It’s starting to feel like spring the morning that the Dinky, the shuttle that runs between Princeton Junction and Princeton University, deposits us on the edge of campus. There’s still plenty of snow on the ground, but the students milling past us are ambitiously channeling summer, bare arms and legs, flip flops and black and orange athletic gear. We’ve cut the timing a bit close, so my friend and I are frantically checking every single map on the path to East Pyne Hall, the site of our 12:30 class, English 222. The official course title is “Fanfiction: Transformative Works from Shakespeare to Sherlock” — essentially, a class I’d have given anything for as an undergrad.
To some extent, fanfiction has always had a place in the English classroom. The history of literature is one of reworking and retelling stories, especially prior to our modern conception of authorship. Popular media narratives often portray fan fiction — using someone else’s books, TV shows, films, or real-life personas, among other things, as the starting point for original fiction — as cringe-worthy scenes of sentimentality and/or sex between superheroes or vampires or all five members of a certain floppy-haired boy band. I and plenty of others have worked to ground the historically marginalized practice in “literary” precedent — favorite examples of authors explicitly refashioning others’ works include Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, both of which I first studied in a classroom.
But fanfiction as we conceive of it today isn’t quite the same as Rhys tilting the focus of Jane Eyre to the “madwoman in the attic.” Modern fanfic practices are communal, with roots in mid-20th century sci-fi magazines. They’ve grown up through paper zines and collating parties to message boards and digital archives, fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, Archive of Our Own (AO3) and Tumblr and Wattpad. There are broad conventions that link the millions of people reading and writing fanfiction today (the vast majority of whom are wholly uncompensated for their hours of labor, enormous fanfic-to-traditional publishing deals like 50 Shades of Grey and After aside). Transformative fans share a language — tropes and kink memes and rec lists and OTPs — and in any given corner of fandom, stories talk to one another in fascinating ways.
Fandom has a growing place in higher education: fan studies, a several-decades-old interdisciplinary field that focuses on fans and their practices, often sits within media studies or the social sciences. I had the privilege of attending the Fan Studies Network conference in London last autumn, where I heard a lot of interesting papers about people who really love stuff and the complicated ways they engage with that stuff. Fan scholars study fanfiction, certainly, but often with a focus on the communities that create it. Fanfiction as literature — reading and potentially critiquing living, (usually) amateur authors and the way they talk back to pop culture’s texts — is a relatively new prospect in the literature department. But as a former English major who furtively split her adolescent reading between Victorian novels and Harry Potter slashfic, reading fanfiction for credit would’ve been a dream come true.
My friend and I make it to the lecture hall just in time, and as we take our seats, the professor, Anne Jamison, makes introductions. She’s wearing a pair of leggings printed with the wallpaper from the living room of 221B Baker Street from the BBC’s Sherlock, complete with that yellow smiley face; I covet them deeply. I met Anne online, in the Sherlock fandom a little over a year ago, while I was trying to make sense of the furor surrounding Series 3. I read her book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, flipped out over it, and interviewed her for a piece I wrote owning up to my fannish investment in the show. We met in-person in England last summer, and now I had the luck to be back across the Atlantic the semester she’d be visiting Princeton from the University of Utah. Even better, the semester she’d be teaching a class on fanfiction.
“I first got interested in online fan culture because of teaching,” Jamison told me. “I was fascinated by the kinds of in-depth close readings and debates I saw fans of Buffy doing online, and they seemed to find it fun. I wanted my students to think being smart and critical could be fun, so I paid attention.” If you’ve ever spent an afternoon writing a 2,000-word close reading (in fandom, you’d call it a “meta”) of a TV show “for fun,” you definitely understand. The boards led Jamison to fanfiction, and she was struck by the ways that fic writers were engaging with the source material. “I’m eager for students to see creative work and critical work as interrelated,” she said. “I incorporated creative assignments in literature and theory classes long before I’d ever heard of fanfiction, so it was very natural to include fanfiction as part of curriculum.”
The cynical side of me expected to hear that a fanfiction class in an Ivy League English department would’ve been met with criticism from the old guard — walking down the halls of my college English department a decade ago, you’d regularly hear a typewriter clacking away, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t being used to pen fanfic. But she hasn’t encountered professional backlash at Princeton or back home in Utah. “I’m sure there are people who think that but they haven’t told me about it — not my colleagues,” she said. “I get more pushback on YA and, frankly, on Victorian women’s poetry than I do on fanfic. Nothing can match the snideness with which male scholars of modernism tend to regard Victorian poetry by women.” But she stressed that she’s a tenured professor, a luxury that some fan studies scholars, many of whom are independent, aren’t afforded. “It gives me a kind of intellectual and professional freedom that is quickly disappearing.”
Jamison isn’t teaching this particular session of English 222: the guest lecturer is Dr. Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, a fan studies scholar who has come up from Virginia to talk about her area of expertise, transnational fandom, in which she asks questions like, “What happens when people from one place or culture become fans of something from another — especially if that thing already has a robust local fan culture?” I see these inquires daily on her Tumblr with the tag “transnational fandom FTW” — Morimoto is another Sherlock friend and I’ve spent the past year relying on her for nuanced global perspectives of the show, and of fandom and cultural consumption more broadly. There’s no one else on the Internet I’d turn to to analyze Benedict Cumberbatch in a kimono, which is about as high a compliment as I can bestow.
Morimoto grounds this particular lesson in the personal, describing moving from the U.S. to Hong Kong at a young age and being exposed to Western pop culture through the lens of East Asian media. She’s set the class critical texts as well as some fanfiction, specifically a crossover that puts Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung in the fictionalized world of the Japanese story Onmyouji. After the lecture the students split and attend discussion sessions — precepts, in Princeton lingo — and the conversation ranges from revisiting last week’s topic (bronies) to the new reading and issues surrounding clashing cultural perspectives in fandom.
Jamison skillfully manages the exchange, pushing in the right places and sitting back in others. Later she tells me, “It is a very diverse class in all kinds of ways — from ethnic background to major to level of prior fanfic experience, from people who grew up in Harry Potter fandom to people who had never read a fic before. So far everyone has found something to interest them or is doing a great job faking it.” On the day that my friend and I sit in, no one seems to be faking it, because the level of interest is clearly on display: the students are spirited and engaged, and it’s heartening to hear everyone talk about fandom and fanfiction the way they’d talk about broad themes in literature, or about any one traditionally published novel.
But fanfiction is not a traditionally published novel, and bringing it into the classroom offers up some new and challenging prospects. To understand these challenges, it helps to know a bit about the dynamics that have governed a lot of fanfiction communities over the past few decades, particularly as they became increasingly visible online. In the early days of online fandom, rights holders — the authors and corporations that owned the characters people were playing with — had a lot less understanding of (and patience for) fanfiction: Harry Potter fic archives, for example, were getting cease-and-desist letters from Warner Brothers for copyright infringement. Many authors were careful to brand their stories with legal(ish) disclaimers, something like, “This work is for fun, not for profit, and I own none of these characters.”
This conversation has shifted drastically in the past five years: many media corporations encourage fandom — after all, fans are a guaranteed enthusiastic audience for your product — but the monetization of some fan works has made the whole prospect trickier, usually hashed out on a case-by-case basis. Stephenie Meyer has sanctioned E. L. James, but plenty of writers, notably George R. R. Martin and Anne Rice, still speak out strongly against fanfiction. (Or Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander series, who has sort of confusingly compared fanfiction to such things as “someone selling your children into white slavery” and “seducing” her husband.)
Because of legal concerns and the broader negative perceptions of the practice, the vast majority of fanfic writers use pseudonyms. I have read stories of people losing jobs when bosses discovered they wrote fanfiction; in Fic, a contributor describes her interest in Twilight fanfiction being used against her in divorce proceedings. The modern web is a less pseudonymous place than it was even five years ago, and some of this has bled over into online fandom, but pseudonyms still reign. Fanfiction is becoming increasingly exposed in the mainstream media, from the deeply positive — Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, for example — to the deeply negative, like far too many instances of celebrities being asked to read fanfiction for comic effect. Every bad article written at the expense of “rabid” fangirls puts fans on the defensive, and rightly so. But it can make fanfiction writers, who write for fun and not for profit, protective of their practices and their privacy — something that’s virtually impossible to achieve when publicly posted on the web.
No fanfiction writer wants to be mocked. But do any of them want to be taught in a university classroom? Common practice allows for fanfiction writers to ask for positive feedback only — “no flames, please” or “no concrit,” short for constructive criticism. But an academic setting is often a critical space. Jamison has thought a lot about this question: where she once asked fanfic writers for permission to teach their work, she usually doesn’t now, though she continues to give students strict guidelines for behavior towards these stories in the context of the class. “Part of the reason I stopped asking was because of strong feelings I have about what it means to enter the public sphere,” she told me. “And publish something — whether for money or not. I think the professional-amateur divide is important, but I don’t think amateur status absolves you from all accountability or public comment.” Her syllabi are carefully crafted — “I have never worked so hard on a syllabus,” she says — and she tries to stick to widely-known source material or works that can stand alone: much of the trick of fanfiction is getting the connections between the original and the remix, and without context, not all works hold up. Fandom is not necessarily populated with people angry or uncomfortable having their works taught: many of the authors Jamison features tell her they’re happy to wind up on her syllabus.
But there are plenty of people within fandom who believe fanfiction has no place in the classroom at all: to remove a work from its “intended” context and divorce it from a largely unwritten set of rules is a violation for many fan writers. A few weeks into the semester, another university-level fanfiction class sent shock waves through some corners of fandom — in many peoples’ view, it violated these rules. This class was 3,000 miles away, at the University of California Berkeley, in a student-run pass/fail course that initially asked participants to read fanfiction from a wide variety of sources and then leave constructive criticism — even when it wasn’t asked for or welcome.
The course was brought to broader attention by a fic writer named waldorph, one of the authors featured on the syllabus, when she noticed that her Star Trek story was receiving comments she later described as “bizarrely tone-deaf, condescending, rude, and more than that, completely out of step and touch with all fannish norms.” Waldorph wrote a Tumblr post and it spread rapidly — many people were outraged that these stories were being engaged with this way. “Fandom writes for fandom,” she told me later. “We write for ourselves and our friends, and I certainly don’t think to myself ‘how will this be reviewed by a litcrit class?’ when I hit ‘post’ on AO3…The reality is that the way fandom gets interacted with is changing. The best we can do is be kind to each other and support each other when something like being required reading happens.”
The fallout from the revelation was swift and quickly spiraled away from the point of origin. Some authors didn’t mind being on the syllabus, but some certainly did. And one unique facet of fan fiction — that students were commenting on these stories, thereby directly interacting with authors (who are regularly in conversation with their readers) — underscored a major source of tension. “Instead of me being in a situation where I become tangentially aware that my works are being used/quoted/whatever and me just laughing and shrugging it off,” she said, “they were coming into my space and interacting directly with me.” The students running and participating in this course were mostly fans themselves, but they didn’t adhere to the “no concrit” rule that waldorph and many other fan writers live by. “My philosophy in navigating fandom is: ‘don’t be a dick,’” she said. “Don’t leave a nasty comment, just back-button out. If you can’t be kind about something you’ve read, don’t engage with it, and certainly don’t make that person feel bad about the thing they worked on.”
For the professors teaching fanfiction and fandom, sorting out these boundaries presents an enormous professional and ideological challenge, but they resist an “us versus them” kind of dichotomy, something waldorph also worked against as she analyzed the situation. The Internet is built on confirmation bias: it is easier to see the like-minded than not, especially in a place like fandom, which can often serve as a retreat from the stresses of daily life or a place to make genuine connections based on shared interest alone. But it’s not a monolith, and that often gets lost in the discourse. “Fandom encompasses a real diversity of cultures,” Morimoto told me. “Cultures of social class, of gender, of sexuality, cultures of race, of language, of role…I think we do fandom a disservice by a singular emphasis on community.” Jamison echoed this idea when I asked her about the Berkeley course. “I think it is important to acknowledge that those were student instructors who were active in fandom and based on their experiences in fandom, they thought what they were doing was in keeping with fandom practice, from what I understand. There is no one ‘fandom.’”
Sometimes it’s hard for me, a long-time fanfiction reader who’s never been brave enough to post her own fix — and I have written thousands of words over the years — to wrap my head around the idea of fanfiction being a closed community that can’t stomach criticism. The broader Internet can be a scary place to send out your words. When my colleagues and I publish articles on the web, with open comment threads beneath them and links to Twitter accounts where anyone can direct attacks, we wade into the mire — but then, we do so with full knowledge of that mire. And I haven’t been brave enough to post that fic — fandom, our connections to the characters and stories we really, really love, can feel so personal. Fiction is deeply personal, too. I want to protect fanfiction from unwanted outside attention — and I want to sing its praises to the world.
In the vast sea of fanfiction, much of it obviously varying in quality, there is some extraordinary writing happening, stuff that belongs in a university classroom, side by side with the classics. It’s a genre that works in new and interesting ways, and it deserves to be studied in loving detail. Mainstream attention of fanfiction isn’t going to go away — and it’s quickly ceasing to be a punch line, something I could never have predicted even five years ago. It will be taught and studied in future classrooms across the country — the only question is how.
Image Credit: Flickr/kaffeeringe
The Tumblr reblog holds a special kind of power. It’s the way that posts are shared on the platform — if, for example, I like your photograph, or link, or video, or 5,000-word analysis of our favorite TV show, I can re-post it on my own Tumblr, with or without additions, your original post fully intact. It will appear on my blog and on my followers’ dashboard feeds; if one of them reblogs it, and a few of her friends do the same, your post will gain momentum — it might even snowball to popularity. Posts on Facebook can slip into the ether, the whims of finicky algorithms; on Twitter, arguably the most temporal social network, your 140 characters have a matter of minutes, even seconds, before they drop out of sight down the infinite stream. On Tumblr, posts spread outward in networks of webs. They have drastically longer shelf lives than their counterparts on other social media outlets — reblogs, which make up 90% of Tumblr content, can make the rounds for weeks, months, even years, and with a tag search and a reblog or two, they can spring to life long after they’re published. In other corners of the Internet, you broadcast and consume information; on Tumblr, a platform built on mutual interests and passions, all that sustained sharing helps build real digital communities, one reblog at a time.
Book lovers will be pleased to know that the Tumblr book community is thriving. The Millions has its own popular Tumblr and our own Nick Moran has done a few great round-ups of literary Tumblrs, and the community has only grown since the last installment. Book Tumblr is a space where basically everyone who regularly has their hands (or, I suppose in the digital age, their eyes) on books can gather: writers, artists, editors, publishers, lit mags, booksellers and their bookstores, librarians and their libraries, and, most important of all, readers. The Tumblr book fandom is as committed to the written word as they are to the platform’s creative and transformative slant: when they finish a book, they’re ready to pull the most thought-provoking quotes or draw fanart or bake the cake they read about in chapter 12. There’s equal space for criticism and celebration, and it’s the kind of community that forces me to talk sappily about the power of the web, how people thousands of miles apart can find each other and build friendships based on a single book, or a love of books generally.
At the heart of Tumblr book fandom is books.tumblr.com and the woman who runs it, Rachel Fershleiser, once described by Lydia Kiesling here at The Millions as “an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology.” Nicole Cliffe at The Toast recently took things a delightful step further by saying Fershleiser “represents for books on the Internet like an avenging angel who is also very nice.” Fershleiser (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve met many times in bookish internet circles over the years) is a former book publicist who came to Tumblr from Housing Works, where she ran events — and got the bookstore onto Tumblr, one of the first institutions to create an analogous physical-to-digital space for readers to gather around books. At Tumblr, she encourages other organizations and writers onto the site; in a room full of publishers at the FutureBook conference in London a few months back, I seriously enjoyed watching her rep for Tumblr with enthusiastic and hyper-intelligent zeal. She curates a broad, book-positive discussion on Tumblr — and the Reblog Book Club, a year and a half old and now in its fifth round, is at the very center.
“I wanted to do a Tumblr book club from the day I started,” Fershleiser told me a recently when I stopped by Tumblr’s offices near Union Square in Manhattan (the address is one that loyal Tumblrites will recognize instantly from every email they get about new followers). “I love to talk about books — that’s what I’m doing here — and I love to talk about books on the Internet, and Tumblr is such a rich place for engaging with art in a creative way. My actual lifelong dream is to be the Oprah of the Internet. So this seemed like a good place to start.” She launched the Reblog Book Club in the fall of 2013, and the first title was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a book (that I happen to be obsessed with) about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-like Simon Snow novels. “I got really in my head about choosing a first book,” Fershleiser said. “There were no rules: is it YA or is it adult, is it serious, or dystopian, or funny, and how can I choose one book for a hundred million people? It’s a really big community.”
But Rowell proved to be a perfect choice. Her previous novel, Eleanor & Park, had come out earlier that year and had been a huge hit, and she was an active Tumblr user and unabashed fangirl — and, of course, she’d written a novel about loving books and celebrating them online. There weren’t a lot models for a massive-scale online book club — some sites set titles and interviewed the authors, and maybe opened up a comments section or discussion thread. But Tumblr is all about peer-to-peer exchange, and Fershleiser wanted to reflect that. She set a fairly loose schedule — dates by which chunks of the book would ideally be read — and an open format: all the tools of Tumblr, from gifsets to multimedia to chains of reblogged meta, were put to use. The ask box was always open, so Rowell could drop in and answer questions whenever was easiest (rather than the formally scheduled Q&A sessions we see with a lot of authors online).
This kind of thing is relatively new territory for authors — how many times have you cringed in the past decade seeing writers forced to start blogs or Twitter accounts or somehow engage with their readers online when it didn’t come naturally, or worse, when it clearly made them uncomfortable? But these days plenty of writers do shine in digital spaces, and Rowell is one of them — and when Tumblr called, her publisher embraced the opportunity. Stephanie Davis, the marketing manager at St Martin’s Press, told me, “Working with Rachel to launch the Reblog Book Club was really exciting because the community on Tumblr is so expressive, creative, and authentic.” Davis cited the fact that Rowell was on Tumblr, and enthusiastically so, that made her an ideal first choice. The club was an experiment — and it was a successful one. It showed off the very best of the Tumblr book community: “It was thrilling to be able to approach a traditional book club in a new way,” Davis said. “And to see how the Tumblr community jumped in and participated — I’m still blown away by how talented her Tumblr fans are!”
The conversations in the Reblog Book Club are nearly always civil, and usually pretty warm and engaged — something that’s particularly notable online. Perhaps it’s because Fershleiser is there to moderate, or perhaps it’s because the author is there, too, or perhaps it speaks to the kinds of readers attracted to the group. “This is my own little push-back against the idea that online conversation has to be mean and shallow,” Fershleiser said. “Not only are people kind and thoughtful, the conversation is nuanced and in-depth and we read complicated books about complicated characters and have complicated responses to them, and I think that’s wonderful. I want to smash it in the face of people who think that enjoying the Internet is the opposite of people enjoying real books.”
The titles that followed Fangirl transcended genre labels and age designations. In the book store they’d be classified as middle grade, YA, and adult, verse and prose; in reality, they’re more like a collection of books about complex female protagonists getting things done. There was Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, our own Edan Lepucki’s California, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, for which she won the National Book Award late last year. It felt fitting to get in touch with Edan for a Millions piece, and she told me, “The Reblog Book Club was one of the most satisfying parts of publishing my book this summer because I got to see readers interacting with my work in ways that I couldn’t elsewhere. (A writer should always avoid reading their Amazon reviews, for instance, unless she wants to feel like a pile of shit in three seconds flat.)” She continued,
On Tumblr, even if readers weren’t loving my novel, they were still engaging with it in these thoughtful ways, wrestling with how they felt about the characters, why I’d made certain choices, guessing about what was going to happen, etc. And when a reader loved my book — oh how they loved it! I feel like the internet has brought back sincerity and enthusiasm, made it acceptable, and that is refreshing. It’s not cool to be cool, it’s cool to get excited about stuff and to be a fan with a capital F…It truly made me feel like my book was alive for people in the way it had been for me, when I was writing it.
And now, to start 2015, there’s Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple at the End of the World. I’ve never met Coyle in person, but we followed each other on Tumblr about a year ago, and I feel like I know her deeply, from her enthusiasm for Doctor Who gifsets (it’s all about Peter Capaldi on that front) to her long, thoughtful essays, including a wonderful post last year in which she described the genesis of this book: Neil Gaiman had posted about the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize on his Tumblr, and she’d seen it, entered, and won — and eventually got to thank him in person. The book was published as Vivian Versus the Apocalypse in the U.K., and was released there along with a sequel, Vivian Versus America, last year; the newly-titled version came out in the U.S. this month. Coyle seems to like Tumblr as much as I do, if not more. “I feel like there’s really no better place on the internet to be loud about the things you love than Tumblr,” she told me. “I’ve used it for my personal blog for about six years now, and in that time I’ve really noticed that it’s helped change my tastes, and open my eyes to new things I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.”
It was pretty hard for me to keep from falling in love with Vivian Apple at the End of the World: the characters — particularly the heroine, Vivian, who grows progressively bolder as the novel proceeds — are smart, dynamic, and seriously funny, and it’s a whip-smart satirical take on contemporary America, from religion (the big one — it’s about the Rapture) to consumerism to feminism to homophobia. And these past few weeks, Coyle watched her readers react to her work as they read it, something most authors never get the chance to do. “Overall it’s been really great,” she said. “I’m a debut author and basically had no feeling of assurance whatsoever that anyone other than my parents was going to read this book. To be able to go on Tumblr and see people not just reading it, but engaging with it, picking themes and characters and quotes they particularly liked or were interested by, has been overwhelming. It is a little weird to watch it unfold in real time. I’ve seen posts where people say, ‘I have a question about this, can’t wait to see how Coyle addresses it’ and I’m like ‘oh no oh god I never addressed that thing.’”
She doesn’t have much to worry about, though: the Reblog Book Club seems to be loving the book, and engaging with it in typical fashion, with fanart and meta and playlists for the apocalypse. “I am a huge fan of fans,” Coyle said. “If there was a fandom fandom, I would belong to it, because nothing is more beautiful to me that goofy outrageous creativity being applied to movies and television shows and books, especially. So the idea that someone would read the book and make a playlist, or draw a picture, or paint their nails the color of the cover, was and is almost too wonderful for me to bear. I have long said that my only authorial goal is to inspire someone else to write fanfiction about my work. I’m not sure if that’s happened yet, but I feel like I’ve gotten a bit closer.” (I’ve advised her to watch her inbox on this front.)
For the readers, some of whom come via the authors, others who show up for every title Fershleiser picks, the Reblog Book Club is a unique space on the web. Lauren Bates works in a library in Florida and has a dedicated book Tumblr, and she found out about the club through Rainbow Rowell’s Tumblr: “I was newly post-grad and unemployed and really very desperate to stay engaged with literature without the excuse of schoolwork,” she told me. “The literary community can sometimes be intimidating or inaccessible to people who don’t have connections to the industry or an active literary scene in their community, and even if you do live in a relatively literary community, it can be difficult to find people with a similar taste in books.” The Tumblr book community, she said, is a beautifully egalitarian space: “We have no idea what each other’s backgrounds are or where (or if) anyone attended college or what their major was or any of that. Your credentials don’t give your opinion more weight than anyone else’s.”
Another active member, Sarah Smith-Eivemark told me that she “owe[s] her publishing career to the Bookternet:” I joined Tumblr a little over three years ago, but I didn’t start actively posting until about two years ago, when I realized that so many of the people who I respected in publishing, the people whose careers I wanted to emulate and work with, had a Tumblr of their own. I’m completely addicted now. I’ve met and connected with more people who share my love of reading and independent publishing through Tumblr than I have with, well, anything else.” Smith-Eivemark is now the publicist at Coach House Books in Toronto, and she still uses Tumblr in her professional life. If anything, the Tumblr book community shows her all the people out there incredibly excited about reading: “…it can just seem so challenging to simply get people to buy a book,” she said. “The Reblog Book Club encourages me, and reminds me that not only are there readers out there, they’re smart, funny, and exactly the kind of people I’d want to know (as we say) IRL.”
It’s a little coincidental that this round of the Reblog Book Club coincided with the launch of another online “book club” at another behemoth of a social network: Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution to read a book every two weeks led to the announcement of Facebook’s “A Year of Books,” in which 278,000 (and counting) members will “discuss” a new title once a fortnight. The inevitable comparisons to Oprah came and went — for an eloquent analysis of why exactly Zuckerberg is not and will never be Oprah, I’d recommend Anna Wiener’s fantastic piece on the subject in the Gawker Review of Books. “Oprah built an entertainment and media empire that trades in feelings; she is the definition of a successful personal brand,” she wrote. “Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, a website buttressed by targeted ads with a well-intentioned but often emotionally clumsy experience. Oprah can make one’s life feel like an important journey to the center of the soul. Facebook can make one’s life feel inadequate, ephemeral, and commoditized.” But while the first meeting of the club was reportedly a mess, the first featured title, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, skyrocketed in sales. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether it’s possible to have a real discussion in this kind of space: Facebook merely suggesting a title will lead people to buy it (though not, it should be noted, to necessarily read it.)
The contrast between Facebook’s book club and the conversations I see on Tumblr are striking. As much as the book industry needs — perhaps even is desperate for — a solid and regular base of book-club consumers, this big, dedicated driver of sales (on that front, Zuckerberg and Oprah will likely have much in common), people who make and distribute books also want passionate readers, the sort who will evangelize for a book that they love. Fershleiser agrees — during our conversation, she echoed some of my thoughts from my last fan culture column on the topic, on how book fandom is more about depth than breadth. She said:
I think that some people think of fandom only as people who already have millions of people hanging on their every word. A lot of what we’re doing here starts smaller. For the books we choose for the Reblog Book Club, the authors are on Tumblr and they have some kind of following but it’s not because they’re the biggest authors on Tumblr, it’s because it’s going to be something interesting to talk about. It’s not that there are huge numbers of people participating in the book club, it’s that they’re really, really engaged and excited and when you have even 50 people on your platform who are talking about a book, every day, who are making incredible fan art, nail art, getting really excited, getting into heated debates about things, especially on a network like Tumblr, with the reblogging and the following, it reverberates through the network and it feels like, ‘What’s this thing that everyone’s talking about? It’s exciting and I want to be a part of it.’ It doesn’t take six million people to create that kind of feeling —–it grows organically.
Is the Reblog Book Club the future of books online? I sure hope so, or at least that it’s a big part of it. It represents some of the best of what the web can offer — genuine connections and discussions, between groups that can’t realistically interact in the analog world, and a sort level playing field, bookstores and authors and librarians and readers sitting side by side, one post after another. And perhaps most importantly, the Tumblr book community gives permission to get deep into the world of a book: it’s cool to love it for a while, and to try to press it into the hands of everyone on your dash. With a few well-chosen gifs, of course.
If you’d asked me last December about the shape of the year to come, in books or in broader strokes, I couldn’t have begun to predict it. In fact, you did ask me — or rather, The Millions did: my last “Year in Reading,” which I wrote towards end of my first term of a master’s degree, made pretty specific predictions about the months to come:
I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading.
Yeah…almost. To be fair, I did spend a good portion of 2014 completing coursework, doing research, and writing a dissertation; I was awarded my MA a few weeks back. I read plenty for the dissertation, but I won’t be offering up a UX reading list (…perhaps to your relief?). I have a long history of looking back and marveling at the certainty of my past self, particularly when my old predictions have failed to come to fruition. This time last year, I saw a path for the future, albeit a shaky one; I couldn’t have predicted an alternative fork, one the seeds of which were planted right around the time I filed that piece, when I received an email from the BBC offering me a press ticket to the premiere of the new season of my favorite show in the world, Sherlock.
I began my year in reading with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’d been in the Sherlock fandom for nearly a year at that point — it’s why I tried so hard to get into the premiere — but 2014 was the year I started talking about it. Publicly, I mean: first in a piece contextualizing the show and the public’s reaction alongside the late Victorian public’s reaction, working my way through the 60 stories and some contemporary criticism. Then I published what I called a “B-side” — one in which I fully owned my fannish interest in the show and the canon. I’d written things over the years that hinted at being in various fandoms, at reading fanfiction, at my dedication to participatory media consumption, at having spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time thinking about the minutiae of Harry Potter. In this piece, finally, I went for broke: I called it “Fangirl,” and I laid it all out there. “I obsess,” I wrote. “I’ve always obsessed.”
That piece set me down a new path — and it shaped what I would read and write about for the bulk of the year. The initial response was a little overwhelming: I’d put something of my true self out there and assumed the worst, somewhere between indifference and mocking, but instead I found so many people that connected with it, that felt it articulated something in their own lives. I made a whole bunch of new internet friends. Soon I was writing about fan stuff for the New Statesman — part of my plan, I joked, to infiltrate Britain (via the media) from within. (Didn’t do much good, since I’m down to a matter of weeks in the country.) I presented pieces on being a fan at a few academic conferences. By the middle of the year, I was asked to write a regular column on fan culture in the NS. It’s strange and new for me, to have a beat, a broad theme around which a lot of my writing centers. But I’ve been a fan for a few decades now; it’s a joy to write about a topic that’s getting such mainstream recognition — and, haltingly, even some respect.
Last December I envisioned the coming year as one of focused reading, and in a way, I was right — I just couldn’t have predicted the focus. There was Anne Jamison’s wonderful Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World — I loved it so much I fangirled at her, and then we fangirled at each other. There was Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, a fascinating book that illuminates so many shifting dynamics in media and culture right now. I checked out the work of Henry Jenkins, one of the most prominent fan studies scholars: I used his Convergence Culture in my dissertation and Textual Poachers to inform my professional writing. I fell in love with Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (and then, unsurprisingly, Eleanor and Park) — and then I fell in love with her Twitter account. I met Erin Clairborne when we were on a panel together at the Nine Worlds convention here in London over the summer, and I just finished her totally fantastic debut novel, A Hero at the End of the World, the first title from the Big Bang Press, which sources writers from fandom to pen original works. And fittingly, since I started the year with Sherlock Holmes, I’m ending with him, too: I just started reading In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a new volume of collected short stories inspired by the Holmes canon, which I plan to write about in conjunction with the new Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t put my money where my mouth is: the books I read this year were great, but then, so was the fanfiction. Over the years I’ve been asked if I’ve read anything good lately, and I’ve always bitten my tongue: I often have, but it’s not “real literature,” after all, but rather some 30-chapter masterpiece that someone has penned for free — for the love of the source material. I’m kind of done glossing over this major part of my reading life: for every good novel I read this year, I read a fantastic novel-length fic as well. And I’ve reveled at the very real shift I’ve seen in the past year: for every person who asks me what fanfiction is at a party, another leans in and says, “So…do you have any stories to recommend?”
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Back in April, Dreamworks announced its plans to adapt Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell for the silver screen, with the author writing the script. A few months later, Rowell published a new book, Landline, that marked a return to adult fiction. At The Rumpus, Amanda Green sits down with the author to talk about YA, her productivity and the importance (or not) of getting up early to write. FYI, our own Janet Potter reviewed Eleanor and Park and Fangirl.
If I had had Rainbow Rowell’s books in high school, things would have been a lot easier. Her two young adult novels are about girls who don’t fit in. Eleanor, in Eleanor & Park, is a big girl with ugly clothes and a dysfunctional family who doesn’t have any friends. Cath, in Fangirl, is a bookish college freshman with intermittent social anxiety issues who feels most comfortable in an online fan community. Both books are about how falling in love for the first time, particularly if you’ve never seen a love story you can relate to, can be as terrifying and confusing as it is joyful.
Eleanor meets Park meet when forced to sit next to him on the bus to school every day. After several daily rides pass in silence, Park notices Eleanor reading his comic book over his shoulder, and the next day he lends it to her. The comic book swapping leads to mixed tapes which leads to exchanging actual words which leads to hand-holding. As John Green put it in his New York Times review of the book, “The hand-holding, by the way, is intense.” Both of them, Eleanor to a much graver degree, are having trouble at home, but 20 minutes of hand-holding to and from school every day becomes the most important thing in their lives.
When I was in eighth grade I had a crush on the guy who sat behind me in English. He was popular and I was not, but we were passably friendly, and I could count on three or four good interactions per class. We had a running joke where every time he asked me to borrow a pen I’d give him my girliest one. Then he’d say, “my favorite,” and I’d do my best not to jump over my desk and kiss him on the face. When I woke up in the morning, my first thought was of sixth period English. I picked out my outfits with sixth period English in mind, and an internal clock in the pit of my stomach always knew how far away it was. Then I’d go to English, do the pen joke, try to hit a few under-the-breath jokes about our teacher out of the park, and the clock would reset. (My eighth grade dreamboat went on to date a blond sophomore. He now resides in Michigan.)
This emotionally heightened singleness of mind is what Rowell captures perfectly; the way falling in love with someone makes you an antenna tuned to their every word, look, movement, shift of weight, new shirt, old shirt, real smile, fake smile, and quirk. I was swept up in it as well, dying to know what happened the next time they got on the bus and then, as their relationship moved beyond the bus rides, deepened and was threatened, dying to see them make it. Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: “Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.”
While Eleanor & Park focuses mostly on the romance and those sweet, sweet bus rides, Fangirl throws Cath into a wider arena. As a high schooler, Cath was a dedicated fangirl of Simon Snow, the wizard hero of a popular series of books who is obviously standing in for Harry Potter. With the occasional help of her twin sister, Wren, Cath writes the most popular novel-length Simon Snow fanfiction in the fandom, such that to a certain subculture she is, as they say, kind of a big deal.
Between writing with her sister and taking care of their single father, whose mental stability comes and goes, Cath loves her small, comfortable world. She thought she could take her twin loves — writing and family — with her when she starts at the University of Nebraska, but Wren doesn’t want to be her roommate and her writing professor is none too impressed with fanfiction. Feeling untethered, she’s now dealing with an intimidating roommate, an emotionally unstable father she can no longer keep an eye on, an eager fanbase, demanding professors, and two adorable but confusing boys. While she has a love story of her own that’s as expertly drawn as Eleanor’s, her story is also about moving away from her childhood. But does wanting to be around your family really make you a loser? Does loving something when you were a child automatically make it childish?
Not everyone dreams of leaving the nest and becoming a new person, meeting handsome young gentleman and going on adventures. For shy girls who are really into YA, entering a world of frat parties and 100-student intro classes isn’t liberation, and Rowell is extraordinarily sensitive to how blithely Cath’s new environment makes her feel like a failure. Everyone in Cath’s life is telling her to move on and grow up, to forget about Simon Snow and let her dad take care of himself and let Wren do her own thing. Everyone is telling her — quite rightly — to enjoy herself at college, but what Cath stubbornly believes — also quite rightly — is that it can’t be as simple as that. She’s being told that she needs to change, but not finding the reasons compelling. She wants to cling to her family and her involvement in fandom because they’re comfortable, yes, but also because they’re immensely important to her. Fangirl is about her realizing what you need to let go of in order to move forward, and what you shouldn’t be willing to give up.
While both Eleanor and Cath shy away from other people, Eleanor does so more out of embarrassment, Cath out of fear. In both cases, the bridge they find between themselves and the outside world is a special boy. Those boys, and the way they fall in love with Eleanor and Cath, are the stuff of classic love stories (Fangirl, too, was a book I stayed up well into the small hours to finish). But they never overshadow the complicated, talented, sensitive, stubborn, regretful, funny, obsessive, petrified but hopeful girls. On Rowell’s website, she says her books are about “people who feel like they’re screwing up. And people who fall in love.” They do a lot of both.