There’s a scene in the first Captain America movie where little Steve Rogers, struggling to keep up with his friend Bucky, jogs behind him along a New York alley. “Where are we going?” he asks, and Bucky replies, “The future.”
On the third day that I attend Book Expo America, the teens come.
At first I think it’s because it’s Saturday morning, the reason that the Javits Center is crammed with hundreds of high schoolers and their Stepford-smiling parents. It’s Saturday, and they’re out of school, and that’s why I’m struggling to fight my way through huge crowds to get to my panel on sportswriting, and that’s why they all have these strange badges…?
Then I see the sign: BOOKCON.
I feel like I’m in high school again — only some strange funhouse mirror kind of high school, the kind where every single person is white and female and dressed in Slytherin cosplay and talking with incredible enthusiasm about John Green. The kind where I honest-to-god cannot move an inch, where the downstairs floor is so crammed with people that the poor BEA staff have actually forbidden me from going down to my panel.
I am — I confess it — more than a little bit annoyed. I’d had no idea that BookCon was going to happen today, or even that BookCon was a thing that existed. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lot of very, very nerdy teens to fill up Javits from top to bottom, preventing me from getting to quite a few panels, and I wasn’t expecting to have to make conversation with fifteen-year-old girls about Cassandra Clare as I waited to get down an escalator so I could buy my $8 cup of ramen from the Korean place.
For the past two days, I’ve felt too young and inexperienced to be in this crowd. I’ve been struggling for quite a while to shove myself forcibly into the serious adult world — getting an internship, involving myself with good activism like the Student Net Alliance, trying to make professional connections here. Everyone here has a serious job, everyone here actually participates in the industry. I do participate in the industry — I have an editorial internship at Random House, which I started last week — but I’m still nineteen, still struggling to get a good job, still hoping desperately that I’ll be taken seriously.
But if I previously felt too much of an amateur to be here, today it’s just the opposite. I’ve dressed carefully, with dark red lipstick neatly applied in front of the mirror; I’ve been hoping to speak to panelists and audience members alike, maybe getting a few more business cards; I’m serious, I’m prepared, I’m trying to be professional.
With the unexpected advent of BookCon, I suddenly feel like the college student who’s been forced to sit at the Kid’s Table for the family event. I don’t care about The Fault in Our Stars, and I don’t like Divergent; I’ve never even heard of Maggie Steifvater.
I’m very irritated — I even seriously consider heading back to my dorm early. But in the end it’s not worth it; after all, have I got anything better to do? So I stand in line to get downstairs, and I stand in line for my overpriced Korean food, and I stand in line to see Cary Elwes, who’s talking about his new book on the making of The Princess Bride. In one of the lines, I tell some high schoolers that I’m “an editor for Random House”, which is close enough to the truth to not really be a lie, and which makes me feel grown-up enough that my ruffled feathers are somewhat soothed.
I also make a friend in line for Cary Elwes, a real live adult, whose name is Erica Cameron and who’s a YA author with a paranormal fantasy series coming out. (“It’s not paranormal fantasy,” she tells me, somewhat desperately, “I call it temporary fantasy, it doesn’t have, you know, vampires.”)
Vampires or no vampires, it sounds good, and it alerts me to what’s really been bothering me about the influx of teens today: the fine line between consumers and creators in the publishing industry. Am I actually a productive member of this society? Aside from my Random House internship, not really — but I am more of one than most of the people who’ve shown up for BookCon, aren’t I? And Erica really is a productive member, she’s a writer, and I’m serious too, I have my serious lipstick on, and we can stand here in line together and delight in our non-teen-ness —
“Are you a blogger?” she asks me, politely.
After I leave the Cary Elwes panel, I have a choice: I can go and see Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, or I can go to something called “50 Shades of Erotica with Salon.com”. I’d originally intended to go to the Roth panel — I’m not a fan of hers, but it’s about dystopias, which is my jam — but looking at the crowd gathering around her door, I sidle slowly over to 50 Shades of Erotica. At least there’ll be adults.
I did, in fact, read about 3 chapters of Fifty Shades of Grey before putting it down — the prose was incredibly awful. I recall thinking that even I could write better porn than E.L. James. The crowd for 50 Shades is fairly small, which doesn’t much surprise me. I can’t see most people willingly, publicly lining up for a panel about erotica. Just a few feet away, there’s someone capering around in a large, plastic Sonic the Hedgehog costume — but erotica, erotica is embarrassing.
I want to be a proper journalist, asking the people around me who they are and what brought them to this panel, but the terribly regulated lines at BEA prevent me — if I go up and down the line, I’ll never be able to get into the panel. I instead do my best with looking around, trying to gauge the crowd from how they look.
There are even more women than usual, with only two or three men in the crowd. Surprisingly, there’s a lot more racial diversity than I’ve seen at other events; instead of being 95% white, this crowd is only about 70%. I’m almost the youngest person in the crowd, but not quite. There are two teenage girls in front of me, holding hands, and as I scribble in my notebook, they kiss quickly and smile at each other.
The panel, once we get in, is the only all-female panel I’ve seen so far at BEA. There’s an erotica author, two erotica publishers, and a writer for Salon.com, Mary Beth Williams, who appears to be pushing the “feminism” aspect of the whole thing. I’m a feminist, and I consider myself fairly sex-positive; I settle in with my notebook and some optimism.
“Every five to ten years the media discovers that women like sex,” says one of the panelists, and laughter ripples over the crowd. Erotica, according to these women, used to be the publishing industry’s “dirty little secret”. After Fifty Shades, though, visibility increased tenfold. Women were reading it on the subway, they say, reading it in their offices. The erotica community had “come out of the closet.”
As I watch the discussion unfold, I sense an unspoken but powerful current of resentment here. These women feel like outsiders, shoved out of the mainstream publishing world. Some blame their exclusion on a fear of sex; some blame it on misogyny. Almost all have had experiences with the dark side of the Internet: trolls, spammers, so-called “men’s rights activists” who don’t ever seem to advocate for men’s rights but only tell women writers that they ought to die in a fire (and other, more explicit things).
And then one woman mentions the UCSB shooting, and I freeze up.
The shooting was last weekend. The #YesAllWomen tag only stopped trending a few days ago. The memory of my fear for my brother, and for all of my other friends and acquaintances at UCSB, is still very fresh in my mind.
“Nothing is more terrifying than a woman’s sexuality,” says one of the panelists, and the others nod and chuckle. There’s some scattered applause from the crowd.
Then they move on to another topic.
I close my notebook. This middle-aged, middle-class white woman is talking about writing erotica like it’s going to save the world. Someone mentions the 2016 presidential election; someone else nods, says, “Our work is so empowering.”
By the time the panel’s over, there are still BookCon-goers everywhere, trickling slowly out onto the sidewalk, attempting loudly to figure out how the New York City subway system works, and I push past them and up to 34th Street. The sun’s beating down. It’s a hot day, and I’m tired, and I’m shaking, and I’m surrounded by teens in Harry Potter T-shirts.
And then there’s a sweet little girl, who can’t be more than nine years old, standing on a corner with her father waiting for the light to change. She’s complaining to him about the latest X-Men movie, about a character named Quicksilver. “He’s supposed to be Magneto’s son,” she says, small and furious and full of energy and enthusiasm, “and he’s supposed to be this guy named Pietro…”
It makes me feel very cynical, suddenly, and very old.
I turn towards the subway. The New Yorker offices and the Empire State Building are rising up before me, stark against the cloudless blue of the sky.
I wipe my lipstick off on the back of my hand.