Elliott DeLine came to Trent University on Monday March 11 2013. The self-published author of the novel Refuse discussed the two main themes of his work: transgender experience and new ways of marketing through social media. Though not clearly expressed in the talk itself, I believe that these two ideas can be synthesized using what Henry Jenkins’ calls ‘transmedia storytelling.’
For Jenkins, this term means the spreading of a single story over many different media platforms. In his book Convergence Culture, he uses the Matrix as one of the best examples of this technique in media production. In addition to being a film series, the Matrix was also adapted into a video game for its audience to play and then help understand its later sequels. The Wachowski siblings as directors depended heavily on the use of other outside media technologies in order to understand the story of Neo. At the time of its production, this left a lot of its audience, especially those who did not enjoy video games, out in the dark. Too much was left out of the subsequent films versions – and the video game was imperative to understanding the plot. This was many years ago, now, and I believe (as Jenkins argues) that most of us have adapted to this new form of storytelling. In Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good For You, he also argues this point, using shows such as The West Wing and Sopranos as examples of how the audience now are more willing to follow complex and convoluted story lines than before. He also makes the claim that, in spite of what Theodore Adorno might say, media is actually making us smarter. Multiple narratives and now, multiple formats for telling stories, are becoming the norm.
So what does my small digression into the world of popular culture have to do with Elliott DeLine? A lot, I think, and though this pun is ever so obvious, I think it is really important to use this idea of transmedia storytelling in order to understand Elliott DeLine and his work within transgender media. The old forms of authorship simply do not work anymore; Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault were ahead of their time with their often quoted essays. What digital technology has done now really is render the author as sole source of meaning as obsolete. It was great to have Elliott DeLine speak at Trent, but he is only one small part of this ever growing system of transmedia storytelling that is happening right now. In fact, DeLine did much better after the presentation was over and during the question and answer period. With the small amount of people in the room (March is always a terribly busy month), it would have made more sense to form a circle right form the beginning and turn the presentation into a conference, or even better, a conversation. With self-publishing and these new forms of media, anyone can be an expert, and with the many talented people that we had in the audience sharing their experience in the self-publishing or media marketing world, it was an enlivening conversation.
If transmedia storytelling is the spreading of a single story over multiple platforms, then we need to look beyond Elliott DeLine and at the stories about transgender experience that are now being spread around and reformatted through many different media applications. Elliott started his presentation with an overview of transgender people’s depiction in media so far (spoiler: it hasn’t been good), but where his talk gained strength was when he mentioned the power the internet over this monolithic tale. Not only did the internet have the power to connect other transgender people, but it also has the power of remediation and re-configuring those grand narratives of transgender identity. The single story of what it means to be transgender (“I’ve known since age two”) is now no longer being tolerated within the transgender community, and as more and more authors like Elliott DeLine use new media to tell their stories, we are going to be moving into new territory faster than ever before – and with enough people to keep up.
Elliott DeLine’s novel Refuse is unique among transgender texts because it contains a depiction of a female to male transgender man who does not live up to the success stories often depicted in movies like TransAmerica. Dean does not align himself with any type of transgender or queer community; this is extremely rare within these texts, and especially coming from a trans author. Judith Halberstam, in her book Female Masculinity, has spoken about the imperative need for “positive images” within LGBTQ film and describes this need as well meaning, but ultimately destructive. Halberstam writes,
“The desire for positive images places the onus of queering cinema squarely on the production rather than the reception of images.”
What the need for positive images eventually does is render the audience completely passive and unable to make any meaning for themselves. It also removes the idea of style from the text all together. And considering DeLine’s talk was called Refusal as Style, this was an imperative idea to consider. More and more sites of refusal are cropping up on the internet, and I would like to spend the rest of this relatively small article recapping some of the more prominent sites of convergence, resistance, and ultimately style.
This fall, the short story anthology The Collection was published on Topside Press, making it the first transgender collection of short stories containing transgender characters. DeLine was one of the authors, and so was Red Durkin, Carter Sickels, and Warren Beatty’s son Stephen Ira. This collection of transgender voices telling many, many different stories allows for the one solid narrative of transgender experience to become fractured and create so many different options for the readers.
In addition, there are more outlets for these stories now. The Collection was published by Topside Press, which solely focuses on transgender fiction. While the term “transgender fiction” itself can get really complicated when considering the authors of those text, Tom Léger of Topside has stated that, “The way Topside Press has chosen to define transgender fiction is by the narrative, not the author.” This is a step in the right direction, I believe, because it shifts the place of meaning not on the author, but the text itself.
Another place of cultural convergence for transgender media is Trans-genre.net. This online registry showcases transgender artists of all kinds and makes it possible for this group of creative individuals to connect with one another and keep creating the art they want to do.
DeLine discussed Original Plumbing briefly in his talk, which is an online magazine catered for a transgender readership. There are many regular writers (some of which, like Ira and DeLine, were also in The Collection) and others who guest post occasionally. The benefit about having a magazine format online is the comment feature. Even if someone in the transgender community isn’t much for writing articles, they can still leave suggestions, comments, and complaints online and feel as if their voice is heard.
YouTube has also become a home for transgender people online. In a recent New Yorker article, many successful YouTubers in the transgender community were discussed. One of them, Skylar Kergil, is now a best-selling musician on bandcamp and a visual artist, who I interviewed for an upcoming issue of Trent University’s newspaper The Arthur. The appeal YouTube stems from the older tradition of the memoir and autobiography among transgender individuals. By serializing their stories and adding sound and visuals to it, YouTubers manage to update older narratives and invigorate them with a new type of style. In addition,with the vast community of transgender YouTube users documenting their transition, they are also creating a collective archive of stories for future transgender people to tell, share, and replay again and again.
What self-publishing ends up doing is becoming a great equalizer. Those who have not had a chance to have their voice heard in the past now have an outlet where they can express themselves. From there, the audience that they manage to cultivate can also express themselves and allow for an actual discourse to flourish between writer and reader. As this diagram illustrates, both are necessary for these types of connections to occur.
Elliott DeLine, through his use of Amazon’s createspace and his skills at navigating the digital terrain to find his audience, has been able to add his story among many others out there. The underlying message from his talk seems to be that it is possible for anyone with a bit of luck, talent, and technological savvy, to have their voice heard and added to the vast digital archive we are still creating.