The Social Fandom, The Solitary Fan: An Inconclusive Theory

Long, complicated intersections of conversations and renegade trains of thought yesterday resulted in the singularly obvious observation that simpler, more accessible stories are always going to be more popular (and possibly more ephemeral) than the more complex, less accessible stories will be. While your mind is busy comprehending the sheer obviousness of that statement, I’m going to spend a wee bit more time with it in relation to the greater concept of fandom (maybe).

Fandom is, essentially, a social activity. One can be a “fan” of something without necessarily being social, but “fandom” exists in the social sphere and is the social function of being a fan of something. The word “fandom” provides the perception of a monolithic entity even as we recognize that fandom consists of people with wildly differing temperaments, personalities, tastes, and extra-fandom interests. When we speak of fans, we refer to the general monolith of fandom; when we speak of a fan, we refer to a specific person within the fandom. In other words, “fans” can be abuzz with social gossip and conversation that any single given member of fandom might not care about, lending apathy, confusion, or anger to the fan whose concerns lie outside whatever the latest gossip is. We see the effect in a giant robot fan isolated in a sea of “omg did you see that pantyflash?!”, and we see it in the cute girl fan isolated in a sea of “omg did you see that rocket punch?!”; this effect is, of course, multiplied when you’re both talking about the same series.

In light of this, it’s important to remember that there are two directions that works tend to lean: one reaches out, towards the social environment; another reaches in, towards the text itself. Northrop Frye refers to these as the “centrifugal” and “centripetal” motions of literature respectively; in a move that will either please or displease my English degree-holding overlords, for this purpose let’s assume that the “centrifugal” or outward-movement is directed towards fandom, and the “centripetal” or inward-movement is directed towards a fan. Both of these exist simultaneously in any given work, especially considering that to have any centrifugal effect, a work generally must have some sort of centripetal effect.

It should come as no surprise, then, that there are some works that are more amenable to all the multitudes of fan activities that fandom is comprised of. Regardless of the relative quality or popularity of works that possess this trait, they tend to be simpler and broader in their appeal. They are the works that are easy to like and, conversely, easy to dislike; they are our SHIN MAZINGER SHOUGEKI! Z-HEN on TELEVISIONs, our K-ON!s, our Maria-sama ga Miterus, our Code Geass-s. For whatever reason, the centrifugal response that manifests in fandom comes naturally, and so they tend to dominate most public discourse simply because it’s easier to.

On the other hand, there are some works that are more amenable to the vagaries of an individual fan than fandom at large. Again, regardless of the relative quality or popularity of works that possess this trait, they tend to be complex and focused in their appeal. They are the works that are difficult to like or dislike, and more likely to leave a strong, positive impression on the viewer; they are our Serial Experiments: Lains, our Kaibas, our Sky Crawlers-s, our The Girl Who Leapt Through Times. For whatever reason, the centripetal response that manifests as a personal response to the work comes naturally, leaving them to be more subdued when discussed in a social context.

We have, of course, temporarily ignored the giant Day-Glo elephant in the room, which is that every work has some degree of leaning in either direction. Some works will actually lend themselves well to both ways, able to draw in and maintain a broad audience while still providing the complexity needed to provoke more personal and analytical reactions. These tend to be the major landmark successes: they are the Neon Genesis Evangelions, the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiyas, the Mobile Suit Gundams, the Tengen Toppa Gurren-Laganns. They tend to provoke controversy and leave lasting impacts in both fan and fandom, occasionally in society itself.

The two directions, also, entail different types of social interaction, it seems: the centrifugal direction finds its home making simple subjective judgments, i.e. “this character > that character”, “this episode > that episode”, “this show > that show”, etc.; the centripetal direction tends to provoke more analytical responses than simple subjective judgments, and finds its expression more an “appreciation” than an “enjoyment,” although certainly enjoyment is a major factor for it as well. This also accounts for some amount of weirdness when a work we consider to be directed in one direction is treated in the other; we all scratch our heads over the “Sky Crawlers sucks I give it negative eleventeen stars” as much as we have the “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Maria+Holic: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.”

What does this all get us, besides an inadvertent preliminary draft of Northrop Frye (With Creative Embellishments) for Anime Fans? I’m not entirely for certain, unfortunately, but I can hardly think it disadvantageous to take a step back and realize that sometimes there’s a reason a woefully ignored, brilliant masterpiece isn’t getting discussed as much as the flavor-of-the-week: it’s harder to discuss, especially on a place like the Internet, the primary function of which seems to be demonstrating that inane prattle is exactly as common as it is, rather than the fervently-hoped-for less so.

A quick bibliography:

This Ask John article sparked the conversation that sparked the process that ended up as this post.

Also read cuchlann’s excellent postulate of where fandom comes from, as applied to Maria-sama ga Miteru but also generally applicable as well.

If you somehow develop the urge to read Northrop Frye and you haven’t already, The Anatomy of Criticism is a good place to start. Or, at least, it’s the one I recently read. It also happened to make sense but that’s likely just me.

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16 Responses to “The Social Fandom, The Solitary Fan: An Inconclusive Theory”


  1. 1 ghostlightning 13 December 2009 at 2:38 am

    Yes indeed. I find that there are works that are very difficult to discuss. Often in these works there are no “rally points” wherein which fans can unite around and shout at each other for how awesome the work is and how much they love them.

    Even within franchises… there is certainly a difference between the appreciation of works like MS Igloo 2 compared to Gundam 00 that has little to do with the overall quality of each, the same way there’s less talk about Macross Zero compared to Macross Frontier. I selected these examples so as to give the most recent within their respective franchises.

    • 2 OGT 13 December 2009 at 6:55 pm

      I think it’s because the “rally points” tend to be much more casual talking points; it’s easier to have an argument about how much better than Sheryl Ranka is, if rather unproductive and prone to end in fisticuffs. Which is why you’ll see works like that get popular (more buzz, more word of mouth, more people aware that this work exists).

      It might be more difficult to discuss how I like Frontier or Macross, and more productive; still more difficult would be determining the subjective (or, heaven forfend, the objective) value of each, but for me that actually gets less productive because I appear to be a freak of nature who doesn’t have a linear hierarchy of “best -> worst” or something similar. Or, in fact, much of a hierarchy at all.

      • 3 ghostlightning 13 December 2009 at 11:03 pm

        Much of 20th century theory rails against hierarchy and I’m pretty much ‘raised’ on this so I too have little sympathy for top lists, or even the very idea of an objective canon.

        My lists are very subjective, and are built on appreciation and enjoyment… more on persuasion rather than proving.

        So, I also hesitate to think that you privilege less popular, more inaccessible works that are more challenging to talk about; though I don’t see anything wrong for liking or preferring these.

        I too, like many works that even I don’t like talking about and I don’t see anything wrong with that either.

        And yet, something like an idea — like this one can be a rallying point for people of a certain persuasion, as can be observed among us your commenters.

  2. 4 Cuchlann 13 December 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Unnngh!! Nerdgasm!

    I tend to be odd, of course, and can’t really talk much about something unless it has an “inward-leaning” tendency of some kind. So your hypothetical Maria+Holic post sounds amazing to me. I *enjoy* works I can’t discuss in that way, but I’m left with nothing to particularly say about them. Which makes them a little more transient (which I think was your word), as the discussion cements the other works in my mind.

    But in general I think you’re describing something fundamental within the space between the work and the fandom. Excellent work.

    • 5 OGT 13 December 2009 at 7:00 pm

      I tend to value the more inward-leaning tendencies myself for discussion purposes; the more outward-leaning it goes the more frivolous the conversation gets and the less I pay attention to it. Come to think of it, that’s probably why I don’t really care that much about SaiMoe…

  3. 6 neko 13 December 2009 at 8:28 pm

    what a great post. i am a mind game/kaiba/kemonozume/cat soup fan, so i found your ideas specially stimulating (specially when you accept that Northrop Frye’s theory can be generally applied to any artform).

  4. 7 Pontifus 13 December 2009 at 10:21 pm

    You’re definitely on to something insofar as there are shows/franchises/properties/things that are more “conventional” than others, which is to say they engage more thoroughly with the wants of their consumers and are more conducive to being cultural artifacts. Let me get your opinion on this, though: what about something like Ulysses, or some of Murakami’s stuff, stories that actively use and even attempt dialogue with pop culture, but are structurally pretty clearly centripetal? I suppose Lain would be something like that. Its trappings — the social internet, online gaming, and so on — are familiar; its structure and dynamics as a story aren’t, really. Does the centripetal or centrifugal lean of a story ultimately depend on how “easy” it is — that is, how willing it is to work, structurally speaking, on the reader’s terms, or as the reader expects?

    • 8 OGT 14 December 2009 at 9:35 pm

      I don’t think that having any reference or dealings with pop culture skews a work one way or the other; in addition to Haruki Murakami novels and presumably Ulysses (one of these days…), there’s also authors like Umberto Eco who make reference to pop culture while still being more centripetal than centrifugal (seriously, Frye, those are bizarre yet great words for literature).

      In the framework I outline above I would tentatively agree with you. To be slightly more (or less) clear, perhaps, a more centrifugal tendency crops up when it’s easier for the reader to dissociate elements of the work and treat them as independent entities. The ability to be more abstracted from the work proper when socializing seems to be highly conducive to more general discussion and buzz about a given work.

      For example, it’s much easier to say “Taiga is cute~” than it is to offer a detailed analysis of her character; you can do either but the former is quicker, more of a casual gloss, and any listener can quickly relate to it (either in agreement or disagreement), and voila: a conversation develops. Analysis has the same effect, of course, but it’s much less of an abstraction and isn’t always as immediately relatable to any given listener, and some listeners might not be able to relate at all (except, perhaps, to gloss and treat it as a more verbose “Taiga is cute~” and react accordingly).

      That’s a guess, though, and I don’t how how right or wrong it might be.

      • 9 Pontifus 16 December 2009 at 8:57 am

        When it’s easier for the reader to dissociate elements of the work — yeah, good call. I’d agree that that’s a big part of it. It’s probably related to Hiroki Azuma’s whole database thing, but like I told Cuchlann the other day, I really should read Azuma’s book about all that before I try to reconcile it with other theory.

        • 10 Cuchlann 22 December 2009 at 11:03 pm

          I don’t think references to pop culture necessitate a movement outside the text at all — they simply comprise the material of the text. If they did, then everything would work that way, as every word refers to something outside the text. Instead, I think the outside-leaning OGT is identifying is a method of the text, rather than a content. Think of a Shinbo show, that drives deeper and deeper into its own consciousness often *more* through external references than with any other method. In the same way, Lucky Star uses the same thing, through a different technique, to reach out to the fandoms.

  5. 11 brentnewhall 14 December 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Thought-provoking article, and I appreciate your sensitivity to the complexity of the issue.

    I am somewhat surprised that the ‘net hasn’t developed *enclaves* of intelligent discussion about deeper, more complex works of anime. Why isn’t there some forum dedicated to the analysis of Hayao Miyazaki’s works that we see in, say, Susan Napier’s books? Maybe there is; I know I came across several individual sites that delved deep into serial experiments lain when it first came out. But they were uniformly individual works, not collaborations or active discussions.

    • 12 OGT 14 December 2009 at 9:47 pm

      nausicaa.net developed out of the Miyazaki Mailing List (which Susan Napier reported on in a Mechademia article); I think there’s a couple other mailing lists out there with an academic bent focused on anime/manga but I’m not sure where they all are. I think, in general, they just get scattered around the Web like Lain analyses and Utena analyses. Analysis (academic or amateur) is on the rise, I think, though.

      I’d also like to point out (my inner crotchety professor is kicking in here) that every work has depth of some kind, it just requires the correct set of tools to bring it out. Treating Evangelion purely from a literary perspective might turn it into narrative mush, but bringing in a sociological perspective gives fresh insight.

  6. 13 calaggie 14 December 2009 at 9:01 pm

    The distinction between centripetal and centrifugal reminded me of left brain/right brain distinctions, even though that’s more scientific and distinct.

    There certainly seems to be a disconnect (but not an uncrossable one?) between top-level enjoyment and introspection about meaningfulness, between just wanting to be entertained and desiring something deeper as well. This was a good start into a subject that could be difficult to navigate in detail since it’s based on personal readings but it feels rewarding to think about because of that.

    • 14 OGT 14 December 2009 at 9:58 pm

      I certainly don’t think the disconnect is uncrossable; if nothing else I can just point to Hark! A Vagrant’s miraculous ability to turn history into hilarity (while still being history) as an example of crossing one with the other.

      I think it’s also important (since you kind of bring it up) to point out more clearly that while a work can certainly have an innate tendency towards one or the other, in the end it is the reader that decides which direction best fits them for the work. It’s difficult to navigate, as you say, because it depends heavily on reader-response. I also don’t consider one direction or the other better than the other: one can be more personally rewarding, while the other can be more socially rewarding. All depends on what’s important to the reader in any given situation at any given time.

      • 15 Cuchlann 22 December 2009 at 11:08 pm

        Man. Hark! A Vagrant’s turning into one of my favorite comics. Dude Watchin’ with the Brontes!

        Anyway, I don’t think of the relationship of the two as something that must be crossed. That implies they’re different in some fundamental way, and I don’t believe they are; they’re merely leanings, as OGT has already said. The “deeper” things you’re describing aren’t necessarily centripetal, and the binary between “deep” and “entertaining” implies that “deep” is NOT entertaining, which isn’t true. Our media executives have trained us to think that way. If it weren’t enjoyable, no one would ever bother (except maybe Andy Warhol, but he was an ass).


  1. 1 Moment the Ninth: Sorry, kid | Super Fanicom Trackback on 17 December 2009 at 7:02 pm

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