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On Being Nerds


Yesterday I had diner with Parker, and spent a lot of time with him talking about what it is to be a nerd.  I find the concept interesting for a couple of reasons, which I’ll address in another overly-long rambling essay.  Ready . . . go!

It seems to me that, when I was a kid, ‘nerd’ meant something different than it does today.  Once, it related to social awkwardness and personality.  Now (kind of like the Forsaken in RJ’s books) a title that has been given with scorn has been adopted with pride, and we of nerd culture tend to use this term as an identifying feature of our society.  (Perhaps like African Americans using a certain once-derisive term for members of their own race?)

Yet, it seems that remnants of that old definition still linger—both outside the culture, and within it.  The thing that brought this up was a discussion with Parker and his wife.  I referred to Parker as a nerd, and she immediately piped up.  “No, HE’S not a nerd.” 

I proceeded to list his credentials.  (World of Warcraft addiction, aspiring fantasy novelist, in-depth knowledge of the Final Fantasy games, among others.)  She seemed shocked—as if by implying that he was a nerd, I was implying that she had poor taste in men.  (Which, of course, isn’t true at all.)

This set me thinking.  I’ve been within nerd culture for so long, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are those outside of it who still cling to the old definitions.  And, perhaps that IS the definition for those outside of the culture.  I have trouble remembering, or understanding.  (Things like this seem to take on a different dimension when you leave high school, and power is no longer directly tied to how popular you are at school.)

Has the definition of nerd really grown up with me, or has nerdy ALWAYS been perceived as a cultural identity by nerdy adults?  Is it only children and teens who feel ashamed to be called a nerd?  If so, why do so many of us WITHIN the culture still harbor vestigial insecurity surrounding our culture.

 (In a funny story, though, a man I talked to last month at church claimed that calling people nerds was a threat to national security.  He said that by insulting engineers and mathematicians, we are driving people away from those professions, and therefore making the United States have a more poor crop of people who can grow up to keep us on the cutting edge of technology, letting other nations get better at it than we are.  Interesting theory, one that I think is wrong for such a long list of reasons it’s hard to begin naming them.)

My definition of nerd has very little to do with social awkwardness or the like.  Most nerds I know are quite eloquent, keen minded, and engaging people.  True, there are a lot of shy nerds, and some who are very socially awkward, but you’ll find that in any crowd, I bet.  Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that whenever we’d play D&D in my friend’s basement, we’d all yell “Hide the books!” if a knock came at the door or a girl came to visit.  (We wouldn’t really hide them, but we’d only admit what we were doing with a bit of grudging shame.)

 I’m confident in my profession.  I’m very happy to have the interests that I do.  And yet, there’s part of me that still wishes to prove that I’m not a nerd in the pejorative sense.  This manifests most often by pointing fingers at other people and saying “Well, at least I don’t do THAT.  Those are the real nerds.”  (See the Geek Hierarchy for a look at this in depth.)  Why do we do things like this?  Why do sf/f writers point at people who dress up like Klingons and say “Whew, glad I’m not one of those guys?”  Why do role players point fingers at LARPers and say, “Look at those losers!” Do we have any right? 

Seems like a silly issue, I know, but for me it ties back to the self-loathing I sense from a lot of fantasy authors who get big.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but nothing annoys me more than a writer who says something like “Well, you’re right, fantasy is crap.  Fortunately, I don’t read or write that crap.  I’m special.”  (I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling and Terry Goodkind.)

United we stand, divided we fall.  Every time we within nerd culture make fun of someone else’s hobby or passion, all we’re really trying to do is mainstream ourselves in a futile attempt to get a little bit closer to that ‘coolness’ that most of us never knew in high school.  I think we should just give it up.  It’s all in our heads.

We, as fantasy and science fiction authors should understand that concept.


|   Castellano