It matters when you are part of the audience.
I spent my childhood reading stories about kids who find various magical things and go on adventures, and also just about every children's book ever published in the UK. I couldn't imagine myself in those books - it was obvious that I was never going to find a magic amulet or a secret corridor or a sand fairy; our house didn't even have a basement - but I certainly knew they were written for me.
And then I became a teenager. I was still voraciously reading, and struggling to find the genre that fit me as well as my childhood reading had. I read everything I could find - hard SF to Anne Rice, Dorothy Sayers to Charlotte MacLeod. I also read an awful lot of stuff published before 1900. (My flirtations with plain fiction and romance novels didn't pan out. I'm just not that type of girl, apparently.)
I kept casting around, though. And I kept going back and secretly re-reading the books I'd loved as a kid. Partly that was because, okay, I read like I breathed, and there were only so many books in the world, and I couldn't afford to turn my back on old favorites. But partly that was because I missed something about those books, something I couldn't identify, something I described to myself as a feeling of safety.
When I found fan fiction, I realized what I was missing. I missed being part of the audience.
I know, I know: you read something, you are obviously part of the audience. But I'm talking about the imaginary audience, the audience in the author's head, the one the book is written for.
Like, I love Sayers. But it's obvious that she didn't consider Jews as part of her audience - she considered them vaguely lesser beings. (I am picking on Sayers here, but if you read basically any fiction written before, oh, 1940, thereabouts, you will wonder if there was some kind of rule that a Greasy Money-Grubbing Jew had to appear in at least one out of every three books. If the GMGJ doesn't appear, it's only because the concept of Jews was so dirty they couldn't imagine bringing them up at all, in any context whatsoever.)
I read, and still read, a lot of hard SF, and it was impossible for me to miss the fact that women, when they appeared in these books, tended to be a) non-sentient (or merely very, very stupid), b) silent (sometimes supportive, sometimes listening, and sometimes just mute), c) present entirely for the sex interest (chance of prostitution: 30%), d) evil, or e) dead (often to further the plot or the hero's arc). Sometimes they managed all five. And if the author wanted all five of those to appear in his novel, one woman was probably going to have to pull it off, because it was a rare hard SF book that had five on-screen female characters. (A character is on-screen, by my definition, if she actually appears in the pages, rather than simply being referred to by other characters. Someone whose sole appearance is as a dead body is not an on-screen character. This rules out an awful lot of women.)
It's the same thing with being a lesbian except worse. A lot, lot worse. I will not bring up my disability, because I don't talk about it here, except to say that if that part of me appears in a story, it will be as either a clever gimmick (and a chance for a main character to grow as a person) or a sob story (and a chance for a main character to grow as a person). (No, there will never be a main character just like me. Most of the time I think that's normal, and then I look at, say, SF and think standard-issue straight white guys must have a whole different experience on this issue. How weird would it be, to have basically all mainstream media written for you like that?)
And that's just the short list. There's also such things as the random brutality to women, or, on the other side, the threat of rape presented casually, as a plot point or even as a joke, as though it were kind of like getting your car impounded and not, you know, more like dying, but having to live through it. There's all the moments in books that have made me wince away from the page for a second, thinking: wow, low blow. Or even, seriously? Did you seriously just say that?
I have loved books that featured all of those things - the dead girls, the joke rapes, the greasy Jews, the stereotyped lesbians who die at the end, the missing and evil and mute and stupid and refrigerated women. I have loved lots of books that make things I love or am or do or enjoy a joke, or a mark of evil, or nonexistent. And I still love a lot of those books. I just love them knowing I am trespassing a little, walking where I wasn't invited and am not welcome and am not supposed to be.
And here's the thing: it is painful to love something that palpably does not want you, does not see you, does not know you exist. We all remember that from high school, right? Well, in professional fiction, for quite a lot of us, high school keeps right on going.
High school, in that sense (and only in that sense, oh thank you universe and assorted deities that high school ended for me lo these many years ago and I will never, ever have to go back), ended for me when I found fan fiction. I recognized it immediately, thought, this is for me.
I was part of the audience again.
Let me repeat it: being part of the audience matters.
I think this is a big part of the discussions we keep having in fandom about things like race and gender and religion and culture and disability. (And other stuff, all the stuff I am leaving out and about to kick myself for.) People in fandom are saying: "I am here, too. I am a member of your audience, too. So why do you keep pushing me out of the building or locking me in the cabinet under the stairs?"
Here's the thing about fandom: it is not as good a fit for many people as it is for me. (Queer and female - these things are practically the order of the day in my neck of the woods. Jewish isn't the majority or anything, but blatant anti-semitism is rare enough that it generally merits a friends-locked post of nauseated horror. And we aren't going to talk about the disability thing, remember?) But fandom, as a whole, is trying to pay attention to the people out there, trying to treat them as they want to be treated. I mean, I'm trying! I have failed badly, on multiple counts, many times, but I am reading and paying attention and I am honestly trying, and I am prepared to assume that almost everyone else in fandom is doing that, too. (They may be reading and learning about different things than I am, but everyone can screw up on something. Which can be more cheerfully expressed as "everyone has something to learn," I guess. Except I am not the woman who goes for the optimistic spin, sorry.)
I mean, I could write letters to pro writers forever:
Dear Larry Niven (et al, et al, oh god et al),
One half of your species is female. Human and female. It's possible. LEARN TO DEAL. IT IS NOT TOO LATE.
Dear Georgette Heyer (and everyone else writing before 1940),
For Christ's sake, woman, stop with the greasy money-grubbing Jews already. Or just stop writing Jews altogether. In some cases, invisibility is actually a gift. I am prepared to accept that gift from you! It will even come with a wholly appropriate letter of thanks. Hand-written. I know you like the niceties.
Dear Janet Evanovich (a special case!),
Racism, homophobia, misogyny - seriously, I could go on and on, but. Look. Just pick one. Just one, and eliminate that, and I will stop making fun of you for dragging out an unbelievable love triangle for so long that the poor thing is stretched thinner than paper and is all worn away around the edges, so much so that people now use the term "a Ranger-Steph-Morelli" to describe any exceptionally beaten-into-the-ground plot device. (I can't promise to stop writing my Ranger/Steph/Morelli OT3, though, because someone has got to fix that shit, and apparently I can't help myself.)
But the thing is, no matter how many letters I write, the pro writers aren't going to read them, let alone care.
In fandom, I have faith that people are reading, and that they care.
So thank you, fandom, for making me a part of your audience, for remembering that I am here, even if I don't look or act or think or fuck exactly like you do.
And thank you for being here, reading. I promise to do my best to remember that you're there, and to learn as much as I can so I can do that better.
And that - that is something that fandom has for me, that professional writing never will: community, and an audience where I belong.
And that matters.
Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comments.