Thursday, April 02, 2009


The 2008 book AMERICAN NERD: THE STORY OF MY PEOPLE, by Benjamin Nugent, was recommended to me during a session on fan fiction at the recent International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. The following paragraph is the mini-review of it from my April newsletter:

Part 1, "The History of the Nerd," contains a definition of the term and an exploration of its historical background; Mary Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and Victor Frankenstein are among the prototypes of the stereotype. I was especially intrigued by the chapter on the rise of formal physical education and the "jock" as the standard against which the "nerd" evolved as less desirable. At the same time, ethnic stereotypes became entangled with the distinction between the two types: Anglos and Nordics—manly and therefore good; Jews and Asians—effete intellectuals and therefore not so good. The discussion of the link between nerdism and Asperger's syndrome also interested me. Nugent uses an overarching metaphor of nerds perceived by others as machine-like. Before the nineteenth century, human beings were defined by their rationality, as opposed to animals; since the Romantic movement, human beings are more likely to be defined by their emotion and intuition, as opposed to machines. Statements and implications in the chapters on nerd subcultures, however, impressed me less positively. Although Nugent claims adolescent absorption in video games, science fiction, and role-playing games, his knowledge of those fields appears shallow—or, more charitably, what he got out of those pursuits is extremely different from what I and the people I know get out of them. He writes of these and other "nerd" activities in what comes across as a condescending tone toward a phase he eventually grew out of. And the book's final chapter, "My Credentials," reveals that to be precisely the case. Moreover, his implication that teenage nerds need to be saved from a terrible fate of lifelong social and sexual isolation is not only insulting but inaccurate. High school is not the world. For a corrective, read the long, complex essay "Why Nerds Are Unpopular," easily found by googling the title; its premise is that nerds don't fit into the dominant high school culture (which has "no function for its form to follow") because they're already absorbed in real-world interests such as learning substantive material and making things work Not only that, many of us manage to find our own kind and mate, reproduce, and lead productive lives without giving up our specialized interests. Nugent's book contains lots of solid information and provocative ideas, but read it as deeply colored by the author's personal history. When he claims “self-loathing” as a typical nerdish trait, he’s apparently speaking for his own younger self.

In this review I didn’t mention my autobiographical experience, that at the age of sixteen I first noticed my future husband because he was the only person my age (actually, the only person, period) I’d met who, like me, read and wrote speculative fiction. We’ve been married for over forty years, and we still read and write SF and fantasy. Not only that, we took up D&D in First Edition and introduced all four of our sons to it as soon as they grew literate enough. We’ve also had a “normal” life that’s successful by middle-class American standards. Navy Captains and their wives can be nerds, too! The label hadn’t yet become widespread in my teen years, but I clearly recognize myself in the profile.

Although Nugent mentions at least one positive portrayal of the stereotype, REVENGE OF THE NERDS (which I confess I haven’t watched), I wish he had discussed others. Lisa on the SIMPSONS is one of the few approximately non-dysfunctional characters in the series. Willow in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER helps to save the world several times (in addition to almost destroying it once), as does Hermione in the Harry Potter series. Gunther in the “Luann” comic strip has revealed himself to be creative and compassionate as well as intelligent and awkward.

Nugent brings up his youthful conviction that nerds are superior to jocks (okay, a bit of compensatory defensiveness, maybe, but the point has some validity). He backs off from that topic, though, leaving the fundamental question unexamined: Why should an obsessive preoccupation with and exhaustive knowledge of football, basketball, or reality TV be more socially acceptable and valued than a similar interaction with role-playing games, speculative fiction, or Japanese culture? The difference seems to be that the latter interests are embraced by statistical minorities (probably of higher than average intelligence, I still maintain—look at the educational demographics of LOCUS subscribers or, for that matter, members of the Romance Writers of America). In my youth I felt like an alien, as if I were the “only one of my kind.” Today, thanks to the Internet, aliens among us can find each other. That’s mostly a Good Thing.

Margaret L. Carter (


  1. As one nerd to another Margaret, thanks for the blog.
    This blog back in February was a great way to highlight the stupidity of the nerd/jock war.
    My slant on it is that it really comes down to man's need for an obsession in life. Some activity that they can lose themselves in and be passionate about whether it is reading, playing computer games, quilting, knitting, gardening, fishing, fixing cars or even watching sport.
    Perhaps we all just need to be more understanding and accepting of each others obsessions.
    What is important is that people are indulging in this obsession because they want to do it. Not because they think it is what is expected of them at that particular age in their life.
    "a phase he eventually grew out of".
    Where is the rule book that denotes certain behaviour at certain ages?
    My pet hate is people who suddenly change their whole mode of behaviour/appearance/dress when they reach certain ages just because they have some concept that that is what they think they should do.
    Many critics focus on the fact that nerds are unsocial. Presumably they think they would be better off sitting in the lounge room at night surrounded by the family watching endless sitcoms, reality TV or football?!
    As you say, thanks to the internet, nerds can have a very interactive world literally. The only difference is that online gamers, bloggers and forum freaks meet in a virtual room.
    Mind you everyone needs to get out of that lounge room (virtual/real) now and then to get some exercise, but that's another story.

  2. If you want to really make yourself angry, see "Race to Witch Mountain" where every single fan of science fiction is portrayed as a complete idiot and socially inept.

    I am fortunate in that I did not "grow out" of my nerddom, but rather, "grew into" it.

    As a teen, I desperately tried to fit in, with limited success. I was generally unhappy.

    As an adult, (and a middle school teacher), I embrace my weirdness (I like that term) and encourage my students to embrace who they are, as well. I was much happier once I stopped trying to be someone else and went with what I liked.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I embrace my weirdness, too. If only we could go back in time to send a message to our teenage selves, like in that currently popular country song, "Letter to Me," to assure ourselves that things WILL get better. Great line from that song: "These are nowhere near the best years of your life." OTOH, there is also a really offensive recent song about the mousy little high school valedictorian who got a Ph.D., blossomed into a beautiful woman -- and became a VOGUE model. THIS is a happy ending? Why couldn't the narrator (the boy who hadn't appreciated her in high school) get excited about her winning a Pulitzer Prize or something like that?