You may be aware that Banks, who died a week ago, was one of my favourite authors. I've been surprised, though gratified, by how much media attention has been given to him — not really a reasonable reaction, considering that he was a very successful author as well as a very fine one. Wondering why I've had that reaction, I've realised that this is a general thing for me — if I'm a fan, I never really expect a huge presence in the media for the object of my enthusiasm.
In a way, this doesn't correspond at all with actual experience. After all, three of my greatest lifelong enthusiasms are for Bob Dylan, Tolkien and Doctor Who: none of them exactly little known. Then again, other musical idols such as the Incredible String Band, Roy Harper, Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson, while not actually obscure, are hardly household names, while some, such as the superb mediaeval-progressive acid-folk-rock band Circulus, definitely fall into the "little known" category.
In terms of authors, when I get away from Tolkien and Banks (and Shakespeare, needless to say) many of my favourites are similarly not names on all lips. Ursula LeGuin, Mike Moorcock and Fritz Leiber are well known among speculative readers (though they should be better known) but aren't widely known to non-specialist readers. My now-favourite living author (formerly joint-favourite) Mary Gentle isn't as well known even in spec circles as she deserves.
Still, I wouldn't say most of my idols are unknown, and some are immensely famous. So why is it that I'm always taken by surprise when I find evidence that I'm one fan among many?
Thinking about it, I suspect there are two ways of being a fan (although, like most such divides, it's more of a continuum than an on-off): the gang approach and the intimate approach. The alternative taken is mostly down to the fan, but different kinds of idols probably suit one or the other approach better.
The fans of most of the "latest pop sensations", I suspect, tend to take the gang approach, which is based on the power of mass opinion. The fan is part of a huge collective whose power is in numbers, and it's crucial to be the biggest gang. Even in the face of evidence that the idol is a laughing-stock in many circles (naming no names), the fan expects everyone to share their enthusiasm and is offended when they don't.
At the other extreme, the intimate approach to being a fan is more like a relationship with your best friend. After all, you might think your best friend is the most fantastic person on the planet, but you'd still be a bit disconcerted to run into a random stranger in another city who knows them and shares your view.
I think this might be partly because — both with the friend and the idol — there can be a trace of jealousy in the relationship. This is someone who's special to me. Only a trace, mind you, but it can be enough to create an element of resistance to admitting I have to share this special person, even if I'm also delighted that the world seems to be displaying a rare example of taste.
It's not always as simple, of course, as gang or best friend. In practice, most fan-idol relationships have aspects of both, but it's likely that one or the other will predominate. And, since the dominant side seems to be the intimate one for me, I suppose I'll never quite get my head around the fact that lots and lots and lots of other people also love Dylan, Tolkien and Doctor Who. And Iain Banks.