A few years back an ex-girlfriend asked me why I bothered with my blog if nobody read it. This was shortly before I won the Ustinov and the growth of Movie Maintenance, so I didn’t have much to my name and she probably had a point, although the ‘ex’ part of that descriptor probably gives you an indication of how willing I ultimately was to listen. But even knowing she might have been right, it wasn’t a question that really gave me pause or prompted any serious introspection regarding my motives. I blogged because I liked blogging. It was never something I started with the assumption that anybody outside of the occasional friend or family member would read. Questioning the futility of this isn’t invalid. Writing without an audience, on paper, can look a lot like yelling into the void.
But I don’t think writers fundamentally write for other people. I mean sure, being aware of prospective audiences and gearing your writing towards them is essential, but writing would be a hollow exercise if you were entirely telling stories for other people. Your work needs to come from somewhere real, otherwise it lacks weight. To me, writing should always come from an itch you have to scratch, a story you have to tell. That’s the basic seed from which the bigger piece grows.
For example; over Christmas I wrote a novella called Khancoban, a short thriller featuring Maggie from Sunburnt Country finding herself in the middle of a nightmare situation that she essentially has to fight her way out of. I was super proud of it; I thought it was tightly written and full of strong twists and turns. But outside of being available on my Patreon, I haven’t done anything with it yet. Maybe three or four people have read it. But as much as I’d love it to reach as many eyes as possible, I haven’t been going out of my way trying to make that happen. For now, being proud of Khancoban is enough; it was a successfully scratched itch that hopefully one day translates into something other people enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it. But if that never happens? I’ll live.
My blog sort of fulfils a similar purpose writ large. It’s a place where I articulate and explore ideas that don’t have a home elsewhere. It’s somewhere I can get out my thoughts and opinions on writing, freed of having to be part of a work of fiction. And, beyond that it now provides for me personally a valuable record of my writing life, with entries spanning back to a very different time when my approach to things was largely divergent to what it is now. Add to that more personal reflections on my times overseas, and this blog essentially forms a kind of public journal.
Nowadays, I’m flattered to hear quite regularly from young writers who find it of value. That’s another reason why establishing a blog, even if nobody initially reads it, is a worthwhile pursuit. Charting your development and the lessons you learn about your craft can, it turns out, be valuable to other people as well. Learning that was a really nice surprise; I never approached blogging with any notion that anybody else would get something out of it, so knowing that a small group of people have is awesome.
Maintaining a semi regular writing blog is a great way to keep yourself constantly reflecting on and considering your growth, development and approach to your craft. If you’re worried about people not reading it, don’t be; assume no-one will care, and you’re free of the need to write anything other than exactly what you want to. A love of writing, after all, is the first and most important criteria for pursuing a career in it. Getting people to actually read your stuff should come later. It’s also worth remembering that everything you write is a form of practice and every bit of practice helps you improve. A blog is a fantastic way to scratch a different creative itch, to keep a personal record and maybe, eventually, to provide worthwhile advice to those in the same position you once were.
Earlier today I did my periodic check on Goodreads to see if there were any new reviews or ratings for Boone Shepard. This isn’t something I do often; most responses happened back around the time the book came out and new ratings are only occasional. Besides, I’m well past the point of being hellbent on seeing reviews; in the two years since Boone Shepard came out I’ve heard everything from people calling it their favourite book to people saying it outright sucked and many, many more responses somewhere in between those two polar extremes.
Today there was one new rating for each book; five stars for Boone Shepard and three stars for Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, from the same reviewer. I didn’t take offense to this; rather it just struck me as further evidence of this weird divide I’m noticing in how I think about the books and how people react. It’s something that is especially obvious with kids, who aren’t so good at hiding their feelings; Boone Shepard gets a lot of love while American Adventure seems to have been treated as an inferior, forgettable follow up.
It’s interesting because I think American Adventure is a far stronger book. While I remain proud of Boone Shepard and wouldn’t change anything about it, I do think it was constrained by the pressure of being the debut release of a new publishing house along with my first novel. It was re-edited and reappraised so many times that when I look over it now I almost feel like it lost a bit of the loose, eccentric fun that I associate with the character. This probably wasn’t and isn’t the worst thing in the world; Boone Shepard had to establish the brand but do it within a plot that was originally designed to be the darker second book, so maybe there was an issue in that it started the series on a slightly more serious note than I had envisioned the default as being.
American Adventure, to me, was a chance to let my hair down a bit and write the kind of rollicking, silly adventure yarn that I had originally wanted the series to be comprised of. Knowing at the time that books three and four (which have been reworked now as one final volume) would only get darker, I decided to try and make American Adventure feel more like one of the Boone Shepard short stories; silly, action packed, implausible but with a persistent melancholic thread beneath it.
The result, I suspect, suffers in comparison to the first book. For all its quirky characters and literary references, the original Boone Shepard is still a story about murder, human experimentation, rising up against oppression and confronting your past. The stakes are pretty damn high and I remember people commenting to me after the release that, for a children’s book, it was very dark.
American Adventure, by contrast, probably feels more like a lightweight confection. Technically the stakes are higher (the villain is literally trying to take over the world) but they’re less personal and the characters don’t treat their situation with the same gravity they did in the first book. This was a conscious choice and I feel like I hit the mark, but I can understand why it would feel like a step down rather than an escalation.
Freed of the pressure of starting a series and a career, I had a lot more fun with American Adventure, which is probably why I like it more than the first book even if it’s less emotionally engaging. I can speculate on why it doesn’t get the same appreciation (for all I know it could just outright suck), but ultimately it comes down to a fact that every writer has to try and remember; for better or worse, your audience doesn’t see your work the same way as you do. It’s like your perspective is of someone looking at a tree with X-Ray vision; you can see the insects moving around inside it, the sap, the roots below and the soil feeding them. You have a clearer understanding of what has gone into it, but you can’t see how the thing looks to someone without that same X-Ray vision. You can guess and if you’re good enough at what you do the guess can be spot on, but it will never be 100% reflective of what an objective perspective might see.
No writer sets out to make something bad. I think the books, films etc that really work are the ones where the writers were best able to identify how the story would come across to an external party; something that comes with experience. And look, I think you’re doomed to fail if you try too hard to give an audience what you think they want, especially if that audience doesn’t exist yet. Writing is a tricky balancing act in which you need to create something that both comes from a real place but is geared towards readers or viewers who have no reason to care about the personal demons you’re trying to exorcise. Swing too far in either direction, and what you create becomes either self-indulgent or soulless.
In the end you can’t know how something is going to be received, even with the most well educated guesswork. Being close to something means missing the obvious. Feedback from trusted people can help to a degree; feedback from objective outsiders can help a lot, but all you can really do is follow your instincts and try your best.
And for the record, I still prefer American Adventure to Boone Shepard.
Cast your mind back to 2015. If you were a Star Wars fan, it was a pretty special time. At that point, the few bits of information we had about The Force Awakens had told us next to nothing; there was an intoxicating sense that the movie could be anything. Even as we walked into that first screening we had no real clue of what to expect. All we knew, all everyone agreed upon, was that the future of Star Wars looked very bright indeed.
Well, it didn’t really pan out that way.
Around this time last year I wrote a lengthy blog post bemoaning the state of the franchise, predominantly the fact that, with a glut of new content seemingly hinged on fan nostalgia rather than any clear creative vision, the saga had lost its shine. And to a degree, I still feel that way, but my growing apprehension was tempered somewhat by the pleasant surprise that was The Last Jedi, a film that, love it or hate it, was clearly driven by genuine creative vision, a film that subverted expectations and was thematically rich in a way that no other Star Wars film was before. It was a film that got better upon re-watch and single handedly restored my love and excitement for the franchise. The Last Jedi demonstrated that Star Wars can be more than just callbacks, that there was enormous potential within the sandbox to do new and bold things. It even managed to make me kind of excited for Solo.
But now, for the first time ever, I’m ready to stop calling myself a Star Wars fan. The problem isn’t Solo, The Last Jedi, or Kathleen Kennedy. The problem, to paraphrase a really good thriller I finished recently, is not that one big thing went wrong. It’s that a lot of little things have gone wrong and now the one point I agree on with the really awful ‘fans’ out there is that Star Wars is in serious trouble.
It’s an issue with multiple parts. The first, which I outlined in the aforementioned blog post, is ubiquity. In the next few years, we apparently have on the way an Obi-Wan film, a Boba Fett film, a new Rian Johnson trilogy, a separate film series from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the new animated series Resistance and a live action TV show from Jon Favreau. It’s easy enough to see Disney’s logic here; the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all, can spit out three films and multiple TV shows a year and only grow in popularity. But Star Wars isn’t Marvel. The Star Wars universe was never the same kind of fleshed out playground of endless possibility; it was the backdrop to a singular narrative. The fact that Rogue One and Solo, ostensibly the franchise’s opportunity to branch out and tell different stories, were so nostalgia heavy just proves it. Marvel is made up of many different sub-franchises with their own styles, concerns and characters. You might get three Marvel films a year, but you generally have to wait three years for a new Avengers. Those are the events, not the lead up instalments.
Star Wars loses its value if it’s not an event. And honestly, a yearly film is probably fine. The midnight screenings for The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi were buzzing with excitement and atmosphere. The midnight screening for Solo, just five months after a movie that people are still talking about, might as well have been a lazy afternoon visit to your sparsely attended local cinema. Nobody really cared, and the box office has shown it. Might it have been different if the film came out in December? I think so. Because then it would have been positioned as an event, and, whatever you think of the film, Star Wars would have retained its status. Solo’s close proximity to The Last Jedi has created a sense of Star Wars fatigue that hasn’t really turned up before, and that is dangerous for a franchise that has always thrived on being something hotly anticipated.
Yesterday I listened to a Star Wars podcast that was supposed to be a Solo review but devolved into a debate about The Last Jedi. That, I think, says it all. Solo was too bland and safe to wrestle the cultural conversation away from a film that is still very much being discussed. And even on social media, the big divide between Star Wars fans still uses The Last Jedi as its point of contention. Solo slipped by practically unnoticed, inoffensive to all. That’s not what a Star Wars film is supposed to do.
Mentioning the online debate naturally brings me to the main reason that I’m stepping away from calling myself a fan. Simply put, a Star Wars fan is not a fun thing to be anymore.
For context, I probably don’t watch movies the same way as most people. Having spent three years on a popular film podcast means that I approach films and the behind the scenes process with a level of scrutiny that isn’t common. But then, that’s also what happens if you’re a fan of something. You devour every bit of news, you discuss what announcements and events could mean, and generally you stay in the conversation even at times when new content isn’t forthcoming. But that conversation has become a very unpleasant place to be.
The Last Jedi backlash, rather than fading away as we all assumed it would, has devolved into something far uglier. In the last few weeks Twitter has been replete with people attacking anyone and everyone involved in the ‘Disney Canon’, and then reacting with outrage when those people stand up for themselves. For the record, these attacks go from insisting that the target has ruined the attacker’s childhood, to accusing them of deliberately killing the franchise, to death threats.
We all know the internet can be an ugly place, but the scale of this is unprecedented. And look, while there are many people who genuinely take issue with the creative direction of the film, an overwhelming amount of the backlash appears to be rooted in the film pushing ‘identity politics’, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no point at which Finn yells ‘black lives matter’ or Rey starts talking about the internalised misogyny of Jakku. They’re just characters who happen to not be what we’re used to seeing in Star Wars, and for some people that’s sacrilege. When Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in the film, ends up deleting her Instagram posts in response to the largely racist harassment she was receiving, you know that things have gone way too far. There are now corners of the internet where suggesting that you liked The Last Jedi is an invitation for an instant barrage of loathing, corners where being labelled a ‘cuck’, a ‘shill’, or an ‘SJW’ are among the nicer names you’ll be called.
This, I need to stress, is all because of how you felt about a movie.
The solution is probably obvious. Stay away from those corners of the internet. After all, if you’re a Star Wars fan who doesn’t go on forums or isn’t on Twitter then it’s possible that you’re unaware of all of this. It’s possible that your Star Wars experience is all based around the films themselves, which, arguably, is how it should be. But by and large that’s not really how fandom works anymore. Part of the fun of being a follower of something lies in reading articles and reviews, in joining in debates on social media, in the rampant speculation and discussion over which was your favourite and why. It wasn’t that long ago that all of these things were so much of what made Star Wars fandom awesome; a shared passion that brought people together, disagreements and all. That level of engagement is certainly not necessary to your enjoyment of the films, but it can and perhaps should be a valuable supplement.
It’s not, anymore. Not when you can’t express your feelings without being attacked. And let me clarify; this cuts both ways. There are hardcore fans of The Last Jedi who will write off those who disagree with them as racist manbabies, which is also unfair and unhelpful. Unless, of course, they are actually being racist manbabies, as in the case of what happened with Kelly Marie Tran. Disliking Rose Tico is fair game (I found her annoying and underwritten), but that should never, never spill over into harassment of the actor.
A few years ago I went to an all-day Lord of the Rings Extended Edition marathon at the Astor. I went by myself and was so excited to lose myself in one of my favourite ever film series. In the minutes before it started I sat in the foyer listening to the blaring soundtrack and was overcome with emotion and excitement. But, after a fourteen-hour long day of only Lord of the Rings, I walked out a bit sick of it. I was happy to not revisit Middle Earth for a while after that.
Currently, being a Star Wars fan feels similar, on a larger scale. The franchise dominates the culture, but not in a positive way. People aren’t speculating on what might happen next or discussing their favourite moments, they’re yelling at each other, name calling, and either actively willing the franchise to fail or wanting it to only exist if it can cater to their exact specifications.
Now, when I think back to being a kid, sitting in a darkened cinema as those familiar words came up on the screen, I find it hard to remember how it felt. I know there was a singular love and excitement that only came from Star Wars, but it feels far away now, buried under an exhausting amount of content and a nauseating degree of ugly fan negativity. I’m sick of talking about Star Wars and I’m sick of thinking about Star Wars even as I find myself writing blogs like this and reading think-pieces about the box office failure of Solo. But that’s the degree to which it dominates conversation, especially in my field.
If somebody told me tomorrow that there wouldn’t be another instalment for a decade, I’d be fine with it. But that won’t be the case. More films will come, and they’ll either be safe and dull or prompt outrage from ‘true fans’. And while those fans shriek and abuse, my suspicion is that the audience will slowly fade away until Star Wars is no longer special or exciting.
I don’t think I’m done with the franchise. I’ll probably see the new films and I’ll retain fond memories of what Star Wars meant to me as a kid. But right now? I’m no longer a Star Wars fan.
Writing words about writing words.