Catching Fire, the follow-up to Hunger Games, opens this Friday, and the future of teen fantasy film may depend on its success. When The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones tanked at the box office in August, critics rejoiced over the apparent death of the genre. A few months earlier in March, The Host had also flopped, winning the distinction of being the last film Roger Ebert ever panned. BuzzFeed writer Jordan Zakarin concluded that the “tween vampire jugular is tapped.” In the Atlantic, Gina Dalfonzo suggested that teenage girls nursed on Twilight had finally seen through the hackneyed “Chosen One” story trope, a plot-line that has held its own since the Book of Esther. Writing more pragmatically in Forbes, Scott Mendelson blamed City of Bones’s floundering on bad marketing.
Despite this failure, the actual book by Cassandra Clare was a roaring success, selling more than 16 million copies worldwide. Though the teen fantasy craze may be on the downslope, it is not quite dead; rather, the supernatural romances of Twilight and its ilk have yielded to the dystopian universe of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. The first film adaptation grossed $691 million last year, and with a fresh crop of middle-schoolers looking for signposts to their own significance, the second installment’s curtain raise is likely to be well-attended.
Though publishers distinguish between supernatural, paranormal romance, and dystopia, these genres all involve an element of fantasy. HarperCollins editor Kari Sutherland told me that since 2010 the company has tripled its number of such titles, which include the wildly successful Divergent and Delirium series. Scholastic, publisher of The Hunger Games, said these books have played an “intrinsic” role in the increase of titles it’s sold in the past five years. Fantasies can be valuable testaments to the power of literature, allowing readers to work out real-world problems in a metaphorical context and encouraging creativity, courage, and self-sacrifice. But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?
Before the American Civil War, the idea of writing books for teenagers didn’t cross the minds of American publishers. It was only in the 1860s that popular novels for girls like the Elsie Dinsmore series appeared, featuring saintly, passive heroines whose lives revolved around the home. But a demand also grew for blood-and-thunder romances that expressed an underlying feminine ennui as much as they negatively implicated the women reading them. The heroines of these tales were usually embroiled in a lurid affair between suitors or some other form of love-gone-awry that threatened their virginity.
These women — the evolutionary ancestors of today’s high-grossing teen heroines — were seen to confirm upper class assumptions about the promiscuity of the lower class. Louisa May Alcott’s first story, a psycho-thriller novella called Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, followed a jilted woman’s quest for revenge against a lover who leaves her for a wealthy woman. In 1862, after it was published under the pen name of A. M. Barnard, Alcott wrote to her friend Alf Whitman: “I get ten dollars a page for my foolish little story…money is the end & aim of my mercenary existence I scribble away.” Even after she became a famous writer, Alcott continued churning out pulp fiction for the tabloids. “Perilous Play” of 1869 ends memorably with its heroine exclaiming, “Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!”
But squeaky-clean domestic romances remained the more socially acceptable reading choice until the turn of the century, when publishers like The Henry Altemus Company concluded that “girls as well as boys love adventure.” The Stratemeyer Syndicate published 85 new girls’ series between 1910 and 1920 starring young women who played basketball, drove cars, helped the poor, solved mysteries, and even made movies. Most of all, they went to college. The historian Jane S. Smith has noted that less than four percent of college-aged American girls attended university in 1910, “but it was a rare heroine of fiction who did not take a room on the campus green, where she studied biology and Latin, drank cocoa with her kimono-clad chums and upheld the school traditions with moist-eyed fervor.”
These books captured the spirit of the Suffragettes, who in 1913 marched on the Washington Mall to demand women’s equality. The popular Ruth Fielding Series (1913-1934) was about an orphan living with a mean uncle who disapproves of her desire for a future outside the home. Smart and ambitious, Ruth works hard in school, goes to college, wins a film-writing contest and even starts her own production company. In book #15, Ruth Fielding Homeward Bound (1919), the narrator explains, “Marriage was something very far ahead in the future, if Ruth … thought of it at all.” When Ruth’s boyfriend Tom proposes in book #19, Ruth Fielding on the St. Lawrence (1922), she feels that “to do as Tom wished would utterly spoil the career on which she had now entered so successfully. Tom, like most young men in love, considered that a girl’s only career should be a husband and a home…she wanted to live her own life.”
It’s ironic, as Smith has noted, that bettering one’s self through college or career fell out of focus in teen fiction not long after women got the vote. By the 1980s, suburban dramas in the vein of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitter’s Club predominantly reigned.
One night in 2003, Stephenie Meyer had a dream about vampires and woke up the next morning to begin writing the first Twilight book, a nearly 500-page tome. Within five years the first Twilight film appeared, launching a franchise, and by extension, a phenomenon. Though girls devoured the series in cinematic and print form (I once saw a first edition at Half-Price Books valued at $600), critics spared no kindness on its 17-year-old heroine, “Bella” Swan:
“Neither [Edward or Bella] has much personality to speak of.”
“[Bella] is not only hard to identify with but positively horrifying…”
— Entertainment Weekly
“It’s hard to say which is more difficult to swallow: Bella’s perpetually low self-worth, or the fact that all the other characters are obsessed with her…young readers are left with the image of a girl who discovers her own worth and gets all she ever wanted, by giving up her identity and throwing away nearly everything in life that matters.”
— National Review
“…the overall effect is a weird infantilization that has repellent overtones to an adult reader and hardly seems like an admirable model to foist upon our daughters (or sons).”
— Washington Post
And a final, damning rebuke:
“You can’t get away from a strange paradox. Women are using their regained power over the picture house to trash their hard-won independence. What mysterious creatures they are.”
— The Guardian
Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care. After the first Twilight film, Bella (Kristin Stewart) became a de facto role model for young women — the instantaneous object of their envy, praise, and imitation. The internet was rife with articles and YouTube videos instructing girls how to dress like Bella, apply their makeup like Bella, and, most frighteningly, act like Bella. In one video, a girl earnestly advised viewers to be “clumsy and accident-prone.” Clothing brand BB Dakota even replicated for mass production the jacket Bella wore in the film. Bella singlehandedly set the stage for an army of similar teen heroines that came after her — ones who share more in common with Alcott’s Pauline or even Elsie Dinsmore than Ruth Fielding. In fact, the sting of Twilight intensifies when one compares the book to Girl of the Limberlost (1908), a young adult novel authored by Gene Stratton-Porter and published a full hundred years before Twilight premiered in theaters.
Both Elnora Comstock, author Gene Stratton-Porter’s 16-year-old heroine, and Bella Swan are Cinderella archetypes. Twilight opens when Bella moves to the leafy town of Forks, Washington to live with her dad, since her mom is preoccupied doting on a boyfriend. Elnora’s father is dead, and she lives in rural Indiana with her mother, a grief-stricken tyrant. Each, in their own ways, are loners. Though friends flock around Bella at school, she tells the reader, “I didn’t relate well to people my age… Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period.” While Bella may feel like an outsider, Elnora is one. Snubbed for her old-fashioned clothes, she becomes a pariah on her first day of high school and eats her lunch alone. Both girls also spend their time wandering the woods near their homes. Bella’s activities in the lush Northwest forest involve chasing around her love interest, a vampire named Edward Cullen (or more often, joyriding on his back). Elnora works quietly in the swampy Limberlost, where her own father drowned, collecting rare moths to sell so she can buy schoolbooks and save money for college.
But at the heart of Twilight lies something else almost more sinister than its treatment of romance. The more Bella submits to Edward’s charms, the closer she gets to the end of her human life and the beginning of her undead one. Coupled with her disinterest in the outside world, her desire for Edward becomes a death wish — fulfilled when she is finally bitten by him and becomes herself a vampire. If this sounds twisted, remember that it’s the ending that most Twilight readers hoped for. This hunger for death is countered in Limberlost not only by Elnora’s resilience against life’s blows but also by the forest’s own struggle to survive industrialization. Like Edward’s deadly effect on Bella, Elnora’s foraging in the Limberlost threatens it. A family friend warns her, “Each year you will find less in the swamp, and things everywhere will be scarcer.” By the time she graduates high school, the forest is not what it used to be. Still, Mrs. Comstock, who owns a large swath of the land, refuses to sell it to developers. Life pushes back against destruction for the conservation of a fragile but crucial habitat.
To a modern reader, Limberlost is sentimental, almost saccharine, and though it encourages independence it ultimately bows to the conventions of its era when, towards the end, Elnora reveals her perception of being a wife: “I understood that to mean that he desired me to keep him a clean house, serve him digestible food, mother his children, and give him loving, sympathy, and tenderness,” she says. But in a time when few women went to college, Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?
The author Lauren Oliver credited her inspiration for the dystopian teen romance Delirium to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote that all great books were about love and death. Throughout literary history, these twin subjects have been the core of many great novels (Anna Karenina) as well as many bad ones. As Twilight demonstrated, teen fantasy authors have taken up these themes with a special fervor, but no one has handled them as ruthlessly as Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games Trilogy.
Writing in Salon, critic Laura Miller has praised Katniss Everdeen, Collins’s strong-willed 16-year-old heroine, as an improvement on Bella:
Bella Swan is clumsy and largely helpless, a rescue object for Edward and Jacob… Katniss is a tough and competent woodswoman and sharpshooter. Bella is willing to give up everything — her family, friends, previous life, even her humanity — to dote on her beloved Edward for eternity; Katniss sacrifices herself for her mother and sister.
Indeed, Katniss has far more in common with Elnora. She also spends her days in a forest, hunting not moths but meat to sell on the black market. The resemblance between the two is uncanny. Like Elnora’s father, Katniss’s father is dead and her mother also emotionally invalid; just as Elnora inherits her father’s grace with the violin, Katniss has her father’s rich talent for song. Both characters struggle to survive in a dangerous environment. Thieves have overrun Elnora’s forest and warn her to keep out; her father’s bones, we are told, rest in the swampy pool bottom where he drowned. Yet somehow the Limberlost’s dangers don’t overwhelm her. Katniss’s post-apocalyptic home of Panem terrorizes her. Food is scarce; mutant birds and insects threaten; and hunting is a crime penalized by death As punishment for a past rebellion, each of the nation’s 12 districts sacrifices two “tributes” to compete in an annual reality show where the winner is the last one alive.
Here, dystopia reaches into every corner of life — even love. Along with a boy named Peeta, Katniss represents her district in the 74th annual games. Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people. In chapter 10, Peeta — who faces the same pressures as Katniss — tells her that his goal is to stay true to himself, even until death: “I’m more than just a piece in their Games… Don’t you see?” Katniss replies, “A little… but who cares, Peeta?”
Dystopian novels are provocative avenues through which readers can explore and even question their civic relationship to government, but Collins’s series fosters an especially grotesque worldview. The words “dead,” “dying,” and “death” appear more than 300 times in the series. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are again chosen to compete in a special edition of the bloodbath. When Katniss is wounded, the authorities nurse her to life because a quiet, private passing would be a loss for them. Later, Katniss resolves to kill Peeta “before the Capitol gets to choose the agonizing means of his death.” As Mockingjay opens, she stumbles through the bombed-out landscape of District 12, tripping on human skulls and breathing in the ashes of the dead. When the couple finally defeat the Capitol, their victory feels pyrrhic at best. With most of their families dead (and Katniss’s initial sacrificing of herself for her sister rendered pointless), they marry, and nightmares haunt them always. Readers are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves. They may wonder: if the world really is that hopeless, what’s the point of striving for anything at all?
In comparison to Collins’s dark tale, Daniel Woodrell’s noiresque Winter’s Bone — whose 2010 film version also starred Jennifer Lawrence — seems strangely light. The fact that the novel, published in 2006, was not marketed to teenage girls is almost — but not quite — surprising. Its heroine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, shares many similarities to Bella, Katniss, and Elnora. Living in the Ozark woods and hunting squirrels to feed her family, she also searches for her father, a meth cook who has gone missing. If he doesn’t turn up for his court date, her mother and siblings will be forced out of their home. There is no romance here; Ree mostly dreams of leaving the Ozarks and joining the Army. But in the end, she preserves her family home by confronting her father’s death in its most horrifying physical form. When the film version came out in 2010, David Edelstein noted in New York Magazine, “For all the horror, it’s the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer…” New Yorker critic David Denby called Winter’s Bone “one of the greatest feminist works in film.”
Literature may not be about easy answers, but some of the best books bring some level of clarity to the reader within their nuanced explorations of the world — even if that clarity means that they find the answers are grayer than they thought. The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.
The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow. Though many teen readers lead average, suburban lives, they live in an information age rife with anxiety. Their social worlds, artificially reorganized online through social media, are open to endless bullying. Threats of nuclear war, environmental destruction, and domestic terrorism loop continuously on the nightly news. AMC — who owned the venue in which the Aurora shooting occurred and in whose franchises many fans will line up to see Catching Fire’s premiere — now runs a cautionary commercial about how to act in the case of such a catastrophe. In the midst of these uncertainties, let alone the hormonal depression from which many already suffer, the fashion and beauty industries fuel the pressure to look and act perfect.
In her article, Dalfonzo wrote, “It might be that, far from wanting to watch other kids save the world time and again, kids would like to watch them just being kids.” But kids don’t just want to watch kids being kids. They want to step into the shoes of ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.
Yet, in the famous words of Tolkien, not all who wander are lost. Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.
Chances are you know (and chances are you wonder why you know) that 50 Shades of Grey started out as a work of Twilight fanfiction. You probably harbor some deep suspicions about the value of fanfiction as a genre. But what if I were to tell you that the prototypical work of fanfiction is… The Gospels?
Joyce Carol Oates turned 75 years old yesterday, and she’s now writing some of the best fiction of her career. More than any other American novelist of her generation, Oates has been ruthless in questioning her obsessions. Constantly experimenting with different styles, situations, and characters, she has refused to settle into a fixed viewpoint, either toward herself or other people. We recognize the Oates world of physical and psychological violence when we read her, but there has never been anything complacent in her vision. She doesn’t romanticize violence in the way Mailer or Hemingway do. She also doesn’t romanticize victimhood, even if victims of aggression are key figures in many of her works. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened to Oates when she was young, though books like Son of the Morning, with its nightmarish gang rape, give us some disturbing clues. But whatever it is that powers her writing, she races on, making mistakes and learning from them, relentless in her pursuit of each new novel. In Virginia Woolf’s terms, Oates has put as much of her art down on the page as possible, has expressed herself completely, achieving “the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire” the work that is in her.
In her latest novel, The Accursed, the characters hunger to eat the people around them, and sometimes hunger to be eaten in turn. The hunger thrives on the mutual incomprehension between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, ministers and anarchists, journalists and university presidents, blacks and whites, artists and propagandists, social reformers and politicians. The novel repeatedly demonstrates how, despite our best intentions, we can fall in love with our ignorance, the compulsions that blind and fulfill us. Our appetites are terrible and destructive, but they also drive us toward whatever flawed, incomplete actions we might take — only to force us, in the end, to discover we’ve advanced the worst in us along with the best. Consummation is something to be feared and desired.
Our urge to feed on others is built into the novel’s prose. The narrator, M.W. van Dyck II, is writing the book in 1984. Van Dyck is a man in his late-seventies, with many of the prejudices of someone from his time and place. Oates doesn’t, however, spend the novel scoring cheap points against him. Instead, we often have a hard time separating his self-deceptions from his insights. Oates doesn’t want us to feel superior to van Dyck. She wants us to see that his flaws aren’t so different from ours. Our convictions might not age any better than his have.
Van Dyck claims to offer us his research on the Curse, a series of “mysterious, seemingly linked events occurring in, and in the vicinity of, Princeton, New Jersey, in the approximate years 1900-1910.” Yet he admits his account is a stylized distillation. The multiple “histories” of the events, he says, “have been condensed into a single ‘history’ as a decade of time has been condensed, for purposes of aesthetic unity, to a period of approximately fourteen months in 1905-1906.” Is he an unreliable narrator who doesn’t see how far he strays from the facts? Or a strangely reliable narrator who deliberately draws our attention to the fictions we impose on our experiences? He’s both, and the tension between these possibilities extends to every person in the story, and to the entire world of the novel, which is constantly shifting before our eyes.
Van Dyck’s voice is only one among the many voices he gives us, from diaries, coded journals, a deathbed confession, the text of a blasphemous sermon. All of the speakers are determined to have their say against the words of the people who come into conflict with them. What’s at stake isn’t just the interpretation of the Curse but the question of whether the men and women in the novel have wasted their lives. Their struggles mean more to them than they feel others can understand, and Oates catches them in the act of trying to impose that meaning everywhere they go. As usual, Oates is in thrall to her characters without being limited to any single viewpoint or any specific type of figure. She immerses herself as passionately in Marilyn Monroe in Blonde as she does in the reckless businessman Corky Corcoran in What I Lived For, the lawyer in Do With Me What You Will, the wife in American Appetites, the evangelist in Son of the Morning, the leader of the girl gang in Foxfire, the alcoholic father in We Were the Mulvaneys. No single person in The Accursed stands out as strongly as Corky Corcoran or Legs Sadovsky or Michael Mulvaney do. In compensation, though, this is the Oates novel that best displays her range, her feel for the pressures we all exert on each other.
2. The Bog Kingdom
The plot of The Accursed is a parody of a Gothic horror story, a mash-up of Dracula with samples from Hawthorne’s greatest hits. We get the spreading consequences of passed-down sin from The Marble Faun and The House of the Seven Gables, the guilty conscience of Dimmesdale and the communal punishment of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, the problematic utopianism of Brook Farm and the rebelliousness of Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance. At first the novel seems to promise merely a mock romance, a reaction against Twilight-style sentimentality. Quickly, however, we enter a far-reaching meditation on history, class, racism, politics, religion, business, and power, involving a wide array of characters and settings. Though nearly 700 pages long, and despite its intricate collage of documents and viewpoints, the story moves with Oates’s characteristic deftness. The Accursed has a striking tone of playful seriousness, the exhilaration that comes from a writer who knows she’s doing a major book and knows she’s doing it well.
The Dracula figure is Axson Mayte. He ruins the reputation of Annabel Slade on the day of her wedding to another man. She is with Mayte for a short time, becomes pregnant, dies in childbirth.
But the facts of Annabel’s seduction are unclear. The gossip-mongers in Princeton see Mayte as a demonic aristocrat who holds a vampire-like sway over women. But did Mayte kidnap Annabel or did she simply decide to walk out on her wedding?
The question becomes more urgent when Annabel returns to her family and gives birth to Mayte’s child. Before the birth, she allegedly makes a confession to her brother about her experiences in Mayte’s home, the surreal Bog Kingdom. The Bog Kingdom is an anti-sexual version of a Gothic estate. It strips the Gothic conventions of their plush eroticism: for Mayte, seduction contains no love or passion but only a cold, bored, exhausted exercise of power. The Bog Kingdom is all about turning everyone to food and waste, with the emphasis on the waste. Annabel quickly learns she is meant to be used up by Mayte and his drinking companions, and then thrown in the marsh with Mayte’s other dead brides. The dying women in Mayte’s harem are held in rooms for horrific medical experiments, or function as broken-down manual laborers. Mayte and his men soon lose interest in raping Annabel and make her a servant-girl. As they eat cannibal sandwiches, “raw beefsteak that leaked blood down their chins,” they jab Annabel’s pregnant belly with their elbows. Then she is exiled to the cellar-crew. She must bail out the sewage from the cesspool, through “the continuous emptying-out of buckets, hour after hour, day following day.”
What are we to make of this bizarre confession? Is this really Annabel’s voice? Her words reach us through at least two degrees of warping — first from her brother, who hates Mayte, and then from van Dyck, who has a complicated relationship to the Bog Kingdom story. Is the story Annabel’s crazed version of a more conventional seduction-and-abandonment, the result of her mind being broken by Mayte’s cruelty? Or do the exaggerations come from her brother, who turns increasingly unstable as the novel goes on? Moreover, what do the exaggerations reveal? Is the vision of the Bog Kingdom the brother’s revenge on Annabel for damaging her family’s reputation? Is the monstrous image of Mayte a puritanical fairy tale, a warning to all Princeton women against following their desires?
Oates won’t allow us any easy answers. Instead, she develops the possibility that Annabel’s confession is a mix, a bastardization of Annabel’s version of the truth along with the versions of her brother, the community, and of course van Dyck. The confession contains odd layers, contradictions that might have survived because the brother and van Dyck have either allowed them to survive or haven’t recognized them or have inserted them later. Many of the novel’s characters have moments when they find themselves saying or thinking something that contradicts what they would usually say or believe. They surrender to unexpected countercurrents, reversed or distorted twists on their self-image. These individual moments of madness — or moments of one strain of madness within other strains of madness — gradually join the larger movements of the Curse through the community. Finally all of Princeton becomes as strange and wildly divided as the story of the Bog Kingdom.
I don’t want to make too much out of it, but the divisions in Oates’s characters might help explain some of the minor lapses in her nonfiction writing and her public statements. She recently tweeted, for instance, that reviewers should try to limit the opinions they express, even though she has spent years producing highly opinionated criticism for The New York Review of Books. Oates has an eye for our paradoxes, the quarrels and inconsistencies we carry around inside us. Possibly she writes so well about our contradictions in part because they’re so strongly present in her personality. I sometimes wonder if she even courts her inconsistencies in order to see them more clearly for her novels and stories. Oates is the opposite of those writers who devote most of their effort to maintaining an artful persona to help market mediocre books. Her public image is slipshod and poorly managed, while her fiction has consumed the bulk of her exceptional energy, has nourished itself on the special ferocity she brings to the design and execution of her work.
3. Birth and Rebirth
Van Dyck tells us Annabel died when her child was born; the baby lived only a few seconds. Van Dyck also reports that gossip turned the baby into a grotesque snake creature, the appropriate offspring for Mayte. Later in the novel, however, we suspect the child has survived. He might even be van Dyck, who was officially born soon after Annabel’s death. Van Dyck’s legal parents hadn’t slept together for years when the wife supposedly became pregnant. In the second half of the novel, the husband goes insane mapping the lines of the Curse and trying to work out if his wife has been unfaithful.
The narrator is lost in the impossibility of knowing whether he’s Annabel’s son. If Annabel gave birth to a demon, is the demon van Dyck? Is the Bog Kingdom his admission of some hidden strain of brutality in him? Or is he satirizing the prejudices the community marshaled to pass judgment on Annabel’s actions? There’s a chance that Annabel or van Dyck’s legal mother — or both of them working together — invented the Bog Kingdom and the story of the baby’s death. They might have used the misogynistic fantasies behind the Curse to conceal the baby’s transfer and perhaps, as the disorienting penultimate chapter hints, to give Annabel and her siblings a chance at being reborn themselves. If Annabel was caught between her original romanticizing of Mayte and Princeton’s equally inaccurate demonizing of him, she might have fed on those who fed on her, might have turned their hungers against them. But in the process, she might have helped the Curse radiate outward, releasing pain and death in ways she couldn’t anticipate. Though she possibly outwits the people who use her, they respond by letting the Curse run wild, as a cover for their most destructive acts, including the rape and murder of at least two young men.
4. Dogs and Dinners
The Accursed is full of deluded leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to Teddy Roosevelt to the heads of some of the elite Princeton families. They treat other people’s lives as a banquet, an endless feast of cannibal sandwiches. Yet Oates devotes the bulk of the book to characters who hold only a limited amount of influence, which they’re desperate to protect or expand.
The chapters on the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair link the nightmare of the Bog Kingdom to the complexities of political and social reform. With The Jungle, his famous and still-timely exposé of the food industry, Sinclair forces people like Annabel’s brother to wonder if they’ve literally become cannibals, drinking the blood of workers injured or killed in the factories. Sinclair is both a genuine reformer and a cringing, timid, would-be tyrant. His drive to reveal the injustices of capitalism blinkers him to his neglect of his wife and helps him rationalize his kitsch Nietzcheism. Oates views him satirically, but the satire isn’t a simple matter of declaring him a hypocrite. For Oates, identifying our hypocrisy is less interesting than tracing the eccentric ways our mingled impulses carry us forward. It’s his contradictions — his clashing waves of kindness and insecurity and intolerance — that make Sinclair human. The same can be said of Annabel’s brother, who becomes more vivid for us as he becomes more confused about what he wants.
Jack London appears in the book as an activist version of Mayte: a man who seeks revolution so he can satisfy his appetites without restraint. The Bog Kingdom used to belong to aristocrats; Mayte was a servant in the Kingdom and led a revolt against his masters, so he could take their place and install an even more brutal regime. This is what Jack London wants as well. He worships violence, thinks he is a “natural warrior” who was “born deprived of his heritage.” His destiny, he says, is to “rise up against those who exploit him — and drink their sang impur.”
Upton Sinclair is horrified by London’s bloodlust yet mesmerized by his vitality. London has a rough magnetic presence that the physically delicate and emotionally divided Sinclair lacks. Again like Mayte, London bullies his followers. He demands their abasement along with their admiration. Sinclair watches London give a speech, and sits “gazing up at his hero with the unstinting admiration of a kicked dog for his master, who has left off kicking him for the moment and is being kind to him, capriciously, yet wonderfully.” This recalls Annabel’s delusions in the Bog Kingdom. Even after Mayte has sentenced her to endlessly emptying the cesspool, Annabel fantasizes that he is merely testing her, “hoping to determine if I loved him purely, or was so shallow as to foreswear my vow to him.” Only gradually does she realize that she has chosen to come to the Bog Kingdom, and that she can choose to leave it.
The powerful want us to believe that submitting to their demands is natural, irresistible, right. Sinclair and Annabel, however, end up abandoning their masters and refusing to follow orders. Oates can see the strength in Sinclair’s wavering kindness and delicacy, and the weakness in Mayte’s boorish aggression. Still, the standout quality of The Accursed is the turn and flow of the characters’ personalities, the constant repositioning of their relationships with each other. The characters never harden into a final form we can pass judgment on, and we understand them differently depending on where we are in the book. Like The Golden Bowl and the other Henry James works that Oates references, The Accursed resists moralistic parsing. The novel finds its beauty in its ability to keep all its competing interpretations alive and strong, spinning around each other in humming, electric motion.
I learned about the unfathomable amount of cash that Yahoo planned to throw at Tumblr last month, when the news inevitably crept up on my Tumblr dashboard. The reactions were predictably negative, and the general sentiment was clear: “They are going to ruin all of what we’ve built.” For the most part, they echoed the reactions of the press at large, questioning yet another one of these crazy big internet deals, the wisdom of banking so much on users as advertising targets, and the near-universal assertion that you “can’t buy cool.” Was there ever a more stark contrast than between the purple-and-white tabloid jumble of Yahoo’s homepage and the stripped-down malleability of Tumblr? Yahoo went on record promising “not to screw it up,” which was somehow less reassuring than it should have been.
But I lead a double life on Tumblr: I follow bookish people and things, posting my own work there, attached to my real name, but I also lurk around a number of interlocking fandoms — interlocking because one has inevitably led me to the next: as people whose taste I trust migrate towards new obsessions, I sometimes migrate in turn. They have begun to crowd my dash, the weight of a thousand animated gifs slowing the site’s functionality to a crawl — and I love everything about them. There is a vernacular that links these communities, some of it held over from the time when LiveJournal ruled the fannish world, and some of it new and constantly evolving, borne on a blogging platform designed for sharing and speed and expansive warm-heartedness — I spend so much time smiling while scrolling around on Tumblr that it’s kind of alarming. (I browse Twitter stony-faced, occasionally barking out a harsh laugh, which means I’m either doing it wrong or Twitter and I just aren’t meant for each other.)
For the most part, fan communities seem to shy away from any organization that tries to insert itself from the top down. There is a sense that on Tumblr, fandom is planted and cultivated — grown, in a way that feels more palpable than LiveJournal ever did. It’s in your average stack of reblogged posts, fanning out in a sideways pyramid, each subsequent comment riffing on the one before it — and then seeing it days later, the joke or the expression of sympathy of the series of gifs piling up exponentially. You go to “like” it and note, with some surprise, that you already have. You can literally build on an idea, and this is how fandoms blossom and thrive.
It is an organic space, which must be at the heart of what’s made it such an unprofitable space, the sponsored posts unobtrusively tucked over to the far right, simple enough to train your eye away from, and subtle enough to even invite a curious click or two. But how would the intrusion of an organization as heavy-handed as Yahoo affect these communities? Rumors began to spread suggesting that content would soon be censored, and that advertisers would be given much more space within a matter of days. Nothing was confirmed, but a vague sense of foreboding persisted: would they know to leave well enough alone, or would all of this organic community building prove too tempting not to attempt to monetize, to control, to ruin?
The answer, of course, remains to be seen — it’s far too early in the game. We woke up to a blogging platform that looked much the same as the day before; a week later, no discernible change. The site chugs onwards, a million little corners of the internet, perfect little microcosms of the world — or the world as we wish it could be. For now, anyway.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the same week as the Yahoo/Tumblr acquisition, Amazon announced a project entitled “Kindle Worlds.” It feels like more of a broader trend than a coincidence, because the Kindle Worlds endeavor is about an organization inserting itself from the top down. “Worlds,” we learn, are Amazon-ese for fandoms — individual universes constructed by books, movies, television shows, comics, etc. — and the program is a platform for publishing fan fiction — quoting myself here, from a year ago (I’m currently accepting my lot as The Millions’ official fanfic correspondent): “fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely.” Yeah, I apparently used the term “worlds” as well, but at least I didn’t capitalize it.
The Amazon deal was struck with Alloy Entertainment, the YA juggernaut behind Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, amongst a number of other ubiquitous book-cum-television-show enterprises about teenage girls being cruel and/or sexy. These three are the official launch-point for Kindle Worlds: fanfic writers in these communities (and elsewhere eventually, Amazon promises, with “licenses for more Worlds on the way”) will be able to digitally publish their stuff for Kindle via Amazon, exchanging full rights to their ideas for somewhere between 20-35% of the profits, based on the length of their stories. The first offerings when the store launches in June will be commissioned works, the Worlds homepage filled with cheerful testimonials from these writers beside a dusting of hard facts and figures.
Much has already been written on the financial and legal details of Kindle Worlds, and the interpretations tend to vary based on the source. With a few exceptions, fan fiction is written, disseminated, and consumed entirely for free: obvious legal reasons compel writers to mark each story with very clear disclaimers, crediting their source material, however far an interpretation strays from the original. In the extremely rare instance that a fan work is published for money, it is after the story has been transformed beyond recognition — the Fifty Shades trilogy is the most famous example, evolving from 100 chapters of Twilight fan fiction. To the casual observer, Kindle Worlds might seem like a vast step up for your average fanfic writer, the best of whom are paid in praise alone. There’s actual money here, though, to be fair, not a whole lot of it, accompanied the establishment’s stamp of approval, published by Amazon and sanctioned by the corporation that owns the source material.
The actual money leads to other financial questions, because with Alloy, we’re not talking about borrowing the characters of a single author: these books, and the scripts of the accompanying shows, are written by a slew of work-for-hire writers. Book-industry types far more familiar with media tie-in writing than me have suggested that the Kindle Worlds move might be another Amazon attempt to circumvent traditional publishers and writing models. If this actually catches on, Alloy and other organizations may come out winners, because by publishing on this platform, a fan fiction writer gives up rights to the content of their stories — Alloy and Amazon will have full rights to original characters and ideas. Why hire a team of traditional writers when your fans can generate new ideas for you — at no cost beyond the few cents per Kindle single you’re required to pay them?
The whole venture hints at broader questions that swirl around a lot of Amazon’s recent projects as they attempt to knock traditional publishing models out of whack. If it didn’t feel like such a fundamental and remotely insulting misunderstanding of fan culture, if it didn’t feel like a prime chance for corporations to exploit rather than promote, I might even praise Amazon (praise Amazon, for Christ’s sakes) for trying yet one more thing that deviates from the publishing status quo. If the barriers for entry are lowered, does publishing great fiction becomes a question of talent alone — even as something crucial is given up in the exchange? There are parallels with self-publishing and parallels with the broader Kindle Single platform. Who deserves to be published? Why isn’t it simply the person whom people would most like to read?
Surely every person in the entire realm of fan fiction is tired of the monetization question by now. The simple answer is that it really, really isn’t about the money. But people keep on asking anyway: how can so much time and energy and a sheer dizzying number of words be spent on something for no financial compensation? It’s easy enough to say that the person who asks that question doesn’t understand the idea of fan fiction, or doesn’t fully grasp what it means to be a fan of something in general — but that feels dismissive and unhelpful. There is a disconnect here, though, and it’s one that’s tricky for me to articulate, between Amazon and Alloy and the fan fiction community, or between Tumblr and Yahoo and the people who look at 100,000 reblogs and can only see a missed opportunity for advertising.
Is a person who believes in the ultimate democratizing power of the internet bound to be disappointed sooner or later? That scrappy start-ups inevitably sell out — great ideas get acquired by big companies, then twisted beyond recognition? Of course, those great ideas can come from anywhere, right? Perhaps that’s not enough to stem the disillusionment. So maybe that’s one of the appeals of fan fiction, or of the exchange of images and ideas amongst fandoms on Tumblr and elsewhere: there is absolutely no endgame there, beyond the satisfaction of sharing something you like, obsess over, deeply love with other people who love it just as deeply.
There is an enormously freeing diversity in the world of fan fiction. I don’t mean that the writers are diverse — they are mostly female, and surely there must be socioeconomic implications in the ability to sustain such a hobby. I mean that the whole point of it, beyond all that deep love and celebrating any given fandom, is taking a character or a setting or just the tiniest inkling of an idea and rolling with it. The possibilities spin off into exponentially increasing permutations, spurring weird stuff and beautiful stuff, quite often fiction that’s better written than the source material that inspired it, creating fandoms that are so broad and varied and encompassing that a person can usually find whatever they’re seeking within. If not, well, that person may as well just write it herself. If that’s not the most accurate reflection of the rest of the internet — the organic, cultivated internet, grown from the bottom up, with no contracts, no exchanges of cash — then I don’t know what is.