Ship It, the debut YA novel from Riverdale’s Britta Lundin, is the best fable ever told about the realities — from every plausible angle — of fandom.
Every now and then, a piece of media comes along and — for better or worse, loudly or quietly — changes its respective playing field. Ship It, released earlier this month on Freefrom/Disney Publishing, is one such sacred text.
Many have tried, of course, to portray the subculture of fandom — outsiders getting it wrong, insiders dulling it down. Some get really close, some pass it off as a phase. But it was not like this. Never before has it been like this. We are now living in a post-Ship It world, and I, quite frankly, don’t know what to do with that information.
The first thing you need to know about Ship It is that author Britta Lundin, who’s also been a staff writer on The CW’s Riverdale since its first season, is one of a growing tribe of successful mainstream media players who came from fandom.
Many, many leading creators (especially of genre fiction, in all its mediums) have always acknowledged their fannishness, but what we’ve seen historically is a representation of folks who grew out of curative fandom — that is, the kind of fans who express their passion by curating and researching the canon of whatever their special subject is.
This take on fandom is largely, but not entirely, male-dominated — and it’s not all bad, but at their worst, you know the type — they’re your caricature idea of a fanboy, a Comic Book Guy, a Star Wars gatekeeper.
These days, in the circles I run in, when we talk about being “in the fandom” for something — as opposed to being “a fan” — we are talking about something different. We’re talking about transformative fandom — a largely, but again not entirely, female-dominated community who dedicate time to loving their special subject by transforming the canon of the thing. This transformation can take any form, but let’s be real, it’s frequently about transforming repressed boys into boys who kiss.
Transformative fandom is usually where the majority of shipping content comes from, because the most passionate shipper culture – especially for gay ships featuring assumed-straight characters – isn’t precisely canon. Some ships are openly invented by fans, just for kicks, but the more invested stuff — as Ship It differentiates — relies on a mindset of spotting potential or interpreting subtext and running with it. But it’s not always specifically about shipping – it’s really, at its heart, the hunger of just wanting more.
Whether it’s exploring ideas they want to see happen by writing or reading fanfiction (or nonfictional meta analysis,) posting art, making crafts, role-playing, whatever, this is where the difference lies: where curative fandom places value on being an expert in the thing, transformative fandom hinges on creating more of the thing – while also, by nature of the beast, becoming an expert in the thing.
I, myself, am a fan of Brooklyn 99, but I am in the fandom for Supernatural. I can love Brooklyn 99 with all my heart, but I can turn it off and be perfectly fulfilled with the content offered to me. I cannot do the same with Supernatural — no matter how happy I am with a well-executed episode, 40 minutes a week is simply not enough minutes to spend immersed in that universe and feel like I’ve got my fix.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of wanting to spend extra time with your faves. And sometimes — certainly in the business of shipping — it’s a matter of changing the provided content for the better, finding a way to expand upon what’s canonically offered so that it makes you feel more satisfied or more represented. Choose your own adventure. Ergo, transformative fandom.
That’s the kind of fandom that Britta Lundin comes from. And that is what Ship It is about. As far as putting something as potentially delicate as this book into the world goes, Lundin is uniquely qualified — she may in fact be one of the only people currently working that could offer the same 360 degree perspective on fandom, from both sides of the fence.
She has been down there in the trenches, shipping away. She has been up there in the writers room, privy to the reality of TV production. She knows every side of this story – she’s lived every side of it. And so she wrote it. And what she wrote is a revelation.
In a nutshell, Ship It is a novel about a teenage fan, Claire, who ships Smokey/Heart, or “Smokeheart,” a non-canonical gay male ship on a genre TV show called Demon Heart; and a talented but very green actor, Forest, who plays one of the aforementioned shipped characters. The two have a controversial altercation about shipping at a convention, and to smooth things over, the network’s PR team has Claire join the actors for a number of promotional appearances.
On their journey together, Claire and Forest both learn the truth about what happens on the other side of the fence, both hit rock bottom in terms of irresponsibly single-minded behaviour, and both come out of the experience as better human beings – all while validating the lifestyle of fannish readers, assuring them that no matter how the story plays out on television, no, they are not crazy for feeling the way they feel.
It’s also a book about the queer experience — tangential to the shipping conundrum, Claire and Forest both discover how they individually relate to the LGBT community, and what kind of subconscious influences led them to their respective stances and passions, and it’s a book about queerbaiting — a commentary on the wide scope of narrative intention, ranging between cruelty and obliviousness, that can lead to a show queerbaiting, or appearing to queerbait, its audience.
Demon Heart, a first-season genre TV series on a smaller network — isn’t based on any one show (SmokeHeart is a playfully visible amalgamation of any number of famous ships, with signature jackets, light hair and dark hair, a human and a demon, enemies to brothers in arms, a catchphrase that riffs on “with you ’til the end of the line,”) — but an integral strand of this story’s DNA, a real-life circumstance that reached a controversial boiling-point, is pretty easy to spot, if you know what to look for.
It’s a fandom that Lundin was a part of, and while this book is eminently relatable to anyone who’s ever shipped anything (and hopefully an empathetic door-opening that answers a lot of the hows and whys of those who don’t really “get” the nitty-gritty of fandom — this is, after all, what Claire attempts to teach Forest) it adds an extra-deep layer for those in the know.
If you were there too, you cannot help but read this story with eyes wide open as you spot the references and comparisons to the fever-pitch which came to a head in this particular fandom behemoth a few years back, and just for that, Ship It will likely hold an important place in future studies of the changing landscape of fandom.
But beyond that, this book could have so easily missed the mark. It so easily could have picked a side, been too rose-colored or too critical, too fictionalized to take seriously or too pragmatic to feel immersive. It could have alienated a wider audience by getting too niche, or alienated the core audience by watering the lingo down. It could have gone in too hard, commentating on those past real controversies, or it could have remained too neutral.
It does none of those things. Ship It is both entertaining and educational. It creates natural opportunities for civilian exposition without diluting the fandom experience for the lifers, it is brave, it is careful. But above all, it is pointed, and it is gentle.
Gently, and pointedly, Lundin shows us what to do and what not to do – no matter what side of the fence we’re on. She shows us what true respect, in these circumstances, should look like. She shows us every possible perspective, grounding our consumption of Demon Heart-esque media in reality while also encouraging our dreams.
She shows us the dangers of compulsory heteronormativity, and of celebrity dehumanization. Gently, and pointedly, she shows us – all of us, any of us, fans, civilians, showrunners, actors, parents – why all of this matters, and how to take care of one another’s hearts.
For me, personally? Reading this book felt like standing in the middle of Times Square completely naked. I am torn between wanting to go around and steal every copy out of every store so that no one can ever see it, and shoving a copy into the hand of every person I’ve ever met. It should be banned. It should be required reading for every new hire on a TV set. It should be taught in schools.
Ship It was the single most anxiety-inducing reading experience of my life, and also the most validating. That’s how sharply Lundin nails the subject matter. It is, as the kids say, way too real, and for some reason, that fucking terrifies me.
Why? What am I afraid of people understanding, here? Part of Lundin’s goal in writing this book, she told me prior to publication, was to shine a light on this culture – to remove the embarrassment, the shame. Is the kneejerk vulnerability I feel about Ship It hitting so close to home drawn from shame? I don’t think so, but maybe, like Claire and Forest, that’s my own fandom journey to figure out.
But this is it, guys. This is the definitive novel about ship-based fandom. Maybe one day – when all of the kids growing up in fandom become the powers that be who call the shots, as the book’s dedication promises — Ship It will be but a mere drop in the ocean, but for me, it’ll always be that first drop that made the biggest splash.
Ship It by Britta Lundin is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list and follow Britta Lundin on Twitter!