I once met a monster in a cheap hotel in New York City.
The year was 1979, the month was January, and I was part of a small group from the Five Colleges that made the perilous journey on Amtrak down to the wilds of New York for a Star Trek convention. This doesn't sound like a big deal today, when comic/SF/media conventions draw tens of thousands attendees, movie fans cosplay at opening night, and the biggest movie star in the world got that way thanks to his portrayal of a smart mouthed guy in high-tech flying armor, but let me assure it that things were different in Ye Olden Dayes. New York was staggering out of a financial hole that nearly wrecked her, Amtrak was a mess that made geysers look like Arctic pools, and cities were to be avoided whenever possible. My mother, terrified that I'd be mugged/raped/dismembered/end up in a dumpster, only allowed me to go in the first place because I was going with friends, some in their 20's, and thus would be safe, or something.
Today it's different. Today I'd hop on a clean, comfortable Amtrak car, plug in my laptop, and spend the three hour trip to Penn Station writing or web surfing. I'd debark at Penn Station, spare a moment to mourn the glory that was destroyed in favor of the drab modernity of Madison Square Garden, then walk the few blocks to my friend Bella's apartment in Murray Hill. We'd spend the weekend laughing, chatting, shopping, and eating, and when the time came for me to go home, I'd repeat the process without a care in the world. New York has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the 1970's, and if a lot of people have been left behind, the new Mayor seems to realize it and is working to help raise everyone, not just the rich.
Such was not exactly the case in 1979; remember, this was around the time when movies about New York had titles like Fort Apache, The Bronx, the subway cars were covered with graffiti, and Bronsonesque vigilantes became folk heroes. Mum may have been overprotective, but fear of what might happen if we strayed too far from the convention hotel was a major reason why my friends and I brought snacks, an electric kettle, and plenty of tea bags in our luggage. Once we were at the con, we had no intention of leaving the building until it was time for us to get back on the train to Springfield. There were monsters in the streets in those days, or so we thought, and we were determined to stay as safe as we could.
Little did any of realize that the true monster was inside the hotel.
She seemed nice enough at first, just another person who loved Star Trek and its message of a hopeful future. It was easy to think that because she was there, celebrating a television show with a racially diverse cast and a political subtext that touched on subjects like birth control, racial prejudice, escalation in Vietnam, and the necessity of international cooperation, she shared these values. Most of the congoers had never met before, and by the end of the first hour I'd seen at least half a dozen perfect strangers shriek, embrace, and start chattering like long lost friends simply because of a costume or a story in a fanzine.
So it was with the monster. I don't recall exactly how we met or got to talking, but after a while my friends and I had taken refuge in her hotel room for a long, intense, geekalicious gabfest. Star Trek…fan fiction…the art show and its shocking nude oil of Captain Kirk…the brand-new poster for the movie that was coming out that December…big name fans like Shirley Maiewski…the latest novel or short story or comic book…we covered it all, and then some, and after my friends gradually peeled off one by one in search of parties or food or bed, I was so comfortable that I had no qualms in remaining behind.
The monster did not show her true colors at first. We continued to talk, this time about her costume for the masquerade the next evening. My eyes were starting to burn because I hadn't taken out my contact lenses, but I was having such a good time that I was determined to tough it out. That I was tired, hungry, and so high on adrenalin and fannishness that my judgment might have been somewhat impaired never once crossed my mind.
It was well after midnight when the monster hidden inside the fellow fan finally revealed herself.
I'm not sure what we were talking about, but somehow the conversation turned to Lieutenant Uhura. This pioneering character, played by the gorgeous Nichelle Nichols, was one of the first non-maid characters played by a black woman on network television, and thanks to Nichols' work as a NASA recruiter, Uhura had recently become an unofficial symbol of the promise of the shuttle program. I thought this great, and said so, more than once.
And that was when the monster struck.
"You know, I'm not much of a fan of hers," said the young woman I thought was a new friend.
"Well, yeah. They could have gone a lot farther with her character," I said, even though the words were slightly slurred from exhaustion. "That whole 'Captain, I'm frightened' thing in City on the Edge of Forever was pretty sexist and - "
"No. I don't like her because I don't like black people," she said, and I swear I felt my heart skip a beat.
"Wha - what? The whole show - it's about tolerance and - "
She shrugged as casually as if she'd just said she'd prefer a Big Mac to a Filet O'Fish, thank you very much. "I know, I know. Guess you'd call me a bigot."
I was still trying to formulate a coherent thought when the monster continued. "I'm a born-again Christian, but that doesn't mean I like everyone the same, including black people. That's the way I am, and I don't care."
"I - uh - "
"You know, that's another thing I really don't like about Star Trek. No one's a Christian." She looked thoughtfully at the ceiling, then at me, and if it hadn't been for the poison spewing from her lips, you would have thought she was a very ordinary young woman. "Why can't any of them talk about Jesus?"
I rubbed at my eyes, throat so constricted I was unable to point out that it had been Uhura, the despised black character, who had spoken reverently of the Son of God in a second season episode. "You know, I need to - "
"Say!" cried the monster, leaning toward me. "You said you were a writer! Why don't you write a story where there's a Christian? Have a fire breathing, God-fearing preacher show up on the Enterprise and minister to the crew? If you do it right I'll bet she could even convert Mr. Spock - I mean, it's logical once you read the Bible, and - "
I stood there, nodding up and down, my heart sinking down into my boots, my blood freezing in my veins, and let the words flow over and around me. How could anyone have so misread Star Trek? Think that a Vulcan - a Vulcan! - would be willing to overlook the contradictions of the Bible, the sheer lack of logic that transformed the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith? How could someone who professed to love the first scripted show to feature a kiss between a white man and a black woman completely miss the point?
Finally I could stand it no longer. I mumbled something about my contact lenses needing to come out hours ago (true) and my friends looking for me (false), and managed not to run until I was safely out of the room and almost to the elevator. I stuck close to the people I knew for the rest of the convention, terrified that the monster would find me and inflict more of her ugly excuse for fannishness on me, and thank God and the angels the nearest we came was a single brief glance in the line for the masquerade.
She seemed puzzled that I didn't want to talk. I wonder if she ever figured out why?
I am proud to say that this is, to date, the only encounter I've ever had at a convention with a self-proclaimed bigot. That's not to say that fandom is perfect - the Heinleinian libertarians give me hives, and let's not even discuss what the elevators smell like on the Monday of Worldcon, shall we? - but by and large my relationships with fellow fen have been positive and healthy. Many, many of the people I count as my dearest and truest friends first entered my life at conventions, D&D games, SCA events, and marshmallow peep slaughters, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
One recent source of new friends has been on-line fandom, particularly the fanfiction writing and reading community. I've met a lot of smart, talented people through holiday fanfic/fan art exchanges, archives like Skyhawke or Archive of Our Own, and Livejournal communities, including one of my editors. I've gained confidence and badly needed experience as a writer and a storyteller thanks to fan writing, and since the fic writing community is largely female, in some ways it's been the closest I'll ever get to my days at Smith. If I ever do publish a book, be assured that the acknowledgements section will include a shout-out to Lore, Ari, Cluegirl, Copperbadge, Fabula, Rufus, Knit Princess, and all the others who've left a comment, dropped me an e-mail, beta read a story, or otherwise helped along the way.
I'm not the only one who's benefited from fan writing, either. A surprisingly large number of genre writers, including Naomi Novik, Diane Duane, Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, Ari McKay, Cecilia Tan, Sam Starbuck, and Catt Kingsgrave, began by writing fanfiction, and some still do. It's a great way to learn to handle characters, dialogue, plotting, and all the other basics of fiction in a safe, nurturing framework, and unless one is foolish enough to attempt to profit from one's fannish writing, it can be the literary equivalent of an art student carefully copying the Rembrandts or Picassos before attempting an original piece. If nothing else, it's a fun, harmless way to pass a few hours satisfying the urge to know what comes next until the new episode/book/movie/comic arrives.
There are even fan writers who've really made good, either by writing an award-winning novel, selling a script to a favorite TV show, or hitting the bestseller lists. This doesn't happen often, mind, but it does happen, and when it does, I couldn't be happier.
And then there's the subject of the next two weeks' diaries, the single most profitable, popular, welcome-to-the-mainstream example of fanfiction to date:
Fifty Shades of Grey.
This book, which began as a piece of fanfiction called Master of the Universe, was a surprise bestseller, both because of its origin (duh) and its subject matter (a BDSM relationship). Sexually explicit, yet respectable enough that the average person who would never go near a copy of Delta of Venus or Lady Chatterley's Lover could read it in public, Fifty Shades of Grey has sold millions of copies, made author E.L. James millions of dollars, and is being adapted into a film that promises to bring stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan millions of slavering fans. It's a true phenomenon, proof to the publishing world that a fan writer has the chops to make the bestseller lists.
It's also a more than worthy subject for these diaries, as you'll see next week, and if you aren't all a-quiver with antici -
- SAY IT! -
- pation by the end of this diary, well, then I haven't done my job.
As for why you have to wait a week...well, let's just say that given the book's origins, it's best to begin at the source, shall we? To that end, this Saturday's diary is a reprint of a section of a previously published entry from December of 2012. Next Saturday's diary, which should redefine the term "epic" for all times, all places, and all peoples, will be entirely original.
That said, tonight I bring you a single series of very popular, very bad books on young
doormats vampires in love that somehow sparked the imagination and hormones of E.L. James and inspired her to write her profitable, yet oh so dubious, masterpiece. How these particular tales became the phenomenon they did is still not clear, but I'm scarcely the only person to be happy that they and their heroine have been largely overshadowed by the far more interesting, far more realistic, far better written and characterized Katniss Everdeen....
Twilight, its sequels, its spin-offs, its movies, and the truly astonishing amount of ancillary merchandise (not to mention the careers of Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson), by Stephenie Meyer - Imagine that you have a dream. Not an ordinary dream, the kind you dream of your relatives or co-workers or friends. Not a nightmare either, the kind where you wake up screaming and the cat is halfway across the room yowling because you dreamed of intruders and pitched everything on the bed at the intruders who only existed in your mind.
No, this dream is different. You dream of two beautiful people, a boy and girl, sitting in the fields. They're young and in love, sitting gazing into each other's eyes, and they are flawless in every way, especially the boy, who is so lovely he actually seems to sparkle and glow in the golden sunlight. It's as perfect, and wholesome, and beautiful as a Thomas Kinkade painting, the very image of young and destined love -
Except that the boy is a vampire, and he is torn between his deep and abiding love for the girl he loves, and the overwhelming desire to rip out her throat and drink her down like a football player chugging a Gatorade at an August exhibition game in Phoenix, Arizona.
Imagine no more, true believers, for this is exactly what happened to a woman named Stephenie Meyer in 2003. She dreamed this dream, and after she woke she wrote it down. And then, unlike most people who record strange or odd dreams, Stephenie Meyer decided that her young lovers deserved more, and so she kept writing, and plotting, and writing more, and more, and more. Three months she labored in what free time she had when she wasn't caring for her husband and children, and at the end she had a novel for young adults.
For most of us, this would be the end of the story. Novels are not easy to write, as anyone who's ever tried can tell you, and normally it takes a lot of failed drafts, research, and heaps of unreadable print-outs before there's anything that approaches an actual book. There's a reason why most writers are advised to start with short stories and gradually work their way up to longer works, and authors who are naturals at structuring and writing novels are not common.
Stephenie Meyer is the exception that proves the rule. A big fan of Jane Austen, Orson Scott Card (?), and LM Montgomery, she decided that she had learned enough from reading her idols that once she finished her book and polished it enough to smooth out the rough spots that are inevitable in a first draft, she sent it off to respected Boston publishing house Little, Brown & Company. There an editor named Megan Tingley saw it, opened, and began to read....
And realized that she had a future bestseller on her hands.
Not being stupid, Tingley immediately signed Meyer to a multi-book contract worth - are you sitting down? - $750,000. That this sum, which someone with a very, very dry sense of humor termed "unusually high for a first novel," would have bought five or six other books, some by established authors with proven track records, didn't matter; JK Rowling was nearing the end of the Harry Potter series, which meant that children's and young adult publishers everywhere were seeking The Next Big Series to fill the Harry-shaped debris field that the last Potter book would leave in its wake. Little, Brown, which had been a name in children's publishing for decades, decided to gamble on Meyer's book, now named Twilight, to fill that gap.
Guess who won the crap shoot?
Twilight came out in 2005 to mediocre reviews and the sort of sales that make accounting departments leap to their feet and spontaneously go into a Busby Berkeley-style precision dance number while the soundtrack to Happy Days Are Here Again plays at earsplitting volume in the background. The tale of startlingly passive Bella "The Human Doormat" Swan, her sparkly vampire boyfriend Edward "I Snuck Into Your Bedroom and Watched You Sleep For a Month" Cullen, and their buddy Jacob "The Sexy and Laughably Inauthentic Quilete Werewolf" sold so well that Twilight and its three sequels (Eclipse, New Moon, and Breaking Dawn) were soon topping the bestseller lists, being translated into nearly forty languages, and spawning catch phrases like "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob."
So great was the longing for Twilight, Twilight, and yet more Twilight that Meyer had to spin off a minor character from Eclipse into her own (short) book, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, which sold briskly despite being unsuitable for a series (SPOILER: the titular character dies on the last page!). The first book was filmed starring rising actress Kristin Stewart as Bella and Harry Potter alumnus Robert Pattison as Edward, and if Stewart rapidly became known for a seeming inability to move her facial muscles while emoting at Pattison (who bore a striking resemblance to a smack addict thanks to the slightly glittery makeup that was intended to make him look suitably bloodless), it didn't matter to the hordes of fans who stormed the Heck Piazza Dodecaplex at midnight showings across the world.
There was more to come. Twilight t-shirts at the local Hot Topic, Twilight mugs at the local Barnes & Noble, Twilight jokes and imitators and (of course) fan fiction, Twilight-themed vacations to Forks, Washington, a hitherto obscure town where several of the books are set, Twilight jokes and imitations and spin-offs, even Twilight quotations carved into the flesh of the truest of believers....
Is it any wonder that Stephenie Meyer was soon spoken of in the same breath as JK Rowling?
Of course the comparison isn't exact; JK Rowling has won numerous awards, including the Hugo for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, while the best Stephenie Meyer can boast is a British Book Award for "best children's book." Rowling has also managed to avoid having her manuscripts leaked, unlike Meyer; the first twelve chapters of Midnight Sun, Meyer's attempt to rewrite Twilight from Edward's point of view, somehow ended up on the Internet and were received with such universe scorn that Meyer abandoned any plans to finish the book.
There's also the inconvenient similarity between Twilight and The Book of Mormon, which is more than can be said for anything JK Rowling has ever written or dreamed of in her entire life. This was first pointed out by actress/blogger Stoney321 in what she called the Sparkledammerung series on LiveJournal. Stoney is herself a recovering Mormon, and her insights into Stephenie Meyer's magnum opus are, to say the least, fascinating.
Perhaps the most damning of all, at least for those of us who enjoy good books, is that with the exception of right-wing Christians who are convinced that the harmless British wizards of Rowling's imagination are actually evil devil-worshippers determined to hack the Body of Christ into unrecognizable gobbets of stew beef, most critics and readers see JK Rowling and her books as positive influences on children's fiction and the culture at large. The same cannot be said of Stephenie Meyer or her sparkly dream-spawn.
Think I'm exaggerating? Well, let's look at some of the plot points:
- Bella's father, allegedly a police officer, doesn't notice when Edward creeps into his house every night for a month to watch his daughter sleep.
- The Cullens, Edward's vampire family, play baseball for fun, and send their unaging teenagers to high school over and over and over and over again.
- Edward decides to commit suicide by standing in bright sunlight in front of superstitious Italians in hopes that they will tear him to shreds out of horror and disgust at his unnatural sparkliness, even though the more likely reaction would be "hey, nice glitter makeup! You get that on Via Tornabuoni?"
- Edward performs literature's first (and, dear sweet Jesus on a popsicle stick, ONLY) c-section via vampire fangs.
- Jacob belongs to an allegedly real tribe of Native Americans who can all turn into werewolves.
Need more evidence? Let's turn to the experts:
"..the real difference [between J. K. Rowling and Meyer] is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer, and Stephenie Meyer can't write worth a darn. She's not very good."
"the characters, such as they are, are stripped down to a minimum, lacking the texture and idiosyncrasies of actual people….Twilight would be a lot more persuasive as an argument that an 'amazing heart' counts for more than appearances if it didn't harp so incessantly on Edward's superficial splendors."
Laura Miller, Salon
"Meyer's prose seldom rises above the serviceable, and the plotting is leaden….Good books deal with themes of longing and loneliness, sexual passion and human frailty, alienation and fear just as the Twilight books do. But they do so by engaging us with complexities of feeling and subtleties of character, expressed in language that rises above banal mediocrity. Their reward is something more than just an escape into banal mediocrity. We deserve something better to get hooked on."
Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post
The books are "robbing [teen girls] of agency and normalizing stalking and abusive behavior."It's perfectly possible for a bestseller to be poorly written, as anyone who's been reading these diaries well knows. But this last point - that Bella is not precisely a healthy role model for young women - is particularly troublesome. Despite Meyer's insistence that these books are actually classic modern American feminism because Bella voluntarily chooses to be with Edward, it's hard not to shriek with horror at the thought of one's teenage daughter reading about a girl who has no life, no dream, and no ambition except becoming the bride of a blood-sucking monster.
L. Lee Butler, Young Adult Library Services Association, admitting why he was reluctant to stock the books in his library
Worse, Edward, for all his physical beauty, is scarcely the stuff of which dreams are made (at least for anyone who isn't Stephenie Meyer); he alternates between stalking Bella and treating her like a child, leaves her bruised and bleeding after a wedding night that basically destroys their bower o' bliss, and impregnates her with a child that slowly kills her until he saves her life by turning her into a vampire.
Isn't that romantic? And isn't it exactly what you'd pick as the source material for some of the biggest selling bondage porn of all time?
So...what say you, my friends? Is Twilight the be-all and end-all of swoony, sparkly romanticism? Is Fifty Shades of Grey the most moistly erotic work of literature since Fanny Hill? Have you ever gone to a convention? Met a monster in human form? Cleanse your soul and share....
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|2:00 PM||What's on Your E-Reader?||Caedy|
|2:00 PM||Bibliophile's Wish List||Caedy|
|Sun (occasional)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||michelewln, Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUES||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|alternate Thursdays (on hiatus)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|alternate Fridays||8:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|Fri||10:00 PM||Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable||shortfinals|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||12:00 PM||You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews||pwoodford|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|