Stranger in a Strange Land
The panel is buried next door to the convention center, in the basement of the Mariott. It's a small room, seating maybe a hundred or so people at the most, the smallest one of I've been in at the convention other than the bathrooms. There are a handful of other events bumped to the Mariott, but there's a palpable feeling that this particular panel is over here to limit the rubbernecking drop ins and give these particular fans some peace. Prisco and I loiter outside; it's the first event of the day so the doors aren't open yet.
It's apparent that most people here already know each other, although they're from all parts of the world. They do the internet handle tango, approaching each other, glancing at the meaningless name tags, and then pronouncing semi-random words and digits that signify their identity. The excited exclamations follow, shaking hands and hugging friends never before met. True names have power, it's funny how just as some myths are disappearing, we build new worlds that incorporate their rules. An organizational sort starts passing around a sharpie so that everyone can write the handles on their name tag.
The convention gives out giant tote bags when you get your ticket, for stuffing freebies and bootie in. There are a few rotating around, WB, CBS. A few companies pass out their own at their booths, and there's a neat one floating around from BBC America promoting Doctor Who, with that picture of Karen Gillan and Matt Smith floating in space outside the TARDIS. A few of the fans here are checking each other's out and one woman exclaims, "If anyone sees the Doctor Who one, please get it for me!" Not so strange after all, eh?
The doors finally open to admit us, and as the crowd squeezes between the doors, scarred from thousands of these sorts of crowds pushing in and out, one woman admires another's "V for Vendetta" tattoo. It's a representation of V's iconic mask, filling all the space between her shoulder blades, the motto emblazoned beneath: "Vi Veri Viversum Vivus Vici." Not so different.
The seats fill up quickly, until there's only standing room in the back. There might be eight men in the entire room: Prisco and I, four guys in the back giggling and exuding a mocking voyeurism which was exactly the reason for burying this over in another building. There a sprinkling of other men scattered throughout, each making a point to have his arm around the woman he's with.
One of the fans excuses herself to get around Prisco and me, and says "you guys are brave, there's a lot of estrogen in this room."
"We've got a lot too," I say.
"I used to work in a bank," Prisco says.
Seven authors seat themselves on the low stage with a table and microphones at the front of the room. There's not the slightest separation between them and the audience, these women were all speaking and mingling with everyone outside. It's definitely a first among equals sort of arrangement. There's a wide mix, a couple of middle aged women that give off the soccer mom vibe, a couple in that indefinable twenties to thirties range, a couple that can't be much out of their teens, if at all. One of the middle aged women has flown in from Britain just for this panel. The anchor of the panel is a gorgeous African-American woman with a buzz cut, towering high heels and cheekbones that could cut glass, her handle is Giselle-lx and she goes by "Jessie."
As always, the cut and paste from the illustrious program (screen handles first, and in parentheses the titles of their most known fan-fic): Snowqueens Icedragon (Master of the Universe), m81170 (An Introduction to Swirl & Daisy), MsKathy (The Trip Home), HMonster4 (Deconstructing Dracula), Giselle-lx (Ithaca is Gorges), ElleCC (A Murmur of Fire in the Vein), and Amethyst Jackson (Bonne Foi).
The moderator introduces herself and then asks each of the authors on the panel to introduce themselves by screen name and some of their better known pieces. The crowd cheers at the mention of various names and titles.
"So, why do you write Twilight fan fiction?" The moderator asks the panel.
"Edward," The first panelist immediately says, drawing laughter. "What she said," another says.
"Twilight has more potential than anything I've ever seen," Jessie says, and I hear Bill Murray's voice from Stripes: "Talk about massive potential for growth!"
"Some of us wanted more, saw things missing," Jessie continues. "Fan fiction has a long history, thousands of years." She points a few novels set in other people's universes (Prisco mumbles to me: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead") and says, "That's just fan fiction. It's very very good fan fiction, but it's still fan fiction. It's a different way of engaging with the text."
The moderator moves on, and jumps immediately to something that in all honesty surprised me. I thought it might come up, but that it would be a journalist being a dick, as we are wont to be. She referenced the stigma attached to fan fiction in general and the even more intense stigma attached to Twilight fan fiction in particular, asked the authors to talk a bit about it. None of the authors let more than few people in their real life know that they wrote Twilight fan fiction, and some let no one know. "Only a couple people know I do this," one of the panelists said, "and none of them know where I am this weekend and what I'm doing."
"Only my dad knows," one of the teenagers says. "He reads everything I write and he argues with me about it."
"I can't get anyone in the real world to read anything I write," one of the twenty-somethings says.
"How many of you have written in other fan fictions?" The moderators asks. Half the panel has. Three grew up writing Harry Potter fan fiction. One used to write X-Men fan fiction.
"Who's also writing original work besides fan fiction?" All of them are.
One of the teenagers says, "People underestimate how hard it is to keep characters consistent, and juggle plots and events over the course of a book. Writing fan fiction helps you learn how to write your own. When I started writing Harry Potter fan fiction, what I wrote was terrible. Now I'm writing on my own."
Jessie has written three novels and notes that perhaps ironically, what's actually going to get published is a bit of Twilight fan fiction of Edward during the twenties that she was asked to write for a tribute collection.
An audience member chimes in with a question, almost angry that there is backlash against Twilight, insisting that the backlash is because Twilight is romantic, and that while there is room for Bourne and action, it's still not okay for there to be romance. Every single author on the panel disagrees. "I don't think you can say that romantic fiction is looked down on in general," the moderator says. "It's a $4 billion per year industry."
"Anything popular has backlash against it," Hmonster4 points out. "Harry Potter ... if you get over a certain level of popularity, there's always backlash. It's human nature."
Another audience member says that she thinks the backlash comes from people thinking this is just another phenomenon associated with teenage girls. The panelists again disagree. "No offense to those that are, but there are very few teenage girls in this room. We are mature women."
"We read what we like and we write what we like to read," says one panelist. "I've always read young adult fiction. I've always preferred it to 'adult' fiction."
A question comes in from the back of the room, she's a fan of Twilight, she says, but she's also a professor of popular fiction. She's taught various units on Westerns, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and now has a unit of a class specifically on the phenomenon of Twilight fan fiction. "One thing that comes up in my classes a lot is people angry about the characters. They point out that Edward and Jacob are obsessive stalkers and that Bella is passive and weak. How do you deal with those character problems when you're writing? Do you make Edward and Jacob less creepy, do you make Bella stronger? I mean, you're all obviously very strong, intelligent and independent women, so why would you be interested in writing about Bella?"
I'm actually fairly stunned by this sentiment, expecting that if that line of criticism came up at all, it would be from one of the outsiders in the room. But the reaction of the crowd and authors is even more surprising: no argument, no hedging. They are fully conscious of these character problems.
"Bella is not relatable," One author says. She points out that there is an enormous amount of detail given about Bella but it's granular, it's all detail but no big picture. "Fan fiction is a corrective measure, Bella is completely flexible as a character, so as a writer you can do whatever you want with her."
Other authors echo her sentiments. "Some fans have written fiction in which they change the races of Bella and Edward to match their own." Another points out that some of the fan fic leaves out all supernatural elements. "I prefer human-only Twilight stories."
There's an echo here of why so many people like the books, that many are fully aware of the problems but self-edit them out, the way old school sci-fi fans can overlook golden age sexism or comic book fans managed to see the dark sophisticated stories possible behind the patent silliness of old Batman issues in the sixties. Or even more directly: the profound weaknesses of this story are exactly why it is popular. The void of a main character has allowed fans to map her however they prefer.
This is reinforced when an audience member asks if any of the authors are thinking about telling the story of Jacob and Renesmee (the infant daughter of Bella upon whom he imprints, in one of the more disturbing parts of the novels). "There are too many uncomfortable issues there, the undertones of ownership, and so on. Not touching it." One says.
Another says "I'll be the first to say though that I don't want Stephenie Meyer touching it either." It's not the first joke in the panel subtly ripping on the quality of Meyer's text.
Sexuality comes up, particularly in relation to the origins of the vampire myth. "Within canon Edward and Carlisle, good luck not finding homosexual undertones. I mean Edward is a 107-year-old virgin."
There's a spectrum represented in the panel, from authors who exclusively write G-rated stories, to those writing explicit sex scenes. They acknowledge that many people read the fan-fic for the same reason that people read romance novels, for the sex. The structure of story comes up and some of the panelists argue that fan fiction hearkens back to old serial story telling much more than it relates to novels or television and movies, that short but continued works are the most successful, where long pieces languish. "Your review score is based on the number of climaxes," Jessie says and then grins. "Both types."
An audience member asks if they feel any responsibility for unrealistic expectations of love raised by the books and their stories. "Well, it is fantasy," one panelist says.
"Raised expectations for young girls is a good thing," says one of the teenaged panelists. "It gets girls to have higher standards, not just date these little punks, not just climb into the backseat of the car with just anybody."
One of the twenty-somethings, the one who only reads young adult books, and writes only G-rated stories says, "and for the rest of us, it makes us turn to our husbands and say, 'That's all you got?'"
I headed up to the press room afterwards to type this up. Don't worry, it's not as glamorous as it sounds. No free coffee and croissants, no couches, and definitely none of the complimentary sell-out hand jobs I'd heard so much about. It's just a tiny room with tables and chairs where people can sit and bang out pieces on their laptops in silence, and fight over the two electrical outlets in the entire room. It's almost empty this time of day, but one of the press asks me "see anything good today?"
"Twilight Fan Fic Authors," I say.
"Were they announcing something?" He asks. I hate this mentality, hate the idea that the press exists to live tweet within a microsecond of a suit passing gas that sounds like a rumor.
"No," I say. "But there was a story."
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.