Confession: I’m a recovering snob. Music. Movies. Grammar—jeez, grammar. I had to enroll in a 12-step program to recover from my grammar snobbery. But most of all, I am—at my core—a literary snob. I don’t know when it started. Middle school maybe? But for years and years I’ve scoffed at genre fiction, at best sellers, at Oprah’s Book Club labels*. And where I knew it existed, I scoffed at fan fiction. So, I’m here to genuflect before you all. Throw fruit at me—I can take it. I want to be punished for my past snobbery. Because you know that saying I refer to in the title of this post—that a willing convert is more Catholic than the pope? Well. That’s me with fan fiction.
The first time I stumbled on a fanfic was 2004. I had no idea before then that it even existed. I was looking for Gilmore Girls episode spoilers and started reading something. At first, I thought it was a spoiler. Then I was like: What? But that doesn’t make any sense with last week’s episode. Why is that character back? What am I reading? *Realization dawns* Huh. Oh. Oooooh. *Snort* How pathetic.
My point in sharing this is that I know intimately what motivates those who tear down fan fiction: ignorance. There’s no other word for it. I don’t care if it’s the author of a work, the studio who shuts down fanvids, or armies of aspiring sci fi writers who think themselves superior because they create original characters. It’s all the same. It’s a basic misunderstanding of the function of fan fiction.
Basically the objections I’ve seen to fic tend to fall into a couple of categories.
1. It’s a copyright violation. Well. Who the hell knows if this is actually true. A fair number of informed sources seem pretty sure it’s protected by Fair Use, at least in the U.S. Internationally, it becomes murkier. All I can say about this is that I don’t feel like it’s a very compelling moral argument. I believe that creators should be protected by the law to the extent that they are able to make a living off of their ideas. Beyond that, I believe that information and ideas are free. And that limiting them in order to serve the imaginary profit margins of one or two people hurts the progress of culture. I don’t have a whole lot of revolutionary or well-thought-out ideas about this topic.
2. It’s a violation of authorial intent. This argument. Oh, it makes me laugh. And cry. I hate this argument so deeply that I have a hard time articulating myself. But let me try: I don’t give a fuck. How’s that for an explanation of my feelings? No? Not good enough? Okay. Let me try again. Writers, TV show creators, musicians, visual artists—these people are creating an object, or text, for consumption. Once an artist publishes/exhibits his work, the idea of his or her work no longer belongs to him or her. What this means is that someone cannot steal the words/images/sounds directly from a work without citing that work as the source. BUT one can respond to that work ANY WAY THEY SEE FIT.
Say that an author releases a book, for example, and a critic reads the book and, in a review, asserts that the main character in the book is a racist. The author can say, "Whoa, there, buddy. No he isn’t." But here’s the thing—the author's objection doesn’t matter. If the text doesn’t support the critic’s reading, the reading will be discredited without any help from the author. If the text does support that reading, then it’s a valid reading, and the character can be considered a racist regardless of the author's feelings on the matter. THE END. There is no room for discussion here.
What I’m saying is one of the primary truths of creation, and I know that it’s scary for creators. But I don’t care. Because if you don’t give—really give—the work to the audience, then what are you doing? You’re basically just making ice sculptures in your garage—laboring so that you alone will understand the beautiful object you create. You’re not letting anyone else ever really participate in, or know, the text.
Creation does give you a certain amount of control—but so does consumption. The audience gets to choose how they consume a piece. Denying them that is dictatorial. And, frankly, impossible. People will always see different things in works of art. This can be frustrating—but it’s also really beautiful. Think about it: People have been reading Paradise Lost for hundreds of years, and yet, unique ideas are conceived about it all the time. That’s fucking nuts, isn’t it? What, 700 pages, read millions of times by people over hundreds of years? You'd think there would only be so much to say. But there isn't. There's SO much to say. So much, we can never say it all.
So, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that once a work of art is released for consumption, the creator’s intent no longer matters. Or—I should amend that. What the author intends can be taken into consideration. Some critics are into that. I’m not. But whatever. I’ll admit that it can be interesting—the only level on which I appreciate Hemingway is in his intent, for instance. I know what his project was with his writing, and I find it to be a compelling idea. However, I hate hate hate the results. So, see. One doesn’t really affect the other. You can have your intent—you can voice your intent, but to a critical audience, it won’t matter. Your text is not solely the product of your intent. Part of the audience may be interested in what drove the creation of the text. They may want some insight into the process of creation—so they may want to learn about your intent for those reasons, and it may help them form some supplementary ideas about the text. But it is unlikely to influence their primary response.
So, in regards to fan fiction—you have created your text and given it to the audience. You cannot tell them not to see a sexual attraction between Kirk and Spock or between Harry and Ron or between Buffy and Faith. If the response is a valid reading of the text—other members of the audience will support (i.e. ship) it. If it isn’t, they won’t. Fan fiction is, in fact, just another medium of critical response. Some fic writers are fully aware of this and consciously incorporate criticism into their work; some do it subconsciously. But it’s pretty much always there. A fic is a way for an audience member to penetrate a text and deconstruct it a little bit. Whether it’s a full-season rewrite of a show from a minor character’s perspective, or a body-swapping fic that questions the gender roles in the original work—it’s analysis.
Now, I will fully cop to being a person who, in school, rolled my eyes when a classmate would ask if they could write a creative piece instead of an analytical essay. But fan fic has made me see that I might’ve been wrong about those classmates. They, in fact, may have been doing more bang-for-your-buck analysis than any of my critical essays were. Because with a fic, you can tackle basic questions of character and motivation and diction and theme AND you can still cover the big gender-role body-swap questions. Or the Buffy-season-3-from-Jonathan’s-
So. In short: As far as authorial intent goes—its influence ends when the text is published. The audience has freedom of consumption and freedom of response. Fan fiction is a critical response. Therefore it is a completely legitimate way to approach and digest a text. Actually, now that I think about it, this argument pretty much addresses complaint number 1 as well.
3. It’s of poor quality or too porny. Oh, please. Grow up and do some freaking research. There's TONS of well written fanfic. And... isn't it high time we had some decent porn? I don't understand how that could possibly be grounds to dismiss a story.
4. “Go hone your skills on original writing”/ “Use fan fic to hone your skills then write your own original stories.” This is not so much a complaint leveled directly against fan fiction as a response to a common defense of fan fiction. As true as it may be, and as well-meaning as those who make this argument are, I cannot stand reading people defend fan fic by saying that it’s a good way to learn how to write with a safety net. Likewise, I don’t like reading pitying, falsely sympathetic defenses that “just don’t understand why such talented writers waste their time on something that can never be theirs.” Arrrrg! HULK SMASH. Maybe I’m alone in this, but here’s how I read these “defenses”: Fan fiction is useful only as a workbook of sorts, the Hooked on Phonics of creative writing.
Listen up. I have absolutely no doubt that writing fan fic does in fact help writers hone their skills. But this argument completely invalidates fan fic as a critical response--which is what I consider it first and foremost. This argument and its counterpart, the “why don’t you poor kids change the names from Bella and Edward and try to get your little story published?” argument, are so condescending that I want tear out my hair when I read them. Not everything of value is created with the intent to make a profit. The idea that it is is infuriating on many levels that I don’t have time to get into here.
Additionally, these arguments and their condescending tone basically tell me that the person making them believes that critical response is not a creative act. Nor is it an act that contributes to our culture. To them, critical and responsive works are acts of parasitism. We are the vultures feeding off the carrion of actual artists. Well. I beg to differ. If everyone in the world “created” and no one ever responded to those creations, no one ever digested them, broke them down, re-acted to them—what would be the point of creating? If bad art and good art are essentially consumed in the same manner—since they each go completely uncriticized, undigested, unresponded to—what would be the point of, the impetus for creating good art? We’d be swimming a sea of creative detritus. Unable to distinguish something with potential value to society from something completely meaningless. But whatever—critics and those who respond to art and culture have no role in creating our cultural landscape—go ahead and tell yourselves that.
God. It's such a powerful idea. The influence that art has in creating communities--and the influence that we, the audience, have over art. That we don't have to just sit back and accept what is given to us. That we can take part in it. That we can create as much or as little as we need. That art isn't, actually, some object created by one or two or twenty people--that art becomes art when we consume it. When we take the nourishment from it that we need. Before then, it's inert. It belongs to one person alone--like a thought locked away in their head, never expressed. It doesn't move. It doesn't mean. It doesn't do anything. Until we make it do something. We the audience put it to work. We make it into a communion. A joining of the artist and the audience--a shared celebration of or lament over the human condition. And it's something we all need--artist and audience alike. It's the way that we can connect with each other--truly connect.
So, basically, I think that all of the complaints levied against fanfic are groundless. But in addition to that, I think there's something truly remarkable about what it represents as a genre: people who love art coming together--spontaneously joining together--to form a community to extend art outward into their lives. And, moreover, it's communities made up largely of women coming together to celebrate the place that art and creation has in their lives. Women. Women who felt marginalized by the media they loved. Ignored by the books, movies, and TV shows. Women who--even while they connected to the media, found value and meaning in it--felt betrayed and abandoned by it.
And so they reclaimed it. Shaped it into something for themselves and for others like them.
Because I'm generally of a melancholy disposition, I frequently think of a quote from the Heart of Darkness: "We live as we dream--alone." And, because of said melancholy disposition, I think that's true... But for art.
Art is like the wire in a circuit, connecting human battery terminals--sending waves of ideas and emotions traveling between them, through them. (I'm editing some physics right now at work, can you tell from my simile? ) It's the vessel, the conductor--the catalyst that cracks us open and allows us to pour out something of ourselves. It is a conversation--the original work is the question, and the fan fic is the audience's answer. It strengthens and supports the original work--it doesn't change it or work against it. It interrogates it, fills in cracks and gaps, winks at it, jokes with it. Loves it.
It gives something to the audience, and it gives something to the creator of the original work. Fan fic is the gift of criticism and support. It's the gift of communication. Conversation. Connection.
I could talk for a long, long time about how works of high art and literature have done this for each other throughout the years. How Manet's Olympia is based on Titian's Venus of Urbino. How T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" is a re-telling of the Fisher king legend. How Anne Sexton's Bedlam and Beyond collection is mostly retellings of fairy tales. How Yeats's "Secret Rose" is an homage to Blake's "Sick Rose." How no fewer than 20 respected writers and artists of various mediums have riffed off of Yeats's poems "Sailing to Byzantium" and "The Second Coming."
And I could talk about how the conversations between these works of art enrich them. They make the earlier work more valuable, not less. They emphasize both the universality and shifting sands of the human condition. But what's interesting is how these conversations between artists are seldom slapped down as copyright infringement or hamfisted thievery of ideas. Sometimes they are, but mostly they are given the gravity of consideration that they deserve.
But consideration doesn't just belong to some elite group of artists. It belongs to all of us. Language belongs to all of us. Ideas belong to all of us. Art belongs to all of us. So, the dismissal of the ideas and conversations and creations of thousands and thousands of people just because they don't belong to the elite? Well, that's just snobbery. And that's something I'm trying not to do so much anymore.
So, vote for me for fan-fic pope! I look good in a hat.
*For the record, I know that Oprah includes a lot of high literature in her club. But in the early days of the book club, there was a lot more chicklit--a genre that I looked down on, but am coming to realize that that is response rooted in the gender bias and snobbery.