Writers Have to Be Supported to Survive


I’ve recently seen several posts with tens of thousands of notes circulating around Tumblr that are extremely critical of the idea of fanfic writers accepting donations to support their activities. Many of them, such as the one excerpted above, refer to the guidelines of AO3, which are meant to defend the right of the site to exist on the basis that the content it hosts is purely transformative and not intended for profit. The undertone of these posts, however, is a strong pushback against the idea that fanfic writers might aspire to the same levels of professional success and support as other creators in fandom.

I would like to argue that the idea that fan writers deserve to have a choice whether to receive compensation for their work is reasonable, especially since many highly visible fan artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars every month through donation sites like Patreon and Ko-fi.

Yes, intellectual property is protected by law and legal precedent, and it’s important to understand fandom history and to respect the ongoing battle AO3 has to fight. And yes, fan writers use copyright-protected names and scenarios. At the same time, fan artists use protected names, scenarios, and images, while YouTubers and streamers use protected sound and video – and sometimes the entirety of the protected work. If the “transformative work” and “added value” and “critical commentary” and “performance” arguments of fair use laws apply to visual artists, video creators, and streamers, why don’t they work for writers?

There are three things going on here.

The first is that AO3 is an independent NPO, not a giant media conglomerate. Even if YouTube is forced to take down certain videos that violate intellectual property laws, YouTube itself is not in danger of being taken offline. AO3 is in a much more precarious situation and therefore has to be extra cautious. This is an issue specific to AO3, however, and it’s not universally applicable to other hosting and sharing sites.

The second is that many media corporations in the United States consider digital images to be ephemeral, meaning that they have a short shelf life in the popular consciousness. Fan art and video streams shared on social media will help to promote a piece of media while it’s still trendy, but they also tend to be quickly consumed and discarded and thus aren’t perceived as being in danger of becoming long-term competition for the original media property. Because it used to be published in the form of physical books and magazines, fanfic was considered to be competition, but this perception has changed, partially due to the support fanfic has received from commercially successful writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

The third is sexism. This is complicated; but, to make a long story short, fanfic has been treated differently because, unlike illustration and video editing, it is primarily associated with communities of women.

Media industries overwhelmingly dominated by men, such as comics and movies, have always provided ways for younger male fans to enter the industry as professionals. There is a long history of commercial studios actively scouting emerging talent from popular fan artists and amateur video producers, so media corporations have a vested interest in not completely shutting down spaces in which these creators can develop and exhibit their talents. For example, an aspiring comic artist can take his portfolio of X-Men character illustrations to a comics convention to show to an industry representative, and Marvel will hire him if they like his fan art. Because these industries have traditionally been male-dominated, however, the work of women was seen as derivative and embarrassing. A male artist who drew a fan comic would get a job, and a woman who wrote fanfic of the same media property would get a cease and desist letter.

Moreover, women have historically been expected to be the keepers of public morality. For instance, a male professor who writes mediocre novels about cheating on his wife with underage female students can easily be promoted to the head of a prestigious creative writing program, while a woman in any profession can be in danger of losing her job for writing any novel at all. Because of this, many female writers have had to hide their creative careers in a way that male artists and video producers have not. Even though these prejudices are fading, many fic writers are still very serious about protecting their real names and identities. At the same time, many fan artists and other creators use their fanwork to promote themselves while using their professional names – and, thanks to social media, we can now see that not all of these creators are male.

Because a new generation of female and nonbinary fan artists, animators, video producers, and streamers are now comfortable pursuing their creative careers while using their professional names and accepting donations while they establish themselves, it only makes sense that fan writers would want to do the same thing. After all, if people like Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson can go from posting popular fan art and fan comics on Tumblr to becoming mainstream showrunners, why couldn’t a female or nonbinary fanfic writer go on to become an actual scriptwriter for the next, say, Star Wars or Pokémon movie? If illustrators, comic artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive donations to support their fanwork while they establish their careers, what arbitrary rule says that writers can’t do the same thing while still respecting AO3’s legal guidelines?

There is an entire generation of younger writers who have come into fandom with ambitions of professional success and no understanding of why they should feel pressured to separate their fandom identity from their professional identity or why they shouldn’t have the choice to receive the same support as creators working in other mediums. Instead of mocking younger writers for not knowing fandom history – and instead of shaming older writers for resisting outdated prejudices – I think it’s worth it to support them and hopefully change the culture.

Most people don’t want donations and only think of fandom as a fun escapist hobby, but writers should still be able to access the same choices as other creatives. I’ve already shared my thoughts about the issues I personally have with Patreon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to explore that option for themselves. After all, writers have to be supported for fanfic to survive.

I feel like I could write an entire book about this – and I have! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the publisher can stick to the May 2020 release date, because I’d really like to talk more about fandom and cultural change, as well as what the achievements of artists might suggest about the future of fiction.

Decontextualizing Harry Potter

From the beginning of the 2016 American election cycle, a popular way to signal social belonging on Tumblr has been to reblog angry posts about J.K. Rowling like the one above.

J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect. No human being on this earth is perfect, and Rowling is no exception. Rowling’s books are far from perfect, and I have to admit that I personally don’t particularly like or enjoy them. It’s important to critique popular media, and it’s reasonable to hold public figures to basic standards of decency. Still, I’m concerned about posts like this, which promote decontextualization as a performance of progressive political ideology.

It’s difficult to make generalizations, so I want to refer to the post above to demonstrate what I mean.

To begin with, most of these posts about the Harry Potter books are coming from an American perspective that doesn’t attempt to address the cultural context of the original books. For example, while Americans tend to think everything is about race, British people tend to be much more sensitive about class. Class intersects with race, because of course it does, but class is widely perceived to be the basic framework of social hierarchy in the United Kingdom, and it’s coded in complicated ways that may be unfamiliar to many Americans.

What’s going on with the “house elves” in the Harry Potter books is that the author is taking the well-known figure of the brownie from Celtic folklore and using it to make a statement about class, specifically the class of people whose labor has always enabled the “great institutions” of the United Kingdom to function properly. Without bothering to talk to them or to listen to what they have to say, Hermione sees this class of people as “slaves,” which the house elves themselves find extremely insulting.

This plot line is resolved as Hermione gradually learns that it’s offensive and counterproductive to claim to speak for an entire group of people whom she believes, as an outsider to that group, to be marginalized. Meanwhile, actual members of the group take up activist work based on their own experiences and achieve real change; but, in the end, the “group” is a collection of diverse individuals who have different opinions regarding their “oppression,” and many of them subtly or actively challenge the notion that a privileged group should be allowed to ahistorically define their entire existence as “oppressed.”

Ron tells Hermione that she’s crazy for caring and that nothing should change because this is the way things have always been, but his traditionalism and intellectual laziness are shown to be just as misguided as Hermione’s naive activism. Harry (who is still a teenager, after all) admits that he can see both sides but doesn’t care about the discourse. Nevertheless, when someone close to him is clearly a victim of discrimination, Harry will stand up to protect them, even if he doesn’t like that person.

I don’t agree with the position that ideology doesn’t matter as long as you treat other people decently, which I think is simplistic and reductive, but I can understand how it works as a thematic element in a series of books written for ten-year-olds.

Rowling herself doesn’t entirely agree with this position either, and she addresses the very real and practical problems of the “I see people as individuals” mentality directly in her work for adult readers, including the book she wrote immediately after concluding the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy. The people writing and reblogging posts like the one above don’t acknowledge this, however, perhaps because their only encounter with contemporary British fiction is a series of kid’s books about teenage wizards written during a decade in which a lot of the conversations we’re currently having about social justice were still evolving.

I should add that these books only got as popular as they did because of their cinematic adaptations. These movies are gorgeous and artistically well-crafted, but they tend to flatten and even erase the nuances of the novels. The posts on Tumblr that are critical of Rowling don’t hold the directors and producers accountable for failing to emphasize the progressive themes of the books in order to achieve a broader commercial appeal, nor do they challenge the systems of privilege that have limited the contributions of minority voices to the cinema industry. Instead, these posts pin all faults of the franchise, both real and imagined, on an individual female writer who was very poor for most of her life (thus her various explorations of the theme of class) while decontextualizing what she wrote decades ago in fantasy novels meant for young readers.

Again, it’s vitally important to think critically about popular culture, and I strongly believe that public figures should be held to basic standards of decency. I am all for critiquing the Harry Potter series and Rowling’s creative decisions. That being said, the trend of posts on Tumblr that hold one progressive female artist or activist responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world by means of aggressive decontextualizations of what she’s actually doing and saying are frightening, especially since they’re starting to recirculate within left-leaning spaces in advance of another election cycle.

In the end, who does it benefit to say that books about respecting difference and resisting authoritarian violence even when not everyone on your side is perfect are “problematic” and are only read by bad and stupid people? Moreover, given that the Harry Potter series is the primary gateway a lot of younger kids have into enjoying books, who does it benefit to say that reading itself is something that’s only done by bad and stupid people?

What Makes Something “Interesting”

I’ve been using the Tumblr Top tool to look at some of the blogs I follow in an attempt to figure out what makes a post interesting to other people. As far as I can tell, viral posts have three things in common. They are…

(1) Specific
(2) Relatable
(3) Nonjudgmental

To give an example, “Nintendo please let us pet the dogs in BotW2!!” is (1) about a specific feature in a specific game, (2) relatable because people like petting dogs, and (3) nonjudgmental because Nintendo isn’t being overtly criticized for not including the feature in the first game.

To give another example, this bizarrely popular post of mine is (1) about a super-niche manga, (2) understandable to anyone who’s familiar with internet culture, but (3) not mocking the manga, furries, or the sort of people who are REALLY into horses.

I have many more examples that fit this model, but I’m not sure what to do with this knowledge. It’s a worthwhile observation, but I have no desire to artificially engineer viral shitposts on Tumblr. If I have ever done or said anything interesting in my life, it has been entirely by accident.

Vetting and Sharing on Social Media

I used to think that, the more followers a blog has, the more popular its posts will be. It only stands to reason, right? I also had this idea that artists have a lot of influence on Tumblr partially because of how the platform privileges images but mainly because of their relatively high follower counts.

I’ve since figured out that what’s actually going on is that a post needs to be “vetted” in order to spread. In other words, a post needs to be reblogged by someone whose taste other people trust. Or, well, “taste” is a strong word, as is “trust.” What I mean is that people are far more likely to reblog a post if someone they’re following reblogs it, even if they’ve already seen it posted on the original blog. If that “someone else” is associated with the same fandom as the post, then it will spread farther. In this case, “fandom” can be very broad; like, say, the “intellectual shitpost” fandom.

At this point I have far more followers than my small blog on Tumblr deserves, but it’s not my follower count alone that enables any given one of my posts to spread. By itself, one of my fandom-related posts might get forty to ninety notes, and it’s only when someone associated with the fandom reblogs it that it will get more than a hundred.

I’ve seen this happen on posts I’ve reblogged as well. Sometimes I’ll reblog something from a few months (or even years) ago, and it will go from having about twenty to thirty notes to having several hundred almost overnight.

Once a post reaches a certain level of critical mass, the number of notes alone will indicate that it’s already been vetted, and it will also be picked up by the site’s promotional algorithms. Before it can go viral, however, a post first needs to have community support.

I feel like the same applies to Twitter – albeit to a lesser extent, as Twitter’s septic open wound of an algorithm aggressively prioritizes a handful of tweets while hiding most of the rest, even if you turn off the “best tweets first” feature. As far as I can tell, Twitter doesn’t have the same “recommended for you” algorithm that Tumblr has, in which the posts liked by your mutuals – and the posts posted by people followed by your mutuals – will sometimes appear at the top of your feed. Rather, Twitter has figured out what types of tweets are most likely to provoke a reaction (generally negative) from you and show those tweets to you over and over until you either like them, hide them, or blacklist whatever keyword or hashtag they’re using.

Regardless, I’ve noticed that there’s still something of an influencer culture on Twitter, whereby people are more likely to respond to or retweet something if it’s already been vetted by someone they trust, even if they already follow the OP.

Meanwhile, Instagram is testing a feature that will hide the number of likes a post has received specifically for the purpose of protecting the mental health of their users, and I for one could not be more relieved.

Sweaty & Upsetty

Sweaty & Upsetty is a collection of short comics I posted on Tumblr between 2014 and 2018. Some of these comics are about fandom, and some are about anxiety, but most of them are about the experience of being on the internet as a weird little gremlin. There are also a few comics about my Super Mario Bros. headcanon, which is that Bowser and Princess Peach are not-so-secretly dating.

This zine is twenty pages long, standard half-letter size, and professionally printed by Mixam with a velvet-touch cover and full-color glossy interior pages. It was an experiment in formatting artwork for print, so I only made fifty copies to give to friends. I also dropped off a few copies at my local comic book store in Washington DC, Fantom Comics, and I have three last copies that I’m going to leave at Quimby’s Bookstore when I visit Chicago for an academic conference in late October.

My artwork has improved in leaps and bounds since I started sharing it online five years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever reprint this zine, but I’m looking forward to putting together another comics zine early next year!

Hollow Knight

I’m a big fan of the aesthetic of Hollow Knight, and I got the collector’s edition from Fangamer when the game came out on the Nintendo Switch. I absolutely loved the first hour or two of gameplay. The world is gorgeous, the gameplay is a lot of fun, and the writing is lovely.

When I got to the first boss, however, I died. And then I died again, and then I died again. And then I died again. It’s not that this boss is particularly difficult; it’s just that it has a ton of health while you have relatively little. The fight is therefore an endurance test in which you can’t make any mistakes. This is particularly unpleasant because, once the boss starts breaking out new attacks and movement patterns, you’ve already been in the fight for a relatively long time and have probably already lost some health.

When I took to the internet to figure out what was going on, I found a lot of posts saying that Hollow Knight is a brutally punishing game, and that sometimes people can take hours to make it through a boss fight.

I then tried to search for “Hollow Knight easy mode,” and that was a mistake. Oh my, the “real gamer” discourse these children engage in.

I remember really loving Super Metroid as a kid. It was much too difficult for me and my small brain and tiny hands, so I used a Game Genie as something like a set of training wheels until I got good enough to play it on my own. I ended up spending more than a hundred hours playing the game instead of just one or two, and this hurt no one. I had a game, and I played it, and it was fun. I liked exploring the world and discovering its secrets while listening to the soundtrack; and, if this isn’t “how the developers intended the game to be played,” it didn’t matter, because my parents paid money for the game and I owned it.

This is more or less the same thing I’m interested in when it comes to Hollow Knight – exploring the world and discovering its secrets while listening to the soundtrack. Because of one boss fight at the beginning of the game, however, there’s no way I can do this. I now own a very pretty $70 game that I could only play for a little more than two hours, and it’s frustrating.

I wonder, would it really hurt the developers to include an easy mode?

Nineties Child Starter Pack

The backpack you take home from school weighs more than you do.

We had so much homework, and I mean so much homework. If there’s one thing that’s relatable to all millennials, no matter what sort of neighborhood or economic class they grew up in, it’s that the pressure to get into a good college started in seventh grade, if not earlier.

You use self-deprecating humor because it’s social suicide to acknowledge how hard you’re working.

Also because we’re all working really hard, and only douchebags talk like they’re writing a college admissions essay. Despite the fact that this style of communication has carried over to the Gen Z kids, a lot of older people still take this sort of communication at face value and interpret it literally, which is both disheartening and unintentionally hilarious.

You can never accept a complement, ever.

See above. We’re collectively getting better about this, thankfully.

You always have to pretend to be on a diet or losing weight for sports.

We bore the full brunt of mass media advertising culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and we didn’t have any tools to resist its messaging. Current conversations about “body shaming” and “body positivity” are a direct result of MTV Spring Break setting the standard of what a human being should look like, which turned out to be super unhealthy for people of all races and genders.

Goku is there for you when you need him, and you have no idea Sailor Moon is Japanese.

We didn’t know what anime was until we learned what anime was, at which point we couldn’t get enough of it. Can you blame us? At the time, the only real alternative was Disney. The Disney Renaissance was great and all, but sometimes you just need to watch girls saving the universe while one dude kamehamehas another dude right in the face.

You get on the internet for Pokémon cheat codes and make a cringe adorable first username.

No I didn’t know that there were no cheat codes for Pokémon, and no I will not tell you my username, but I sure did have a lot of fun as a tiny child on the internet.

No amount of hard work or internet literacy will save you, though.

This is especially ironic because people in their early twenties are now hired over people in my generation because they are “digital natives” with “social media expertise.”

The generations ahead of you just will not retire, so your professional career is fucked.

Friends may come and friends may go, and dreams can burst into brilliant life and then fade away, but student debt is forever.

In conclusion, nineties children are stressed out all the time, but at least we got all the good anime and video games.