Friday, January 12, 2018

"Fandom is a personal book. . ."

The publisher asked me to write a post for their blog about my book on fandom. They posted it this morning, but, as is their prerogative, they'd cut it by half. 
That's OK--the original post is long and chatty--but they sanitized it too. Fandom ends up sounding too much like a social crusade. There is that side of it, and it's a big one, but the publisher took out my paragraph about characters hooking up---and "shipping" (creating relationships among characters) is even a bigger side of fandom.
Ah well, that blog is for publishing professionals. Pleasegod no one much else will see it. I'm posting here what I originally wrote. I've said all this before, but it was fun to sit down and write it out, now the book is behind me.
My original, unedited post:

Fandom is a personal book for me, and the first book I've written for this publisher that is entirely my own. Always before, I've written on someone else's choice of topic, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. 

I began researching this book back in the 1970s, when, every day after school, I watched Star Trek reruns in syndication on my family's black and white TV. (Syndication--I had to define that in the book.) Of course I mean  Star Trek: TOS––The Original Series. There are seven Trek series now with the latest, Star Trek:Discovery airing.

The show was incredibly important to me––I felt weird and ugly in a new school, my family was falling apart, the president of the United States was clearly unfit to serve, the country was in a seemingly unending and unwinnable war (just the one, though)––and here was this crew, this all-species [not just human] crew of both genders [only two throughout the universe, according to the show] that said another world, another way, is possible. Get on board.
Star Trek implied that things on Earth would get worse before we got to their, the 23rd, century. In some arenas, that seems to be the case so far. In fandom, however, things have gotten better. While I had almost no one to share my fan love, art, and ideas with, teens now can share online their passion for the stories they love. 
Of course there are problems  with online fandom …because humans. The 1970s had problems too. For me, isolation was the big one. Entering the fray can be scary, and possibly dangerous, but so is silence.

A couple years ago, in 2016, I noticed that while fans are all over the internet, there were few printed books on the phenomenon of fandom. I pitched the idea of a book that would take a look at some of the many ways fans actively participate in the media they love.  I took on fan-made writing (fic), videos (vids), games, visual arts, and cosplay. Trying to fit all that into 100 pages ended up feeling, as Bilbo says in Lord of the Rings, "sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

I decided to focus on a couple main ingredients. One was history. Fan writing comes in for a lot of derision. It's true, a lot of it is painfully bad. So is a lot of printed work. (Dan Brown, I'm looking at you.) I wanted to show that fan writing is not some anomaly: humans have always, always riffed on one another's stories.

If you look at the history of literature, it's a bunch of magpies borrowing shiny bits for their own use. Virgil lifted his hero Aeneas from Homer's Illiad. Jane Austen got her start as a teenager writing parodies of the romance novels of her day--like our Harlequins. As the British Library says, virtually none of Shakespeare's plots were original. (Of course, lifting a good idea is just the beginning--you have to be able to run with it.) Fifty Shades of Grey, which started online as adult erotic fic based on the teen vampire Twilight romances, is nothing new.

The other ingredient was fans' passion for things to be better. We don't always agree on what better would look like (ha! not at all), but, mostly, we want it.

Sometimes it's a personal vision of better.
Let's see...
*takes a quick look at Archive of Our Own*
[AO3, the fan-run site for fanworks; for recent fic:].

OK--today, fans want Wonder Woman and Captain Kirk to hook up (that's a new one on me). * We (still) want Captain Kirk and Spock to, too. (Star Trek is the mother ship of a kind of fic called slash, that romantically pairs same-sex characters.) And so forth, and so on.

Fandom envisions a better social world too, one with less barriers of every kind. I start the book with the fan-love for the musical play Hamilton as an example of a virtuous cycle: fans love that the actors are people of color and women play a prominent role. But it was fandom's ongoing call for and support of work like this that helped bring about a world where creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's work can make it to Broadway, and beyond. And where Black Panther and is not just a background character, and Wonder Woman isn't just "the other one" in the DC pantheon. 
In many ways, these mass media stories are inheritors of Star Trek (and other) fandom's vision of, as fans say, a sandbox where everybody gets to play.

To wrap up, an example of how I participated in one tiny way in that vision.
For some fans, Fandom Is a Way of Life. I am not one of those fans. By 2008, it'd been a couple decades since I'd even thought about Star Trek. Life was rough that winter though--specifically, I was reeling from my mother's suicide.

I idly googled "Star Trek." My word, the fandom...!

I entered the fray. I made an autobiographical vid: screenshots from Star Trek  subtitled with my story of being a sad teenager, and then a (at that time) sad adult, and how the example of Kirk and Spock––a sort of yin/yang pair of personalities––had and did inspire and comfort me.
(YouTube took it down after a few years. Copyright law and Fair Use--it's a thorny thicket the book just brushes lightly.) 

YouTube comments are famous for calling forth the sludge of humanity, but my vid got nothing but love. A lot of people let me know they felt the same. "It's true, Star Trek saves lives," one wrote.

That summer, I got a message on youTube from a fan in Moscow, Captain J. L. of the Russian Star Trek Club. She wrote, "It's wonderful that people on the other side of the planet feel the same way." Would I be willing to re-subtitle the vid in Russian, to be shown at the 2009 RusCON, the Russian Star Trek convention?

We worked together to translate it. There were some funny glitches. What did I mean, "Spock seemed like a pill"? And, did you know, "Bluetooth" in Russian is "Bluetooth"? I'd put that in as a reference to Star Trek's prescient wireless technology.

The captain also asked me to write a letter she would translate ad read at Ruscon. The letter I wrote concludes, "Star Trek has been right in its predictions about technology and a lot of other things. But I hope it will be wrong about one: I hope we won't half-destroy ourselves before we finally get our act together. Thanks to Capt. J. L. for translating the video. Our work together gives me hope that Star Trek was right about humanity's peaceful future."

Russia, presidential politics, social justice, personal sorrow, lust, and love, and plain old fun!---fandom has enough butter for all the bread. Writing this book allowed me to spend a lot of time with young fans, online and in personal interviews. They and their creativity and love for stories, for romance, justice, community have given me hope. I hope they (and we) take that hope and, as Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation says, make it so. 

* After I wrote this, I realized that in the 2017 movie Wonder Woman, Chris Pine plays the love interest, Steve Trevor. Pine also plays Capt. Kirk in the reboot Trek movies (2009– ). That didn't immediately occur to me because, in my eyes, Captain Kirk has and always shall be William Shatner.


Michael Leddy said...

The getting translated into Russian — I hope they kept that in. That’s like the best of the Internet, right there.

Bink said...

Excellent! Wow, it’s impressive that you could burble all that writing out—and have it be so cogent, thoughtful, and fun to read—in the short space of yesterday morning before we met up. Kudos!

Frex said...

MICHAEL: I know! It is! Thank you, yes, the Russian fan working with me IS the best of the Internet, and the best of fandom, and it's one of my proudest achievements in my life too.

But no, they cut it. I cannot fathom---it's the best story. And it's so topical too, with Russia-US relations.
What can I say?

BINK: Thank you! I was pleased it came together so quickly (though now I reread it, I see my sentences could use some untangling)--but the story is there, the way I wanted it. I'm especially glad to hear that it's fun to read!