Some thoughts on fanfic and the Tiptree

My personal opinions and not meant to represent the award administrators or be any sort of official statement…

A rambling overthink:

I think “Arcana” and much fanfic should be looked at as an experimental form, or as being like artists’ sketchbooks. Sketches in art are nifty, even if the artist isn’t Davinci. As a reader and critic, I often enjoy raw, ephemeral work and find something of value in it, while I find much “professional-quality” writing to be dull, with all its quirky edges smoothed off by workshops, MFA programs, editors, the standards of market forces, considerations of literary genre, and so forth. I would rather read an ungrammatical unfinished poem of raw power that goes somewhere unusual than I would read a high-falutin’ perfectly crafted New-Yorker-ish sonnet that doesn’t say a damn thing. Both may have literary merit, and ideally, a work has all possible positive qualities (As our Tiptree winner this year, Air, does have.)

Literary standards vary widely. In an award such as the Tiptree, or in a comprehensive anthology, I believe that it is important to represent works that are good by different standards of value. A work is “good”. Good for what purpose? Good for which people?

Of course, you may read all the above and agree with it, and yet still question the jury’s decision to longlist this particular story.

What can I say? I like edge conditions, and I pushed a boundary, and a lot of people disagree with me. So, let’s talk about this and learn whatever can be learned from it, and then move on to talk about the other books and stories on the list. For example, “Little Faces” which is also conveniently online. What’s tiptroid or not about that story? How about the writing style and quality? What do we think of that?

How about “A Brother’s Price” and its gender explorations? I’d be interested to hear from people who feel like it challenged gender roles and those who feel it didn’t.


Objections to the longlisting of “Arcana” that I’ve read in the last couple of days include:

1. it’s fanfic and should not be eligible under the bylaws of this award, or any professional sf award
2. it’s not good fanfic of its type
3. it’s not well-written
4. it’s unfinished
5. it is not tiptroid enough. It does not expand or explore gender, but instead re-ifies traditional gender roles.
6. It is illegal because of copyright laws. The author and the award are in some kind of legal danger.
7. It is plagiarism. (I think the people who use this term are particularly unclear on what “plagiarism means. It is not plagiarism.)
8. The Tiptree jury should have more diligently gone through the body of fanfic to find more, and better, examples of tiptroid fic. IN their copious spare time.
9. It was unethical of the jury to longlist this work, because it might embarrass its author
10. The author should have been contacted and asked if it was okay to longlist her unifinished story. (By the award administrators or the jury, or me in particular.)
11. The Tiptree Award bylaws should be rewritten to exclude poor-quality writing. (I would love to see the subcommittee that writes those bylaws…)
12. Liz Henry has done something moronic. We thought she could not go lower than teh Venom Cock, but, sweet pregnant crack-smoking jesus, she has.
13. The Tiptree award is annoying and run by feminist cranks who should not be taken seriously by any rational human being or writer of Quality. They might have once had a shot at legitimacy in the Real World, but now they’ve blown it. How embarrassing!

Pantryslut, a former Tiptree juror, rolling her eyes at the kerfluffle:

1) You’re allowed not to like things on an awards list. 2) The processes of even awards you like and respect are not without flaw or question. 3) I think there is a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the long list happening.

Vito-excalibur and commenters continue to wish that the story were a better representative of fanfic in general.

Matociquala’s journal has an extremely lively discussion. In it, the predominant threads are not questioning the value of fanfic in general, but focus on the Tiptree Award’s process of gathering nominations. Cija comments:

I think the inclusion of fanfic, especially dirty, self-indulgent fanfic, in the Tiptree longlist (or shortlist, or the award itself) is a fine fine idea, although judging from the quotes you provide, this one doesn’t seem to be notably dirty or self-indulgent. Too bad.

In particular, I thought it was interesting that there was a perception of the story being the uninformed choice of a well-meaning outsider to the genre of fanfic… or maybe it would be more accurate to say the fanfic communities. (That earnest yet clueless outsider would be me (according to them… a lot of assumptions about how much of an outsider I am). More about this further down in this post.)

Am I an expert on fanfic? No. Have I ever read it? Yes. I’m not strongly part of any fanfic community, but I’ve read it a little here and there. I have even written it, though mostly badfic. I particularly loved the old “pottersues” community and its hilarious snarkiness. Might there be fanfic out there, mpreg fanfic, that everyone would hail with as Tiptroid and literary enough ? Hell yeah… Please nominate it asap!

About legality: I think this is bunk. I don’t think about whether a story is “illegal” or not when I read it. Do people think that if there were censorship laws, that awards should not consider that kind of illegality? So, “free speech” is one thing when it’s about a nation or a government… but another thing that we should respect when it’s a corporation who “owns” an idea? What are people really worried about here? Last time I checked, fanfic writers were not being sued or thrown in jail… nor were they smashing the state or destroying the idea of intellectual property or sucking away the hard-earned dollars of authors starving in garrets… And the existence of the fanfic doesn’t make people not read or watch the original/”owned” stories. At most, they might be sent a cease and desist letter which they could then put up on the Chilling Effects site which is part of some great legal efforts to fight that kind of atmosphere. About plagiarism: hahaha. Give me a break. Then go look up the dictionary definition of “plagiarism”.

Moving on from there.

Then we get into the nitty gritty of what the story does and whether it’s tiptroid or not (which is hard to talk about, since everyone has a different idea of what “expanding and exploring gender” means.)

Back for a moment to the idea of being Tiptroid, and “good”… Tiptroid for whom?
Am I demanding stuff that expands *my* concept of gender? Or what I think and percieve as “most people’s” ideas of gender, or even “my idea of sf fandom who might be interested in the Tiptree’s ideas of gender?” It turns into a lot of doublethink very quickly. And I wanted very much to avoid any sort of “more genderfuck than thou” chest-beating on the jury.

Okay, so, back on matociquala’s journal, I said:

Once the story gets past the set-up and the rape scene, there’s lots of detail about a macho guy’s response to being pregnant. Nick’s sudden vulnerability, loss of independence, and the changes he goes through were interesting. Snape’s “protective father/husband” responses were really weird because of the (former) macho-ness of Nick.

katallen, cija, and others get quite deep into the issues. Katallen questions whether it’s an mpreg at all, since Nick is “really” a hermaphrodite and has been all along, and knew it, and so did Snape and the Ministry of Magic. (Though I would add that Nick was in denial about it for most of his life.) “The macho image is shown to be a fraud — and so a macho guy’s reaction to being pregnant is never explored.” She adds, “it didn’t feel gender expanding so much as gender conformist… However much Nick hides or denies it, the sex that gets pregnant is there to be made pregnant, to bear children, and (once a feminine side is exposed) will be lusting after sex with their rapist, crying every five minutes because of their hormones, and need a real man to get them safely through pregnancy.”

cija says:

there are ways to wallow in illicit fantasy without making the narrative defend the essential rightness of the false construct, if that makes any sense. I am all for the wallowing, but not so much for the embedded defense. It is tricky to do the one without the other, but vastly preferable.

Yowza, cija, if I were a man, I’d be begging you to let me have your babies. I still disagree, but there you articulated the exact location of the problem and point of disagreement.

and katallen again:

I don’t read a lot of slash fic, but enough to have met dozens of stories where two masculine characters, subsequent to sex or falling in love, gradually morph into a het couple — with the smaller/prettier/smarter of the two men taking up the feminine role (homemaking, sexual jealousy, physical and emotional dependance etc)

Coffeeandink made some cogent remarks and gave a link to thasallia’s post on how distinctive characters are often transformed in fanfic into more conventional roles (wow, I loved this post…):

But, getting back to flipping gender expectations, I can think of several body-swap fics in FS fandom that do a lovely job of this, but I also think there have to be other gen or het fics that do a good job of showing how gender isn’t the easy assumption that we tend to make it. And how are we defining gender roles anyway? How are we coding male and female these days? One of the reasons I rarely read slash is because I have little interest in seeing a masculine character feminized, in more than the subtle construct way (i.e., I don’t want to see John Crichton act like a girl except for in the, “Shit, the whole way I look at the world is suddenly reversed and I’m getting my ass kicked by a girl” kind of way.) I’m not interested in that sort of coding between men, but again, that’s my personal preference. However, again, that whole reversal of gendered expectation is interesting and I wonder (not reading a lot of femslash), if a similar thing happens there. Does one of the women become “the man” in the story?

Katallen says:

…what interested you wasn’t examining how a man would cope with pregnancy but the reactions of a Western middle-class female who is secure in her equality and her personal relationship to her gender (75% of the world’s population are still chopping wood and carrying water by three months and never aren’t met with sexism) having to cope with a new image, that’s imposed both by her own biology and societal reactions to pregnancy and motherhood.

So, the more sophisticated slash and fanfic readers read Brunson’s Nick as a very typical-for-fic manly man who is feminized. Nick’s weepiness and girliness and moments of vulnerability perhaps annoy, because they seem to reify this particular gender stereotype. Now, I don’t like that stereotype either! And yet I know many strong, independent women who get pregnant and then start falling into many stereotypical roles. As I pointed out somewhere on the many-tentacled thread on matociquala’s journal, this is a common theme of mommybloggers. “How did I get here? What’s going on? What the hell just happened? How can I get my life as an independent person back?” Nick seems to me to react similarly. Coded as a man’s reaction, that “wtf!” reaction can be seen as interrupted entitlement. Which exposes the interrupted entitlement that some women, raised to expect some measure of equal rights or gender-blindness, experience. I found that interesting, and I still do! Is that because I’m a United Statesian upper-class mom and housewife? Gosh… um… probably. However, I am not in ignorance of feminism, world politics, women who live in poverty, and class differences in general.

There was also a strand of people saying that I in particular (because I said in public that it was me who pushed to longlist “Arcana”… (and I said it in public because I felt I had to, since half the people reading already suspected it was me and were making coy statements to indicate it, and because of needing to stand up and defend my judgement and the story’s author, and also out of consideration for the tender feelings of my fellow Tiptree jurist, who seems eager to distance themself from the OMG Not Literary Enough works on the list) ummmmm where was I?) People saying that I was an outsider to fanfic. Such as….


…an external advocate who doesn’t appear to be comfortable that they have a grasp of what’s a typical or representative product from the community they’re trying to gain attention for. (Rather like a missionary displaying poor quality domestic pottery when he could, at least, be showing what they trade with the tribe next door.)

and elisem:

What it easily can slip into being is condescending. Not saying the nominator in this case meant to condescend, but the missionary aspects of this…

This seems to me like a valid criticism. Well, since I have no professional status in anything particularly, and no vested interest in pretending that I’m a big expert and infallible, why should I not realize this fairly instantly when it’s pointed out to me, and try to respond? And actually, I think about this kind of issue a lot, since I deal with problems of cultural appropriation both as a feminist and as a translator. I had not thought of being an outsider and of perceived condescension in this context. I did make some effort to learn and ask about fanfic communities, as I also asked around about tiptroid SF in non-English languages, and about other genres like comic books. (I actually nominated the comic book “Y: The Last Man” to that end. ) In retrospect, I did not make ENOUGH of an effort for the ambition to push the award’s parameters a little further out. In my defense, I did put quite a lot of effort into it, and into the Tiptree Award as a whole, and overall, I think we all did a good job. It was an amazing education, the entire process.

(Slightly more defensiveness: I can’t know everything about everything, but you know… I do know a hell of a lot about SF and about literature in general, and… (back to the comment made by katallen about class and feminism and women-chopping-wood) actually I am particularly well read in world literature in general, across a broad time span. This, at least, helps me be confident of my own critical judgement having a *very* broad base to draw upon. People who don’t know me personally might not know this, and I tend to get treated like I’m a ditz, and about 20 years younger than I am, and I have found a generally suspicious attitude from some hard-core SF fans who think I have not been fannish enough, or something, because I did not go to Whatevercon for a bazillion years and don’t get their filk jokes. Er, whatever… blow me… Actually I’ve gotten both the “Britney-Spears-listening teenybopper bubblegum-popping ditz” and the “romance-novel-reading men
opausal crazy cat lady” judgements… make up your minds already… which is it? Oh, nevermind, I am large, I contain multitudes… )

(And a side note about comics: as I continue reading them I have developed a fascination with The Hulk, especially Peter David’s work. And I think The Hulk does some amazing explorations of masculinity. The thought of explaining this to a Tiptree jury gives me hives, frankly… Hahahaha… Grimjack is also very cool. But anyway, I love comics now and am looking forward to a lifetime of reading more of them! )

As for the unfinished-ness and roughness, or rawness, of the story: this seems to me comparable to conversations about blogging. Blogging is its own genre. Its literary standards are not the standards of mainstream literature. I maintain that the rawness is part of it: You can blog as if you’re writing a magazine article,but then you’re just writing a magazine article. The experential quality of a blog is important, and its development, its immediacy. It is the exposure of process. It is a little bit like, it’s part of a very intense conversation. A magazine article is a polished monologue. A blog entry is an offered bit of conversation, offered in a way not always possible in face to face life. (And, it woudl be interesting to explore the idea of intimacy, trust, exposure, intimate conversation and ideas people have about pillow talk, in this context.) People engage with blogs like they do with conversations. Now in some ways we think of all textual interaction as conversation. Intertextuality is the history of conversations. But blogs depend on that idea, and push it further, and we don’t really understand what it’s doing or how it works or what that means yet. Fanfic has something similar going on, and no, I am not super qualified to talk about that, but from my seat over here in a somewhat analogous country, I’m waving in recognition. A group production, a community involvement in the production… and absolute exposure of that as a process.

*deep breath* *realization of giant digression*

*** Oh yeah, and also I should link up to Nick Mamatas and commenters – but I haven’t read any of that yet. I’m sure there’s a lot of meanness but also a lot that’s funny in there. At least he has the grace to make fun of the entire Tiptree award, instead of just one author, or me in particular.

It is kind of tempting to do a close reading and mockery of particular badly-written or quirkily-styled sentences from ALL the other Tiptree winners… because you know, that is something that I could easily do. All of them. I love parody, so why not apply it across the board, to make it less of a cheap shot?


The comments in juliansinger‘s journal are also interesting. I try to look past the “Liz is condescending” bits… which I have tried to answer, defend myself a little bit, and learn from… But you know, as if I need special lessons about queer feminist lit, and otherness? How can I help feeling a bit defensive!


Anyway, as I kept reading thassalia’s commenters… and then branching out into their journals (omg, I love the web…) I came across stuff like alara_r’s analysis:

If the body parts are girly, it isn’t manslash. 🙂 If the characters know they have been switched, I am more likely to describe it as “genderfuck”, because there you get a quasi-slash dynamic where Still Guy A *knows* Former Guy B used to be a guy, but now he’s a girl, so the body parts are het but the minds are slash. However, the femslash was femslash because it was a universe where the characters were born women rather than men, so they had no reference point to understand themselves as men, though we the readers knew.

Can I just say again that I think that the theorizing about gender here is great and fascinating? A tip of the hat? Without being accused of being condescending, can I admire and enjoy this discussion? Can we get thassalia or some of these very knowledgeable people as Tiptree jurors? That would be excellent!

Here is a key thought: In order to *get anywhere deep* in discussing why a work is gender-expanding or exploring, you have to : a) talk about your own gender b) talk about your own sexuality and what makes a work “good” for you… jouissance is in many ways about sex. That is part of why these discussions are difficult for some people, perhaps.

And the goal, as I see it, of the Tiptree, and of many feminist endeavors, is to make space for difficult conversations.

For anyone who has gotten through this rambling brain dump… I don’t have time to make it pretty right now … In the interests of transparency and bloggishness, I’m just trying to be as honest as possible and put some ideas out into the world.

Feel free to trash me and my judgement, and make fun of me some more. *sicilian hand gesture* But lay off of the story’s author, okay?

I should do a close reading of some sections of Arcana, and try to show exactly what it was I liked about it.

I liked this comment on Em’s work, from one of her longtime fans:

I’ve been in fandom for a long time, long before the internet in fact. I was absolutely thrilled to see your name listed on the Tiptree Award long list. I remember having to re-read it several times to be certain that it was really you. You have no idea how thrilled I was to see a fanfic from you listed there. It made my day.

and this one:

i don’t really know what we’re talking about, but there are people in fandom who haven’t heard of em brunson?

And I agree with Schnaucl and her commenters. I hope that Em puts her fic back up, and I look forward to reading more of her stories… the crackfic and also published work if that’s where she goes with it in future. I thought her writing was fabulous, entertaining, funny, and thoughtful, and again, I stand by my longlisting of it. Yes, I know (and knew) it was an in-jokey crackfic in answer to a specific community’s challenge… and I thought that was fucking cool.



People have suggested the following sources for slashy, possibly tiptroid fanfic:

Amanuensis – LJ
We Read Crap So that You Won’t Have To

from cofax7:

There are best of lists all over the net. They’re call recommendations sites. Google “Bright Shiny Objects” or “Polyamorous Recommendations” and you’ll find a ton of worthy fiction, of the slashy and non-slashy kind.

The sidebars of those sites look very intriguing.

19 thoughts on “Some thoughts on fanfic and the Tiptree

  1. Would you terribly mind linking more of the people that you’re quoting at length? I find all this terribly interesting, but how am I supposed to track these specific conversations down?

  2. Oy. Okay, yes, I will go back and try to link up every bit of it…

    Anything to help improve this situation… even when it means linking up to everyone and their dog calling me a moron. It is not unpainful to me, you know?

  3. Even more:

    – a collection of posts and links and excerpts.

    I absorb new information pretty quickly, but must call it a day… and the discussion and meta-discussion maybe has gone way beyond me just by being so huge. I’ll try to link up the excerpts above as Nona asked… but later tonight or in the morning. (I had linked most of the sources at least once, but not everything in every thread.)

    A slight plea… that people look again at the ENTIRE longlist, and the short list, and the winner. And consider *that* context, too. i.e. that the jury, including me, honored a broad range of works for different and interesting reasons.

    It is very cool to see communities suddenly (re?)mixing a bit. I am sorry it has to be so painful for Em, and for me… because it is. That’s what I signed on for, I guess, so I can’t complain, and it is always a risk I am willing to take in many areas.

  4. Oh yeah. I almost forgot. I also recommend to anyone who is blowing hot air about this that you:

    – edit a large anthology
    – be on an award jury that lasts for an entire year

    Then see what you think.

  5. OMG… one more.. I can’t stop.

    Matt’s journal where he lays out his own position very clearly and calmly!

    He says among other things that the long list…

    ” is the responsibility of the full judges’ panel, not just Liz. Yes, as Liz has stated publicly, she is the judge who lobbied for “Arcana”‘s inclusion during our long list deliberations, but we all signed off on it. If you’re mad at her, you’re mad at me too.

    But I think your anger is unreasonable. We weren’t being rude, we were doing our jobs as judges. We treated “Arcana” the same as any other nomination.”

    What can I add to that? We disagreed strongly about a bunch of things, and at times over the past year it was like we were barely speaking the same language. But I think Matt is very cool.

  6. Hi! It was very nice of you to quote me and respond so generously. I feel sort of ambivalent about the whole thing right now, and I still think the story shouldn’t have been listed, if only because it caused a lot of unpleasantness for its author — which my comments might have contributed to, had she read them, which I regret — but I really appreciate your taking the time to talk about this without defensiveness or agression. It’s very admirable. (I thought the same thing during the Touched by Venom arguments – I disagreed with you on that as well, but I really respect your even temper. I wish I had one of my own.)

    One small thing – I did say that “this one doesn’t seem to be notably dirty or self-indulgent”, but I said that before I’d read it, & retracted it after. (& I generally mean “self-indulgent” and “porny” as compliments, not insults, incidentally.)

    Another small thing – I thought it was really interesting how I found myself making derisive and derogatory remarks about the overall goofy and antifeminist nature of the mpreg genre — the same remarks that I often see people making about slash in general — except that when it’s about slash, I don’t even respect those sorts of opinions enough to engage them anymore. That did, as they say, make me think.

  7. This is a really nice roundup, Liz. I think we’re going to have to disagree to the grave on whether this was a good idea (especially as the keruffle, for which I have to bear some responsibility, though man I did not expect that magnitude of a reaction either) seems to have about driven the author off the ‘net.

    But, live and learn.

    And now I’ve cleverly completely hosed my chances of ever being asked to be on the Tiptree jury. Aren’t I smart?!


  8. Hey, I just want to make something clear: although, if asked, which I was not, I would say that picking this story was a mistake; I wouldn’t say it was wrong, if you see what I mean. In the sense of “run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it,” I think it’s been a very interesting experiment.

    You know what I’d love? I’d love if a bunch of us printed out copies of fanfic stories that we thought explored genderfuck, gender roles, and different reproductive strategies/effects, and got together at Wiscon, passed them around, and talked about how which did what. Interested?

  9. I think your awesome for nominating this story, otherwise I would have never had the pleasure of finding it. I like your discussion of what you thought ‘goodness’ was, because fanfiction was never about pro-quality goodness to me but about the pleasure it gives me to read it. We’re suppose to treat fanfiction like a dirty shameful secret. That makes me sad. If we enjoy something we should want to share it with others. I applaud you for that.

  10. cofax7 ‘s roundup of people’s suggestions for Tiptroid fanfic!

    Several people emailed me or posted to suggest “Cydonia” by Em Brunson. (I so agree. It totally tearjerked me in the awfullest way.) I have also seen mention in several places of astolat’s “World Turned Upside Down”, a “genderfuck Master and Commander novella” (omg yes!) , “Iolokus”, “Tikkun Olam”…

    Has no one noticed that “Arcana” is often funny…. and appreciated that?

  11. Interesting post, and I appreciate you explaining your reasons, though I’m afraid I just disagree with you all the more as a result. There are essentially two schools of fanfiction (and that is simplifying things to a very great degree): the school in which one writes fanfiction in order to participate in the community. Such stories are often raw, unpolished, and similar to blogging in that the voice is frequently more conversational, informal. The first few paragraphs of your post here seem to indicate you think all fanfiction is like this. I assure you, it is not, nor do I think pieces written with such intent should be nominated for the same award as works which have been polished and edited, both by the author and by others, works meant to stand more sturdily on their own.

    The thing is, there are works of fanfiction like that. Lots of them. That’s the other school of fanfiction, and many of us with objections to your nomination of “Arcana” are from that school, and are very, very tired of all of fanfiction being presented as though it belongs to the other school. Allow me to reiterate, it does not.

    Others have suggested works to you from this second school that might have served your stated purposes. There doubtless would still have been objections to a work of fanfiction being nominated at all, but at least you would have done so in the knowledge that the piece was created to the same technical standards as the pro works also nominated.


  12. Nominations come from all over. Anyone can nominate a work, and nominations remain anonymous and private. Who nominated what is not even visible to the jury.

    So… to repeat… again… I voted on a piece that someone nominated.

    And new nominations for this year’s award are welcome! There is a short web form for new nominations on the Tiptree site

  13. I have to admit my first reaction on hearing that an mpreg slash story had been longlisted for the Tiptree award was a giggle. Followed by the wry thought that I bet this was the nominator’s first encounter with mpreg fanfic, and she believed this was something new, unusual, and brilliant. Kind of like a literary critic getting all worked up and enthused over the fascinating and unusual idea of having the Earth invaded by technologically superior aliens who are brought down by a computer virus.

    I’ve never read the story that was nominated: it sounds (from description) like a fairly standard type of the genre, nothing especially unusual about it.

  14. Once Live Journal starts collapsing conversations I reach a point where I know the random order in which I’m finding and reading what’s said makes it less likely my impression of a conversation will be the same as that of someone else. So I tend to bail.

    One thing we can probably agree on is that more people need to think a bit more on what plagiarism is 🙂

    And, I think, that there are some really interesting things happening in fanfiction. Both the exchange of raw story stuff, of fantasies, as a kind of communal cement — and a semi-subversive reappropriation of cultural icons into personal artworks (otherwise known as ‘nicking characters we all know and using/abusing them to demonstrate my creativity’).

    But I had/have the luxury of wishing for the longlisting to have been a piece where the conversation might have stayed focused on those interesting things, and being frustrated about that, rather than had/having to consider the real world compromise thing 🙂

  15. I’d like to congradulate you for supporting Arcana to be on the long list. If nothing else, it jolted our sometimes insular and staid community into real passionate discussion.

    On Monday at Wiscon, Cassandra Elinor Amesley presented a paper on the differences between academic, literary, genre, and slash fiction writing expectations and cultures. I’d like to give you a link to her work, but I can’t. The expectations of slash readers are very different from those of SF&F readers and almost diametrically opposed to the literary fiction world. After learning about the tropes of slash fiction (and literary fiction) I reached the blindingly obvious conclusion that if SF&F writing expands or explores our understanding of gender, then it deserves Tiptree consideration.

    I wonder how many of those who object to Arcana are reacting more to the idea of slash and MPREG than the story itself.

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