Outlander Is The New Black

I’m not sure I’m ready for Outlander to be what everyone’s talking about

It’s been a month since RT (my fabulous, indulgent junket to New Orleans for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention) and I am now officially in a reading slump.  Which also means a blogging slump; as usual, lack of focus and engagement with books from the TBR correlates with lack of time to write. June is always a crazy busy month at my job, and this coincides with jam-packed weekends full of end-of-school-and-sports activities. I’m having a hard time keeping track of which potluck item I’m bringing to which end-of-season celebration.
bnde5kwciaamognThen a couple of weeks ago there was a development at work which pushed me over the edge into a really bad cycle of stress, insomnia, and exhaustion. I realize my treatment of choice was probably ill-advised, but what I did was start watching Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, along with apparently most of the twitterverse. For anyone who may not know or care, this is Jenji Kohan’s (creator of Weeds) acclaimed prison drama (dramedy?) about a 30-something slacker yuppie hipster who ends up incarcerated for drug muling she unwisely but crazy-in-love did while she was in her 20’s. It’s one of those Netflix original productions that are only available via Netflix streaming, and which, although produced as 13-episode series like a standard television drama, become available to watch instantly, all at once, a whole “season” of shows.

So with insomnia and overall stress-induced lack of willpower in the mix, I was binge-watching 2, 3, even 4 episodes a night, during the week, way way into the wee hours. I watched the 90-minute “season finale” (do such terms have any meaning at all in the context of this type of immersive, rushed, viewing??) on Tuesday night, June 10, which was also release day for Diana Gabaldon’s much-anticipated 8th Outlander book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. (I mean, I guess it’s much-anticipated. Is there a lot of buzz about the book outside the diehard fan forums? Seems like there’s been much more focus on the forthcoming Starz tv series… but I digress.)

I don’t have anything especially original to say about OITNB and its artistic merits, though it’s been fascinating to read some of the critical responses along with fun deconstructions of the show’s many pop culture references and homages. I have just been addictively watching the storylines unfold and allowing the mental escape into the detailed and nuanced exposition of a powerful collection of female protagonists that the show delivers, thanks to strong ensemble writing and acting.  I’m really only moved to post about this show because of a small moment in the final episode in which two powerful pop culture obsessions, one from my past and one from my present, collide.

A scene from Orange is the New Black: Two black women wearing prison garb standing in a library; one is holding a copy of Outlander.

Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks, Netflix still, via examiner.com

The scene is about love, forgiveness, imagination, and authenticity. Two characters who have spent most of the season at odds, struggling to come to terms with each other in the context of a violent betrayal, are sorting books together in the prison library.  To say much more about the context would involve spoilers, but both Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) have spent time sharing work detail in the library and here they are sorting books that have been water damaged by leaks during a tropical storm. In contrast to almost all of the other spaces in the prison, the library is colorful and suggests warmth and comfort. It’s the only space I noticed that has a carpet, it looks cleaner and less cold than many of the other spaces we see, except perhaps the kitchen, and it’s well-lit.  The inmates read a lot, and books are used as signifiers throughout the show, to the extent that there is an intriguing tumblr (Books of Orange Is The New Black) devoted to capturing each literary reference. (There’s even a post discussing whether the Leah Vincent book Alex is reading in the final episode of Season 2 is an ARC, because it was apparently not yet published at the time the episode was filmed; this cracked me up.)  The library is a place of ideas and emotion; the stacks and shelves of books themselves are the source of color, variety and fantasy in a bland prison world, and the rows and corners provide quiet and privacy for intense and personal conversations and exchanges.

This conversation, however, is playful, and it’s about reading for fun and pleasure. Poussey is stacking books in various stages of sogginess. Taystee grabs one from her — it’s a warped and waterlogged hardcover copy of Outlander.

Yo, shit, Outlander! You ever read this? Lady travels back in time, to Scotland and shit… she hooks up with this big sexy outlaw type and they be getting it…. day in and day out…! (Season 2, episode 13, about 1:04)

An enthusiastic time travel fantasy ensues in which we learn that Taystee doesn’t really fancy pale, pasty Scotsmen, however badass they are, and would prefer to go through the stones to an earlier time in Africa and get it on with a “Nubian king with a Nubian thing.” Take that, Jamie Fraser!

But later on we see her back in her bunk, with Outlander (presumably a re-read!). What do I make of this?  It’s just a moment, and it’s not as if there aren’t dozens of other books strewn about the landscape of this layered show. I thought I had spotted Taystee reading romance earlier in the season, and thanks to Books of Orange Is The New Black, it was easy to find out that indeed, she was reading Sinful Chocolate, by Adrianne Byrd. I thought it was hilarious when Piper got back to Litchfield from an unplanned visit to Chicago where she was required to testify in a drug case related to her own conviction, and went around grabbing back her books and possessions from the inmates who’d “adopted” them in her absence; it was all tasteful literary books like Orlando and Atonement.  But Taystee’s riff on Outlander was more than just the book showing up on somebody’s bunk.

Book cover: Outlander. A blue cover with gold lettering and thistle emblem.She is like every Outlander reader/fan I’ve ever met — the book was such an intense and memorable read that she can’t help herself, she has to (a) try and explain it and (b) try to pitch it to her friend. I love that she has no ambivalence, and boils the significance of the novel down to time travel, romance, and good sex.

Seeing this book as a cultural icon and touchpoint in the context of this hugely successful and widely acclaimed television series was a funny mash-up moment. Outlander is just such a peculiar institution — steadily, over 25 years since it was originally published in 1991, making its way from the relative obscurity of genre fiction, the RITA, and a pioneering early use of online communities, to international bestseller status and debates about whether it is or isn’t a romance novel, to a wildly uneven series of (also bestselling) epic novels, to an intense and prolific fandom obsessed with all things Scottish both online and IRL, to 2014 and the lavish big-budget mainstream Hollywood star treatment. Not that the actors of the Starz Outlander were big-budget mainstream stars before Ron Moore plucked them from relative obscurity, but that the Outlander phenomenon itself is (finally?) getting the star treatment, after decades of flirtation with various possible production partners.

I don’t know if the OITNB scene is sheer and shameless product placement, canny Summer 2014 zeitgeist texturing by the writers, or just a funny aside that provides shading for Taystee’s irrepressible, sometimes naive optimism.

I do know I’m not sure I’m ready for Outlander to be the story that everyone’s talking about.  I talked about this a little bit a few months ago when Jessica wrote a couple of great posts about her audio re-read of the book.  I commented how much I liked her post and my surprise to discover how much I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Outlander and engage with it critically, without diminishing my prior experience as a very immersed reader and even an obsessed and prolific member of a fan forum at one time. I know it’s probably bad blogging etiquette to quote one’s own comment on another blog, but it would be weird to just say this again since it I posted these sentiments in a comment on Read React Review:

I’ll be honest – I was not expecting to enjoy much of anything about the fresh wave of Outlander commentary that’s coming with the Starz series and the new book. As you know, I came to online book discussions via Gabaldon fan forums (this was back in 2004, so not much earlier than your 2007). At first it was purely exhilarating to engage with other readers about the intense reading experience and these larger than life characters, then it grew exhausting in some ways, and when I felt the later books were inconsistent and disappointing, those were no longer the right forums for me. (The cycle of fandom… but that’s a topic for another time). At this point I feel simultaneously repelled by Outlander squee and compelled to follow and lurk, in spite of myself, whenever it comes up for serious discussion.

That was a few months ago.  I must have been extra cranky because I don’t think I’m actually feeling “repelled” by the Outlander buzz these days. But I’m still sort of skittish.  Another way I sometimes think about my relationship with this book is that the 2014 popularity of Outlander feels like bumping into an ex I was in an intense relationship with from about 2004-2009, who was crazy good fun but sort of intense, a little ridiculous, and whose antics eventually wore me out. This is not to say that I think it’s ridiculous to love Outlander, or to admire Gabaldon’s novels. It is not about a judgment of the book or its fans. I spent several years and devoted lots of time to Outlander fan forums engaging in deeply challenging and rich discussions with incredibly smart and thoughtful readers.

The series overall is very uneven, but the 4th novel, Drums of Autumn, is tight and beautiful and a complete DIK. This one has four main story arcs, and multiple POV, but it is well-structured and paced, almost seamless, and very moving. I sometimes wish people who stopped reading at Dragonfly in Amber or Voyager, had skipped ahead to book 4. I am not a re-reader, but I do re-read this one, and its epic and eloquent depiction of everyday life and social/political strife in 18th century rural America on the brink of war sparked and re-energized my lifelong interest in American history and the literature of and about the Revolution.

I think the thing that puzzles me is the level and intensity of my own fanhood, and then its dissipation and evaporation. How did I get from immersion to detachment? It’s not that I’ve completely abandoned Outlander, as have many who could not get past the second, or third, or fifth book (The Fiery Cross, with it’s 100-page opening day of rain and diapers is the one that really killed it for lots of people, I understand). I actually have read all of the principal books in the series, even up through 2009’s An Echo in the Bone, which I found at once deeply disappointing and intermittently delightful. For readers like me who have allowed themselves to become intimate with Jamie, Claire, John and the rest, there are bits of dialogue and scenes that one can’t help but read with sheer pleasure and relish. But the book overall is a mess of erratically paced and cobbled together sections of exhaustive research and explosively provocative plot developments. So I am still along for the ride, but it is almost with reluctance and certainly with detachment.

A dear friend and fellow Gabaldon reader texted me last week with surprise about Tuesday’s release day, wondering why we hadn’t been buzzing back and forth about the impending Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.  Neither of us had paid much attention to when the next installment would be available. I think it’s because we are ambivalent. How do I honor the special place in my heart for Jamie, John, Claire and (especially!) Ian, and keep reading, while harboring unease and lack of trust that the story will hold together and make sense?

These questions have preoccupied me for several years, whenever Outlander comes up in book discussions, even before the Starz series was announced and went into production. I was never the type of fan who wanted to insist on a certain actor for Jamie or Claire, and I only ever went so far in terms of the kilt fetish which is almost de rigueur in the fan community, so I only peripherally followed the hoopla around the casting of Hueghan and Balfe, the release of the first images of kilted Sam and Catriona with Claire’s wild hair. I haven’t watched any clips, and just the image of Jack Randall beating Jamie that was released as a still is enough to convince me that it’s going to be weird to watch a book I know so intimately brought to life onscreen in 16 detailed episodes. Some parts of the book were over the top to begin with, but perhaps that’s why people think it will make good television.  I’m really interested to see how they convincingly show Claire fighting off the wolf with her bare hands.

Now I wonder whether and what it will be like to find Outlander the subject of casual conversation with friends and co-workers. For a long time it has been part of my personal, private reading world, which is of course, not private in the sense that the discussions are taking place on the internet. I do have IRL friends who have read it, and/or are fans, but it really only comes up in conversation with people (women) who are pretty devoted readers, and usually not with litfic book group types of readers.  I have another good friend from the Outlander community(online friend to IRL friend; a testament to the power of online book discussions!) who reports regularly being met with disbelief and distaste when she brings up Gabaldon with her book group.

But now comes the big television event. Will it be a game changer, and in what ways? I haven’t ever forked over the cash to get a premium channel in my cable lineup — I am content to wait for shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire to make their way to me via Netflix or other means. I haven’t figured out whether I will do the same with Outlander, or if it will be impossible for me not to engage with it as a weekly serial, in real time along with friends, fellow fans, and the twitterverse.

What do you think? Is it going to be big, like GoT and OITNB? Will it succeed in grabbing a mainstream audience of male and female fans? Will it continue to serve as a gateway to the romance genre for new fans who come to Outlander via the show, then find the books? Will I in fact find myself discussing the controversial wife beating scene with my co-workers over lunch? Like I said, I’m not sure I’m ready for that. But on the other hand, maybe it’s a breakthrough moment, and not just for the RITA-winning Best Romance of 1991.

 

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