Monday, October 9, 2017

Before you dismiss fan fiction, consider this...

"It's like someone writing Star Trek fanfic."

That quip is from the comments section on an article about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery. Now in all fairness, I have not seen the show so I cannot speak to its quality or perhaps lack thereof. What's prompting me to blog tonight is that comment. Its author did not mean it as a compliment (shocker.) In a hurry to gleefully rip the new show, he tangentially smeared an entire genre of writing.

Fan fiction, I believe, actually serves an important cultural and rhetorical function.

Fan fiction, or "fanfic" as it is often abbreviated, is any writing based on an already established work of fiction, most often movies or TV. Stories based on properties such as Star Trek or Star Wars are probably the most prevalent, but you can find fanfic derived from the most obscure fictional universes. I personally have written fanfic based on my favorite b-movie, Green Slime...something maybe three other people in existence might be interested in. This kind of writing has been around for a long while, but the Internet given access and connection to so many writers and readers of the genre that it has almost become commonplace.

Exploring all the various flora, fauna, and subgenres of fan fiction, such as fusion, episode fixes, slash, wish fulfillment, and so on, would take multiple blog posts. I hate linking to Wikipedia, but if you want to know more about these subgenres, check out this rundown. Better yet...go read Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins and The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context by Sheenagh Pugh. They are probably the finest Comp/Rhet scholars on the subject.

Fan fiction is much maligned. It has the reputation of being truly awful writing done by slovenly types who still live in their parents' basement and sit behind their computers, either writing self-indulgent works rooted in their own favorite commercial properties or posting nitpicking comments on someone else's writing, attempting to act as a gatekeeper or "genre constraint enforcer" by schooling the author on what is and isn't "canon." Obviously there's some of that. The Internet is an inherently democratic medium and any time you open the gates that wide, you're going to get a fair share of trash. You are also going to get good work as well. Axiological arguments don't matter to me, though. That's because I believe there are two far more important things happening when people write fanfic.

First of all, people are writing. I mean, they are actually choosing to write. As a professor who has sometimes struggled to get students to string two words together or has lamented the devaluation of the written word, I think this is extraordinary. No one sits down to write unless they feel exigency. There is something inside them and they must get it out through writing. What's more, they are doing it without any realistic hope of attaining those two most American goals: fame and fortune. They're doing it simply because they want to. I don't care what is prompting someone to write this way. I'm just glad that it's happening. When I taught at St. Joe, I heard tell of a small underground of Harry Potter fanfic writers and the thought of it always made me smile.

Secondly, there is something so human going on. People are reclaiming their agency, their authority, their right to contribute to myth. Here's what I mean.

Someone could tell an assembled audience that they are going to read their own version of Jack and the Beanstalk. The storyteller might get a couple arched eyebrows, but likely nothing more than that and would be permitted to read on. If that same said storyteller were to say "I am going to read you my Batman story," the reaction might be different. "How are you qualified to write Batman?" "Do you work for DC Comics or Warner Brothers?" "That's a copyrighted property, you know. It doesn't belong to you."

Myths did not used to belong to only select collectives of the population. Everyone was involved in creating them. Everyone. It was an organic occurrence, involving everyone who either told the stories as oral tradition or wrote them down. The idea that someone had ownership over them would have seemed almost laughable in ancient Greece or Rome. Once business got more and more involved, that all changed of course.

Fan fiction takes away that spurious requirement of being "credentialed" before you are free to write a story. Selling the story and profiting from what began as someone else's creation, well that's something else entirely in our day and age and it really isn't a good idea. The pure act of writing the text however, that's something fundamental to our nature and no external authorities can keep that down for long.

You want to write a Harry Potter story? Do it. And do it in any way that you want to do it. Feel bad because it's not "your own?" Don't. Here's one comment I saw from a fanfic writer that really puts the matter in perspective:

"Sometimes I think I should be doing my own writing. Then I remember...I already am."

By the way, I once wrote a paper on myth and fanfic. Even presented it at a conference. I thought about expanding the paper and trying to publish it, but honestly there's nothing I could say that Jenkins and Pugh haven't already.

Why bother?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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