Not your mother's Moby Dick: How one bookstore is putting an unexpected twist on the classics
When I first started working at The Booksmith, the local independent bookstore a couple blocks from my apartment, it was a lot like what I expected it to be. Book lovers browsed, regulars came in for their daily newspaper, and authors gave intimate readings. So it came as a surprise when one night all the shelves in the back were pushed aside, two hundred or so people filed in, and Baruch Porras-Hernandez welcomed the crowd enthusiastically with: “Are you guys ready for some porn? Let’s dive in!”
The occasion was Shipwreck - San Francisco’s premiere Erotic Fan Fiction competition - wherein six writers take a revered text from the canon, and turn it into something totally...demented.
Fan fiction is essentially when readers create new, unauthorized narratives for famous protagonists, giving them a life of their own. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction.
Co-creator Amy Stephenson explained the origin of the name: “On the internet, in the fanfiction community, a relationship is called a ‘ship,’” she said, “so obviously shipwreck is the joke, we're taking characters, we are asking people to ship them with somebody else, and we are turning it into a trainwreck”
Stephenson and her friend Casey Childers dreamed up Shipwreck in a bar in Hayes Valley. It was born in part out of contempt for one literary classic - Catcher in The Rye. “I had to read that in high school and I remember thinking like, this sucks!” Stephenson told me. “I hate this character, I don't understand anything about this book. We get to, you know, make a show where we talk back to it!”
Talking back to revered classics like Salinger’s grumpy tale of teen angst or The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick, or Pride and Prejudice . . . that’s what Shipwreck aims to do with the help of a whole lot of smutty comedy. The jokes are largely unrestrained, except for a couple of important ground rules.
“We want this to be a safe space,” says Stephenson. “We have definitely turned back pieces and asked people to rework them.”
Everything described has to be entirely consensual and every character must be of consenting age. Other than that, it’s pretty open. Inclusivity is really important to Childers and Stephenson - it’s basically why they created the thing in the first place.
“I grew up poor and not in a very educated family, we didn't have a lot of books, and bookstores were really intimidating to me,” Stephenson recounts. “And it's really important to me as the events coordinator at Booksmith [to put on events] that are accessible to everybody, that they can feel like they can engage with the canon and the classics and even contemporary literature in a way that's fun”
Baruch Porras-Hernandez is the in-house thespian. His job is to read all six entries, so that the competition is anonymous. After he’s done, the audience votes on which entry they like the best.
The featured book this evening is Little Women. It follows four young American women as they come of age during the civil war. Amy Stephenson has strong feelings about it. She tells the crowd “this is objectively is the world's most boring book.”
For tonight’s purpose, we zoom into the future and imagine the characters as grown adults. The crowd is a mixed bag; some newbies, some seasoned Shipwreck goers. I ask Sara Stanton, who has been to 11 shows, if she has a standout moment.
“Conan the Barbarian's penis getting frozen inside the White Witch and her saying it's always winter inside of my vagina but never Christmas.” She manages to say this line with a straight face.
I seek out a couple on the other side of the room, Kimee Johnson and her boyfriend Dan. Dan preferred not to share his last name. It turns out that they actually met at Shipwreck. When I ask them what they say when people ask how they met, Kimee gamely responds: “I'm like what's your favorite classic literary novel - okay, now imagine a butt plug in that. That's where I met Dan.”
Johnson explains to me the appeal of an event like Shipwreck. “Let’s look at Little Women," she says. " As someone who read this book when she was like ten years old, there's clearly a lot of hidden sexual tension. You can't talk about becoming a woman without addressing without the whole sexuality part of it. But Shipwreck just takes it to the extreme, and it's wonderful.”
Make no mistake, Shipwreck peddles in extremity - it’s gross, sometimes way too gross for me. But even if the jokes are destructive, the audience is doing kind of what our high school teachers told us to do - critically engaging with the text. There’s no right way to relate to books, and Shipwreck underscores this idea through writing about muppet sex, glitter canon orgasms, and shocking acts between Ayn Rand characters. This may seem ridiculous to some who consider themselves serious readers. But this is the largest group of people I’ve ever seen in a bookstore, enjoying themselves raucously. What that says about us? I’m not too sure. And honestly, I don’t really want to know.