Who is a “fan”? A One-Directioner, or, half a century ago, someone caught in the throes of Beatlemania? Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Is this the Year of the Fan?

Introducing her new column on fan culture for the NS, Elizabeth Minkel explains why 2014 feels like a turning point in the appreciation of how people who love something interact.

When I say “fan”, what springs to mind? A football supporter, bellowing a team’s anthem? A Harry Potter lover, decked out in full house colours, waiting for the new book at midnight? A One-Directioner – or, half a century ago, someone caught in the throes of Beatlemania – fainting when the boys first grace the stage? People dressed as superheroes down to the tiniest detail, swarming a convention centre? A culture – maybe online, maybe in person – that frightens you, that seems dangerously fixated or depressingly antisocial, living in basements, playing with action figures, rolling twenty-sided dice? Or a culture – maybe online, maybe in person – that defines you: a place where you’ve found community, a way to live deeply within the space of a person or a thing that you admire, the purest distillation of a world ordered by taste?

Perhaps it’s because in the past year I’ve written a number of pieces about fan culture, both for this site and The Millions, where I’m a staff writer. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeling more and more emboldened to discuss a big part of my life that I’ve kept under wraps for the past two decades. But all over recently, at parties, standing outside pubs after work, on various social media platforms, people are asking me about fans – or, more specifically, about fandom. “Is this a new thing?” many wonder. These are not self-identified fans or members of (a) fandom (and I’d argue that one of the only real requirements for either of these things is self-identification). But they’ve seen a whole lot of talk about it – about how Fifty Shades of Grey was Twilight fanfic, or how every media outlet in the world had a reporter at San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, or how fan activity can revive a television show from the dead, or how fannish types dominate certain corners of the web. “It’s not new,” I always tell these curious people. “It’s just that these days, for a whole host of reasons, it’s a hell of a lot easier for everyone to see.”

How old is fandom exactly? Certainly people obsessed – and obsessed collectively – long before we had a term for it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “fan” dates all the way back to 1682, with a definition that begins simply, “a fanatic”. (Fanatic, 150 years older: “Such as might result from possession by a deity or demon; frantic, furious. Of a person: Frenzied, mad.”) The shortened “fan” rose to prominence in America in the nineteenth century, mostly referring to baseball. But don’t worry: if you don’t love the slightly crazed connotation of fan(atic), you’ve got The Dickson Baseball Dictionary’s assertion that fan actually derives from “fancy”, an older English term for boxing supporters that migrated across the Atlantic. (That same dictionary then gives yet another alternative suggestion, that “fan” comes from baseball spectators using programmes to fan themselves at games. Hey, why not – though this one feels a whole lot more improbable.)

By the early twentieth century, “fan” was no longer largely the exclusive province of baseball. The term became attached to theatre, then film. Other sports had fans just as ardent as baseball devotees. We begin to see fan used to refer to any old enthusiasm. (My favorite in the OED entry, from 1928: “What about...your League of Nations and disarmament fans?” Great fandom.) The OED dates fandom back to 1903 – fan plus the “abstract suffix of state”. Fans always collected; now there was a term for it. In the middle of the century, science fiction enthusiasts embraced the term and brought us the first “fan fiction”, original sci-fi penned by amateur writers and published in fan magazines. Soon – and notably with the rise of media fandom, the biggest spark being the premiere of Star Trek in 1966 – fanfic became what we see today, fan-authored works derived from original source material. Until the advent of the web, most collective fan activity was done in person or by mail, fan zines compiled and distributed, and conventions and parties to bring people together. Unsurprisingly, with the advent and spread of access of the web, fan activity has exploded. Early message boards, mailing lists, and dedicated fan sites gave way to fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, then YouTube, Tumblr, AO3 or Wattpad or a host of other platforms. Today there are an endless number of spaces online to find people who love something as much as you do.

What are the key moments in the history of the fan? The day the TARDIS first materialised onscreen? The Saturday Night Life monologue during which William Shatner told Trekkies to “get a life”? When Rainbow Rowell’s novel about a fanfic writer became an international bestseller? Pinpointing moments in the history of fandom is a tricky prospect. The way we love and obsess over things, and the way we express that love, is culturally specific, shaped by time and place and the medium in which we can air those obsessions. And if you consider yourself a fan, you likely have your own constellation of historical markers. For me, it might be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saying to a man who wanted to adapt Sherlock Holmes for the stage: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” It might be J K Rowling, on a train from Manchester to London with a flash of inspiration and without a working pen. It might be the mere existence of Joss Whedon. It might be the first book I read without stopping and then immediately began to spin new stories about. It might be the most recent one, or the next one.

Fresh off wall-to-wall coverage of San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, we can see a media landscape surrounding the world’s biggest fan gathering that would have looked alien half a decade ago. For every baffled and gawking reporter (and, infuriatingly, still, for every reporter asking the cast of a popular TV show to read – and mock – their fans’ work), there are a few more who get it. A lot has changed recently; a lot stubbornly remains the same. So where are we now, in 2014? With pull-to-publish fanfic-to-traditional book publishing deals seen as notable trends rather than outlier phenomena? With MTV hosting the first ever “Fandom Awards” at SDCC – and with fans equal parts embracing and railing against this corporatisation move? With grumbling commenters on various television and film reviews claiming that “fanservice” ruined whatever they were watching? With millions of fans feeling exposed by the relatively recent attention; with millions more excited to talk about their passions openly?

A few months back, I saw a post on Fyeahcopyright, a tumblr about fanworks and legal issues written and edited by lawyers Heidi Tandy and Hannah Lowe. The post chronicled a few positive instances of fan/creator interactions – particularly Sleepy Hollow, with its knowing and gentle embrace of its fans – and posited that all of this increased attention of and respect for fans could signal “The Year of the Fan”. The phrase really struck me. Can we label this “The Year of the Fan?” A quick google search revealed that there have been a few somewhat feeble-seeming attempts at years of fans in the past – a season-long promotion for an American baseball team, or a series of South Park full of winking in-jokes – but this is more about a collective feeling, some positive momentum, something that’s been gathering steam at an exponential rate recently.

I’m well aware that five years ago – maybe even just two or three years ago – I wouldn’t have been asked to write a column about fan culture. I wouldn’t have pitched it, either. But the world has changed – is changing, and quickly. Many fans have spent years, decades, even, shielding themselves from mainstream scrutiny – but it’s impossible to deny that the scrutiny is here, butting up against things a lot of people have held cloistered for a long time (and, given the misunderstanding and mockery, with good reason). As technology advances, the shapes of our conversations change, as does the way we consume media – and even the way that media is created is shifting. We’re watching the world of entertainment and the way we engage with it reshape itself in real time. And it’s easier than ever to see the other people who love our thing, or the people who make our thing, or the people who want to monetise our love of the thing.

Clashes are inevitable, and it’s those clashes that I want to explore. Some of them are very new; some of them are probably as old as the word “fan” itself. I’ve got a few things lined up in the coming months. I’m going to explore the so-called Young Adult literature “boom”, and try to tackle the various controversies around YA in the news in recent months. I want to explore the demographics of fan communities, particularly gender discrepancies. I’ll be checking out new platforms – corporate and organic alike – for fan engagement, and how the increasing visibility of fans is shaping the way books, TV, and films are made. I’ll try to figure out why sports fans get a pass for the same sorts of behaviours for which other fans are mocked. I’ll be looking at the newest generation of fans, born on the web, shifting fan conventions for non-digital natives. Since I started writing about fandom, I’ve got into dozens of wonderful conversations with people who obsess over people who obsess; if this sounds like you, please get in touch.

Is this the Year of the Fan? Perhaps. Or maybe that’ll be next year, or the year after that, or a decade from now, when all this culture-shifting reaches some sort of equilibrium. Perhaps I’ll conclude with Fyeahcopyright’s final sentence as well, one that I’m incapable of hearing as anything but the final song of the Buffy musical episode: “Where do we go from here?”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge