I feel like I should mark it on my calendar: four days ago, The New Yorker published The True History of Jewish Wizards at Hogwarts by Nathaniel Stein. There’ve been earlier edge cases at the magazine, like their Bill Gibson/Sabermetrics mashup, but all of them have had plausible deniability. Stein’s piece is clearly fanfic. Arguably, it’s self-insertion.
Why does our beloved genre and its epiphenomena keep breaking through into the mainstream? IMO, because we have so many cool toys, and writers have near-zero resistance to them. The privileging of the mainstream was a social construct built around a distribution channel, and Main Street’s been in bad shape for a while now, but there’s nothing theoretical about a case of the plot bunnies. Ask any writer who’s had one. The only way to get rid of a plot bunny, even a disreputably fannish one, is to write it.
When I first got started in bookbinding, the person who inspired me the most was Thomas J Cobden-Sanderson. He was one of the foremost figures in the great flowering of the British Arts and Crafts movement, as a bookbinder, a printer, and a type designer.
Although it was his masterful bindings that first caught my attention, his personal story held it. He’d been a solicitor, focusing on railway law, when he suffered a nervous breakdown in his early forties. He went to Italy to recuperate, and ended up doing more than that: he met and married Anne Cobden (and combined surnames with her; he had been born Sanderson). Through her he met William and Jane Morris, and they convinced him to give up the law and become first a bookbinder, and then a printer. He was extraordinarily talented at all of it.
As an adult taking up an art, I found this tremendously heartening. I’m no Cobden-Sanderson, neither in talent nor in need for a change, but what he did in 24-point bold, I could certainly do in 8-point roman.
And the way he struggled with depression spoke to me, since I do as well. It was probably that depression that led him to what I can only call a work of artistic despair: when the future of the Doves Press that he had founded looked bleakest, and further control of his work less and less likely, he gradually took all of the type from the press to Hammersmith Bridge and threw it into the Thames. It was an incalculable loss: the Doves type was unique and beautiful.
There’s a powerful statement here about the tension between consent and preservation, between individual and collective good. I completely understand his desire to retain control of his work, and his revulsion at the idea that it could be used in the mechanical processes he so despised. It would be like Treebeard watching the ents be set on on treadmills to power Saruman’s monstrous works at Isengard. But still, the loss of the type has always seemed like a crime, or perhaps a sin, to me. It was a lessening of human knowledge and a diminution of the beauty in the world.
(We struggle with this always. Virgil asked that the Aeneid be destroyed when he died. Are we right to read it now, given his deathbed wish?)
If it was a kind of sin, there is now a sort of redemption: Robert Green, a designer working on a digital version of the Doves type based on printed examples, went looking and found some 150 pieces. But it’s probably not usable, and there will never be a complete set, so perhaps Cobden-Sanderson is also satisfied in the end.
(There remains the question of the Green’s digital work, but that falls, at least for me, into the long tradition of using earlier examples of lettering as a basis for new fonts. I think, or hope, that the work of translation and interpretation required to make a digital typeface from the Doves printed matter would form enough of a remove for Cobden-Sanderson’s peace of mind.)
(Thanks to Cadbury Moose for the heads-up on the story, and Sisuile Butler for the link to the article.)
Just the other day I noted in the sidebar my bemusement that heated lettercolumn exchanges in the New York Review of Books now resemble nothing so much as those found in fanzines like Richard E. Geis’s The Alien Critic, back in the day.
In further bemusement, I see that the New York Times Magazine is running a profile—in next Sunday’s issue—of the late Andrew J. Offutt. By his son Chris, focussing on Offutt’s prodigious lifetime output of pornographic novels.
Like most people who were involved in the subculture of science fiction fanzines and conventions in the mid-to-late 1970s, I remember Andy Offutt as an SF writer with a large presence in fandom and a reputation for approachability and generosity. And I remember his wife Jodie as an ever greater presence in printed fanzines.
But I have to admit that my first reaction was to be startled that the article doesn’t so much as mention Offutt’s two years as president of SFWA (1976-78). Immediately followed by the realization that I was mentally recapitulating the logic of Field and Stream’s legendary 1959 review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“One is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping”), the difference being that Field and Stream was joking and my brain was not.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter have been pandering to me expertly. (Humongous Spoiler Alert: if you don’t want spoilers, skip this entry entirely.)
The substance that brought Coulson back from the dead came from the preserved corpse of a blue alien:
TNH: The effing Blue Kree are mixed up in this?Agent Coulson finally decodes that weird diagram and displays it as a 3D blueprint of a city:
PNH: Kree as in Kree-Skrull wars?
TNH: Sort of. Blue Kree are the Kree Empire equivalent of Batista-era super-right-wing Cuban refugees: blah blah blah no surrender, blah blah blah they will be avenged.
Coulson: We don’t know where this city is.When Agent Carter’s friend Dottie the Waitress is threatened by the sinister, trigger-happy Mr. Mink, she unexpectedly pulls some spectacular martial arts moves and drops him cold:
TNH: It’s in the Blue Area on the moon.
TNH: The Inhumans moved their city there.
TNH: Black Bolt and Medusa’s guys.
TNH: Also, Uatu the Watcher.
TNH: I think he’s there. I can’t keep track of Uatu.
TNH: Red Room!Watching the shows has reminded me how much pleasure there is in piecing together continuity, even when that continuity is derived from some fairly cheesy ancestral narratives. Story is greater than the sum of its parts.
TNH: She’s Russian.
PNH: Red Room?
TNH: Sinister Cold War-era organization that trained Natasha Romanov. Dottie’s using the same moves as Black Widow.
What happens in my head when I spot one of these Marvel universe connections feels like a bigger version of the little burst of pleasure you get when you figure out an inobvious word in a crossword puzzle. It’s a physiological response: your mind rewards your success.
I’ve since learned that the term for this kind of thing is “continuity porn”. Someone’s bound to point out that it can be overdone, which is true; but in general, I’m for it. It makes stories more interesting, and multiplies the payoffs the reader or viewer gets in return for assimilating some bit of exposition.
One of the more useful properties of interconnected continuity is the way it provides a bridge for new exposition, making it easier to assimilate. Say I’m looking at a comic book panel that shows an unfamiliar superhero team. What I find myself automatically doing is scanning the picture for characters I’ve met elsewhere. If any are present, who they are and how they’re drawn will tell me a lot about this new team and their storyline. If no characters overlap with my previous reading, I feel it as a slight additional burden: I’m going to have to figure these guys out from scratch.
Note: I’m not saying any of this is good or bad. I’m saying this how something works.