As a teenager, I was obsessed with culture critic David Dale. I read his columns in the Sydney Morning Herald religiously, cutting out my favourite bits to keep in a folder. The idea of being a “cultural critic” felt tantamount to finding out you were a wizard. It wasn’t a thing I wanted to be because I honestly didn’t think it was something that I could be. For years – long after people started paying me to write things about culture – it never occurred to me that it was something I would ever call myself.
It took a friend telling me that I am a critic to start trying out the label. She’d only started thinking of her own work as criticism after someone told her that it was, so she was paying it forward. Suddenly I realised that I was (and had been for several years) writing cultural criticism. And I remembered the weird ratings-obsessed kid who secretly kind of wanted this all along. I put “critic” in my Twitter bio and started to think about what that meant. I thought a lot about what I wanted to be writing if I was going to do that younger version of myself proud.
Last year, I wrote a piece about Harry Potter fandom. It was the first thing I’ve ever written that I was proud of before anyone told me it was good. I realised very few people were writing about fandom and those that were did it from the outside, in a distant, slightly patronising way. I realised my experience of fandom was a valuable one – I had both studied theories of cultural capital and run a strangely successful fan Tumblr, I can discuss the societal structures that drive fandom and tell you what it was like reading HP fan fic in 2006.
While all this was rattling around my brain I serendipitously feel into the most intense period of fandom I’ve experienced in a long time. And it gave me an idea for an essay. I used my enthusiasm about the idea (and the fandom which underpinned it) to push the piece in directions I wouldn’t normally consider. This article somehow came to represent the writer I wanted to be next – it was going to be my trophy piece, my audition. After months of working on it and thinking about it and talking about it, I sent the first draft off to an editor.
The next morning, I opened Twitter and my heart dropped through my stomach. Events were unfolding in the corner of the internet that I had been writing about which fundamentally changed my essay. And as a fan they broke my heart. I woke up my boyfriend (who later told me he thought someone had died) and I started crying. I spent a lot of that day crying. The next morning, I got up and I rewrote the essay.
“Parasocial relationship” is the term used to describe the one-sided relationships fans build with people they admire. Studies suggest the emotions felt during the breakdown of such a relationship are on par with those experienced during the breakdown of mutual, intimate relationships. While rewriting the essay, I was doing my own study on parasocial breakdown; I cried for days and didn’t sleep properly for a week.
Somehow this thing I’d been working on for months became (with surprisingly few changes) a commentary on something that had just happened. When statements were released, I worried that quoting them made the essay feel repetitive, so close were they to things I’d already written.
It was strange living through this microcosm of everything I’d been thinking about. I was analysing a situation in real time, editing and rewriting as information came to light. But I was also living it in real time – each new turning point felt like a punch in the guts. In theory, I think critics should process things emotionally and intellectually; untangling your feelings from your reading of a work is an essential part of figuring out the all important moments where these things intersect. But this was fucking hard. My feelings were messy and raw and the ideas I wanted to convey were big and complicated.
So I had this essay. And somehow in this essay I put all my ambitions as a burgeoning critic and added this heartbreak I lived through as a fan. There were months (and one very intense week) worth of thinking and feeling buried between the lines. And then it was published. And it was a good essay, but it was just an essay. For me the complicated strands are tangled so visibly in the text, but for everyone else they’re largely hidden. Which is ok. Because I still want this essay to exist all on it’s own.
I decided to write some of it down, in case you want to see the bones. And more importantly so I can remember what they are. I wanted the essay to be a turning point for my writing – a neat little intersection. Even though it become more like a field someone’s ripped up doing doughnuts, I still think it’s worth remembering where I am. And all the things I had to feel to get me here.