Last year I met Stephen Fry in Boston when he came to receive the Humanist of the Year Award. Now that makes it sound like Mr. Fry and I had plans, to say, meet up at Burdick’s for hot chocolate then maybe walk to the bookstore before his reading. Sadly, this was not the case. Even more sadly, I was strangely disappointed that this was not the case. And while a good time was, indeed, had by all, I was left that evening with a sense, not only of disappointment, but also…embarrassment. I’ll try to explain. I think I’ll need to use what they used to call an Illustrative Example.
At the end of his talk, Mr. Fry generously offered to take questions. The first questions, of course, were from the students who were part of the organizing body – the Humanists or the Secularists or something. So they got up, one by one, with these carefully constructed, Ivy League style questions –which didn’t seem to be questions at all, but instead tiny monologues, making themselves look witty or smart or informed. (And much of it seemed to be about how Humanists were so much smarter than those morons who still believe in God. Peasants. But I digress.)
After the Humanist/Secular students gave their questions, they offered to the rest of us to line up to ask a question.
I rose. As did a dozen other people. And they RAN. And elbowed and shoved their way to the front of the line. Because, Readers, I am far too dignified to RUN or SHOVE, certainly not in the presence of Stephen Fry, I did not get to ask him my short answer question, the one I would like to ask of every celebrity: What are you reading right now? A proper question. One that could be answered.
After this we lined up to have “One Item Only” signed, “We’ve got a lot of people here, so keep it moving”. There were two young women in front me, maybe 18 or 19 years old, dazed and giddy at the prospect of meeting him, practicing what they were going to say, practicing their photo shot. And what I wanted to say to them (but did not say) is this: Girls, he’s Stephen Fry. There is nothing that you or I or anyone else here can say that will actually impress him. He’s been ‘on’ for hours, the line to get your book signed was all the way out the chapel. The best we can do is to make this fast and painless, so the poor man can get back to his hotel.
There is something intoxicating about the fandom of the young and something ugly about that same fandom as it ages. Young fandom is seductive: it means that you’re interested in a lot of different things; it means that you’re looking up to those who’ve come before you to try to give your life shape at this early stage. There’s something attractive about the energy and earnestness that comes along with it, which can make even the most exhausted celebrity, possibly look up and feel good and think, “Oh aren’t they sweet?”
This is different when you are almost 40. There’s something about being at the wrong end of the spectrum that I am still trying to figure out. Perhaps we’re supposed to give up fandom as we age. Perhaps fandom is supposed to turn into something else. Perhaps, at almost 40 years old, my disappointment – as ridiculous as this may sound – was that I was, in fact still a fan and not a colleague. Now of course, I’m not going to be colleagues with Stephen Fry. He is very clever and very famous and besides he is in, as he likes to call it, “This business we call ‘Show’”. Which in many ways makes him a species (or at the very least a breed) apart.
It felt like…well, that maybe I was supposed to be the one with the fans this time around. This brought to the bear all sorts of questions I have about success and failure, and where I am in my life, questions that have nothing to do whatsoever with those sweet, lovely girls in line in front of me, or with Mr. Fry.
I am, still, a fan of things in general. I’m a fan of Dr. Who (ask anyone). But I’m not really all that interested in meeting David Tennant. I’m sure he’s a lovely man, and he’s a great performer, but who I really want to meet is The Doctor. I’m a fan of certain writers and musicians, like Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Caitlin Kiernan, Will Wheaton. And while I would love to meet them, my fantasy is not that I get an autograph or my picture taken. The fantasy is the Will Wheaton and I play D&D, Amanda Palmer and I play ukulele together, Neil Gaiman and I collaborate on a project. The fantasy is that we are colleagues, equals. And the reality is, that is Just Not So. Oh, in the Humanistic sense, yes, of course. I don’t think that Neil Gaiman is “better than I am” or any such nonsense, but we are not on the same playing field. Let’s be frank.
I will continue to be a Fan of Things, simply because I cannot manage to actually quell my enthusiasm. And it was a strange feeling, and not altogether pleasant.
And I still want to know what Stephen Fry is reading.
But then again, I want to know what everyone is reading.