August 2017

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I've stumbled upon some interesting articles in my reading of late that seem particularly relevant to the literary-fannish community. First, there is A Brief History of the Beef against Women Reading. While the author gives a succinct history of women and literacy, she also makes several specific allusions to fan fiction, including another book deal for a novel that began as a fan fiction story (this time in bandom). She seems to see the connection, as I do, between the vitriol directed at fanfic and the gender of most of its practitioners. It's an interesting thought experiment to imagine the reaction toward fanfic and its writers were it a primarily male pursuit, as indeed most traditional fannish activities are. (Certainly, one doesn't generally see women wearing naught but brassieres and body paint at Lambeau Field in December.)

"As the marketplace for words increasingly skewed female, men started trolling, claiming that women’s novels were sexually corruptive, dangerously distracting, and hopelessly unrealistic, or even damaging to women’s mental health." That line isn't talking about fanfic--it's talking about Victorian-era novels--but doesn't it sound familiar? Fanfic is all porn. Or it's self-insert fantasies. Not only is this morally corrupt for the individual writer, but it also, apparently, has the power to damage the original work as well, given some of the arguments against fanfic writing by its opponents. Or it distracts women from the valuable pursuit of writing for publication (no matter how unlikely and unlucrative getting published actually is), which is another argument floated by fanfic opponents under the paternalistic guise of giving a shit about the writers they denigrate.

To narrow the focus even more, to the Tolkien fandom, it's interesting to consider how the fanfic community is regarded by the wider Tolkien fan community. Although I've had very little interaction outside of the fanfic community, I have on good authority from friends who have interacted in places like forums that fanfic-writing is looked down upon by self-titled Tolkien scholars. Again, it's frivolous and shallow abuse of the original texts. Something one would expect of women who, as usual, don't appreciate the gravity of what they do! A better use of one's time and showcase of one's so-called "scholarship" is half-baked bloviation on an Internet forum with a passel of like-minded "scholars," clearly.

Something completely different is Gawker's Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web. This is one of those Internet rubbernecking stories where it seems like it shouldn't be real, but it is and you can't quite bring yourself to look away. The article tells the story of a troll on the social media site Reddit who established the site's skeevy side, which led to its explosion in popularity, by setting up forums for such noble purposes as posting sexualized photos of underage girls, sharing stalker photos of women's breasts and butts taken on the street (without the women's knowledge, of course), and celebrating things like violence against women, racism, and Hitler. "I just like riling people up in my spare time," says the troll, who posted under the handle Violentacrez (and who is, of course, white, male, and middle-class and so has never had to be on the receiving end of the hatred he promotes). The story tells of his rise to personal trollish fame, dragging Reddit into the limelight with him and allowing for the legitimization by the site of his identity and mission as he achieved status as a respected moderator and site celebrity.

Adrian Chen, the author of the article, discovered Violentacrez's identity and outed him. The response has been interesting, with quite a bit of outrage directed at Chen. The Reddit site culture, apparently, values anonymity above all else: "Under Reddit logic, outing Violentacrez is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit's role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women," writes Chen.

While this particular story isn't connected to the Tolkien or fanfic communities in any way, it does bring up some issues that we grapple with as well. There is the issue of online decency--where does one draw the line? I think most of us would draw the line well before establishing a community called chokeabitch for posting pictures of women being beaten by men, but what about stories describing school-age Harry having sex with Professor Snape? What about illustrations of the same, to cite a specific incident that rocked LiveJournal a few years ago? If these media suggest that a 12-year-old can consent to and enjoy sex with a grown man who holds a position of power over him? Do we draw the line?

Then there's the issue of anonymity. Fandom in general values protecting the real-life identity of community members, as being outed for writing certain kinds of fiction can have disastrous real-life consequences for people. At what point should we draw the line here? It's an uncomfortable question. After all, I've outed a fannish person's real name before; it was and is a decision that I'm not wholly comfortable with. My reasoning, at the time, was that this person had done enough damage to our community and also seemed to be fishing for money; it seemed possible that she might hit another community in the same way, and it seemed fair to make information available to forewarn any who cared to look. But, as many have commented on Chen's article, his outing of Violentacrez had real-life implications for the man (who has indeed been fired from his job in the wake of it), just as anyone doing a name search for the person I outed will find the post where I do so. Was I right? Was Chen?

Anonymity is frequently cited as the root cause of much online misbehavior. Chen notes, however, that "Violentacrez/Michael Brutsch upset this idea by blurring his online and offline lives. Brutsch adopted a new name for trolling, but he built his horrible character on many details from his real life." Yet, from where I'm sitting, this is quite par for the course. I'm thinking particularly of the types who, like Violentacrez, make a name for themselves on sites like, where they bully and harass authors to the extent of encouraging them to kill themselves. These people, too, ground themselves in an identity that seems to be somewhat rooted in real life; I'd argue that that's part of their power. Even as they disgust 95% of the population, that glimmer of humanity lets them reel in the other 5%, makes them more than just a troll hiding behind anonymity, giving them an edginess and appeal for "saying what everyone's thinking":

He needed to keep his anonymity to protect his ability to express things many people think but hardly anyone says. With Violentacrez, "I got the freedom to talk about my personal life, my personal feelings... I'm sure there's more than one person in this building who's a pervert," he said, referring his office building.

You can't get to know or become friends with someone who completely lacks identity. That person's power becomes fleeting and easily dismissed. That sliver of identity, though, provides a place for other like-minded people to rally around. I remember when I had my go-around with the bully The Battling Bard some years ago, I would sometimes find comments from her to people whom she clearly considered friends, and she seemed likable then; had I not known better, I would have associated with her without qualm. Likewise, Violentacrez made friends and became more than just a troll to many people, which explains his rise to power more than the drek he posted.
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