My bunkmate at summer camp was in love with John Mayer. The first day of camp, she tacked a bunch of crinkled, torn magazine images of his face all over our wall. With an idolatrous devoutness she kissed each picture goodnight, and when she woke up in the mornings she sang “Your Body is a Wonderland” while tucking in her sheets. Her “Body is a Wonderland” single CD was so exhausted it skipped in her Walkman. She just knew, she said to anyone who would listen, that one day she was going to marry John Mayer.
She was twelve and John Mayer was twice her age. He lived in Los Angeles, or so she said, and she lived somewhere in the Midwest. Unless she scored a backstage pass from a magazine sweepstakes contest, there was small chance she’d ever come face-to-face with him. Never mind the impracticalities. They seemed entirely surmountable to her. At the start of camp everyone was rolling their eyes, but by the end of the summer we had somehow come around to her side. In a moment of perfect kismet she was going to meet John Mayer. John Mayer was going to fall in love with her back. John Mayer was going to marry her. It was going to happen very soon. How could it be otherwise, if she was so sure?
Delusion is one of the few forms of empowerment available to tweenage girls. Back then, in the young-girl-2000s, to imagine that Girls had Power was itself entirely delusional, unless you count the purchasing power of the girls whose parents were rich enough to buy them merchandise. Otherwise we were all down in someone’s moldy basement arguing about who got to be Baby Spice in the choreography: which one of us could wrangle the most power by being the most baby. We learned firsthand that maddening femme paradox of gaining authority by fiercely abdicating it.
The summer-camp fan may adore from below—but she claims a certain authority over her subject. Her passions may be the supposedly unserious kind (crushes, popstars, video games, TV shows, beanie babies) but in its fanaticism and sheer will her desire takes on a muscular force. The fan knows everything about her subject. She possesses her subject. Her love is tautological, self-reinforcing: the more fanatical she becomes, the less delusional she seems. She rises into the clouds above all the other Spices, becoming immaculate in her reverence—and her special knowledge. She has faith, but she also has the Word.
Fandom is a kind of affection that says as much about the fan’s relation to the world as it does about the chosen subject. Fandom annihilates critical distance, makes a joke of critical distance. The fan has a body and the fan wants something. She feverishly desires to imitate, become, merge. At its best, this kind of fandom is a ferocious claim to one’s place in the world, to the possibility of a future in which things—maybe even more incredible things than marrying a middlebrow Grammy winner—might be possible. Fangirls insist on the possible. Fangirls may be delusional, but so are utopias.
When I first started writing essays, I couldn’t figure out where to put myself in the text. Trying to situate the “I,” which is necessarily attached to a body, has always felt like a trap. I didn’t want to succumb to that well-known female imperative of the confessional, “relatable” mode, where revealing your self is the basis for all your subsequent revelations. I did not want to divulge myself to achieve womanhood nor affirm that to be a woman is to compulsively divulge. But it would be disingenuous, even traitorous, to sit on a perch and pretend I wasn’t not part of the scene.
There’s the first person and the third person, and then there is the fan. The fan is present, but she points away from herself, toward her treasures. The fan makes noise, but she is not the star of the show. The fan’s project is relational. It runs on certain verbs: obsess, care for, want, need, feel, analyze. Crucially, fandom doesn’t distinguish between those last two—for the fan, feelings propel and serve analysis, and analysis feeds the feeling.
When I began working on a book of essays a few years ago, I became obsessed with some of the books and art and movies and people I was researching. I couldn’t stop talking about them—I shared them with anyone who would listen, and I reread and revisited them compulsively. The book, now finished, is about living and writing in the age of extinction, and many of the works I write about came to be intimate companions in what became a very personal project. Because I was dealing with ideas about the literal end of the world, it was crucial to have these intimate companions.
The way I felt about my topics reminded me of how I used to feel when I was younger, discovering a new band that blew my mind or falling in love with a novel—back when I was a bonafide fan. So I decided to take fandom as my methodology for writing the book. To write as a fan, guided by enthusiasm, need not mean exalting every topic (art, books, movies, people) with the lust of a pubescent girl spreading saliva over a low-quality image of John Mayer’s face. But it allowed me to admit an appetite, affection, and relationship to my material, and to be transparent about how the process of encountering it changed me. This is true even when it comes to things I don’t actually “like”—because “like” is beside the point for the fan, who is dealing in a different kind of affinity, a type that arises from deep in the belly.
In 2009, Mark Fisher wrote an entry on his beloved blog, K-Punk, about fandom. “There’s a peculiar shame involved in admitting that one is a fan,” he writes. “‘Maturity’ insists that we remember with hostile distaste, gentle embarrassment or sympathetic condescension when we were first swept up by something—when, in the first flushes of devotion, we tried to copy the style, the tone; when, that is, we are drawn into the impossible quest of trying to become what the Other is it to us.” While that kind of adolescent worship may seem anti-intellectual or amateur, Fisher argues that it is actually “the only kind of ‘love’ that has real philosophical implications, the passion capable of shaking us out of sensus communis”—the common sense that instructs us to remain dispassionate with regard to our subjects.
According to Fisher, the diametrical opposite of the fan is the troll. “Trolls pride themselves on not being fans,” he explains, because they see fandom as naïve or pathetic. The grinchy troll maintains a “posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere,” always “at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from.” The quintessential troll of the digital age is the disembodied, anonymous shitposter whose mode is suspicious disdain. A troll might be as obsessed as a fan, but a troll’s obsession is couched in derision. The hallmark of today’s troll is plausible deniability. At any moment the troll can prevaricate: I don’t really care. I don’t have to care. My body isn’t on the line.
Fandom, on the other hand, pins you in your body, because it disallows you from pretending you are “nowhere” in relation to your subject. Fandom admits care, attachment, and dedication. For Fisher, as for me, fan-love might take up the traditional tools of intellectual critique—say, exposition and analysis of a text—but the writer herself is always findable somewhere between the trees, peeping into the clearing, hardly unable to stop herself from bursting in and shouting DID YOU SEE THIS?? DID YOU??
If you’re a fan you gorge on your material. You eat it up and make it yours. The hunger can be ravenous, damaging to the original material—damaging to the very concept of original material. As Dodie Bellamy, master of the personal-political essay, puts it, to write about material you love is a kind of digestion and regurgitation. The result is “what comes out comes from the self but is not the self. Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all. Gulp.” Writing in this mode is an ongoing, convulsive process of taking in and spitting out. Fan fiction (which Bellamy has also written a particularly genius form of) is a prime example of this process: driven by love for the original material, the fan-writer hacks it up, envelops it, and makes it hers.
Being a fan is relishing a position of vulnerability. Like Fisher, Bellamy inflects this activity with political force: “an in-your-face owning of one’s vulnerability and fucked-upness to the point of embarrassing and offending tight-asses is a powerful feminist strategy.” She says that she often starts off writing feeling weak, but “the act of commandeering words flips me into a position of power.” Fans know how to turn weakness into weak-in-the-knees-ness. Fans know how to power-bottom. And that’s how I’d like to write.
In my quest to understand what fandom feels like, while working on my book I got interested in a particular subset of fan culture. I became fascinated by the world of larp (live-action roleplay), a practice in which people get together and act out fantasy universes—it’s like improvisational theater without an audience. Larping is hardly confined to the Dungeons-and-Dragons-style swordplay most people are familiar with. Larp also extends to politicized, sophisticated, complex worldbuilding projects, simulated realities, and psychosocial experiments. Various larps have had participants spend six days in a realistic Cold War bunker; 24 hours recreating an Octavia Butler novel; or two hours inventing a made-up language in a pitch-black room.
I wanted to write an essay about how larpers co-create narratives in real time, and about some of the fan universes they inhabit. As luck would have it, the World of Darkness gaming franchise was putting on a convention in the city where I lived, Berlin. World of Darkness, which dates back to the 80s, started as a tabletop game and evolved into various online games and live-action games over the years. Its general setting is a vampire underworld full of magical creatures. At the convention, fans were to gather and take part in games, lectures and panels by famous gamers, costume contest, vampire-tooth fittings, and several larps. I signed up as a journalist—a voyeur—for one of the larps. But the larp organizers insisted that I could not simply observe it. If I wanted to be there, had to join in.
Over the course of a six-hour simulated vampire rave in a disused Berlin factory decorated to look like a nightclub in Bristol, I forgot I was an interloper. I even forgot to be embarrassed. Nobody cares whether you’re a journalist once the fake fangs are on. There I was, pretend-partying with seventy other people in costumes and acting out vampire intrigue. Fandom, I realized, was not only about operating singly but about the joy of the mutual delusion in the heat of the moment. The success of that girl’s lust for John Mayer was never going to be John Mayer’s reciprocation; it was everyone else’s belief in her emotion.
At one point toward the end of the night in the vampire game world, the character who I was playing got slapped in the face. And because I was the body playing the character, I got slapped, too. In that minute I experienced an emotional-physical cataclysm that shattered my illusions. I thought I was playing a person who was playing a game, but then there I was, undeniably in my body. Until the slap, which converted me into a believer, I admit that I had been essentially trolling the vampire convention for ideas, thinking myself superior to the whole affair—again, the troll is the flip-side of the fan. But by the end of the larp, I had entered the World of Darkness.No writer works in a vacuum, and no writer is without motives; by the same token, no writer has the definitive word. You have to find your kin—other fans.
Since then, the shock of the slap has since become a motif for something that happens while researching or writing, if you allow it to: the moment of conversion, at which you find yourself in your body. The moment when the fiction changes the reality, when the story you are telling has real effects. You might not have begun with yourself in mind, but at this moment you come into sudden, astonishing contact with your “I.”
At some point in the process, I started describing my essay collection as a book of “fan-nonfiction.” The essay about the vampire convention is placed in the last section of the book, so that the slap comes is a climactic point in the broader narrative. In its construction, the book’s overall arc mirrors the process of becoming a fan. I don’t introduce myself at the beginning, but over the course of the essays I start to inch into the frame until I’m undeniably present, almost as if I can’t help myself. First I point—then, you notice my finger. Then you notice my whole enthusiastic self. By the final section of the book, I explicitly describe things like what it felt like to stand before a particular painting, or what I was looking for when I picked up a book, or how using VR changed my political views. And eventually, in the epilogue, I reflect directly on my own process, and talk about what preconceptions within myself I had to confront to write a book during a pandemic.
Constructing a book in this way, where the author creeps into view, is not the most obvious formal choice, but I hope it invites the reader to participate in the project. I wanted to provide points of realization akin to what I experienced in the roleplay, and which I also experienced while writing: that odd slip when you realize that you’re no longer just an observer, but you’re implicated in the story. This is also important thematically, because many of the essays explore the changing role of the human in a world of climate catastrophe; I ask whether the human might be recast in a different role than the protagonist leading the story.
With the term fan-nonfiction I definitely don’t intend to propose a grand unified theory of the fan—who has, in the age of the influencer, morphed far beyond the Spice-Girls version of my past—but to articulate one approach to writing. This approach intends to produce what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledges,” or “views from somewhere.” The “somewhere” is important because, Haraway writes, no single view is complete: you can only begin to know a subject by reading many views from many somewheres. No writer works in a vacuum, and no writer is without motives; by the same token, no writer has the definitive word. You have to find your kin—other fans.
While finishing the book, I wrote to a novelist friend and asked him whether I sounded naïve in my approach. Of course you do, he said, and that’s the only way to write anything in a dying world. In fact, to write any book is an act of practically fanatic devotion, he said, because to write a book is to insist on the possibility of a future in which the book might be read. Texts are transmission devices from here to there, self to other, now to then. What comes from the self but is not the self, to borrow Bellamy’s words. Every book, I take this to mean, is a fan letter to the ultimate subject of affection and of desire—that is, to the reader. My “I” to yours.
Death by Landscape by Elvia Wilk is available now via Soft Skull Press.