Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

I’m a fan of the Superbrothers OST because there was a period of my life that was more or less me listening to Basco’s Gamebient mix on loop, but I never played the actual game until it came out on Switch at the end of November.

It’s difficult to control and interact with, and the exploration elements feel wooden and perfunctory. I’ve played the first two (out of five, I think?) “sessions,” but I’m still not sure what this game wants or expects from me. I appreciate the cleverness of the writing, and I’m intrigued by the Zelda references, but this isn’t enough to keep me going.

I don’t think Superbrothers is for me. I’ll leave it on the system in case I get bored or ambitious later, but I’m going to give myself permission to quit playing it for the time being.

The soundtrack is still very good, though. I especially like the two-song sequence of “The Maelstorm” followed by “The Ballad Of The Space Babies,” which is a solid five minutes of focus and calm.

Monument Valley

I’ve been interested in Monument Valley for a while now, and I’m glad I finally sat down and played it. It’s actually much better than everyone says it is, but that’s probably because it’s difficult to describe what makes the game so good.

Monument Valley consists of ten stages, each of which will take most people about five minutes to play (except the first, which is very short, and the last, which can be very frustrating). I’ve heard this game criticized as being “easy,” but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s carefully designed to facilitate player engagement. Each level (again, except the first and the last) has a core mechanic, and the player is encouraged to learn the limits and potential of each mechanic in a guided yet natural way. My favorite stage is “Level VIII: The Box,” in which a cube can be opened, closed, rotated, and then opened again from a different perspective. This might sound complicated, but it isn’t; in fact, it’s nothing short of pure joy.

The story is hinted at in a few scattered text panels, and I’m not sure I have a good grasp of what’s going on, but here’s my interpretation: A human society used magical “sacred geometry” to create fantastic buildings (presumably in a valley?), but they fell into decline when their sacred geometry was stolen from them, and now all that remains are monuments haunted by flightless crow people. The player-character Ida is a princess who has been told that she will be given her crown only when she restores the sacred geometry to the monuments. As she does so, she begins to remember that she herself is a crow, and that it was the crow people who stole the sacred geometry from the humans. When she returns the last piece of the sacred geometry, the human curse on the crow people is lifted, and Ida and her people regain their wings and fly away. After spending the entire game forced to walk on linear paths along the surface of the monuments, the final animation of free flight is very satisfying.

I appreciate the narrative progression of returning treasure to temples instead of taking it, and I’m interested in what a traditional adventure game – okay, let’s be real, a Zelda game – would look like if the player’s abilities were limited instead of enhanced as they made their way through the story. I also appreciate the conceit of realizing that the player-character is actually the bad guy – or, in this case, the bad crow girl. Speaking of power, it hit me really hard when I realized that Ida is a crow. Monument Valley isn’t all that deep, but I can’t remember another instance of a game flat-out saying, “No, you are not, in fact, the hero of this story.” (I think Braid is supposed to be like this, but I’m garbage at platformers and was never able to get too far into it.)

In any case, the Monument Valley OST is fantastic. It’s almost exactly forty minutes of soft energetic ambient music, which makes it perfect for a good, solid writing session.

2019 Resolution

I want to play more video games!

I tend to get obsessed with one game and play it for hundreds of hours. For most of 2017 and 2018, that game was Breath of the Wild, and it’s currently Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Since there are only so many hours in the day and only so many days in the year, this means that I don’t play many new games, which is exacerbated by the fact that I really enjoy replaying older games.

This year I’d like to set time aside to play games I’m interested in but don’t play because I feel like I’ve already exceeded my quota of fun by staying up until two in the morning filling in rows of a character’s license grid (or collecting Koroks or, you know, whatever). I also have an irrational compulsion to finish games even if they stop being fun, which means I’m unlikely to pick up a new game unless it’s a #1 Top Tier Indie Classic That Requires No Time Commitment. I’d like to get past this and try new things!

I’m limited by the fact that I refuse to play games on Steam, but I still have a short list of games I’d like to try now that they’re starting to be released on the Nintendo Switch, like Kentucky Route Zero and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. During the past year the University of Minnesota Press started putting out fantastic and inexpensive paperback monographs on games and gaming culture that have veered away from the pretentious “Videogames As One Word™: I Am A Straight White Man” genre that currently characterizes the majority of academic writing on games and have instead focused more on broader strands of literary and Media Studies criticism. Aubrey Anable’s Playing with Feelings is a good example of the sort of interesting work that’s coming out in the series, and reading books like this makes me want to sit down and play every single game under discussion. Saying that scholarship has made me want to play games is peak nerd, and I am ashamed of myself, but still.

Video games! Let’s play them in 2019!!

2018 Commissions and Goals

In 2018 I commissioned 52 comics and illustrations, which turns out to be one piece of art for every week of the year. This seems like kind of a lot, in retrospect.

Aside from a few ongoing projects, like a series of illustrations for a fanfic novel and my first real attempts to collaborate with artists on comics I’ve written, a lot of these were “emergency commissions” for people who needed money. Most of these artists were asking for almost no money at all for their work, and my general strategy was to give them twice what they asked upfront and then the full amount again when they sent me the artwork. I was very poor for most of my life, and I feel like I want to give people the sort of small financial and emotional boost I could have used when I was younger. That being said, I wish we lived in a world where “emergency commissions” aren’t necessary to help cover things like transportation and basic healthcare.

Some of these commissions were never completed, which I totally understand. If someone is struggling with health issues, you give them a free pass, you know? In fact, I go into all commissions fully expecting that they will never be finished, and I’m pleasantly surprised when they are – which they almost always are, because most artists are good people. On the other hand, a few artists completed my commissions but never posted their work and asked that I not post it myself. I don’t understand this quite so well, to be honest, but I think I’ve figured out enough of a pattern to avoid this type of person in the future.

I always try to be clear and concise in my communication with artists, but I’ve started to take special care to make it clear that part of what I’m commissioning is an opportunity for mutual self-promotion. Of course I want to support artists (and honestly, I would financially support writers too if the culture of fandom had gone in that direction), and of course I want there to be more art and positive representation in the world. Still, there’s often real money changing hands, and I’m not paying artists – especially professional artists – entirely out of the goodness and generosity of my heart.

I am a serious writer who wants to work with serious artists. My end goal, such as it is, is to gain the skills and experience to collaborate on creative projects that will break out of my own small circles of fandom and attract the attention of a larger audience. Just as a lot of professional artists gain a following in fandom before achieving the critical mass necessary to break into the industry, I want to do be able to do the same as a writer.

Unfortunately, there are barriers. The first is that I have a full-time job that demands most of my emotional and creative energy, and my employment situation is still precarious. The second is that I am not wealthy, which limits the number of creative projects I can fund. The third is that I’m an introvert who is very shy about approaching people, and I really can’t perform the sort of hustle necessary to place myself a position where I might conceivably start attracting attention by being visible and outspoken. The fourth is that I’m still deeply scarred by all the harassment I’ve dealt with on Tumblr, which has had the added effect of shutting me out of communities that would otherwise support me and help promote the specific type of work I’m doing. The fifth is gender, an issue that manages to be nuanced and complicated yet also entirely self-explanatory.

(Seriously though. Why are almost all comic writers male? I know that female comic writers exist, obviously, but I say this as someone who attends half a dozen comic conventions and reads hundreds of large-press, small-press, and self-published comics every year.)

But I’m putting in the work, and Lord knows I’m putting in the time and money. This year I threw a lot of ideas and projects into the air just to see where they landed, and I think I learned a few things from the process. Next year I’m going to try to be more strategic and efficient regarding what I commission. I still want to support artists and create art, but I’m also going to need to focus on projects that have a higher level of professional potential and impact, both for myself and for the artists who are kind enough to work with me.

And I know this is going to sound mercenary, but I prefer to think of it as recentering my sense of balance – I need to stop devoting so many resources to supporting a creative community and start devoting more resources to creating a community that will support me.

Fanfic on Tumblr

I just read a brilliant post on Dreamwidth titled “State of the Migration: On fannish archival catastrophes, and what happens next” about, well, exactly what it says on the label. There has been some concern about Pillowfort, and I’ve seen a few curated lists of other alternatives to Tumblr, but I’m going to be honest and admit that what I really want for the next fandom hub is that it’s fanfic friendly. Tumblr was a great platform for visual artists, but it wasn’t such a good place to host or promote writing.

As a fic writer, I believe with all of my heart that fan artists are wonderful, which is why I support a number of them through Patreon, Ko-fi, and commissions. I reblog the work of fan artists because I love it and I want it to spread, even if my contribution to the artists’ success is limited. Almost every writer I know is supportive of artists in their own way. Artists make fantastic contributions to fandom, and they deserve love!

At the same time, I’ve sometimes felt resentful that many people in Tumblr-based fandom don’t go out of their way to support fic writers in the same way. In fact, most don’t even bother to click on the “like” button of the fic posts that appear in the tags they use on Tumblr. This may seem petty, but it’s actually a big deal. Not only does the small show of support of “liking” a post fill the hearts of writers with joy, but it also figures into the metrics of the Tumblr platform itself, which promotes posts and keeps them from disappearing from the appropriate tags based on how many notes they receive.

I recently read a great essay, Social Contract Theory and Fandom Libertarianism, whose author argues that people with a libertarian approach to fandom want “all the benefits of living in a society without any sort of responsibility for their fellow community members.” I think many fans want the “benefits of living in a society,” such as a steady stream of quality content, positive feedback, encouragement, and the occasional monetary donation – because of course they do – but they may not fully understand why it’s important to help support the community that supports them. After all, the popular fan artists have thousands of followers, and their posts get hundreds (and often thousands) of notes, so the community is doing fine, right?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of fic writers (including myself) who’ve struggled through a dark and painful space on Tumblr. The libertarian approach to this concern is that “everyone should just take care of themselves and leave everyone else alone.” In theory, this should work. The problem is that the prevailing fan culture on Tumblr has been skewed heavily in favor of artists, and what this has meant in practice is that fewer people have been posting their stories. Over the past four years, from the summer of 2014 to the end of 2018, I’ve watched the number of fic posts on about two dozen fandom tags I track dwindle down to almost nothing, even as the fandoms themselves continue to be quite active.

One might argue that the platform itself is to blame. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the layout of the site facilitates the rapid consumption of images, while writing often takes more time to process. In addition, depending on the interface, “Read More” cuts and links may not work properly. That being said, Tumblr recommends posts based on the activity of each individual user. For example, if a user likes a lot of text posts, Tumblr will recommend more text posts. This means that there doesn’t seem to be any innate programming that works against text posts, as Tumblr does not hide text posts on tracked tags, and image posts are just as likely as text posts to disappear from tags if they don’t receive enough notes.

The root of the problem is that many people on Tumblr, as individuals, do not support fic writers. They will not like fic posts, they will not reblog fic posts, and many will not even bother to look at fic posts if they don’t see them reblogged by someone else. Moreover, even though it’s relatively common for fan artists to draw fan art that celebrates the work of other artists, the vast majority of people specializing in visual art on Tumblr would never consider drawing fan art for someone’s fic. There are exceptions, of course; but, in my experience, they are extremely rare. No matter how involved a fic writer may be in the fandom community, and no matter how much support a fic writer may give to other creators, most people won’t acknowledge the existence of their writing.

In other words, the work of fic authors work may as well not exist. This is probably why I’ve seen so many writers get discouraged and leave their fandoms or quit Tumblr altogether over the past five years. Millions of stories are still being posted to Archive of Our Own, but AO3 is not a social networking site and was not designed to facilitate friendship, community-building, and collaboration. Meanwhile, the entire purpose of Tumblr is to create relationships between users, but writers rarely end up benefitting from their engagement.

The sad thing is that, again, this bias against writers is not innate to the platform itself, and the culture within fandom doesn’t have to be the way it is now. To give a personal example, when a fandom artist reblogs one of my fic posts, I can get hundreds of notes and dozens of new followers. That sort of thing means the world to me – all creators value positive feedback, after all – but it only happens about once every six months. This has been enough support to keep me going, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt that the majority of my fic posts only get seven or eight notes. I’ve tried experimenting with all sorts of variables, from the content of what I post to the length of what I post to when I post to how often I post, but nothing I’ve done has affected the reception I’ve received. What has surprised me most is that the reception of my writing is also completely unrelated to the size of my following; I currently get the same number of notes on my writing with thousands of followers as I used to get with only several hundred followers.

And this, I think, is why the culture of fanfic on Tumblr died out, while fandom culture in general seems to have gone off the deep end. Writers contribute fresh new ideas, create meta and stories that inspire people, and make high-quality shitposts. They are vital to fandom, and they keep online communities (especially communities for niche interests) healthy, friendly, and thriving. I hope that, wherever fandom ends up, the slow migration from Tumblr serves as a catalyst for a change in the culture.

Fanfic Writers and “The Money Question”

I wish a statement like “people would pay to read your original writing” weren’t considered such an insult in fandom. To me, it’s a combination of two sentiments:

(1) I want you to be fairly compensated for your talents. You should be able to pay the rent doing this amazing thing you do so very well.

(2) I want you to be able to quit the job you hate so that you can spend more time doing the thing you love. You would win, and everyone else would win because we would get to read more of your work and share it with people outside our circle of fandom.

For people who can afford it, there is an established path of going to college, majoring in Creative Writing, and then going on to get an MFA. Along this path, there are multiple opportunities for publication and self-promotion. Being part of an active fandom community can be just as intellectually stimulating, educational, and skill-developing as the best of degree programs, but there’s no real path laid out for us for concerning “what to do next” as we get older and need to support ourselves financially.

I can’t help but think that this has to do partially with the way that fic still isn’t considered “real” writing by many established professional authors, and I wonder how much of this is tied up with gender and the expectation that women won’t receive money for their work. Moreover, because women’s writing is often downplayed in Creative Writing programs and other “serious” literary venues, many women have turned to fandom to share their stories with a sympathetic and engaged fannish audience, which also tends to skew female (and nonbinary and queer). For many fic writers, entering the world of professionally published fiction means leaving behind a large and supportive community and disowning a substantial body of writing.

In any case, I wish that we could talk about “what happens next” for fic writers. Sure, it’s empowering to do what you enjoy, but it’s also empowering to be able to make a living by doing what you enjoy.

So how do we do that? I really want fandom to have this conversation. Episode 86 of the Fansplaining podcast, “The Money Question” (here’s the transcript), touches on this issue in terms of monetizing fanwork through platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, as well as the legal position of AO3, but I want the conversation about the relationship between fanfic and professional writing to be wider, deeper, and spread more through different voices across different fandom spaces.

Tumblr Drama Annotated Reading List

I ended up doing a fair amount of research for my essays Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom and Censorship in Fandom, and I’d like to share a short annotated list of some of the online sources that were useful to me.

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens

A long article from 2016 about the culture of shitposting on Tumblr and the rocky relationship between the site’s corporate owners and its userbase.

When Tumblr Bans Porn, Who Loses?

An in-depth article about Tumblr’s December 2018 ban on “adult” material with a focus on how the new policy adversely affects minority communities.

Why Monetizing Social Media Through Advertising Is Doomed to Failure

A three-part blog post written by a tech insider about why it’s so difficult to actually make money from social media websites like Tumblr. This was originally written in 2008, back when people in fandom were starting to think about alternatives to LiveJournal in the wake of the Strikethrough and Boldthrough deletion of a number of prominent fandom-related accounts and communities.

The Rise of Anti-Fandom Fandom

An article from 2013 about a Tumblr blog called Your Fave Is Problematic, which was dedicated to posting receipts on the weird, problematic, and downright shitty behavior of actors, musicians, writers, and other celebrities in the entertainment industry.

Toxic Fandom: When Criticism and Entitlement Go Too Far

A short essay on the evolution of anti-fandom that uses the online unpleasantness associated with the Netflix cartoon Voltron: Legendary Defender as a starting point.

Towards a Working Definition of “Anti”

A point-by-point breakdown of what anti-fandom is and how it’s different from simply critiquing a piece of media or an aspect of fandom culture.

The Boundary Between Critique, Purity Culture, and Censorship

A short Tumblr post on the ideological connection between the purity culture of religious fundamentalism and the purity culture of anti-fandom.

How Good People and Well-Intentioned Groups Go Bad

An essay about cult mentality that was written by someone familiar with online fandom and concerned about bullying and purity culture. When people joke about Tumblr being “just like a cult,” this is what they mean.

An Unfunny Joke about Antis

A detailed and beautifully written post about how members of anti-fandom are in fact engaging in patterns of abusive behavior. This entire blog is brilliant, and two other posts I found particularly interesting are on the topics of Exclusionary Radical Feminism and Why Shipping Is Not Activism.

Taming Femslash

A conversation between several Tumblr users that illustrates how sexism masquerading as social justice has been used to silence the voices and stories of queer women in fandom.

The Mixon Report

A wiki entry about a toxic fan who successfully used social justice as an excuse to bully people in fandom and professional SF writers’ communities on LiveJournal. All evidence points to a disproportionate number of her victims being young women, queer, and people of color. This rabbithole goes down deep, so be warned.