While I would not go so far as to say conflict is essential to fandom, I would say it is inevitable. Fans disagree about things, they always have, they always will, and nothing producers do or say, either in the text or outside of it, will forestall this inevitability. Works of art are open to interpretation, and with that openness comes people disagreeing about everything from who belongs with who romantically to whether or not X character deserves a redemption arc. Moreover, all art is inherently political in that it communicates ideologies about race, gender, sexuality, class, as well as any number of potential topics from the ethics of certain medical practices to the cost-benefit ratios of war, and so on.
As avid consumers of cultural texts, fans regularly think about, talk about and disagree about these things; ergo, fandom fights are a close follow up to death and taxes in the list of life’s inevitabilities. While media producers wanting to intervene on such dust-ups is understandable, and not necessarily a bad idea, in my observation, such interventions tend to go rather poorly much of the time. In trying to be helpful and ease tensions in their fan communities, creators, writers and producers often come off as dismissive, ill-informed, or condescending, which unsurprisingly just tends to exacerbate the problem.
In general I applaud the inclination to help keep your fandom a healthy and productive social environment, and the desire to respond to fan-criticism in good faith. However, certain approaches are always going to be more effective than others. Before you head to Twitter to chastise or reprimand your fans about the latest “wank fest” currently underway, I strongly urge you to consider the following:
Fans Have Feelings and Their Feelings Aren’t “Wrong”
In fandom, as in almost any other context imaginable, whether or not people’s feelings about something are rational doesn’t typically change how they actually feel. Even if fans are overreacting to something – which is always a big “if” – telling them they are overreacting isn’t actually going to do anything productive or useful for you. This is true for roughly the same reason it’s rarely productive to tell your significant other that leaving dirty socks on the floor is no big deal, if it happens to be a big deal to them.
Even assuming the fan dust-up you are responding to is an overreaction, it is worth remembering that we are all somewhat irrational in the things we choose to care about, and how emotionally involved we get. To some people, their car is a virtual avatar and object of intense affection, while others see it solely as a means to get from A to B. Some people love their pets like children, while others do not get anything at all out of animal companionship. Marking anniversaries and holidays is a practice of great importance to some and is inconsequential to others. Fans are just like anybody else in this respect, and they happen to care about this particular thing a lot because, well, they just do.
We all care about different things to different degrees for different reasons, and whether or not it is rational, or objectively important, does not stop us from feeling as we feel. Sports fandom is nearly always a deeply irrational kind of investment, as there is nothing ever objectively important about people tossing around a sack of air in an utterly contrived game. But many people still end up caring avidly about it all the same. Even when media fans are taking things to a level that is perhaps beyond the pale, invalidating their feelings by telling them (for example) “it’s just a TV show,” is NOT going to quell the fire; more than likely, it will just douse it with more gasoline.
Critique Fan Actions, Not Thoughts or Feelings
But I get it. Just because fans have strong opinions or feelings about something, that does not automatically give them the right to act on those thoughts and feelings in any way they choose. Emotions run perpetually high in fandom, but there will always be people who take it too far and start telling other fans to kill themselves over a shipping preference, or who start sending an actor Twitter-hate because they dislike their character. This is behavior that ought to be condemned, but condemning it in the right way makes a world of difference.
To that end, keep in mind point number 1, and think about how you can politely acknowledge fan feelings without condoning certain fan actions. A statement like, “It’s very understandable to feel strongly about your ship, but sending other fans hate over a ship is never appropriate,” will likely garner a better reception than, “It’s just a ship, quit acting crazy.” Being dismissive of fan sentiment is pretty much always a terrible idea. Even if you don’t agree with it, or you just don’t understand it, recognize the issue matters to them, and as such, being dismissive about it will not improve the situation.
In most cases, your best strategy is to respectfully acknowledge fan feelings, while reminding them that their feelings aren’t a license to mistreat others or act out hatefully. Very few fans will be able to find fault with that position, and the ones who do are probably beyond your reach anyway.
Just Because You Are the Writer Doesn’t Mean You Are Right
This can be hard for a lot of writers to accept, but you will get a lot farther with your fans and have a much more productive relationship with them if you do not try to pull the I-Am-God-Therefore-I’m-Right card. Even if you sincerely buy into that logic, most fans don’t. Whether or not they can name check Roland Barthes, fans frequently subscribe to a Death of the Author perspective when engaging with popular culture and are typically resistant to treating the author’s word as gospel. While they generally accept the reality that only you have the power to make certain things canon, most will never buy into the idea that your perspective on the text is beyond reproach just because you are the author.
In writing, as in politics, just because you have the power to do X-thing, that doesn’t automatically make X-thing the right thing to do, and it certainly does not insulate you from criticism. Fans aren’t always right, but they aren’t always wrong either, and the logic that certain writing choices are inherently valid because you, as the author, made them is BS to put it bluntly. Professional writing isn’t like parenting, and “because I said so, that’s why” will never be an inherently validating line of logic. That does not mean you cannot have a position, or take a side, or share your perspective on the text as the writer. But the point is to recognize your perspective is one amongst many, and fans aren’t going to treat it as automatically more valid just because you are the author, nor are they obliged to.
Lastly, and perhaps most important of all, as much as you should avoid being dismissive of fan’s feelings and perspectives about any number of topics, it is especially important to take seriously their claims of things like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Writers often fall into the intent fallacy when engaging in such conversations, and like to provide defenses of their work in the vein of “I didn’t mean to be sexist when I killed that female character primarily to forward a male character’s story arc.” Well, sorry but that IS sexist, whether that was your intention or not. You don’t have to have bad intentions in order to do something that is effectually racist, sexist, homophobic, what-have-you.
Hearing those critiques can be difficult; absolutely no one enjoys those types of accusations. But being a professional pop-culture writer means that you are constantly communicating societal ideologies about things like race, gender, sexuality and so on, if only unintentionally. Fans, to their credit, often take that fact very seriously, and you should do the same. When fans en masse make one of these accusations, instead of lashing out and telling them that they are wrong, or that they are just taking it all too seriously, ask yourself if there might be some validity to what they are saying. Consider their claim that this often isn’t just about your show/book/movie individually, that your text exists in a larger cultural milieu where certain writing choices represent a systemic pattern of racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. which you have a responsibility to be actively conscious of when you write.
Finally, even if you do not concede to that premise, it is worth remembering that you still aren’t going to get anywhere with critical fans using an intent argument, or by telling them they are just taking it too seriously. If you honestly cannot come up with a better defense, then take the criticism as it comes and recognize that is simply part of what you signed up for when you became a professional writer.
Abandon Forever the Fantasy of Fandom Consensus
That’s a long wait for a train that is never going to come. Anyone lucky enough to create a cultural work that manages to garner a mass audience is going to have to contend with a certain amount of contest over said work. Fiction is open to interpretation, always, and fans are always going to develop divergent interpretations, and air their disagreements publicly. Often these debates have a lot of intellectual merit, and represent highly nuanced, well-argued positions arising from very detailed and thorough readings of the texts. While some fan disagreements are unequivocally shallow, many are on par with something you might find in a graduate seminar or academic conference.
No one considers it a problem that literature scholars continue to disagree with each other over interpretations of Euripides, or Shakespeare, or Tolstoy. Indeed, continuing debates over such texts often are a sign of their richness, their ability to transcend their origins, their capacity to take on new meanings in new contexts, etc. In other words, they are a testament to the status of such works of art as art. To write a story which inspires unilateral consensus probably is not only next to impossible, but likely would also indicate a failure to write anything remotely substantial or interesting.
When fans disagree about your text, it means that they care about it, care enough to spend time and energy and effort thinking about it and talking about it with others, to the exclusion of all the other things they could and sometimes should be doing (school work, housework, work work). When fans disagree about your writing, it means you have managed to captivate them enough and touch them enough that they are emotionally invested. It’s a sign that you have done something right, in other words. We don’t fight about things we don’t care about, and presumably as a writer, you want your audience to care about your story.
But sometimes fan disagreements do transform into something that is mean, and petty, and unhealthy because, guess what, fans are only human after all. When that happens, we should all try to take a deep breath and a big step back. Intervening as a writer can sometimes be helpful, but doing it in a tactful and conscientious way will often make the intervention much more effective. Use social media responsibly. Don’t belittle your fans, even when some of them have started marching down the low-road. Speak out to the ones who will listen, do it with respect and humility, and realize every bushel has a certain number of bad apples that neither you, nor anyone else can do anything about. That’s what the “Block” button is for.