This is a story about stories—and the way technology is changing the scope and structure of the stories we tell. Right now, in untelevised reality, we are in the middle of an epic, multiseason struggle over the territory of the human imagination, over whose stories matter and why. For me, it started with fandom. And if I had to tell you how fan culture and technology and politics have threaded together the strands of my small, stained corner of the 21st-century tapestry, if I had to pick an opening scene, it would be this:
Beat one, spring 1999. A small, dark room at the back of a big, old house. A door swings shut on the sound of adults shouting, and an ancient modem wheezes to life. A blue screen illuminates the face of a 13-year-old nerd swaddled in self-important self-loathing and a giant black hoodie. She looks back to check that nobody’s coming before she loads up the page she’s looking for. Something private, and sweet, and just a little bit filthy.
As an anxious, fidgety, bullied prepubescent, I spent most of my time reading or watching films. In the ’90s, though, pop culture was limited. Gay and queer characters barely existed outside of Will and Grace; girl hobbits stayed at home in the Shire. So I started to write my own stories, most of which featured a small, anxious, fidgety, tragically misunderstood heroine with exciting superpowers and—most daring of all—friends. Sometimes I’d make up my own characters; sometimes I’d set stories in the worlds of my favorite books and shows. The Lord of the Rings. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Harry Potter, of course. I didn’t have a word, at first, for that type of writing. It felt vaguely distasteful, almost shameful, as if I were tampering where I didn’t belong.
When the internet finally arrived in our house in the south of England, I discovered I wasn’t the only one sneaking about in other people’s copyrighted works. Somewhere out there were people like me, scribbling passive-aggressive notes in the margins of the scripts they’d been given for their lives. They had a name for it too. They called it fan fiction.
Fan fiction is, in a way, as old as literature itself. Paradise Lost was biblical fanfic; Dante’s Inferno may well be the first self-insert fan story to make it into the Western canon. The Baker Street Irregulars, the original Sherlock Holmes fan society, was established in New York 85 years ago. The first real “slash fiction”—the frenzied cult of homoerotic Kirk/Spock smut—emerged from Star Trek fandom in the 1960s and ’70s, decades before the launch of those janky, sputtering fanfic websites I pulled up in the back room. I was drawn, like so many others, to writers who added subversive or outlandish plots and romantic pairings to traditional published works, where they were rarely on offer. In Buffy fandom, one of my favorites, I met other people who wanted to read about women making out and fighting vampires—all shared for free, for the silly joy of it.
The story about what the internet has done to my generation casts us as innocents corrupted by the great sucking surveillance machine—a mass of drooling ragebots desensitized by porn, recruited into hate mobs, mashing out content for the maw of Instagram. And that’s a true story. It’s just not the only story. Along the sidelines, in the margins, without a great deal of fanfare, another sort of narrative was gathering momentum, beginning to alter the entire trajectory of cultural production.
Beat two, summer 2006. A late-night café in Oxford, England, reeking of sugar and pheromones. Six or seven teenage students with the premature myopia of those who have spent most of their childhood reading on screens are meeting for the first time in what we, at the time, being terribly edgy, referred to as “meatspace.” This is the first session of the Fan Fiction and Folklore student society.
The books and stories you read about the University of Oxford tend to describe the entitlement oozing from every ancient balustrade, the smug young toffs in tailcoats smashing up restaurants and paying their way out of jail as they prepare to sober up and run the country. And those stories are true, all of them—they just aren’t the only stories. There were also lots of shy, nerdy young people from less refined backgrounds who had clung to the idea that if we were very clever and worked very hard, we could go to a fantasy world where people cared about books and nobody dumped orange juice in our backpacks. We had survived our childhoods and made it to wizarding school—they were, in fact, still filming the Harry Potter movies at Oxford when we studied there—but we still didn’t fit in. Except with each other.
There were all sorts of reasons for that. Some of us were working-class, most of us were queer, almost all of us were twitchy weirdos emerging from the special neurosis of lonely intelligent children everywhere, namely that we thought far too much and far too little of ourselves at the same time. And we were all fans. There was Alex, who introduced me to Firefly, prog rock, and heartbreak. There was Liz, who introduced me to Tori Amos, George Eliot, and intellectual rigor, and Jen, Liz’s instant soul mate and one of the most brilliant writers I have ever met. Once, during a memorable night of experimental substance abuse, Jen calmed me down by explaining slowly, patiently, over the course of five hours, the entire plot of the ’90s space epic Babylon 5, why it was the most structurally ambitious TV drama of the decade, and why we would all make it off the planet to the exodus ships someday.
Our shared vice, though, was Harry Potter. Harry Potter fandom was where a generation of young writers cut their teeth. On sites like FanFiction.net and LiveJournal, Draco and Harry got to make out, Sirius wasn’t dead, and Hermione wasn’t white. Warner Bros., the studio behind the movies, tried to crack down on all the fan fiction, bombarding fansites with threatening cease-and-desist letters; it took entertainment giants a long time to realize that fandoms actually generate enthusiasm (and therefore revenue). For the most part, nobody was trying to make money off J. K. Rowling’s intellectual property. It wasn’t about fixing or correcting the Harry Potter universe but adding to it, having fun. The media theorist Henry Jenkins, a great champion of fans, nonetheless describes them as “poachers” on the property of established authors—except we weren’t stealing, only borrowing. We broke into Rowling’s garden, but only so we could play there with our friends. Fan fiction was and remains an act of love for the original work, as well as a longing for everything it isn’t.
That sort of excitable nonsense didn’t figure in the official Oxford syllabus, which made an implicit distinction between cheap mass-market storytelling and real literature—literature that was important enough to include in the official canon of great works. The writers we studied were all white, overwhelmingly male, and mostly dead. We were free to focus on women writers if we chose. We were also warned by older classmates that if we did, Oxford examiners would take this as a sign we weren’t serious.
Women’s stories, just like women’s lives, have long been assumed to be less serious. We’d already learned that in fandom. In fact, one of the reasons fan fiction is so sneered at is that a major part of it has always been women, often young women, writing sexy stories about men. It was mostly women who wrote those schlocky homoerotic romances between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, two tortured souls trapped in elaborately contrived situations where they had to have sex or die. These stories were painstakingly carbon-copied and sold at conventions, and the reason they mattered was that, even at the height of the so-called sexual revolution, there was little room within popular culture for women to imagine a kind of eroticism outside the stories we were told about ourselves. In her seminal 1985 essay “Pornography by Women, for Women, With Love,” Joanna Russ, author of the sci-fi novel The Female Man, suggests that if young women wanted to fantasize about an erotic relationship of true equality, it might have to be between two men, in space.
The original Star Trek fan fiction was mostly women writing schlocky homoerotic romances about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, two tortured souls trapped in contrived situations where they had to have sex or die.
It was through fandom that I learned a more visceral vocabulary of anti-sexism and anti-racism, in literature as well as life. In LiveJournal and other fanfic communities, I learned the lexicon of privilege and structural oppression. I learned that there is a profound connection between the way a person sees the world and the stories they read and write. If you believe that Western imperialism is a net good, you will write one kind of epic space drama. You’ll write a very different kind if you recognize the need for safe spaces and trigger warnings—terms that function not as censorship but as an in-group signal: These are places where trauma is discussed, where we care about others, where everyone has been through something and escaped through the backlit bolt-hole of online fandom to find people just like us.
But fandom also helped me meet people unlike myself, and that was just as important. There comes a time in the life of every lonely, misunderstood, intelligent child of privilege when they must confront the fact that being intelligent, lonely, and misunderstood is not the worst thing that can befall a person, that some people have a great deal more to contend with on top of being an unsalvageable dweeb. I was and remain a clueless Caucasian shut-in with a lot to learn, but that part of my education started when I began following fans and creators of color. My first real friends who weren’t white lived thousands of miles away, and I knew them through jerky avatars and punnish screen names and an exhaustive knowledge of Tolkien lore. I educated myself with the articles and books they linked to. There were long, torturous flame wars. I listened. I took notes.
Fandom was as important to my college education as anything I learned at actual lectures, which I sometimes skipped in favor of debating alternative fan theories of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the pub. In my final year, when it turned out Oxford didn’t offer degrees in fan studies, I pulled the two lives together, frantically writing papers on the history of communications technology—which has always been a history of bloody squabbles over who was allowed to write and read the official story of human destiny and human desire. In the late 15th century, when printing technology first took off in the West and literacy became more common, the moral panic over ordinary unecclesiastical people being allowed to read, interpret, and have opinions about the Bible almost tore Europe apart. Movable type changed the structure of storytelling, and so has every technological shift that has followed, from television to the internet. That, in precis, is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he wrote “the medium is the message”—that the nature and format of a communications technology, far more than the content of that communication, rearranges the furniture in the collective head.
That sort of theorizing was good enough for Oxford, but you can’t stay at wizarding school forever. Life was about to get a lot less theoretical. There was a plot twist coming, and none of us were prepared.
Beat three, autumn 2008. Nine former and associate members of the Oxford Fan Fiction and Folklore society are crammed with all their various flavors of frustration and panic into a filthy London flatshare. We have stumbled out of college right into the teeth of the financial crisis.
In those days, we rarely left the house, because none of us had any money and all of us were exhausted and depressed, and besides, there wasn’t much community for us to partake in on our battered street in inner London. Our community was online. We all put in as much cash as we could afford to download as many shows as possible and discuss them at length in the downtime between minimum-wage jobs. Fan sites, bolstered by the launch of archival projects like the Organization for Transformative Works, functioned as our proxy public square. This shift was happening everywhere, as the media critic Howard Rheingold observed, because of “the hunger for community that grows in the breasts of people around the world as more and more informal public spaces disappear from our real lives.” If anything, it made us even more political.
The narrative structure of our lives was splintering. It wasn’t playing out as it was supposed to. My fanfic friends and I hadn’t grown up expecting to be the protagonists of every story, but we thought the story was at least supposed to make sense. “I’m writing fiction,” Jen said in an email at the time. “As a kind of last-ditch last-shot attempt to stop my life becoming what I don’t want it to be … I’ve got to do something at some point: I fucking point-blank refuse to be as miserable as I think I’m going to turn out.”
Me, I was juggling two jobs with a journalism training course, trying to follow some version of a script for millennial aspiration that had become, all at once, terribly outdated. In the evenings, I started blogging, moving from LiveJournal to a public-access blog that gained a following, because apparently people wanted to hear about what it was like to be young and broke and queer and female and incandescent about the insidious plot shifts of the 21st century.
Beat four, spring 2014. New York. Same girl, with a better laptop and a better understanding of real-world stakes, is hunched at the foot of a bed where she ought to be sleeping but isn’t, because something is very, very wrong on the internet. I’ve been a journalist for six years now, writing about welfare, youth protests, and the women’s movement for whatever publications would pay me—The Guardian, the New Statesman, The Independent—and blogging when nobody would. I had come to America to cover Occupy Wall Street and stayed in a futile attempt to escape the thunder of harassment that plagued me in England. This time, though, it’s worse than it has ever been.
While many millions of people out there felt that they had been written out of the future, not all of them agreed on who to blame. Some of us blamed the banks, blamed structural inequality. But some people don’t pay attention to the structure. For some people, kicking up takes too much energy, and it’s easier to kick down—to blame women and people of color and queer people and immigrants for the fact that they aren’t leading the rich and meaningful lives they were promised.
Every time I opened my laptop to write, I was buried under an avalanche of rage and rape fantasies from strangers who believed it was morally unconscionable for young women to speak about politics and pop culture. It took its toll. I wasn’t a fiction writer of Jen’s caliber, but just as she did years earlier, I decided to start writing fiction seriously again, even if it sucked, as a Hail Mary attempt to take my own life down a narrative arc that wouldn’t end in despair.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the best-selling book about the “hero’s journey” formula and the supposedly universal rules of storytelling, was released in the late 1940s. It’s the simple idea that almost every story worth telling is really, when you boil it down, about one guy and his personal growth as he overcomes obstacles, fights monsters, gains wisdom, falls in love, and comes home changed but safe. In 1985, the Hollywood story analyst Christopher Vogler put a summary of the book into the hands of friends, colleagues, and Disney executives. Soon, in Vogler’s words, “executives at other studios were giving the pamphlet to writers, directors, and producers as guides to universal, commercial story patterns.”
The hero’s journey was and remains the template for how to create a Hollywood hit. In Campbell’s telling, this “monomyth” is not just the best story but the only story, handed down from the classical era. But a great many of us didn’t see our own lives anywhere in those patterns. According to the psychotherapist Maureen Murdock, Campbell himself said that women did not need the hero’s journey—we just needed to accept that they were “the place that people are trying to get to.” The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the dangers of the single story: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Human society cannot survive on a single story any more than the human body can thrive on a diet of raw steak sprinkled with Adderall.
What brought fanficcers together was the sense, however softly spoken, of having been disqualified from those grand social myths on the arbitrary basis of gender, or race, or class. But by the mid-2010s, writing by women, queer people, and people of color, many of them emerging young and hungry from the open mouth of the internet, was beginning to dominate the “official” science fiction lists: Charlie Jane Anders, Emily St. John Mandel, Catherynne Valente, Naomi Alderman, Ken Liu, Carmen Maria Machado, Annalee Newitz, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire, N. K. Jemisin, and more. Suddenly, most of the best and most feverishly passed-around publications were being written by and, heaven forfend, about people who weren’t stiff-necked white chaps dreaming of war in space. Jemisin’s Broken Earth books, all three of which won consecutive Hugo Awards, show what happens when you oppress the most powerful people in society—a vision of the collapse of civilization richer and more complex than the standard calamity-by-numbers dystopia. Mandel’s Station Eleven follows a troupe of actors trying to create beauty after a global epidemic, giving them as their mantra an old line from Star Trek: Voyager: “Survival is insufficient.”
Not everyone found these ideas exciting. Not everyone was thrilled by the new crop of writers stepping in from the margins. Maybe it would have been all right if we’d kept our perverse fantasies where they belonged—in the dank, excitable chatrooms of the internet that nobody important ever squeezed into. Maybe it would have been better, or at least safer, if we hadn’t started to wonder whether we might not live out those fantasies in meatspace. According to certain chin-strokers of the Twitter-fueled commentariat, that was what really caused all the trouble: too many gays, too many women, too many people of color acting like the heroes. It’s just not realistic to show that sort of thing too often, said these fans of stories that feature dragons, demons, and time travel.
In 2014, gamers incensed by demands for more diverse storytelling in videogames declared open season on feminists on the internet. An army of comics, fantasy, and TV audiences followed suit, in a howl of outrage against women. Gamergate—and other episodes that were a direct recruiting ground for what is now called the alt-right—were campaigns of harassment organized through shallow channels overflowing with crypto-fascism. The objective was to ruin careers and destroy lives.
Some fans understand culture only as a function of war. They believe that they are brave rebels, trying to take back their beloved fandoms from shambling hordes of social justice warriors, from the ice-army of snowflakes coming to bring endless winter to the summerlands of nerdery. They believe themselves to be the Rebel Alliance, the browncoats, the riders of Rohan, when in fact they are the Empire and always have been.
Beat five, summer 2016. A fringe far-right rally at the Republican National Convention. I’m here as a reporter, and I hold up my recorder as the far-right nanocelebrity on the podium segues seamlessly from a rant about the threat of Islam to a rant about the new Ghostbusters reboot. “Terrible feminist flop!” Milo Yiannopoulos yells. The crowd goes wild.
What I had not appreciated, until this point, was that many of these men felt that they were the ones under attack. It felt to them that women and brown people and queer people had taken away so much already. As Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List, wrote, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Now we were coming for their cherished fantasy worlds too—worlds they had needed when they were young and lonely, just as much as we did. Worlds they too had loved.
But there are different kinds of love, aren’t there? I used to believe that there was something universal about fandom, that our excitement and love for our most cherished myths could bring us all together. This wasn’t the silliest thing I believed in my early twenties, but I had, at the time, swallowed a lot of saccharine nonsense about what love means and the work it involves. I had not yet encountered in my adult life or in my fan life the sort of love which is always, and only, about ownership.
All nerds love their fandoms. For some of us that means we want to share them and cheer them on as they grow and develop and change. For others, loving their fandom means they want to own it, to shut down the borders and police their favorite stories for any sign of deviance.
Beat six, fall 2016. I publish a short novel, Everything Belongs to the Future, which is barely disguised fan fiction about me and my friends, set in a far-future Oxford, with a group of queer anarchists in a filthy flatshare trying to make art in a world that has no space for them. The structure is threadbare, and I’ve scarcely managed to scrub the serial numbers off some of our more salubrious adventures, but in this science fiction version of us, we get to steal back the future. I wrote it to impress Liz, who texts congratulations from Los Angeles, where she’s married to a photographer, and Jen, who will never read it, because she died six months earlier.
There’s no neat, simple way to slam in that piece of information. It is what my TV writing colleagues would call tonally inconsistent, one of the splinters sticking out of this story about the structure of stories. If I was running this show, I would take us into a bottle episode right now all about Jen, and who she was and why she mattered, except I would get Liz to write it because she knew her best, and I’d come up with a meaningful ending where brilliant, good-hearted friends don’t die pointlessly and too soon.
I thought we’d have time to connect with one another again, to talk madly about books and sex and expectations and how we were all going to make it off-planet like we used to. There wasn’t time. She was 28. When some members of the old fanfic group went to visit Jen’s room one last time before it was cleared out, they found that she’d been writing on her walls, including that old line from Voyager and Station Eleven: “Survival is insufficient.”
Beat seven, spring 2019. Los Angeles. It has been a long time since I dared reread any of the wish-fulfillment stories I scribbled in my lonely teenage notebooks, but I suspect if I did, they’d contain something a little like this: You’re a freewheeling political reporter on assignment on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, covering a tech conference full of Ukrainian models, when Joss Whedon calls and asks if you’ve ever thought of writing for television. Of course you have, but only in the way that you’ve thought of being an astronaut. Six weeks later you’re in California, sitting in your first writers’ room, on Whedon’s new sci-fi show for HBO, The Nevers, and it turns out that the evenings you spent at college arguing about Buffy with your best friends were a better use of your time than you realized.
I always suspected that Los Angeles was largely fictional, but I knew it for sure once I arrived. It’s a spread-out, traffic-stinking daydream baking in the endless sun, as if a normal metropolis melted into a puddle in the heat of its own hype. There are palm trees everywhere. At least twice a week I wonder if I have walked through a magic screen into the television and my body is somewhere back in England, slowly stiffening.
Writers’ rooms are intense. You take six to 10 clever, sensitive, ambitious people who spent their adolescence largely in their own heads, lure them with cash and sugary snacks, trap them in a room with whiteboards all around, and tell them to come out when they’ve scripted 10 or 20 episodes or killed each other, whichever comes first. Ideas bob to the surface and are batted away, friendships form, entire character arcs shift and change in a day; egos are stretched to snapping point and darlings are dashed against the rocks of studio notes and production budgets. And then you let the actors loose. Dropped in at the deep end of a whole new industry, I find it all fascinating. But then, watching the sausage get made actually enhances my breakfast experience.
On the second day on The Nevers, surrounded by still-blank whiteboards where the narrative DNA of the show had yet to be sequenced, two of us admitted shyly that we used to write Buffy fan fiction. Whedon looked at Jane Espenson, who wrote for Buffy and so many other shows we watched and who all of us were still too intimidated to talk to. “So did we,” she said. “We called it season 6.”
Beat eight, right now 2019. I’m working full-time in my second writers’ room, for The Haunting of Bly Manor, a gothic horror show loosely based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I landed the job after a panicked interview, where I babbled about the importance of innovation in narrative architecture and launched into a nervous explanation of the structural elegance of Babylon 5—and why episodic narrative television is as culturally important to the 21st century as novels were to the 18th. I didn’t explain it as well as Jen. I don’t think I ever will. But it goes something like this:
Television and online streaming are driving the evolution of a new, powerful hybrid species of mass culture, one that can be collective without being homogeneous. As arc-based television explodes, becomes more diverse and more daring, the film industry is lagging awkwardly behind. Films are still hamstrung by their own format: They have to tell stories of a certain length that will persuade enough people to leave their houses, find a place to park, and buy a ticket on opening weekend, or else be considered a flop. This means mainstream cinema still needs to appeal to what the industry considers its broadest possible audience. So it’s superhero blockbusters, endless remakes and reboots, and sequels to sequels that dominate the box office. Safe bets.
Episodic narrative television, meanwhile, allows for many stories being possible at once. Intimate and intricate, it may be the novel form of our age—but to reach its true potential, it took the advent of streaming platforms. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO. Streaming technology changed one simple thing about the way we tell collective stories today: It made any show theoretically accessible to anyone, at any time. A TV writer is no longer obliged to appeal to a very large number of people at a specific time every week and hold their attention through ad breaks. Suddenly, TV became a medium that could find its audience wherever they were in the world, so long as they had broadband and someone’s login details. Nobody has to write “universal” stories anymore, because every show or series can find its audience—and its audience can engage on fan sites, forums, and various social media behemoths, in breathless real time.
Technology enabled the explosion of fan culture and tore down the fences between traditional “canon” creators and former serfs in the field of the imagination.
Fan culture is febrile, volatile, and entirely unchill. That’s not always a gift to creators, who often simply want to delight their audience, but the barriers between the two are breaking down. What fanfic gave the new generation of creators was the understanding that there can be many stories at once. All-female reboots, black superheroes, Asian rom-coms, queer comedy: Culture is beginning to look the way fan fiction always has, a cascading plurality of possibilities. But it wasn’t fan fiction itself, or even fanfic in general, that enacted the change—it was technology that enabled the explosion of fan culture and tore down the fences between traditional “canon” creators and former serfs in the field of the imagination. The internet destroyed the cultural center, ushering those on the margins into a new mainstream. Of the original members of our Oxford Fan Fiction and Folklore society, by the way, two are now published authors, one is a cultural critic, and one is a major editor at a science fiction/fantasy publishing house.
You can still detect a patina of embarrassment whenever you ask another writer if they ever dabbled in fanfic. But a surprising number of them did and do—editors, novelists, journalists, film and TV writers, those like me who do a bit of everything, all of us with our secret shared history. One of them, a senior colleague in my writers’ room, has a particular refrain whenever she wants to pitch a plot twist. “Is there a world,” she asks, “where it doesn’t happen like this?” When you’re a woman of color in an industry built by white men, you develop novel ways of pitching your point of view. You don’t tell them how it should be. You ask them how it could be. Is there a world where it doesn’t have to happen like that?
I think there is. There’s a world where boys and girls and everyone else get more than a single story about how the future shakes out. There’s a world where epic mass-culture storytelling can be nimble and liberating, can inform and inspire and delight all at the same time. There’s a world where we don’t have to wrap up the whole thing, à la Game of Thrones, by insisting that the women were crazy all along and burning the world down with everyone inside.
If this were the hero’s journey, this is where my part of it would end. Shy, nerdy girl overcomes a standard set of obstacles to make it in Hollywood. Pull back on the palm trees and roll the credits. But this isn’t a simple, single story. I’m bored of that sort of story, and—admit it—so are you. I’m interested in the collective head. I’m interested in bigger, stranger stories about who we are and how we survive this slow-motion, 10-car, flaming freeway pileup of a century, and why we might deserve to do so. Because survival is insufficient.
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