Please, please, please journalists: stop asking celebrities about fan fiction. Photo: Getty
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Why it doesn’t matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of Sherlock fan fiction

Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert the mainstream perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in their own way. It’s not for the benefit of middle-aged men with a vast audience and little understanding of the form.

Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch has a thing for interstellar bondage. It must be his favorite kink. Why else would he, when talking about Star Trek on Top Gear last summer, jump to his favorite John/Sherlock fic trope the second Jeremy Clarkson made a well-worn Kirk/Spock innuendo? “If I talk about a relationship between two men in a drama, they’re immediately ‘at it’,” Cumberbatch said, sounding, well, kind of annoyed. “The world wide inter-lie will just basically go splat. There’s a load of fan fiction which has me and John Watson floating in space on a bed handcuffed to one another . . . not just with handcuffs, either.”

Then just this week, in an interview with Out editor-in-chief of Aaron Hicklin (ostensibly to promote The Imitation Game and discuss the legacy of Alan Turing), he goes there again. Complaining about how women express apparently misguided sexual interest in his depiction of Sherlock, Cumberbatch can’t help but bring up his favorite trope. “Because, you know, they either want to make John [Watson] into a sort of cute little toy, or me into a cute toy, or we’re fucking in space on a bed, chained together.”

He continues describing scenes from erotic Sherlock fic, something on which he must be an expert. I’ll quote the paragraph in full, because Hicklin’s influence - from his writing about Cumberbatch’s “rabid fan base” to the way you see him leading the actor through the conversation - comes across loud and clear:

Cumberbatch is referring to the rapacious slash fiction community that has turned his chilly, acerbic, and distinctly asexual Sherlock into a lustful cock monster. “It’s always, like, one of them is tired, one comes back from work, the other is horny, a lump appears in his trousers, and then they’re at it,” he says. “It’s usually me getting it – I’m biting Watson’s dog tags.” Perhaps, I suggest, making Holmes and Watson gay is a way to remove other women from the picture. “Yes, yes,” he replies enthusiastically. “I think it’s about burgeoning sexuality in adolescence, because you don’t necessarily know how to operate that. And I think it’s a way of neutralising the threat, so this person is sort of removed from them as somebody who could break their heart.”

While I love the idea that Cumberbatch always shows up for the Johnlock/handcuffs/bed in space kink meme, I think the context of these quotes puts a pretty quick damper on that joke. There is at least one story I know of in the Sherlock fandom that matches this broad description. I’m guessing Cumberbatch was shown it, possibly against his will, because after all people think it’s super funny to show actors erotic fanfic and fan art! – and I think it’s not an insane leap to suggest he hasn’t been shown much else, or sought any of it on his own. He does refer to the internet as the “world wide inter-lie”; I’m assuming he doesn’t choose to spend much time there.

These comments have, as you might imagine, caused a bit of a firestorm in some corners of fandom, and I think they warrant a response. They raise old questions that have been turned over in fan communities for years but have been largely ignored by the mainstream media: questions of how (mostly) female desires and (mostly) female fan practices are unduly misunderstood and mocked, with fanworks at the heart. Does it matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of Sherlock fanfic? Not particularly. I – and many others – would make the case that it’s not for him. (And someone should gently explain to him that despite the fact that he always refers to himself instead of Sherlock in these exchanges, he is not actually the character that he plays, no matter how hard he wishes it.) But does it matter that two middle-aged men with very large platforms were sitting at a table pathologising teenage girls’ sexuality – and making a whole load of potentially harmful assumptions about a topic they know literally nothing about? Absolutely.

I’ll pause here for a moment to step back and define a few terms, because I’m aware that not everyone reading this column has, like me, been knee-deep in slash fic for years. Fan fiction, of course, is when writers use source material – a show, a book, even a real-life celebrity persona – as some sort of basis to write original fiction. It’s hugely popular, though it’s only recently been thrust into a mainstream spotlight. In the form we know now, it’s been around for decades; the practice of remixing and playing with influences has been around for…basically all of literature. (For a great introduction to the topic, I always recommend Anne Jamison’s Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World.) When two (or more) characters are depicted in a relationship or entering into one, that’s a pairing; the act of shipping, rooting for one particular pairing whether it’s happening in the source material or not, often expresses itself in fic. Slash refers to a gay pairing, almost always male/male – female/female is most often called femslash. Female/male is “het” or sometimes, in annoyingly heteronormative fashion, “gen”, which is short for “general”.

Despite the popular media narrative, tons of fanfic is not erotic. Different people want different things from their stories, and plenty of fanworks don’t even focus on relationships. Take Sherlock, for instance; of the 63,000-plus stories on Archive of our Own (AO3), the (arguably) de-facto fic-hosting archive these days, about half are labeled “Sherlock Holmes/John Watson”. Other pairings, from John/Mary on down to characters who have never even spoken to each other onscreen (hey, it’s Sherlock: we’re working with nine total episodes that are like 85 per cent Holmes and Watson only) have a few thousand results – and many of the others are just stories where they solve crimes and have domestics and do all the other things they do on the show. (For that matter, plenty of Johnlock stories are just like that, too, but they take the implicit romance as depicted in the show and make it explicit, sometimes with sex – and sometimes without it.)

I bring these numbers up for context – not to suggest that there aren’t erotic stories being written. There are. Huge numbers of women write and read erotica, original and fanfic alike. Erotic fan fiction functions similarly to any other type of fan fiction: the pleasures of the medium – the sorts of games the fic author plays with the source material – are all there, plus there’s sex. But it’s the sex bit, the female-authored sex bit, that always seems to rankle, particularly with television or film fandoms, when there are actors’ faces attached to the characters. And people get particularly riled up when it comes to slash (male/male, I mean – two ladies is cool!!), anger at the very suggestion that a character might be gay and engaging in gay sex. If someone objects to these characters being appropriated in fic, you wonder if they’d be as upset to see good guys turned into vicious killers as they often are to see good guys getting it on with other good guys.

When I say these are largely female-authored texts, it’s not an exaggeration: the majority of fanfic writers are female or non-male (which isn’t to say male authors aren’t welcome, though I can’t speak to anyone’s specific experience). In a recent self-reported survey of more than 10,000 AO3 users, more people identified as genderqueer than male. We can speculate all we want about why this is the case; I’ve heard many theories over the years. Women like to fill in the gaps, or women like to spend more time with character development. My preferred explanation is the idea that the vast majority of what we watch is from the male perspective – authored, directed, and filmed by men, and mostly straight white men at that. Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert that perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in her own way. The genderqueer stat doesn’t surprise me at all, nor does the one that says just 38 per cent of respondents identify as straight. It often feels as if there isn’t much space for difference in the dominant cultural narratives; in fandom, by design, there’s space for all.

And what of slash in particular, of the propensity of many female fans to focus on relationships between two men? On that front, explanations get even more varied. For some, it’s as simple as shooting back, “Well, straight men watch two women, right?” For others, it’s not so cut-and-dried. I’ve seen the idea that women want to explore love and sex without the constrictions of traditional gender roles in heterosexual relationships. Or the idea that there are far more male characters on our screens – and, for that matter, vastly more complex ones: these are often the characters people want to spend time with, to prod at in one fic scenario or another. Or it’s queering those mainstream narratives – in a world laden with queer subtext and not a whole lot of queer text, fic has the power to correct that. Or maybe even the idea that ties into some of what Cumberbatch guesses at “enthusiastically”: for young fans (or older ones), it can be a supportive space to explore sexuality. (As far as “neutralising the threat” of “somebody who could break their heart,” though, a swing and a miss there. Because that’s not the least bit patronising, particularly to his youngest fans.)

I’d put money on the idea that Benedict Cumberbatch and the editors of Out are unaware of most, if not all of this. That’s completely fine. As I said – it’s not for them. (Ironically enough, if they’d been aware that so many fans writing fic are queer, a far more nuanced and sensitive discussion of fanfic could be awesome in Out, one of the US’s pre-eminent LGBT magazines.) But if you don’t know about something, and your interview subject sure as hell doesn’t know about something, why are you asking about it? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but these comments, on their own or taken in the context of the whole article, serve to do little more than gawk at Cumberbatch’s female fans and their funny ways, and, in turn, to belittle them.

Sherlock fans are used to it. Its creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, are pleasantly supportive of fanworks – they’re creating their own Sherlock Holmes fanfic, after all, so they know the power and the appeal of a good adaptation or reworking. But the biggest offence of all was at the BFI last December, at the premiere of “The Empty Hearse”, when Caitlin Moran demanded that Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman read some Johnlock fanfic she’d found on the internet. I was there that afternoon, so I got to witness that utter train wreck of a misstep first-hand: Moran forced the story on the actors despite their protests and the obvious discomfort of literally everyone in the theatre. There were no diplomatic attempts at discussing the purpose of fan fiction, as Cumberbatch did with Out. She offered up the story to mock it, and mock the idea of writing it, pure and simple. I’ve argued about the incident since, with people who’ve said that if the author didn’t want the story thrust into scrutiny, she shouldn’t have put it online. That’s all well and good, but it’s shameful to utterly disregard the enormous imbalance of power in this situation: a famous journalist and the famous creators of a popular television show, all on a stage mocking an anonymous woman’s story – one she wrote for fun rather than for money, for a given community rather than the general public – strikes me as incredibly cruel.

Fan fiction, fan art, the way female fans celebrate what they love: this stuff isn’t a secret anymore – and it shouldn’t be a punch line anymore, either. It’s a big messy world full of amateur writing and unedited work, but it’s also got of some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, published or otherwise. You don’t have to participate in it to afford it even a modicum of respect. I’ll be the first to volunteer if you ever want to learn. But if you’re not interested in that, politely decline to answer. It’s easy to blame the celebrity, dragged into answering these questions. But really, the fault lies with the media. Please, please, please journalists: stop asking celebrities about fan fiction. Unless you’re having an in-depth conversation about fictional constructions of the actors’ personae (like the very one you’ll be presenting in your piece?), it serves no purpose. Non-fans likely don’t get it; fans think you look like a bully – because you are.

There are rare exceptions to this rule, and the very best of them might be Orlando Jones, an American actor currently on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. Jones has been extraordinarily enthusiastic about learning about fan practices and joining fandom from the creator side, the bit that’s often an unwilling participant in the exchange. He, too, was quoted this week on his feelings about slash. They stand in such stark contrast to Cumberbatch’s that I’d like to quote them in full:

I like the slash, and I think I like it because I feel there are so many people who are under-represented – or not represented at all – in mainstream Hollywood entertainment. I really enjoy the fan fiction that embraces character and themes that showcase those people – their love, their desires, their passions. I think that’s really cool – and I hope the show as it continues embraces that more, because that’s an opportunity to tell stories that other people might not be familiar with. I mean, there’s slash of me and Ichabod…that’s like, ‘What?!’ and then I read it and it was really well-written. I get it – it’s another way to go but it’s no less valid than what we’re doing and it’s certainly interesting, so I really get a kick out of that. To read fan fiction and to see fan art and to watch other people’s artistry paint different colours on top of what we’re doing... how can you be mad at that? That's just completely awesome!

Why does any of this matter? Why would I like us to celebrate Jones’s words, and denounce the Cumberbatch interview? They’re just actors, after all; people paid to recite someone else’s words. But what they themselves say can matter a great deal: celebrities – and some journalists, for that matter – have the platforms, the cultural capital, the power, that a fan, even a collective fandom, lacks: one side has money and authority, while the other side has shared enthusiasm and a lot of beautiful fan art. Fandom as community, as a deeply supportive space for women and girls, can honestly make a life-changing difference for a person hovering on the margins. Misunderstandings and ignorance like what I saw this week threaten an already delicate balance. When I initially read the Cumberbatch interview I bristled at the suggestion that fanfic is all teenage girls – the stats show that’s not remotely true. But then, I bristled on behalf of teenage girls. Fandom can be so important in your most formative years – and then it can continue to form you, far beyond that. There’s nothing “rabid” about a community built on shared love.

Despite all this, fandom endures. In what was surely the most delightful turnaround after the initial surge of anger, Sherlock fans lifted one particular phrase from the Out interview and decided to make it their own. Suddenly “lustful cock monster” was everywhere on my Tumblr dashboard: inserted into dialogue from the show, incorporated into fan art, claimed as an identity. One well-known fan artist, Fox Estacado, went to work quickly to get the phrase on a t-shirt: they’re available for preorder now, and a percentage of the sales will go to the Organization for Transformative Works, the nonprofit that runs AO3. I suppose it’s a testament to the positive power of fandom: when life gives you lemons, try to turn it into a great meme.

 

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Now listen to a discussion about Benedict Cumberbatch and fandom on the New Statesman's pop culture podcast:

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.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage