The image that accompanies this blog post is from a special edition of the young-adult novel Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, which I picked up in the bookstore the other day. What makes this painting, “The Kiss,” special? It’s fan art — one of thousands of images created and shared online by a fan who loved the book, in this case an illustrator named Simini Blocker. A handful of these have been selected to appear in the endpapers of the new special edition of this wildly popular young adult novel.
I’m on record as having enjoyed both Eleanor and Park and the other Rainbow Rowell novel I’ve read, Fangirl. But as much as I’ve enjoyed the novels, I’ve enjoyed Rainbow Rowell’s Tumblr just as much — not only for her Benedict Cumberbatch obsession, but for the generous and delighted way she shares the creative work than fans have come up with to celebrate her art. Including fan art in the new edition of the novel furthers the sense that the life of a novel continues outside and beyond the words the author put onto the page, into the creative work that readers spin out of it.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course — people have always responded creatively to works of art they love. But the internet age has made it possible for ordinary readers, not just professional artists, to share their fanfic, their fan art, their celebration of creativity, both with other fans and with the original creators. And I think that’s a wonderful thing. While not every book may inspire the kind of fan-art that a young-adult novel like Eleanor and Park does, while not every reader responds with visual art, while not every writer shares Rainbow Rowell’s eager willingness to enjoy and re-share the work that her readers have made … well, enough do to make me certain that we’re living in a very exciting time for books and readers.
We hear the opposite often enough. We hear that we’re living in the era of the death of books, the death of bookstores, the death of publishing, the death of reading. That the internet and e-books and self-publishing and the 140-character Twitterverse are sounding the death knell for the world that we readers and writers know and love.
Is that world changing? Changing too fast, sometimes, for us traditionalists to keep up? You bet your sweet bippy it is. Traditional publishers are struggling to keep their financial heads above water and taking fewer risks on new writers as a result. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores are closing, and people like me lament their loss while buying 90% of the books I read in digital format. People are reading different things, in different ways, than they have traditionally read, and writers and publishers and booksellers are scrambling to adjust. There have been, and will be, losses. Transitions are hard, and painful.
People love stories. People will never ever stop loving stories. We are a storytelling, story-consuming species — in fact, that might be the very thing that makes us human.
Bookstore chains may go bankrupt. Publishers may merge and/or die. New writers may struggle to find readers. And yes, these are bad things, hard things, things that have to be navigated before new paths can be found.
But through it all, people will keep writing and telling and seeking out and reading and sharing stories. We will never stop doing this. We can’t stop.
And the very same technologies that threaten our old methods and patterns of telling and sharing stories, also make new methods available. And that is exciting. The losses are real but so are the gains.
In the pre-internet age, a beautiful, thoughtful, romantic story like Eleanor and Park would still have been published, still have found young-adult readers to fall in love with it. Some of those readers might still have drawn and painted pictures of the characters, made posters of their favourite quotes from the book. But they wouldn’t have shared them on Tumblr. They wouldn’t have shown them to the book’s writer (well, a few might have sent them to her by mail, but on the whole, not that many), and a generous and engaged writer wouldn’t have re-shared them with her other fans. The fact that a book is a collaboration between the writer and the reader, while always true, has never been as apparent, as open and celebrated, as it is in the internet age.
A project like the fan-art-decorated special edition of Eleanor and Park would not have happened in the pre-Internet era. And without downplaying any of the challenges this new age poses for books and the people who love them … I have to say this is a wonderful thing. A wonderful time to be a reader, and a writer.
And if anyone ever wants to make fan art based on one of my books, I’d be delighted.