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
On a recent afternoon I rode home from the subway station on a local bus as I do every workday. Looking up from my book for a moment as we passed the high school, I spotted a very old man on a very small bike — child-sized, smaller than my seven year old’s. His knees stuck out like pinched wings and the tallest point of the frame rose hardly as high as his thighs. He rode slowly and I doubt he had any choice, with the tiny bike wobbling and his own wiry frame swaying above it as he pumped himself up the steep hill of the sidewalk in the darkening winter light of near-dusk.
He was only in sight for a couple of seconds, just long enough for the bus to slide by, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see him again or if I do, around town, I doubt he’ll again be on that bike in that spot in that particular gray cast of weather and time. I might spot him somewhere else and not know it, without that whole scene to recognize him by. It was a perfect moment, though: a whole story captured and crystallized in one glimpse, piquing my curiosity about who he could be and what brought him to being a grown man on a child’s bike in the center of town on that particular day. Was he headed to the bank, or the library, or bar? Had he fixed the bike for a grandchild and gone out to test the repair before giving it back, or was he simply taking a ride on a bike of his own?
It’s the stuff of fiction, the lives we glimpse in peripheries of our own, whether those we observe in mysterious passing or those we pull from thin air. But when we pull those lives to the center to tell their stories, what do we put in their place? Too often it seems to be nothing, making so much of the fiction I read feel claustrophobic with no sense of other lives mattering at the edges and no impression of a world deeper and wider than those parts inhabited by the central characters we’re asked to attend to. Fiction can show us an individual, idiosyncratic mind, or at least the semblance of one in the tangled, rambling, multivocal chaos of our own thoughts in lieu of the tidier, deliberate narratives we’d like to imagine our intentions and actions to be. Outside ourselves, though, there are so many others going about actions and intentions and baffling, beautiful lives of their own, riding tiny bicycles uphill and yelling hilarious non-sequiturs of half-conversation into their phones on the bus and — because those others aren’t always human — chasing each other in circles as three squirrels are doing outside my window just now. Perhaps none of those amount to much narrative potential apart from being cast as metaphors in the shadow of a more dominant plot, but I want to be reminded of those active edges when I read stories.
Or watch them, because I can’t help wondering in every action movie: what happens to the anonymous drivers whose cars smash together when the hero and villain race through in a destructive chase? Or the broken neighborhoods left behind after the hero and villain throw bombs or fireballs or whatever their weapons of choice. We never linger long enough with our camera eye to see those collateral damages tallied; we never see those drivers and their passengers — their children, their pets, their spilled cups of coffee and broken bones — emerge from crashed cars. We never learn if their insurance covers the damage and injury, or if they lose jobs and opportunities and miss weddings of favorite nieces after the crash makes them late to wherever they’re headed. It would be hard to suspend disbelief well enough to enjoy the car chasing action at all if we were reminded so many lives had been wrecked along with the anonymous vehicles. Those films wouldn’t work if we had to consider the people who clean up the mess and live with the consequences and loss in the background of the more dramatic scenes we’re meant to focus on exclusively, never mind the quagmires of denied insurance claims and downward spirals of ongoing misery the action might cause. But there’s a lot of life at those edges, too much to be simply erased by the speed with which our hero’s car races away.
I can’t say I’m a fan of Austin Powers, but that film includes two of my favorite moments in cinema. Almost includes, I suppose, because both were cut from the U.S. release and only offered as deleted scenes on the DVD. Each of them follows the violent death of one of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, the first crushed by a steamroller and the second “decapitated by an ill-tempered mutated sea bass.” Each scene shows the bad news being broken to his family or friends, revealing the wider networks those marginal characters exist in and that they were individuals rather than abstract scraps of collateral damage. The scenes are played for humor, of course, because it’s that kind of movie. But they’re inherently, unavoidably sad (maybe that’s why they were cut?) and pull the rug out from under the genre’s conceits. Or, to be more accurate, the genre being parodied, because imagine how much less enjoyable and escapist James Bond or Jason Bourne’s exploits would be if we had to think about the trail of garage and hospital and funeral bills behind them.
That kind of attention to the edges, a disruptive attention that makes the periphery no longer peripheral at all but powerfully central, is one of the qualities that puts J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence among the best novels I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. In far more earnest and poetic fashion than Austin Powers, Ledgard takes seriously all the lives in his novel, from the ostensible protagonists — a would-be couple separated by distance and circumstance — to terrorist kidnappers to deep ocean microbes. The microbes matter no less to the novel and no less to the reader (at least to this reader) than the humans do. That’s not because the human lives are devalued but because Submergence keeps us mindful of the long view of time and the broad view of life. The novel leads us to ask why we are so focused on the “love story,” or on the suffering of one or two short-lived humans, when there are millions of other living things in the world, many of which are suffering and surviving in their own ways, all of which are as deeply fascinating and rich and worthy of our attention as human politics and romance. I’ve seen Ledgard refer to his desire to write what he calls “planetary fiction,” an intention I feel most keenly in that sense of time and scale and of treating all life as significant whether at the anthropocentric center of our expectations or on the more complex margins of the story he seems to be telling.
I hoped to bring a similar kind of attention to my own novel Fram, by acknowledging the lives and stories that fall by the wayside of stereotypically macho, action-oriented genres like spy thrillers and Arctic explorers’ accounts. What’s going on elsewhere to make those exciting quests possible? What are we not being given as readers in order to keep us turning pages? Real polar explorers were supported by their partners in any number of ways, as Kari Herbert writes of in Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World’s Most Daring Explorers, either in person or from a distance. But the lives of those women were no more defined by absent men than their husbands’ were defined by pure rugged individual toil despite the presence of support staff. Those women existed — and this is so obvious it hardly bears saying — entirely in their own right, as did everyone else who allowed those explorers to be “self-made men,” the Matthew Hensons of history. Not locked away for years at a time awaiting their returning conquerors in passivity, but busy being alive. As entrenched in their own stories as the families of Dr. Evil’s henchmen or J.M. Ledgard’s microbes.
As were the indigenous locals explorers employed or exploited to steer them across the ice, or in the case of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North to play the role of “noble savage” for southern audiences unlikely to ask who “Nanook” really was as he comically gnawed on a phonograph record, an iconic scene I’ve inserted into my own story in reconstituted form. Not to replace one voice or view with another but to remember, always, that there are more stories than we can tell at one time or fit onto one page. We’re always going to leave some untold or unsatisfying as we rush past them in the pursuit of narrative tension and fulfilling plots and rapid page-turning. The least we can do is to keep a reader aware other stories aren’t being told as a consequence of the one we’ve chosen to focus on and how we’ve chosen to tell it. That a desire for action and excitement, and the tidiness that serves them so well, often results in overlooking the extended outcomes of stories for the sake of narrative satisfaction. An erasure, perhaps, that flows off the page into culture at large.
It’s frustrating sometimes, for many of us, to be reminded of the stories that matter apart from our own and that we might be complicit in pushing them out to the margins. Anyone who has followed news of Ferguson and #GamerGate and so many other painful public narratives in recent months already knows how difficult those conversations can be. But so what? The difficulty is our sign it matters and that we need to get better at it. Considering the stories we tell and how we tell them is one place to start, even if it frustrates readers or even distracts them, and perhaps there are ways for us to write that make such frustration and distraction meaningful. “Planetary fiction,” as Ledgard calls it, but we might also call it humane and attentive. We might call it mindful.
There are novels like Wide Sargasso Sea and Wicked and Mary Reilly that retell stories we know from new angles, and there are whole worlds of fanfiction letting new voices speak, as Anne Jamison’s recent book Fic demonstrates so well. But it’s the voices that speak from the edges of even those stories that interest me most, the further possibilities even retellings create, and the ways our attention might always be split between the story we’re being offered and awareness of those we are directed away from by the necessity of moving ahead. It’s not that we are somehow required to tell every possible story — though perhaps, at its best, social media is getting us closer in its banal, beautiful way — or to tell stories other than the ones we’re personally, mysteriously drawn to tell. But maybe doing better at reminding our readers and viewers there are other stories that might be told instead will encourage more people to tell them, to move the edges into the center, and encourage those in positions of influence to offer a platform without dismissing them as stories “nobody wants” while leading others still to listen to them with more attention.
Image Credit: Flickr/Dyrk.Wyst.
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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why I am enjoying being so invested in this show
because I wouldn’t say it’s making me happy, per se
-my friend L, from a gchat during the 11 days that Sherlock was back on the air
[Don’t worry: there are no concrete spoilers for any of Sherlock series 3 here.]
Last week I published a piece here about the history of Sherlock Holmes, and about how it’s contextualized by the new series of Sherlock — or maybe it’s the other way around. I went through a number of books and scholarly articles and revisited the original stories and put together a measured argument. I had the good fortune to be able to attend the premiere at the British Film Institute with other journalists in December, and I watched all three episodes over the past few weeks with a critical eye, studying the reactions of the British press as each of them was aired. I discussed the essay with writers and editors, working to maintain a cool, judicious distance from the source material. I put together a long, (hopefully!) thoughtful piece that I was proud of, and one that I hoped did Sherlock, and Sherlock Holmes more broadly, some justice.
This, then, is the B-side. “Diary of a Crazed Fangirl.” That’s reductive, though, and perhaps even a bit sexist. “Diary of a Reasonably Intelligent Adult Woman Driven Slightly Insane by a Television Show She’s Grown Attached To.” Maybe I should just lift the best line from my friend L’s inadvertent chat-poem, and call it, “Sherlock: I Wouldn’t Say It’s Making Me Happy, Per Se.”
This is the story of one person in one fandom, but it’s likely got hints of your story, too, if you’ve ever been involved in this sort of thing. I’d hope that it resonates if you’ve ever really loved something that you haven’t created — the I’d-kill-for-you kind of love of a work of art that inspires others to say things like, “Whoa, whoa, slow down, it’s just a book.” I’ve written about fandom, specifically fanfiction, here before — twice, actually. First, to try to debunk the general “anthropologists discover a wild tribe of porn enthusiasts on the Internet” tone that accompanied approximately 90 percent of the Fifty Shades of Grey coverage that mentioned the series’ origin. Second, to try to debunk the idea that Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s commercially-licensed fanfic project, was anything that literally anyone in fan communities actually wanted.
I actively joined the Sherlock fandom only a year ago — and when I say actively, I mean I officially left my previous fandom (it was dying, quickly — the show was over and the smartest voices were moving on — and besides, I only have space for one fandom at a time in my brain and/or heart) and embraced the show full-on, allowing it to colonize my tumblr dash and AO3 bookmarks page and a fair portion of my idle thoughts. In the beginning, it can be a bit like a new relationship — you hope to find a way to slip it into conversation with your friends, and then realize too late that you are bringing it up way too often. (This happens, too, when I work on original fiction; stories are stories, and if the characters get you, you’re done.) I have been joining the fandoms of various books and television shows since the ’90s. I know how this works. And I knew the exact moment I was stepping into something dangerous with this one, because falling for a show with three episodes every two years does terrible things to your mind.
There’s a special kind of desperation that unifies hardcore Sherlock fans, and you can see it in the speed at which memes turn silly — there are only so many times you can go over every scene of a six-episode run with even the finest-toothed comb. You talk yourself in circles; you build wild headcanons based on slivers of hints from the writers — two men who’ve stated outright that they often lie to throw people off the scent. This is all part of the fun — the miserable, miserable fun. The cast and crew appear to be hyper-aware of the obsessive interest — and that’s unsurprising, because after all, Sherlock is helmed by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, a pair of men so obsessed with both the stories and the long century of paper and screen adaptations that their Sherlock Holmes fanfic is the show itself. The BBC capitalize on the “event” culture, in Moffat’s words, that’s grown around the show — there was a wild morning in November when fans were, at the bequest of the show’s creators, scouring the streets of London for…something. (In the end, it was a hearse, an ‘empty hearse,’ with the air date of the premiere spelled out in flowers, driven past key locations from the show. I stopped by one of the waiting points, the North Gower Street stand-in building for 221B Baker Street, on my way to UCL. When I had to leave after 15 minutes, I felt a strange sense that I was betraying something.)
By some stroke of miraculous luck, my professional life and my fan life physically intersected in the final weeks of the year. I managed to get a press invitation to the premiere, and had a mild heart attack as I was checking in and saw Stephen Moffat’s curly head gliding past a long queue of deerstalker hats — fans who’d been waiting for return tickets, some of them, it was rumored, since the night before. At the pre-screening reception, I made a friend, a financial journalist about my age. “I really love this show,” she told me. I nodded vigorously. “But I would never wait all night to get a ticket!” she went on. My vigorous nodding slowed to a gentle bob. Would I? I’d considered it. But I had taken an easier option because that privilege was available to me.
I looked around the room and puzzled at this collection of people. We were journalists; we were fans; perhaps we were that kind of fan, but we weren’t announcing it. This complicated dynamic would carry over into the post-screening Q&A, where Caitlin Moran (whom I generally love, incidentally), engaged in a classic Moran-style fuck-up, forcing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read a passage from a John/Sherlock fanfic. It wasn’t particularly explicit but it was romantic and sexual, to be certain, and it was abundantly clear that neither the actors nor anyone in the audience — including those of us who read this stuff in our spare time — wanted this read aloud onstage. She apologized profusely, but the incident set the tone for the strange interplay that would mark the weeks that followed, between the show’s makers and its fans, from casual to hardcore, and the critics observing and trying to explain what they didn’t fully understand.
The three episodes aired over the span of 11 days here in the U.K., each of them pulling in about a third of the British viewing public and millions more abroad, through legal means or otherwise. Moffat wanted an “event,” and he got it, three times over. It felt like every British person on my Twitter feed had a 140-character review. Public opinion appeared to sway wildly from week to week, and newspapers seemed to be hunting for controversy, publishing positive reviews and then countering them with takedown pieces, highlighting the most polarizing voices and muting more nuanced views. They do that with everything these days, you say. They’re just looking for clicks. Yes: we are in agreement! But there is something to be said for placing so much anticipatory weight on a television show: nothing can be all things to all people, and Sherlock felt smothered by the weight of nine million expectations. Tons of people loved it, and were put off by negative criticism; tons of others threw up their hands and said, “This is not what I signed up for. This is not my show.” Others still urged people to calm down: it’s just a TV show after all. But to say this diminishes the importance of storytelling in our lives, in whatever mode. It’s hard not to get invested in stories, and in characters, that we love. That’s what people do.
As a critic and as a person who wants to see this show continue to be made, I felt I had a vested interest in the critical and public reactions, respectively. But at my core, I am a fangirl. I read and write fanfiction (never published; I hate WIPs), and I obsess. I’ve always obsessed. A lot of fan activity these days happens on Tumblr, and the Sherlock community there fractured around divided opinions, too — though they somehow never managed to align with those of the rest of the world. We all want different things from the things we love; we’re all inevitably disappointed in some way. Mixed reactions in fan communities are par for the course — transmedia scholar Henry Jenkins pinpointed something key when he wrote that “fan fiction emerges from a balance between fascination and frustration.” One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Sherlock’s writers this time around was an accusation of “fan service” — that the fourth wall was being pecked away at, sometimes outright shattered, and elements were added with a knowing eye focused on fans, particularly the “vocal” group that the show has attracted. Within the fandom, some fans agreed and took this accusation to heart, while others felt they weren’t being serviced enough, or at all. Emotions ran high, and vitriol sprung up; I spent 11 days feeling far more tense than I should have. I took long walks along the Thames, and even went to church a few times to clear my head.
(It’s worth noting here that a lot of fan communities are most vocally female, and I don’t think that the Sherlock fan community is any exception. It felt like there was a special criticism being leveled at female fans of Sherlock, “silly fangirls,” that sort of thing, dismissed as a group of people who like watching Benedict Cumberbatch ruffle his hair (c’mon guys, this is clearly all humans, ever) or people who welcomed the fair amount of screen time being devoted to character development in these three episodes. Somehow these were female desires being imposed, despite the three men writing the scripts. There’s an analogy in here to modern fiction, in men refusing to read books marked as feminine in some way, that sort of thing, but I can hold onto that one for another day.)
I’ve always been a lurker — eager to consume fan works and conversations but hesitant to join in. This time around, I was joined by two fellow lurkers, “R” and “L,” friends from college who love the show but have mostly kept their spiraling meta-analyses inside their heads. We let it all out, the kind of avalanche of analysis and reaction a lot of us have after reading a book or seeing a movie with friends, but for days on end. We had a lot to say: thousands of words across nearly a hundred emails. We all process stories by talking them through, trying to balance rationality with emotional response. We scrutinize; we flail and squee. And in our little group of three, we split. R, the one who’s been with the show the longest, wavered, hating most of the first two episodes but finding more to like about the third. In the end, she walked away wholly disheartened with the show. “There were absolutely lots of great scenes in this series but to me they don’t fit together,” she wrote in one of her final emails. “And though I’m inclined to try and rationalize I don’t know if there’s a point because the heart of it is that I just don’t trust the showrunners anymore.”
L and I wound up on mostly the same page: largely happy with the show but fairly unhappy with all the dissatisfaction and the unending dissections. The normal pains of absorbing new material were amplified by the speed at which the series aired, and the length of the episodes themselves. It was tiring: I wrote, on the eve of the finale, “Oh God I just want tomorrow to be over so I can stop having a mild heart attack and we can get back to fanfiction.” I was looking for someone to make sense of it all, and had the good fortune to come across Anne Jamison shortly after the first episode aired, via some very smart women who write some very smart fanfiction, and, I learned and shouldn’t have been at all surprised to see, some very smart critiques (aka meta) of the show.
Jamison is an academic who participates in the Sherlock fandom, amongst others; her latest book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World came out late last year. I got my hands a copy and promptly devoured it. It should be noted that, post-Christmas 2013, this is the first book I’ve actually fully read in electronic form; is it that experience, or something in way it is written and pieced together (guest contributions interwoven with a strong, linear narrative from Jamison herself) that makes it feel very new? I’m liable to say it’s the latter — she writes in the introduction: “The desire to host this conversation leaves Fic somewhere between monograph and edited collection. It might help to think of it as a tour through a curated exhibit that I’ve arranged and guided and shaped.” It’s also likely that the subject matter has a hand in this: Jamison writes of fanfiction working in many directions, from the traditional author/reader relationship to more lateral connections, fanfic writers and readers working across genres and preferences and even source material to create webs based, above all, on taste: what we want to read, and love reading, a vast network of influences and references and experimentation and quick, constructive feedback. A utopia — sometimes. At the very least, a way of sharing stories that feels refreshingly organic, and one that continues to evolve — in fascinating ways — with technological shifts in communication.
The resulting portrait of the long and varied history of fandom — with a specific emphasis on fic, and, oh, what a delight to see some fanfic I’ve read and loved analyzed like any other good work of literature — is a picture of the wide-open spaces in between. Books and television shows and movies inherently leave gaps; whether we choose to linger over them, to explain them away, or to work fill them in, is our right as consumers of art, and as fans. But it’s easier to see what fans get from the creators of art than what they really deserve. I wrote to Jamison and asked if she could help me puzzle out what had happened with Sherlock series 3: why was it so divisive, and what about the fans in all of this? What did she think of the ideas about challenges to the fourth wall?
“From my perspective — viewing Sherlock as a very high quality, very clever, very well-written fan work — this show has always challenged the fourth wall,” she wrote in response. “Their mission statement is to mess with canon and to redefine it as inclusive — if they feel like it. They are not writing the kind of reverent, in-universe missing case or missing scene pastiche that has long been popular with Sherlockians.” Throughout the episode-run, there was so much talk about how the show had changed — and those who didn’t like those changes insisted it was for the worse. Jamison draws up what I think is a great analogy: “If you *loved* the early Beatles, there’s no guarantee you’re going to love Abbey Road, because the band had gotten to a very, very different place musically and personally. I don’t think it’s unreasonable of people to want more of what they love, and not to have it change…But obviously, there were more Beatles fans who were happy to see the band grow and go in new directions, even if they preferred some over others. And that’s exactly what happened with Sherlock.” She continues:
I think Sherlock *is* fanservice but I think that the creators themselves are the fans they are servicing. They couldn’t make this show if they weren’t incredible Sherlock Holmes fans. Sherlock is in the enviable position of being event television that people will tune in for. They can afford not to play it safe. By going over familiar ground — with Sherlock Holmes — and by doing so few episodes, they buy the opportunity to do very new things in television. Just like fanfiction writers always do — people will tune in for the characters and read something more experimental than they might otherwise because there’s enough there to make them feel at home.
Jamison helped me sort out some of the thorniest bits that lie at the heart of the show’s specific problems in relation to its fans — there are gendered issues at work here, for one, questions of representation, perhaps reasons why the broader universe is ripe for those coming from, and looking for, the spaces in between. (“I think your sense of gender discrimination, though, and gendered storytelling, is spot-on,” she wrote. “Part of the problem is that somehow narratives about feeling have become coded as feminine. That wasn’t the case in [Arthur Conan Doyle]’s day.”) We’ve put the full (long) conversation up over on her tumblr if you’re interested. Funnily enough, while we were exchanging e-mails, an incident similar to the Moran fanfic fiasco cropped up, this one concerning Amanda Abbington, the cast’s newest regular, and her objection to fan art depicting her partner, Martin Freeman. Jamison has smart things to say on that, too.
The Hiatus has begun again, and the British public has moved on with their lives. Hell, they probably moved on the Monday after the finale aired, perhaps after a chat at the proverbial (or literal? Is that still a thing?) water cooler. (The Daily Mail wrote an amazing blustery article that morning saying Sherlock was full of liberal bias, and we all had a much-needed laugh.) It’s been a few weeks now, and the fans remain, because fans always remain, and will continue to turn over the text in new and surprising ways. Some people have abandoned the show, I’m sure, but new fans are probably tentatively stepping through door as I write this. People will try to explain away their confusion, and if they can’t rationalize it, well, they can fix it, too. The fanfiction has begun. I feel less of a need for long, drizzly walks along the Thames — at least not for this stuff, anyway — though I am slightly wary about going through another round of “event” television again. On the other hand, I really cannot wait to see what’s coming next. I certainly cannot wait another two years. Please, please, for the love of God, not another two years.
About a week ago, my friend L sent a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the show in her own life, which, after all of this, she still loved — with reservations, of course.
Spending time thinking and writing about Sherlock is on one level a form of escapism. It’s a place where I can let my mind do some gymnastics while I’m waiting in line at the bank or washing the same cup for the hundredth time at work. But it’s not just any place where I’m mentally doing just anything. In the tradition of the science fiction and fantasy novels that I love best, Sherlock deals with a lot of ideas and issues in a manner that is indirect enough that it is not obvious and preachy, yet they are still realized in a compelling way…Certain lines or plot points act like catalysts for things that are already going on in my head. Much of it comes from the magic of these characters, the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson that have endured and been re-imagined and reinvented for over a century. A lot of it comes from the universe created by Moffat and Gatiss, and still more from the combined chemistry and individual performances of Cumberbatch and Freeman. For whatever reason, I find that this environment is a wonderful place to grow the seeds of these big thoughts in the semi-privacy of my own brain.
I get invested in this stuff too, certainly; fictional characters from both high and low culture have always occupied prime seats in my mind (palace). In the end, these are just stories, which is what we’re after most of all, I suppose — a way to contextualize our own stories, the ones we tell ourselves to make sense of things. Anything that’s both beloved and serialized has to deal with the disconnect between the stories that its creators want to tell and the stories that fans, from the casual on up to the obsessive, want to see. For me, I suppose it’s like any addiction — I’m so grateful for everything we get, and then, when the dust settles, I just want to see more.
There is a weirdly fitting coda to all of this: I was working to finish this essay in a coffee shop in Central London a few evenings ago, and my computer’s battery ran out just as I typed the word “showrunners.” I sighed and took off my headphones and shut my laptop. And then I heard a very familiar laugh: I looked around and did a genuine double take, because Mark Gatiss was sitting about 10 feet away, chatting with a friend. I tried not to freak out. I was paralyzed: a devoted fan and the creator of said fan’s interest just a few feet apart in a random café and where the hell was the fourth wall (made of impenetrable brick) that I needed to keep me from rushing over and making a fool of myself? I didn’t, don’t worry. Too shy or too scared, or maybe, to put a more positive spin on it, too considerate of a private individual having a conversation to interrupt. After he left, the man at the next table turned around and said, “Was that Mycroft!?” So much more than that, I wanted to tell him. I nodded instead. There’s a metaphor in all of this, somewhere.