It’s Not Yours

Yesterday I read this article in which Martin Freeman, who played John Watson in Sherlock, rants a bit about alternate readings of the text. Namely, he insists that there’s nothing gay in Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, it was never played that way.

My initial gut reaction was, “Wow, that’s a really strong and seemingly homophobic reaction.” But what I think really bothered me about it was the suggestion that the however many viewers who read the text differently had somehow done it wrong.

The moment a book or film or television series meets the public, it no longer belongs to the creator(s). Not the writer, not the actors, not the director, etc. It becomes the property of those who engage with the text. They get to read it and interpret it however they want. It may not be what you intended, and some interpretations may be a stretch, but there is no right and wrong.

One of the first things they taught us in Radio-Television-Film courses at uni was “encoding” and “decoding.” This is the fundamental of all communication, from speaking to writing to filming. You say something, or write something, or perform an action, and the listener/reader/viewer takes that information and decodes its meaning. Some messages are fairly simple. There are only so many ways my son can interpret, “Clean your room.” But if I want to be really clear, I might break it down into: “Put all the clothes on the floor in the laundry basket and make your bed.” Otherwise, his idea of “clean” and mine might not be the same.

When dealing with books or film or television, however, the author of the text is not there to explain the work as the reader or viewer engages with it. Nor would we want them to be. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie with someone explaining everything as things happen. Part of the joy of reading and watching shows is extrapolating information for ourselves. Our brains like having to work.

Look at all the fan theories for various shows, the online communities. People love taking things apart, breaking things down. And the choices they make for that process—the lines along which they break things, the metrics they use—are going to be wide ranging and, at the same time, very personal.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that a queer reading of Sherlock is par for the course. There is a grand history of queer readings of all kinds of things, and to stomp your foot and say, “No!” is childish and naïve.

When I’ve been asked about—or sometimes told—things that appear in my books and stories, I don’t say, “You’re wrong.” (Well, maybe if they have a detail or fact incorrect.) I say something like, “That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way.” Or, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind at the time, but I see where you might read it that way.” There’s room for everyone and their ideas, after all, and I’m just flattered they’ve taken the time to think that much about it.

Thing is, I know I can’t control how people will receive my work. I know that, once they’re holding that book, it’s no longer mine. It’s theirs, and they will interpret it however they want, in whatever ways work for them. To throw a little tantrum over it would be unprofessional to say the least and smacks of dictatorship at the worst.

The only way to make sure people read your text the way you want them to is to never write or film it at all.

A History of Rob Thomas Concerts

I’m trying to remember all the times I’ve seen RT (with or without Matchbox Twenty) play. I know the first time was in 2000 out at Amherst College. It was in a gymnasium, SRO, but we were able to get pretty close to the stage. Matchbox Twenty was touring for Mad Season at the time, and they were my favorite band—I’d never felt as strongly about a band as I did for them at the time—so (embarrassing as it is), I stood there with tears running down my face, I was so happy to see them. Later I was moved enough to post on a message board (my name was “yukitouya” at the time because I was into animé) that it was for me what seeing The Beatles was like for my mother.

Well, live a little longer and you get a different perspective on life, but I still do love Rob and the boys. In 2003 I would see them again for the More Than You Think You Are tour. That time they were at the Fleet Center (now TD Garden). Sugar Ray opened, IIRC, and it was clear the band had more of a budget as there was more flash and bang in the show. But weirdly, I find that doesn’t suit them as much.

In 2004 I started a blog called “Letters to Rob” in which, over the course of a year, I wrote open letters to Rob and his bandmates. (Though the site is no more, a PDF version is under my Bibliography under Books.) It got picked up by the Atlantic message boards and stands as my little slice of fangirldom. Rob would come out with Something To Be, and I would end up seeing him both at the Avalon on Lansdowne Street (now gone) and at a charity show at the China Club in NYC.

I think, after that, the next time I saw Matchbox Twenty was at a Mix Fest or something of that sort. This would have been when the Exile on Mainstream EP was released.

Then Rob again, solo, in 2009 in Boston for the Cradlesong show. I ended up sitting next to his son and his son’s friend. And we saw him play at Mohegan Sun towards the end of 2011. And a couple years ago I took my own son to see Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox Twenty at the Concord, CA show.

Finally, last night we saw Rob on his Great Unknown tour at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA. Another great show.

So what does that come to? Nine total? I’ve seen Rob more than any other artist. Even if I count the solo shows (5), or the Matchbox Twenty shows (4) separately, it comes to more than any other. Well, I think the MB20 shows tie Train, which I’ve also seen 4 times now.

I’m not sure why I’m posting this retrospective except maybe as a means to ground myself. I was wondering the other day about the trajectory of fandom and at what point (if ever) people “grow out of” or at least begin to mature . . . Which isn’t to say they don’t still like things, but they have more perspective, maybe, or are more discerning, or “gush” less . . . What keeps a person coming back versus the point at which they walk away from a band or a TV show . . . I guess it depends on the purpose these things serve in a person’s life. When a show or artist fills a kind of emotional or psychological need in a person, plugs a perceived hole in them, the person may become fanatical. But if (a) the show or artist ceases to plug the hole, or (b) the hole closes or the need is otherwise filled, then the grip loosens.

Or maybe the hole changes shape. I still enjoy Rob and Matchbox Twenty, and their music still speaks to me on some levels, though not the way it did when I was in college. And some of their songs also take me back to other times, bring back memories. That’s another kind of service these things provide: milestones and markers of who we used to be.

I don’t know if I have a point here. It’s more a musing. I studied fan psychology as an undergrad, and so these things continue to interest me. Of course, one isn’t required to have a reason for liking something. And one isn’t required to defend themselves for liking (or not liking). But it is amazing how strongly people feel about these things—what they like and don’t like. There’s no right answer, no one fit for everyone, yet we still love to argue and debate the merits and lack thereof of what we love and hate and why. Internet message boards overflow with just such arguments.

I outgrew The X-Files at some point (though I’ll still check out the reboot), and I don’t enjoy Doctor Who that much any more, but I do still love Rob and Matchbox Twenty. I take a lot of flak for that, but whatever. Sometimes there really is no accounting for what we enjoy. It is what it is.

Fandom in the Time of Cholera Gluttony

It has occurred to me as I watch Broadchurch each week, eagerly supping up the splendid writing and acting, that what’s really missing from the television landscape—at least from my own, personal picture window of it—are more shows that leave me happily anticipating what might be coming next. Shows that drive me to want to think and talk about them, that encourage that kind of fandom.

Netflix has this habit of releasing shows like House of Cards all in one rush so that people can binge view. But . . . Just as with a meal, it’s difficult to savor a show when you’re scarfing it down so fast you can hardly taste it. How much really registers? Can a sleep-deprived viewer who has been awake for a whole weekend watching an entire series walk away with any actual insight into what they’ve seen? Can they truly appreciate the work and effort that went into the show? Or can they only say, “That was great!” and then move on to the next thing? (Should we call it NextFlix?)

And maybe the people who make the shows don’t care so long as somebody watches it. As long as they say, “It’s great!” and tweet, “It’s great!” and blog, “It’s great!” . . . But I don’t know. As a writer, I’d like to think all that time I put into my work gets fair consideration. Of course I want people to think and say it’s great, but I’d like them to think and say more things, too.

It’s also difficult to sustain fandom when everything is so consumable and disposable. Everything becomes a flash in the proverbial pan. The conversation is singular: You talk about the show once, in that short period wherein you’ve finished watching all of it and haven’t yet started the next thing. The watercooler weekly is no more because the show doesn’t air every week; it airs whenever and wherever, and once people have seen it, they wander off and are done with it.

By contrast, something like Game of Thrones, which gets tremendous ratings each week. And why? Because it does air weekly, and no one wants to miss it. No one wants to have it spoiled for them, no one wants to be left out of that conversation on Monday morning. So people feel driven to watch it when it airs. And this is what shows really want to provide: a viewing experience that all but requires people to watch the show at the time it airs, or at the very least the same night via DVR shift. Broadchurch, too, for the people who watch it—no one wants to have missed catching any clues, no one wants it ruined, they want to be able to talk about it knowledgeably afterward.

So how does a show make themselves into a must-see? Something more than, “It’s great,” something about which people really talk? A compelling story line that requires the viewers’ attention to keep up, for one thing. Isn’t that what Game of Thrones and Broadchurch have? And characters people can rally around, can love and/or abhor, but either way discuss at length. These characters must keep people coming back even after one plot line ends; the audience must love them enough not to want to leave them once the question is answered or one goal achieved, love them enough to follow them through to the next task or situation.

I remember being a guest author at a sci-fi convention some years ago, and this woman wanted to talk to me about Highlander, the television series based on the movies. And she kept talking about Duncan MacLeod, but everything she was saying was actually about Adrian Paul, the actor who portrayed Duncan on the show. And I kept nodding and saying, “You mean Adrian Paul,” but she would say, “Yeah, Duncan MacLeod.” And sure, I walked away thinking she was a little crazy, but I also admired the way this character really lived in her mind. He really existed for her in some incredible (and somewhat insane) way. And so I’m not recommending encouraging people to be batshit crazy about your characters and actors, but I would say the goal is to make them into something fans really want to dig into. Something they want to talk about, and hopefully they’ll find like-minded people who also want to talk about them, else they may make their family and friends who are less enthusiastic a little mental.

Anyway. Word of mouth is still the best way to sell a book, television program, or film. People still trust friends, family, co-workers over random critics. So you want people talking to their friends and family and co-workers about your show (or book, or movie), and you want them saying more than, “Yeah, it was really good.” Because that doesn’t say much of anything, does it? And it doesn’t prompt an extended conversation. Very few people follow up being told something was good with, “Really? Why? What did you like about it? Who’s your favorite character? Tell me more about it.” No. Most people, when told something is good, shrug and say, “Cool.”

A good show shouldn’t be watched all at once, mindlessly consumed like the bag of potato chips sitting on the couch next to the viewer. It should be like a strip tease—leaving people glued to the sight of it and always anticipating the next twist or reveal. You don’t remember every bag of chips you ever ate. But a good strip tease sears its image into your brain for a good long while, if not for life.

Secondary Characters Bloghop

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This bloghop (go here to join) is about those characters that steal the show from the main act, either in books or movies. Which are your favorites?

I’ll start with the easy ones, by which I mean ones I wrote. When writing The K-Pro I originally only conceived of Alfred, Mac, and Craig as so much wallpaper, and Liz in particular was only going to be “in passing.” But they took on lives of their own! Alfred laid the groundwork for his own plot twist long before I consciously realized who he really was. And I was amazed when, in feedback, my readers loved Craig.

It’s happening again in my current WIP, St. Peter at the Gate. A character that would have been someone Peter just passes in the lobby has become central to the story. It can be fun when these things happen, but frustrating too when they necessitate major changes . . . Though I’ve found more often than not that these characters step up to give the story depth and actually make things easier in the long run.

In terms of others’ work, I think the examples are legion. Snape and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books are just two. It’s interesting to me the way people sometimes rally around potential villains like Snape, or Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Well, and Anne Rice’s Lestat is the supreme example of the villain becoming the hero. In Interview with the Vampire, he’s certainly not sympathetic (though at the end he is pathetic), but he refused to leave Anne alone until she told his story . . . Many times over.

But this isn’t meant to be an academic exercise, and if pressed to name my favorite secondary characters, I would say Louis (from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles) because, though he was central to the first book, he was sidelined most of the others, and I always loved him best. And, oddly, Polonius from Hamlet, whose homilies were amusing even if his character on the whole was a bit irritating. I also always wondered how fucked up Horatio must’ve been after all that . . . I like Marcus Brody (played by Denholm Elliot) in the Indiana Jones movies, too. And the romantic figure of Ashley in Gone with the Wind as the sort of grail Scarlett could never obtain, though that makes him more of an object than a character. Prince Lir in The Last Unicorn. Jareth in Labyrinth.

I don’t know that I’d say any of the above “steal the show,” though. Lestat does in Interview, certainly; Moriarty as depicted by Andrew Scott tends to take over any scene he’s in, as does Rickman’s Snape. It’s easier to steal a scene when you’re a villain. You’ve got a bit more freedom to act (though Snape goes the other way in being repressively cold).

I suppose the pinnacle of this would be Ricardo Montalban as Khan in the second (classic) Star Trek movie. I watched that film over and over as a kid, that one and #3 (which I also loved for some unaccountable reason, or maybe those were the only two we had on tape). No, I haven’t seen the new film. Yes, I know the “secret.” Which makes me slightly more reluctant to see it, actually, since Montalban looms so large in my childhood memory. He was, for me, the ultimate scene-stealing secondary character.

Once More with Feeling: Being a Fan Doesn’t Mean You Have to Be Blind (In Fact, REAL Fans Aren’t)

We’ve talked about this before, and we’ll probably do it again. You can chalk it up to my protesting too much if you like, but it’s simply that every now and then someone posts an article that is tangentially related. (In this case, should you fail to click on the link, the article is: “How Steven Moffat Ruined Doctor Who.”)

It’s no big secret that I have problems with Steven Moffat. I might feel differently if he could be bothered to act less smug and self-aggrandizing. And I’d say that’s beside the point, but it’s not really. He doesn’t allow for an open dialogue outside of his personal circle—a circle he controls. So . . . Whatever. That’s another discussion for another time.

What’s on the agenda here is the way Moffat and his supporters/fans react to criticism of him and his work. There is the smugness, and the insinuation that detractors are simply too stupid to “get it” or are otherwise jealous of Moffat’s great work and intellect. It’s not a terribly useful way to go about things, but it does close the door to discussion, which as I’ve mentioned seems to be the ultimate goal. Moffat doesn’t like to be questioned or second guessed, and he certainly doesn’t like to leave himself open to the possibility that he might not be, in fact, the smartest person in the room.

But here’s the thing. True fans of something—a television program, a person, a singer—will be the ones willing to point out when the emperor has no clothes. They do not blindly and slavishly drool over every little line of dialogue. Think of it this way: are your real friends the ones who let you walk around with spinach in your teeth, telling you all the while how great you look? Or are they the ones who’ll point out that bit of green so you can fix it before the flashbulbs go off? Do you want fans who worship you without filter, or do you want people who can think a little bit?

There is something rabid and unstable about fans who refuse to brook any conversation about where a show (or showrunner, or actor, &c.) falls down, something almost Nazi-like in their devotion as they blindly participate in follow the leader. The same can be said, of course, of those so adamantly opposed to a writer, show, what-have-you, those who seem to hate for the very sake of it or who blow their reasoning out of proportion . . . A lack of rationality and an almost religious fervor cause the ground to fall out from under any hope of finding and fixing any problems with the show in question. No one is willing to compromise.

I do think the article linked to above is well written and considered. I can certainly agree that Moffat has a terrible tendency to borrow and regurgitate from other sources, and sometimes even from his own work, to the point that it all becomes much the same. And yes, he’s made The Doctor and Sherlock Holmes—characters with rich backgrounds and history—into cute and, in many ways, far less clever versions of their originals (or even of other incarnations of the same). These are valid points worthy of discussion. Can changes be made, courses corrected? With or without Moffat? In the case of Doctor Who, there is always room for change; the very fabric of the show is woven just for that. As for Sherlock, well, Moffat holds the corner on the current BBC take, but there will always be more Holmes somewhere (Elementary preems on CBS in just a couple more weeks). And in ANY case, if Moffat would just open his door to some fresh blood and new perspectives, general opinions of him might change for the better.

I’ll admit, then, that I am not without bias on that score. I’ve been denied the opportunity to write for either of Moffat’s current programs, and not for lack of trying (nor for lack of talent or ability, at least according to some sources—and no, I don’t mean family or friends). That doesn’t make the arguments against some of his work any less valid, mind. And don’t they say you should be nice to people on the way up, and then again when you’re at the top, because what goes up . . .

Of Comic-Con and Graphic Novels

Pretty much everyone knows Comic-Con is happening in San Diego right now. (And there are a lot of Comic-Cons, I realize, but San Diego is really THE Comic-Con.) I’ve always wanted to go, and now that I have a home base on the West Coast, I’m thinking I might try to attend next year.

Mostly, I’m curious. I’ve been to conventions, though not in many, many years, and never one quite as large as Comic-Con. I even dressed up for a con once . . . An anime convention, it was, and a costume designer friend dudded me up as Touga from Shoujo Kakumei Utena. That was different.

I’ve attended a number of conventions as an invited guest, too. That’s usually fun because they get you a room and feed you and such (except once, in a time before cell phones were common, I was forgotten at the airport). It can be a little stressful, too, though, if you’re shy like I am and a bunch of people want pictures and for you to sign things. I really don’t mind, I’m just terribly awkward. Once you get me settled somewhere with a group of people I can really get to know, I’m much better. I like talking to people, but I hate superficial conversations; I want to get into the meat of things. Otherwise I just don’t see the point.

In any case, a friend of mine (we were coworkers at a big textbook publisher way back when) is now a graphic artist in Denver and makes the trek to Comic-Con every year. Wouldn’t mind stopping by his booth to check out his latest work. (If you’ve never read Byron, you should, it’s a hoot. And Karl’s style is singular.)

I’ve always wanted to try writing a graphic novel myself, but I have no idea how to go about it. I do have an idea for one, or a series of them rather, but I can’t draw—took lessons and everything, not like I haven’t tried, but my brain doesn’t work that way—and as I understand it, writing a comic or graphic novel script is different in some ways from, well, pretty much every other kind of writing. I do prose and I do plays and I do film and television scripts, but I’ve never even looked at a comic book “script” (if that’s what they’re called?) so I have no clue. Maybe I’ll look into it, though. Maybe this is how I’ll get back into writing. Just something completely different.

The Trouble with Fans

This is something I’ve noticed with fans of television shows (and I’m sure it could go for other forms of media, but TV has been where I see it most): they aren’t terribly discerning.

What I mean is, once these people, or groups of people, decide they like something (a show), they like everything about it. It’s always wonderful and brilliant and so forth. It can do no wrong, never falls short. And they can’t stand to have anyone say otherwise. It’s as if these people, in becoming fans, have lost all critical filter.

I get so sick of reading one-note reviews of things saying they’re simply awesome, amazing, &c. So . . . You liked it? As a viewer and/or reviewer, you enjoyed it, okay, but what else? Did you stop to take a breath before writing down how great it was? Think it over a little, even just in the shower?

I like a lot of television shows, call myself a fan of a few, but that doesn’t prevent me from finding flaws in them. I am no blind devotee. In fact, I find blind devotion to be a sort of disservice to the hard work put into a television program, as if the show were not worthy of really, seriously considering. I like to think about the shows I enjoy, and I also like to think those who write and create those shows want me to think about them. And when I (personally, subjectively) find something falling short, mentioning it does not make me an evil person who must not be a “real” fan. It merely means I am thoughtful and capable of reason. Nothing is perfect, after all. Not me, and also not the show or the people who make it.

There are so many people who are absolutely rabid. They all but call you a heretic if you make even the slightest comment that something about a show might not be quite right, or suggest something might have been done better. It hardly makes a show feel welcoming when the gates are guarded by such ones. One is almost predisposed to avoid the shows with the big fan bases because, Jesus, is it worth the potential fight?

I, myself, prefer discussion. I’m willing to listen as well as speak, so long as I’m also listened to and there is no shouting involved. For me, the enjoyment of a show isn’t in its imagined perfection, but in the details that have been so lovingly placed by the show’s makers. Even when they’re flawed. Because beauty isn’t really in perfection, it’s in the interesting quality born of imperfections.

Doctor Who: The Doctor Accessorizes

A Twitter friend (and on Twitter one uses “friend” loosely, since in a lot of cases one has never actually met any of the people) asked today: “If you were playing The Doctor [on Doctor Who] and had to have a gimmick as part of your outfit what would you choose eg bowtie, Converse etc??” [asked by @bluebox99]

My initial response was some kind of cool/weird coat or jacket because I have an especial fondness for jackets, blazers, coats, &c. And then I considered jewelry, maybe a signet ring of some sort. Could be interesting to build a story around the potential significance of such a thing.

But then I thought: What about a tattoo? How would it be if The Doctor regenerated with a tattoo? What would that mean? You could maybe build an entire series around that question and its eventual answer. What would the tattoo be of? Where and when might that image pop up? What if someone recognized it, even if The Doctor didn’t know what it was or what it symbolized? How cool could that be?

Dueling Sherlocks

I was asked the other night, in light of fans of BBC One’s Sherlock frothing at the mouth over CBS’ Elementary, why there isn’t room for more than one [in this case modern] reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes. That is to say: the question was why fans of one couldn’t be fans of the other as well.

Potential infringement issues aside (Sherlock Holmes is a public domain character and this subject is touchy), I have to say, although there isn’t any reason a person couldn’t like both programs, it seems unlikely. In my response I reminded the person that “fan” is short for “fanatic” and then likened the whole issue to churches. People join a church. They really like it there, try to persuade others to visit in the hopes those people will join too. And if another group comes along and builds a new church just up the street, the adherents to the first church are generally not very welcoming. In fact, they’re angry at the encroachment. Their church is the best. There is no need for another.

And people don’t typically join more than one church. A few might, but those people are rare and are generally looking for something else entirely. For example, they are the people who find God in numerous places and are willing to worship Him wherever and whenever. In this instance, they are the core fans of Sherlock Holmes as a character, not just fans of a particular take. (Yes, I did just, in fact, make Sherlock Holmes analogous to God; he’d be pleased.) Even still, these people are likely to prefer one house of worship over another, though they’ll make the rounds regularly to get their fill.

Meanwhile, purists will already have taken issue with modernizing Holmes. Further removing him from London to New York may rankle even more. Who can tell?

To summarize: there is room for more churches, provided one has the cash to purchase the real estate and the resources to build. But attendance is not guaranteed, not for any show. As for me, I’ll see who and what gets delivered before passing judgment.