March 15, 2011

Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them

I am a Joss Whedon fan girl. I came to Joss love late, but I'm all in. Loved Buffy. Loved Angel. Loved Firefly and Serenity. Didn't even think Dollhouse was too bad. So I was absolutely thrilled to be asked to review a new Whedon-centered book, Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Love Them, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Deborah Stanish. A book about Joss' work, written by female fans. Bring on the love fest!

The book is, by and large, a love fest. This isn't a critical work--there are other places to go for that (I'd suggest Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Rhonda Wilcox and Sexual Rhetoric in the Works of Joss Whedon: New Essays by Erin B. Waggoner, to start). It is a collection of essays not analyzing Joss, but celebrating him, from Buffy through Dr. Horrible. Many, though not all, of the essays deal with the influence Whedon's work has had on the writers as writers.

Several of the essayists are published novelists. Jeanne Stein, the author of the Anna Strong Chronicles, writes compellingly about how her Anna never could have come to be had Buffy not been written first ("My (Fantasy) Encounter with Joss Whedon (and What I've Learned from the Master)"). Novelist and short story writer Sarah Monette contributes an essay on the perfection of Fred's death scene in Angel ("The Kindness of Monsters"). Samaria series author Sharon Shinn expounds on Firefly as an example of characters so great you want them to be real ("Outlaws & Desperados"). These are all compelling essays--and the subject of what Whedon's canon can teach writers is one that could easily lend itself to its own volume.

The more interesting essays to me, though, speak of Whedon's work as compelling the writers to do another sort of creating--fan fiction. As this is a subject very rarely given any serious discussion, I found it fascinating how earnest these essays were. Even former Buffy writer Jane Espenson (who currently writes for Torchwood) indirectly referred to fan fiction, saying that she herself was first inspired to start writing scenes by M*A*S*H. My favorite of the book's entries was NancyKay Shapiro's "Transgressing with Spike and Buffy." Though Shapiro is a novelist, her essay was about discovering Buffy and writing reams of fan fiction (the Bittersweet series, for those in the fan fic know) about Spike and Buffy's tortured relationship. Shapiro claims, and I believe her, that this exercise made her a better and more engaged writer. She writes:

...for the first time as a writer, I didn't have to importune people to read. My work was in demand. I had an avid audience, and those readers rewarded me with commentaries, responses, recommendations, dialogue, attention. Fan fic brought me camaraderie and community, and friendships that have outlasted my engagement with fandom.

This gets to to the heart of what I found most compelling about the essays in the book. Whedon's work was again and again cited as both a means of sparking creativity in the writers and a way of building community for them, either around their own work or around the original Whedonverse material. The essays that were not directly concerned with writing were almost all about the community of fandom, from Heather Shaw's "A Couch Potato's Guide to Demon Slaying: Turning Strangers Into Family, Buffy Style" to Dae S. Low's "The Browncoat Connection." Most of the essayists were not interesting in defending the quality of Whedon's work--it speaks for itself--rather, they were sharing what it had meant to them. And it's clearly meant a lot to them, as it has to me.

Though many of the essayists refer in passing to Joss' strong female characters, most of the book's essays don't directly address Whedon's work on feminist grounds, and none of them address it on anti-racist ones. There are a couple of exceptions: Engineer Laurel Brown's "Smart is Sexy: An Appreciation of Firefly's Kaylee" waxes poetic about one of the tough women in the Whedonverse who often gets ignored, and how she's really the only woman of her kind. Comic editor Mariah Huehner argues that Buffy's real strength as a character lies in how perfect she's not ("Imperfectly Perfect: Why I Really Love Buffy for Being a Pill Sometimes"). For the most part, though, Whedon's problematic feminism is assumed, rather than discussed directly.

If you're a fan of the 'verse, this book is a great read. It's quick and fun and several of the essays may lead you to think about your favorite (or not-so-favorite) shows and characters in slightly different ways. Another couple of essays I'd recommend, if you're flipping through, are teen librarian Jody Wurl's "Shelve Under Television, Young Adult," which discusses the intersection of fandom and librarianship in the author's life, and Jackie Kessler's appreciation of a good villain, particularly Dark Willow, in "Going Dark." If you want to pick up the book, it's available starting today!

Disclosure: We were provided a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher, Mad Norwegian Press.


Thanks for reviewing this book--I know someone who is a huge Buffy/Joss Whedon fan, and I now intend to get her this book as a future birthday/holiday present.



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