Title: This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch
Author: Tabitha Carvan
Audio book narrator: Tanya Schneider
Intended audience: Adult
Date Read: 30/04/2023 – 14/05/2023
Tabitha Carvan is a middle-aged Canberra woman who found herself in the midst of an identity crisis once she became a mother. What led her back to herself was the discover of Benedict Cumberbatch, and through him, online fandom, and the realisation that as women, we put aside our desires in favour of others, but that it doesn’t have to be that way. Why do we find it so hard to lean into our desires?
I’m saying this right at the outset: the main reason I couldn’t rate this book any higher was because so often the author mentioned Benedict Cumberbatch, I wanted to ask “You do realise he’s a real person, right?” And the author actually mentions at one point how patronising she finds this question, but I kept asking it nonetheless.
I really struggled with the first two thirds. Perhaps partially because I am somewhere around 10-15 years younger than the author and have bene involved in fandom since my family had Internet access. I was writing fanfiction before I knew that it had a name. The fact that passionate diatribes about whatever show I was currently watching were met by my parents with “uh-huh, that’s nice” or words to that effect did not deter me. When I got to uni, I met a bunch of fellow nerds, many of whom I am still friends with today. I travelled to London for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013 and hung out with thousands of like-minded fans for a weekend.
While I am aware of the fact that fanfiction is not treated seriously, and that fandom is considered weird, I have never really been in a position where I had to grapple with that.
But the fact remains that our fandom journeys look very different, so when the author was talking about discovering explicit fanfiction, I couldn’t share in her surprise and shock. The chapters like this were the most difficult for me.
And the other thing is, my fandoms were always TV shows and books. Fixating on a real person in the same way, writing RPF (real person fic), is the line I can’t cross. It’s not to say I was never fannish about the people involved in my favourite series, but as far as I can remember, it was never to this extent. (Every time I felt a bit judgey, I’d then feel bad because feeling judged on the things we love is exactly what this book is what this book sets out to address.)
There’s a short argument in the book that women objectifying a male celebrity is different to men objectifying a female celebrity because of the patriarchy. That may be so, but this was not explored thoroughly enough for my satisfaction. The author cites one professor she interviewed, who argued that parasocial romantic relationships are okay, actually, and “all the studies I’ve read have shown this” but not one of those studies is actually cited.
And yet, despite my discomfort due to all of the above, I also found myself bothered by the fact that despite the supposed message of the book, the author still spends two thirds of it coming across as ashamed of her Benedict Cumberbatch fandom. If you’re going to write a book with the tag line “On finding your thing and loving it like your life depends on it”, at least convince me that you do love it unashamedly.
This finally changes in the last third of the book and this is where it picked up for me. This is where Carvan discusses what finding joy in Sherlock or Dr Strange fandom or Benedict Cumberbatch fandom itself has led other fans to do with their lives. Finding joy and a community of like-minded people, usually online, can give people the confidence to explore other facets of their lives that they’d tucked away, because they were too embarrassed or didn’t think they had the time. This I could get behind, especially when the author finally stopped making weird sexual innuendo about Benedict Cumberbatch and acknowledged it is not so much Benedict Cumberbatch the person (or any object of fandom) that leads to these revelations, but the sheer joy of having that “thing” and embracing that “thing” like your life depends on it. Don’t worry if other people think you’re weird. Just love it. Experience joy.
I also want to note before I wrap up that the audio book narrator didn’t help my reading experience on this occasion. I found she made the author sound even more self-conscious than she already portrayed herself, but at other times, her tone was kind of smug. I haven’t listened to Tanya Schneider before and I’m sure I wouldn’t have this issue with other books she reads, but it bothered me in this one.
Ultimately, I picked this up hoping for an interesting exploration of the correlation between the number of teenage girls loving something and how immature society deems it, and how female interests are often denigrated for not being “serious” enough, or put aside for fear of negative perception. And I got some of that. But in the end, really, this is a book about Benedict Cumberbatch.