Fandom and the Cult of Personality

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Title: Fandom and the Cult of Personality
Creator: zoepaleologa
Date(s): August 18, 2006
Medium: online post
Fandom: Harry Potter
External Links: Fandom and the Cult of Personality; archive link page 1, archive link page 2
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Fandom and the Cult of Personality is a 2006 post by zoepaleologa.

It was written in response, in part, to The Cassandra Claire Plagiarism Debacle: "There may have been one or two wake up calls over the past few weeks, though, as some of the fans finally dared suggest their empresses were naked."

The post has 95 comments.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Post

The tale of the Animal Farm so transparently mirrors the history of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet State, as well as the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky, that a child can read it easily enough and get the point of Orwell’s allegorical telling. One of the big issues of Soviet, and later other copied models of socialism (and indeed not just Socialism), was the Cult of Personality. Russian socialism (be aware that communism was being aimed for, but was never achieved) deified the leader as almost divine. Well, that seems to be a pretty apposite comparison. Somehow, in coming together to enjoy being fans of the work of J K Rowling, or failing that, her characters and settings, we’ve pretty much moved away from any egalitarian stuff at the beginning. And I’d bet things were pretty equality based at first.

You do not come into fandom to be big, but to share.

Why do you come into fandom? Well, for any number of reasons, and as a result of a number of drivers; mostly because you want to discuss the books, or read stuff about the characters in the books, and so on. You might be impatient for the next book and are thus led to fanfiction – which will supply you a free of charge possible resolution of the saga. You might like a certain character and want to meet similar souls who agree with you. You might want to read stories that centre on that character, in a way that Rowling’s canon doesn’t. You might (I did) hope to make friends.

I came in after OOTP because no one in my real life had read it, at least to the extent of wanting to discuss it in any depth, and I found like minded fans on HPFGU. Others have come via a friend being in the fandom, and enthusing, or by finding a fanfic and being led to the books, all that.

One thing’s for sure, we all walk in equal. Canon thumper, role player, character fangirl, there ought to be no difference at all. Why ever should there be? Surely we are united by some liking of the Harry Potter universe?

So where does it go wrong?

An lj friend hit the nail solidly on the head when she asked the most pertinent question of all to my mind, which is why on earth we almost deify certain fen, be it as archive owners, or most usually fanficcers. Archive owners indubitably deserve admiration because they support a resource that affords pleasure to many, help the writer who wants a home for their fannish writing, and all usually out of their own (not very deep) pockets. People who run the big canon forums and resources, are also deserving of praise and admiration. They all add to the package the fan is getting. What they do makes fandom a better place, no question. When I’m writing fanfiction, I generally have the Lexicon open in a browser tab, when a canon book has just come out, like most I have several discussion forums open afterwards.

Do such fans have greater entitlement to a place in fandom than the “rank and file” fan? No. We all walked into fandom at the same level. Besides, no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head and making them cough up. It’s reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald’s silly assertion: “The very rich are different from you and me.” And Hemingway’s more sensible answer: “Yes, they have more money.” Archive owners, site owners just have a bigger stake in fandom, not a better one. Or rather their resource is the thing that is big, the person who starts and runs it is the same. No one would deny the passion of a Lexicon owner, or an archive mistress, but passion is their own, and while we undoubtedly benefit from it, it is not something that elevates them above any other fan. There are plenty fen who are equally passionate about this or that aspect of their fandom, but do not make any fiscal contribution to it – maybe they cannot afford to, maybe they lack the time. It does NOT make them lesser.

I’ve seen [the term 'writing goddess'] used by fangirls on a number of occasions, on each appended to fanfic writers who are emphatically not goddesses, writing or otherwise. Please accept this pleading to cease the ridiculous hyperbole. High praise can often be deserved by good fanfiction: “This is a really compelling and entertaining story” (if you receive such from me, do not go, “Buh” but accept I can offer no higher praise), “That was exceedingly hot smut and turned me on mightily”, “This was an intriguing and well written character study of Minor Character X”: those all seem deserved and fair praise with good fanfiction. Anything more tends to be cringemakingly over the top. I’ve seen fanfiction reviewed in terms that Booker Prize winners might envy.

Or cringe at.

Word to the wise, too. The libido is a lousy judge of literature. Just ‘cos something makes you twitch, it does not make it well written.

Sure, there are writers who are better than others – same as on your bookshelf. On mine, King sits next to Doestoevsky. I love Stephen King’s work, but he’d freely admit (probably) that he’s not up there with Dostoevsky. Nevertheless, I read Stephen more than I read Fyodor.

Fanfiction writers get paid for their labours, too. In the review, in the correspondence from people who liked the story and wanted to tell the writer. There’s a bit of added value for the serious writer, in that they get to practice in a moderately competitive arena, and will have a modified and microcosmic experience of publication without any of the scary real hassles of rejection, and the cost of postage.

Readers enjoy reading stories, but they read once, either enjoy or not (and I’ve had some vilely painful experiences as a reader of fanfiction, they far outweigh the good), and usually move on. They may pay up in the form of a review, but do not have to. I do not always review because I am not much cop at constructive criticism.

That’s the relationship. No one OWES fanfiction writers anything. I got a bigger buzz out of stories that were less reviewed, because I like what I did better. But I got the biggest blast of all before I posted a word on any of them. I get fear as I post, but again, no one made me post a word, no one held a gun to my head.

That, I suspect, is true for each and every fanfiction writer out there. Regardless of the comparative quality of their work and everyone should remember this, that what I consider good is not what others consider good and vice versa. Who is right? Fucked if I know – because the whole thing is subjective. I’ve been pointed to stories I consider (greying) pants by people who I like. I’ve also seen stories that were not considered good that I loved. Some of my favourite fanfics are not necessarily wonderful writing, but there was a sort of core truth to the story that made me excuse the technical stuff, and love the story. I like story stories better than anything.

It is a fact little acknowledged that almost every story will have its fans. If we ALL have fans and admirers, then we are all equal.

And having more fans does not make any of us more equal than others. More popular, but certainly not entitled to form a Cult of Personality. Besides which, such always ends in a topple of marble – and that’s if only your statue is available.

Excerpts from Comments at the Post

Only problem with the 'all fans are equal' thing is that fans become fans of other fans (in other words, BNF fangirls), and as a result of this the 'popular' fans, the ones you pointed out that feel the need to be entitled, think they're better than every other fan out. I bet that some of them even feel that because they put in more 'effort' into the fandom (by working perilously on their fansites or fics or whatever), they deserve recognition and 'fame' more than your average fan, which is about 99.9999% of the Potter fans. I mean, those who feel entitled are a fraction of a percentage of the MILLIONS of Potter fans in the world, most of which don't give a flying fuck about the internet fandom (including my brother and cousin, who love the books and like the movies, but don't have interest in internet politics). I wish some of them realised how insignificant they are in the overall fandom, most of which wouldn't touch a fansite with a ten foot pole, despite loving the books.
[ partlybouncy ]:

I'd still like to see the adulation in this fandom centred back where it belongs, on its creator and founder, and not on this or that ficcer. And when fans are admired, they behave with a little more class and grace and not take themselves so bloody damn seriously. I think if fandom needs something to focus on, well... I want to say archivists and zines but there are inherent problems with that. Look how HPforGrownUps spawned personality conflicts that helped fuel conflicts like the ones there, at FA.Org, at GT and Sugar Quill. A lot of that seems to have piggy backed on the cult of personality issue where the sites were not so much about or viewed as being about the canon but rather viewed as being about the people behind them.

But there are plenty of examples of fans who took their craft seriously, who archived with out being about their personality, where the zines and archive were created over differences in canon or appreciations of the differences in canon. This seems to be a bit of a case in some of the slashier parts of HP but I don't have enough experience in that fandom to know. I know this is true in various parts of the Star Trek community. TaraLJC created Lower Decks and the P/T Collective not as an extension of her own ego or over a personal conflict with others but because of her appreciating a certain of a pairing and neglected canon characters. In doing so, she at the same time created writing resources for others to help them with their fic writing and served as a mentor to a number of newer fen of all ages. Diane Marchant, who is credited with publishing the first Kirk/Spock story, is viewed similarly. The stories I hear about her personally have to do with how helpful and nice she was on a personal level. She engaged in meta discussion of Kirk/Spock. She was friendly with other BNFs of the era. But at the same time, she is supposed to have welcomed fen into her home on a regular basis and discussed with them all things Star Trek. She helped organize conventions, revolutionary ones in a sense. There is no feeling, amongst the recountings of stories about her, that she did this for material gain, fame or access.

Certain fandoms stand out against the normal rule of how things are.

Things like LiveJournal invite fen into the private lives of authors in a way that was never done before that can invite more examples of classless, tacky behavior that is more easily featured in things like Fandom_Wank. And some fen are capitalizing on the personal nature of LiveJournal as a way to augment, to help their own desire for fame in their fandom which has become a goal in and of itself.


Sadly, entitlement is not new. I can still remember conversations back in the late 1990s where fans felt entitled to do whatever they want and the creators should not have a say in their actions. This included creating fan sites, selling merchandise, writing fan fiction. When fandom was smaller and there were more people who had connections to the creators, this historically, at least based on my own observations, was less of a problem. But in those cases in the past, the most influential people were the ones who had direct connections with the creator. The Harry Potter fandom does not seem to have people who can and do call up JK Rowlings, nor any of the actors. The closest I think anything can be said regarding that, again based on my own limited knowledge of the Harry Potter fandom, was with Cairnsy who ran the fan site for either the actor who played Percy or Oliver.

Writers don't, in my not so humble opinion, deserve any sense of entitlement, any cachet from their writing in terms of a relationship entitlement wise in regards to canon. They lack the resources to do have it. Melissa Good is an example that defies that trend because, if I recall correctly, it was her writing (which to a certain degree was a result of her popularity) that helped her land a writing position on the show. Unless they can define a reason for entitlement, they don't deserve it. Being popular is not enough.


Let those fannish celebrities be total asses. Really. It will reflect back poorly on them in a number of circles because in fandom, it is all about your own good name. Protecting your friends will get the celeb props from some parts and condemnation from others. This isn't going to change. Certain segments of the celebrity fannish people are going to act like they are entitled to things continue. They are the Lindsay Lohan's of fandom. They get the limelight but it doesn't necessarily mean they get the respect that goes along with the fame.

What the rest of fandom has to do is acknowledge that they are being the fannish equivilent [sic] of Lindsay Lohan. And they need to make up for the short comings that are left in the void as most of those folks are not actively engaged in mentoring of new fen. (Or the cynic in me says, they might do that but not with out the purpose of boosting their own place in fandom.) I had some wonderful mentors in fandom. They include TaraLJC, Donna Thelen, DangerMom, Steven Savage, Sidewinder, Kannaophelia to name a few. Some of them are what I considr [sic] big name fans and they helped me because it was the nice thing to do and the wise thing to do. And thus, even though I'm not popular or well known, I spam try to mentor others in certain areas because it is the right thing to do. I did that with a lot of Good Charlotte fans and people in general in regards to fan history. The average fan's mind set needs to be reminded (and wow this sounds arrogant) that fame should not be sought as the ultimate goal. If that sort of change can happen, then the concept of noblesse oblige for writing alone at the expense of canon should, in the long term, diminish.
You know this will most likely get snitched today, and that is good. Because fandom needs to hear it. We (the fen) are all equal. And yes some marble has been toppling lately. That isn't really a bad thing to me, because I think some of the discussion coming from it has been good. Then again I'm just another fan in fandom and what I think is no more important than J. Random Fan down the block here.

All opinions are valid. I've been struck over the years by the way people really lay into opinions they disagree with, with nastiness, and hectoring. I recall being booted over my disagreement with the Vampire!Snape theory. It was offensive and totally uncalled for. Likewise I recall being defriended by someone when I suggested, after HBP that Snape was not really nice (a fact which Rowling had made fairly obvious before HBP, actually) and that most fanon versions were blown. Now, I can deal with someone not agreeing, but to defriend? I've got umpteen people on this flist who have very different views from me, but they are entitled to them.

People invest too much emotion in this whole thing. The past two weeks have demonstrated the insane levels folks go to.

Part of the emotion invested is their own passion for it though, so that is understandable. The level it gets to where holding an opinion disagreed with leads to personal unpleasantness is a bit more than I like though. I know I disagree with people over certain interpretations but I try not to get so invested in my own opinions that the unpleasantness follows. I don't consider myself a canonthumper, but I like the canon, and can live with and enjoy the fanon.

Fanfiction to me is a place to take the characters places JKR cannot or will not take them. In fanfiction we can create backstory we're unlikely to see JKR put out there. We can come up with fantastic reasons for so and so to become what they are seen as in the books. We can explore childhood issues that made Snape, Dumbledore, McGonagall et al the people we see in the books. We can explain the Dursley's dislike of magic there. We see that in the books but aside from that we don't know precisely why. Fanfiction is good for offering explanations. It's good for exploring stuff but it isn't canon. And like you say it is not world building. That world has been created, the fanfiction writer is writing within that world.

Years ago I got hooked on a series of books by Frank Herbert, the Dune series. Herbert wrote 4 of them and there was some sort of Dune encyclopedia done by fans that explained alot of his world building. Mr Herbert died in the 80s and his son with a cowriter decided to extend the series. Over 90% of the work he did in his worldbuilding NEVER saw print. He created a very rich universe in notes and such and the son found all of it in his effects in a trunk. But the work was obvious when you read the books. He did his homework, and the sequels? Paled besides the first books. And only the first two books of the original series were great, the last two had the feeling of 'I'm writing this because it's popular and I have bills to pay'.

JKR has a finite series and I know already others want her to publish more and add ons to it. I hope she resists the idea or if she carries through she can maintain quality.

Argument over disagreement is one thing, the level of sometimes spamming, backstabbing, and trolling that can arise is absurd. I've been on the end of it, usually from people who call themselves the nice ones.

Issuing quasi-legal threat is another - I've been on the end of that, too, by one of the more bullying fandom lawyers. It's fandom for chrissakes.

I think this is a wonderfully written, thoughtful essay. I agree completely with your assertion that JKR is the #1 writer of the Potterverse. I get SO TIRED of hearing people touted as better writers ... and again, maybe the style is more lyrical or more consistent or something, but the canon books are brilliant, and JKR came up with all of that stuff and we didn't.

I'm not as bothered by hyperbole as you are, when it comes to individual review of individual fics. If someone wants to call me a 'goddess' because s/he enjoyed my fic, I'll take it as the compliment that it is. I don't actually believe I'm a goddess, or even an above-average fanfic writer. (I think to believe I'm pretty good, but again, that's in the eye of the beholder, etc.) I do take exception when so many fans have glommed onto a single writer's work as OMGTEHGREATESTEVAAH that critics of that work are vilified (yes, I'm thinking of CC, here). The whole BNF concept is befuddling to me. As someone (might have been you?) once put it so well, there should be only one Big Name in fandom, and we all know her initials very well.
[onyx noir]:
I've always had an issue with those who prefer to see their favorite characters through 'fanon' goggles, in spite of canon evidence to the contrary. While there are some very good stories out there that make their interpretation of the character work, the majority of the fictions I've come across border on canon-rape, and I find myself hitting the back button on the computer after reading no more than the first few paragraphs.
I'm very intrigued to see what this fandom will become after canon closes (maybe next year or the year after that). After various stop screaming over the way Jo dared to write their favourite RP character, or how her final book was like fanfiction, etc, etc, ad nauseam, the fandom might lose some of its insanity. There'll still be canon to discuss - book 7 will not close every question unless it is 2000 pages long. There can still be fanfic. I'd like to see a reduction in numbers.
I've been thinking in terms of a "reader revolution" ever since the the oulangi et all brouhaha. If I ever post about it I'll have this wonderful post to point to. I've always thought of fandom as city-state and lately been thinking about readers as second class citizens. I'm not completely sure we should all be equal as writers contribute the basic goods while the organizers contribute luxury goods but maybe yes. I'm still thinking about it.

I skimmed the wanks that came up in the past few weeks and had to realise that I'd never heard of any of the participants before. Therefore, I felt rather happy in my little corner of the HP fandom, but in the past days I've seen a couple of lj entries that proved that I had just deluded myself. I'm at a complete loss why anyone would put up another fanfic writer on a pedestal. Yes, I appreciate well-written stories as well, and there are a couple of authors who I think are a cut above, but I would never fangirl them.

I wonder why so many people seem to have the urge to fangirl other writers. The only explanation I could come up with is that these people do it in order to belong to the 'in crowd' - no matter whether this 'in crowd' actually exists or is a figment of their imagination only.
You have a lot of good points here and I heartily agree with them. :) I've read reviews to some authors saying that they liked said authors' stories better than canon, and I'm like wtf?! JKR is THE word on Harry Potter! O_o Granted their stories really were well-written, but still, no fan fiction out there can be better than canon.
alias sqbr:

I think part of the problem here is that fanfic means different things to different people: to you (and, as it happens, to me, most of the time :)) it's a consistent expansion of the pre-existing universe, and if the tone is noticably different from the original text then your'e doing something wrong. For others the original text is just a launching pad for exploring whatever the author feels like (often porn, but sometimes something more interesting) "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" is a good example of "fanfic" where the characters and tone differ wildly from the text.

Of course this doesn't change the fact that most fanfic is simply bad (or at least not that fantastic), and the variations from canon are just bad writing, not postmodern explorations of the text :D

I was thinking about this last night: I think HP in particular is prone to this sort of thing becuase (imho) JKR's major defining strength is a fantastic ability to create an immersive, layered world that sucks the reader in completely. This inspires people to write stories set in her universe even if they're not particularly taken with other aspects of her writing, ie the rather simple style and the fact that (at least until HBP :)) being childrens books they're rather light on sex and emotional complexity. These people aren't JKR fans, in a sense, just fans of the setting, and will like their fanfic written in whichever (generally unJKResque) style takes their fancy. But this is all rather abstract hypothesising on my part, and could be utter bunk :)