The shortage of smart, professional digital newsgathering in smaller American cities is a real problem with no immediate solution on the horizon; sadly, the number of eyeballs likely to land before a local story online isn’t enough to generate the income that would justify making it. In the longer term we probably can’t crowdfund our way out of that. But old-timers might recall that, even in their glorious futon-store-advertisement-glutted heyday, alt-weeklies were never all that big on actual news. In a pre-internet era, the weekly publishing schedule meant that most alt-weekly writers were free to roam about gathering string for eccentric features of their own devising, untethered to news cycles or any other outside logic. News was something of an accidental byproduct of this process.
The thing the Voice and its descendants gave readers was something more important than the occasional scoop: They served as critical conveyors of regional lore and scuttlebutt and intel. Dailies may have told you what was going on; alt-weeklies helped make people locals, a cranky cohort united by common enthusiasms and grievances. The alternative media was the informal archive of the city’s id, a catalog of fandom and contempt that limned the contours of the populace. And this part of their role, as it turns out, is a lot harder to replace in the digital era.
The interesting question at this point is not whether fan fiction can be good, by familiar literary standards. (Of course it can; cf. Virgil.) Rather, it’s this: What is fan fiction especially, or uniquely, good at, or good for? Early defenses presented the practice as a way station, or an incubator. Writers who started out with fanfic and then found the proper mix of critique and encouragement could go on to publish “real” (and remunerated) work. Other defenses, focussed on slash, described it as a kind of safety valve: a substitute for desires that could not be articulated, much less acted out, in our real world. If women want to imagine sex between people who are both empowered, and equal, the argument ran, we may have to imagine two men. In space.
It’s true that a lot of fanfic is sexy, and that much of the sex is kinky, or taboo, or queer. But lots of fanfic has no more sex than the latest “Spider-Man” film (which is to say none at all, more or less). Moreover, as that shy proto-fan T. S. Eliot once put it, “nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else.” It’s a mistake to see fanfic only as faute de mieux, a second choice, a replacement. Fanfic can, of course, pay homage to source texts, and let us imagine more life in their worlds; it can be like going back to a restaurant you loved, or like learning to cook that restaurant’s food. It can also be a way to critique sources, as when race-bending writers show what might change if Agent Scully were black. (Coppa has compared the writing of fanfic to the restaging of Shakespeare’s plays.)
Los Angeles is a city in a large, sprawling, dense county of the same name. Often, when people say Los Angeles, they mean all of Los Angeles County. It’s shorthand. What they most often mean is everything: the city, sure, but Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena, too. But these are not neighborhoods; these are cities with independent tax bases, policing, fire departments, and school districts.
As it turns out, some areas are also left out of this wide-ranging definition. It isn’t completely inclusive. You see, when people say Los Angeles, they don’t tend to mean South Central. They rarely mean Compton, South Gate, or Lynwood. These, too, are separate cities, islands unto themselves, and veritable no-go areas for many county residents.
This transformation of The New Yorker’s style from a topic of niche interest to a content-generation machine is marketing of the most calculating sort. The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.
And yet, Ricks concludes, their lives overlapped in crucial ways. They both lived through the terrifying twentieth-century confrontation with totalitarianism, in the forms of Germany’s national socialism, Italian fascism and Soviet communism. At the moment when these political movements aspired to wipe out liberal democracy, and to prove its obsolescence to the world, both Churchill and Orwell played crucial roles in pushing back. Both, says Ricks, “steered by the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of thought, speech, and association.” In 1939, Churchill described Britain’s heroic fight against the Nazis in this way: “It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.” Two years later Orwell wrote, “We live in an age in which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist.”