Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The longing for depth and wholeness--

One of the vignettes by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
Recently I wrote some sketches about fans and paparazzi as part of my current series of tiny stories, since I'm still too busy to start a novel. I've never been much interested in the idea of celebrity or celebrities, but I accidentally bumped into a fan site for Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (the way one does on the internet, following a thread through the infinite Borgesian labyrinth) and then explored some more.

At first, I felt a tad appalled--the latter in part because a great many fans don't particularly care about grammar, syntax, clarity, and other tools of the trade most dear to my heart. Of course, I don't care for a great many other things . . . so I won't reproach them. Clear thinking for me is made of words in the right order, but it doesn't mean all that much to a lot of people active on the internet. Neither does proofreading. But plenty of people have lived and died without deep engagement with the written word. For that matter, most of our human time on the planet has passed away without written words.

The fascination I felt lay elsewhere. I was intrigued by the idea that a large group of fans were building a story, collaborating on a kind of fiction, telling themselves a thing they needed to hear. It is a story based on clues, and like fiction, it appears as a kind of lie that is more real and compelling than surface reality. The writers are detectives, the story itself a tale of romance between two people who are considered quirky (that is, they are often surprising in behavior, and they have been part of the mainstream but now swim against it in indie films) and smart and good-looking. The tale is clearly related to their roles in the Twilight movies because it is very much concerned with ideas about the ideal and the permanent.

The effort to make the story involves a lot of analysis, the sort of analysis that an engaged reader might apply to a poem or novel or scripture. Every word is scrutinized, every image searched for information--shared clothing, a young woman's weight gain and loss, sardonic words, tossed-off comments that may or may not be serious. These fragments are compared with other fragments, the puzzle pieces to a larger picture. Tone, mood, and attitude of the characters involved become important and are discussed endlessly. These 'shippers' of an ongoing love relationship between the two stars (love, marriage, a new house, a baby) are doing the thing that engrossed readers do. And isn't that curious?

They're not the only story makers. The 'haters' make their own counter-stories, based on a different reading of information or built off dismissing the stories of the shippers. These stories tend to be more perfunctory and less developed because they are primarily rejections.

Oddly, this sort of storytelling brings up issues about mainstream culture and deep human desires. Why did an obsessed group of fans need to make that story, one in which they piece together clues to prove that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart live in a private, perfect, joyful world of their own?

Our dark age worships a debased mainstream culture dominated by sex, violence, and speedy electronic jumps from one thing to another. It opposes Melvillean "deep diving," high art, thoughtfulness, and the spirit. In such a time, it is illuminating to look around and see where storytelling takes hold of people and why. In this particular case, the many fans obsessed with two celebrity figures work to uncover, build, and support a dream of love, a dream of wholeness--an old-fashioned dream that love can have depth and permanent meaning and soul, and that a man and a woman can fit together to become one perfect, complete thing. This dream expresses a core human longing for depth and meaning, raised up from a mainstream culture that is increasingly drained of substance.

* * *

An interesting response from painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins is here.


  1. Thoughtful post. In some ways, this has been going on for a long time in various ways, say, with Diana, Princess of Wales. Mythmaking. Now, with current technology, this sort of mythmaking is extreme, invasive, and meaningless. I love the word "Melvillean." I smiled when I saw it because a friend and I were talking about my main novel. We have nicknamed it "The Whale." LOL! What is sad for me is that everyone pushes me to the kind of writing that is quick and meaningless for me. Thank you for writing this. It reminded me of what I am doing.

    1. Melinda,

      I am touched that it worked as a reminder for you. Thank you for saying so. And great good luck with The Whale.

      For a long time, I have been interested in this whole idea--the way people cobble together myths in order to find a way to live, something to care about, some sense of higher purpose. Some mythic stories are alive; others live for a short while, signs of our time.

  2. Today we went to the Midsummer Fest at our Scandinavian Centre, and much enjoyed some of those age old traditions. Such a contrast to modern day trivial and superficial worship of celebrities. Thanks for writing this, Marly.

    1. Hi there, Marja-Leena--

      I wonder what wonders went into your scanner, souvenirs from Midsummer Fest!

      The desire to be uplifted and a part of something larger can, if dammed up by the culture, pour out in some unexpected places.

  3. This is a lovely and generous take on a phenomenon that's awfully tempting to dismiss. I've never been really big on fan-fiction, but I've known people who were, and their desire for community and their capacity to re-tell and tweak existing stories is certainly a timeless impulse among artists and writers.

    1. Oh, I completely forgot the fan-fiction business. I was startled to find that not only is there fan-fiction about the Twilight movies but that there's lots of fan fiction about the two actors. That must feel awfully strange to read if you're one of the subjects...

      I probably wouldn't have had such a "generous take" if I hadn't written the little stories first, as they were definitely attempts to see from the eyes of a fan and sympathize. And I don't think I was as kind to photographers!

  4. If you were to write this out in detail, it would be another Gravity's Rainbow, I think, not a wee little story, or at least one of those Borges parables that opens out infinitely in one's mind.

    1. This little post came after and out of three little stories or sketches--two in the voices of fans, one in the voice of a teenage paparazzi. A longer piece is an idea...

  5. There's much here to ponder on, not least the whole idea of fan-fiction. I'm rather engaged by the idea of fan fiction. As a child I made a fiction 'in my head' about Tarzan. I constructed an inner world that wasn't written down or shared. It wasn't based on Edgar Rice Burroughs... I was probably eight or nine… but was stitched together from a mix of films I'd seen, and some of my Tarzan annuals and comics. It was also consciously secretive, because I'd created scenarios I knew wouldn't be approved of by adults: rather innocent sexual idylls that comforted me in a world where at a deep level I felt isolated and without role-models and shared experiences. We shouldn't forget what a dark place the pre-enlightened, pre-Stonewall, pre-sexually-liberated world was for children who felt 'other'. The way homosexuality was represented in films and comedies on TV was not reassuring to fearful, impressionable young minds.

    I've never read any fan fiction, but I rather approve of the notion of taking ownership. Better of course if the ownership is of something with a literary level that might spur the fans to improve their word skills, but whatever the expression, I think it's heartening when people aspire, no matter how clumsily, to creativity.

    At the higher-end of the notion of taking a story and turning it into something else, I was excited back in 2012 when the possibility arose of my series of drawings and Catriona Urquhart's sequence of poems, collectively titled 'The Mare's Tale', being turned into a chamber-work with a libretto. I balked at the idea of any adaptation of the images and the poems to a too-literal narrative, and discussed this with the librettist Damian Walford Davies when I briefed him. So he took the original underpinnings of the poems and artworks… the childhood trauma of my father, and the 'haunting' the event transformed into in his latter days… and re-imagined it into into a dark, glittering psychodrama of a fiction that entirely honoured the sources, both in tone and in skill. Not exactly fan-fiction... though Damian has been articulate in his love of both the visual and poetic sources of 'his' 'Mare's Tale', as has Mark Bowden the composer... but definitely something that touches on those ideas.

    I would hazard that whatever reservations authors may have about their characters and scenarios being hijacked by the fan base, and however the results pan out, they must feel excitement that their works have such a potent effect on readers' imaginations.

    On a level closer to home, I privately shared with Marly some painful events that impacted on my life and caused me a great deal of anguish over quite long periods. She reworked these into miniature fictions that quite blew my socks off. Not only were they expertly mythologised, but they were beautiful and moving on universal levels, and moreover radically changed the way I felt about what had happened to me. THAT'S the power of art.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.