The Year of Loving Things Again

On giving yourself permission

by Elizabeth Minkel

A photograph of white holiday lights, a bokeh effect transforming them into abstract twinkles.

This time last year, I was in crisis mode. I think a lot of us were. There was something paralyzing about the anticipation—and the uncertainty—of the shape of the year that would follow. In moments of personal crisis, I lose all sense of time and scale; it’s impossible for me to look past the present moment, to even abstractly conceive of the weeks, months, or years to come. There was a bit of that for me as 2016 came to a close. Intellectually you know you can’t stay in this unsustainable mental space forever—but you can’t begin to imagine how and when you’ll emerge from it.

A lot people lean on escapism at times like these. Some prefer the fun and the fluffy; others tend towards transportive, sweeping epics that build new worlds around you. Real life is a horror show, so why not tear through that page-turner, or read a 200K fic until the sun starts to rise, or spend two and a half hours sitting in the dark of a movie theater with a hundred other people, smiling and laughing and forgetting, at least for a little while?

This makes absolute sense—but I’ve rarely been able to make it work for me. Maybe I’m bad at compartmentalizing. I remember sitting on my bed in the mental hospital, watching my roommate with envy as she blithely skipped all her mandated group sessions to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was the fall of 2003, and honestly, some of that jealousy was the fact that this particular book, which I’d read backwards and forwards (and written thousands of words of fic about) months before, was brand-new to her. But mostly, I was jealous that she could just sink into it and vanish.

Art and culture occupy a tricky spot during times of crisis, whether personal or collective. For all the popularity of escapism, art is continually deemed less-than, something frivolous and distracting at a time when we should be “paying attention.” It’s the same sort of blinkered thinking that privileges STEM subjects as the only ones worth studying, rather than as an important component of a full education—the serious, the fun, and the escapist are all vital for a multi-faceted perspective on the world.

As 2016 came to a close, it was hard for me to hold onto that multi-faceted perspective, my vision narrowing with every doomsday scenario of the year to come. On our year-end episode of Fansplaining, as we looked back at the turmoil across fannish spaces over 2016 and then towards 2017, I speculated that fandom would diminish somewhat in the new year. “Maybe it’s my own distraction,” I said, sort of meandering around the point. “The conversation will be less loud and less focused on cultural products and more focused on politics. Not the politics of our cultural products, but capital P Politics.”

With a year of distance, I have to laugh a little at this, both at the idea that we even could separate out cultural politics from capital P politics, and that I couldn’t conceive of how we’d all make space in our minds to hold the anger, the outrage, the fear alongside the joy and the escape. That we would give ourselves the permission to do so—that we’d take that joy, when it came.

But most of all I’m laughing because, past my own crisis mode, and after several years of floundering, of exploring and teaching people about fandom while feeling anything but fannish myself, I’ve found that joy again, too.

Every day I scroll through my Tumblr dash and see some post about fandom and age. The general sentiment of the instigating posts is always snarky, disbelieving, dismissive. “can you believe there are people who are 30 on this website??? yikes.” By the time these posts reach my dash, they come with additional commentary from indignant fans, some close to 30, some well past it. Enthusiasm, they write, does not have an expiration date; you do not hit a certain age and lose interest in all things but paying taxes and making babies.

Like the clash between fandom and paying attention to “serious stuff,” there’s so much anxiety around age and fandom. The objects of our affection are cast as childish and retrograde (comic book characters; space battles; boybands), and our modes of expressing that affection (dressing in costume; buying branded merchandise; going deep on fictional characters; writing fanfiction and drawing fanart) should have been left behind with adolescence. (It goes without saying that sports fandom is immune from these critiques.)

Children’s behavior often passes beyond fannish to the outright obsessive—say, watching the same film every day for months on end, or being utterly obsessed with a fictional character. In adolescence, dressing in the style of your favorite fictional universe or writing fic are perfectly acceptable pursuits, albeit fairly nerdy ones. (To a lot of outsiders, fanfiction is seen and described as inherently adolescent: a place to “practice writing” before you “graduate” to your own characters and worlds.) But for many, there is a time to put aside these attachments. You see the film; you discuss it afterwards, you move on.

These assumptions and biases are shot through with all sorts of complicating overtones: gender and expectations about its performance, or artificial divisions about high and low culture, or stereotypes about certain genres of fiction and modes of storytelling. They are re-enforced by our dominant cultural narratives and held up by people who never get caught by that fannish feeling—but fans do some of the damage ourselves, too.

I’ll own up to occasional doubts about fandom and its compatibility with adulthood. For me, it’s a mix: sometimes I wonder whether I’m enjoying the right stuff, and sometimes I wonder if I’m enjoying stuff the right way. It’s always easier to play it cool rather than expose your depth of feeling—and it takes a certain amount of confidence to go on loving the thing anyway. Fandom is full of inherently confident people, even if they don’t realize it.

A few months back I gave a sort of “fandom 101” talk at a conference aimed at media professionals. Before I began, I took the temperature of the room, and asked how many people considered themselves “in fandom.” Only a few hands went up.

My talk was fairly linear, tracing transformative fandom in particular from pre-digital days through its various iterations online, from mailing lists to late-90s single-fandom archives to to DeviantArt to LiveJournal to Tumblr and Wattpad and the AO3. At the bar later that evening, lots of people came up to me to discuss what I’d said: to ask more questions, or to comment on what had struck them. A few people said they hadn’t raised their hands, but after my explanations—and my strong endorsement of lurkers as “part of fandom”—they realized they should have, which pleased me a great deal.

But the thing I found most memorable (and moving) were a few women around my age who told me that they’d been in fandom when they were younger, and that my talk had made them sort of wistfully nostalgic, not just for their days deep in the fannish web of the early 2000s, but for the passion they felt for that stuff back then.

I’m still in fandom and I feel this way all the time. Not just for early fannish moments, but for the times when my fannishness felt deepest, and everything that was wrapped up in those times. When I fell for Harry Potter, it wasn’t just the books or the early-2000s fandom or my life at that time or what it felt like to scour FictionAlley in the middle of the night on the clunky desktop computer in my parents’ kitchen. It was all of those things—the platform and the moment and the person I was then, loving that thing in that exact way.

My cynical fandom self, two decades in, often falls back on talking about cycles and patterns: “Fandom always does this,” I’ll say with a sigh, sneaking glances at my dash between my fingers. “It was only a matter of time.” Fans and fandom repeat themselves, certainly, replicating both the good and the bad across time and space, but somehow, fandom is also totally singular; it’s why I think it’s often easier to explain how something makes you feel than to try to explain the thing itself.

There are a lot of ways fandom can slip away. You lose interest in the source material, or the community sours or grows toxic, or the writers and artists you love or your specific group of friends move on, or the platform where you spent time changes or vanishes, or your non-fannish life gets in the way. You can outgrow specific fannish circumstances, but I don’t really believe that you can outgrow fandom—there’s no expiration date or age limit, after all. But I know from personal experience that when things sour, or after you drift away, it often feels that way—you’ll never get those exact circumstances back, and you’re not sure you should even try.

Somehow, after I began the year insisting that neither I nor literally anyone else would have space for fandom this year, I wound up deep in it, for the first time in years. It’s been a longstanding point of irony, and not a little bit awkward, that shortly after I started publicly talking about being a fan and writing about fandom, I left the fandom I’d been in for…nothing. As I explained and explored fandom, I leaned on my decade-plus of past experience, trying to describe why people ship or write fanfic even while I had nothing I felt passionate enough about to prompt any fic, shippy or otherwise.

And then in late spring, a show (about pirates, of all things) grabbed me and dragged me under. It burrowed into my thoughts and lodged itself there. I fell hard. I wrote friends massive emails about it. I made new friends while publicizing my love of it. I read literally all the fanfiction there was to read about my favorite ship (c’mon folks please write more) and I started to write some myself. I skipped a full day of San Diego Comic-Con to visit the tall ship at the Maritime Museum. A friend took me to Greenwich and Deptford and I eagerly took pictures of the streets where the Royal Shipyards once stood.

In my fandomless years, I often wondered if that was it. I’d had a good run, after all, but maybe I lacked a capacity for deep passions these days, or maybe I was just lacking a capacity for joy, since I was relatively unmoved by so much of the stuff that was exciting my other fannish friends (I still loved plenty of books, movies, and shows, but not in a ‘think-about-it-all-the-time’ kind of way). It was easy to think I’d outgrown it all somehow, or to think that I was incapable of slotting this stuff into my life, on a personal level or on a global one, with the politics-and-panic undercurrent to the year.

In years past, especially in that stretch when every talk show host had fanart under his desk, ready to spring it on the unsuspecting actor depicted in it, I did a lot of yelling online. I got a lot of messages from fellow fans in response, things like. “Thanks for explaining what we do and why we do it,” or, “Thanks for validating fandom.” I wanted to tell everyone writing me that we didn’t need anyone else to validate us—but I have my own moments of doubt, after all. These messages never failed to bolster me in those moments.

This year, the messages have shifted a bit. They’re less about external validation and more about the internal: people write to say that they, too, have come back to fandom after a long absence, and that we helped them realize that was OK. There’s something in this that I find striking—I don’t feel like we’re giving anyone permission to be fannish again, but we are helping people give themselves permission. I feel like I needed to grant myself that permission, and I hadn’t even been consciously aware I was denying it to myself.

Fandom isn’t inherently morally good—I often stress that, with its extreme highs and lows, it just is what it is, and trying to pin those kinds of values to it is a dangerous gambit. But these are undeniably rough times, and while I still haven’t mastered “fandom as pure escapism”—someone help me turn off my brain please—I’m much better at taking pleasure and joy when it’s offered to me. If you’ve been hesitating, grant yourself permission—I think that’s something we should all strive to do in the year ahead.

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A headshot of Elizabeth Minkel wearing a leather jacket and earbuds, and holding two thumbs up.

Elizabeth Minkel is one half of Fansplaining. She’s written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, The Verge, and more. She co-curates “The Rec Center,” a weekly fandom newsletter, with fellow journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw.

Elizabeth Minkel