By Isaac Butler
(Below, we continue our coversation with Salon's Laura Miller, touching on Battlestar Galactica, love triangles, the impossibility of endings, the rise of the female fan and Miller's infamous pan of Chuck Palahniuk's "Diary." There is a minor spoiler about the second book/season of Game of Thrones in this interview. I've tagged it below so you can avoid it.)
What Makes a Fan And The Impossibility Of Endings
IB: I feel like in a way that I don’t always see with other critics, you’re very open about how your own enthusiasms. Like The Magician’s Book and some of your other work. But I don’t think you use the word fan to self-identify about much. So I was interested in how you see your enthusiasms affecting your criticism and where the border between enthusiast and fan lies.
LM: I’m definitely a fan of some things. I’d describe myself as a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m a fan of Battlestar Galactica. I was a fan of Lost for a while. And the reason why I would say I’m a fan of those is because I would partake of the fan culture in a “nonprofessional” way.
IB: So the community makes it a fan activity?
LM: The fact that I’m willing to do that signals I have an interest that goes beyond the cultural consumption that I do. I used to listen to a Lost podcast where these guys in Texas would try to track down all the clues. If my interest overflows from the simple experience of consuming that culture to wanting to know more about it and think about it and see what other people were saying about it, than I think of myself as a fan.
I have noticed that a lot of fandom—if women are involved—seems to revolve around romantic triangles. With The Hunger Games, there’s lots of people who are in it for the action, but it also has room for Endless-Romantic-Triangle-Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking. I’m not very interested in that but I do argue with my friend Sasha because my feeling is that Sookie Stackhouse does not belong with Eric Northman! (laughter) She does not! That’s one of the few. I’m so invested in that character I will get into that discussion. Usually I’m not going to argue about whether Buffy should’ve been with Spike or Angel. I love Buffy but I don’t care for who her boyfriend is.
With Battlestar, something would happen and I’d wonder WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?! So I’d listen to Ronald Moore’s podcast to find out what’s the secret of this or that? I loved that show. Loved it! That’s fandom to me, when I seek out those extras.
IB: I was heavily invested in Battlestar as well. Did the ending of that show and maybe your own maybe reactions to it—which I’m going to guess were negative—did that give you any window into the abject rage that can grip fans? It seems that there’s a difference between saying “Gosh, I don’t’ think that ending was very good”—
LM: And feeling betrayed!—
IB: Yes! “Ronald D. Moore personally betrayed me!” Which is, you know, I try to be a reasonable guy but that’s how I feel about it sometimes. Is that how you felt about it?
LM: I feel often at war with other fans because my first serious TV fandom was around Twin Peaks. The thing that I loved about Twin Peaks was how unresolved it was. I don’t want all the questions answered. I think 90% of fandom wants that. I feel like the finale of Battlestar was made for that 90% that wants it all tied up.
I’m not so big on the “Oh fuck you, it’s all so meaningless” Sopranos ending, but I feel like endings are impossible because people want something impossible. They expect the finale to complete the intensity of their involvement. But it’s the involvement along the way that’s the core of the fan experience. There is no ending that would complete that. If I said, “I’m going for a walk in the woods,” does it ruin the walk in the woods if, when I get to my destination, it’s not the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen?
I’ve spent my entire professional life reading novels. I know how hard it is to end them effectively. Often it doesn’t matter if they end effectively. People complain about Neil Stephenson endings. People complain about the end of Infinite Jest! I think there’s a relationship between the intensity of fandom and the disappointment in the ending. The bigger a fan you are, the less likely you are to like the ending.
I’m sure George will have the same problem with The Song of Ice and Fire.
IB: I have a friend who rereads the old Martin books when the new ones come out and tracks the prophecies and I can’t imagine there’s a way she’ll be okay with whatever happens in book nine.
LM: I think that he’ll really try, though. And it will probably kill him. As much as I don’t go, “Wow, that was a great ending” to The Sopranos, David Chase was absolutely right that that’s just how you end it. You couldn’t win. There’s no way to win that one.
With TV, though, they’re making it up as they go along. What made Lost so frustrating was that they told us they weren’t. And then at the end you realize “They lied to me! They were making it up as they went along!” (laughter)
IB: My favorite acknowledgement of that is in Battlestar when they took “They have a plan” out of the opening credits of the final season. It was this tacit admission, this “neither the Cylons nor we had a plan.”
LM: There is no plan!
IB: It’s funny because the Martin example is a great one. There’s now like six people who could be the reincarnation of R’hllor. He could also choose the option that the prophecy is wrong. But none of that is going to satisfy everyone. If it’s John Snow, some people are going to be happy, some not. If it’s Davos Seaworthy—
LM: Davos? It would never be Davos would it?
IB: Well Davos—you know what, this might be a conversation for later—but R’hllor has to be reborn out of smoke and salt and Davos is in that shipwreck.
LM: Well I hope so. Davos is my favorite character.
(SPOILERY PART OVER)
George RR Martin, Chuck Palahniuk and The Emasculation of Fans
IB: One of the reasons why I really wanted to interview you is that I could think of two notable examples of where you professionally had these interactions with fan communities. One is, obviously, the George RR Martin profile for The New Yorker but the other one is what I consider your heroic pan of Chuck Palahniuk’s Diary—
LM: (long laughter) Thank you for calling it that.
IB: I used to work at Book Court and I’m an MFA candidate now and teach literature and writing and the intensity of Chuck Palahniuk’s fans is shocking to me. I try to use it to get people to read things that are similar but actually good like early Martin Amis or AM Homes or even Mary Gaitskill. There’s this intense and intensely male and frightening Palahniuk fandom. What was writing that like?
LM: I’m different from most book critics in that while I love David Foster Wallace and I like Sebald— I like things that are more “highbrow” or “difficult.”—but I also try to have a sense of what people are actually reading. So I’ll read The Da Vinci Code or Twilight or I even read The Shack. I still haven’t read that porno novel yet so I have to get cracking on that. I’m curious as to what readers like. I’m interested in readers. I know why people like Twilight or The DaVinci Code or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I do not know why people like Chuck Palahniuk.
That piece is so fiery because I kept going back and I could not understand it. Obviously, it’s a particular kind of taste that I don’t have. I read the first three three Twilight novels with some interest because I knew I was going to write about them and I got it. Not enough that I wanted to read the fourth one, but I understood it. I really like the character is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and I would read anything with her in it. Even The DaVinci Code, which is so stupid, I know why people like it.
I read three Chuck Palahniuk novels and I just couldn’t figure it out, and he gets worse as he goes along. At least with the first few, they sort of hung together. But eventually it just seemed really cavalier. With Dan Brown, I really believe he writes the best books he can; with Palahniuk, it just seems cynical to me. So I became very irritated.
IB: Wasn’t the response to that kind of extreme?
LM: Yeah, I got a lot of crazy hate mail. I still get crazy hate mail. But I’ve been an internet journalist since the nineties, so it’s just par for the course. I deal with idiots all the time. It’s just part of my job. By now I know which ones I should respond to and which ones I shouldn’t. Some people write me because they get really mad over negative reviews and people get really mad over positive ones too. It has nothing to do with me. I’m just the object that their rage settled on today.
I wrote the Palahniuk review around the time that lit blogs were really taking off. Some of those people became somewhat obsessed with disliking me. The Palahniuk thing exacerbated that. I had to decide that I wasn’t going to look at lit blogs. Once you are well known enough to be bad mouthed in the blogosphere, you have to show a particular kind of self-control that’s really hard to develop.
IB: Even in the insular theater blogger world I travel in, I am somewhat familiar with what you’re talking about.
LM: Yeah. You just have to ignore everything. You know that Tina Fey acceptance speech where she was responding to anonymous trolls?
IB: (laughing) Yeah.
LM: So anyway, I had to stop reading lit blogs. That was the downside of that. But other than that, I still get hate mail from Chuck Palahniuk fans. And Chuck Palahniuk really, really hates me.
IB: You also wrote that article on George RR Martin, which is somewhat about his antagonists on the internet. Didn’t you interview them?
LM: One. The main ones are all anonymous.
IB: Right. I guess I was wondering what through that experience you learned through fans and fan communities.
LM: The main thing I would say—and I think this is a truism of both detractors and fans—is that they are driven into communities online through their overarching admiration or disgust. But they stay in these communities because of the relationships they form with each other.
The strange thing about the detractors is it’s such a creative fandom. They felt they needed to come up with a counter narrative. So they wrote an entire book together! Which I think is amazing. It’s a negative form of fan fiction, which is, to me, the most fascinating aspect of fandom. It’s the point at which fandom because an actual creative activity. Although a lot of it is bad, the people are empowered, which is good.
I think that fandom is troubling for certain types of men because it puts them in a position where they feel effeminate. They need to assert some kind of masculinized mastery to give themselves a feeling that they have the right amount of power for a man to have in a relationship. For example, some fandoms take the form of obsessive knowledge and classification, kind of like a science. Take comics fans. They assert their mastery over their fannish admiration by becoming an authority. That’s a particular, very male type of fandom.
With Martin’s detractors, I think that part of what bothered them about George is that he drove home their vulnerabilities. No matter how robust the fandom, no matter how much fan fiction is there, only George can complete the story for them. They are just abject in relationship to George. He’s like the captain of the football team and only taking them to the prom is going to really satisfy them and so they’re helpless. This enrages them because he withholds in a way that makes them feel even more feminized.
I think that’s why the rhetoric they use is so sexualized. They’re obsessed with sexual insults and with taunts and speculations about George’s sex life and the way sex is portrayed in the book. It’s a way of casting George into this emasculated position because they feel castrated—if I might use an old Freudian term— by the power that he has.
Only George can give them emotional satisfaction and this makes them feel like a woman. In the traditional gender dynamic, a woman can withhold sex from a man but women are also interchangeable whereas the woman’s problem is that only one man can give her what she really wants.
LM: So that’s why they feel feminized by it. They keep talking about how they’re just going to go to another fantasy writer. They’ll say “Joe Abercrombie is a good fantasy writer because he does this and this and this and he serves his fan base.” It’s very funny. “He understands that he needs to please me.” Whereas they feel George doesn’t care and that’s emasculating.
That little book they wrote together, it features them as these super macho, swaggering male characters. The narratives all involve them being the really awful mercenary band from Game of Thrones. They’ve embraced the amoral mercenary powerful figures; that’s how they portray themselves.
The Rise Of The Female Fan
IB: So here’s I suppose my final question. One of the things that’s happened because of the internet is that fan communities are easier to form and keep in touch with. You’ve been monitoring American arts and letters over the same time period. Is fandom changing the art we produced?
LM: Yes. If you’re talking about something that’s serialized, definitely, more than if you’re talking about something that’s a completed work. Because with series—like Twilight or Sookie Stackhouse—they give the fans something to talk about in between installments and that creates a community that continues to exist after the series is completed. It becomes a huge thing once we’re talking about the commercial success of a project. One of the reasons why The Hunger Games is such a juggernaut is because of Twilight.
Twilight is a seminal cultural phenomenon. The people who are Twilight fans came up with Harry Potter, even if they weren’t Harry Potter fans. It created a kind of female fandom that is profoundly different from the male forms of fandom, which are largely based on that mastery thing where you’re trying to assert control over this uncontrollable experience.
The female fans just don’t have that issue. People who are really into Twilight will go onto forums and say, “Oh my God, I’m so into Twilight I haven’t done laundry in ages!” because they’re not battling to be the most, to outdo each other. No one is going to scorn you as a newbie. Willingness to participate, be social, be friendly, interact, that’s what matters. It becomes a socially cemented thing and then this network exists and all they need is new books to be excited about.
This is why 50 Shades of Grey is so huge. There’s nothing new about it. It just got plugged into this insane network of Twilight fandom. Which might not even think of itself as Twilight fandom anymore. If you can get your work—and it has some kind of legs—into that amazing network of people you’ll be a millionaire! (Laughter) It’s the most powerful word of mouth machine ever created.
The Hunger Games proved that this new kind of fandom is going to rule our culture the way that comic book fandom used to. And it’s a girl thing, not a guy thing because the sociality is totally different.