter is human relationships but it’s a completely dishonest depiction of human relationships.
I do like the more urban fantasy ones because Sookie falls in love with a guy and then he turns out to not be what she thought, and then she’s attracted to a more alpha male kinda guy but she’s never going to be a priority for him. No matter how ridiculous the whole vampire thing is, that feels real, that feels like a real thing that happens to people. It’s my idea of good popular entertainment because the things she has to deal with are things that the readers have to deal with in their everyday lives.
IB: Like needing to get her driveway repaved!
LM: Yes! Or cleaning out her attic or trying to hang on to her family identity.