Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Corey Robin and Condoleezza Rice.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

Roz Kaveney, writing in the Independent, writes that Stephen King's latest novel is "about time-travel, about the attempt to create a new and better world by going back and changing one big thing: in this case, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy." "Jake Epping, the hero of King's new book 11.22.63, is not a scientist but a divorced high school teacher from Maine" reports Adam LeBor in the Financial Times.

LeBor finds that the novel "marks a definite maturing of literary command and ambition and is a step up from recent, more standard works [by King], such as Cell (2006)." By contrast, Rachel Cooke writes in the Observer that "King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words ... I wouldn't have finished 11.22.63 if I hadn't been reviewing it. Whilst King's novel is "coherent enough to make an intellectual point, [it] seems to be arguing that meddling in history is a bad idea. Things - even awful things - happen for a reason ... I'm not sure I agree."

"The key to any novel set in an alternate reality is credible world-building ... King succeeds in this, partly by drawing on his own memories. He was 11 years old in 1958" writes LeBor. Kaveney comments that, "One of the strengths of the book is King's at once nostalgic and honest view of the end of the Eisenhower era. Jake is conscious that it's quite a nice time for him, but that as a straight white man, it would be."

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin

In a collection of previously published essays "Corey Robin, an American academic of the left, believes that while his ideological enemy adapts to circumstance, it does not change" writes John Kampfner in the Guardian. "The ruling class rests 'its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood ... Failure is its most potent source of inspiration. Loss - real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige - is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.'"

Sheri Berman writes in the New York Times that Robin defines conservatism as "an inherently elitist and hierarchical ideology, whose essence is the defense of elite privileges against challenges from below." However, a big problem with Robin's thesis is that: "Fascism and National Socialism ... were anti-elitist and deliberately destroyed the traditional orders in the countries where they gained power. The strongest right-wing movements in the West in more recent decades have been populist as well."

Kampfner comments that, "Perhaps the biggest weakness is Robin's inability to engage with Conservatism's enduring popularity" and concludes that whilst this is "a very readable romp through the evils of Conservatism ... the book would have been more powerful if the author had not allowed his visceral loathing to get the better of him."

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1995 to 2007, reviews No Higher Honor in the 14 November issue of the New Statesman. Powell describes the memoir as a "diplomatic tour d'horizon, a canter round the world as Rice rushes from one event to another." It gives "occasional glimpses of her reserve: for instance, when she is required to put on a comic karaoke performance at a retreat of Asean foreign ministers and is told that her predecessor Colin Powell performed a pastiche of the Village People's 'YMCA.'"

Toby Harnden writes in the Telegraph that "there's a saying in Washington that every political memoir can be boiled down to six words: "If Only They'd Listened to Me." ... Condoleezza Rice's weighty and rather ponderous account of her time as President George W Bush's National Security Adviser and Secretary of State is a classic of the genre."

Dissimilarly, Glenn Kessler reports in the Washington Post that "in many ways, this is the first serious memoir of the Bush presidency ... Rice emphasizes that the well-publicized disputes with Cheney and Rumsfeld were (in her mind) not personal, but simply business ... Given how roughly Cheney and Rumsfeld treated her in their accounts of the Bush years, such equanimity is remarkable." Powell concludes that the memoir is "nice, reserved and long. And [Rice] doesn't try to pin the blame on anyone but herself."

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“My words stayed in folders”: life as a fandom lurker

I was listening to the conversations of other fans, but I wasn’t talking. For years—for more than a decade, in fact—I didn’t say a word.

When I was a child, I wrote stories about my favourite characters. Lots of children do this: whether they write it down or act it out, on playgrounds or with a handful of dolls, this kind of storytelling is a natural part of play.

As I entered adolescence, my stories grew elaborate. I took someone else’s characters and gave them massive backstories and a supporting crew of original characters in what I later realised was fanfiction, original stories drawn from someone else’s source material. (In this case, it was a corporate board: I was fixated on self-made millionaires, and told my parents and teachers I was going to grow up to be a “ruthless businesswoman.”) I wasn’t ashamed of my stories, but I didn’t share them with—or even mention them to—anyone else.

I’ve met a lot of people who played with other writers’ characters as a child. “I did that when I was a kid,” they tell me. “As I got older, I grew out of it.” But as I got older, I grew into it—and I went online. By the time the internet was truly accessible to me, past those blisteringly slow dial-up years to the point where, if I stayed up late enough, I could have the big, clunky desktop in my parents’ kitchen all to myself, I was fourteen. And right around then, I fell hard for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The fan sites of the late nineties looked like much of the organic web of the late nineties: garish colours and bad fonts. With Buffy, there was a lot of black. I don’t remember being surprised to find Buffy lovers on the web; after all, many of my friends were as obsessed as I was. (I modelled my Buffy scrapbook, painstakingly cut-out articles about the show and its cast, on one a friend had made, though hers was focussed on Angel, and mine was much more sensibly about Rupert Giles.) Many of the people making and reading these Buffy sites were adults, but that didn’t make a difference to me.

What did make a difference was the night I discovered that other people wrote fanfiction. I’ve written before about the utter dissonance of that moment of discovery, about how confused I was by the first story I encountered. Even though I loved writing this stuff, it never occurred to me that other people would want to spend their time rearranging beloved characters on the page.

There were whole archives built around it, I soon learned, and prolific authors who posted work on individual sites. (This was 1999, early days for future fanfic juggernauts like fanfiction.net and LiveJournal.) There was so much to read. People sorted work by character, by romantic pairing, by genre, by trope. They were using fiction to talk back to the show—and to each other.

I dipped a toe into online fanfiction waters, slowly at first, until suddenly, I was drowning in it. I left one fandom and entered another: within a few years, I was wholly consumed by Harry Potter, where I’d stick around for close to a decade (and where now, weirdly, I have returned). As I read, I kept writing - other peoples’ fanfic only gave me more ideas. My drafts migrated from notebooks to word processors and my desktop folders were full of outlines and half-finished fics.

But my words stayed put in those folders: they were as private as they’d ever been. Online fandom was a world where people were having conversations about the things they loved. For more than a decade, I was listening to the conversations, but I didn’t say a word. I was a lurker.

In fact, most people in online communities are lurkers. What was once relatively easy to define—there were people who posted things on or moderated message boards, for example, and people who didn’t—has grown murkier with the rise of social media. But the prevailing wisdom still favours the 90-10-1 rule, which argues that 90 per cent of the people on the web are largely passive readers, 10 per cent are actively engaging with content, and just one per cent create that content. I, like the majority of my fellow fans, have spent most of my fandom life in the broad base of that pyramid.

Loving something with that deep, fannish love, can be a complicated thing. It’s different for everyone, I suppose, but for me, lurking has always sprung from a weird duality: I simultaneously want to talk about the objects of my fandom while also wanting to keep them incredibly private. In my lurking years, I felt like I loved this stuff just as much as everyone who was posting and creating and sharing, but then, I didn’t have proof  beyond my thousands of words of fanfiction, sitting in endless folders on my desktop.

For me, online fanfiction has always been a very private space that paradoxically exists in the public sphere. Over the years I’ve encountered stories that I hold as close to my heart as the source material they were based upon. Cloistered in my fanfiction-reading world, cut off from a lot of other fannish discussion, I missed interpersonal dramas and ship wars and, as arguments are colloquially known in many fan communities, wank. Even when fanfic writers and readers moved en masse to LiveJournal, I steered clear of the personal posts and diary entries: the most I’d see of authors I was reading were little notes at the beginning of chapters: “Sorry this is going up late! Life got in the way.” Fanfiction writers were, for me, their writing alone.

Lurkers occupy a difficult space in fan communities, which are usually built on unpaid labour. For many fic writers, part of the reward of writing lies in communicating with their readers, who are fellow fans. For most of my lurking life, I read in spaces where the only way to interact with writers was to leave a comment, but in recent years, I’ve done most of my fic reading at the Archive of Our Own, where a “kudos,” a little heart button, can be used instead. I regularly see Tumblr posts about the vast gulf between the number of people who leave kudos versus comments. Fandom, many argue, is powered on dialogue and verbal encouragement, and writers need more than a little “like.” And who can blame them?

But after years lurking, of revelling in fanfiction communities while staying resolutely silent, how do I learn to speak up? Social media has helped: I’ve made fandom friends on Twitter and Tumblr, aided by my pivot into writing about fan culture as a journalist. (I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t make my story fairly unusual amongst fanfic lurkers, but still!) I’ve floated little pieces of my personal fannishness out into the world. Now, people know what I ship, what characters I relate to, even some of the stories I love, as I shyly recommend the stuff that’s left me flailing or smacking the couch in glee or saying aloud to literally no one, “This is so good,” as I read it.

My natural instinct remains to lurk. I pepper the web with little hearts and favourites and kudos, but I rarely go in deep on public forums about the things I really love. It’s a curious position for someone who writes and talks a lot about fan culture: I am the perpetual observer, and the incredibly reluctant participant. But as the web has evolved, so have I: I’m inching closer to participatory culture, not just creating, but sharing what I create. And I’ve got thousands of words of new fanfiction, sitting in a folder in my desktop. Perhaps it’s time to finally speak up.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.