When I was 15, a magazine I was subscribed to said the hottest new video game in the world, Final Fantasy VII, was literally unplayable.
Sure, the review said, it was a technical tour-de-force that raised the bar for what video games could be. But readers of this particular magazine could never play it.
Why? Because it created a new religion.
Don’t you remember? The lore about the Lifestream, the essence of all living things, springing up from and returning to the Earth. It wasn’t a new idea (Saṃsāra, The Circle of Life, etc.), but FFVII literalized it: life energy flowed in subterranean neon currents, pooled up in sacred places. If you bought, played, and enjoyed Final Fantasy VII, this magazine’s reviewer said, you’d be converting to this new religion, worshipping the Lifestream—and so you couldn’t be a Christian anymore.
Campus Life (née Youth For Christ, later Ignite Your Faith) magazine was an exemplar of its subject matter: an Evangelical-parent-approved knockoff of stuff kids actually liked.
Though the magazine reviewed both Christian and secular media, the latter was always given the litmus test of being compatible with 90s Evangelicalism. The letters sections were full of teens anxious about which CDs or movies, if they happened to enjoy them, would condemn their soul to an eternity of punishment and fire at the hands of the God they feared.
Boyz II Men, for example, was forbidden because they once did a song called “I’ll Make Love To You” when not all of them were married. That was ENDORSEMENT of SIN.
Once, my high-school youth group leader took a kid out for lunch and was aghast to see some of the hard-edged popular music in the kid’s car-visor CD wallet. So, he confiscated his entire music collection, brought it to church that Sunday, dumped it out on the old hard-carpet floor and had us stomp and shatter and crush and throw every single one of them to bits. Hundreds of dollars worth of CDs, probably all of that kid’s entire life earnings to that point, destroyed in a frenzy of righteous catharsis.
This unhinged approach to media was supposed to prevent us teens from doing evil, being tempted to evil, or even being aware that evil exists. Simply cut out all wrong things from kids’ lives, and they’ll never do wrong! Surround them with only positive examples of the person you want them to be, and they’ll have to be that person!
It was an unwitting reflection of the ideology driving the Evangelical movement: historyless, contextless, hyperliteral and self-obsessed. Just read the Bible, and your gut reaction to the text is God talking directly to you. Every word of the Bible is infallibly true, so any phrase lifted from anywhere inside it and slapped on a poster is an INVIOLABLE COMMAND from the CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE.
As unhinged and unwitting as it all was, it was also unsustainable. It was impossible not to notice that different people reading the same Bible feel different things in their gut, and different phrases of the Bible say different things, and hey wait a minute some of the phrases in your Bible are different than the ones in my Extremely 90s Teen Study Bible?
It also was impossible not to notice that millions played Final Fantasy VII without coming away from it believing that crystal balls of condensed souls would let you cast magical spells. Millions watched popular TV shows about sexy single people without running out and banging anything that moved. Millions watched slasher movies without becoming serial killers. You just have to read another book to realize you don’t have to believe everything you read.
For many Evangelical kids, the “in this world, not of this world” mantra fell apart the instant they actually stepped out into this world and discovered ethics neither start nor stop with the Ten Commandments, humans are hardwired for good as much as evil and rock is not the Devil’s work, it’s magical and rad:
This is why Evangelicals have since built the homeschooling-to-Hillsdale College-to-Daddy’s Company pipeline: the promise of children safely reaching adulthood without ever experiencing anything that might challenge the way you want them to be.
This doomed attempt to program kids’ brains has been on my mind recently, as I’ve been working on my YA debut novel (see the weekly #TyNoWriPro update at the bottom of this post)…but enough weird bummers for right now.
Let’s take an awesome break.
Given that this newsletter’s title is a pun on a Rolling Stones track, I couldn’t let the passing of Stones drummer Charlie Watts pass without mention.
To be honest, I was never that big of a Stones guy. I was born in 1981—and given how big the Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge tours were to adults at the time, the Stones seemed ubiquitous. But the new singles didn’t get much radio play, and I didn’t understand how groundbreaking the old stuff had been. Led Zep were so much heavier and ostentatious, The Who so much more cerebral and ambitious. The Stones just sounded like rock music.
So when rock critic and author Steven Hyden tweeted out the names of some Stones tracks that really highlight Watts’s drumming, I went ahead and made a 14-song Charlie Watts Spotify playlist from his suggestions—plus all those in his replies, minus all the big singles.
Henry David Thoreau, as professor and author Steve Edwards acknowledges in this essay, has been worked over pretty good by online progressives over the last few years.
But the intro, involving an old TED Talk he uses to teach first-year creative writing students to think critically, hits hard. And the tie-in to Thoreau hits harder. And then…look, just read it, okay? It’s brilliant and powerful, humble and important.
With a hat tip to Amal El-Mohtar, I’m delighted to have found this. I can’t wait to read more of Edwards’s work.
I’m sure everyone reading this already saw OnlyFans’ recent announcement they’d be barring sexually explicit content in response to pressure from credit-card companies, who in turn were bowing to pressure from Evangelical activist groups like Exodus Cry.
Though OnlyFans’ quick reversal is good news for all the creators whose labor made the app and company worth anything to begin with, the whole incident just proved all over again that too many content creators (adult or otherwise) can have their entire livelihood taken away in an instant on the whim of a random tech or VC bro.
Unlike the right-wing groups who attack NSFW creators under the guise of protecting them, or the left-ish folks who feign support but throw them under the bus at the first sign of pressure, Sultan actually let 11 sex workers speak for themselves about what working on the platform has been like for them, and the harm done when their lives are destabilized.
I didn’t start following soccer until 2010, so my knowledge of years gone by is pretty limited (even for a guy who prides himself on his sports research and nerdery). But while I’ve often complained about the NFL-watching-world’s tendency to pretend its history started five minutes before today’s best players entered the league, I’ve noticed European soccer fans and media also don’t do a great job of telling stories they think everyone already knows.
Karim Benzema has played the most glamorous position (striker) for the most glamorous club in the world (Real Madrid) for the entire decade-plus I’ve been watching soccer—and yet I know practically nothing about him, because he’s practically never talked about.
Mohamed’s historical series on prodigious talents has been awesome to follow. This one was a fascinating, information-heavy look about the emergence and breakout of a superstar about whom information is weirdly tough to find.
Not only is officiating going to be an interesting and fun new challenge, it’ll make me a better player, coach, writer, and fan. I also gotta get my cardio up—those kids can run.
A few days ago, a tweet went turboviral. Its author asserted that we all know all the “red flag” movies, the ones where anyone who loves any of them must be a bad person. Then it prompted people to name their personal “green flag” movies, where you instantly like and trust anyone who likes them.
I mean, the tweet isn’t wrong. If somebody says Fight Club or Joker is their all-time favorite movie, I’m going to make a certain set of (mostly negative) assumptions about them. And if somebody tells me they love one of my deep-cut faves, like The Cutting Edge, I’ll feel an instant affinity.
But while taste in movies, music, or books can tell you something about a person, it can’t tell you whether they’re virtuous or immoral, safe or dangerous, friend or foe.
Thankfully, there was a lot of really smart, strong pushback against the tweet’s premise:
And I loved this entire thread by Emily Lubanko about the wrongheadedness of “consuming” media. If defining humans by how cool their job is didn’t make much sense, doing it by what entertainment brands they patronize makes even less:
And all of this is part of a larger, ongoing discourse around fandom and fiction, media and audiences. The Tumblr generation is growing up, creating not just fanfic and fanart but novels and comics. They’re writing and directing not just the works of their heart, but the major IPs they grew up bingeing and cosplaying.
All that is awesome! But it also means fandom needs to re-recognize that while art and fanart are equally valid, they can’t be created, engaged with, and critiqued the same way.
I’ve been nervous to talk too much on this, afraid I’ll be misunderstood, misinterpreted or just flamed. But Gimme Schalter is my party, and I’ll fry if I want to.
Back at ConFusion 2020 (January 2020! An in-person convention! Two years and two lifetimes ago!), I told my editor friend Jen Anderson that geeky fandom’s necessary and well-intentioned policing of cultural inclusion, representation, and appropriation in media was starting to remind me of the Evangelical quest for cultural purity: Any story that contained anything bad was promoting that badness—and therefore, any author who wrote a book with anything bad in it was promoting badness. And if we didn’t all denounce and purge the badness, and denounce and purge the bad person who endorsed the badness, we’d all be bad, too.
I’m not the first one to connect these dots (see this great Twitter thread from Dr. Sunny Moraine). And online fandoms of all kinds have been immolating themselves over the Proper Way to Fan for as long as fandoms have been online.
But it feels different when a message board or LJ group serving a couple hundred people melts down, and another when Disney-sized media conglomerates and Big
Six Five 3.5 publishers are greenlighting projects and ordering sequels based on the pitch and velocity of Twitter discourse.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to rant about “cancel culture.” As we’ve seen many times, even Book Twitter can’t do much actual canceling.
What I’ve been trying to figure out is where all the pressure is coming from. As YA Interrobang founder Nicole Brinkley wrote, there’s the adults-making-YA-for-adults ouroboros, where content ostensibly for teens is actually crafted by grownups to get other grownups buzzing on Twitter. There’s also the #ownvoices implosion, where a way for readers to promote marginalized authors got co-opted into a mechanism for publishers to offload blame for their inadequate editing processes back onto those same marginalized authors.
But increasingly, I’m convinced the conflict is really about what Zoomers want out of stories, and how they go about seeking it.
Last year, my wife and I showed our three teens Empire Records: an extremely 90s movie about extremely 90s kids who desperately wanted two things: A) permission to fuck on their own terms, and B) a Cool Job instead of a Lame Job. It was the movie us 90s kids needed, and I’m sure the Campus Life writers hated it.
But so did our teens.
Though Evangelicals are still fighting tooth and nail to strip everyone of permission to fuck on their own terms, many of today’s teens and twentysomethings grew up with it. And defining yourself by your job is nonsensical when all our society’s employers have colluded to make sure jobs, as we knew them, don’t exist.
So as noble as the goal is, a creator in their thirties (which, for 15 more days, I still am!!) creating the media “I needed when I was a kid” isn’t necessarily creating a thing today’s kids need. And for all the talk of what we think kids need, I see very little about what kids actually want?
And just like we now know 90s Evangelical parenting succeeded mostly in traumatizing a bunch of kids and starting the decline and fall of the movement, the “young adults” of the early aughties YA boom are now just…adults.
As we saw during the rise of Trump, many of them took the lessons of rebellion and justice, equality and self-determination to heart. But just as Evangelicalism judo-flipped Christ’s radical love and acceptance into hatred and fear, many other young adults took the lessons progressive fiction taught them exactly the wrong way.
Adult creators also have to look in the mirror, and be honest in our work about what we see. Countless kids who discovered their truest selves in the empathy and humanity of a certain Wizarding World are now adults wrestling with the fact that the author lacks the empathy to recognize their humanity.
People are messy balls of conflicting thoughts and desires (especially kids)! Cocooning them in fables about good guys who think good thoughts and bad guys who think bad thoughts will not ensure they emerge as whatever your idea of a good person is.
The pull of fantastic fiction (regardless of medium or target demographic) is in exploring all the amazing possibilities of humanity. But as much as we love to spend time in other realities, imagining better futures for ourselves and those like us, we—as creators and audience members—can’t cut humanity out in the process.
Synopsis? Done. Outline 2.0? Done.
Now, I’m taking all the scenes and chapters I haven’t cut from the first draft, and putting stubby, synopsis-y paragraphs where all of the new ones I intend to write will be.
I’ve also enlisted the help of a couple of new critique partners! I’m hoping to hand this “here’s all the stuff that’s done, with explainers where what’s going to get drafted next will go” Draft 1.5 to them by this weekend.
The feedback I get from that should set me up for a big-time writing month in September, and potentially having Draft 2.0 in hand by October.
Keep me accountable!