Sunday, 22 December 2013

Bullying and Fandom: Why Caitlin Moran must publicly apologise for her treatment of Mildred Bobbin, and why anyone who cares about fandom must hold her to account.

I've seen something none too pleasant in the attitude of those in power towards fandom over the past seven days. To recap, at the BFI premiere of the new series of BBC One's Sherlock on December 15, Caitlin Moran humiliated a Sherlock  fanfic writer - who writes under the name Mildred Bobbin -  by plucking her "slashfic" story off the internet (without permission) and forcing stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read it out while writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, producer Sue Vertue and director Jeremy Lovering  looked on (a video of part of it is here, an account is here, and Mildred Bobbin's admirable response is here)    Now, I wouldn't watch Sherlock in a million years (I think I'd prefer Basil The Great Mouse Detective or that version of Hound of the Baskervilles Cook and Moore did everyone hates), and fanfic isn't something I'm interested in. But you know what's really harmful about people writing fanfic? What's contemptible about people writing fanfic? Because I don't. It seems as pointless a reason to ridicule someone as if they enjoyed knitting, collecting toy soldiers, breakdancing or Origami. It's a harmless activity people do for fun. Why should people who practice it be humiliated, and how is singling them out for such public humiliation kicking upwards?

Let's also not forget an important point here: Mildred Bobbin's blogpost makes it quite clear that piece was written for her own amusement and that of her friends: this is not a debate about the literary merits of fanfiction (I'd be the first to admit it's only recreational). She's horrified the cast were made to read it and, touchingly, begins her piece by focusing on the embarrassment that she thinks it caused Freeman and Cumberbatch.
   Caitlin Moran's books come adorned with blurbs from Lauren Laverne, Jonathan Ross and Nigella Lawson telling us how "cool" she is. Now she's taken her role as the kid at school surrounded by adoring sycophants telling you you could hang out with them if you didn't wear your hair like that, and what are you reading that for, that's saaaaad. Look at this piece by her sneering at Red Dwarf in 2006. It's not just the flatness of its prose, the blank witlessness of the insults directed at the show's writers, cast and fans  and the lack of any argument, but the way the piece acts as a rallying cry to all those who are anxious to declare they're not sad, not obsessive and not virgins.

Paul Cornell once rightly pointed out that part of the magic of the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who was that it was a bullied era: to this day the mention of it is interrupted by the endless jeers of people who've never seen an episode from that period (which includes some of the finest Doctor Who stories to date), who are terrified of any interests that aren't shared by a majority,  and instead find great sustenance in buzz-words (low-budget, embarrassing, sad,  Kandyman, Vision-on, umbrella, hat). To them, the world is a circle with the words "received opinions" inside, and terrifyingly nerdy wastelands outside (do you really think it's a coincidence they've been so keen to pretend science fiction is a cult? As this excellent SOTCAA piece  puts it, people sneering at "anoraks" "virgins" "trainspotters" "nerds" and "obsessives" are simultaneously finding safety-in-numbers by declaring themselves part of a fun-loving majority, not too interested in anything, not taking anything too seriously, not unusual in any way, only annoyed or passionate about things if they know the majority is too, never watching or reading anything unfashionable. When Richard Bacon tweeted, following the broadcast of a Matt Smith Doctor Who story, "what must Sylvester McCoy think when he's watching that?", when Jonathan Ross roared with derision on his chatshow when Billie Piper spiritedly defended Doctor Who Magazine,  and the Radio Times editorial launching the 2010 series promised us that we need not worry because Matt Smith was "no Sylvester McCoy", both were doing nothing other than reasserting their "coolness", their conformity, their lack of anything suspicious. They shelter behind the bigger kids in the class, and let the majority choose their preferences for them, rather than have to think about things. 

At the same time as he was studiously avoiding any allusions to the Moran incident, Cornell himself tweeted: "Oh, so it's bad when Shia LaBeouf steals someone else's work, internet, but not when you illegally download something. Fine", and argued yet again with fans about piracy and how it hurts SF writers. He's talked in the past about his dislike for the tendency of bigger fandoms to look down on others, such as when they sneer at Twilight fans. He's also defended fanfic here. He's a keen viewer of Sherlock and follower of debates within fandom so he knows about  the BFI incident. Until he comments on what Moran did, Cornell can no longer claim to be interested in fandom and bullying.

I blundered into a disagreement over Moran with a published Doctor Who author, Mags L Halliday, after she tweeted this:

She insisted to me that fanfic writers had to accept that:
 Where's the empathy? Is it really that hard to understand that there may be a difference between having your book reviewed and having something written for the amusement of yourself and an online circle mocked onstage at the BFI? Does Halliday really deny the existence of context? How jaded do you have to be to not find Mildred Bobbin's account of her humiliation, and the attack on the simple pleasure writing fanfic brought her, sincere?

 Then James Cooray Smith,  another author of  Doctor Who books and another familiar part of the Who online community,  crashed into this conversation with this revolting series of misogynistic tweets:
Someone puts their work out there, they accept the responses it generates. That's the deal. That includes ridicule. It's interesting from a pathological POV that those who scream loudest about their own rights as fanficcers being above reproach are often the first to SCREAM at someone else's work. Fantitled children.
She put it on the Internet. Everyone is her audience. She must accept that.
After I challenged him on the ghastly terms he was using he responded:

  (He also thinks I'm being hubristic, so either I'm in for a tragic fall at some point in the future due to my own pride, or he doesn't know what hubris means. We won't really know until the Ides of March). Smith finds real comfort in reducing Mildred Bobbin and anyone else who dares to write fanfiction to those nasty little terms of his (don't you just love his pride in them in that last quote?). After all, what would bullying be without the names and buzz-words it relies on? Whether it's wankficcer, fantitlement, spaz, mong, trainspotter, virgin, live-with-your-parents, anorak or Comic-Book-Guy-from-The-Simpsons, they provide such delicious reaffirmation: who the saaad people are and who they are not. Smith kicks down. He spends his days tweeting sycophancy to those higher up in the Doctor Who echelon than him, and sneers at fanfic writers because they're a level below him. Halliday quietly distanced herself (much as so many have done with Moran), asking me not to conflate their views, although offering no more of her own to date.

Moran has spent the past seven days  on her Twitter timeline neither apologising nor giving any acknowledgement of Mildred Bobbin's blogpost about her experience (away from Twitter, all we know is that she has contacted her privately.) However, she has spent it thanking people for telling her how much they're enjoying her book . She's also spent it tweeting about Chicken Tikka Pies and singing My Sharona. She's ignored tweets calling for her to apologise like this one sent by me. Any possibility this might be due to embarrassment is shot down by her speedy tweeting (just 20 minutes after it hit the web) of her annoyance at Brooke Magnanti after she wrote this reasonable, inoffensive piece suggesting that there was no need for Moran to mock fanfiction and no shame in writing it.  She's also promoting her latest product: her Times column and a sitcom pilot based on her childhood. Why apologise - or even mention the problem -  when you've got a deadline (as she was keen to remind us) and a show about to start (it's broadcast today.)

Now, we know it isn't Owen Jones's style to suggest a friend of his did something wrong, and Helen Lewis went for her usual "mumble mumble can understand why some were offended mumble mumble don't think it was really homophobic though mumble mumble" fence-sitting.  Lauren Laverne's response combined name-avoiding, non-committal gutlessness with a suggestion that fanfic writers were the problem   I'm dreading Zoe Williams's and Ben Goldacre's defence, and Graham Linehan's inevitable anti-fanfic-writer rampage. They all know fully well Moran fucked up, and that arguing that Mildred Bobbin deserved such humiliation or that her account of its effect upon her is not a dignified and upsetting one would be difficult, but even if they can't quite defend her as much as they normally prefer to, they're sure as hell not going to criticise her. But if middle-class media honchos with thousands of sycophants eager to help them fight their own battles can look out for their own, why can't the world of SF? We mustn't allow the lazy, barely literate, poisonous, misogynistic sneers of James Cooray Smith to speak for a whole subculture. As they point out themselves, Paul Cornell and Mags L Halliday started off their careers writing fanfiction, and so did many who have a stake in the Doctor Who universe. If they are really and truly going to let a Murdoch-sponsored bully ignore the distress she's caused to an individual with a fraction of her supporters and influence , and say nothing while she surfs her way out of it over wave after wave of  "awww, thank-yous",  quotes from Norm from Cheers, and all the other things you see if you stare directly into Caitlin Moran's timeline, then it appears that Doctor Who's representatives don't share the values of its hero. And if Caitlin Moran has any decency, she must publicly apologise for her treatment of Mildred Bobbin and acknowledge that she's read her blogpost. Some things are more important than deadlines.

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