Discover more from Write More with Simon K Jones
Please stop panicking about enthusiasm
Nerd culture is not murdering intellectualism
As a child and teenager, I was awkward and shy. I was fascinated by science fiction and technology, especially computers, but didn’t know how to pursue those passions while also building friendships and trying to ‘fit in’. There was an embarrassment there, exacerbated by those people who wanted to put others into boxes; people who built up their own self-esteem through the belittling of others.
Back then, it was difficult to reconcile my ‘nerdy’ interests with being a social person. In observing my 10 year old and teenagers I know now, it seems that social dynamics have shifted dramatically. Children these days seem far more sophisticated in their interests and ability to traverse different interests and cultures without judgement.
Putting people in boxes was all standard stuff at school in the 90s, though.
As an adult none of that bothers me anymore: I have a more diverse range of interests now that I’m 43, without having felt the need to abandon the things that gave me joy as a younger person. They co-exist quite happily.
In fact, there’s a quote from C.S. Lewis that sums it up perfectly:
“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” C.S. Lewis
Growing up doesn’t have to be reductive. It can be a process of continual enrichment and enhancement, building on what’s come before in a creative rather than destructive manner.
You can be more than one thing. You can hold multiple versions of yourself in balance. You don’t have to reject parts of who you are in order to be respected.
This stuff remains important to me because my genre interests aren’t just about the things I enjoy reading and watching; they are also the foundation of my writing. I wasn’t able to publish my work and show it to readers until I moved beyond that fear of being thought of as childish.
I got thinking about this after reading a newsletter last week by Erik Hoel. Here it is:
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read by Erik1 and have been a subscriber for a long while, but I quite strenuously disagreed with this piece. Which then got me thinking about why.
Rebuild the cages
Primarily, it reminded of those boxes from high school. Cages might be a better word. That need to label and commit people to a type. Crucially, I’m not talking about people labelling themselves as something, which can be a healthy and empowering act. What I object to is the weaponising of labels against people. By labelling someone a ‘nerd’, back in the 90s, that person could be sidelined and ignored - removed from wider discourse.
This kind of cultural exclusion wasn’t something only experienced by ‘nerds’ - obviously! History is plagued with people being deliberately excluded, for all sorts of daft reasons. Feeling excluded because I liked Babylon 5 when I was 15 is the least pernicious and problematic version of this kind of gatekeeping. No need to break to the violins for me.
Consider what I’m writing in this newsletter to be more broadly about the labelling of parts of society, rather than specifically about Erik’s words. His article was a jumping off point for a whole jumble of thoughts, about my relation to cultural definitions and and structures generally, both now and when I was a struggling teenager, and so here we are.
There’s often a desire to create a defined hierarchy of culture, of high and low culture. A pyramid of sorts, in which the pinnacle is for intellectuals and other serious grown-ups, and then the bottom layers are for children and adults who have refused to grow up. Most people float around in the middle.
Notably, it’s only ever the people who perceive themselves to be at the top of this hierarchy who have any real interest in constructing and maintaining it.2
Within that hierarchy are not just people but also culture. Some cultural artifacts belong at the top, some (much more) at the bottom. It’s a perception of culture that requires ordering. X is better than Y. A is more important, more worthy than B.
The problem is that applying this kind of rigid structure onto something as beautifully chaotic as culture is inherently reductive. Declaring that only some art is worthy diminishes all of it.
Write More is a reader-supported publication. Subscribing is guaranteed to make you at least 10% more nerdy.
You can progress up the pyramid of cultural worth, but only by abandoning everything you once loved. You’ll be checked at the gate for any contraband or banned items, such as enthusiasm for genre work or enjoying things that are popular.
Fear is inherent in this view of the world. It’s a reality in which the evils of popular culture are coming to destroy everything. The fortress is constantly under attack by someone or something. A dangerous new form of music. Radio. Comics. Television. Movies. Books. Video games. These have all been things which heralded the end of culture, until they formed new, exciting branches of their own.
Which reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with an academic at the University of East Anglia. She was researching the notion of critical lag: the way critical consensus often seems to lag behind popular consensus. Something that is dismissed critically upon release as being worthless is often re-evaluated 20 years later and heralded as a cult classic; while the most lauded books and films ultimately make no cultural impact and are largely forgotten. There are, of course, exceptions across the board: the main conclusion, therefore, is that nobody knows anything.
Perhaps there’s a yearning for a simpler time, when nerds were nerds, intellectuals were intellectuals, everyone knew their place and there was no porosity between those tiers. Everyone stayed in their lane. You didn’t get people at the top of the pyramid playing video games or reading comics: that was for the plebs at the bottom. The children and child-men (girls didn’t play video games, if you recall). The upper echelons remained pure, and you could only ascend by renouncing what came before.
I’m reminded, again, of that C.S. Lewis quote.
The presented theory in Erik’s article is that the intellectual barriers were shattered twenty years ago by Lord of the Rings and Marvel movies. Oh, and Games of Thrones. Being a ‘nerd’ was suddenly cool and celebrated. I can’t say I really noticed that shift; sure, the internet made it easier to find and connect with other people who liked the same things as you, but that phenomenon wasn’t unique to nerds.
Is life like a box of chocolates?
Before getting back to the main point, it is worth taking a moment to raise an eyebrow at some of the examples given. Here’s a quote from the article:
“Say what you will about 1990s blockbusters like Forest Gump, but they were at least not totally incoherent in their plot, unlike whatever video game trailer Marvel has just released, and we were watching real actors standing in front of real things.”
To be clear, this is the same Forrest Gump film from 1994 that was chock full of cutting edge computer visual effects, including limb removal and the insertion of Tom Hanks into multiple historical contexts by having him stand in front of a greenscreen. Director Zemeckis has always been fascinated by tech and Forrest Gump was a tour-de-force.
Incidentally, there were three films nominated for the visual effects Oscar in 1994: True Lies, The Mask and…Forrest Gump.
Do you want to guess which film won?
I thought it was a funny example to use for that particular point. 🤷
The dismissal of Marvel’s entire output as ‘video game trailers’ is also interesting. It’s a very efficient put-down, in that it scorns comics books, comic book movies and video games, all at the same time. Three for the price of one.
It strikes me as a weirdly archaic criticism, though: negatively describing something as being like ‘a video game’ used to be common, despite the mediums being wildly different. It was a useful shorthand used by people around the turn of the century who didn’t play or understand games. In 2023 the term ‘video game’ now encompasses such an enormous breadth of creative forms, that using it as a supposed slight in this way no longer makes sense.
My point being that if you think the description ‘it’s like a video game’ automatically has a negative meaning, it might be time to update your definitions.
Back in my day!
I was born in 1980. My favourite films as a child and teenager were things like Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Die Hard, Terminator 2, Predator, Aliens, Starship Troopers and so on. The usual, in other words. Most of those are now held up as classics of their eras - but they’re the top tier action movies of the time. What we don’t tend to remember is the utter dross that filled out the rest of those two decades.
If we were lucky we got two good blockbusters per year. Probably just one, though. Occasionally, none. Move from action into science fiction or fantasy and it was worse: maybe a handful of great movies per decade.
Marvel has put out multiple competent blockbusters every year since 2008. Some of them have been very well reviewed, some less so. I’d argue quite happily that the filmmaking involved is generally of a much higher standard than a typical 80s or 90s blockbuster. Sure, generally not as good as the absolute top tier stuff, but that would be to cherry-pick from the very best of an entire decade’s output. In reality, most blockbusters have always been terrible, since the dawn of cinema. It’s just that we only remember the unusually good ones. That Marvel’s output is so consistently…fine, is actually quite an achievement within that context, even if it sounds like faint praise.
I can hear the screams from here, so to make sure I’m not misunderstood: it’s completely acceptable to not like Marvel movies. To find them formulaic and disposable and repetitive. Just as it’s always been completely fine to not like blockbusters, in any era.3 I get why people might not like them, in the same way I can’t stand the Michael Bay Transformers movies. The same way I find Mulholland Drive extremely tedious.
But here’s the thing: it’s also completely fine to find meaning and resonance in a Marvel blockbuster: it’s OK to see yourself represented in something like Black Panther and have that be a genuine cultural moment that could only be delivered by a mega-blockbuster. If you watch Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and it helps you reconcile with your troubled family history, that’s legitimate. Doesn’t matter that it’s a big silly popcorn film with Kurt Russell playing a planet. It’s also OK to just find a movie really fun.
That’s my point, I suppose: it’s fine to like stuff, and to not like stuff. You don’t have to always be defining and defending a canon. You don’t have to be reductive and exclusionary, diminishing what other people like in order to raise up the thing you like.4
Too often it’s presented as a zero-sum game: that somehow people liking one thing puts another thing under threat. That intellectual-as-victim angle, where the canon must be defended or all of civilised society will crumble. You can embrace intellectualism without seeking to destroy everyone else. There’s a strange fear at the heart of it all that has always perplexed me. It’s the intellectual-as-monk, renouncing all other pleasures for fear they would somehow break one’s vows and corrupt their faith.
To go back to that C.S. Lewis quote: As a child I adored science fiction to the exclusion of almost all else. I rejected anything that wasn’t nerdy. Part of becoming an adult was moving beyond that limited world view, which opened up a whole new world of experiences. It didn’t require me to stop loving the science fiction, though.
Nerdy things are really not mainstream
Let’s look at dates for a moment. Erik posits that the Lord of the Rings films at the turn of the century were a major pivot point; the moment when ‘nerdom’ went from unacceptable to mainstream. But take another look at those blockbusters5 I mentioned from the 80s and 90s: most of those are also science fiction and fantasy. Go back further, and classics from the very earliest days of cinema included genre work. Film has always been inherently a technical magic trick, and speculative stories have often been the best way to explore the medium. And audiences have always responded: ‘nerdom’ being a mainstream thing, especially in cinema, is not new. Scifi and fantasy (and the broader action genre generally) have always been the films that bring in the big bucks. And society hasn’t ended.
Despite that occasional box office success, fundamentally, the notion that Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Marvel and Dungeons & Dragons are now ‘mainstream’ feels a bit wonky. Genre stuff is slightly less derided now, for sure, partly because the most prominent examples of those franchises - movies - have been of notably better quality in the 21st century6, but the success of the movies hasn’t translated into people rushing out to buy comics, or reading lots of fantasy novels. If I started talking about The Expanse or Baldur’s Gate 3 or Devs or Naruto outside of my core friend group, I’d just get perplexed stares. Just like back in the 90s.
If nerdy things feel more accepted now, in large part it’s just the normal hegemonic process of culture absorbing new (‘new’) and weird stuff, thereby turning it into something less threatening. This isn’t a new phenomenon.
When I worked in the literature sector in the mid-2010s, at the National Centre for Writing here in the UK, I was very much an outlier with my speculative fiction interests. Almost everyone7 I worked with, from my direct colleagues to the authors we supported, had zero knowledge of science fiction, fantasy and nerdy stuff in general. They didn’t go to see Marvel films or Star Wars films. They read and wrote literary fiction, of the sort that won prizes, got published by small presses and was reviewed in The Guardian.
The thing is, though, we co-existed wonderfully. We talked about each other’s interests, and had a rewarding and ongoing cultural exchange. No judgement, no need to put one person down to lift yourself up. No need for boxes or cages. I was surrounded by intellectuals who were hungry and curious to learn more about unfamiliar genres and artistic forms, even if it would never be their ‘thing’. At the same time I discovered incredible new writers outside of my comfort zone.
That’s the kind of intellectualism I value. It’s why I reacted quite strongly to an apparent call to return to the bad old days of cultural siloes.
Do your own thing
Embracing a wider range of art, without shame or fear of judgement, sounds like healthy progress to me. Being able to enjoy the latest blockbuster movie and the latest literary fiction darling. Existing wherever along that spectrum you feel most comfortable.
But deliberately excluding experiences from my life, and passing judgment on other people? No thanks.
I don’t want to attach my achievements as an adult to whether I like spaceships or not. That seems bizarre. I don’t have those kinds of insecurities anymore.
Coming back to the writing, and why I bothered putting this rather long response together in the first place:
In my 20s, after studying film and English at university, I moved away from writing genre projects. I was in a mode of thinking that I wanted to be taken seriously, and I thought that meant writing a particular kind of thing. It didn’t go well.
It doesn’t matter whether you want to write fanfic about wizards, operatic sagas about sentient spaceships, or the next Booker Prize-winning novel. Any success I’ve found in my writing has come about due to honestly embracing my passions and interests.
Make sure you’re writing the thing you want to write, not what someone else thinks you should write. Don’t be shamed into not being yourself.
I no longer have a fear of being judged by my peers for what I enjoy, or what I create. If someone does, then maybe they’ve chosen the wrong peers?
These days I’m out of my cage. I became a man and put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
Thanks for reading! Yikes.
I hope that didn’t come across as too much of a rant. And it certainly isn’t meant to be an attack: Erik’s stuff is brilliant and I always look forward to reading his newsletter.
Really, this is a plea to just let people love the things that they love. Culture isn’t a zero sum game. It’s not a battle.
Here’s a thing that happened last week:
I was nominated to the 2023 Lunar Impact Award! Which is obviously very lovely. It’s a great bunch of people to be listed alongside, and really speaks to the vibrant online writing community round these parts. It’s also quite clear thatis romping home with all the votes - do head over and cast your own, if you’re so inclined.
Finished reading The Space Between the Trees by Norm Konyu. A beautiful graphic novel, with visuals that have subtly evolved from Norm’s incredibly striking The Junction. I’ve also got a copy of Downlands to read next, which I’m very excited about. If you’re into abstract, weird, elegiac fiction I highly recommend.
Went to see The Marvels with the boy, who proclaimed it his favourite Marvel film so far. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there are a couple of elements that absolutely didn’t work for me. The stuff the does work - primarily, the cast - works really well.
The season finale of Loki8 was extremely satisfying. I’d wavered a bit on season 2, which felt rather unfocused, but the last two episodes wove everything together in a clever way that made me rather jealous of the writers. Ultimately it was all about Loki and his character’s growth, and achieving everything he’d always wanted but in a way he’d never anticipated. The ideas are bananas and I appreciated the way it prioritised character work above all other factors.
For the last year (at least? I’ve lost track) we’ve been watching the entire anime run of the OG Naruto with the 10 year old. Last night we watched the final episode of the original show, and so can finally move on to Shippuden. To say it’s been a rewarding experience is to massively undersell it: it’s one of the best television shows I’ve watched, and I’m quite happy to state that uncaveated. Wonderful characterisations, with an internal consistency and long-form serial story that was still very rare in US/UK television in the early 2000s, but turns out Japan had absolutely nailed for ages. I’m very much a neophyte when it comes to manga and anime, and have so much to learn from them for my own writing. Great stuff. It’s also led to a complete creative explosion for the 10 year old, which is exciting to witness.
I promise I am working on the next video instalment of the Substack for Beginners series. It’s been delayed, evidently, but I’ll be back on it very soon. If you subscribed after watching those videos, thanks for your patience. :)
See you all on Friday for the next Triverse chapter.
He also works with an amazing illustrator.
Also, I have known and still know many intellectuals who don’t feel the need to impose this kind of structure on society. I don’t want to stumble into broad generalisations, as that’s exactly what I’m objecting to. I’m referring only to people who feel the need to label and restrict others.
Rolled into this criticism is the line “big summer movies are now all CGI slugfests”. Again, I thought we’d moved beyond ‘CGI’ being used as a throwaway derogatory term. If a movie is bad, it’s almost always due to the writing, or complex production issues. It is easier to invoke the CGI bogeyman, sure, but it doesn’t make much sense. VFX are used across almost all films, including your favourite indie lo-fi masterpiece. Just because something doesn’t have spaceships or superheroes doesn’t mean it isn’t chock full of ‘CGI’. Pinning everything on hard working visual effects artists is hardly going to result in better films, and surely that’s what we all really want?
This isn’t a tendency unique to those who see themselves at the top of the cultural pecking order. It also applies to that type of genre ‘fan’ who feels the need to be overly defensive about one corporate franchise over another corporate franchise. It’s the same attitude applied in a different context.
To be fair, nobody went to see Starship Troopers at the cinema, so it can hardly be called a blockbuster. Bah.
Seriously, how many high fantasy movies can you name from the 70s, 80s or 90s that weren’t awful? There were a few that were OK, but the reason Lord of the Rings broke through is that it was the first time fantasy filmmaking had been good enough to attract a wider audience. Did those wider audiences then go and hunt down niche, low-budget fantasy stuff? Probably not.
With the notable exception of author and lecturer Ian Nettleton, of course. He knows his stuff.
The irony of having a big list of nerdy things I’ve been enjoying at the end of this post isn’t lost on me, btw.