The New LiveJournal Terms of Service and Why They Matter to the SWG

A couple of days ago, I posted to the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild’s various online spaces, soliciting member feedback on what we should do about the new Terms of Service on LiveJournal. I have been honestly taken aback by feedback I’ve received that, in a nutshell, asks, “Why does it matter?” So here it is: my view on why it matters.

If you’re not familiar with the latest LJ debacle concerning their Terms of Service, you can read the post I linked for more information (and please do take the survey linked in that post if you have not already) but, in a nutshell, LJ now requires journals and communities to label adult content, as deemed by the laws of Russia (where the company that owns LJ and now the web servers reside) at the penalty of possibly having the post or the journal/community deleted. Previously, when SixApart introduced the adult content labels, they didn’t mandate their use but reserved the right to apply those labels to a post if a user “flagged” the post; there was no penalty for having one or one hundred posts flagged and investigated, and I don’t know anyone this happened to. The SWG didn’t change their policy under the SixApart rules. (Nonetheless, I wasn’t wild about that change either.)

What does it mean to label something on LJ as “Adult”? First of all, individual posts or an entire journal/community can be labeled as Adult. Doing so either hides the content from LJ users under 18 or requires a click-through age verification to view the post/journal/community for anonymous users.

“Not a big deal!” a lot of people have said. Some have pointed out that there is a long tradition of underage users either 1) lying about their age when registering their account or 2) logging out and just clicking that they’re eighteen. Yes, I know this is a thing and has been almost a rite of passage for some old-school fandom participants who started as teens, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s beyond time we moved past teens having to engage in white lies to access art.

But really, the lack of access to minors–while a problem for me–is not the biggest problem with this new ToS. But I’ll tackle it first.

I have two qualms with blocking access to minors. First is that it is not my place to decide what content another person should be able to view. I am not the minor’s parent, and many teens are more than able to “handle” the kind of adult content they’d find on a site like the SWG.

My biggest problem is the very fact of pearl-clutching over teenagers “handling” fan fiction. Stories. Art. Let’s keep this in perspective. Between 2000 and 2010, 167,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the U.S. … and those are the confirmed numbers because many states don’t keep data. The nonprofit Unchained at Last estimates the number at closer to 248,000.

Children can own guns in 30 U.S. states and fire weapons like submachine guns.

And we think they can’t handle art?

What’s really at stake here is that art–including fan fiction–presents ideas and content (especially sex) that adults are uncomfortable thinking that young people know about. As a middle and high school teacher, I hate to break it to them: They know about it. Keeping them from art will not prevent them from unknowing it or never learning about it, just like we oldtimers managed to learn all sorts of illicit things pre-Internet. I refuse to pander to the idea, in a world where we are okay with children getting married and bearing children and caring for their families and acting as breadwinners and choosing to drop out of school and owning weapons, that reading fiction is the dangerous activity here.

But, as I said, this is not my main problem with the new Terms of Service.

As noted above, now posts must be labeled as Adult if they contain content that is deemed “adult” under Russian law. I am not Russian and do not read Russian, and LJ has refused to release a legally binding Terms of Service in English. (Rhapsody asked weeks ago when the new ToS was first released and has received no response.) But I do know that, under this same Russian law, the recent Beauty and the Beast film was given an adult rating because of a few seconds in which two men dance together.

Many fans–myself among them–have interpreted LJ’s ToS as meaning, therefore, that any content depicting a same-sex relationship would be “adult” and have to be labeled under the new ToS. This puts the SWG in a unique position. We are not a group that draws a lot of adult content, at least compared to fandom as a whole, including parts of the Tolkien fandom. There are likely a few legitimately adult posts on our LiveJournal community; if labeling those was all that was at stake here, I would grumble but likely comply and mark those specific posts as Adult.

However, the SWG has always welcomed slash fiction. We’ve even encouraged it! We were an early adopter of the International Day of Femslash, and last year, we collaborated with silmladylove during Tolkien Femslash Week. We host hundreds of slash and femslash stories on our archive, and slash is regularly posted, discussed, and alluded to on our LJ community.

So that leaves us two choices in complying with the new ToS: 1) We can either require all slash stories or any post discussing slash or LGBTQ+ issues to be marked as Adult or 2) we can mark the entire community as Adult and essentially ask everyone to take on the same burden faced by our slash authors. I would absolutely refuse to do the first; the second is the 0ption on the table now.

But, while I’ve put that on the table as an option I’d consider, I have a major problem with that option too.

Let there be no doubt: If the SWG complies with the new ToS, it will be because of slash. Don’t pretend that it’s an abundance of PWP or torturefic on our LJ community; it will be because our community has always welcomed slash and discussions of gender and sexuality that Russian law finds abhorrent. It will be to comply with the views of someone who said of the Beauty and the Beast film:

I’m convinced that the main task of the state regarding children is to protect childhood and youth from the filthiness of the world, to preserve children’s purity, to block our children off from harmful and dangerous phenomena.

Someone who thinks that authors who represent the full range of human sexual orientations and genders in their fiction write “filthiness” that is “harmful and dangerous” to children.

It will be to shut those authors’ work just a little further off from the public.

I have a major problem with that.

I have a major problem with pretending that, in the year 2017, there is something shameful about writing about LGBTQ+ characters, or that the mere act of being gay in the presence of a child is somehow going to harm that child. I have a major problem with pretending that it is normal to comply with such a request, that it is normal to have a social media site where the LGBTQ+ people are closeted behind age-consent links and locked communities and not a visible, celebrated part of our communities and our art.

There are other issues at stake here. There is fandom history, which is something dear to me and something that concerns a lot of other people as well in this discussion. The idea of losing this venerable Tolkien community is upsetting for obvious reasons. There is pure sentiment, when I can remember clearly the day I set up the SWG community (the same day that I created my own, personal journal) with no idea of how to use LiveJournal but taking my first tentative steps into a fandom that would prove one of the joys of my life. I don’t want to see that end either. It breaks my heart that it might. But I can’t move past this.

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“Thus Wrote Pengolodh”: Historical Bias, Its Evidence, and Its Implications in The Silmarillion (Video)

This past weekend, I presented a paper titled “‘Thus Wrote Pengolodh’: Historical Bias, Its Evidence, and Its Implications in The Silmarillion” at the Tolkien at UVM Conference. The paper considered two big questions:

  1. Who wrote The Silmarillion? Or–is there evidence for the Númenórean tradition (beyond Tolkien saying more or less, “Hey, I think Númenóreans are involved in some way!), or is the Quenta Silmarillion essentially an Elven text? I argue that it is, looking at some new evidence for why the narrator must be Eldarin.
  2. What is the evidence for historical bias in The Silmarillion? I cover some of what was included in Attainable Vistas but also present some new evidence showing that The Silmarillion is a biased text that favors Gondolin and Doriath while going to lengths to downplay and negatively depict the Fëanorians.

The attached video is a recording (not live! made in the comfort of my own study) with the slides I showed at the conference.

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On Writing Aman, or the Balance between the Mythic and the Real

[What in the world is going on with this blog?? Well, my new life has hijacked my progress in my research somewhat. Okay, a lot. This year has essentially been my first year teaching all over again in terms of planning. And I’ve been making up for years of neglect on the SWG from while I was in grad school. I’ve had trouble prioritizing my research and writing. I know I need to do better. Anyway, I’m actually doing Back to Middle-earth Month this year and writing nonfiction for it. So I’ll likely cross-post a lot of what I do for that here, to remind myself that I am a Tolkien blogger as well as site owner, teacher, fiction writer … all the other hats I wear.]

Originally posted to B2MeM.


“In Valinor, all the days are beautiful.”

This was the very first line I wrote in my very first serious Silmarillion fan fiction, Another Man’s Cage. But I don’t believe it. (Which is okay–those were Celegorm’s words, not mine.) In fact, the twelve years of writing Silmarillion-based fiction could be seen as an exercise in proving Celegorm’s sentiment here wrong.

Early feedback on the first draft of AMC largely focused on this point. A comment by JunoMagic (now SatisMagic) sums this up nicely:

What I think is most difficult about stories that are primarily concerned with Elves and Elves in Aman at that, is how to keep their inherent elvishness alive and present throughout the story, a feeling that this is not a story about another kind of men, but about a different kind of beings, however closely related they might be. (emphasis mine)

The challenge of writing not-wholly-human beings is hardly new to the fantasy genre. Ursula LeGuin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie addresses it. “But the point about Elfland,” she writes, “is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie. It’s different” (145). Most of LeGuin’s essay focuses on style and the precarious process of achieving a style that sounds otherworldly without being distancing. But she takes jabs as well at fantasists who veer to close to the human and the our-worldly in their work:

The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness. And greatness of soul shows when a man speaks. At least, it does in books. In life we expect lapses. In naturalistic fiction, too, we expect lapses, and laugh at an “overheroic” hero. But in fantasy, which, instead of imitating the perceived confusion and complexity of existence, tries to hint at an order and clarity underlying existence–in fantasy, we need not compromise. (148, emphasis mine)

So while LeGuin’s essay is ostensibly about style, she also argues for characters of a “kind that do not exist on this earth,” which is a profoundly different thing. This gets back to the early criticism of AMC: readers’ unease with elements of the story that felt too “human” or “not Aman enough,” like weapons and predators and Elves who pee. I think this unease is far less common now than it was ten years ago; I like to think that my generation of Silmfic writers had something to do with that, as did the shift away from Tolkien fan fiction as largely a practice by fans already deeply committed to the books (and the orthodoxy of mainstream Tolkien fandom) and toward participation by fans who came to the fandom through one of the film trilogies (as indeed I did). These fans bring practices common to Fanworks as a Whole but not necessarily the Tolkien fanworks community as it existed in its original online form, practices which seem to allow for an easier break with fanon and orthodox interpretive approaches to the texts. But the issue still remains: How does one worldbuild a place like Aman?

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“Borders of the (Fictional) World” Data Charts and Data on OSA

This week’s post ties up a few loose ends from the past weeks’ posts and discussions surrounding my and Janet’s cowritten paper The Borders of the (Fictional) World: Fan Fiction Archives, Ideological Approaches, and Fan Identity. In the push to get the video done and the synopsis posted, I did not get a chance to convert the data graphics from our Powerpoint to web images. I have done that now, so you can see how each of the fifteen archives breaks down on the seven statements we studied.

I’ve also run numbers for the Open Scrolls Archive. OSA was not included in the data sets used for the paper because they barely missed the requirement that 5% of participants use that archive for posting their work. (4.78% of authors who answered the question, “Which sites have you used or do you use to post Tolkien-based fan fiction?” selected OSA.) I was *this* close to including OSA despite its missing the cutoff but, in the end, decided to stick by my decision for where to cut off archives from inclusion. It seemed to be opening a can of worms–worms with troublingly small sample sizes–to say nothing of the amount of work I was already undertaking in putting together data for fifteen archives. Adding a sixteenth just wasn’t practical at the time.

But not including OSA meant that we didn’t have a het archive in the study. We had a slash archive, a couple of genfic archives, an anti-slash archive, and many that didn’t take a position on genre one way or another. But an archive that positions itself as an archive for het–not an anti-slash archive* where het therefore becomes the default–was conspicuously absent. So when Rhapsody asked me why OSA was missing, it gave me a good excuse to run their data and look at it side-by-side with what I already had. The rather interesting results that I have found in recent week concerning het authors further whetted my curiosity.

I’m going to present the Powerpoint graphic for each of the seven statements and then show the data for OSA below the graphic with a brief discussion when warranted. Just as a reminder of the methodology here: Participants were asked to respond to a statement about their Tolkienfic-writing habits with five possible responses–Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, No Opinion/Not Sure. All of the statements here apply to authors, not readers. The data below shows the percentage of participants for each archive that chose Strongly Agree or Agree for the statement. The line in the middle shows the percentage of all participants who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, and the gray area surrounding that line shows archives that fall within +/-5% of that number. The three archives that agreed/strongly agreed most often are in red, and the three archives that agreed/strongly agreed least often are in blue.

“It is important to me to write stories that I think Tolkien would have approved of.”

Data for the statement It is important to me to write stories that I think Tolkien would have approved of

OSA: 10.7% agreed or strongly agreed.

This puts OSA among the archives least likely to care whether they think Tolkien would have approved of their stories or not. This statement goes along with the next in comprising the “morality” category of archives (see the circle graphic below).

“It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs.”

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Meta on Meta, Part 3: The Quest for Sources

The Lady of Shalott embarks upon a futile quest for Camelot, where she might find the article she needs for her paper

Once you’ve decided upon a topic, it is time to begin the research process. I think this is often the most intimidating part of the process, and it’s again partly the fault of academia, which has allowed much of its material to be locked inside a room at the top of an ivory tower. Without affiliation to an academic institution, most journals and scholarly books are out of reach of the general public, which is highly unethical in my not-so-humble opinion. In an effective democracy, cutting-edge knowledge cannot be accessible only to an elite few who have jumped through the right set of costly hoops. It can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to subscribe to some scholarly journals, and even downloading a single article via official channels can cost you $20 or more. If you belong to a university that subscribes to the top databases in your field, this is not an obstacle, but in the field of Tolkien studies, many scholars are also fans, and we lack those affiliations and the access those affiliations bring.

My purpose today is twofold: First, you need to figure out what kind of sources you are going to need for your research. Second, you need to find those sources.

Types of Sources and Deciding What You Need

There are many types sources that you can use in your nonfiction. Here are the major ones that I tend to use in my research:

  • Tolkien-based texts. Or, stuff written by Tolkien. Even if you look only at these, you’ll have over a dozen to choose from.
  • Tolkien scholarship. Stuff written about Tolkien by people other than Tolkien. There are multiple Tolkien studies journals being published (see below for a list) and several new books come out each year.
  • Other literary texts. Other literary and mythological texts that have a bearing on your research, e.g., mythological sources and literature that influenced Tolkien, other literature you’re comparing Tolkien to, etc.
  • Other scholarship. Needed to establish facts outside of Tolkien studies, e.g., an astronomy textbook if you’re writing about the constellations of Middle-earth.
  • Fan-written scholarship. Notice I say “scholarship” here! Yes, that’s what a lot of us do, and essays and resources created by fans can be excellent sources and are often much more accessible than academic sources. (They can be awful sources too, but so can a lot of what falls into the Tolkien scholarship category above. I’ll talk about source evaluation more next week.)
  • Other sources. Films, fan fiction,

You will not need all or most of these sources for your project. In fact, when you’re at this point in the project, my number-one piece of advice would be …

Don’t be afraid to limit your sources. There is nothing wrong with deciding to look at only one category or even a part of a category. For example, if you’re writing about music in Middle-earth, you might decide you want to look only at the texts Tolkien wrote. However, that’s still piles of research. It’s perfectly fair to decide that you want to look only at how music is used in The Lord of the Rings, for example. This is one way to tame your topic if you feel it running away from you or one way to make a new topic feel more manageable.

Where to Actually Find Stuff

Now that I’ve written extensively about how hard it is to find stuff, I’m going to give some tips, tricks, and resources that I’ve discovered over the years to actually … well, find stuff for my research.

It’s unlikely that this is going to be useful to read straight through. It’s intended as a reference–a place to start when you have a particular type of source in mind for your project–so don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information here. Most nonfiction projects will use only a small fraction of it. It also focuses more on scholarly rather than fan sources for the simple reason that finding them can be challenging for authors tackling their first nonfiction project. Whereas most of us know sites and blogs where we can find excellent writing and analysis by fellow fans, even extremely knowledgeable fans probably don’t know the major Tolkien studies journals, for example.

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Meta on Meta, Part 2: 101 Approaches to Tolkien Meta, or What the Heck to Write About

Often I will see a fandom challenge or a call for papers, and my first thought is YES I WANT TO DO THAT. Which is generally immediately follow by a mixture of terror and ennui because I have no idea what I want to do for it, and at that precise moment, it seems I have zero expertise in anything or nothing new to say and why should I even bother.

For a lot of writers, the task of just beginning–finding that Goldilocks topic that isn’t too broad or too specific but just right–is the hardest part of the process. I know it is for me. Once I have my topic and I begin writing, then the fun begins. This is the stage, for me, where I feel the most adrift and the most overwhelmed with doubts about my own skills as a writer and knowledge as a Tolkien scholar. I hope that my experience digging myself out of that hole will help others reach the sunlight and come away from the edge of the abyss to create a piece of meta they are proud of.

Write what you know. This is one of the mantras of fiction writing that I detest because it has produced reams of stories about navel-gazing academics and middle-class professionals and somehow contributed to the idea that speculative fiction is easier or less serious than so-called literary fiction. BUT in nonfiction writing, I think it is key, at least when you’re writing your first piece or operating under a tight deadline.

I make this mistake all the time. I see the aforementioned challenge or call for papers and immediately think of some grand idea that I know almost nothing about and that would take months if not years to master. Cue despair! It’s easy to fall into the fallacy of believing I don’t know anything about Tolkien. The problem, however, isn’t me; it’s my approach. There are certain topics I have been reading and thinking about for years–sometimes more than a decade! They have become so comfortable and familiar to me that they feel almost worn out. My perspective here is wrong, though: They are familiar and comfortable–TO ME. Few if any of my audience will find them nearly as familiar, much less worn out.

So this is where to begin. What have you been thinking about for years? Don’t be afraid to turn to your fan fiction. Do you have a lot of stories about a particular character? Then why not write about that character? Do you write often about a particular people or time period? A specific issue or theme, like power or death or hope? Is there a source that you use constantly–one of the texts in the History of Middle-earth, one of Tolkien’s letters, one of his lesser-known books or essays–when researching and writing your stories? Is there a Tolkien-related topic that you know so well that you’re quoting about it off the top of your head? Do you often make connections in your stories between the legendarium and our real world, whether Celtic mythology or feminism or botany? This is where you should be looking to begin.

Identify your purpose. Meta generally serves one of two purposes:

1) It is informative. It is meant to serve as a resource for other writers or to teach other fans something about the legendarium that they may not already know. In informative writing, you’re aiming to put information about a topic all together in one place or to break it down or organize it so that it is easier to understand. Examples of informative writing include a biography of Húrin, a compilation of information about all of the horses in The Lord of the Rings, or a summary of the Akallabêth.

2) It is persuasive. You are trying to convince your reader to see things the way that you do. Persuasive writing may necessarily include informative material as well; for example, I might review what we know about Nerdanel’s character before making the case that she is one of Tolkien’s strongest and most unappreciated women.

Think about which purpose best fits your topic. This will help you to focus your research and, eventually, your writing.

Think of your topic as a question. This is a trick I use often with my students. It’s easy to start writing on a subject and suddenly find yourself in the wilderness with no familiar landmarks in sight. You were writing about Tolkien’s cosmogony, and suddenly you find yourself ranting about the general misuse of religion in Tolkien scholarship. (This is purely an example, of course, and in no way based on personal experience. *ahem*) If you phrase your topic as a question and type it in a large bold font at the start of your draft, then you can constantly refer back and ask yourself: Does what I’m writing now help to answer that question? Or is what I’m writing now going to lead immediately into something that will answer that question? If you can’t say yes to either question, then back up to where you can and resume writing from there. Using this approach, it’s a lot harder to fool yourself into thinking that your tangent is actually relevant to your topic (like, sure, religion and cosmogony are often related, so of course that little digression on the overreliance on Christianity in Tolkien scholarship is totally still on-topic).

Goldilocks running away from the home of the Three Bears

Here are some examples of topics written as questions:

  • What connections does Tolkien’s Ainulindalë share with other creation myths from around the world, and how is it different? (See how it’s harder to justify my little rant once I phrase my topic as a question?)
  • Why was Maglor the only son of Fëanor who survived the First Age?
  • How are depictions of Arwen in fan fiction influenced by her portrayal in the movies and her portrayal in the books?
  • In what ways do “Tookish” characteristics differ from Hobbit culture overall?
  • Was it just of the Valar to ask Ilúvatar to reshape the world after the Númenóreans broke the Ban?

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get a Goldilocks topic right away. You know Goldilocks from the folktale: She didn’t like things that were extreme but “just right.” Ideally, your topic will be like Goldilocks: not too long, not too short, but just right.

Let me confess that I am horrible in finding a Goldilocks topic. My thesis advisor kept calling it my dissertation because, as she pointed out, at some schools, it would have been. Not long after, I received an editor’s comments on a journal article telling me that the topic could easily be a book; I ended up cutting that article nearly in half during revision. I have a bad problem with biting off more than I can chew but trying to chew it anyway.

Be open to adjusting your question if it becomes obvious that your question can be answered either with too little or too much for your purposes. This is something I’ve been deliberately working on as a writer and finding that it saves me a lot of angst. You often won’t know if your question can be answered in the time or space you have to answer it until you begin writing the answer to it. There’s nothing wrong with deciding partway through that you need to narrow your topic or open it up by rewriting your question. Keep an open mind: that question is not carved in stone!

101 Tolkien Meta Topic Ideas

Okay, so if you’re still stuck, here are one hundred and one possible approaches to Tolkien meta. One hundred and one seems like a rather awesome number, but the list will still be woefully incomplete because it still comes from just one brain with all the limitations and biases that brains have. Feel free to share additional approaches in the comments!

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Let’s Talk about Sex … and Genre

Y’all. I need to start out with an apology. Now more than a month ago, I was all super-confident that I’d be putting together these posts during my move and pre-scheduling them like a champ, thus creating the impression that moving 500 miles and doing some big renovations on a house don’t phase me at all. Well, it seems they phase me. I underestimated my ability to move furniture and lay flooring in the summer heat and still have energy left for survey work, and I just didn’t manage to get any posts pre-planned (and I still have about a dozen comments to answer!) By the time I had the chance to work again, I was frantically planning for the New York Tolkien Conference, then my family visited for a week. So. I hope I am not speaking too soon if I say that I’m back and weekly posts of survey data shall resume. I hope all are well and enjoying their summer (or winter for those of you in the south).

I hope I can at least partially make it up to you by resuming my weekly posts with a post about SEX. >;^)


 

In the popular imagination, sex and fan fiction go hand in hand. Now that the popular media has stopped openly mocking fan fiction writers, the main thing they like to talk about is how fan fiction is all about TEH SEX. It can “seem creepy, odd and superfluous” but is ultimately a “sex-positive wonderland.” It fills in the blanks left by abstinence-only sex ed for teenagers and permits exploration of “sexualities and kinks” for grown-ups too. In a lot of ways, this picks up where the fan fiction community itself has left off. I have a distinct memory of reading a post on Metafandom some years ago and feeling annoyed by the BNF from a fandom outside Tolkien who claimed that fan fiction is “all about the porn” because while there’s certainly nothing wrong with erotic fanfic, that wasn’t my fandom experience at all.

It is not so simple in the Tolkien fan fiction community, where not only is our fiction not “all about the porn” (although undoubtedly some is) but the question of writing about sex in Tolkienfic has historically been a contentious and often divisive issue for us. Anyone who has been around the Tolkien fanfic community for any length of time has probably heard comments about Tolkien “disapproving” or even “rolling in his grave” over the fact that some fan somewhere wrote about two of his characters getting it on. Early Tolkienfic groups often placed restrictions on what could be shared there, and those restrictions–even if they nominally included violence–usually had to do with sex. Not saying that it never happened, but I don’t personally remember anyone raising a stink over graphic violence in a story, unless it was someone raising a stink in the context of trying to prove the hypocrisy of those raising a similar stink over the indignity of two guys kissing in a Tolkienfic. Ai.

Hobbit Lads and Elflings, Therefore Sex?

This week I want to look at how attitudes toward sexuality in fanfic vary by the genre an author writes. I’m going to look at three items from the survey that concerned sex in Tolkienfic, beginning with what is probably the most innocuous: “Writing fan fiction lets me add sexuality to Tolkien’s world.” Choices of response were Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. There is no implied judgment, no implied motive of why the author would add sex to Middle-earth, only that they do because, well, we know there are Hobbit lads and Elflings, so there must be sex, right? Just reporting the facts, ma’am. Anyway, here are the how participants overall responded to the statement (n = 635):

Strongly Agree: 27.6%
Agree: 35.7% (subtotal: 63.3%)
Disagree: 11.7%
Strongly Disagree: 6.46% (18.2%)
No Opinion/Not Sure: 18.6% (more…)

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Meta on Meta, Part 1: In Which I Try to Convince You to Write Nonfiction

August is the LotR Genfic Community’s annual nonfiction challenge. The challenge is simple: Write and post a piece of nonfiction on any Tolkien-related topic of your choice. Yet this month’s challenge never fails to overwhelm people, even the same people who effortlessly write fiction–including commentary on the legendarium–about Tolkien all the time. Nonfiction–or meta, in fandom-speak–is admittedly intimidating. It shades into the scholarly side of the Tolkien fandom, where fanfic writers often haven’t felt welcome. It recalls high school and college essays, MLA format, grades, outlines, and all sorts of other stuff that fiction writers often unpleasantly recall. It’s a totally different format and tone, and it uses completely different conventions than fiction. One doesn’t simply walk into writing nonfiction! (Well, just like Frodo and Sam did indeed “simply walk into Mordor,” nonfiction is easy and natural for some people, not because they’re better writers but because they are experienced in the structure, conventions, and practices of nonfiction writing.)

I have always loved writing nonfiction. As an undergrad writing minor, my favorite classes weren’t the creative writing classes I took but the nonfiction classes. Because I love nonfiction writing so much and because I am a teacher of writing, I have decided that this year, during LotRGen’s nonfiction month, I am going to post a short piece on writing nonfiction, at least once per week on Tuesdays (and possibly more often). I hope this “meta on meta” will remove some of the misconceptions surrounding nonfiction and empower more people to try sharing their ideas in this way.

There is sometimes a misconception among fiction writers that nonfiction is rigid, strict, and without room for one’s voice. Many people believe it is restricted by rules rather than guided by creativity. That it’s inherently unfun. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Brilliant writers of nonfiction are brilliant because they hold their reader’s attention, often through their creativity and masterful use of a voice that is appealing and relatable to their audience. The worst nonfiction writers, in my not-so-humble opinion, are those who try too hard to sound learned or academic. They intentionally use words that they know will send 90% of their readers scrambling to the dictionary. They use sentence structures so complex that they have to be read multiple times to be understood, and they allude to things that they know most of their readers won’t know. In short, they try very hard to appear smarter than their readers.

Good nonfiction writers–again in my not-so-humble opinion–converse with their readers. That implies a relationship of equals. Even if they are sharing something they know that their readers probably do not, which is often the purpose of nonfiction writing after all, they speak to their readers as equals capable of not only understanding but using the information they present and contributing to the conversation surrounding its significance and meaning.

Tolkien was a brilliant writer of nonfiction. His essays were relatable and engaging. He didn’t use a five-syllable word when a two-syllable would do, he didn’t use jargon to keep non-experts from accessing his ideas, and he didn’t name-drop obscure academics. He used creativity, especially metaphor, to illustrate his concepts. His essays are beautiful as well as insightful. If you’ve never read his nonfiction, reading even part of one of his essays will probably do more to convince you of what can be done with a work of nonfiction than anything I say will. On Fairy-Stories is his well-known theory of fantasy. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is widely considered to be the most influential work of Beowulf scholarship ever written. (And as a Beowulf scholar myself, trust me–that’s a lot of scholarship and by some pretty heavy hitters.) It convinced critics to stop plumbing the poem simply for historical and linguistic details and to read it as a work of literature. Both essays show his easygoing style, his distinct voice, and most of all, his willingness to let his skill with creative writing aid him in his nonfiction writing as well as his fiction.

As fan fiction writers, we are uniquely poised to write nonfiction on Tolkien. We’re not only extremely well read and knowledgeable of textual minutia but used to putting those details together to express our ideas and theories about the texts. Fan studies scholars recognize fanfic as a vehicle of criticism, and while it is far from that simple in the Tolkien fanfic community, most Tolkienfic writers become experts on one or several parts of the legendarium simply from writing them so much, even if they don’t identify their purpose for writing fanfic as critical.

So, you might ask, if I believe that fanfic has a critical purpose and that fanfic writers are learned about the legendarium–and I do–then why advocate for writing nonfiction? Why not just handle criticism and commentary in our fiction?

  • Nonfiction is a format specific to handling critical and informative topics. In fanfic, we mix our criticism and commentary with a healthy dose of artistry, including imaginative invention. Short of meticulous footnotes explaining where everything comes from and how we arose at every inference, there is no easy way to distinguish in fiction what is critical and what is creative/imaginative.
  • So nonfiction is one way of not only explaining but documenting the ideas that you use in your stories. Sometimes I write nonfiction because I get weary of writing the same explanations over and over again when talking with readers about my work, and it’s easier to point to that particular resource.
  • Nonfiction also expands the resources available to other Tolkien fans, including other fanfic writers. If you’ve ever been assigned a prompt in a ficswap about a character, event, or place you know little about and turned to fan-created resources to help you write your story, then you appreciate the role that nonfiction can play in fanfic. You’re most likely an expert in something about Tolkien’s world and can use your expertise to similarly help fellow writers.
  • Nonfiction opens discussions specifically about canon and criticism. Discussion of a story concerns writing technique and the reader’s reaction in addition to the canonical and critical basis of the story. If you’ve ever wanted to discuss Tolkien’s origins of Orcs or what he meant when he called The Lord of the Rings a Catholic book or why only mortal males get to marry Elves, then nonfiction is a way to open such a discussion.
  • As a fan fiction writer, you view the text different from a Tolkien scholar and are very likely already engaging in ideas that haven’t reached the scholarly side of the fandom yet. I put that in bold because I often feel that fanfic writers don’t believe they have a place at the table when contributing to Tolkien scholarship. And it’s true that scholars engage with ideas that we as fanfic writers really don’t … but just as often, we are engaging with ideas that the scholars aren’t. A different sort of creativity is at the heart of fanfic writers’ readings of the texts, a sort of creativity that isn’t taught to scholars of literature. We have a lot to say, and I hope that some of us will stand up and say it.

This month’s nonfiction challenge is as good a place as any to begin. If you think you’d like to try nonfiction, I hope you’ll join us on the challenge and in the discussion here. On Tuesday, 2 August, I will share some tips on choosing a topic for nonfiction writing, including 101 approaches to writing Tolkien meta.

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NY Tolkien Conference: “The Borders of the (Fictional) World: Fan Fiction Archives, Ideological Approaches, and Fan Identity” (Video)

Two weeks ago*, Janet McCullough John and I co-presented a talk at the New York Tolkien Conference on Tolkien fan fiction archives. This presentation grew from my work on the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey, specifically from some data I’d run while writing a paper (in press) for the Journal of Tolkien Research. Investigating how fan writers respond to narrative bias in The Silmarillion, I’d looked which characters authors from different sites generally write about and was rather surprised to find a divide based on the site I was looking at: On some sites, characters ignored or disfavored by the narrator were preferred, and other sites showed no effect at all. In an attempt to explain this, I turned to some of my survey data and found, again, that users of different sites varied noticeably in how they responded to the different items in the survey. This prompted me to look closer at differences in responses among the various archives.

Janet begins with a review of the history of the Tolkien fandom. One of our theses is that the cultures on the various archives have developed from conflicts within the fandom that extend back to the fandom’s origins. There has always been disagreement over the “right way” to interpret Tolkien’s books, which often boils down to who is allowed to interpret them. There have been large injections of new fans into the fandom at various points in its history–the unauthorized Ace Books version brought the book to the attention of American fans, especially within the hippie counterculture, and two blockbuster film trilogies rocketed Tolkien back into the pop culture consciousness decades later–and veteran fans have tended to react negatively when these newcomers bring readings of the texts that stray from what had been conventional in the fandom to that point.

This tendency was picked up by the Tolkien fanfic community as well. Janet describes how the simultaneous rise of Web 2.0 in the early aughts and the first of the Peter Jackson films not only opened a floodgate of new fannish activity but enabled it to be shared online. We see our first online fanfic groups at this time–often based on Yahoo! Groups–followed by the creation of independent web archives for Tolkien-based fan fiction. (Fanlore has an excellent timeline of what happened when, both for traditional and Internet fandom.) But these new fans brought new ideas, often movie-inspired, that sometimes conflicted with how veteran fans read the texts. This provoked the creation of resources and discussion and reading groups aimed at new fans, but it also provoked hostility and gatekeeping practices aimed at excluding new fans or certain uses/interpretations of the texts (which were often typical of new fans and so served the same purposes).

We chose an archive for our study if it was used by 5% or more of survey participants who filled out the field asking what archives they used to post their writing. We looked solely at writers, not readers, in this study. This gave us fifteen archives: AdultFanFiction.org, Archive of Our Own (AO3), Dreamwidth, Faerie, FanFiction.net, the Henneth-Annûn Story Archive, Library of Moria, LiveJournal, LotRFanFiction.com**, Many Paths to Tread, the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild, Stories of Arda, Tolkien Fan Fiction, Tumblr, and Yahoo! Groups.

The Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey consists mostly of statements to which participants have five choices of response: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. (Participants were also able to skip any question aside from the eligibility screening question, “Do you read and/or write Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?”) We pulled out seven of these statements and looked at how responses varied by archive:

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Tolkien Fan Fiction Genre and Attitudes Toward Fan Fiction

After last week’s slog of mostly unsatisfying data, I’m ready to give demographics a break for a week and, before taking a look at genre and reader demographics, considering a question that I hope will be a little more interesting. (Sorry if you were desperately awaiting evidence on whether slash readers are older on average than genfic readers!) Specifically, I want to know whether a writer’s identification with a particular genre correlates with their attitudes on issues of morality, canon, and criticism in fan fiction.

If you’ve been involved with Tolkien fanfic for any length of time, then you know the argument. Some people will insist that sticking to Tolkien’s values–including his perceived intentions–is the only way to respect his work, and respecting his work is essential to taking the liberties of using it. Others will insist that fan fiction is by its very nature a vehicle of criticism, and authors are perfectly within bounds to use fiction to challenge his ideas and beliefs. Still others don’t really care about the purpose of fan fiction; they just want to have fun with the texts and a fictional world that they enjoy imagining beyond what the author provided. Of course, most writers fall somewhere in the mix between these extremes. Do writers who feel one way or the other tend to write (or avoid) particular genres?

Remember that the statement concerns identity with a genre, not simply writing it: “I identify myself as an writer,” where X is either femslash, genfic, het, or slash. I didn’t simply want to know if a person had ever in their (sometimes very lengthy) time in the fandom authored a story of that genre but what genres they see as shaping their identity as a fan fiction writer.

Why So Serious?? Genre and Escapism

Writers often identify escapism as a motive for writing fan fiction. One of the statements in my survey asked participants to respond to the statement, “Writing fan fiction is a form of escape for me” (response options for all statements were Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure). This question confirmed the popular wisdom: 85.4% of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

I was interested in the question of whether writers who identified with any particular genre had escapist motives more (or less) often than writers in general. Slash writers were the most likely to agree or strongly agree with the statement. The percentage was pretty similar for participants who agreed or strongly agreed for the other three genres. Below are the percentages who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement for the four genres, in order from greatest to least:

Slash writers: 92.4%
Het writers: 
88.5%
Femslash writers: 
 86.8%
Genfic writers: 86.0%

The most interesting results I found, however, occurred when I looked at the numbers for those who’d agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about escapism but disagreed or strongly disagreed that they identified with a particular genre. For every single genre, the writers who didn’t identify with that genre had escapist motives less often than those who did. And it didn’t matter what genres you were comparing between, e.g., a person who identified as a genfic writer has escapist motives more often than someone who didn’t identify as a het writer. Seeing the numbers may make clearer what I’m trying to say. The percentages below show how many participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about escapism but disagreed or strongly disagreed that they identified as authors of that genre, again in order from greatest to least:

Non-slash writers: 84.8%
Non-genfic writers: 
84.7%
Non-het writers: 84.4%
Non-femslash writers: 83.6%

The opposite is true to: These “non-genre” writers are more likely to disagree or strongly disagree about escapism than their genre-embracing counterparts.

What to make of this? That the authors who resist identification with the major genres of Tolkien fanfic (and the not-always-serious tropes and conventions that go along with them) view their their fan fiction as having a more serious purpose than “mere escapism”? That those who identify with a genre or few are more likely to cut loose and let their imaginations wander off on a romantic fling with Fingon or to a fluffy family cuddle with the Fëanorians or a ridiculously fun space AU? It does seem that way to me. (If you see a different interpretation, let me know in a comment!)

Genre and Morality

One of the statements I included in my survey was “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs.” This statement has a loaded history in the Tolkien fan fiction community, where morality was often invoked as a reason to exclude or even attack writers of certain genres and pairings. Amy Fortuna, the founder of Least Expected, the Internet’s first Tolkien slash archive, wrote in a comment on the post Reading and Writing Habits Related to Fan Fiction Genre:

Speaking as someone who was around in the early days – pre-movie LOTR slash fandom circa 1999, in particular – slash fandom was specifically a safe space from the more mainstream parts of the fandom. The archives of tolkien_slash, the first [mailing list] specifically for slash and femslash fandom, make interesting reading; I recently reread some of the first few messages, and they are very much about *finally* having a safe space! I used to go and fight pitched battles about slash on general Tolkien forums – perhaps naively believing I could get people to understand.

Ten years ago, it wasn’t pleasant, but 17 years ago it was constant uphill fighting every step of the way, outside of our safe places.

Arguments like “Tolkien wouldn’t have approved of that” or “that wasn’t Tolkien’s intention” were used against a range of interpretations, but slash writers probably heard these kinds of remarks the most. These kinds of arguments are definitely less common these days, but I was curious if the different genres still attracted fans with particular views on what role–if any–Tolkien’s morality should play in what authors should write (and what archives should allow them to share).

The short answer is: Yes, writers of the different genres have very different views on this question. The data below show what percentage of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs,” for each genre, in order from greatest to least. (Once again, I am stuck using the awkward non-genre terminology to identify writers who chose Disagree or Strongly Disagree when asked about identity with a particular genre. Of all participants, 21.4% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about morality.)

Non-slash writers: 36.2%
Het writers: 32.9%
Non-femslash writers: 29.0%
Genfic writers: 28.5%
Non-het writers: 12.7%
Non-genfic writers: 11.7%
Slash writers: 11.4%
Femslash writers: 7.55%

In other words, those writers most likely to value Tolkien’s morality in writing their own stories are those writers who do not identify as slash writers. Those least likely to value Tolkien’s morality in their writing are femslash writers.

I was initially surprised at the fact that the genfic writers fell solidly in the middle of the pack (although still above the average for all writers). I thought they’d be the group most likely to try to keep their stories consistent with Tolkien’s morality; after all, genfic is by definition not explicitly sexual (whereas the other genres all can be). The more I think about it, though, the results are probably capturing a lot of authors like me who write mostly (or all!) genfic but nonetheless use the genre to criticize and comment on Tolkien’s views. Walking a narrow moral line is as antithetical to our purpose as it is to those who write fanfic for the purpose of writing slash pairings.

It was the het writers who were most likely of the four genres to view Tolkien’s morality as important when writing their stories. This surprised me; about a third of them agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. It’s hard to know how to interpret this. Perhaps it includes those writers who enjoy writing romance or erotica but who balk at writing same-sex relationships that they believe Tolkien would have disapproved of. Perhaps it includes writers who embrace canonical relationships, all of which would have been het, and reject noncanonical pairings entirely as inappropriate use of his work.

Femslash comes up as the genre where authors are least likely to pay heed to Tolkien’s morality and by quite a bit: the only genre with numbers in the single digits. This didn’t surprise me. This continues to support the view of femslash as a genre often embarked upon by authors with progressive purposes for writing, such as seeing more diverse characters represented or exploring the experiences of characters from underrepresented groups.

Overall, these results show that, while the Tolkien fan fiction community has become a much more tolerant place than it was a decade or two ago, issues of morality and genre continue to be bound to each other like a Dark Lord to his favorite jewelry. Although a majority of authors who don’t write slash avoid the genre for reasons unrelated to morality, for more than a third of them, it seems that Tolkien’s morality may play some role in their choice of genre. This perhaps explains some of the continued tension between fans of the various genres, even in the absence of the flame wars that characterized the fandom a decade and more ago.

Genre and Critical Purpose

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