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.

Book Editing, Part Three

Once again I find myself wading into the mire of Reviewer #2’s comments on my book manuscript. Today’s topic is: But what about THE MEN?!?!?

The discussions of Azuma and Lamarre are sloppy and exhibit a lack of understanding for the central philosophical issues raised (especially with regard to database consumption vs. representationalism, and Heidegger).

A comment like this is unprofessional and uncalled for; but, if I have respond to this level of immaturity, I guess I will.

References to Azuma and Lamarre are minor components of my argument. I address the elements of their work that are relevant to the discussion, and I shouldn’t be expected to delve into “the central philosophical issues raised” by these writers if they have nothing to do with what I’m talking about. This is a book about contemporary female artists, not dead white male philosophers famous primarily for their Nazi sympathies and affiliation.

Listen, I’m just saying. Maybe “a lack of understanding” of Heidegger isn’t a bad thing.

My argument is essentially that women are not just fictional characters. Many prominent male theorists – Azuma among them – make grand sweeping claims about media production and consumption without ever considering female creators and fans. If we can accept that women exist as producers and consumers in the real world, then we can shift our understanding of these theories accordingly.

Ironically, the five or six pages I devote to a close reading of Azuma are probably the most rigorously peer-reviewed section of the entire manuscript. I published them first as a book review, which went through multiple drafts with the primary editor of a major journal in the field of Japanese Studies. I then published them as a part of my dissertation, which was also commented on by a number of prominent scholars in the field. I went on to publish that chapter in another major journal, and it went through an extensive peer-review process. And then, after all of that, I still had to field questions from senior (male) scholars at conference presentations and job talks.

I’m not criticizing Azuma; I’m just making an observation that the only women he discusses in the work that’s been translated into English and widely circulated in English-language academic circles are fictional. This is not rocket science.

All I’m saying is that female creators and fans exist, and I don’t understand why it upsets so many people to acknowledge the existence of actual women in media theories.

I’m tired of having to explain this, to be honest.

But wait! There’s more:

Surprisingly, Lamarre’s concept of “male/female mode of address” is not considered.

I have an even bigger surprise! This very concept is discussed for five pages in my second chapter! With a lot of quotes and analysis! Wow!! It’s almost as if it’s the reviewer’s report that’s sloppy, not my actual manuscript.

Lamarre writes in an infamously opaque style, but it’s worth summarizing what his “concept of ‘male/female mode of address’” refers to. Basically, within the artistic conventions of anime, men are active and associated with science and progress, and women are passive and associated with feelings and tradition. Lamarre is more or less basing this theory on the fictional characters in one animated movie, and he applies the general theory to a tiny handful of other titles. This sort of dualism is sexist by definition, and Lamarre really leans into it.

Again, my reaction is a friendly reminder that women are not just fictional characters but exist in the real world as media creators themselves. Lamarre discusses the anime series Chobits while treating women as abstract concepts and empty symbols, and my response is that it’s worth considering that the original manga was written by a team of four women and extremely popular with a female readership.

The entire point of this book about “Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze” is that women are not just abstract concepts in the minds of male writers and artists. This reviewer apparently doesn’t see the value in this concept and thinks I should spend more time talking about men.

I have to ask – why was a person like this chosen to review my manuscript?

This is generally why a press asks at least two people to serve as peer reviewers. If one reviewer makes an inaccurate observation – because we all do; it’s not like we’re compensated for this sort of professional service, after all – then the other reviewer can balance out their blind spots and biases. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a major failing of my original editor at Palgrave to only ask for the opinion of this reviewer.

I resent having to treat this sort of lazy sexism as a valid critique. It’s not productive; and, more importantly, it’s hurtful and dehumanizing.

Manga Cultures Book Cover

When I was young and stupid, I included a critical comment about a book’s cover in a review I wrote of an academic monograph. Like the fool I was, I blamed the awful cover on the book’s author.

That book was published by Palgrave; and, now that I’m publishing my own book with Palgrave, I know a little more about how this works.

Palgrave has a policy of taking its cover images from stock photograph websites, specifically Getty Images and Alamy. I’m sure this is appropriate for some books, but it’s not particularly suitable for a book about East Asian popular culture.

Getty Images and Alamy are open for anyone to search. If you like, you can try your hand at finding a good cover for a book about shōjo manga and women’s comics in an international context. To save you the trouble, I’ll go ahead and tell you that there isn’t much there.

You’ll mostly find a lot of pictures – generally of poor quality – of manga magazine covers. Almost all of these photos depict manga magazines for boys and men, and some are adult magazines that can easily be interpreted as catering to fetishes that sexualize minors. None of these photographs is particularly visually appealing. Moreover, since many magazines rebrand themselves according to current trends, a photo like this is going to feel very dated very quickly.

There are also photos of people reading manga in convenience stores and bookstores, but (again) they mostly depict men, and their focus seems to be on “wacky Japan” street fashions. Given that this is a book about “the female gaze,” I would feel weird about a photo depicting an actual woman to begin with, especially if it’s a candid photo and the model hasn’t given her consent to have her face appear on the cover a book.

I therefore requested that we use an original illustration commissioned especially for this project. Since this is a book about women reclaiming the way they’re depicted in popular media, I think it would be cool to have a depiction of a female artist in an illustration created by a female artist. This would also be a good opportunity to have a colorful and eye-catching cover, and an illustration would avoid the pitfalls of gender politics inherent in the medium of photography.

This request met with really strong pushback from both my original editor and my current editor at Palgrave, and I had to push back with equal force to even get them to consider using an illustration drawn by a female comic artist for the cover of a book about female comic artists. I’m not going to lie, it was a super awkward conversation to have, and it lasted for months.

Now I feel awful about criticizing that scholar about the cover of her book. It’s so embarrassing, because I was so wrong. Academic publishing is just like this, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve been in touch with one of my favorite artists in the world about this book cover, and hopefully I’ll to be able to make progress soon!