Is that true? Are we all—all of us writers—fans? Fan-like, do we not passionately—sometimes even obsessively—engage with our subjects? Do we not write in order to gain access and understanding? To be able to become part of the greater whole? But what about the freighted and fraught side of fandom? When our desire for access and intimacy creates a debit or comes at some other cost?
I put the question, as it were, to a variety of authors whom I admire and consider myself a fan. I asked them to describe their best or most interesting or most transformative experiences as fans. As the answers came back, I discovered another distinct and weirdly interesting pleasure: that of being a fan listening to fans talking about being fans.
Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) Years ago, I went to see Canadian singer/songwriter Jane Siberry perform, as I have done many times before. This one was at the El Rey on Wilshire in Los Angeles—a performance with her band. Whenever I heard her I felt lifted and filled by the music and presentation. In the 90’s in particular, I listened to Jane Siberry CDs and tapes all the time, and found her inspiring on many levels.
But at this show, at the end, after the bows, I felt a curious pang of longing as she exited, a desire to go have dinner with her and her band, to lean in with intensity and tell her what her songs meant to me. To try to convey something that would be difficult to convey. It was curious, even odd, because I felt such acute loss even at the same time that I felt full and nourished by what had happened at the concert. So why did I care? I wanted, at that moment, to be her friend, to be in the inner circle.
She had been a little more accessible in her latest tours by holding salons at people’s houses and that slightly confused the relationship for me. Did I know her? Did she know my name? For one of those salons, I was given the instruction to make her a baked potato. I probably put more care into that baked potato than any I’ve ever made.
But that night at the El Rey, my pang seemed to have more to do with fame and longing, the desire to be her buddy, to know her, to have her know me, to have my love for her music—and therefore myself—validated somehow.
But—and I can’t recall if she said anything to this effect or if it just clicked into place for me, it struck me as I was leaving the theatre, returning to the feeling of the music itself, that the intimacy had already happened. That what I experienced with her singing and songwriting was where I met her, where she taught me something and moved me. It was so incredibly unlikely that hanging out at a restaurant would have anywhere near the impact that I felt when listening over and over to her songs.
I’ve thought of this too on occasion at readings, when signing books. Sometimes someone will seem moved by the book, and I will feel the same pang—that we can’t quite access the connection that has already happened via the page. That that connection is deeper and is acknowledged simply by the act of it happening. That reader and I connected. Jane Siberry and I connected. But it’s invisible.
The whole concept of fandom switched in my mind that night. I think the longing to be someone’s friend, to be seen ‘back’, is a denial of the reader or listener’s role in the process. The listener matters. Is essential. Without the listener, the music doesn’t exist. If the music or book is understood deeply, that is because the reader/listener has brought a lot to it. As Paul Auster says, writer and reader both make the book.
Bonnie Nadzam (Lamb): Any transformative experiences I’ve had as a fan—of anything or anyone—have not been good. I equate fandom with excitement, and being excited makes me want to throw up. Sometimes, one might be moved to say: “________? I’m all about that.” or “_____ is so me.” or “I am a huge fan of _______. Huge.” Worst of all, “I am an avid ______.” If you catch me in the midst of such an expression, or even entertaining a thought like that, I will probably also have vomit all over me.
Ryan McIlvain (Elders): It’s difficult to describe my unqualified love for Marilynne Robinson, not least because of how qualified it is. I’ve read all her books, and I’ve loved every minute of them, even when I haven’t. Here’s what I think I mean: I can disagree with Marilynne Robinson–particularly in her nonfiction, I can often disagree–but I can never disagree with her Marilynne Robinsonness. I can only admire it, stand in awe of it: its effortless grace, its bravery, its utter comfort in its own skin. The skin of Robinson’s prose, as with her ideas, is so remarkably delicate at times that you feel sure the whole edifice will eventually fracture and collapse, turning to dust the way the first delicate Pompeian shell must have done at the excavator’s shovel-prod. In this case you’re the one doing the prodding, and you hold your breath waiting for the imminent collapse, reading on to the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page–but the almost magical self-composure continues.
Take a passage from Robinson’s latest essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Early on she describes the righteous pessimism about humanity that spread its influence across most of her undergraduate education. When a philosophy professor happens to assign a Jonathan Edwards treatise, the young Robinson encounters “a gorgeous footnote about moonlight that even then began to dispel the dreary determinisms I was learning elsewhere. Improbable as that may sound to those who have not read the footnote.” The passage is beautiful in the tossed-off yet stately way that so many of Robinson’s passages are beautiful. It’s also strategic, invulnerable, cagey, just this side of disingenuous in the way it cuts off the thought mid-thought. Or, really, in the way it cuts us off mid-thought. Okay, we’re thinking, okay, now let’s see this footnote. You’re right that we haven’t read it, yes, we’re your skeptical secular audience, but we’re willing, even eager–and did we miss it? The footnote? Is it in one of your footnotes? Is it in the endnotes at the back of the book?
It isn’t, and it wouldn’t be, not in Robinson. She is not a persuader. She is not trying to preach to the unconverted. Her writing is much more prayerful than persuasive, a soliloquy that she speaks, in Shakespearean fashion, mostly to overhear herself speaking, to figure herself out to herself. It is a style that implicitly acknowledges the ultimate subjectivity of thought, of mental experience. And this is what makes it at once so fascinating and so frustrating: it provides a partial view onto a brilliant mind, a mind that is not our mind, after all, a mind whose contrary rhythm and logic remind us how impossible true empathy is, but whose beauty and confidence still invite us to approach as nearly as we can.