Ship It is the Fandom Book I Wish Had Existed When I Was a Teenager

The highest compliment I can pay Britta Lundin’s Ship It is how many times while reading that I caught myself thinking about how I would write a certain moment differently. Protagonist Claire, awkward 16-year-old fanfiction writer and diehard shipper granted the opportunity to make the case for her OTP to the creatives behind her favorite TV show, brings back almost visceral memories of my own coming-of-age within the early days of Internet fandom. However, she exists not in the ’00s but in the ’10s—an age of Tumblr influencers and unprecedented fan/creator access. Her straddling of the divide between fandom and canon is both intensely familiar and discomfitingly alien, as she represents an entire fandom but also one fan’s particular crusade, making her both relatable and not. More than once, I was tempted to rework the plot, to say “well, that doesn’t feel like the right move, I bet Claire would have been better off doing this” when in reality I wasn’t talking about Claire, I was talking about myself. But then, contemplating how to remix something is one of the most valuable and thoughtful ways in which fans can engage with one another’s work.

This is a book written for fans, by a fan who has crossed over to also become a creator (Lundin is a writer on Riverdale), but who remains tapped in to the conversations happening as fandom continues to evolve. While it takes place in a specific era of fandom, its story is inspiring for all generations of fans.

Ship It is a book for fandom now—when fans can meet each other on social media and at conventions instead of containing their friendships to message boards; when Marvel sends Loki in the flesh to SDCC to strut through Hall H to adoring screams; when expending fan energy can actually earn fame or even “real” job prospects. As heart-of-lightness on Tumblr, Claire writes some of the most popular fanfiction for Demon Heart, a hit supernatural TV series in its first season that nonetheless commands droves of fans—particularly because of the chemistry between its lead characters, demon hunter Smokey and, well, demon Heart.

Despite fandom being in the mainstream, Claire’s earnest geekiness still makes her stand out like a sore thumb in her small town of Pine Bluff, Idaho. When Demon Heart stops in Boise on the comic-convention circuit, Claire seizes upon the perfect opportunity to attend the panel and bring her very reasonable case to showrunner Jamie to make SmokeHeart canon—that is, to make all of the subtext that Claire and her fellow fans have picked up on into text. It seems so obvious, so right, that Claire can’t imagine that Jamie, not to mention leads Forest (Smokey) and Rico (Heart), could be planning for anything but an eventual SmokeHeart kiss.

Despite this story being very much grounded in fandom’s present, there’s a timelessness to Claire’s shipping crusade, rooted as it is in the decades of fanfiction writers slashing Kirk/Spock to Dean/Castiel to Sherlock/John, laying out on the page what they only glimpsed on the screen. It’s just that now, the writers and stars behind those characters can—or want to, or have to—respond. When Claire gets a bit too caught up in a “why SmokeHeart is endgame” diatribe during the Q&A portion, Forest readily dismisses her with “This is crazy. She’s crazy.” because he’s just gotten his big break and the mere suggestion of queerness sends him into a panic—not to mention that he himself is not gay (nope, super macho and straight), so how could he play a gay character? Claire’s desire to see this representation legitimized, and Forest’s discomfort, seem to parallel a 2013 situation in the Supernatural fandom, in which star Jensen Ackles brushed off questions about homoerotic subtext in the series.

What follows is like something out of a movie (Ship It did start out as a screenplay) or a self-insertion fanfic of yore: in an effort to contain this PR disaster, the Demon Heart social media team concocts a plan to bring Claire along on the next few stops on their tour, riding the bus with Forest and Rico, and tweeting about how totes awesome and #blessed the experience is. Social media maven Caty recognizes a fandom influencer when she sees her, and figures the best way to control the conversation is to engage in it. For Claire, it’s the whiplash of going from every fan’s greatest nightmare—being publicly humiliated by the people who make the thing you love, and who you by extension worship—to every fan’s greatest dream—getting to keep talking to them about it.

In the real world, this dream used to be largely wish fulfillment; before Twitter, meeting one’s beloved faves was brought about mostly by luck, but at a modern comic convention swelled with tens of thousands more fans than used to attend… being famous on the Internet for your fanfiction… a PR disaster-turned-opportunity—it could all actually happen. Fandom can change lives—not just in getting to ride on a tour bus with hunky actors, but in meeting other like-minded fans.

While Claire’s time with the Demon Heart crew becomes a teachable moment on both sides about fame and fan expectations of creators, the book’s heart is in Claire’s slowly budding romance with Tess, the cute fan artist she runs into at multiple cons. While Claire is fiercely proud of what sets her apart from her peers and copes with her friendlessness by focusing on the reblogs and kudos on her fanfics, Tess hides her geekiness from her friends. Despite her enjoyment of Demon Heart and the fandom, it’s a source of shame. But by contrast, Tess is incredibly open about her pansexuality, her security in her identity leaving Claire feeling unsure about her own attractions and how much they may play into her desire to see Smokey and Heart together. Claire and Tess’ interactions—their sweetly hesitant dates, their confusion about each other’s hangups—feel so authentic to the experience of being a teenager, outspoken and unyielding in one arena and terribly vulnerable in another, looking for a mirror in someone else while being scared of what you’ll see reflected back.

The translation of Ship It from screenplay to novel shows in some of the book’s more uneven parts. While the novel’s action follows a tidy timeline of three increasingly bigger SFF/comics conventions along the West Coast, the actual plot arc suffers from some stops and starts. Claire’s quest to make SmokeHeart canon, and Forest’s attempts to understand her love of the ship despite his revulsion to all things slash, ramp up but then abruptly deescalate, leaving the reader off-balance and unsure as to which side is winning the argument. Yet where the road trip takes them was the kind of ending that had me happy-crying on the train.

Ship It is one of those books I can’t just talk about in the abstract, completely avoiding spoiling it.

So, I’m going to get very spoilery talking about the ending here:

Of course this con-hopping story winds up at San Diego Comic-Con, the make-it-or-break-it site of fandom happenings. And just as Claire has prepared to give up everything, as she believes that her shipping has alienated everyone close to her, Forest gives her a gift—the gift of putting aside his own discomfort and seeing things through the eyes of the fans. Seeing himself as Smokey, opening himself to Heart—and to a charmingly game Rico, his mentor and friend. A SmokeHeart kiss, in the flesh.

The Forest/Rico kiss feels like it hearkens back to the early days of Internet fandom, before the ubiquity of social media, when all you had to rely on was someone else’s account on a message board or in an email. Like the apocryphal Bill Murray encounters that get shared on Reddit, each one capped with his sly reminder: “No one will believe you.” It’s something special for the people who were there, to then choose whether or not to share and how they do so. Yes, several dozen fans film the kiss, and it likely immediately gets a million views on YouTube and spawns countless heart-eyes-worthy GIFs. But those who were physically there had an actual hand in the moment, contributing their cosplay jackets to conjure Smokey and Heart on that stage, in that space, for that short period of time.

The kiss is a deleted scene, a pocket AU, a live-action fanwork—a collaborative bit of fanon that will never bear the badge of canon. It will never alter the DNA of the show, nor be included in any “best shows of the ’10s” blurb. It did not fulfill Claire’s goal.

Despite all that, it is still monumental, because a teenage girl is listened to. Not dismissed, not treated like she’s crazy, not humiliated or stigmatized. Her thoughts and her wants are taken seriously, and that is the greatest success of Ship It.

No stranger to meta commentaries on its own fandom, Supernatural went the extra mile for its 200th episode, “Fan Fiction”, in which Sam and Dean stumble upon a high school production of a musical about them—or rather, about the series of books written about them—complete with satirical lyrics and a strong bent toward both Destiel and Wincest. By the end of the episode, Dean has made his peace with the production, telling its young writer that “you have your Supernatural and I have mine.” But that doesn’t even mean that those are the only two interpretations—for Supernatural, for Demon Heart, for any fandom: there are more ships, more headcanons, all filters that can be added or removed from the source material, allowing for infinite experiences of a story.

How fitting that in this age fandom doesn’t have to be a binary.

Ship It is available now from Freeform Books. Plus, Britta Lundin shares five books about fandom!

In Natalie Zutter’s day, they put apostrophes on ’shipping. Talk fandom and ships with her on Twitter!


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