Episode 72: Alternate Universes
In Episode 72, Flourish always knew that someday she’d hear the words written on her wrist—
In Episode 72, Elizabeth is a florist. Every day Flourish walks past her flower shop and—
In Episode 72, “Alternate Universes,” Elizabeth and Flourish are joined by Morgan Leigh Davies, co-host of the “Overinvested” podcast, to discuss alternate universe fanfiction. Topics covered include the relationship between canon and fanon, the “any two guys” trope, how AUs can raise or lower stakes, and the true nature of teens.
[00:00:00] As always, our intro music is “Awel” by Stefsax.
[00:00:49] If you’re listening to us, you obviously like podcasts. So you should listen to Overinvested too!
[00:03:33] The Fansplaining tropes survey.
[00:06:30] As is often the case, our interstitial music is by Jahzzar, both here and throughout the rest of the episode.
[00:09:03] Morgan’s fic “Middletown: A Study of Suburban Life.”
[00:13:17] You can actually watch the entirety of the great film Rock n’ Roll High School, featuring the Ramones, on YouTube. With Spanish subtitles. Cause that’s how it is.
[00:21:30] The Reylo fic where they are both rising ‘90s music stars is “The Great Big No” by dietplainlite and it has more butterfly clips than you can shake a stick at.
[00:26:13] Morgan’s X-men fic is here.
[00:26:57] “i guess i should say thanks or some shit” (fic has been orphaned).
[00:39:55] “The Student Prince” by FayJay.
[00:46:30] This is actually a really complex situation with a lot of moving parts but… here’s some links to help you understand just a few of the things popping up in Romancelandia these days. There were no black authors on the AllAbout Romance list of Top 100 Romance Novels. And around the same time, there was an NPR conversation about the fact that since 2000 no black author has won a RITA and there have been very few black finalists….and they did not interview black authors. This is just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately.
[01:03:11] The high school AU Elizabeth loved is “If You Liked The Book, You’ll Hate The Movie” by paperclipbitch.
Flourish Klink: Hi, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish!
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: This is Episode 72, “Alternate Universes.”
FK: I’m excited about this because we have both been falling down an alternate universe rabbit hole, and we are inviting Morgan Leigh Davies to come and fall down that rabbit hole with us this time.
ELM: OK, first, Morgan. She is the co-host of “Overinvested” with Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, and she is a critic and a fanfiction writer, author of at least one very popular high school AU.
ELM: So that’s point one, and I’m very excited to talk to her about this. Point two, you’ve been falling down an AU rabbit hole? I didn’t know this.
FK: It’s mostly been you, but you dragged me with you.
ELM: Oh! [laughs] I’m so proud!
FK: For people who haven’t followed along, Elizabeth ran into X-Men: First Class like a freight train.
ELM: No no no! It was last month, in the beginning of March, I had to fly first across the Atlantic and then across the country within 48 hours of each other. And I always try to do some work on the plane, but on the second one I was just like, “Fuck it, I’m watching as many movies as possible.”
ELM: So I watched Finding Dory. Made me cry. Frozen, made me cry. Lego Batman Movie. [FK laughs] Did not make me cry, but I enjoyed. So at this point I was telling my friend this and she was like “Were the parental controls on? And did everyone around you think that you had a problem?” And then I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I had not seen, and I had only ever seen First Class also on a plane and only half-watched it and barely remembered it.
FK: And then it hit you like a freight train, and then you fell down a rabbit hole, and in the rabbit hole in addition to the rabbit was also a lot of AUs, and then you dragged me down too.
ELM: You know, yes. [laughs]
FK: And so now…
ELM: There is a disproportionate number of AUs in the X-Men. It’s like the new franchise. Right? There is some acknowledgement of the 2000s movies, but it’s a separate premise. And it seems to be a fairly dormant fandom, a stagnant fandom, because most of this was done six, seven years ago. Right?
FK: Right. X-Men is sort of fragmented into, I feel like it’s people who care about the comics and the 2000s movies; there’s a small number of people who care a lot about Wolverine…I mean, they’re not a small number, but anyway.
ELM: Yeah, a lot of people seem to care about him! But then yeah, there’s a separate…it seems like kind of a separate fandom from people who are into X-Men as a concept. Or teens. It’s not really about teens. Anyway, so for context, I think people know this who listen to this, I am not historically…have not really been an AU person. I love canon-divergent AUs. Right? Love them. But…
FK: You’re all about them.
ELM: I think when I took our Tropes Survey, I think I said “no” to most of the AUs. And it was like, “If you can really sell me on it, I would read a…” I don’t know. Actor AU, or a…whatever. I’m trying to think of some examples of ones on the list.
FK: Yeah, but you were not like, “Oh yeah. AUs. I love ’em.”
ELM: No, in fact I said “I do not love them! I dislike them.” Right?
ELM: And I still feel this way for a bunch of the fandoms I’ve been in! I just, no. So when I initially looked at this I was like, “Oh, that's disappointing that they’re all AUs.” But then I started reading some of them. There are so many good stories! I really don’t understand it! I’m so confused! Because I have read tons of AUs in the past. Just cause I dislike them, it’s not like I dislike them sight unseen, you know? I’ll be like, “Agh, this has nothing to do with the characters!” Or, “This is trivializing everything that was important about the original stories!” Or whatever. And I don’t feel this way at all right now, and it’s very confusing to me.
FK: I hope that we can clear up some of that confusion. I…
ELM: You’ve been reading the stories I sent you!
FK: Yeah, and also because you’ve been having this crisis [ELM: laughs] I’ve been thinking more, because I have also written some extremely canon-divergent AUs, like I had this big project of incredibly canon-divergent Harry Potter, which is so far that it’s almost not even a canon-divergent AU, right? Literally everything is different from the moment of Harry’s birth, so…what happens at that point?
ELM: That’s a canon-divergent AU!
FK: It still is, but it’s definitely very far away. And I’ve been thinking about all the other AUs I’ve liked, [silly voice] the AUs I’ve loved and left, [ELM laughs] you know. So I’m really excited to talk about this. I don’t think, until recently I don’t think that I ever really thought of this as such a divisive or…I don’t know. We’ve talked about AUs a bunch in the past, but I’ve always taken it from the perspective of “Yeah, those jerks outside of fandom dissing coffee shop AUs!” Whereas now I’m like “Do they have a different role in fandom than other kinds of fic? Let’s think about this!” So. Let’s think about this!
ELM: Great, OK. So I’m excited to talk to Morgan. Who, by the way, also…Morgan has been my guide through X-Men AU.
FK: Like she’s the Virgil to your Dante?
ELM: That’s the most accurate and true.
FK: [laughing] Does this…I’m not Beatrice or something in this metaphor, am I? I can’t be Beatrice! That’s not how this works!
ELM: No, you’re coming too! Sorry, you’re comin’ down. I don’t know what to tell you.
FK: Well, shall we call Morgan and enter the underworld?
ELM: Let’s do it. Let’s call Virgil.
FK: OK! I think it’s time to welcome Morgan to the podcast! Hello Morgan!
Morgan Leigh Davies: Hello!
ELM: Thank you for coming on. I’m really excited about this.
MLD: Very happy to be here!
ELM: OK, before we talk about the most important topic ever, the alternate universe fanfiction, you should introduce yourself first, just so people know who you are.
MLD: My name is Morgan Leigh Davies, I am a writer and podcaster, I cohost a podcast “Overinvested” about pop culture with Gavia Baker Whitelaw, with whom Elizabeth also does a sort of fandom newsletter every week. So that is why I am here. To talk about fanfiction.
FK: In order to close this circle, Morgan, you realize that you and I have to have a project together and then…
ELM: It’s true.
MLD: To truly incestuously make this happen. People frequently will tweet at me about “The Rec Center,” which is your newsletter…
FK: Happens to me all the time also!
MLD: I don’t do this! But thank you! [laughing]
ELM: Do people also think that “The Rec Center” is a project of your podcast? Cause people…
ELM: People think that it is, which makes more sense with us because it’s about fandom. The podcast is as well, right. But they’ll be like “On the Fansplaining newsletter…” and I’ll be like “No!”
MLD: No, I don’t think so, I think they just get confused because I think in their heads Gav and I are, like, two extensions of one person, because they listen to the podcast and so we’re very intimately connected in their brains.
FK: See, whereas I feel like people think that Gav and I are the same person somehow, even though she’s literally been on the podcast with me and Elizabeth and we’re nothing alike, but…
ELM: It’s fine, it’s fine. I hope this is setting the record straight for everyone.
FK: All right, all right already. AUs though. I’m really excited to hear what you have to say about them, because I think you’re the one among us three who’s actually written a significant AU story in addition to reading them copiously.
MLD: I have, I did, I wrote one called “Middletown” in the Captain America: Winter Soldier fandom four years ago. Which is terrifying. And it was I think it’s safe to say very popular, and it was an interesting experience because I wrote it, because I hate high school AUs and it was a high school AU. And so I suspect it was a slightly different exercise than when most people set out to do this—although perhaps I’m wrong? But it was kind of like an anti, sort of anti-AU AU writing experience. Although I think a lot of my fanfiction writing, which I haven’t been doing recently, tends to be kind of reacting against things in fandom as opposed to embracing them. I suppose I’m a contrarian. [all laugh]
ELM: OK wait. I also hate high school AUs. Flourish, I don’t know how you feel about them.
FK: Mostly not great.
ELM: I’m curious to know, Morgan, why you hated them and what was the subversion happening—and I don’t want this to sound like you wrote a fancy subversive one and all the other ones are garbage. I think that…
FK: I feel certain that there are things to like about high school AUs!
ELM: Something about the trope just doesn’t work for me.
MLD: I mean, I have not read all of them. I’m sure there are other good ones out there. The ones that I have read in the past, not in many years, some of them I enjoyed, many of them I did not. The one I wrote sprang out of conversations I was having at the time with gyzym, Kady Morrison, who I was working on something with then and we kind of just were having this ridiculous chat conversation about “What if all the Captain America characters were in this ridiculous high school?” But she also is not a huge fan of high school AUs, as I recall it, from those conversations, and the thing that always really bothered me about them was that the characters never acted like they were actual teenagers, and then at the end of the story everything was really great and the romance was resolved and it was perfect. Whereas most people do not wind up married to their high school girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s not how it works.
ELM: I don’t know if you’ve read Harry Potter, but I thought that’s what happens actually always! So…
MLD: [laughing] Right. So it was just kind of the falsity of those narratives, which I get can be comforting to some people, and if that’s what you want that’s fine, but it’s not appealing to me particularly. So the high school AU that I wrote really heavily features zits and body odor and teenagers acting like real assholes, in an unpleasant way. And when I was writing it, I thought that only adults would like it, because it’s kind of…very lovingly rude to teenagers. In a way, it literally explicitly says “Teenagers are dumb,” which they are, and I say that totally lovingly, teenagers are amazing but they’re also idiots, I was completely stupid at age 16, it’s fine.
It was really interesting seeing the reaction to that once I’d put it up, because the people who responded the most intensely were obviously teenagers who were like “This is my life! Oh my God!” and I was very moved by this. But I was thinking about this topic before we started recording, and the sort of different fandoms I’ve been really deep into at various times and the ways I’ve engaged with fanfiction around them—because you, Elizabeth, have been reading all this X-men fanfic and we’ve talked about it a little bit, and the last fandom I think I was really crazy into in an insane way was Captain America several years ago, and I read a lot of fanfiction and I don’t think I read almost any AUs, despite writing one myself, and I don’t think I was very interested in them, and I was thinking about what made that not appealing to me in that context vs. X-Men, which is the AU heaven?
FK: It’s interesting to me because I also said I didn’t like high school AUs, but I think that for me the reason I don’t like them is I don’t want to go back to high school. Nothing was good there. And I also don’t have a strong positive feeling about the tropes of high school…I mean, who doesn’t like, whatever, Rock ’n’ Roll High School or Mean Girls or whatever. But…
ELM: I’ve never even heard of the first thing you said.
FK: Rock ’n’ Roll High School, the greatest high school movie ever made?
ELM: Morgan, do you know this? I don’t know this.
FK: I’m gonna make you watch this.
ELM: You said this in the same breath as Mean Girls, which is a masterpiece.
FK: This is so good.
ELM: Better than Mean Girls?!
FK: In a very different way.
FK: It’s about fandom, too!
ELM: OK, now I'm scared of this.
FK: It’s about a girl who is a fan of a band and brings them to her high school.
FK: It’s great! Anyway, I don’t have a super super positive…that’s not a trope that I love, and also I think it’s really hard to translate characters into high school in a way that feels real or that it’s saying something important to me. Do you know what I mean? There’s some tropes where I’m like, “Yeah, haha, it’s not really saying anything that he’s a duke now…” [everyone cracks up] “…and this is Regency England, but I fuckin’ love Regency England, so I’m gonna go and enjoy this.” Almost always there’s no deeper meaning there, but it’s a trope that I love, so who cares? But in order to bring someone along into an AU space that’s not already that, I feel like I want to get something…I want it to have meaning that they’ve been put into an AU. I want it to uncover something about the characters for me. I don’t know.
ELM: That’s funny, cause you’re saying…and I think it’s interesting, Morgan’s saying she doesn’t like high school AUs because they don’t act like teens, and I agree with…not that there’s any opposition here. I feel the same way as Flourish, in that when I’ve read them I’ve found that they also don’t feel like the characters. So then what are they? You slapped some names on the cast of Saved by the Bell? [laughing] I’m trying to think of a high school show. 90210? These are two absurd examples.
FK: Dawson’s Creek…?
ELM: Did they act like teens? I don’t think so!
MLD: Most shows about teenagers do not feature characters who remotely resemble teenagers. For instance, I have never seen an episode of Riverdale, but everything I see from Riverdale, I’m just like “What is happening?! Who are these people?!” I feel so old watching it. I’m just like, “This is a culture that is beyond me and yet, despite me feeling old watching it, it’s not that this is what the teens act like now, it’s clearly [laughing] there’s just, this is an alien thing that no human has ever behaved in this way at all,” right? I feel like teen shows tend to be like that. They’re just not of this world, and I think that AUs are kind of like that too, although in a different way. And that’s not appealing to me, because even if really good AUs where the characters are kind of just original characters but written really well, sometimes I can enjoy that, but if they’re just nonsense in whatever the specific genre is…I don’t care.
FK: I guess that regardless of how the characters are written, and how much relationship they have to canon or not, I feel like if you’re not interested in the location they’re put in…I also don’t want to read a college AU because college to me is neither aspirational nor a rosy time to look back on and dream about. Maybe someday it will be.
ELM: Wait, pause, do you feel like…have you guys read many college AUs? I’ve read some. College AUs to me always seem to be just about dorms, and…has this been everyone else’s experience, or have you not read many of them?
MLD: I have only read a few. I feel like there are way more, at least recently—in quotes, “recently”—grad school fics and that is because more people writing fanfic [laughter] today are graduate students! And I can appreciate a grad school fanfiction. That’s fine. College, no thank you, I do not need this. And I went to school in New York City, so my experience was very different from the big state school or small liberal arts college type, “You’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s a dorm.”
ELM: Dorms and quads. I just feel like there’s a lot of dorms in these.
FK: What I wanna know is, why do we stop at grad school? Why don’t we have some college professor AUs where people are really getting into it with the conflict, some people have tenure, you’re stuck with each other forever, you’ve got some pretty high stakes in this situation!
ELM: Flourish, I don’t know if you’re aware that in 95% of all X-men AUs Charles Xavier is still a professor.
FK: Well, that’s true. [all laughing]
ELM: They literally never, ever can give him a different job. It’s extraordinary to me. Sure. Professor. Of the same subject.
FK: But they don’t really get into, like, him fighting with someone over tenure cases, in my experience.
ELM: Well, not over tenure. He always has tenure.
FK: Over other people’s tenure cases!
MLD: I also have an answer for this: it’s because the people writing fanfiction are graduate students. [all laugh]
FK: In graduate school did you not put your professors under even more of a magnifying glass to try and figure out the politics? I feel like I was way more invested in departmental politics as a grad student.
ELM: Is this cause you ended up marrying your professor?
FK: Well, that is how it ended. [all laughing]
MLD: I was totally fascinated by all my professors during my master’s, but that particular kind of thing was not so interesting to me, and it was not the kind of thing that we had access to. You do get more access as a grad student, but…
ELM: Also in the U.K., both Morgan and I went to grad school in the U.K., and the system is quite different and so my grad school professors…I don’t think any of them were full professors. You can have been teaching for 20 years and not have the title “professor.”
FK: Yeah, it’s a much bigger deal, which is fun when you go to the U.K. with someone who’s a full professor here, like my husband, and then he gets treated really nicely.
ELM: They just handed it to him! To be fair, he has been a professor for a long time at this point.
FK: That’s true, thank you.
ELM: Yeah. [all laughing] Now I’m calling him old.
FK: Good thing he doesn’t listen to this podcast.
ELM: He does not listen to it! Don’t worry. OK. So do you guys, Morgan, you brought this up, you feel like in some fandoms you do it, some fandoms you don't. Prior to dying and going to Hell and only reading X-Men fic… [all laughing] It’s more of a purgatory right now. I was personally staunchly, who cares if other people do it, but personally I was like “Oh I don’t read stuff like that. I don’t read X is a blank and Y is a blank, or here’s this scenario.” And now I cannot stop, and I’m worried about myself. And I’m wondering if it’s…I don’t know. I’m wondering about those as texts, working across fandoms or within fandoms or that kind of thing. Those are the questions I have about that.
MLD: I was trying to think about these general topics before we started recording, and I think the way I tend to read AUs is that I run through all the good canon fic in a fandom and reject the AUs, and then when I get really desperate I start reading the AUs. [laughing] And some of them are really good! But at first I’m like “Ugh, I don’t want to read that!” [grouchy noises] And then in some fandoms I just can’t do it, it just will not click in my brain, but it tends to be a step…a last resort thing. And for some reason, X-Men, there’s…I don’t know what it is, there’s a property that it has that is…the AU is actually the preferred object for me. [laughter] The platonic ideal of the X-Men fic is not a canon fic, it is a ridiculous AU.
FK: But I think this actually may relate to stakes and ethics, though, because I too have this thing…I love One Direction, and 99% of all One Direction fanfic is AUs, and I cannot read them. I just can’t. I can’t do it. Don’t make me. I know they’re great. I know. I’ve been recommended all of them. [all laugh]
But. When I’m reading Reylo fanfic, like you, the preferred version of Reylo fanfic is definitely an AU for me. I’m like “Yeah, obviously they are both rising music stars in the late ’90s. Why…” [all laughing] It’s a great story by the way, I will put it in the show notes. It’s really good.
ELM: What kind of music stars, I need to know!
FK: He was a really good…he had an album of folk, but it was all stolen from his grandfather’s, things his grandfather had written, and he never told anybody, and then he got snookered into making a deal with Snoke and had to become the front man of this awful Linkin Park like band, which is miserable, and she is a folk singer-songwriter like Jewel sort of, and there’s a lot of butterfly hair clips. And it made me so nostalgic. [all laughing]
ELM: OH MAN.
FK: The point I was trying to make was, I think there’s something in both of these cases where you’ve got these weird messed-up ethical situations, and it’s sort of easier to just enjoy a story when no one’s killing anybody, you know?
MLD: Here’s my response to that: I also enjoy the Reylo dynamic in the Star Wars films [all continuing to chuckle] but I absolutely cannot read AU fics because the whole point is that it’s bad, and AU fic would make me feel gross. Sorry! Because if you have to acknowledge the badness…I have not found almost any good fic period, because it’s just very hard to do, right? The whole dynamic is just very complicated.
FK: Yeah, it is.
MLD: Whereas X-Men also has this complicated ethical stuff, but in the X-Men films, it is treated so nonsensically [all laugh] that it just doesn’t matter! The basic tone of those movies is just garbage. So you can write whatever the fuck you want! There are some fics that treat stuff seriously, with much more weight than the actual movies do, that do a really good job of it, and then there are some AUs that are just so dumb but in a smart way that are also really fun. But I think again the tone of those films is just…this is so absurd that you can kind of get away with doing anything, and I think that that’s why I like all those AUs so much. You have these two characters who are really really compelling, the queerbaiting is so through the roof that you’re dying to read something.
ELM: It’s shocking, honestly.
MLD: So whatever! It’s fine. Whereas I think the Star Wars stuff for me, I don’t think those movies are perfect but the pathos of the stuff in them seems more real to me than X-Men, which is just like “Bleh! Whatever! I guess Magneto blew up a city or something this time! Whatever, he’s gonna be back, it’s fine.” [all laughing]
ELM: He always comes back, don’t worry about it!
MLD: Exactly! It feels fake.
FK: I don’t disagree with you…I think that the reason that I like AUs in the Reylo space is because they consciously are like “Nope, we’re not dealing with that! We’re not even gonna try to deal with the question of is he or is he not…he didn’t kill anyone in this universe! He maybe ruined a couple of musical careers, but whatever, it’s fine! We’re just gonna live with it.” You know what I mean? It sounds like whereas with X-Men it never mattered in the first place, so.
ELM: Yeah, I mean, you can treat it seriously. Like you said, there’s definitely some fics that take it much more seriously than others. I read the Quicksilver fic, by the way. The Septembriseur fic. It made me cry.
MLD: This is a good friend of mine who wrote one about Quicksilver and it is a genuine work of art.
ELM: It’s a work of art.
MLD: Seriously deals with trauma…she’s the best writer I know. In any genre, anything. She’s so gifted. You read that and you’re like, “This is both a piece of fiction, craft-wise genius, but also all the emotional stuff is so deep and affecting,” and then you can just go read—for instance—the X-Men fic that I wrote, which is none of those things!
ELM: Morgan, I love your fic so much!
MLD: I’m very proud of it, and it’s perfectly well written, it’s fine, but in terms of the deep emotional stakes? Not so much!
FK: I have not read your X-Men fic, so I cannot speak to this.
ELM: You should read it immediately afterwards. It’s a delight. Genuine delight.
FK: OK. I will read it.
ELM: I read it before I knew, I did not realize who had written it because it was very highly rated on the AO3. I’m not biased.
FK: I was away, this is following on from something a ways back in the conversation, you’re gonna have to forgive me. Your point that you can treat it seriously is true. One of the fics you recced me that I hadn’t read before, I think you recced it as “They’re dicking around in Amsterdam being dicks”?
ELM: Douchebags, douchebags.
FK: Douchebags, not dicks.
ELM: Morgan recommended this to me so that’s a passed-along rec.
FK: What’s the title of it?
ELM: It’s called “i guess i should say thanks or some shit.” And the author, I think we know the author but it’s been orphaned on the AO3, so it’s by no one.
FK: It’s orphaned, so it’s by orphaned.
ELM: Anonymous genius.
FK: Anonymous genius. So this story is, you know, Charles and Erik have their powers and they’re bumping around Amsterdam being douchebags, but there’s no killing of people, there’s no Holocaust backstory, it’s strongly implied, I think, although I only read it once so…
ELM: No, it’s set in the relatively recent…
FK: Right! It’s set recently.
ELM: There’s no Holocaust.
FK: I didn’t think so, I was trying…oh, you’re right, they have cell phones. So it’s set recently. Whatever. So all the stuff that’s super super super high stakes is gone, but they’re still talking about reading people’s minds and stealing bikes and ethical questions about having powers.
ELM: The classical ethical question: Should you steal a bike?
MLD: If you can and no one will catch you… [all laugh]
FK: So it treats telepathy very seriously in a way that literally nothing in X-Men ever has in canon!
MLD: That’s one of my favorite fics ever in any canon, I’ve read it so many times, I love it so much! And I think what you’re saying is totally right about it dealing with these questions in an interesting way, and I also think that what makes it so good is that it does not present either Charles or Erik as a remotely appealing person.
ELM: Yes, which is canonical!
MLD: They are just awful, in a way—exactly. In a way that’s really fun to read about! They’re very entertaining, and it’s not like you hate them anything, cause obviously then why would you want to read this romance story about them? But they’re both plainly just dreadful people. And that to me is so much more enjoyable as just writing period, as a general statement, than a story that tries to make the characters really good. Obviously it’s, you can write fiction about good people that’s also really compelling, that's fine, but I just read something—I’m not going to say what it is—that definitely did the thing where it’s sort of like, “This person believes in all the right social justice stuff!” And I was like “This is boring to me.” That can sort of weigh on a story after awhile, whereas this one in particular was just like, “No. They’re just assholes!” [all laugh]
FK: I think part of that has to do with the changing of the stakes. I think it can be really tempting, if you’re in a super super super hyper dramatic situation, like, “OK, we have to have a hero in here, someone’s blowing up a city!” I read a lot of post-apocalyptic books just because I like the setting, and almost always there’s a man, and he’s the embodiment of American manhood, and he’s doing all the right things. [everyone laughs] I’m like “OK, great.” And depending on what someone’s political views are, the embodiment of American manhood could be a lot of different things. Sometimes he’s an anti-racist, sometimes he’s a gun nut! Depends who’s writing it!
ELM: Flourish, what books are you reading?! I didn’t know about this secret love of yours!
FK: I just like post-apocalyptic stories!
ELM: Starring American men. Continue.
FK: I had actually never read Stephen King’s The Stand because it’s 10 million long, but I have an Audible account now so I was like “Let’s maximize my Audible account,” so obviously I got The Stand, because it’s really long and I pay as much for it as I do for a short book. And every character in that so far is miserable. I’m like, “I hate you all, this is glorious, Stephen King you did a good thing!” But it’s hard because you can see there’s these moments in the story you want the person to be a hero, because the stakes are so high, like, “Surely this is gonna be the moment! ...no.” But I think that in AUs it’s like that. If the stakes are really high you’re like “Make him a hero.”
ELM: Not necessarily. If we bring it back to…I love that we’re extensively discussing one fanfiction, everyone should pause and go read it and then you’ll know what we’re talking about. [all laughing] But I also feel like the moral grey areas that both of those characters can occupy, even in canonical situations or high stakes canonical-ish situations where there's some sort of supervillain or whatever, obviously they’re still going to be occupying those moral grey spaces and they are both kind of douchebags, always. But when they are saving the world, it’s not necessarily that you get a pass, it's just that it’s a little less stark, I feel like. Whereas an AU can kind of strip that away and give you more space to sit with that ambiguity in a way that…I don’t know. This is how I feel about a lot of blockbuster-y stuff too. It doesn’t really give you that space, and that’s one thing I think fanfiction does. Maybe not always just AUs. Obviously lots of fanfiction does this.
FK: You mean, like, you’re watching a two hour movie and it’s like, “Blam blam blam! We have this story and it’s action-packed!” and then “OK, I didn’t have any time to think about whether it was a good idea to do that or not…” Right? Is that it?
ELM: I don’t know, can you think of any…even Black Panther which I really liked, I don’t think had enough time to sit with the complex moral questions they were asking. I think they did a better job than a lot of other big blockbuster-y superhero movies, but I still feel like they had to go relatively quickly.
MLD: I think a lot of that is also just a function of being a film versus…
ELM: Being a 100,000-word fanfiction?
MLD: Or a novel or whatever. I think Black Panther was really incredible, I don’t think it was the most politically deep movie I had ever seen in my life…this is very off topic. But it’s a movie made directly for children. So that’s fine. But I think something like X-Men, as I was saying, you watch the movies and they’re nonsense with occasional moments of “Oh, that could be interesting if they actually did something with it,” and that’s what all the fanfic does, is mine those occasional moments of potential insight. [laughing] For hundreds of thousands of words! Which is great.
ELM: But then what’s that distance when it’s just brought over into an AU?
MLD: Well, that’s the question, and I think that’s why I tend to avoid reading them until I’m so desperate that I [laughing] can’t get away from it. With X-Men, as we were just saying, there is something bizarrely compelling about all of them that I don’t even know that I have the full answer, except what I was proposing. And in other fandoms it gets interesting, cause I think there can be a tendency to write generic romance novels about white men under the auspices of a fandom, which is risky.
ELM: This is something that I actually kinda wanna dig into, and I’m wondering if we should take a break, cause we’re kind of at a halfway point, and pick up from there.
FK: Sounds good, let’s do it.
FK: OK, we’re back, and we’re gonna talk a little bit about Any Two Guys stories, because this is an important question in the world of AUs. For those of you who don’t read a lot of fanfic, of which I think there are some, Any Two Guys stories are stories that could be about any two guys! Not just the people you’re supposedly in the fandom for.
ELM: So this is a long time criticism of slash fandom in general, not just with AUs, right? The dark-haired man and the light-haired man. [all laugh] The taller man and the shorter man.
FK: The older man and the younger man.
ELM: It’s true! [MLD hooting]
MLD: We could go on and on!
ELM: I will admit, this is one of the reasons I’ve always had a low-key bias against this kind of AU. This is not the first time that I've read AUs, obviously, but it’s just like… When you hit a point not too far in where you’re like “This has nothing to do with the characters, you’ve just slapped their names on it,” that’s the point where I get to feel a little resentful, and I don’t know if that’s fair, because I kind of feel like there’s plenty of people who know…it’s deliberate. It's not like they think they’re doing some deep read on the original characters; they’re just telling a story. But then it’s like, “What am I reading? I’m just reading a story starring the actors of the canon [laughing], the namesakes of these two characters. All right.”
FK: I feel like one question is, what is fanfic for? Because part of fanfic is for interrogating the original text, obviously, but part of fanfic is also sometimes about desire or emotional…when I say desire I don’t mean just lust. I mean also emotional engagement in fantasy people, who may or may not be the characters in the story. The characters in the story might be the starting point for those fantasy people, but let’s be real, my headcanon of Scully is definitely not canon Scully. She’s just not. She’s better. [laughs] I wonder sometimes whether Any Two Guys stories are also about the stuff that people bring to reading it, as much as they are…it’s more like, “Here is a story that could be just a gay romance novel, but I know that you’re going to paratextually bring this stuff to it, and therefore it’s different than if you were reading it just as a romance novel.”
MLD: Well, obviously this stuff gets written in the groupthink of a fandom. Usually. Some people write things…
ELM: I love what I would call “intertextuality” you just called “groupthink.” It’s really good. [all laugh]
MLD: That is the way I think about fandom! It’s all groupthink. I wrote quite a bit by my standards of Captain America fanfic, I think more than for any other fandom, and that was definitely the most clear-cut experience I have had of fandom groupthink in the sense that…
ELM: Engaging as fanon as much as canon.
MLD: Right. There were certain trends that would happen and then I would push back against certain things in my writing, but it wasn’t just me, you could sense that there would be this pushback against something and then something else would come up and it was…I think that happens in most fandoms once you get to a certain size, but it was the most clear-cut and visible to me in that one, which was really interesting to observe, and I think I conceptualized it most clearly in that. I was like “Oh, everyone is putting their brains into the same space and stuff is coming out.” Which was really fun, even if some of the stuff coming out I found very aggravating! [laughing] A lot of the appeal of writing this stuff was that experience of knowing that everyone that was going to read your thing would be informed by all the other stuff that they were writing.
Which is kind of interesting for me to think now, cause I still get comments on some of that stuff, obviously sporadically, and I know that people coming to it now—if they’re coming to it cold—are having a very different experience. Which is fine, it’s just not the same thing. So if you’re writing a two guys AU in that context, obviously it is a different thing. But for me that’s still not massively appealing because it strays away from the questions that were appealing to me. For instance, in the Captain America stuff, which tended to have to do at some point with canon even if they had spiraled out to fanon stuff that we’d all made up and agreed upon collectively, even though it…you know? I’m rambling at this point, but I think you get what I mean.
ELM: That makes total sense.
FK: What you just said makes complete sense, and it’s interesting to me when I think of an AU that I really love that many people really love, “The Student Prince,” which is a Merlin AU, but I hate Merlin. I watched the first episode [over laughter] and I turned it off in anger because what did you do.
ELM: Wait, you’ve only seen one episode?
FK: Yeah, I hate it!
ELM: That’s the foundation of your hatred?
FK: It was not good. I couldn’t. It was like a Did Not Finish book. Sometimes you get into a book and you’re like, Did Not Finish. Exactly like that. I settled in planning on watching all of it because I liked some of the fic, and no. But it’s also a Kate and Wills AU...
ELM: Because it’s set at St. Andrews, right?
FK: So I was coming at it as the Kate and Wills AU that happens to have gay Merlin and Arthur in it [all cackle] and everyone else who read that, I’m pretty sure, was coming at it from the Merlin AU that happens to be about royals, and now it makes so much more sense to me that the things that I liked and cared about in that fic were very different!
ELM: It’s really good. But do you think that people were coming into it because of Merlin? That story was in “The Rec Center” last week, and probably not for the first time, and when I looked and checked the link, that has half a million hits on AO3.
FK: I don’t think all those people watched Merlin.
ELM: I don’t think those are all Merlin fans. Obviously it’s a relatively popular fandom but still. What a compelling concept!
MLD: This is interesting too though is the phenomenon of people reading AUs when they aren’t familiar with the source material at all, which people definitely do and I’ve had people send me things and be like “This is so amazing, it doesn’t matter that you haven’t seen the thing, it’s an AU, it’s so good,” and I just can’t bring myself to do it. I just…it doesn’t. I’m sure they’re right, but I just can’t, I don’t care.
FK: For whatever reason people do this with me for SGA all the time, Stargate Atlantis, and I have seen more SGA than Merlin but somehow it just doesn’t, I can’t, no.
ELM: But I feel like there are a lot of people for whom that works, right?
FK: Yeah, well, obviously it works for me for some things, because I read the Merlin fic! [all laugh]
ELM: So why does it work for you for some things and not others? It needs to push your buttons in some other way then. Apparently it needs to be about dukes or princes or something, cause you’re a total monarchist.
FK: Monarchist all the way down. Well, I think also with Merlin it helps because it is itself based on something. I think that if I had never seen Sherlock, but I had read Sherlock Holmes, I could probably read some Sherlock fanfic and be like “OK! This is just an AU of an AU, fine. We’re moving on.”
ELM: So, but, is that a problem? This isn’t meant to be a referendum on any one given fic.
FK: Can I just say we have managed to go this entire time without mentioning Fifty Shades of Grey and I’m really proud of us but I had to break the streak?
MLD: That literally did not enter my mind.
ELM: I never think about Fifty Shades of Grey.
FK: That’s because you guys are slash only, and I’m draggin’ the het in here!
ELM: It’s true.
MLD: I have definitely read and written het fanfic! [all laugh]
ELM: Oh wow!
MLD: BUT FIFTY SHADES OF GREY IS NOT ON MY RADAR IN ANY CAPACITY AT ALL!
FK: Well, I feel like Twilight was one of the earliest fandoms that was mostly AU fic, though. I mean, I would propose that. I don’t think I ever saw a fandom that was mostly AU fanfic before Twilight. I did read Twilight fic, by the way, I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m not a huge Twilight fan, but it was everywhere.
ELM: You wrote your master’s thesis on Twilight, I think you’re a huge fan.
FK: No…I didn’t write it on Twilight, I wrote it on Twilight fans.
ELM: Wasn’t it also Twilight anti-fans?
FK: Yeah. Twilight anti-fans. [all laugh]
ELM: Sorry. I twisted that deliberately. I apologize.
FK: In an ONTD community called “ONTD_Twatlight.” But anyway.
ELM: I’m glad that MIT gave you a degree for that. Delightful. Really good. Yeah, I mean, if you wanna talk about Fifty Shades we can, I was gonna talk about whether Any Two Guys is problematic.
MLD: [laughing] Two roads diverge, et cetera, et cetera.
FK: This is how our roads always diverge. Elizabeth is like, “…but is it problematic?” and I’m like “…but did it make a lot of money?”
ELM: Those are the questions?! Are those the questions right now?
FK: Not really the question! Well, it is a little bit the question though. This is a little related. Is Any Two Guys problematic, but also, don’t Any Two Guys fics where you file off the serial numbers lead us into that monetization of fandom question.
ELM: That is a connection you can make between those two things. But I don’t know if that’s the problematic element of it. I think that the problems there are this kind of idea of it beyond fanfiction, slotting in and out of all the issues that surround slash. Whether it’s systemic bias and racism or fetishization or et cetera, et cetera. I think all of that comes into focus when you have this idea that all you need to do is slap two names onto a male/male romance and then people will say “Fine with me!” You know? Isn’t that just a full expression of all of those issues?
FK: But why is that much different than…I think there are many het romance fics, like Fifty Shades, where it could be any two people. Is it different, materially, from that? I know it is because there’s issues around male/male romance, but…
ELM: So then any two man and woman… [laughing] I don’t know what the phrase would be.
FK: Any two hets?
ELM: Any two hets! Any two straights. Well, we don’t know if they’re straight or het, that’s true. I was trying to go with just their sex to start. Is that a space of diversity? Or do you often find the same sorts of bodies being interchanged? Slapping the same sorts of names onto the same two man and woman? Same single man and single woman. [laughing] Same two men and women would be much more fun. Quads all over. Do we call them quads?
MLD: This is just taking a turn!
FK: Doesn’t this get us back to the fact that…I think it is, and I think one of the ways we know that is looking at Sleepy Hollow, with an African American female lead and the fights people had about allowing her to have romance, right? And right now in the het romance world there’s a huge, huge, huge racism fight going on. For people who don’t follow this world, historically lines of romance novels have been segregated—yes, segregated like it is the Jim Crow south, because people are disgusting, and this has continued to exist into literally 2000. Sometimes literally today!
ELM: Wasn’t the recent controversy because someone had crunched the numbers because one of the big prizes in the romance world, was it no black characters?
FK: I believe it was writer, but that was only one…there was a thing about the RITAs, which there’s multiple categories and there have been multiple characters nominated in different categories…but…weirdly? If I recall correctly? Which probably I don’t, because I’m not looking at the thing right now and there were so many issues that got wrapped up in each other, too. This year there was a woman who was nominated for prizes and got…she was black and got no support at all from her publisher, whereas all the white authors did. Very blatant racism going on throughout this. So I’m just saying, I think it’s broader than a slash issue. For once it’s not just the slashers! It’s everyone! We’re all horrible racists!
ELM: Sorry, I always claim slash first. You know. Trying to claim responsibility.
FK: Any Two Guys, people also have a term for that and people don’t use that term for het romance. I’m not sure why.
MLD: Maybe it’s just that there’s something very obvious about it when there’s two men and it’s the same!
ELM: The dark-haired one and the light-haired one. [all laugh]
MLD: It becomes very clear in a way where maybe it’s also the tradition of het romance looking like that has gone on for a very very very long time. Whereas male/male romance being a thing in this thing is obviously quite recent. So there’s probably…I’m completely thinking out loud right now! But there’s probably more discourse like this, because it’s being invented in this way over the past many years in real time, and we’re seeing it.
FK: That makes perfect sense. When I think about it, there’s all these terms in the romance space, not necessarily in the fanfic space. He’s another alpha hero, he’s another…there’s all these terms for categories of types of characters, stock characters.
ELM: Tell me some more of the romance words. Alpha hero?
FK: Yeah! If he’s an alpha, he’s masterful! He’s commanding! And many people don’t like him because he tends to kiss you against your will! [all chortle]
ELM: He sounds very problematic!
FK: It’s slightly dubcon-y but it’s OK! [all still laughing] And this is a type! You read romance and you’re like, “Yup, that dude. There he is.” People subvert it, most of the time people subvert it now, it’s not super popular. But it’s a thing, there’s all these tropes. I guess you’re right. I don’t know enough about the male/male romance space, but I assume they’re developing, but it’s a larger portion of the market.
MLD: Also, there’s academic books I was using in grad school last year tying the het romance novels to Jane Austen and the entire history of romance as a genre. This is not something romance publishers made up in the ’50s or ’60s or whatever. This has gone on for a long time in the Western world with white people. Almost always been the leads in those stories. It’s the cultural default mode, obviously, which of course people are now discussing aggressively a lot. But there’s a lot of ground to make up from the early decades of the last millennium, right? [laughing]
ELM: Whereas I think in slash, also, if you think about it in a sort of shortened time frame, and I just want to clarify that I think that there’s obviously a lot of robust discourse in the male/male romance original, and some of it crosses over but some of it doesn’t. And I think this Any Two Guys thing is specifically a fandom thing. This is specifically about AUs and shipping. AUs and shipping, two separate things intersecting. I don’t wanna go too far into this.
FK: Well, I guess that is different, because…maybe it is to do also with queerphobia to some degree, because I think there is an assumption that people who are shipping are interested in finding the ship, and they go looking for it, as opposed to “These two characters just seemed like they had…” I think people get very cynical about slashers in a way they’re not as cynical about het shippers.
ELM: That’s interesting, wait, I wanna know more about this. Tell me.
FK: Maybe because het romance is so frequently canonical, or possibly canonical, or understood as potentially canonical.
ELM: And the idea that there’s a guy and a girl in this movie and they’re probably going to get together, that kind of thing?
FK: Yeah, and I think that then there’s not an assumption… “Oh, you just went to this to find an object to cling to.” No, of course, everybody does that. If it’s het, it’s assumed you’re going to go find it, whereas slashers, you’re just looking for something. You’re reading too far into it and you’re doing it for your own tastes, not for what’s in the work.
ELM: Hmm. I love that you say “slashers.” It makes me feel really old school. [MLD laughs]
FK: Well, what else? “Slash readers”? “People who enjoy male/male romance in fandom”?
ELM: As you know, the kids don’t use the term slash anymore! Yeah. Those relationshippers. That's right. On Wattpad they don’t know those words.
MLD: We’re just all very old.
FK: They definitely know those words on Wattpad, cause they also say “Don’t like don’t read” as though it's nineteen ninety fuckin’ nine!
ELM: They say that? That’s incredible! Those kids. Teens! Who are dumb. I’m glad we established that. I always try to support teens, but you’re right, teens are dumb.
FK: I too did those things.
ELM: Did anyone not?
FK: Everyone did. We all passed through this period of time.
ELM: Dumb things you did. It’s OK. I do dumb things now too, it’s fine. We just do different dumb things.
MLD: Exactly. Sort of aged into a new thing.
FK: I think we’re going to have to wrap up fairly soon but before we do, we have talked almost not at all about canon divergent AUs or fusions or anything like that, so maybe we should [laughing] talk about that a little bit, guys?
ELM: Canon divergent AUs, my favorite, actually one of my favorite things literally in all of fanfiction. Ironically, after disparaging the other kind for so long.
MLD: Right, I love them. And I love fusion fics depending on what the fandom is so that’s interesting.
ELM: OK, define fusion fic.
MLD: The one that immediately springs to mind is His Dark Materials.
ELM: OK. You know I’ve read a bunch of those about…daemon? You say “dee-mon” AUs? And I haven’t read His Dark Materials. Very confusing to me.
FK: You would be really into His Dark Materials and should probably read it. I don’t know if you’d love the writing but there’s a lot of things in it…
MLD: That shocks me.
FK: …that I feel like you would be into. You should.
ELM: My friend gave me his old copies because he works at Scholastic and so he got the new ones, just a few months ago, and they’re on my shelf, I’m literally looking at them. The one thing that concerns me is I don’t know if I wanna read novels with the perspective of smug atheism, and that’s how they've been described to me, so you can disabuse me of this impression.
FK: I did not find them that bad. He is that bad, but I did not find them that bad.
MLD: I don’t feel that they read that way, but.
ELM: Great! That’s two. All right.
FK: He is that bad but I don’t think these novels are that bad.
ELM: Actually I just heard him on the radio recently and it seems like he’s not that bad anymore.
FK: Well, he went through a period.
ELM: He said he’s come to see that you can be dogmatic about anything, even non-belief, and I was like “Good. Call Richard Dawkins, he must know.”
MLD: He was extremely charming at the reading I went to when I was nine years old. He was very nice to all of us and very funny. So I am a partisan. Those were my favorite books when I was nine, so.
FK: It's funny that you say this, though, because to me fusion fics are almost like the other kind of AU. It’s almost like, “Great, you found another setting, another thing to fuse into this.” It’s almost like a setting. But canon divergence is different, because it’s almost like you’ve got all fanfic on a spectrum from “This is mildly canon divergent because it happens in the future, we don’t have next season so we're writing it now,” to the very canon divergent, “Sirius didn’t go to…”
ELM: Where you make a very deliberate turn.
FK: Sirius didn’t go to prison and therefore everything in the Harry Potter books is different, and everything is really different.
ELM: A literal turn. Maybe he turned in the opposite direction and that was the butterfly, you know? There’s definitely stories like that. [all laugh]
FK: Absolutely. But they’re all on this spectrum. All fanfic is canon divergent at some point, and is therefore kind of AU, even if it’s just a fill-in fic.
ELM: You wouldn’t want fic if it wasn’t canon divergent. But I think the difference is usually if it says it’s canon divergent, that usually means it’s that kind of deliberate choice. Right? So…or alternate meetings, or fix-its, or any of these things. This is some of my favorite stuff about fanfiction!
FK: It seems to me almost like the canon divergent, when it’s being chosen intentionally, plays a similar role to the kind of AU when you put them in a different situation so there can be heightened or lowered stakes, so you’re almost revealing something about canon by changing something in it, right? If I change this one thing in canon, we see how much else changed.
ELM: I don’t think it necessarily lowers stakes…
FK: Oh I didn’t mean that, I just meant lowering the stakes can be one way to…it’s almost like changing one thing in canon. If you lower the stakes, you’re changing one thing about canon and keeping everything else the same and you see something more clearly, right?
ELM: Hmm. Hmm.
FK: If you change something in the plot…
ELM: I’m thinking right now!
FK: It’s the same butterfly effect idea, potentially.
ELM: But now I’m struggling to think of any other kind of fic [laughing] there’s something, I enjoy the kind that follows the canonical time frame, say, of the length of a movie, and pulls back a curtain or shows what’s happening to the characters in between the scenes, I enjoy that, but isn’t…
FK: THEY’RE ALL AUS UNDER THE SKIN. [all laugh]
ELM: Yeah, if it wasn’t in some way an…but this is the thing, maybe we shouldn’t be turning around the term AU so lightly, “AU” means “alternate universe,” right? What is fanfiction? What is the nature of fanfiction?
FK: But in an alternate universe, in a world about alternate universes, if you’re reading alternate universe fiction, some of them are very mildly different! Isn’t there that theory that in every other alternate universe you died in every millisecond from a different thing? There’s millions of alternate universes that are exactly like this one except that you died in a different millisecond in each of them, if there’s truly infinite alternate universes out there?
ELM: Is this what physicists do with their spare time?
FK: When they’re high. [laughing]
ELM: You know, whenever I talk to physicists and I’m like “Really, really?” It’s always something like this. I’m like, “This counts as science?! Shouldn’t you be measuring something? In a test tube?”
FK: Measuring the numbers of horrible ways you could die in any millisecond!
ELM: That’s just a fun theory! I just don’t…if we have any physicists listening to this they should write in and defend to me theoretical physics. [MLB laughing] It just sounds to me like they have fun imaginations and good vocabulary and they were in school for like eight years. I’ll contact my physics friends and ask. Yeah. I don’t know.
FK: I feel like this may be just where we came to at the end of this episode, Elizabeth. It may be that it’s all, it was all an AU.
ELM: Do you think there’s…how many seconds. 60 times 60. 3600 alternate universes of this episode where every second a new episode spun out into a different direction?
FK: Yes. That's how many ideas about what alternate universes are work. That’s how they work.
ELM: We didn’t even get to talk about soulmate AUs. [FK sighs happily]
MLD: That’s good, because I don’t have good thoughts about those, so…
ELM: I know and that would be a point of discourse. Flourish loves them, obviously.
FK: I love them, obviously.
ELM: She swooned. Cause she loves forced marriages.
FK: I do.
ELM: She loves when agency is removed.
FK: I love it.
ELM: Morgan and I are on the same page of almost everything here.
MLD: [laughing] We’re just on the same X-Men plane right now, and that’s synced our brains up.
FK: I also feel like there are situations in which I would not like a soulmate AU, it’s just that coming out of One Direction fanfic, the only kind of good AU in it is soulmate AUs that are very canonical except for the soulmate thing. So. I think I’ve been destroyed by that.
ELM: If it’s your favorite trope, that’s fine, but you also love arranged marriages and things like that, so…
FK: Yeah, they’re interesting, it’s true.
ELM: You like the lack of agency and having to work within it.
FK: That’s true. That is accurate.
ELM: I’m gonna psychoanalyze you now. Whereas Morgan and I like people being douchebags to each other. [everyone laughs]
MLD: That’s my preference!
FK: Well OK, so things we’ve learned: everything is an AU, there are two choices, you can like people being douchebags or you can want to have agency taken away from people… [all laugh] Why not both, is a question.
ELM: OH NO. Where they have it written on their hands but then they just shout at each other the entire time? I could write that. I could write that one very easily for you.
FK: Yes. And everyone was an idiot when they were a teenager, and that’s OK. And teenagers are being idiots right now. That’s it. That’s our takeaways.
MLD: I think that’s a great set of takeaways. [all laughing] We’ve solved the question!
FK: In some other alternate universe, this was a different way but this is how it went in this universe.
ELM: That’s right. All right. We’ll write it differently next time. [all laughing]
FK: Thank you so much for coming on Morgan, this was amazing.
MLD: Thank you so much for having me, this was so much fun!
FK: OK, I think that was more laughs per minute than any interview we’ve ever done.
ELM: Good times. [laughing] And it’s not just because, full disclosure, we recorded that a few days ago, I was at the height of a cold then, which I still have remnants of, and I was drinking scotch.
FK: And Dayquil!
ELM: No! No. I had the Dayquil many hours earlier, you should not combine them. Top tip. Don’t combine alcohol and any ’quil because it has acetaminophen.
FK: I love that you call them a ’quil.
ELM: Yeah, they’re ’quils. But here’s what I'm gonna admit to right now because it’s been a few days.
ELM: In the intervening five days since we recorded that…
FK: Oh no.
ELM: I read and loved a high school AU. [FK gasps, ELM: laughs]
FK: Whoa. I am, I don’t know what to say! First of all, we’re gonna put it in the show notes, and I need to read it and find out if I agree with you or not. That was actually one of the things I really liked about this interview, was I felt like Morgan was great, but also I disagreed with her fundamentally on some basic things, and yet it was great. Anyway. I wanna find out if I disagree with you on this!
ELM: Disagree? I mean like…
FK: I mean, whatever, if I don’t like it…I guess I can’t say that. That would be mean. I’ll read it but I’m sure I'll love it.
ELM: Did you, we didn’t actually discuss this in the conversation, but did you read the Rageprufrock fic that I sent you? That I think is my favorite probably in the X-Men fandom? “Limited Release.”
ELM: Did you like that?
FK: I read it. Yes.
ELM: This hits a lot of the same notes.
FK: OK. I mean it wasn’t, I will say I liked it, it was not my favorite fic that I have ever read, but I really enjoyed it.
ELM: It didn’t have to be your favorite fic ever…
FK: I don’t mean to be an asshole, it’s just sometimes you read a fic and you’re like THIS.
ELM: Yeah. I love that story. So this hit a lot of similar notes. And I don’t know that I would say that the teens…do they act like real teens? Unclear.
FK: You may not care.
ELM: Do I care? They didn’t act like 90210 characters.
FK: I certainly don’t care. I like Riverdale.
ELM: Yes. The name of the story, I believe it was “If You Liked The Book You’ll Hate The Movie.” So we’ll put that in the show notes and people can see. It’s about mental illness.
ELM: And about how no one ever gets better.
FK: That’s true. Sort of.
ELM: [laughs] Good! Good.
FK: We also had one thing that we didn't get to in our interview, which is that we got an ask from dzamieponders. “Jamieponders,” maybe? Not sure how to say their name. “Dz” is sometimes said like a J? So it could be “Jamie”? The ask is this. What do you think of the theory that fanworks often rely on significantly changing the plot, characters, and/or setting (but usually not all three), and that how much each fandom changes each thing can tell you about the fandom itself? Like, coffee shop AUs change plot and setting but not characters, side character perspective stuff changes character but not plot or setting, and other species character fics, I guess like mermaid fics or centaurification or something, change setting but not plot or characters. That’s the ask. And we didn’t get to it.
ELM: We did not get to it. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but I think it may be a little…I don’t think it’s as simple as that? I am intrigued by the idea of, and I think we touched on this many a time in this conversation, about why certain fandoms can lend themselves to this and not necessarily for everyone. Like what you were talking about with Star Wars, and what you think is a really peak ripe for AU land, Morgan was like “Absolutely not.”
FK: [laughs] Other people also, clearly there’s a deep divide in this because everybody it seems like has one of the two responses. When I wrote about Reylo and when we had the “Problem of Reylo” episode, it’s really interesting. It’s so divisive. I wonder if everything else is like that too. I wonder if X-Men is like that, it’s just that all the people we know love the AUs.
ELM: I don’t think there’s any way that’s possible. Just if you actually look at the numbers on AO3.
FK: Yeah, but if you look at the numbers on AO3 of Reylo, there’s so many AUs too, right?
ELM: Look, I’ve been deep in the Archive.
FK: I don’t mean to challenge your knowledge. I am sure that you are correct. I think you really are.
ELM: It just also, it’s like, I don’t think it’s just what has been kudosed to the top, it really does seem like…and actually a lot of the writers I’ve been encountering I’ve read in other fandoms too. A lot of good…that sounds shitty to say. “All the good writers are writing AUs!” Or whatever. But it does seem like that was—and I’m sure people who were in that fandom at the time these stories were being written could speak more to these conversations. But I have to wonder, I think it’s probably reading too much into saying that what the choices around these shifting plot/setting/character questions say much about the fandom itself. I feel like it’s somewhat of an individual thing.
FK: I don’t know, I think there is something to be said for there almost being different communities of writers being interested in different things, especially if you get a big enough fandom. In Harry Potter there’s huge communities of people who write certain types of fics that I would basically never read. People who are writing not just self-inserts but also things that hew very closely to the story of the books, that are continuing the story in ways that are very canon-compliant, and a lot of those people seem to be interested in things about the world, worldbuilding details and all this stuff, in ways that are different fundamentally than people writing a coffee shop AU where the focus is on the characters. And there’s some fandoms I find that are like this too. There are some fandoms where the stories are interested in different kinds of things. In general. Most people’s stories. So I don’t disagree with this, I just don’t know how to quantify that.
ELM: Yeah, but I also do think there’s something…character is a tricky thing, and it’s a lot harder to pin down than plot and setting. It’s very easy to say if the plot diverges from what happens in the canon, and I think at the heart of a lot of my critiques of a lot of AU culture is that from what I’ve read in the past there are times when I’m like, “What is character anymore? This feels so distant, this doesn’t seem…” The character can be internally consistent to the story, and still feel like an utterly different character. To the point where it’s different than if I take Harry Potter and I stick him in a different situation, obviously he’s going to say different things than the things he said in the book. But fundamentally if I can deconstruct his character I should be able to write that situation, right?
FK: I agree with you, and I think that the idea that…coffee shop AUs change plot and setting, but not characters, well, bringing it back to my current pet fandom, when I think about even the Reylo AUs that I’ve enjoyed a great deal, part of the point is that they change the character, I think. The Kylo Ren in these books is not a mass murderer. That’s part of the point.
ELM: But that’s action, that's not necessarily character, right? That’s, I mean, what is character then?
FK: He doesn’t have the opportunity, he’s not in a setting where he’s a force master, therefore he doesn’t do it, maybe.
ELM: Is he a petulant child in all of them? Then that’s still canonical.
FK: He is a petulant child in all of them. But I do think there’s something, there’s a question about how much does your action make up your character. I think there is something fundamental about the actions that we take, even though they’re impacted by circumstance.
ELM: Oh, a thousand percent! Obviously I’ve been thinking about this a lot when you have a canon where one of the characters does wind up murdering a lot of people, but he’s also the victim of explicit torture in a concentration camp, you know? Trigger warning, that’s a little…
FK: Not to mention that he’s half of your ship. [laughing]
ELM: No, but that’s part of it! And it’s interesting to see the good AUs find other, if it’s moved into the modern era, need to find another way to make him…you can’t just say “He’s grumpy.” [laughs] Almost always there’s some other kind of trauma, and not in a way that excuses any of the behavior, but because it’s so intrinsically wrapped up in what a character is…
FK: Otherwise the character isn’t coherent. People aren’t just like that unless…you know?
ELM: Well it might be. Some people are temperamentally quite grumpy. But it does feel like, “What is this character when you take away the circumstances?” It’s easy to see in an X-Men story because it’s very blunt circumstances. But it’s a little harder to see when it’s something less traumatic, I think.
FK: Yeah. I agree.
ELM: So it’s hard.
FK: All right, well, I think that was a great ask. Thank you, dzamie—or jamie—ponders, or however your name is said, and I’m really sorry that we've destroyed it.
ELM: So, I think that’s it for AUs! I’m probably gonna, after we wrap up, gonna go read some more. But I’m curious to know people's thoughts.
FK: Yeah! I look forward to hearing from people on this as well, and it’s very easy to send us your thoughts! You can email us, fansplaining at gmail.com, our website fansplaining.com is a Tumblr, the ask box is on, and so is anon, please don’t be a jerk. You can send us fan mail but please don’t, because that’s…I don’t know. You can.
ELM: You can, it’s a hard…it’s a hard thing to respond to.
FK: It’s a hard medium because it’s…
ELM: Tumblr’s fan mail feature, if you’re not familiar. Don’t be familiar with it if you’re not familiar.
FK: Send us an email instead.
ELM: An email will do it. You can also send an ask, and if you want to use your username but you don’t want us to reply, just say so in the ask. Say just respond privately please. We’ll obviously always respect that.
FK: We’ve also got Twitter, @fansplaining on Twitter, we’ve also got Facebook if you really feel the need to communicate in that fashion then I guess you can, that’s also @fansplaining, and as always, a really good way to support us is to pledge to our Patreon which is at patreon.com/fansplaining, we are very soon going to have a tiny zine for you!
ELM: Very soon.
FK: So get in your pledge now and get access to all kinds of special episodes, tiny zine, lots of stuff. Please enjoy it.
ELM: That’s right and if you do not have any cash right now you could also—or if you have cash! This isn’t just for people with no cash. You could leave us a review and a rating on iTunes. That really helps other people find us. Yeah! Or share us with your friends.
FK: All right! I think that’s it.
ELM: I’m literally gonna go read an AU right now.
FK: OK, go enjoy your AU.
ELM: Flourish, I read a story…
FK: I will talk to you later, Elizabeth! [all laugh]
[Outro music, thank yous and disclaimers]