One night a few months ago I received an e-mail from a young man I didn't know. The e-mail went, in its entirety: "Neal Pollack is a dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick licker."
So, with a little loss of reason, fantasy flourishes. My own latest fantasy, perhaps even bolder than jumping off hillsides, has been to become someone else. Not that there's anything wrong with me, in particular. No, it's more the sense that there are certain attributes belonging to other people which, if borrowed or, in this case, stolen temporarily, could enhance my existence a little.
Well, I thought. That simply won't do.
I wrote him back immediately. "Dear ____," I said. "Thank you very much for the nice e-mail. I appreciate you taking the time to write. However, I'm disappointed that you didn't spend more time explaining yourself. Do you really think I'm a 'dick licker'? If so, why? What does it mean to be a 'dick licker' anyway? I don't understand, so here's what I want you to do: Take that initial sentence and turn it into a story. The story doesn't have to be very long. In fact, I'd prefer if it were rather short. Call the story "Neal Pollack Is A Dick Licker," for all I care. But make it a story. If it's good, or even marginally coherent, I will publish it on my website. Thanks again. Good luck."
About three weeks later, I got a follow-up e-mail from the same young man. This one had a Microsoft Word document attached. To my delight and relief, the attached story was not called "Neal Pollack Is A Dick Licker." Instead, it was a boxing story. At least I figured it was. It appeared to be in English and written in paragraphs and my spell and grammar checkers detected no mistakes. So I sent it to my webmaster and immediately had him put it up on the site. But now, for the first time, on an adjacent window to this one, I am actually reading this story. I will summarize it for you here:
A boxer named Jerry Rubbo snorts cocaine in a locker room. He talks to his trainer, a pug dog named Hooch, who is fluent in English, French, Chinese and Esperanto. Hooch informs Jerry that he will be fighting me tonight. Well, not me, but rather "Neal Pollack," an imaginary boxer who has "had 67 fights and he's never lost, not once. Truly, just one man ever even managed to draw blood, and that's only because he worked part-time as a phlebotomist."
Hey. That's pretty funny.
OK. So the story continues. "Neal Pollack," apparently, also has a dog a Dalmatian named Crazy Willie Spots for his trainer. Then follow a bunch of stream-of-consciousness paragraphs wherein Jerry recalls his fighting career. Maybe I should have edited some of those out. Anyway, Jerry enters the ring where he sees Neal Pollack "shooting heroin into his left eye." An interminable conversation follows where Jerry refuses to fight Pollack and Hooch persuades him to get into the ring. I now quote a paragraph in its entirety, because it's really good:
Jerry stepped up onto the apron, which is the matted area just outside the ropes of the ring, as well as an invaluable piece of clothing, most often worn in the kitchen or by hookers dressed up to look like sexy French maids. It was just a matter of minutes before he had made his way onto the inner apron. Pollack, noticing the show, pulled the nail he had hammered into the palm of his hand out of his hand, used it to pick the shards of glass from out between his teeth, and then stepped into the ring himself.
The fight begins. Jerry throws his first punch. Pollack, on major drugs, freaks out because he thinks Jerry's glove is a giant gopher that's going to eat his face. From there, the story grows incoherent. Jerry wins the fight, but as the crowd swarms the ring, he dies of a brain embolism. Pollack is trampled by the crowd and also dies. All references to the dog trainers vanish, and the author reveals that this legendary fight has led to the banning of drugs from all major sports, "except for archery."
Ah. How satisfying. I have encouraged another young writer to do his best. It is a brilliant piece of fan fiction.
In the fall of 2000, I published my first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. The book is comprised of first-person satirical essays, loosely connected, about "Neal Pollack," the "Greatest Living American Writer," contemporary of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, acclaimed novelist and literary journalist, sexual adventurer and world traveler. If nothing else, The Anthology does succeed in creating an alternative universe in which such a character is permitted to exist, even thrive, in which anything is possible. He can be 30 years old, or 70. Gay or straight. A limousine liberal or an arch-conservative, a radical WTO protester or a cross-dressing fundamentalist Christian. There is no such thing as character development, because the character is an essentially static backdrop for parodic buffoonery.
Little surprise, then, that after a few people read the book, I began to receive fan fiction. The first, by a Seattle writer (whom I now know) named Sean Carman, imagined a world in which he attended a reading of mine and actually managed to pick up a woman there because of his association with me. Then followed a piece from a college student in Philadelphia that compared getting his book signed by me to meeting a living god. These two submissions, to me, signified a trend, so I posted them on my website. Then a high-school student from Texas sent me an essay about the different kinds of people who hang out in his school's parking lot. It wasn't fan fiction, but he seemed like a nice kid, so I published him. Soon after, my first real piece of fan fiction arrived.
I got an e-mail from an angry fellow named Chris Kilgore, who said, essentially, that he wanted to kick my ass because I didn't deserve the "fame" I was receiving. Sometimes I have to laugh when I think about what some people consider fame, but I wrote him back saying, essentially, that instead of wanting to kick my ass, he should write a story about how he wants to kick my ass. If it's reasonably good, I told him, I'll publish it. Then he'd be doubly blessed.
Chris Kilgore seemed genuinely shocked by my offer, but damn it, he wrote the story, which he called "I Will Beat Neal Pollack To A Bloody Pulp." In the story, a nameless narrator takes a charter plane to Los Angeles, but it crash-lands in Kansas instead. There waits "Neal Pollack" in a wheat field. He pokes out the narrator's left eye, and then proceeds to grind him bloody into the dirt, but not kill him. As the story ends, the narrator shouts out "I'm alive, Pollack!" He writes, "Somewhere within me there was a searing heat that Pollack's Aura hadn't smothered."
With the submission of that story, I realized I had accidentally acquired the ability to inspire people.
There is a lot of fan fiction on the Internet. Most of it is terrible. Much of it is incomprehensible. Some of it is insane. The briefest Google search reveals extensive fan fiction sites for the usual dorky television suspects: Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Babylon 5, Doctor Who, any Spandexed superhero you can imagine. But there are also fan fiction sites for The Nanny, Nash Bridges, Remington Steele, and Party of Five, among many other completely forgettable items of popular culture.
Yes, I am also curious about the Nash Bridges fan fiction. Let's see what it looks like. Hmm . . . it seems that page is unavailable. Not surprising, but it's extraordinary that it ever existed at all. Instead, I bring you a scene from "21 Jump Street Fallen Angels," by a Ms. Sarah Lubin:
Tom walked down an alley without a flashlight and without his partner, Doug Penhall.
He blew a piece of brown hair out of his face. A crunching of a can echoed in the alleyway. Tom thought it was Harry. "Harry?" asked Tom as he walked farther into the alleyway. He wished he had brought a flashlight. The moon was supposed to be a full one, except clouds were covering it. A gunshot echoed. Tom spun around, to be greeted by a rather large hand. Before he could scream out, the hand grabbed him and covered his mouth. Another hand grabbed the gun and pressed it against Tom's face
"Hanson?" yelled Capt. Fuller. "Are you okay?"
Obviously, only for the dedicated.
The most popular form of fan fiction is "slash," stories that posit homosexual relationships between popular culture protagonists. The Ur-document of slash is a Star Trek fanzine that documents the ongoing love affair between Captain Kirk and Spock. For reasons that cannot and will not be investigated here, women write the majority of slash fiction. Take, for example, the story "MacGyver: All Work and No Play," by Meg Bruck, which I just discovered. Here's a telling sentence: "They kissed as passionately as they so often fought, while Murdoc pumped Mac to breathless completion. MacGyver came with a groan and melted into his chair in a boneless and satiated heap."
Yes, I know. It makes me uncomfortable, too. Yet something about fan fiction compels. Obviously, these television, movie, and comic book characters have profound, even mythic, significance to the fan fiction writer. Otherwise, why would the writers produce stories, some of which run into the tens of thousands of words, in multiple chapters, especially considering that their work will only be seen by, at the most, a few dozen people with a similar kink?
These writers obviously aren't professionals, but they have characters in their heads, and they want to tell stories. Who's to say they are any lesser, as storytellers, than this year's Booker Prize nominees? Most sane people, of course. It's a long way down the myth-slide from Beowulf to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Still, fan fiction authors are perpetuating their characters, extending their universe, and they are damn serious. I found one anonymous writer on the web who discussed her craft as intelligently as anyone who contributes to The New York Times' "Writers On Writing Column," and with far less pretension:
Nearly 100% of my fiction was written before I tried to define what I would define as "good." I did use spell-check and I usually rely on a beta reader. That's about it. The truth is: I have some bedrock beliefs about writing, and about fanfic. Chief among these is that talent makes a difference. And that very few fanfic authors have any real talent for writing. On the other hand, attention to detail will take even an only marginally talented author a long way. Characterization, exposition, description be careful with these and you can turn out some darned good stories.
As I work on my first novel, which is essentially a 350-page fan fiction about the history of rock music, whose advice should I keep in mind: E. M. Forester's in Aspects of the Novel, or this woman's? Which one has more relevance to the fictional world in which I live?
In March 2002, I prepared to embark on my second book tour to promote The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. As part of a brilliant promotional campaign, I announced a fan fiction contest on the Internet. The three winners, I said, would receive a hardback copy of the Anthology, signed by me. Of course, almost anyone who would enter such a contest would already own a copy of my book. I had that figured into the cost of running the contest.
Well, as of this writing three months later, I've received about 45 submissions. It's hardly a torrent, but the modesty of the volume is more than ameliorated by the high quality of the stories. A few were lists of puerile jokes, a few others were not, technically, fan fiction, since they didn't feature a character named "Neal Pollack." A few were just too disgusting, even for me. But most were quite good. As it stands now, there are 30 new fan fiction pieces on my website. One is a James-Bond-style thriller that takes place in the Pyrenees. Another is called "An Excerpt From the Journal I Kept Whilst Neal Pollack And I Were Stranded In The Distant Past, On A Floating Island Made of Dinosaur Manure, Out Of Smokes and Withdrawing Slightly." There is a story featuring "Neal Pollack" as a character in the Lord of the Rings, and a script of "Pollack's" appearance at the worst poetry open mic in history. There are several slash fictions, including one called "My Love Affair With Neal Pollack," and a piece called "Talk of Important Things on A Summer Day," by a guy from Brooklyn named Dan Winckler. I met Mr. Winckler once at a reading in New York. He told me I was the only person to ever publish his fiction.
That made me feel good, and made me think that fan fiction might actually have some relevance. It's a nice place for a young writer to start. It's a jumping-off point for the imagination. Very few of the stories I've received are about me, or anything even resembling my "real" life. Instead, they are silly genre fantasies that my name, for some reason, has inspired in people with a little time on their hands. Officially published fiction, even good fiction, is often written with far more sinister goals in mind.
I like my fan fiction. And I hope that I continue to receive it, in manageable dribs. But it will be hard to improve upon "Her Dark Silent Cowboy," by Shannon Peach, which is the single greatest fan fiction I've received so far. The main character is Trixie, "a waitress in an all-night truck stop diner."
"She is not a skinny little thing," Ms. Peach writes, "but juicy; ripe for the fucking, her Uncle Hal used to say with a fond glimmer in his eye. She accessorizes with fishnet tights that reach mid-thigh and a pair of sturdy boots. She wears no panties, just in case. Just in case of what, exactly? Just in case a real cowboy ever walks in, a Neal Pollack, a road warrior with spray-painted on jeans and a package like a summer sausage."
Needless to say, "Neal Pollack" does enter the diner, and all matter of pornographic dalliance ensues. I e-mailed Ms. Peach to thank her for writing the first-ever piece of porn with me as a character. She wrote back saying she'd written the story years ago about Tom Cruise, and had just recently substituted my name.
Still. There was my name, in print, in the sentence, "Neal Pollack undulates his hips so slowly she thinks she might go mad."
Top that, MacGyver.
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