Friday, January 21, 2011

Fan Fiction as a Reclamation of Authority in Writing and Myth-Making

This is the abstract and the introduction to a paper I recently wrote on theory and fan fiction.

    This paper examines the phenomenon of fan fiction, the writing of fiction based upon an already existing work of film, television, books, or other media, in terms of how writers and discourse communities appropriate myth, contribute to it, alter it, and circumvent recently emerged political authorities in doing so.  Ultimately, I argue that the reclamation of authority in the writing of fan fiction is an inevitable re-emergence of shared writing, storytelling, and myth generation, unable to be hindered by any outside political forces.

[1]    It is not unheard of for a teacher or other adult to address a gathering of children by saying, “I am going to read you the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.”  However, were the same adult to offer, “I am going to read you my story of when Batman ran for president,” the storyteller might be met with a fair amount of skepticism.  Did this story really happen in the movies, cartoons, or the comic books (i.e. is it part of the “canon”)?  By what authority does this person tell the story?  Is she a writer for any of the Batman media?  What does she know about Batman that entitled her to write this story?
[2]     Such questions would more than likely not be asked of a denizen of ancient Sumeria who wished to tell others of the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Myths and tales of civilizations such as those of ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, or even those as recent as bards’ tales in medieval Europe, were considered communal and without ownership.  As stories became published in books, read over radio, shown in cinemas, and broadcast over television, the concept of ownership, tied in primarily with the rights to economic profit, became one of critical consideration for writers.  Those writers who write stories based on such owned canons without expressed permission are engaged in the act of writing fan fiction.  What follows in this paper is my contention that the writing of fan fiction is reclamation of a writer’s right and authority to contribute to a discourse community acting in the continuous generation of myth.
[3]    First, let us examine just what defines “fan fiction” or “fanfic” as it is sometimes abbreviated.  Fan fiction, as outlined by Sheenagh Pugh in The Democratic Genre, can be defined as “writing based on a canon invented by another writer or writers and shared by the intended audience.”1   While the term “fan fiction” may be relatively new, the act of writing it is not.  Homer selected and discarded Greek myth to suit his needs in writing both The Iliad and The Odyssey.  John Milton took the written stories of The Bible to create Paradise Lost.  William Shakespeare borrowed generously from folktales, Greek myth, and from the archives of history itself (e.g. Julius Caesar, Macbeth).  Chaucer did much the same with The Canterbury Tales.  These are but a few of many authors who incorporated this practice into their work.  This is to be expected as no text exists in a vacuum and the writer is always already confronting previous authorship, the “ever-expanding archives” that Derrida speaks of.  A writer generates a fresh text only after coming into contact with previous texts in the epistemology.  Harold Bloom takes this assertion of Derrida and phrases it this way: “What Derrida calls the scene of writing is really the trespass of teaching.”2 Furthering this thought, Bloom expresses the writer’s act of reinvention and re-articulation in regard to poetry:
“Poems, I am saying, are neither about ‘subjects’ nor about ‘themselves.’  They are necessarily about other poems; a poem is a response to a poet, or a person to his parent.  Trying to write a poem takes the poet back to the origins what a poem first was for him, and so takes the poet back beyond the pleasure principle to the decisive initial encounter and response that began with him.”3
As Norman Fairclough would say, perhaps more succinctly, “the new is made out of a novel articulation of the old.”4   Nothing could be truer of fan fiction.
[4]    Dean Kiley, professor of new media production at Swinburne University, has narrowed the origin of fan fiction proper to the mid-20th Century.  Kiley argues that it was the proliferation of the mimeograph machine that allowed for writers to write and then mass distribute their texts: “The ‘zine, the do-it-yourself, deliberately crude, thrown-together, these-are-my-obsessions-what-are-yours personalized magazine revealed a lively consumer eager to dismember mass culture and might be viewed as fanfic’s most direct ancestor.”5
[5]    In the contemporary setting, writers of fan fiction often post their writing to the web sites of large online fan fiction discourse communities.  Members of the discourse community are then free to read the stories and post their own thoughts and criticisms on the piece.  In doing so, the readers of the stories are expected to be every bit as well versed in the canon of fan fiction’s subject matter as the writer is.  As Pugh illustrates: “In an age of fragmented rather than shared cultures, the fan fiction audience is unusual in having as thorough a knowledge of its given shared canon as a Bible-reading or classically educated audience once did.”6   What is more, the readers have a wide range of intentions to consider when reading a writer’s text, intentions that are unique to fan fiction.  In addition to simply telling a new story within the canon or extending a new tale to the given mythos, a writer may have the intent of establishing a romantic relationship hitherto unseen between characters in the canon.  This is known as “slash fiction,” such as “Potter/Snape” in the Harry Potter discourse community.  The viewer of a television series may become displeased with the outcome or the delivery of a particular episode.  This viewer may then take to writing how she would rather have seen the episode play out.  This form of fan fiction is known as an “episode fix.”   Also, the writer may wish to alter the canon altogether, writing about things that never happened in the set mythos save for in the author’s own imagination.  For example, a story about the Fantastic Four where the main characters receive super powers entirely different from those stated in canon as a result of their journey into space. 
[6]    While intention is a consideration for the fan fiction reader, it is the motivation to write that we are concerned with here.  As stated previously, fan fiction mostly involves writing about characters and settings that are the property of someone else.  Unlike Shakespeare or James Joyce’s appropriations of Greek myth and other such texts for their own work, the writer of the aforementioned Fantastic Four story is generating text based upon characters and themes owned by Marvel Comics and thereby The Disney Corporation.  These political and economic entities would be swift in preventing the author from reaping any form of monetary or any other tangible benefit from these stories.  Yet there are thousands of fan fiction authors currently engaged in the act of writing these stories and posting them online.  If there is no money to be made and no mass fame to be gained, two primary motivating factors in American society, then why is the writing taking place?  In the next section I will examine these motivating factors and how they relate to the continuing generation of myth.

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