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I first discovered Fanfiction whilst trawling Lord of The Rings-related sites in the early 2000s. On most forums, there would be a section called “Fanfiction”. I dipped my toes in, read a few paragraphs, and quickly retreated: the idea of other people messing with Tolkien’s original work was blasphemy. What I did not realise was, that Fanfiction was actually a well-established, widely followed underground ‘pop’ genre.
Although the origins of any cultural phenomenon are often blurry, most sources agree that Fanfiction first emerged in the 1960s within the Star Trek fandom; in those pre-World Wide Web times, stories were circulated by means of home-produced fanzines which were swapped or sold at cost price at Sci-Fi and Comic Conventions. What was initially just a natural expansion of the Star Trek storylines, would soon, however, take a rather more interesting direction with the arrival of “slash” fiction. Slash, whose name originates from the use of the (/) symbol to refer to the “Kirk/Spock” pairing, focused on sexual relationships between (generally) male characters, such as those played by Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. As you can imagine, this rather unconventional approach did not go down too well with a large part of the original fanbase, but no amount of geeky debate stopped the proliferation of slash, which soon began to cannibalise content from other highly popular TV shows of the time. A few decades later, Fanfiction is going stronger and stronger.
Umm...Paola...we need to talk....
It’s not surprising; if such an amateur art form had managed to emerge at a time when home printed fanzines were the only vehicle of distribution, it seems inevitable that with the advent of the Internet, Fanfiction was just going to get even bigger with a multitude of online communities of writers and readers proliferating under every possible fandom. Now, with social networks and easily accessible blogging platforms, it has never been easier to read or, indeed, to publish Fanfiction. There is something for everyone: from “het” (strictly heterosexual pairings) to “slash” (male/male), to “femslash” (female/female pairings), to the more controversial “RPF” – Real Person Fiction, written about famous people: actors, musicians, entire bands – if you can think of them, the chances are that somewhere in cyberspace they are the unwitting protagonists of their own Fanfiction.
Unsurprisingly, RPF presents a whole new range of complications: if breach of copyright and occasionally atrocious prose are the main points of contention by Fanfiction’s detractors, consider an entire literary sub-genre built around the fictitious lives of real people. These ‘real people’ become puppets in the hands of fans with a flair for story-telling and an extremely active imagination, their idols’ public personas providing instant, ready-made characters to be ‘paired up’ in a variety of ways – because ‘pairing’, of course, is central to most Fanfiction. Without sex, or at least romance, there would be very little to write about.
Free from the burden of having to stick to the truth, RPF allows fans’ most unlikely fantasies to co-exist with reality such as in the case of the hugely popular J2 slash based on the TV show ’Supernatural’. In J2 the two male lead actors, Jared Paladecki and Jensen Ackles, are not only a couple but are also frequently involved in BDSM and even cross over into other fandoms. Back in the real world,
Jensen Ackles and Paladecki, are said to find the whole thing rather amusing. But if some of the ‘protagonists’ of RPF Slash are so good-natured about it, things get more twisted when it comes to “cest”, a further spin on the genre which, taking creative liberties to a whole new level, features incestuous relationships between famous siblings. “Cest” is often more popular than the original Fanfiction it spawns from and is even specifically named according to the fandom it belongs to. Take the case of Hanson; under the umbrella of “Hanfic”, the three brothers have been inspiration for both Het writing and the imaginatively named “Hancest”, with its tales of more than just brotherly love between the three (in all their possible combinations). By comparison, the My Chemical Romance-inspired “Waycest” – which pairs up My Chemical Romance’ brothers Gerard and Mikey Way, seem so restrictive, with, after all, only two brothers available. Understandably, the bands in question aren’t too happy about being the objects of such fantasies.
One could be forgiven for thinking that only a certain kind of bands appeal to the consumers of Slash and RPF, but in the surreal world of fandom, nobody is safe, not even the members of heavy metal groups like Metallica and Megadeth. My suspension of disbelief was pushed to its limits when I discovered Metallica Slash featuring singer James Hetfield¹ ‘paired’ with former bassist Jason Newsted ² . Forget multi-sibling incest, my reaction was, this kind of stuff is totally outrageous. Why would Jason sleep with Hetfield?? I wonder if Metallica is aware of the fact that the Masters of Puppets are actually their own fans and what is stopping the notoriously litigious band from suing Fanfiction writers, Napster-style? The answer probably lies in the word ‘Disclaimer’ which inevitably precedes the opening paragraph of any RPF, and which basically says ‘Before you reach for your lawyer’s phone number: NONE OF THIS IS TRUE’. And as Fanfiction (not just RPF) can never be commercially distributed, as it clearly infringes copyright and probably every intellectual property law, nobody makes any money from it ³.
You can’t sell it, you can’t buy it, but thousands of people write it and an even larger number of people read it: there has to be something more to Fanfiction than just porn. Should it be dismissed as trash and placed at the bottom rung of the literary hierarchy, lower than even the worst self-published, straight-to-Kindle ‘indie’ writing? I am not so sure anymore. Standards vary enormously and, granted there is some really bad, actually, diabolically bad stuff out there, whose sole purpose is to give fans an opportunity for self-insertion in a fantasy involving their idols (this, in Fanfiction-speak, is called doing a “Mary-Sue”). But there are also plenty of well-crafted stories, some of them successfully serialised across several months and even years, with believable characters, elegant prose and plausible dialogue. And more often than not, the authors are university-educated women⁴ who are using Fanfiction as practice towards original writing. They put out their raw, unedited work for others to read and comment on, and learn their craft in the process. If it wasn’t happening online, this ‘learning by peer review’ path wouldn’t be so different from what happens at a Writers’ Group.
That confirms my suspicions that Fanfiction, as a literary phenomenon, is really nothing new. Throughout the centuries, every conceivable art form has, at some stage, delved into existing sources, in a tradition which can be traced as far back as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; the Greek poet most likely borrowed his famous heroes and heroines from the story tellers of the time. Consider also the legend of Don Juan, which, since its first written appearance in the late XVII century, went through endless permutations, among which are Byron’s eponymous epic poem and Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. And shall we talk about Keats’ Hyperion and Endymion, whose subject matter is entirely lifted from classic mythology? In fact, my Fanfiction-o-meter is going into overdrive just at the mention of the Romantic poet, since Keats’ own life was indeed given the full RPF treatment in Dan Simmons’ sci-fi novels Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion: Simmons’ Keats is a cybrid who falls in love with a woman named Brawne Lamia; Fanny Brawne was Keats’ real life fiancé and Lamia is the title of one of his poems. And if that wasn’t enough, Hyperion is also based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, down to the frame story structure and the pilgrims’ stories.
Confused? Welcome to the world of Fanfiction, where everything is possible; a world in which characters from different TV shows intermingle and where Frodo and Sam go out on dates; a world which bears little resemblance to the original content and is actually more like an alternate universe of its own. And, ok, it is also a slightly warped dimension in which it is perfectly acceptable for brothers to sleep with each other, and where pretty much everyone is gay. But, as Bethany – one of the most prolific writers of Hancest – stresses in the disclaimer section of her website, “absolutely no money is being made from this story; it’s all just good, angsty fun”.
And I, for one, am inclined to agree.
¹ Undoubtedly the most obnoxious rockstar of all times
² He can do better than Hetfield
³ With the notable exception of the 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy which originally started as a Twilight Fanfiction.
⁴ According to most sources, most Fanfiction writers are heterosexual women with university degrees.
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Everybody loves us
Everybody loves our town
That’s why I’m thinking lately
The time for leaving is now
When Mudhoney’s song “Overblown” appeared in the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s film Singles, grunge had already become a global phenomenon. Everybody was talking about Seattle. How did it all start? How did a former logging town in the Pacific Northwest manage to suddenly become the epicentre of rock ’n’ roll?
Everybody Loves Our Town, written by former Blender magazine editor Mark Yarm, may well have the answers. Compiled in the form of an oral history, this 592-page tome is an attempt to understand how it all happened—and why.
Tracing an arc from the early days in the dingy, smoky, beer-soaked clubs of Seattle, the book charts a complete trajectory of grunge. Yarm takes us all the way to sold-out arenas and multimillion-dollar record deals, down to the scene’s inevitable implosion, replete with numerous casualties along the way.
Unlike other books attempting to explain the grunge phenomenon, Everybody Loves Our Town tells the story through the voices of those who were actually there. Instead of a writer’s retrospective socio-anthropological musings, readers are treated to the equivalent of a long night out sharing a drink or ten with the survivors and listening to their recollections—conveniently woven together by Yarm in chronological order in a superb delivery of rock ’n’ roll storytelling. Some of the material will already be familiar to the most devoted grunge aficionados, but the author used both existing and new interviews, creating a far more comprehensive account of those days than what a series of recent, retrospective interviews could have achieved. The result is not fragmented, but instead forms a tapestry of two decades’ worth of firsthand accounts expertly interwoven into an almost seamless conversation. It must have been a mammoth task—but also, we suspect, a labour of love.
MultiMediaMouth: Mark, forgive us the obvious question, but do you consider yourself a fan of grunge?
Mark Yarm: Yes, I consider myself a fan—though after working for three years on a book like this, sometimes grunge is the last thing I want to hear. Still, I still find myself listening to Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles for pleasure quite often.
So, why another book on grunge now? After all, there have been several attempts to explain and describe the scene, from biographies on individual artists or bands, like Charles Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven on Kurt Cobain, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana by Michael Azerrad, to the more recent Greg Prato work Grunge is Dead—which, like Everybody Loves Our Town, is also written in interview form. Everybody Loves Our Town was published in the autumn of 2011, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind album and an inevitable revival of all things grunge. It only took two years to write—which, considering the amount of material spanning over a decade, does not seem very long at all.
MMM: Was Everybody Loves Our Town always going to be a combination of new and old material? How did you go about putting everything together? Did you turn your office into one big grunge control room? We’re thinking of a huge whiteboard with the main suspects with arrows pointing towards each other, like something out of The Wire, only with the U-Men at the top of the tree.
MY: My goal was to get as much original material as possible. I’d say about 90 percent of the quotes are from interviews I conducted personally. In instances where I couldn’t get someone to talk to me, I’d use archival material (and, in some cases, previously unpublished interviews conducted by other journalists who were gracious enough to help me out). I did pin up index cards detailing each chapter in my office space, but I’m afraid it was not as elaborate as something out of a police procedural.
The story starts in 1985, with the U-Men’s account of how they set fire to the stage on Labor Day weekend of that year. I must admit to not knowing the band at all, but still got drawn into the tales of punk rock and pyromania. The Melvins, Cobain’s muses-to-be, are next, and, chapter after chapter, the archaeology of the Seattle scene begins to be uncovered. If you have visited the “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” exhibit at the Seattle Experience Music Project, you might agree with our choice of the word archaeology to define the days of mixed cassette tapes, grainy black-and-white flyers and home-produced fanzines. Photocopied posters, disseminated around the city, were cheaper than getting a telephone line connected. Our present time of social networks, smartphones and music downloads truly seems futuristic in comparison.
Since then, the internet has changed things so much that everything seems to be simultaneously more fragmented and more within reach. The evolution of a music scene spawned by the cultural and geographical isolation of a pre-Microsoft Seattle is now unimaginable. If Kurt Cobain was a 16-year-old kid from Aberdeen now, he might still hate the place but would probably pour out his angst on Tumblr and upload his demos on SoundCloud.
MMM: Have you visited the Experience Music Project exhibition? Would you agree that looking back at the demo tapes and old black-and-white flyers feels a bit like Howard Carter walking into Tutankhamen’s tomb?
MY: I visited the [museum] on a number of occasions, the last of which was in November, when I did an Everybody Loves Our Town promotional event there. During the course of working on the book, I got to know the museum’s senior curator, Jacob McMurray, who was immensely helpful when it came to, say, fact-checking the spelling of a club’s name or when a certain show happened. (The relationship was mutually beneficial: I actually helped out on their excellent Nirvana exhibit, which opened in April of last year.) And, yes, their collection is pretty amazing—there’s so much more in their archives than they can actually put on display.
The Experience Music Project Exhibition
Whilst the Experience Music Project’s own publication of a “Taking Punk to the Masses” catalogue does an excellent job of gathering these “grunge artifacts” in one place, its purpose was probably to document rather than to entertain. Everybody Loves Our Town, on the other hand, is a pleasure to read; every chapter is a collection of testimonials and soundbites from band members, producers, soundmen, girlfriends and odd hangers-on. Yarm gives every character—however minor—the chance to tell his or her story, and often what follows is a direct rebuttal of the previous statement by someone who was also there at the time. Alcohol and drugs have probably taken their toll on the memory of a lot these people, making their versions of events rather unreliable, and the result is often very funny. (Somewhat unsurprisingly, Courtney Love’s recollections rarely coincide with anyone else’s.)
All the time, Yarm keeps his own voice firmly muted, but one cannot help but form an opinion eventually. It is impossible, for instance, not to notice Buzz Osborne’s resentment at Nirvana’s success, considering that Cobain saw the Melvins as his mentors; equally, one is left with a strong impression that Pearl Jam’s “overnight success” changed Eddie Vedder more than he would readily admit. Courtney Love—undoubtedly the most controversial figure in the entire history of grunge—is, almost unanimously, depicted in unflattering tones.
MMM: Did you encounter any difficulties in getting people to co-operate with the project, or was there a willingness to try and finally set the record straight and explain what grunge really was?
MY: Some people were incredibly forthcoming and incredibly giving of their time. Typically, the further a person was from the white-hot spotlight of ‘90s grunge mania, the happier [the person would] be that someone was interested in [his or her] story. But there were plenty of difficulties. Pearl Jam weren’t available to me, presumably because they were working on their own book and movie at the time, though I did get material from them: I’d interviewed Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard for the Blender magazine piece the book grew out of, and I got to speak with Matt Cameron through the Soundgarden organisation. And I dug deep, interviewing all of the band’s former drummers—something Cameron Crowe did not do in his Pearl Jam Twenty documentary.
The grunge phenomenon was perhaps the last time a music scene was so successfully hijacked by media and industry to be mass marketed to the world. Some 20 years later, there seems to be hardly any trace in Seattle that grunge ever existed, Sure, some of the bands are still together—such as the newly reformed Soundgarden—but the city itself seems to have tried to rid itself of the memory of those long-gone hyped-up days. Some of the venues still exist, but only just. Outside Cobain’s former house in an upscale Lake Washington neighbourhood, in a tiny green space called Viretta Park, two wooden benches, graffitied with tributes to Kurt and acting as the only memorial (and an unofficial one at that) are regularly cleaned and repainted by the local authorities. Save for the Nirvana exhibition at the Experience Music Project—running through early spring of 2013—one wouldn’t know that Nirvana ever existed.
The Viretta Park Bench
MMM: Why, in your opinion, does Seattle seem so determined to forget grunge?
MY: People who were involved with the scene seem to go through phases of not wanting to talk about it, then feeling that it’s OK to discuss it again. I guess I’d also get pretty sick of talking over and over again about something I did 20 years ago.
Those directly involved might be sick of talking about it, but most fans of grunge will never tire of reading about it. And they will, without a doubt, devour this book. Rock histories and biographies almost invariably fall within two categories: shameless, fan-driven hagiographies, or tedious, impenetrable bricks about chords and guitar models. Everybody Loves Our Town, we are glad to report, is neither. As well as acting as a definitive document to posterity, before the fragile collective memory of that era fades away forever, it is also, without a doubt, the most compelling book on grunge written to date.
MMM: One last question. If you had to mention a single album of that time, which would you choose?
MY: I’d say the aforementioned Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles. If you do not own it already, pick it up post-haste.
Everybody Loves Our Town is published by Faber and can be purchased here
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And here’s your bonus back episode!
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