truth + fiction doesn’t just = marketing

In the world of fanfiction there’s fictional person fiction (FPF) and real person fiction (RPF). While fanfiction is often viewed with skepticism from people outside of the fan community in general, despite humanity’s long tradition of telling and retelling stories as social currency, RPF is often met, instead, with skepticism from people within the fanfiction community itself, while people outside the community don’t even really seem register it as so specific a category.

And, to be fair, on a pure gut level, sometimes I can find RPF to be really, really weird. But then, I’ve stumbled over stories about a person I went to high school with who is now famous and one about a friend of a friend’s ex that I once had beers with and found to be remarkably unlikeable. RPF, which is arguably about personas and the packaging of fame — when people write RPF they it’s possible (even quite likely) that they aren’t writing about real people’s fictionalized private lives so much as real people’s publicly fictionalized persona’s private lives — sometimes appears to drop under that layer of fictional truth for me, not out of speculation but because Oh my god, I know those people.

I’ve heard all the arguments about the morality or ethics of writing and reading RPF, and it’s not that I don’t think these are fundamentally important conversations on some level (and yes, I’ve thought long and hard about “Well, how would you feel if someone did it to you?” The answer? “Well, like I’d probably have a lot more important things to be doing than reading wank about me on the Internet if I were known enough for that to be going on.”). It’s just that I’m not that interested in those discussions of how not to be an asshole. Not being an asshole is good, but I’m not all that qualified to tell anyone how to do that, despite various attempts I fully admit to having made. Besides, from a thinky thoughts perspective, on this one I’m really, really much more riveted by — and useful to — talking about the critical implications around RPF.

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of RPF-related discussions is the degree to which people dismiss it as, “Oh god, more creepy porn on the Internet.” I think it’s pretty toxic how often both fan community participants and critics dismiss sexualized-content for irrelevancy because it contains sex. Our collective libidos are, among other things, narrative tools, and chucking a lot of fanfiction into the sex bucket and saying it’s not worth looking at from a critical position for that reason isn’t just one of those high-/low- culture false divides moments; it’s a sloppy misuse and abuse of data. The stories people feel compelled to tell and witness and share, whether or not they’re well-written, or whether or not you’re personally interested in them, or whether or not that represent masturbatory material for some people, represent a cultural map that it’s foolish to dismiss (even if I won’t read anything published on either — I never said I wasn’t a snob).

Now let’s be clear, not all fanfiction, and, I find, particularly not all RPF, is porn. And even when it is, that porn is usually there in service to the idea of the backstage story (which if you’ve been following the development of Dogboy & Justine you know is a particular fascination of mine). And, conversely, not all RPF is fanfiction (e.g., works created on a not-for-profit basis by enthusiasts). Note the erotic anthology StarF*cker, which is fiction about sex and real famous people, but very much not part of the fanfiction ethos. In the less sex, but still definitely RPF department, what do you think Primary Colors was? Or the forthcoming O (not to be confused, amusingly, with The Story Of O)? RPF. Totally, totally RPF.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover how pervasive this trend has become; Steve Erickson, for example, doesn’t just use both historical figures and himself as a fictional characters in his novels, but also included personal encounters with Sally Hemings (a particular obsession of Erickson’s; she shows up in his novels too) in Leap Year, his arguably non-fiction book on the 1988 presidential campaign season. Other examples include the Aaron Sorkin Jed Bartlet advises Obama piece from the last campaign season and an article The New York Times also did on the real people as fictional characters in novels phenomenon, although I’m having trouble finding the link (please leave comment if you’ve got it!).

RPF is a real, saleable thing, both in its smutty and not smutty versions. None of which necessarily makes it less uncomfortable for many readers (or, even, in the abstract for non-readers). Nor should it. Part of the charge of reading RPF, sexualized or not, is, I think, that it is so profoundly unsettling and messes with our boundaries regarding what is real and what is true (two of my favorite categories for making Venn diagrams about stories). Another part of the charge is, I think, the violative nature of reading something and realizing that a particular fantasy, daydream or fear you have harbored is shared, is part of our collective story in the dark. It is the guilty that can bring the pleasure when it comes to RPF.

In the midst of hanging about on Twitter the night Countdown went off the air, there was a tweet saying that AC360 was going to do a bit on the Countdown thing, which got fairly widely misinterpreted as “Olbermann’s going to be interviewed on Cooper’s show.” Which, in the world of the Internet, or at least the people I talk to on the Internet, led me to make a crack about how Olbermann/Cooper would make certain corners of the Internet very happy, which led someone to reply with, “Have you read this?” and a link.

Obviously, I read some RPF. I’ve written some RPF (some of which you’d even be able to track back to me with ease). Some of that I have mixed feelings about. Some of it I don’t. But there’s ton’s of RPF I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole for no other reason than it squicks me. It doesn’t mean the story is morally or ethically wrong (for me or anyone else) or not well-executed; it just means that for whatever reason, sometimes one I can’t even put my finger on, there are some RPF places I don’t want to go unless I have to for some sort of scholarly/critical thingy. For me, pundit slash, as the world of RPF about political talk show hosts is called, is one of those no-go zones for me. I’ve no idea why, but so it is. This surely seems like a perfectly rational choice to many of you.

But I had a headache, and I was in a bad mood, and people on Twitter were like “You have to read this story called ‘The 28th Amendment,'” and I recalled that, that Barack Obama/Rahm Emanuel piece from Yuletide a few years back was one of the smartest meditations on ambition I had ever read, even if I did find parts of the story really, really uncomfortable. So I decided to give the rec from Twitter a go, and that’s how I fell down the rabbit hole of pundit slash on a Friday night, and why I’m writing this post and have a linky or two to share with you now.

One of the biggest problems for me as a (critical) reader of RPF is that I often feel like people who are trying to use RPF for commentary don’t know how to write a story, and people who just want to write a (hot) story, don’t necessarily know how to add criticism into the mix. That both those things should happen in RPF aren’t, of course, anyone’s requirements but my own, but hey, my journal, my pickiness. What’s so remarkable about “The 28th Amendment” (which imagines a The Handmaid’s Tale-esque religious police state in the US under a President Huckabee with our intrepid pundits (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Keith Olbermann and more) on the run), is that it knows how to do both. While I reflexively read it with an editorial eye (and there were things in there I would have changed or didn’t ring plausible for me even in the suspended-disbelief of the narrative, although it’s hard to say whether that was related to personal comfort or actual editorial consideration), the fact is, it was a well-told story that got under my skin for reasons that I am fairly sure were broader than liberal-paranoia and the fact that I read all sorts of stuff that freaks other people out on the Internet all the time.

Maybe, I decided, pundit slash wasn’t totally squicky. Maybe I should read more! So I started digging around on An Archive of Our Own and found a remarkable number of charming fictions about Rachel Maddow being a cool person to have drinks with, a BDSM-AU about various pundits, several high school AUs (a particular favorite of my partner’s), and an essentially general audiences Doctor Who/Rachel Maddow crossover. It’s a beautiful world out there on the Internet. Or something.

One of the views I have particularly little patience for is the idea that fanfiction isn’t real writing, that it is somehow “practice” for the “real” work you are obligated to aspire to do. Sure, writing fanfiction is one way to learn some craft skills, but to me original fiction and fanfiction are profoundly different endeavors that I engage in for profoundly different reasons. To me, fanfiction is something of an acting exercise: that is, how do I execute, in text, on a character whose blueprint has already been provided to me by a writer/director? While original fiction utilizes some of those acting tools, but also the structural components of the writerly and directorial eye. And I think it’s absurd to tell anyone they have to aspire to anything, especially when I’ve had so much experience turning something I love into a job — sometimes it’s still fun when you do that, and, sometimes, it really, really isn’t.

But I do think that people playing in the RPF sandbox — whether they be part of fan communities or not — would benefit from looking at the bigger picture. If you read Primary Colors, it’s absurd to snark on the existence of RPF in fan communities even if you’ve never read fanfiction and never plan to (because, guess what? In a way, other than that money was involved, you already have). And if you’re writing RPF and think it has to stay in the land of fanfiction but wish it didn’t? Well, sometimes it doesn’t have to stay there. And you should know that too (and I say this, particularly, to people writing historical RPF — have you read The Baroque Cycle? History is a playground! Although please, if we can avoid any more plays about six great minds from different time periods having a dinner party in Hell, I would love you forever).

Fiction appeals to many of us, often, because of the pieces with in it that could be or feel true, no matter how impossible or unlikely for us or for anyone. There is a reason, after all, why so many adults confess to still feeling at the back of wardrobes when they encounter them for the door to Narnia. So it makes just as much sense, really, no matter how discomforting it may be, that there is this not insignificant impulse to put not just truth in our fiction, but fiction in our truth. RPF is a corner of both the fanfiction and generalized fiction space that illuminates, with a sometimes queasy-making light, just why we read fiction and just how far away truth can seem.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a killer story sitting on my hard drive about once-was but no-more Ziggy Stardust David Bowie and Lady Gaga and matters of persona, mentorship, love and desire. Anyone want to buy it?

my own special comment

No matter how busy I am in my very hectic life, one of the few schedule things I try to do when Patty is away (when she’s home I certainly have other incentives to be home at a decent hour) is to get home in time to watch Keith Olbermann. I don’t always manage it, but I do try.

So imagine my surprise tonight when I got home ten minutes late for even the end of it to a stack of emails that basically boiled down to OMGWTFBBQ about the news-to-me announcement that tonight was the last edition of Countdown.

To be clear, because it needs to be said so as not to distract from the rest of this post, I didn’t always agree with Olbermann’s positions or the way he framed them. Sometimes, I found myself frustrated with him, both as an audience member and as someone who has worked in and about journalism. But, to be frank, it wasn’t strictly due to journalism that I had such an affection for Countdown. The reasons I did are complicated, personal, and often, a little bit silly.

I’m a lot more hesitant than I used to be to talk online about my education. The discussions tend to make other people angry, and me frustrated. But it suffices to say that I went to private school where an emphasis was put on all forms of communication. I wrote two-hour essay examinations in every subject but mathematics from sixth grade on, and took mandatory classes in subjects like rhetoric and Latin. Because of my education, I learned to speak in very specific ways that were designed to be assertive, excessively nuanced (sometimes for the express purpose of deception), and deeply attuned to cadence.

That mode of both speech and writing has been both my greatest asset and, often, a headache. It is a style that can make people bristle, both because it is sometimes somewhat impenetrable, and because it leaves little room for phrases like “in my opinion.” This education, this adherence to my education, has certainly gotten me into trouble more than once, and part of those occasions have also largely concerned the fact that I come in female form. This combination of gender expectations and personal delivery mechanisms hasn’t always been kind to me, and it is something I am, frankly, unwilling to modulate.

Countdown reliably riveted me because, for good or for ill, and whether or not I agreed him with on any given evening, Olbermann used language on that show in the manner I was taught to aspire to. The program was, especially in his finer “Special Comment” moments, the way I was told as a child the world was supposed to sound. As someone who has struggled with even the benefits of my education and the awkward way they intersected with the reality of the years I spent concurrent to that education in speech therapy, Olbermann’s rants often made me feel as if I am not as wrong to engage with language in the manner that I do, as I have often been encouraged to feel.

Many of the criticisms that seem to be flying about Olbermann with particular frequency in this immediate wake of the demise of Countdown also resonate for me. Olbermann is a celebrity celiac. And while he has noted on-air that he is lucky in that his symptoms are not as severe as many with the disease, and has generally been unspecific about those that he does endure, it is worth noting that my experience of celiac disease has been that I am subject to attacks of temper, cruelty and despair, particularly if I have been exposed to gluten (this is a recognized and common symptom). I spent decades of my life being labeled mercurial, unstable, angry, crazy, and dramatic, and huge swathes of that experience were related to my then-undiagnosed disease. Today, I can recognize the feeling of my mind and temperament being terrifying hijacked by any exposure to one of the world’s most common foods. I have no reason to know, and no comfort in speculating, as to whether Olbermann’s notoriously difficult temperament has any connection to the disease we share in common, but the mere possibility of it has been a private and awkward comfort to me, especially when I consider the more embarrassing and volatile moments of my personal history.

Finally, my affection for Countdown and my respect for Olbermann comes from my queerness. It’s not just that Olbermann did something significant when he delivered Special Comments wherein he, as a self-described straight man, choked up when speaking out about the wrongs of marriage inequality (although, that was pretty awesome). It’s that he has advocated for queer people from a presentation of not just heterosexuality, but of a somewhat classic (and yes, unfortunately at times misogynist) presentation of masculinity. I don’t like that the queer community needs allies that fit that blueprint — it shouldn’t be necessary — but in a world where it is, I’ve been glad that Olbermann has been that ally.

And that gladness has not just been because of Olbermann’s verbal agility, but because, and this is perhaps the silly part (although surely understood in its significance by other gender non-conforming people), he’s been one of my sartorial role models. Once I decided it was okay to present myself as male, masculine and/or in men’s clothing with some regular frequency in my day-to-day life, watching Countdown was a huge part of how I learned men’s style in terms of color, pattern mixing and cut in men’s suits, shirts and ties.

I truly am beside myself for, among other reasons, this loss of my nightly personally-queered fashion fix.

metaphor, violence, and bullying

When I started this blog, I had no reason to think that I would keep making posts that have been, at their core, about the power of words, bullying, and emotional violence towards ourselves and towards others. But a quick survey of my first posts sure do seem like I’ve got my teeth into something and don’t quite want to let go.

As someone who’s been a target of nastiness on and off the Internet because I’m terrible at keeping my head down, this preoccupation is hardly surprising. But the truth is that I’ve been talking about these issues because of my own propensities for cruelty, not just, as I’ve already written about, towards myself, but also towards others.

It is, frankly, hard for me, because of my own insecurities, to be happy for others when they succeed in fields of endeavor that I also pursue. It’s far, far far too easy for me to think that should have been me and then dwell on why I think someone doesn’t deserve success or why that success isn’t all that. It’s a nasty vicious habit, even when indulged in solely in the privacy of my own skull, and one I’m committed to stopping in myself and in others. What is, after all, the cost of more joy?

We seem to be, and in fact I can only now hope, at a moment in our society wherein we recognize and address the power of words. Teen suicides in response to anti-gay bullying, a phenomenon that’s been going on for years, are finally getting media attention. Conversations like It Gets Better have led to broader discussions of bullying behavior, as well as the tenor of Internet discourse on both news sites and social networking venues. There is, in my own reading of this coverage and discussion, a sense of understanding that has seemed absent in the past that words have consequences.

Today is one of those days where words have had consequences, horrific ones. A gunman shot 19 people in Arizona, killing 6, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. A congresswoman is in critical condition after sustaining a bullet wound to the head. At this moment little is known about the shooter, although his online writings have surfaced. Those writings do not reflect mainstream opinion of any major party and are also hard to make grammatical and logical sense of. However, law enforcement officials have disclosed that they feel the shooter did target the congresswoman explicitly.

That, even as an act of a lone individual, makes today’s tragedy, among other things, an act of political violence. And that act of political violence has occurred in the midst of rhetoric that has been extraordinarily heated.

Now, to be fair, heated political rhetoric isn’t necessarily anything new. And the use of metaphor, especially war metaphor, for political combat is also nothing new. And I hesitate, always, when I find myself making any argument that speaks out against metaphor. I’m a writer; I love metaphor; metaphor is an awesome tool. So is, to be frank, the power of rhetorical extremity — it’s the difference between “sometimes I think my mother never loved me” and “my mother never loved me.”

But words have consequences. And when political violence has occurred (and let’s be clear, by the way, that political violence occurs every single day in the US, it occurs, among other occasions, every time someone is assaulted for their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity), we must pause to consider the consequences of our rhetorical flourishes.

Sure, rational people of all political persuasions can probably agree that Sarah Palin’s crosshairs graphic wasn’t meant to actually advocate shooting people. We’re probably also all relatively certain that Sharon Angle wasn’t advocating an actual armed insurrection when she discussed the possibility of a “second amendment remedies.”

But violent rhetoric does have consequences. It ups the stakes. The metaphors that enrapture supporters for their linguistic art or demographic cleverness and are meant to encourage proof of loyalty through campaign contributions and peaceful activism also make room for other, misguided, proofs of loyalty at the fringe. Yes, without violent political rhetoric, political violence will still happen. But with it, each of us who engages in it, and stays silence in the face of it, bears some fraction of culpability for the political violence that emerges from the climate we have fostered.

Words have consequences, and so each of us walks this world with the extraordinary power to hurt ourselves, our loved-ones, our peers, strangers on the Internet, and our broader society. But, of course, and we hope more importantly, we also have in our words the extraordinary power to advocate for civil discourse, the democratic process, love, and possibility.

So don’t advocate political violence. Speak out both when people you do and don’t support engage in rhetoric that you feel thrusts us into a climate that allows even those at the fringe to view acts of violence as legitimate expressions of loyalty or dissent. And accept that a panoply of opinions defines not just our society, but also any sub-grouping of which you may also be a member. (To be extra clear, this isn’t about restricting speech or the idea that some words or expression should be banned, this is about think about what comes out of your damn mouth before you say it and when you see crap that you think is toxic speak the hell out about it.)

And on a smaller, more private scale that has nothing to do with politics but certainly everything to do with how we live now? Try allowing yourself more joy for the successes of others. Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s proving to be a path to being gentler, not just with other people, but also with myself. And that’s lovely; no matter how wounded I have been, I never, ever want to be the worst bully I know.