The day after the Brexit referendum, British writer Bim Adewunmi wrote a beautiful piece in Buzzfeed about her pain, her frustration, and her fear. It took in the scope of British history -- “Am I being dramatic? This feels like a dramatic moment” -- and her upbringing in East London; the child of Nigerian immigrants, Adewunmi wrote that the result confirmed things she had long suspected about her home country. The line that stuck with me, that day and all the other days of 2016 that followed, was, “Can you be unsurprised but still quite shocked at the same time?” Shocked but not surprised. This is the 2016 that I’ve struggled to reconcile with. In my reading life, it wasn’t a year of discovery; it was a long, protracted struggle to find clarity in things I knew -- or things I thought I knew. As an American recently booted out of England by the Home Office, the consecutive earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump are invariably my two pillars of this garbage fire of a year. But even the smaller points in my life needed reorientation. Sometimes books show me new worlds; this year, I needed books to expose parts of the worlds I already knew. It started with Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, which I finished in the earliest, bleakest days of the year. I am from a place that gets extra bleak in January, and Hunt’s novel is set near my hometown, across the broad stretch of New York state from Albany to Buffalo. Mr. Splitfoot, partly about a foster child raised in an abusive, fundamentalist family, is exquisite, both literally and physically haunting, and it tapped into my long-held fascination with the “burned-over district,” that broad stretch of central and western New York that saw wave after wave of religious fervor in the 19th century. As I read it, I thought about those endless drives to see my family in Buffalo growing up, vast stretches of flat brown land, ripe for true belief. In the spring, I read Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, a book that was incredibly meaningful to me, but one I know has been fairly controversial in the past few years, so I won’t discuss it at length here. (I’m a bit gun-shy after last year’s YiR, when I dove into a list of books I loved and a man asked why I hadn’t read any Thomas Hardy.) If you’ve read it, you’ll be unsurprised to know it left me regularly weeping on the R train -- luckily the best possible train for weeping. I was knocked off my axis, but I found my bearings again not in any published novels, but in fanfiction, my oldest and most well-documented love. I haven’t read much fic the past few years, despite building a career writing about it, but I fell back in over the final weeks of 2015, and this big, complicated, highly emotional book pushed me deeper into fanfiction, a realm where emotionality -- affect, scholars call it -- is king. I’ve long held a rule that I won’t recommend fic in the context of being a literary critic -- one could argue it violates the contract between largely amateur writers and the assumed audience -- but that’s a shame, because I read stories this year, many of them novel-length, that were as good as anything I encountered that was traditionally published. (I said something similar in a previous YiR, but I’m doubling down, because some of the stuff I found this year was extraordinary.) If you’re curious, there’s my fanfiction newsletter, co-authored with Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. It was born in January 2016, and it remains one of the small and steady joys of the year. I spent the first few months of the year listening to various David Bowie albums on repeat, a response to his death that was part maudlin, part joyful, part "when I start listening to a certain album I just play it over and over again for longer than is probably healthy." If everyone had a celebrity death that hit them hardest this year, this was mine. Even within the legions of Bowie-ites, the stuff people wallowed in served as an interesting Rorschach to see where or how they came to David Bowie, or which of his many personas spoke to them. I lingered with Ziggy, and in the final days of spring, I purchased a pair of books to try to get a little context. The first was the one I intended to buy after a bit of research, The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett. The second was the one I stumbled upon, Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust by Simon Goddard. The former was grounding, but the latter shot me off into the stars. But in late June, earthquake number one. I haven’t written much about Brexit, even though as someone who was stymied by Britain’s increasingly hostile immigration policies -- and as someone who spent college studying British imperial history -- I, unsurprisingly, have fairly strong feelings about what went down. (Though it’s always worth mentioning that while I was a foreigner living in the United Kingdom, I was a white, well-educated American; I didn’t face the discrimination most foreigners battle in the country.) To process the results, I found comfort in looking backwards rather than trying to wrap my head around an extraordinarily uncertain future. I spent the summer steadily working my way through When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett, and I watched Britain join the EEC -- and all the conflict that surrounded the move -- to try to understand its departure. In August I got a concussion; all reading was put on hold save slogging through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I had some…strong feelings about. But by September, it was impossible to think about anything other than November 8th. I envied friends who could compartmentalize, who weren’t consumed by the uncertainty hanging over us. I campaigned for Hillary Clinton within my own sphere -- reaching out to millennials in fannish spaces, trying to push past the apathy and disillusionment. (Yeah, I’ve seen the numbers, definitely feels like we failed on this front.) And in the final days before the election, I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, one of a long list of extraordinary books I really should have read by now. I read it on the train on my way to the Javits Center on election day, where I would wait with a few friends for hours, amongst a vast, diverse crowd of nervous but hopeful people. And then. I am still envious of those compartmentalizing friends, of the people who take comfort in fictional worlds during times of strife. Books have never helped to distract me; in the darkest moments of my life, they are absent. The trouble with using reading to help focus on the things we’re seeing around us is we have to keep looking, eyes wide open, and it’s a brutal task as every day unveils fresh horrors. In the weeks after the election, multiple people in my feed were posting passages of Hannah Arendt, so I looked back to a little cluster of books on the very top shelf in my apartment, stuff from school I thought I might revisit some day. My freshman year of college, I took a very liberal artsy course called “Evil,” which straddled philosophy and political science. We spent about a week talking about how the image of the devil changed over the centuries, and I remember I did my final paper on the dearth of female serial killers, but the bulk of the course was about the Second World War -- not about the Nazis, but about the German people. Up on my top shelf, I realized I’d kept most of the syllabus. Friedrich Nietzsche, W.G. Sebald, Arendt. I’m desperate to understand, as I have been all year. That desperation is obviously about control, feeling like you’ve lost something that, in all honesty, you probably never even had. I’m trying to keep a hold on a world that feels like it’s made up of a mass of delicate threads, this close to snapping. So that’s me, reading Eichmann in Jerusalem on the subway in the days following the election of Donald Trump. In the dark corners of the R train, I’m not weeping anymore. People look up at my book and do a double-take. It feels hyperbolic, but like, maybe not? And also, it helps. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Winter My friends ask me if I am happy to be back in New York City. I am not. My U.K. visa expires in January, but I fly home a week before Christmas, frustrated and anxious about rebuilding a life in New York. In the new year I take a short-term sublet a few blocks from a Superfund site in northeast Brooklyn, across from a tow impound lot and next to an enormous industrial complex. I can’t figure out which industry exactly. I spend much of the month working from the apartment, which belongs to a puppet artist, hunkering down because when it’s not snowing, it’s staggeringly cold, the temperature hovering somewhere near zero. I watch snow pile up on the rusted-out old cars that line the edge of the industrial lot; I count a dozen cats, maybe more, slipping in and out between the tires. I am trapped, physically and metaphorically. At some point the year prior, I’d struck up an online friendship with the writer Katie Coyle. It began with little mutual hearts across the Internet; soon it was a series of emails that snowballed in length, the sort that took us both months to reply to. I bought her debut novel, Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, and its sequel, Vivian Versus America, at a convention in the height of the English summer, one of those rare days of unbroken blue sky. I’m bad with friends’ books: I psych myself out, worried I will be called upon to give constructive feedback, or worried I will give constructive feedback when it’s not called for. So I avoided Vivian for six months, placing her carefully on the shelf. In December, I packed her up in a huge shoddy box, held together by an entire roll of packing tape and hopeful desperation, and mailed her back across the Atlantic. Holed up during my month of icy stagnation, I devour both Vivian books. They were published as Vivan Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle in the U.S., some worry about readers’ apocalypse fatigue, I guess. The first one begins the day before the rapture, as predicted by a Christian cult gone mainstream, and tells the story of Vivian and her best friend, Harp, who drive across the country kicking ass as they try to figure out what’s really happened -- and how to survive. The books make me cry a little and laugh a lot; they’re perfect. The winter drags on and I still find myself restless and boxed in, but for a few days, Vivian sets me free. Spring The ice takes an extraordinarily long time to melt. I take a job that very quickly doesn’t work out, so by April I find myself holed up working again, this time in my new apartment, a fifth floor walk-up with high ceilings and a skylight. When I’m not hauling cat litter up those four flights, and when the light hits the right way, I feel like I’m living up in the clouds. I am assigned Kate Atkinson's new novel, A God Among Ruins, an intertextual sequel of sorts to Life After Life, which I have not read. They’re only paying me to review one book, but I decide to read the two, and Life After Life is miraculous, not least if publishers think we have apocalypse fatigue, I certainly have Blitz fatigue. Atkinson brings the period into the sharpest focus I can remember encountering in a while. A God Among Ruins is harder, full of characters you want to shake by the shoulders, and poor Teddy, once peripheral and now fully fleshed out, the quiet tragedy of his life made plain. I read them both sitting out on the Promenade, even though it’s still a little too chilly when the wind picks up, and I watch the Staten Island Ferry trundling across the bay. But the book that sticks with me most in the spring is Mary Norris's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which I begin reading when ice is still collecting on the East River. I worked with Mary for five years at The New Yorker, deciphering her handwriting on proofs at all hours during my interminable years on the night shift. I find the same quiet brilliance and wry humor in the pages of her book, as well as a strange, almost unwanted nostalgia for my years spent making the magazine, as she describes her own decades there. And then, somehow, I start working for The New Yorker again. Just projects this time, mostly in the archives, spared from the grind of the weekly magazine. It’s more than a little strange to be back at the magazine. The World Trade Center is sterile and foreign and people seem confused about where I’ve been for the past few years. I don’t tell them about all the things I’ve learned, or about how my entire worldview has shifted. I complain about restrictive British visa laws, or how Brooklyn rents skyrocketed in my absence; my small talk shrinks even smaller. Other freelance work starts to trickle in -- and then out of nowhere, it’s a flood. I take every project that comes my way, and the bills get paid. My mother says it seems like I’m struggling to stay afloat, which I strenuously deny, but on a deep level I know that she’s right. I’m treading water, as quickly as I can manage. Summer I have learned my lesson from past New York summers. This year, when given the opportunity, I leave. I work a few weekends up at the racetrack, slow Saturday afternoons on a $50 window. I sit next to a joyful woman one day who tells me a customer recently gave her the perfect line: “Put a hundred dollar bill in the toilet and flush,” he told her. “If you reach for it, you’re not ready for the racetrack.” This was a new one, and a delight, because I’ve been taking bets so long that most lines feel scripted. “Good luck,” I say, and they smile ruefully and reply, “I need it.” But I am a fan culture journalist now, and summer is “con season.” I am invited to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so I fly across the country in early July. En route I read The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs, billed as “A Handbook for Girl Geeks,” which is equal parts charming and empowering. I needlessly packed another three books for San Diego, as I do for every trip, and they remain buried under clothes and toiletries as I spend four long SDCC days confused and eager and oscillating between caffeinated and intoxicated. One night I crash a Playboy party, replete with half-assed nods to science (beakers and test tubes!) and mostly-naked women dropping from ropes on the ceiling; another night I trek across the length of San Diego to see the band that played the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe two dozen of us waving foam glow sticks as they launch into the familiar guitar riff for the third time. As the racing season comes to a close, I get my hands on a copy of Felicia Day's memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and a guy assigned to the window next to me tries to fake-geek-girl me by proxy, with a line of weirdly aggressive questions about what exactly Felicia Day had done beyond a gaming series he’s seen on YouTube -- essentially, whether she was even qualified to write a memoir. This only makes me like the book more. And leaves me a little disheartened -- the racetrack has always been my place for sexism from the past, sort of a "Nice tits, babydoll" kind of clientele, and now I’m stuck here defending Felicia Day’s right to be into video games. The world has changed -- and my world has changed. American Pharoah loses the big race and the town deflates, and I head back down the Hudson. This year has been an exercise in putting off the big projects until fall, which is fast approaching. I’ve got an essay to write, a proposal to rework, a life to stabilize. Spoiler alert: a change in season doesn’t make this stuff any easier. Fall In the last week of September, my copy of Carry On arrives in the mail. It is thick and beautiful and I clutch it to my chest the way I can only really remember doing with Harry Potter books in the past. It is a similar size and shape, and similarly magical. In the following weeks, I will go on to spill a ton of pixels about the nature of Rainbow Rowell's newest book, and the seminal point, in my friend Connor’s words, that intertextuality ≠ fanfiction. But before all that, on the first chilly weekend of the year, I light a fire and curl up and read in a way I rarely do these days, the kind of reading where you look up and realize 200 pages have gone by, and the fire’s down to a few smoldering embers, and you can’t imagine this book ending. Of course, it will. I decide to spend October with Laura Miller's The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, partly because it’s interesting and beautifully written, and partly because I’m trying to understand why certain texts grab us and drag us under. I read other books this year, books I won’t name because I thought they failed in some way, or in certain cases, many ways, but it’s the stuff that works -- more than works, the stuff that you want to slow down for fear of finishing too soon -- that intrigues me. I write about fans, after all. After Thanksgiving, I put neat bows on my projects through the end of the year, and I start to pack to go back across the ocean. It’s just for a few weeks, not a few years, and I have a tall stack of books to be read, maybe to be packed and remain buried under clothes and toiletries. The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, or the copy of Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird I borrowed from a coworker, or Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which I should’ve read a year ago, or When We Are No More, by Abby Smith Rumsey, out in the early months of next year, about one of my favorite topics, cultural memory in the age of digital technologies. But this trip to England is not about the realities of living there, but the pleasure of visiting, so a friend and I will take a trip up to the Peak District, to see Chatsworth and presumably cross paths with Mr. Darcy. I’ve read it before but I can read it again: without a second thought, I toss Pride and Prejudice into my suitcase. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Early in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller talks about what it feels like to fall in love with a book -- and to want to keep it all to yourself. “Discovering Narnia felt like a breathtaking expansion of the boundaries of my world,” she writes, “yet it was also an intensely private event.” Throughout her bibliomemoir, Miller talks to dozens of other Narnia lovers, including Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, and Jonathan Franzen. But perhaps more importantly, she talks to the teacher who introduced her to C.S. Lewis's fantasy series. “You were so excited you couldn’t talk about it. I tried, but you sort of clammed up,” Wilanne Belden tells her. “I knew how important it was to you, but I think you thought that if you talked about it, it would get away.” Among all the people she interviewed for The Magician’s Book, Miller describes the few friends who remembered an eagerness to discuss and share Narnia -- or Middle Earth -- as exceptions to the rule. Most people described childhoods in which they selfishly guarded their most beloved books, the memories of falling into fictional worlds wrapped up with memories of deep solitude. It’s a sentiment I’ve been encountering with some regularity recently, talking to friends and colleagues and a number of authors, notably ones who write books for younger readers -- people who arguably have a more acute recollection of the formative power of books at that age. When I cast back to my own childhood, I don’t remember a burning desire to share the books I loved with other people -- but I don’t remember worrying that the magic would slip away if I tried to share any of that, either. I had no trouble tumbling head-first into fictional worlds, and I would linger there, writing the sort of un-networked fanfiction that lots of children dabble in. In adolescence, I came online, and saw that millions of other people were eager to talk about books they loved (and to write networked fanfiction, the kind that I study and write about, that’s meant to be shared, texts talking to texts). I lurked for years, sitting in a paradoxical place where I felt like I was a part of an enormous conversation about my favorite books -- but I never said a word. Is reading an inherently solitary experience? For many of us, our earliest encounters with books probably weren’t solitary at all: if we were lucky, adults read to us until we were skilled enough to take matters into our own hands. If late childhood is the time of unfettered solitary reading, it’s in adolescence when we learn to read together again, critically now, in classrooms as well as outside them. If we keep reading into adulthood, our habits are mostly dictated by preference: if we choose to share the experience of a good book, it’s with a friend or two, or a book club, or 1,000 other people in an online community. Sometimes it’s the book itself that dictates how much or little to share; more often, it’s a reader’s inclination. And sometimes readers are like my paradoxical lurking self: they want to experience something very private together. In my capacity as a fandom journalist, I’ve spent the past few years attending fan conventions of various shapes and sizes, from the bombast of San Diego Comic-Con to the organic inclusiveness of NineWorlds in London. But I love books more than most of the pop culture on display at these cons, so I prefer gatherings that have books at the heart, from YALC at London Film and Comic-Con to Book Expo America’s consumer-facing BookCon to GeekyCon, which began years back as LeakyCon, named after the Harry Potter fan hub “The Leaky Cauldron.” These events are usually a mix of author panels and signings, and the publishers come out -- with books to sell -- in full force. But there’s something notable about the crowds at these bookish conventions, and it’s something I’ve puzzled over: they’re mostly young, mostly female, and while you spot plenty of groups geeking out over books, you see a fair number of readers on their own -- actively reading. Tucked up in the corners of convention centers, these cons are full of people skipping out on all the programming to read, a curious sort of collective solitude on display. Last weekend I trekked to the far, far west side of Manhattan to attend the inaugural Book Riot Live. It was the first major event for Riot New Media, the group that owns the popular bookish site Book Riot, and it brought in about 50 speakers, two dozen vendors, and more than 1,100 guests over the course of the weekend. “Book Riot Live came out of our desire to get the community together in real life,” Riot New Media’s events and programming director, Jenn Northington, told me. “Making sure that [it] reflected and celebrated our community was our number one concern. It influenced everything -- programming, the layout, the vendors we invited, everything...What are they interested in, which authors have we seen people get the most excited about, what topics have created the most dynamic conversations.” It was a weekend characterized by dynamic conversations: on the various stages, there were live podcast recordings, panels on bookish topics ranging from specific craft-related challenges to issues of inclusion and diversity in publishing at large, and authors like Margaret Atwood and Laurie Halse Anderson to get the crowds riled up (they were talking about sexism and censorship, respectively). Thankfully for me, it had a far more fannish feel than, say, the programming at BEA, where panelists (in my experience, at least) often seem like they’re confused by things they’re observing rather than speaking with authority about book fandom. These panels were populated by actual fans of books -- and that was reflected pretty visibly in the audience, too. But one of the most interesting things at Book Riot Live was up front, near a set of floor to ceiling windows that offered up a great view of the tourists approaching the Intrepid, moored in the Hudson. There were a few large, circular tables, and beside them, a circle of little beanbag armchairs, all occupied by people reading silently -- people sitting alone together. “I can’t remember exactly when we had this idea, but it was part of the planning from very early on!” Northington told me when I asked her about it. “I cannot tell you how many times at other conferences and conventions I’ve heard people say ‘I wish there was a Quiet Room’ or ‘I wish there was somewhere I could just go and sit and look at all these books I now have.’ We definitely all wish for that on staff! So it was a no-brainer to set up a space for it.” Whenever I took a seat in the quiet area, at a table or squashed down on one of the beanbags, I was struck by what a thoughtful space it was. If you took out a book in any random public space, you’d have to work to block out the rest of the world. (When I forget my noise-cancelling headphones, I often feel like I’m doing battle with the rest of the world when I’m trying to read or write -- especially if the book’s a drag.) At Book Riot Live, that exchange was seamless, and silently negotiated: people seemed to sense exactly who wanted to strike up a conversation with another book-loving stranger -- and who just wanted to be alone with a book they loved. Northington and her colleagues seem to have a deep understanding of the duality at play here. “We are all big-mouths about books, all the time,” she told me. “Book Riot as a site came out of the litblogger community and was originally conceived as a blogger collective, and that’s a self-selecting group. You don’t start a blog unless you're dying to talk with other people about what you’re reading. But I can completely understand folks who just want to sit with the work. There are stories that become so intensely personal that talking about them in public can make you feel mentally naked, and very vulnerable. There have certainly been times I’ve had to process my reaction to a book for a while before I could talk to anyone about it.” When I write about book fandom, especially for an audience that’s less broadly fannish and more broadly bookish, I often sense a tension from people who can’t imagine reading being a communal experience. For them, it isn’t. I see that same tension with every book start-up that emerges and eventually folds: so many of them have aimed to socially network the reading experiences of the types of readers who just want to be left alone with their books. What a lot of these attempts fail to acknowledge is the people who want to read communally don’t need a new app to do it. If you want to talk about books with other people, you’ll find your spaces online, ones where you get to dictate how -- and how much -- you share what you’re reading. These spaces are plentiful in the digital world; perhaps in the future, they’ll be just as easy to find in the analog world as well. If digital technologies have made our private spaces more public, maybe we need more squashy beanbags to make our public spaces a little more private. Maybe we’ll regularly be able to say, “I’m going to go out -- and curl up with a good book.” Image Credit: Flickr/Erin Kelly.
It’s starting to feel like spring the morning that the Dinky, the shuttle that runs between Princeton Junction and Princeton University, deposits us on the edge of campus. There’s still plenty of snow on the ground, but the students milling past us are ambitiously channeling summer, bare arms and legs, flip flops and black and orange athletic gear. We’ve cut the timing a bit close, so my friend and I are frantically checking every single map on the path to East Pyne Hall, the site of our 12:30 class, English 222. The official course title is “Fanfiction: Transformative Works from Shakespeare to Sherlock” -- essentially, a class I’d have given anything for as an undergrad. To some extent, fanfiction has always had a place in the English classroom. The history of literature is one of reworking and retelling stories, especially prior to our modern conception of authorship. Popular media narratives often portray fan fiction -- using someone else’s books, TV shows, films, or real-life personas, among other things, as the starting point for original fiction -- as cringe-worthy scenes of sentimentality and/or sex between superheroes or vampires or all five members of a certain floppy-haired boy band. I and plenty of others have worked to ground the historically marginalized practice in “literary” precedent -- favorite examples of authors explicitly refashioning others’ works include Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, both of which I first studied in a classroom. But fanfiction as we conceive of it today isn’t quite the same as Rhys tilting the focus of Jane Eyre to the “madwoman in the attic.” Modern fanfic practices are communal, with roots in mid-20th century sci-fi magazines. They’ve grown up through paper zines and collating parties to message boards and digital archives, fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, Archive of Our Own (AO3) and Tumblr and Wattpad. There are broad conventions that link the millions of people reading and writing fanfiction today (the vast majority of whom are wholly uncompensated for their hours of labor, enormous fanfic-to-traditional publishing deals like 50 Shades of Grey and After aside). Transformative fans share a language -- tropes and kink memes and rec lists and OTPs -- and in any given corner of fandom, stories talk to one another in fascinating ways. Fandom has a growing place in higher education: fan studies, a several-decades-old interdisciplinary field that focuses on fans and their practices, often sits within media studies or the social sciences. I had the privilege of attending the Fan Studies Network conference in London last autumn, where I heard a lot of interesting papers about people who really love stuff and the complicated ways they engage with that stuff. Fan scholars study fanfiction, certainly, but often with a focus on the communities that create it. Fanfiction as literature -- reading and potentially critiquing living, (usually) amateur authors and the way they talk back to pop culture’s texts -- is a relatively new prospect in the literature department. But as a former English major who furtively split her adolescent reading between Victorian novels and Harry Potter slashfic, reading fanfiction for credit would’ve been a dream come true. My friend and I make it to the lecture hall just in time, and as we take our seats, the professor, Anne Jamison, makes introductions. She’s wearing a pair of leggings printed with the wallpaper from the living room of 221B Baker Street from the BBC's Sherlock, complete with that yellow smiley face; I covet them deeply. I met Anne online, in the Sherlock fandom a little over a year ago, while I was trying to make sense of the furor surrounding Series 3. I read her book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, flipped out over it, and interviewed her for a piece I wrote owning up to my fannish investment in the show. We met in-person in England last summer, and now I had the luck to be back across the Atlantic the semester she’d be visiting Princeton from the University of Utah. Even better, the semester she’d be teaching a class on fanfiction. “I first got interested in online fan culture because of teaching,” Jamison told me. “I was fascinated by the kinds of in-depth close readings and debates I saw fans of Buffy doing online, and they seemed to find it fun. I wanted my students to think being smart and critical could be fun, so I paid attention.” If you’ve ever spent an afternoon writing a 2,000-word close reading (in fandom, you’d call it a “meta”) of a TV show “for fun,” you definitely understand. The boards led Jamison to fanfiction, and she was struck by the ways that fic writers were engaging with the source material. “I’m eager for students to see creative work and critical work as interrelated,” she said. “I incorporated creative assignments in literature and theory classes long before I’d ever heard of fanfiction, so it was very natural to include fanfiction as part of curriculum.” The cynical side of me expected to hear that a fanfiction class in an Ivy League English department would’ve been met with criticism from the old guard -- walking down the halls of my college English department a decade ago, you’d regularly hear a typewriter clacking away, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t being used to pen fanfic. But she hasn’t encountered professional backlash at Princeton or back home in Utah. “I'm sure there are people who think that but they haven’t told me about it -- not my colleagues,” she said. “I get more pushback on YA and, frankly, on Victorian women’s poetry than I do on fanfic. Nothing can match the snideness with which male scholars of modernism tend to regard Victorian poetry by women.” But she stressed that she’s a tenured professor, a luxury that some fan studies scholars, many of whom are independent, aren’t afforded. “It gives me a kind of intellectual and professional freedom that is quickly disappearing.” Jamison isn’t teaching this particular session of English 222: the guest lecturer is Dr. Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, a fan studies scholar who has come up from Virginia to talk about her area of expertise, transnational fandom, in which she asks questions like, “What happens when people from one place or culture become fans of something from another -- especially if that thing already has a robust local fan culture?” I see these inquires daily on her Tumblr with the tag “transnational fandom FTW” -- Morimoto is another Sherlock friend and I’ve spent the past year relying on her for nuanced global perspectives of the show, and of fandom and cultural consumption more broadly. There’s no one else on the Internet I’d turn to to analyze Benedict Cumberbatch in a kimono, which is about as high a compliment as I can bestow. Morimoto grounds this particular lesson in the personal, describing moving from the U.S. to Hong Kong at a young age and being exposed to Western pop culture through the lens of East Asian media. She’s set the class critical texts as well as some fanfiction, specifically a crossover that puts Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung in the fictionalized world of the Japanese story Onmyouji. After the lecture the students split and attend discussion sessions -- precepts, in Princeton lingo -- and the conversation ranges from revisiting last week’s topic (bronies) to the new reading and issues surrounding clashing cultural perspectives in fandom. Jamison skillfully manages the exchange, pushing in the right places and sitting back in others. Later she tells me, “It is a very diverse class in all kinds of ways -- from ethnic background to major to level of prior fanfic experience, from people who grew up in Harry Potter fandom to people who had never read a fic before. So far everyone has found something to interest them or is doing a great job faking it.” On the day that my friend and I sit in, no one seems to be faking it, because the level of interest is clearly on display: the students are spirited and engaged, and it’s heartening to hear everyone talk about fandom and fanfiction the way they’d talk about broad themes in literature, or about any one traditionally published novel. But fanfiction is not a traditionally published novel, and bringing it into the classroom offers up some new and challenging prospects. To understand these challenges, it helps to know a bit about the dynamics that have governed a lot of fanfiction communities over the past few decades, particularly as they became increasingly visible online. In the early days of online fandom, rights holders -- the authors and corporations that owned the characters people were playing with -- had a lot less understanding of (and patience for) fanfiction: Harry Potter fic archives, for example, were getting cease-and-desist letters from Warner Brothers for copyright infringement. Many authors were careful to brand their stories with legal(ish) disclaimers, something like, “This work is for fun, not for profit, and I own none of these characters.” This conversation has shifted drastically in the past five years: many media corporations encourage fandom -- after all, fans are a guaranteed enthusiastic audience for your product -- but the monetization of some fan works has made the whole prospect trickier, usually hashed out on a case-by-case basis. Stephenie Meyer has sanctioned E. L. James, but plenty of writers, notably George R. R. Martin and Anne Rice, still speak out strongly against fanfiction. (Or Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander series, who has sort of confusingly compared fanfiction to such things as “someone selling your children into white slavery” and “seducing” her husband.) Because of legal concerns and the broader negative perceptions of the practice, the vast majority of fanfic writers use pseudonyms. I have read stories of people losing jobs when bosses discovered they wrote fanfiction; in Fic, a contributor describes her interest in Twilight fanfiction being used against her in divorce proceedings. The modern web is a less pseudonymous place than it was even five years ago, and some of this has bled over into online fandom, but pseudonyms still reign. Fanfiction is becoming increasingly exposed in the mainstream media, from the deeply positive -- Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, for example -- to the deeply negative, like far too many instances of celebrities being asked to read fanfiction for comic effect. Every bad article written at the expense of “rabid” fangirls puts fans on the defensive, and rightly so. But it can make fanfiction writers, who write for fun and not for profit, protective of their practices and their privacy -- something that’s virtually impossible to achieve when publicly posted on the web. No fanfiction writer wants to be mocked. But do any of them want to be taught in a university classroom? Common practice allows for fanfiction writers to ask for positive feedback only -- “no flames, please” or “no concrit,” short for constructive criticism. But an academic setting is often a critical space. Jamison has thought a lot about this question: where she once asked fanfic writers for permission to teach their work, she usually doesn't now, though she continues to give students strict guidelines for behavior towards these stories in the context of the class. “Part of the reason I stopped asking was because of strong feelings I have about what it means to enter the public sphere,” she told me. “And publish something -- whether for money or not. I think the professional-amateur divide is important, but I don’t think amateur status absolves you from all accountability or public comment.” Her syllabi are carefully crafted -- “I have never worked so hard on a syllabus,” she says -- and she tries to stick to widely-known source material or works that can stand alone: much of the trick of fanfiction is getting the connections between the original and the remix, and without context, not all works hold up. Fandom is not necessarily populated with people angry or uncomfortable having their works taught: many of the authors Jamison features tell her they’re happy to wind up on her syllabus. But there are plenty of people within fandom who believe fanfiction has no place in the classroom at all: to remove a work from its “intended” context and divorce it from a largely unwritten set of rules is a violation for many fan writers. A few weeks into the semester, another university-level fanfiction class sent shock waves through some corners of fandom -- in many peoples’ view, it violated these rules. This class was 3,000 miles away, at the University of California Berkeley, in a student-run pass/fail course that initially asked participants to read fanfiction from a wide variety of sources and then leave constructive criticism -- even when it wasn’t asked for or welcome. The course was brought to broader attention by a fic writer named waldorph, one of the authors featured on the syllabus, when she noticed that her Star Trek story was receiving comments she later described as “bizarrely tone-deaf, condescending, rude, and more than that, completely out of step and touch with all fannish norms.” Waldorph wrote a Tumblr post and it spread rapidly -- many people were outraged that these stories were being engaged with this way. “Fandom writes for fandom,” she told me later. “We write for ourselves and our friends, and I certainly don't think to myself ‘how will this be reviewed by a litcrit class?’ when I hit ‘post’ on AO3...The reality is that the way fandom gets interacted with is changing. The best we can do is be kind to each other and support each other when something like being required reading happens.” The fallout from the revelation was swift and quickly spiraled away from the point of origin. Some authors didn’t mind being on the syllabus, but some certainly did. And one unique facet of fan fiction -- that students were commenting on these stories, thereby directly interacting with authors (who are regularly in conversation with their readers) -- underscored a major source of tension. “Instead of me being in a situation where I become tangentially aware that my works are being used/quoted/whatever and me just laughing and shrugging it off,” she said, “they were coming into my space and interacting directly with me.” The students running and participating in this course were mostly fans themselves, but they didn’t adhere to the “no concrit” rule that waldorph and many other fan writers live by. “My philosophy in navigating fandom is: ‘don’t be a dick,’” she said. “Don't leave a nasty comment, just back-button out. If you can’t be kind about something you've read, don't engage with it, and certainly don’t make that person feel bad about the thing they worked on.” For the professors teaching fanfiction and fandom, sorting out these boundaries presents an enormous professional and ideological challenge, but they resist an “us versus them” kind of dichotomy, something waldorph also worked against as she analyzed the situation. The Internet is built on confirmation bias: it is easier to see the like-minded than not, especially in a place like fandom, which can often serve as a retreat from the stresses of daily life or a place to make genuine connections based on shared interest alone. But it’s not a monolith, and that often gets lost in the discourse. “Fandom encompasses a real diversity of cultures,” Morimoto told me. “Cultures of social class, of gender, of sexuality, cultures of race, of language, of role...I think we do fandom a disservice by a singular emphasis on community.” Jamison echoed this idea when I asked her about the Berkeley course. “I think it is important to acknowledge that those were student instructors who were active in fandom and based on their experiences in fandom, they thought what they were doing was in keeping with fandom practice, from what I understand. There is no one ‘fandom.’” Sometimes it’s hard for me, a long-time fanfiction reader who’s never been brave enough to post her own fix -- and I have written thousands of words over the years -- to wrap my head around the idea of fanfiction being a closed community that can’t stomach criticism. The broader Internet can be a scary place to send out your words. When my colleagues and I publish articles on the web, with open comment threads beneath them and links to Twitter accounts where anyone can direct attacks, we wade into the mire -- but then, we do so with full knowledge of that mire. And I haven’t been brave enough to post that fic -- fandom, our connections to the characters and stories we really, really love, can feel so personal. Fiction is deeply personal, too. I want to protect fanfiction from unwanted outside attention -- and I want to sing its praises to the world. In the vast sea of fanfiction, much of it obviously varying in quality, there is some extraordinary writing happening, stuff that belongs in a university classroom, side by side with the classics. It’s a genre that works in new and interesting ways, and it deserves to be studied in loving detail. Mainstream attention of fanfiction isn’t going to go away -- and it’s quickly ceasing to be a punch line, something I could never have predicted even five years ago. It will be taught and studied in future classrooms across the country -- the only question is how. Image Credit: Flickr/kaffeeringe
The Tumblr reblog holds a special kind of power. It’s the way that posts are shared on the platform -- if, for example, I like your photograph, or link, or video, or 5,000-word analysis of our favorite TV show, I can re-post it on my own Tumblr, with or without additions, your original post fully intact. It will appear on my blog and on my followers’ dashboard feeds; if one of them reblogs it, and a few of her friends do the same, your post will gain momentum -- it might even snowball to popularity. Posts on Facebook can slip into the ether, the whims of finicky algorithms; on Twitter, arguably the most temporal social network, your 140 characters have a matter of minutes, even seconds, before they drop out of sight down the infinite stream. On Tumblr, posts spread outward in networks of webs. They have drastically longer shelf lives than their counterparts on other social media outlets -- reblogs, which make up 90% of Tumblr content, can make the rounds for weeks, months, even years, and with a tag search and a reblog or two, they can spring to life long after they’re published. In other corners of the Internet, you broadcast and consume information; on Tumblr, a platform built on mutual interests and passions, all that sustained sharing helps build real digital communities, one reblog at a time. Book lovers will be pleased to know that the Tumblr book community is thriving. The Millions has its own popular Tumblr and our own Nick Moran has done a few great round-ups of literary Tumblrs, and the community has only grown since the last installment. Book Tumblr is a space where basically everyone who regularly has their hands (or, I suppose in the digital age, their eyes) on books can gather: writers, artists, editors, publishers, lit mags, booksellers and their bookstores, librarians and their libraries, and, most important of all, readers. The Tumblr book fandom is as committed to the written word as they are to the platform’s creative and transformative slant: when they finish a book, they’re ready to pull the most thought-provoking quotes or draw fanart or bake the cake they read about in chapter 12. There’s equal space for criticism and celebration, and it’s the kind of community that forces me to talk sappily about the power of the web, how people thousands of miles apart can find each other and build friendships based on a single book, or a love of books generally. At the heart of Tumblr book fandom is books.tumblr.com and the woman who runs it, Rachel Fershleiser, once described by Lydia Kiesling here at The Millions as “an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology.” Nicole Cliffe at The Toast recently took things a delightful step further by saying Fershleiser “represents for books on the Internet like an avenging angel who is also very nice.” Fershleiser (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I've met many times in bookish internet circles over the years) is a former book publicist who came to Tumblr from Housing Works, where she ran events -- and got the bookstore onto Tumblr, one of the first institutions to create an analogous physical-to-digital space for readers to gather around books. At Tumblr, she encourages other organizations and writers onto the site; in a room full of publishers at the FutureBook conference in London a few months back, I seriously enjoyed watching her rep for Tumblr with enthusiastic and hyper-intelligent zeal. She curates a broad, book-positive discussion on Tumblr -- and the Reblog Book Club, a year and a half old and now in its fifth round, is at the very center. “I wanted to do a Tumblr book club from the day I started,” Fershleiser told me a recently when I stopped by Tumblr’s offices near Union Square in Manhattan (the address is one that loyal Tumblrites will recognize instantly from every email they get about new followers). “I love to talk about books -- that’s what I’m doing here -- and I love to talk about books on the Internet, and Tumblr is such a rich place for engaging with art in a creative way. My actual lifelong dream is to be the Oprah of the Internet. So this seemed like a good place to start.” She launched the Reblog Book Club in the fall of 2013, and the first title was Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, a book (that I happen to be obsessed with) about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-like Simon Snow novels. “I got really in my head about choosing a first book,” Fershleiser said. “There were no rules: is it YA or is it adult, is it serious, or dystopian, or funny, and how can I choose one book for a hundred million people? It’s a really big community.” But Rowell proved to be a perfect choice. Her previous novel, Eleanor & Park, had come out earlier that year and had been a huge hit, and she was an active Tumblr user and unabashed fangirl -- and, of course, she’d written a novel about loving books and celebrating them online. There weren’t a lot models for a massive-scale online book club -- some sites set titles and interviewed the authors, and maybe opened up a comments section or discussion thread. But Tumblr is all about peer-to-peer exchange, and Fershleiser wanted to reflect that. She set a fairly loose schedule -- dates by which chunks of the book would ideally be read -- and an open format: all the tools of Tumblr, from gifsets to multimedia to chains of reblogged meta, were put to use. The ask box was always open, so Rowell could drop in and answer questions whenever was easiest (rather than the formally scheduled Q&A sessions we see with a lot of authors online). This kind of thing is relatively new territory for authors -- how many times have you cringed in the past decade seeing writers forced to start blogs or Twitter accounts or somehow engage with their readers online when it didn’t come naturally, or worse, when it clearly made them uncomfortable? But these days plenty of writers do shine in digital spaces, and Rowell is one of them -- and when Tumblr called, her publisher embraced the opportunity. Stephanie Davis, the marketing manager at St Martin’s Press, told me, “Working with Rachel to launch the Reblog Book Club was really exciting because the community on Tumblr is so expressive, creative, and authentic.” Davis cited the fact that Rowell was on Tumblr, and enthusiastically so, that made her an ideal first choice. The club was an experiment -- and it was a successful one. It showed off the very best of the Tumblr book community: “It was thrilling to be able to approach a traditional book club in a new way,” Davis said. “And to see how the Tumblr community jumped in and participated -- I'm still blown away by how talented her Tumblr fans are!” The conversations in the Reblog Book Club are nearly always civil, and usually pretty warm and engaged -- something that’s particularly notable online. Perhaps it’s because Fershleiser is there to moderate, or perhaps it’s because the author is there, too, or perhaps it speaks to the kinds of readers attracted to the group. “This is my own little push-back against the idea that online conversation has to be mean and shallow,” Fershleiser said. “Not only are people kind and thoughtful, the conversation is nuanced and in-depth and we read complicated books about complicated characters and have complicated responses to them, and I think that’s wonderful. I want to smash it in the face of people who think that enjoying the Internet is the opposite of people enjoying real books.” The titles that followed Fangirl transcended genre labels and age designations. In the book store they’d be classified as middle grade, YA, and adult, verse and prose; in reality, they’re more like a collection of books about complex female protagonists getting things done. There was Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory, our own Edan Lepucki's California, and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, for which she won the National Book Award late last year. It felt fitting to get in touch with Edan for a Millions piece, and she told me, “The Reblog Book Club was one of the most satisfying parts of publishing my book this summer because I got to see readers interacting with my work in ways that I couldn’t elsewhere. (A writer should always avoid reading their Amazon reviews, for instance, unless she wants to feel like a pile of shit in three seconds flat.)” She continued, On Tumblr, even if readers weren’t loving my novel, they were still engaging with it in these thoughtful ways, wrestling with how they felt about the characters, why I’d made certain choices, guessing about what was going to happen, etc. And when a reader loved my book -- oh how they loved it! I feel like the internet has brought back sincerity and enthusiasm, made it acceptable, and that is refreshing. It’s not cool to be cool, it’s cool to get excited about stuff and to be a fan with a capital F...It truly made me feel like my book was alive for people in the way it had been for me, when I was writing it. And now, to start 2015, there’s Katie Coyle's Vivian Apple at the End of the World. I’ve never met Coyle in person, but we followed each other on Tumblr about a year ago, and I feel like I know her deeply, from her enthusiasm for Doctor Who gifsets (it’s all about Peter Capaldi on that front) to her long, thoughtful essays, including a wonderful post last year in which she described the genesis of this book: Neil Gaiman had posted about the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize on his Tumblr, and she’d seen it, entered, and won -- and eventually got to thank him in person. The book was published as Vivian Versus the Apocalypse in the U.K., and was released there along with a sequel, Vivian Versus America, last year; the newly-titled version came out in the U.S. this month. Coyle seems to like Tumblr as much as I do, if not more. “I feel like there's really no better place on the internet to be loud about the things you love than Tumblr,” she told me. “I’ve used it for my personal blog for about six years now, and in that time I’ve really noticed that it’s helped change my tastes, and open my eyes to new things I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.” It was pretty hard for me to keep from falling in love with Vivian Apple at the End of the World: the characters -- particularly the heroine, Vivian, who grows progressively bolder as the novel proceeds -- are smart, dynamic, and seriously funny, and it’s a whip-smart satirical take on contemporary America, from religion (the big one -- it’s about the Rapture) to consumerism to feminism to homophobia. And these past few weeks, Coyle watched her readers react to her work as they read it, something most authors never get the chance to do. “Overall it's been really great,” she said. “I’m a debut author and basically had no feeling of assurance whatsoever that anyone other than my parents was going to read this book. To be able to go on Tumblr and see people not just reading it, but engaging with it, picking themes and characters and quotes they particularly liked or were interested by, has been overwhelming. It is a little weird to watch it unfold in real time. I've seen posts where people say, ‘I have a question about this, can’t wait to see how Coyle addresses it’ and I’m like ‘oh no oh god I never addressed that thing.’” She doesn’t have much to worry about, though: the Reblog Book Club seems to be loving the book, and engaging with it in typical fashion, with fanart and meta and playlists for the apocalypse. “I am a huge fan of fans,” Coyle said. “If there was a fandom fandom, I would belong to it, because nothing is more beautiful to me that goofy outrageous creativity being applied to movies and television shows and books, especially. So the idea that someone would read the book and make a playlist, or draw a picture, or paint their nails the color of the cover, was and is almost too wonderful for me to bear. I have long said that my only authorial goal is to inspire someone else to write fanfiction about my work. I’m not sure if that's happened yet, but I feel like I've gotten a bit closer.” (I’ve advised her to watch her inbox on this front.) For the readers, some of whom come via the authors, others who show up for every title Fershleiser picks, the Reblog Book Club is a unique space on the web. Lauren Bates works in a library in Florida and has a dedicated book Tumblr, and she found out about the club through Rainbow Rowell’s Tumblr: “I was newly post-grad and unemployed and really very desperate to stay engaged with literature without the excuse of schoolwork,” she told me. “The literary community can sometimes be intimidating or inaccessible to people who don't have connections to the industry or an active literary scene in their community, and even if you do live in a relatively literary community, it can be difficult to find people with a similar taste in books.” The Tumblr book community, she said, is a beautifully egalitarian space: “We have no idea what each other’s backgrounds are or where (or if) anyone attended college or what their major was or any of that. Your credentials don't give your opinion more weight than anyone else’s.” Another active member, Sarah Smith-Eivemark told me that she “owe[s] her publishing career to the Bookternet:” I joined Tumblr a little over three years ago, but I didn’t start actively posting until about two years ago, when I realized that so many of the people who I respected in publishing, the people whose careers I wanted to emulate and work with, had a Tumblr of their own. I'm completely addicted now. I’ve met and connected with more people who share my love of reading and independent publishing through Tumblr than I have with, well, anything else.” Smith-Eivemark is now the publicist at Coach House Books in Toronto, and she still uses Tumblr in her professional life. If anything, the Tumblr book community shows her all the people out there incredibly excited about reading: “...it can just seem so challenging to simply get people to buy a book,” she said. “The Reblog Book Club encourages me, and reminds me that not only are there readers out there, they’re smart, funny, and exactly the kind of people I'd want to know (as we say) IRL.” It’s a little coincidental that this round of the Reblog Book Club coincided with the launch of another online “book club” at another behemoth of a social network: Mark Zuckerberg's New Year’s resolution to read a book every two weeks led to the announcement of Facebook’s “A Year of Books,” in which 278,000 (and counting) members will “discuss” a new title once a fortnight. The inevitable comparisons to Oprah came and went -- for an eloquent analysis of why exactly Zuckerberg is not and will never be Oprah, I’d recommend Anna Wiener’s fantastic piece on the subject in the Gawker Review of Books. “Oprah built an entertainment and media empire that trades in feelings; she is the definition of a successful personal brand,” she wrote. “Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, a website buttressed by targeted ads with a well-intentioned but often emotionally clumsy experience. Oprah can make one’s life feel like an important journey to the center of the soul. Facebook can make one’s life feel inadequate, ephemeral, and commoditized.” But while the first meeting of the club was reportedly a mess, the first featured title, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, skyrocketed in sales. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether it’s possible to have a real discussion in this kind of space: Facebook merely suggesting a title will lead people to buy it (though not, it should be noted, to necessarily read it.) The contrast between Facebook’s book club and the conversations I see on Tumblr are striking. As much as the book industry needs -- perhaps even is desperate for -- a solid and regular base of book-club consumers, this big, dedicated driver of sales (on that front, Zuckerberg and Oprah will likely have much in common), people who make and distribute books also want passionate readers, the sort who will evangelize for a book that they love. Fershleiser agrees -- during our conversation, she echoed some of my thoughts from my last fan culture column on the topic, on how book fandom is more about depth than breadth. She said: I think that some people think of fandom only as people who already have millions of people hanging on their every word. A lot of what we’re doing here starts smaller. For the books we choose for the Reblog Book Club, the authors are on Tumblr and they have some kind of following but it’s not because they’re the biggest authors on Tumblr, it’s because it’s going to be something interesting to talk about. It’s not that there are huge numbers of people participating in the book club, it’s that they’re really, really engaged and excited and when you have even 50 people on your platform who are talking about a book, every day, who are making incredible fan art, nail art, getting really excited, getting into heated debates about things, especially on a network like Tumblr, with the reblogging and the following, it reverberates through the network and it feels like, ‘What’s this thing that everyone’s talking about? It’s exciting and I want to be a part of it.’ It doesn’t take six million people to create that kind of feeling —--it grows organically. Is the Reblog Book Club the future of books online? I sure hope so, or at least that it’s a big part of it. It represents some of the best of what the web can offer -- genuine connections and discussions, between groups that can’t realistically interact in the analog world, and a sort level playing field, bookstores and authors and librarians and readers sitting side by side, one post after another. And perhaps most importantly, the Tumblr book community gives permission to get deep into the world of a book: it’s cool to love it for a while, and to try to press it into the hands of everyone on your dash. With a few well-chosen gifs, of course.
If you’d asked me last December about the shape of the year to come, in books or in broader strokes, I couldn’t have begun to predict it. In fact, you did ask me -- or rather, The Millions did: my last “Year in Reading,” which I wrote towards end of my first term of a master’s degree, made pretty specific predictions about the months to come: I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading. Yeah...almost. To be fair, I did spend a good portion of 2014 completing coursework, doing research, and writing a dissertation; I was awarded my MA a few weeks back. I read plenty for the dissertation, but I won’t be offering up a UX reading list (...perhaps to your relief?). I have a long history of looking back and marveling at the certainty of my past self, particularly when my old predictions have failed to come to fruition. This time last year, I saw a path for the future, albeit a shaky one; I couldn’t have predicted an alternative fork, one the seeds of which were planted right around the time I filed that piece, when I received an email from the BBC offering me a press ticket to the premiere of the new season of my favorite show in the world, Sherlock. I began my year in reading with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’d been in the Sherlock fandom for nearly a year at that point -- it’s why I tried so hard to get into the premiere -- but 2014 was the year I started talking about it. Publicly, I mean: first in a piece contextualizing the show and the public’s reaction alongside the late Victorian public’s reaction, working my way through the 60 stories and some contemporary criticism. Then I published what I called a “B-side” -- one in which I fully owned my fannish interest in the show and the canon. I’d written things over the years that hinted at being in various fandoms, at reading fanfiction, at my dedication to participatory media consumption, at having spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time thinking about the minutiae of Harry Potter. In this piece, finally, I went for broke: I called it “Fangirl,” and I laid it all out there. “I obsess,” I wrote. “I've always obsessed.” That piece set me down a new path -- and it shaped what I would read and write about for the bulk of the year. The initial response was a little overwhelming: I’d put something of my true self out there and assumed the worst, somewhere between indifference and mocking, but instead I found so many people that connected with it, that felt it articulated something in their own lives. I made a whole bunch of new internet friends. Soon I was writing about fan stuff for the New Statesman -- part of my plan, I joked, to infiltrate Britain (via the media) from within. (Didn’t do much good, since I’m down to a matter of weeks in the country.) I presented pieces on being a fan at a few academic conferences. By the middle of the year, I was asked to write a regular column on fan culture in the NS. It’s strange and new for me, to have a beat, a broad theme around which a lot of my writing centers. But I’ve been a fan for a few decades now; it’s a joy to write about a topic that’s getting such mainstream recognition -- and, haltingly, even some respect. Last December I envisioned the coming year as one of focused reading, and in a way, I was right -- I just couldn’t have predicted the focus. There was Anne Jamison’s wonderful Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World -- I loved it so much I fangirled at her, and then we fangirled at each other. There was Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, a fascinating book that illuminates so many shifting dynamics in media and culture right now. I checked out the work of Henry Jenkins, one of the most prominent fan studies scholars: I used his Convergence Culture in my dissertation and Textual Poachers to inform my professional writing. I fell in love with Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (and then, unsurprisingly, Eleanor and Park) -- and then I fell in love with her Twitter account. I met Erin Clairborne when we were on a panel together at the Nine Worlds convention here in London over the summer, and I just finished her totally fantastic debut novel, A Hero at the End of the World, the first title from the Big Bang Press, which sources writers from fandom to pen original works. And fittingly, since I started the year with Sherlock Holmes, I’m ending with him, too: I just started reading In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a new volume of collected short stories inspired by the Holmes canon, which I plan to write about in conjunction with the new Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t put my money where my mouth is: the books I read this year were great, but then, so was the fanfiction. Over the years I’ve been asked if I’ve read anything good lately, and I’ve always bitten my tongue: I often have, but it’s not “real literature,” after all, but rather some 30-chapter masterpiece that someone has penned for free -- for the love of the source material. I’m kind of done glossing over this major part of my reading life: for every good novel I read this year, I read a fantastic novel-length fic as well. And I’ve reveled at the very real shift I’ve seen in the past year: for every person who asks me what fanfiction is at a party, another leans in and says, “So...do you have any stories to recommend?” More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I have been at the London Book Fair for approximately eight minutes when I officially decide that I am not meant to be at the London Book Fair. Don’t worry: I haven’t snuck in or anything. Well, it is a little iffy — at the entrance, I manage to bypass some sort of elaborate form-filling-out process when they ask for my press card and I say, almost by way of a challenge, “I’m American?” as though Americans do not have press cards. (Obviously it’s just this particular irresponsible American who doesn’t have a press card.) Miraculously, the helpful woman behind the desk nods, takes my letter of intent, and whips off a press pass. I stride blithely into the main hall at Earls Court Exhibition Centre and stop short. It’s not the books — there are, admittedly, a lot of books, but I expected that. If anything, I expected way more books. Every stall has some sort of display of new titles, lined up and facing outward, and the big fancy stalls of the big fancy publishers have enormous images of dust jackets and headshots of celebrity authors lining their walls. There is a whole other enormous room, I learn later, and a corner of it is devoted to wholesalers and remainders and they’ve got plenty of books. I’m not exactly sure why, because I presume they have warehouses stocked with millions of them somewhere; a few-odd hundred on display strikes me as strange. But who knows — I don’t actually know much about book fairs. That much becomes abundantly clear. What’s most noticeable in the main hall are the little tables — hundreds (thousands?) of small square tables populated by groups of two or three, heads bent close together, scribbling in notebooks. (I have never seen so many notebooks in my life, at least not in the past five years.) The conversations all look so serious, and so intimate — though the collective sound of a thousand intimate conversations is deafening. I feel adrift amongst all of this, utterly out-of-my-depth, so when I see the escalator in the center of the hall, I make a beeline for it. But it’s the second level that seals my fate: row upon row of long rectangular tables, with the names of literary agents and agencies printed above each row, and hundreds of people sitting face-to-face in deep conversation. It looks like a massive speed-dating event, except everyone has a whole lot of papers strewn around them, and they appear to actually want to talk to each other. I walk up and down the rows too quickly — no, I don’t have an appointment! — and then I do the sort of quick retreat of the overly paranoid as I rush back towards the down escalator. I’d come to Earls Court to observe the book industry, and here it was, very “industry”-like — I am eventually given the full run-down, that the London Book Fair is specifically a rights fair, for things like international publishing rights to be orchestrated or, in the case of some of the big books of the week, for previously negotiated rights to be announced. There are author events, but not terribly many; this is primarily about business, for people who create and sell books, not for regular consumers. I’m in some sort of weird liminal space here: mostly a consumer, but a critic, of books and of the industry that makes them more broadly. Perhaps my sense of unease comes down to the fact that this isn’t the ideal place from which to do any of this criticism. The special guest is the Korean publishing industry, and they have a huge, slick set-up in the international section, sort of like what a first-class lounge at an airport looks like in my mind, all futuristic white furniture and elegant stemware. The Sultanate of Oman has a kind of Arabian castle structure; Russia’s got this really aggressive looming thing that looks like propaganda, written in red: READ.DEEP. READ.SMART. READ.MOSCOW. I feel like I am at Epcot, but there are no rides, not even educational ones. “This is an especially large fair, right?” I ask one man. He looks a little weary as he sighs and tells me that Frankfurt is by far the biggest, twice as long as this three-day affair. All around me, I see books as pure product, and it’s a little startling. In the café, my friend and I are flanked by people making business deals while they eat lunch. “We’ll take 3,000, then,” the man to our left says to his negotiating partner, and they both make neat marks in their notebooks. On the other side, a man swipes through something on an iPad, a children’s book, maybe, or some kind of interactive platform. (There are gaming people here, too, partly because digital storytelling is blurring the lines between traditional books and games.) The occasional appearance of an iPad — and eventually learning that in that second enormous room, there’s a whole area devoted to literally all things to do with technology, from Nook and Kindle and Kobo to metadata management platforms to print-on-demand and ebook production outsourcing services — reminds me that I’d come to the London Book Fair with a bit of an agenda: I want to figure out exactly what was going on with tech in the book industry. Because back in October, I’d attended a day-long conference in Oxford for young people in the publishing industry, once again as more of an observer than anything else. It was illuminating to look at books from somewhere other than my usual perch, but I was more than a little alarmed by the way most people were talking about digital things. “It’s time to admit that we have to adapt,” the general line went throughout the day, which I found, frankly, shocking: the time to admit such a thing must have been a decade ago, at least. I sat and fumed when one presenter urged publishers to “try to get on Facebook and Twitter.” (Pinterest and Tumblr? Too “experimental”.) At the end-of-day reception, I interrogated the circle of people sipping wine around me. “I get the sense,” I said slowly, “that you guys actively fear incorporating technology of any kind into your working lives.” I expected an argument, but people were nodding. One woman admitted to me, “I think that we’re all hoping someone else will come along and do that work for us.” This doesn’t make book publishing unique, by any means. But it’s strange for me, after most of the past decade embedded in the growing pains of magazines’ difficult transition to digital. The equation there seemed simpler, at least on the surface: old revenue models failed, new ones were tested, publications shuttered and others adapted — in the end, it’s all just another way to share the same information, the physical page or the tweet on a smartphone. I’m deeply biased when it comes to digital publishing, but then, I spent the past five years in a magazine department that regularly got as excited about digital design as print — perhaps more so, where design and great functionality intersected. (One of the biggest losers in the shift-to-digital magazine equation is, of course, me the writer, not me the digital production editor: when the models changed, they made room for more of our words for less of their money. But that’s another issue entirely.) With books, the endless debate about the medium, the cheap and dirty ebook versus the august printed page, always seemed to obscure the book publishing industry’s somewhat shaky revenue models to begin with: attempts at changing the industry, the bare-minimum embrace of technology, look like weak computerized bandages on older, deeper wounds. At the conference last fall, Amazon loomed like a specter over literally every panel and talk, but it wasn’t just anger and resentment — there was a sense of real regret, too, that a company could understand the digital realities of selling books so well and still appear to actually hate books themselves. (It’s worth noting, too, how both the LBF and the Oxford conference really hammered home what a tiny fraction of the book industry my colleagues and I interact with — publishing includes every type of book, far beyond literary fiction and what we broadly call “genre,” and there are travel books and books about dogs and sticker books and comic books and tie-in merchandise and whole enormous structures that only an industry analyst could really tackle. So it’s all well and good that I choose to buy my literary fiction at independent bookstores, but I am the tiniest fraction of a tiny fraction; there are millions of books that are being sold every year through channels that hurt writers and publishers, and, in the long run, readers, too.) Worrying about how we’re going to read books feels like more of a distraction than anything else, the debate of an industry that sees change as something to fear, and nothing more — and I’d kind of hoped we were moving past it. But in the weeks before the London Book Fair, Tim Waterstone, the founder of the eponymous bookstore chain — one of Britain’s largest, even as outlets continue to be shuttered — made news by smugly declaring that ebook revenues were dropping and that print books were returning to exclusive dominance. "I think you read and hear more garbage about the strength of the ebook revolution than anything else I've known,” Waterstone told the Oxford Literary Festival. Later, he asserted that, “Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie, because none of us do.” In The Guardian, Nick Harkaway managed to gently chide Waterstone with a relatively even-handed response. “Digital will continue to grow for a while at least, and continue to exist, because it is becoming part of the world we inhabit at a level below our notice, no more remarkable than roads or supermarkets. Ebooks are here to stay because digital is, and quite shortly we'll stop having this debate about paper vs. ebooks because it will no longer make a lot of sense.” The conversation that develops in the comments (I can’t believe I’m complimenting a Guardian comment thread here) is full of thoughtful, cogent points — and someone brings up Stephen Fry’s remark that, “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” I’d argue that Harkaway’s “quite shortly” should be right now — this debate makes zero sense to me, and I’m not some sort of technocrat — I do prefer reading a book on the printed page. (I read books both ways, simultaneously, and I mostly don’t think about it much. If a book is mailed to me or is sitting on a shelf in front of me, then paper; if I’m sent a digital galley or I don’t feel like leaving the house and need something ASAP, ebook it is.) But this old, sad debate talks about print and digital books as if they weren’t two sides of the same coin. Worry about book sales dropping more broadly, and start to think about the real ways that digital can reshape books. The sorts of things that were written and printed have always evolved with technological advances in printing and distribution. I want to hear more conversations about breaking structures as they exist now — the size and shape of works that get published, or connecting writers and readers in webs rather than long, bulky, top-down chains, or using technology to make the industry as efficient as possible — to free up everyone to simply publish the very best writers. It’s easy for me to say. And I don’t actually have any concrete ideas, just some sort of utopian vision of the future of publishing. At my second day at the LBF, I attend a panel on digital copyright, and they, too, see the problems and abstract solutions — but no clear way to implement them, at least not yet. At the “digital hub,” there are some dispiriting presentations, one of which appears to be a woman showing images of her imprint’s print and digital books, side by side, and that’s about it. But there are innovative gamblers from tech companies all over the world, too, pitching new ideas that work to break down the old structures. Some of them seem gimmicky, but some seem like things we might actually need. We just need to get everyone interested in considering breaking the mold a bit — shucking off Band-Aids for a shift in perspective. The biggest takeaway from the London Book Fair? The free tote bags. Yes, you heard it here first. There are pens, too, but the totes are where it’s at. I collect four on the first day, even though I own duplicates of two already — one from Granta, one from Foyles. It’s near the end of the second day that I see a spate of official LBF totes hanging on peoples’ shoulders — with my seasoned tote-bag eye, I can tell by their stiffness that they have just been removed from a box and distributed within the past half hour, maybe even less. I assault a woman carrying one in her hand, and she points me to the information desk. “It looks like there’s one left,” the woman there says, pointing to a rack maybe thirty feet away. “You might have to —” I break into a sprint. Image courtesy the author
Maybe it’s best to begin in 2007, with an article in the New York Times about a “new, free communications service called Twitter.” It’s one of those delightful Times tech pieces that looks so, well, ancient as it matter-of-factly chronicles a digital trend that’s become commonplace, even ubiquitous, in a relatively short space of years. It was published a few weeks after that year’s SXSWi festival, during which Twitter (age: 1) was the big hit. The takeaway quote is from science fiction writer Bruce Sterling: “Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite The Iliad.” Let’s look now, then, at Twitter (age: 8). We’ve obviously heard Sterling’s sort of derision plenty in the past decade (I’m contractually obligated to mention Jonathan Franzen here: it starts with his “ultimate irresponsible medium” comments and goes on (and on) from there) and we certainly still hear it today. But it feels a little useless to keep banging on about whether we should use Twitter: it’s so deeply interwoven into the fabrics of many of our personal and professional lives that the question feels a step out-of-date. Twitter is a medium now, irresponsible or not, and divorced from moral proclamations, it’s much more interesting to see how it’s being used. And whether, a thousand internet lifetimes since it made its debut in Austin, we’re still just as unlikely to fire up the CB radio and hear some guy recite The Iliad. Perhaps the question will be answered by this year's #TwitterFiction Festival (age: 3). It begins today, and it’s a co-production of the social network itself and some stalwarts of the analog book world, Penguin Random House and the Association of American Publishers. The pull quote: “The platform is a powerful tool for more than sharing news and telling the realities of everyday life. It’s a place where fiction thrives.” The cynical bit of me would take the opportunity to say, “Yes, fictions certainly do thrive on Twitter” — I think of all the disappointments of those unfurling hoaxes, fake things that turned out even faker, @Horse_ebooks and @GSElevator and that guy who “confronted” that awful woman on a pre-Thanksgiving flight a few months back. Or worse, actual misinformation, news misrepresented or outright misreported, for speed or, in rarer cases, with malicious intent. But there is good on Twitter, certainly, and beyond connections and communication, people are testing things out. Jokes hit big; poetry thrives; satire, in the form of the parody account, never seems to get old. But then there’s fiction — and I am not completely convinced that it’s “thriving” on Twitter yet, but it’s certainly evolving well beyond the “experimental” stunt, and that’s exciting. One could argue that parody accounts are a mode of fiction — the #TwitterFiction Festival does, along with “Images/Vine,” amongst other categories — but I’m more interested in the ways that traditional written narratives can work with — and succeed within — the form. One of the earliest high-profile stories delivered via tweets was Rick Moody’s “Some Contemporary Characters” for Electric Literature in 2009. And then, three years later, the Twitter story a lot of us are most likely to cite: Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” in the 2012 (science) fiction issue of The New Yorker. That one was tweeted by The New Yorker fiction department in installments at announced times, much like the Moody story, but was also published in a linear format in the magazine itself. (The full disclosure here was that I had the miserable task of turning the print story to a web one — that was my role in the digital production department there for several years. Words can’t express how silly it felt wrangling tweets laid out in print into a non-Twitter — yet still digital — format.) A smile is like a door that is both open and closed. — New Yorker Fiction (@NYerFiction) June 3, 2012 Do either transcend gimmickry? Well, there are interesting things to look at with both of them. Moody told the Wall Street Journal that he composed his story in tweet-like spurts in the first place: “I wanted to try to write something very up-to-the-minute, that made use of the Twitter form, instead of writing something in the ordinary way and just carving it up into 140 character chunks (which is cheating, I think). The plot followed naturally upon this wish.” He likely faced the challenge of the economy of characters that plagues overly-wordy people like me every time we try to tweet, and Electric Lit praised him for the result, saying that, “The Twitter story helps to highlight the extreme attention to language a great short story writer is likely to pay.” Egan also gave herself constraints, but paradoxically, she drafted her digital story on paper — an image of her notebook shows sentences scribbled into wireframe-like grids. By way of introduction to the project, she cites a few different things she was trying to experiment with, the last of which was “serialization” on Twitter: “This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one — because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.” The cellphone novel, which emerged in Japan and continues to flourish both in and outside of East Asia, is now more than a decade old. Twitter, of course, originated from SMS messaging — it’s the reason for the character limit — and relinking these forms gives the conception of the story even more cohesion. There’s no single correct way to use any social media platform. But for me, despite some of the successful elements of these stories, there’s just something about them feels...off. It’s in the delivery, not in the writing itself, because for me and for many on Twitter, the platform is more organic than this: there’s a spontaneity to its rhythms, to the memes and the quick exchanges, the truest expression of “viral,” for better or worse. If you follow a fair number of relatively active users, it often feels as though every tweet you manage to catch is a feat of pure chance: you switch tabs and navigate back a minute later and it’s “35 new Tweets,” and they unscroll in one enormous deluge, and then another pops in, and another. If you’re not on Twitter or have bad feelings about it, I’m likely not selling it to you here. But it’s sometimes that pure chance that’s so bewitching — some little gem that you just happen to catch can feel almost serendipitous. All of this is compounded by the strange, somewhat warped sense of time in the digital age. I’ve been acutely aware of my five-hour displacement since moving across the ocean, and it’s more noticeable on Twitter than on other social media platforms — the list of accounts I follow is so American-centered (really even so East Coast-centered) that my feed is sparse and plodding for most of the business day — it’s lively in my late afternoon, and seems to heat up as I’m going to bed. I see the world unfolding in real time — but in someone else’s time. This has yet to stop feeling weird, and often a bit alienating. So I’ve been working to become a bit more active on social media here in my time-displacement, reaching out across a chasm that feels like it can be sewn up, at least a little bit, one tweet at a time. Then one afternoon in early January, I started to notice something curious happening on my Twitter feed. A series of seemingly — bafflingly! — connected retweets were popping up, a few of them from people I know but most of them from strangers, and they appeared to be telling a story. . . . to the subway, I saw a man on the ground. He sat on the sidewalk, under trees, with his feet out to the quiet street. — rünty reader (@runtyreader) January 8, 2014 The retweeter was Teju Cole, and the tweets told the story of a man collapsed on the ground, and a bystander who tries to help him. For one foolish moment, I believed that this was some totally miraculous game of exquisite corpse — that Cole was somehow curating a crowdsourced story that was being spun by a talented group of people on the spot. I later learned it was actually the exact opposite: he had used the crowd to tell a story — entitled “Hafiz” — that he had drafted beforehand. He told the Times that the piece was “a creative cousin to works like Shelley Jackson’s ‘Skin,’ a 2,095-word story that was told one tattooed word at a time on the bodies of 2,095 volunteers.” A retweet is nothing more than a single click — obviously nothing so extreme as a tattoo — but it is a curious device in itself, one Cole was interested in exploring. “I was fascinated by how clean a retweet can be, how you can make someone else present on your timeline,” he said. “This is usually a cause for anxiety (an anxiety people express with the plea ‘retweets are not endorsements’), but I thought it could also be an occasion for grace, for doing something unusual together.” One of the participants was actually fellow Millions staffer Mark O’Connell, and I got in touch to ask about, as he put it, “the nuts and bolts.” “Like you, I was watching it unfold on my timeline for a while anyway and was really interested in what he was doing,” Mark told me. “He sent me a DM asking if I’d participate by tweeting a line he’d written, which I was totally happy to do, because it was cool to be a part of something clever and innovative like that.” "How did he get into that position?" "He lay down there." "Lay how? Did he bang his head?" "He lay down there like someone going to sleep." — Mark O'Connell (@mrkocnnll) January 8, 2014 Upon my further request, Mark got a bit more analytical, and he picked up on what Cole stated outright that he was going for — the disruption of a retweet on a timeline: I think one of the reasons it worked as well as it did was that it actually used the medium to do something odd and original that could only really arise in that medium...I had a sense of the experience of my Twitter timeline being interrupted or unsettled in some quite interesting way. I remember noticing the retweets, and feeling that there was something that set them apart from everything else in my timeline — some quality of out-of-placeness that was more than just the ordinary out-of-placeness of retweets. I guess what I’m trying to get at is the sense that the story, or narrative, felt like an artfully estranging intrusion into a particular and familiar context. I think the ephemerality you mention is pretty crucial too; like, what I thought was maybe most interesting about it was the relationship between the initial appearances of these (for want of a better word) utterances in the timeline – that fragmentariness – and then the coming together of those fragments into a whole once you realized what was going on, and pursued them to their source – or maybe destination? But basically it was just gratifying and exciting to see the fragmentary experience of Twitter being turned to artistic account in that sort of way. A few weeks later, we watched Cole playing with immediacy in real time, retweeting random peoples’ tweets with certain phrases in batches — they were collected later, as “A Ghazal In This Moment” and “A Ghazal For Now,” amongst others. There’s something crucial that’s lost when you look at them after the fact, though; this is all performance art, in a way, and the real coup is to see him in the act — in this moment, as it were. But we can’t spend all day glued to our feeds. The Egan story can be revisited now and read in its entirety, though I found it strangely hard to find — The New Yorker’s put it back behind the paywall, so I wound up scrolling through two years of @NYerFiction tweets to find them. But if it’s simply a story split into pieces, I feel like the novelty of putting it up on Twitter has worn off — though it remains an interesting exercise, paring down character counts to refine language. The #TwitterFiction Festival runs for four days, and while many (if not all?) of the participants appear to be pre-scheduled, that doesn’t preclude some spontaneity — and perhaps they’ve even got a few secret tricks planned. They’ve got a great and varied line-up on board, from Emma Straub to Alexander McCall-Smith, and they’ve been teasing at a variety of different approaches for weeks. Will they break any new ground? The surest way to tell is to watch your Twitter feed. All tweets may be archived forever in the Library of Congress, but if past Twitter fiction experiments are any indicator, the best way to feel a tweet’s full impact is to catch it just as your feed drops down and the notification pops up: “1 new Tweet.”
Recently J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell on the smoking remnants of one of the fiercest shipping wars of the last decade: “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” It’s from an interview conducted by Hermione herself, Emma Watson, excerpted in the Sunday Times; the full article, in an issue of Wonderland Magazine guest-edited by Watson, came out on Friday. (The words “publicity stunt” may be floating around, but that kind of speculation is useless.) The ladies, bafflingly, “agree[d] that Harry and Hermione were a better match than Ron and Hermione,” Ron wouldn’t be able to satisfy Hermione’s needs, and the pair as she wrote them would need relationship counseling. And then the internet exploded. OK, first of all, JKR, please just stop. Is the most aggravating thing about all of this the fact that Hermione doesn’t belong with either of these jokers? Was there literally anyone else for her to get with? (Rowling’s shoddy math suggests possibly not; despite the insistence in an early interview that “there are about a thousand students at Hogwarts,” there remain just eight Gryffindors in the matriculating class of ’98, suggesting no more than three dozen in the entire year, a whole house of which remain irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil despite seven books in which to write convincing moral ambivalence and complexity. But I digress.) But also, JKR, please just stop — for reasons that have a lot to do with literature. Because the weirdest thing about the statement is the “wish fulfillment” bit, which I’ve seen interpreted many different ways, none of them satisfactory. My read of it is accompanied by this question: how is a writer setting down a plot from her head wish fulfillment? Forced, sure — this certainly wasn’t the only instance where it seemed that Rowling was stifled by the tyranny of the outline she mapped out more than a decade before penning The Deathly Hallows. (I spent years wondering how the hell the final word would, as promised, be “scar,” though by the time I got to the last page of the epilogue I was too infuriated to care.) This isn’t the first time that Rowling has “revealed” further details about her characters, as if she is their publicist rather than their creator. The Dumbledore announcement was, admittedly, totally awesome, for the political ramifications at the very least. But Rowling seems insistent on undercutting her authorial intent, or her position as omniscient narrator, the sort of “I would have loved for this to happen” statement, it’s like, really? I was under the impression that you were making all the things happen. (The full article in Wonderland—or the full interview, excerpted at Mugglenet — is worth a read for its continued, almost amplified strangeness — Rowling speaks of being shocked to see the filmmakers depicting things she hadn’t written but was feeling about the characters, like the scene between Harry and Hermione in the tent in the first installment of The Deathly Hallows. “Yes, but David and Steve — they felt what I felt when writing it,” Rowling tells Watson, referring to the director and screenwriter. “That is so strange,” Watson responds. Yes — this whole thing is so strange. It feels like there’s a simultaneous disregard for the concept of subtext and the idea that the characters were driven by something other than Rowling’s own fingers. “JKR, I think, probably is still in mystical mode when talking about her characters and work,” Connor Joel said to me in a Twitter conversation. “Which can be OK...sometimes.”) Is a writer allowed to have regrets? Certainly. Is she allowed to air them publicly? I mean, yeah, it’s a free internet, why not? Do I want to hear a single additional word about the world of Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling that is not in the form of another book? Unless she is going to travel via Time-Turner to the past and personally validate all of my ships, no, not particularly — though that’s just me. (On second thought, no, not even that: sometimes the joy of delving into subtext is that it remains, well, sub.) The night all this came out (my new BFF) Anne Jamison kicked off a round of hilarious authorial regrets on Twitter, collected here. (For example: “‘I realize I made generations believe instant antipathy is a valid basis for ideal marriage,’ sighed Ms Austen, ‘I just thought he was hot.’”) All joking aside, these tweets got me thinking: how often has this sort of thing happened in the past? Is there something fundamental in the author/reader relationship that feels like it’s being abused in Rowling’s admissions — or is she just following a long tradition of regretful writers undermining their own authority via statements after publication? Initial research suggests that some of the most famous writers haven’t stayed as faithful to their own original texts as I might have guessed. I mean, these examples aren’t exactly the same (I can hear you saying this, even now!), and that might get at what feels so incredibly strange about the “wish fulfillment” idea that Rowling’s putting forth. But regrets are regrets, and once the pages are printed — and even with all the revisions and retractions in the world — there’s essentially no going back. Here are five authors who had a variety of regrets and later said they really wished they’d done things differently — and, in many cases, went on to try to actually do things differently, to varying degrees of success: Charles Dickens Image via Wikimedia Commons Oliver Twist’s greedy, villainous employer, Fagin, is most famously marked by his Jewishness, via every derogatory stereotype in the history of man and by outright assertion: references as “the Jew” outnumber “the old man” in the original text nearly ten-to-one. There was no doubt in Dickens’s mind, nor that of many of his mid-Victorian counterparts, that this was totally fine, that Fagin’s crimes fell right in line with his background: he stated later, by way of (really poor and blatantly anti-Semitic) defense, that “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” But in 1860 Dickens sold his house to a Jewish couple and befriended the wife, Eliza, who wrote him later to say that the creation of Fagin was a “great wrong” to the Jewish people. Dickens saw the light, albeit in a sort of, “Well, some of my best friends are Jewish!” sort of way, and began stripping out references to Fagin’s religion from the text, as well as the caricature-like aspects: at a reading of a later version, it was observed that, “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” But was it too little too late? After all, the original depiction of Fagin has endured through the centuries. Dickens tried, anyway. “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard,” he wrote. “And to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.” Herman Melville Image via Wikimedia Commons Typee, Melville’s first novel and the most popular during his lifetime, is described as “one of American culture’s more startling instances of a fluid text.” There appears to be no definitive version of Typee — the sort of book that makes you question just how definitive anything you read really is. “All texts are fluid,” writes John Bryant, a scholar who’s done extensive work on Typee, examining its states of flux. “They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.” Some of the changes — which were made over the course of half a century, from the first drafts Melville penned fresh off the high seas to the final years of his life — came from pressures from critics and his publishers: disparagement of missionary culture, expanded upon in first drafts, was largely removed in subsequent editions. Some requests for changes, including a toning down of the ‘bawdiness’ of earlier editions, took place decades later, when Melville was an old man — “Certain passages were to be restored, a paragraph on seaman debauchery dropped, and ‘Buggery Island’ changed to ‘Desolation Island,’” writes Bryant, though not all of these changes were honored in the posthumous edition. Bryant has developed a digital edition to view the fluid text as a whole, though perhaps even that can’t — and shouldn’t — answer the question of whether one version or another can be called the definitive text. F. Scott Fitzgerald Image via Wikimedia Commons F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man prone to last-minute editorial regrets: he sent a telegram to his publisher as The Great Gatsby was going to press, asking to change the title to Under the Red, White, and Blue. It arrived too late. He’d wavered so much on the title already — amongst a dozen other suggestions, he’d been set on Trimalchio in West Egg for a good while. But Tender is the Night suffered, in his opinion, from problems far larger than what was printed on the dust jacket. It was published in 1934 to poor critical and public response, and Fitzgerald set to work figuring out why it didn’t work. When it was reprinted two years later, he wanted to make minor changes and clarifications, and wrote that, “sometimes by a single word change one can throw a new emphasis or give a new value to the exact same scene or setting.” But he soon decided it wasn’t a “single word” — it was the entire structure: “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” he wrote to his editor at Scribner, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He set to work slicing apart the novel — physically — and rearranging it in the order he felt it was now meant to be, the narrative now chronological rather than reliant on flashback. The copy is on display at Princeton, with Fitzgerald’s penciled note written inside the front cover: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley decided to try to fulfill these editorial wishes, rearranging the book based on the notes and cut-up version. But people weren’t any more interested in this version than the first, and in the intervening half-century, the original has endured. Ray Bradbury Image via Wikimedia Commons If the biggest disappointment of 2015 will be the fact that almost nothing resembles the 2015 bits of “Back to the Future” (what’s sadder — no hoverboards or no magical pizzas?), it speaks to the risks of setting a sci-fi novel in the not-so-distant future. When Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, first published in 1947, were reissued fifty years later, the stories’ chronological start date was just two years away. Bradbury and his publisher made the call to bump up the timeline by three decades, 2030-2057, and made some additional editorial changes while they were at it. The timeline shift isn’t unique in science fiction: Wikipedia’s got a poetically-titled “List of stories set in a future now past,” which reveals that Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also got a thirty-year bump. It’s an interesting question, and one that may crop up more and more as time goes on: does reading about some sort of alien “future” that’s now a few years in the past take a reader right out of the story? Isn’t there some joy in imagining Bradbury imagining 1999 in 1947, a vision of the future from that precise point in the past? Anthony Burgess Image via erokism/Flickr And then what to do if an author wishes the entire book had never been written? One famous example: “J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it,” Shane Salerno and David Shields assert in their recent biography. But Salinger’s dissatisfaction appeared to stem from the extraordinary amount of unwanted attention he received for it over the years. But what about Anthony Burgess, who wrote about A Clockwork Orange in his Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, published in 1985: We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence died decades before the obscenity trials placed his book at the center of the moral questions of literature and society. Burgess had decades to witness the unraveling of the “misunderstandings” of the novel he will always be most remembered for. As for its merits as a work of literature? He also described it as “too didactic to be artistic.” Ah, well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of a book and its characters. Even, I suppose, the author himself.
I wonder 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.
[The only real spoilers for the new series of Sherlock, which concluded last weekend in the United Kingdom, are for the first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” and will be marked as such.] 1. In 1893, after two novels, twenty-four short stories, and wild public acclaim, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes. In “The Final Problem,” published, like most of the stories before it, in The Strand, Holmes and Moriarty fight atop and then tumble over a Swiss waterfall; Dr. Watson, witnessing the struggle from a distance, determines that “any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless,” and puts his friend to rest. It had been six years since Holmes had begun deducing his way across the page, and Conan Doyle had had enough of his hero: “Poor Holmes is dead and damned,” he wrote later. “I couldn’t revive him if I would (at least not for years), for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do toward pate de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” Three years later, in a speech at the Author’s Club in London, he said that, “I have been blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.” The public, unsurprisingly, was furious. At least 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand, flooding the offices with angry letters and, apocryphally, donning black armbands in mourning. The Strand, likely dismayed at losing their star revenue source, announced that: The news of the death of Sherlock Holmes has been received with most widespread regret, and readers have implored us to use our influence with Mr Conan Doyle to prevent the tragedy being consummated. We can only reply that we pleaded for his life in the most urgent, earnest and constant manner. Like hundreds of correspondents, we feel as if we have lost an old friend whom we could ill spare. Mr Doyle’s feeling was that he did not desire Sherlock to outstay his welcome, and that the public had had enough of him. This is not our opinion, nor is it the opinion of the public; but it is, we regret to say, Mr Doyle’s. While The Strand was throwing Conan Doyle under the proverbial bus, he put some physical distance between himself and the British public, retreating to the Continent with his family. But the outcry inevitably reached him, and he later wrote, “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public. They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends. ‘You brute’ was the beginning of the letter of remonstrance which one lady sent me, and I expect she spoke for others beside herself. I heard of many who wept. I fear I was utterly callous myself.” In the years that followed he worked to put metaphorical distance between himself and his character, too, but while his more “serious” work, including the staunchly pro-imperial dispatches from the Boer War, was well-received, he failed to rekindle the extreme devotion of the British public. His 1899 A Duet with an Occasional Chorus, a love story that was by all accounts irredeemably sentimental, was outright panned — a book “quite unworthy of Mr. Conan Doyle’s reputation.” Andrew Lang, a prominent critic, summed it up: “It may be vulgar taste, but we decidedly prefer the adventures of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.” Conan Doyle was a practical man. Back from Africa in 1901, eight years after the death of Sherlock Holmes, he began to write a new story based on a long trip to the Devonshire moors. He had a mystery; he lacked a detective. In the end, it seemed almost inevitable: “Why should I invent such a character,” he said, “when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes.” The Hound of the Baskervilles is set before Holmes’s canonical death, but Conan Doyle had shown his hand. When he was knighted the following year, legend suggests that he was encouraged by King Edward VII, a great Holmes fan, to resurrect the character for good. After a somewhat feeble explanation of how he survived and a relatively bland reunion (Watson faints, Holmes apologizes, and they shrug and go off crime-solving once again), the consulting detective returned. A final novel and 32 short stories kept Conan Doyle knocking out locked-room mysteries until just a few years before his death. The world changed drastically during these two decades, but the adventures of Holmes and Watson remained relatively constant — most of them were still set in the late-Victorian period, because the gap between Holmes’s death and resurrection, known as “The Great Hiatus” by fans, was just three years long. The public devoured them, but for many, and perhaps for Conan Doyle himself, something had been lost at the Reichenbach Falls. He wrote later, “Some have thought there was a falling off in the stories, and the criticism was neatly expressed by a Cornish boatman who said to me, ‘I think, sir, when Holmes fell over that cliff, he may not have killed himself, but all the same he was never quite the same man afterwards.’ I think, however, that if the reader began the series backwards, so that he brought a fresh mind to the last stories, he would agree with me that, though the general average may not be conspicuously high, still the last one is as good as the first.” 2. In 2012, after six feature-length episodes, myriad critical accolades and awards, and wild public acclaim, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat killed off Sherlock Holmes. But wait, no — you can’t talk about Sherlock without talking about the century that preceded it, because its foundations lay both in the stories and in the staggering number of iterations that followed. It’s hard these days to think of an oft-adapted character as “singular,” to use Holmes’s favorite expression. Hollywood has us drowning in a sea of remakes and retellings, a sort of empty spin on fanfiction in which screenwriters and movie producers ask a mild “What…” rather than a brain-bending “What if?!” But there is something singular about Holmes, the “most portrayed literary human character in film & TV.” (Guinness Book of World Records, 2012. The most portrayed non-human character? Dracula.) There are reasons why the public was drawn to Holmes in the first place, and there are reasons why he endures. The forces at work in the modern Holmes boom, which began with the Guy Ritchie films in 2009, the first major adaptation in more than a decade, culminate in two relatively different modernized television shows, Sherlock and Elementary. The consulting detective in the present day gets at a great deal of nuance, and Sherlock in particular in many ways is a study of adaptations as much as of the canon. (The term canon, by the way, traditionally referred to the Bible, but it was in fact first applied to literature with Sherlock Holmes fans and their fan works, in 1911.) To get at the heart of the appeal, you have to go to the source. The Victorian period saw a dramatic rise in crime, particularly in the British capital, and the invention of the literary detective was a direct response to public fears. Scotland Yard was formed in 1842, and through the establishment of methodical police work, crime rates began to decline. But as the century waned, public anxieties about crime actually rose: the Empire began to spill back onto domestic shores, and xenophobia bred somewhat unfounded fears about the safety of the streets, particularly in the nicer areas of London, far from the concentrated poverty and desolation of the East End. At the same time, rapid leaps in science were busy explaining away the modern world — as Sherlock Holmes came to fruition, many of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries were at work engaging with the ethical complexities of scientific advancement in their fiction, reconciling the romantic with the rational while dealing with growing worries about progress. Holmes hit at an exact convergence of the British public’s anxieties and desires — and he hopped around town solving crime with wit and flair, too. Sherlock Holmes is a magician who explains his tricks: the deductive leaps that are so easy to parody — “Ah! I can see from the smudge of dirt on your left trouser cuff that your wife is having an affair!” — lie at the heart of the appeal of these stories across all adaptations. We are Watson, or just a bit swifter — we know Holmes’s methods, and revel in watching how they are applied. Holmes is ultra-rational, but the crimes are fanciful. In “Sherlock Holmes, Crime, and the Anxieties of Globalization,” a comprehensive study that situates Holmes perfectly in the time in which he was conceived, Michael Allen Gillespie and John Samuel Harpham cast him as a perfect arbiter of “collective human power”: “Holmes is less an individual than a literary or even mythological representation of the capacities of modern science applied to the discovery of criminal behavior. We can believe in Holmes, in part, because we believe in modern science and its claim that there is an answer to every question and a solution to every problem.” Holmes works outside the law but endeavors, above all else, for justice to be done, a late-Victorian Batman, maybe, though not as tediously tortured. He is at his heart a conservative figure, working above all to restore order. His methods may test the bounds of morality from time to time, but he is imbued with an unshakable code of fairness. But most importantly, the stories are fun. Sure, they can be sloppy from time to time — I’ve seen it joked that the “C” in Conan Doyle stands for “continuity” (fans have been forced to speculate that with Watson’s war wound in the shoulder in one story and the leg in another, he must have been some sort of contortionist to manage such an injury). But nearly every story is an elegant little construction, a baffling case with a satisfyingly straightforward, rational solution. It’s easy to see what’s to love. And people have really, really loved them. Even while Conan Doyle was still alive and writing, the adaptations began. Conan Doyle sanctioned it, famously replying to a request to put Holmes onstage with the line, “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” The practice of writing pastiches, essentially Holmesian fanfiction (though unlike most modern fanfiction, many have been written for traditional publication, and stand-outs like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer, have enjoyed great commercial success), has drawn enthusiasts for more than a century, including writers far more famous for other things, like J. M. Barrie, Dorothy Sayers, and Michael Chabon. The first screen adaptation was in 1900: “Sherlock Holmes Baffled.” Obsessives gathered; societies were formed; “The Game” was played. Some of the enduring appeal of the traditional adaptations lies in nostalgia for the late-Victorian period — see Vincent Starrett’s poem “221B” for a pure, unadulterated expression of that nostalgia, with its final couplet, “Here, though the world explode, these two survive/ And it is always eighteen ninety-five.” Holmes booms have come and gone over the decades — the last major influx of adaptations was in the seventies — and though most are set amongst the old ‘swirling-fog-and-hansom-cabs’, they manage to tap into the anxieties of the ages in which they were conceived. But then there are the direct modernizations, which began with the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films in the forties: the filmmakers pulled Holmes and Watson into their own time, fifty years on from the source material. One might argue that the modernization in the new millennium began not with Sherlock but with House, a relatively loose adaptation but still Holmesian at its core. (One might also argue that Holmes has influenced huge swaths of twentieth-century storytelling and modern forensics-based deductive crime solving, on television and elsewhere, but there’s only so much a single essay can handle here.) Moffat and Gatiss cite the Rathbone iteration when they talk about their decision to set Sherlock in modern London. Elementary, set in current-day New York with a female Watson (not the first female Watson, by the way) partly owes a debt to House, a clever, Holmes-influenced procedural that remained, at its heart, a procedural. But in the modernization, all three work to get at something essential that’s changed in the past century, and Ashley D. Polasek draws parallels with them and the Ritchie films in “Surveying the Post-Millenial Sherlock Holmes: A Case for the Great Detective as a Man of Our Times.” “This is not just Holmes for the twenty-first century, but Holmes of the twenty-first century,” she writes, describing the shift from hero to “a more complex post-modern antihero” as fundamental to the new adaptations. The writers of these versions play on Holmes’s flaws, seen as eccentricities in many of the traditional adaptations, and position him as a child in need of management, with an overactive mind that needs to be engaged lest it slide into self-destruction. Despite these parallels, the three current franchises — soon to be joined by a fourth, Bill Condon’s film with Ian McKellen as an elderly consulting detective — are their own animals: it’s reductive to compare them when they are each working to do something relatively different. And all due respect to Elementary and the Ritchie films, but it is January 2014, and after an excruciating two years waiting for the cast and crews’ schedules to align, Sherlock is back on our screens. On New Year’s Day, nine million Britons tuned in to see how Sherlock survived a leap from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital at the end of the last series. If that was the first question on the collective mind of the nation, the second must surely have been: was this worth the wait? 3. “It isn’t supposed to be like this,” Steven Moffat, the co-creator of Sherlock, said recently, referring to this series’ domestic ratings, which have been the highest yet this series. “This show, which we all thought would be our vanity project destined for three million in the ratings and possibly an award from an obscure European festival, has become a barnstorming international phenomenon.” The rapid rise in the popularity of Sherlock means that more and more people will have to suffer through the long wait, known only partly affectionately by fans as “hiatus,” a reference to the original not-so-great one. The unique format, three feature-length episodes per series, invariably changes the demands of the production schedule, but what feel like endless gaps — eighteen months between series one and two, and two full years between two and three — are mostly the result of the recent exponential rise of the careers of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the latter of whom has spent a good portion of the past few years halfway around the world, filming The Hobbit trilogy in New Zealand. But Moffat spins the delays as a positive thing: “This feels like a good form, and it works for us,” he said last month. “Gaps and starvation have become part of the ecology of this. It certainly maintains it as an event.” Sherlock is set in and often engages with ultra-modern London — the present-day capital, at least my corner of it, is a city that feels on the brink of perpetual change, steel and glass pressed up against ancient buildings. Sherlock sometimes feels like a similar mash-up, a layering of nearly 130 years of Holmes references carefully built by two of the world’s biggest fanboys, Moffat and Gatiss (it should be noted, too, that the episodes are peppered with homages to the history of film as well, though I’m more likely to spot an obscure Conan Doyle reference than literally anything at all from classic cinema). The longer episode length and the tendency toward sheer irreverence give Moffat and Gatiss space to prod at their characters, or, more often, to drag them through the fire. They’ve said it before, though they’ve never had to repeat it as vehemently as they have the past few weeks, that Sherlock is not a detective show, but rather a show about a detective. Like plenty of other shows with a big fan base, Sherlock devotees run the gamut from casual enthusiast to bona fide obsessive. In Great Britain, a country whose television watching habits feel a bit more old-fashioned than ours, a third of all televisions are tuned to the big shows any given week, from Sherlock and the Doctor Who specials to things like The X Factor and the hit of the recent holiday period, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, a lowest-common denominator comedy with a cross-dressing lead that feels like it travelled in a TARDIS straight from 1977. Like the most popular Holmesian iterations before it, Sherlock does not exist in a vacuum — the show and its charmingly obnoxious “high-functioning sociopath” lead detective are beloved by the British public. The solution to the final question posed by the series two finale — how did Sherlock survive a jump off the roof of a building? — occupied prime space in British newspapers in the weeks afterwards. Theories were spun, some wilder than others (some frankly insane), stuff involving masks and ropes and strange angles and sleeping draughts and body-switching and inflatable bouncy castles and, of course, a squash ball under the armpit, to stop the pulse. And herein lie the concrete spoilers for “The Empty Hearse,” and really, if you plan to watch it and haven’t yet, please stop reading now. Gatiss was tasked writing the first episode, which brings Sherlock back from the dead, and he took the clever route out — it’s a route out, undeniably, a clear acknowledgement that the public would never be fully satisfied with any solution. At the premiere of the episode at the BFI in December, the press were given a list of embargoed topics that included both how Sherlock survived and when in the episode this information is revealed — the two fake-out explanations and the final, most plausible one at the end. (Being given this information prior to the screening with no specifics was, as you can imagine, pretty confusing!) We are left with a heavy seed of doubt, even when the explanation comes from Sherlock’s own mouth: if we are inclined to be Anderson-like, we will continue to poke holes in the theory, or we’ll sigh and say, “Well. That’s not how I would have done it.” I found the concept very clever, and “The Empty Hearse,” a fan club that dons deerstalkers and meets to talk theory, tweeting out #sherlocklives when the detective returns from the dead, was a fascinating piece of meta-commentary, not least because, at the BBC’s prompting, that same hashtag had been tweeted at extraordinary rates for a publicity stunt, more than half a million times even before the final episode aired last week. But the British public was left divided. Because the episode, too, was leveled with (in my opinion, largely unfair) accusations of “fanservice” — in-jokes, nods to unlikely romantic pairings, and frequent references to the two prior series. Op-eds were penned, in The Guardian and elsewhere, suggesting there was no more room for a casual fan when a show’s writers were focused on the deeply devoted. And on a baser level, some were still left scratching their heads at the explanation of the fall. But, as to be expected, this is all far from new. In a recent hour-long conversation with Empire (a seriously interesting one for fans, by the way, but I can’t stress this enough: do not listen until you’ve seen all three episodes), Gatiss and Moffat chuckle at the parallels with Conan Doyle’s Holmes resurrection: Gatiss: We discovered a lovely review of “The Empty House,” Doyle’s original story, in which of course Doyle says that he escaped due to his knowledge of an obscure form of misspelled Japanese wrestling. And the reviewer basically says, "Oh, come on, Dr. Doyle." It’s rather thrilling, actually, that it’s the same sort of review now… Moffat: Down to every detail we get the same reaction. It’s quite extraordinary. And in both cases, in both “The Empty Hearse” and “The Empty House,” you are dependent on Sherlock Holmes’s own account of how he survived. Now keep in mind that he’s been lying for two years. Who’s to say any version of Sherlock Holmes has told the truth about how he did it? Asking a writer to work to satisfy to a specific audience — any audience, from the broadest of the general public to the most highly attuned fans — is absurd. But you don’t get the sense that Moffat and Gatiss are particularly bothered by all of this, though: it is at its heart their retelling, and they know perhaps better than any adapters who’ve come before them exactly how well-borrowed — and well-loved — these characters have always been. And if there’s any constant, it’s that the British public (who am I kidding, it’s the whole world these days) can’t stay silent when it comes to matters of Sherlock Holmes: they clamor for more and, like ageless critics from the Cornish boatman up to Anderson himself, mumble how they would have done things differently. Moffat and Gatiss actively encourage it: at the Q&A following the screening of the final episode, Moffat said, “What happens is — and I was part of this, I am part of this — is that you see something you love, you start doing your own version of it. Then you start disagreeing with the actual version and think ‘my version’s better,’ and then you discover you’ve made something entirely different and you go off and do your own thing.” In “His Last Bow,” chronologically the last Sherlock Holmes story, the detective remarks to his companion, “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” People have spent more than a century flipping that remark on its head: Holmes feels like the fixed point — though who am I to separate the best pair of friends in the history of literature? They can be fixed points together. These stories, and Sherlock, and Rathbone and Jeremy Brett and Basil of Baker Street: we are not revisiting these characters and conceits because we are out of new ideas. A very old idea resonates; it comforts and entertains. In the case of Sherlock, even after all these retellings, it still manages to surprise. Conan Doyle, lamenting over the fact that Sherlock Holmes overshadowed all his other work, wrote in 1923, “It is not a matter which troubles me, however, for I have always felt that justice is done in the end, and that the real merit of any work is never permanently lost.” The merit lies in the enduring popularity of his creation, because every engagement with this universe — a reading, an adaptation, a challenge, a critique, or even just a casual night in front of the television — is surely a testament of love to Sherlock Holmes.