Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In Praise of Fanfiction

Margery Kempe, history's first
fanfiction writer
As an undergraduate, I once had a creative writing class with a guy who wrote science fiction. I have no complaints about genre writing; of the three manuscripts I workshopped that semester, two of mine were also science fiction. But this guy’s stories were based on video games. This was easy to tell with one story, where the entire plot turned on monsters jumping out from behind furniture and yelling “Boo.” He admitted the second manuscript was the backstory for his online role-playing game character.

Ordinarily, I’d pay such people no mind, besides warning then to recognize the difference between differing media while writing. First-person shooter games reward simple, repetitive action, while RPGs favor exploration and exposition over action and dialog. Pick your medium, and stick with it. But I spoke with our teacher later, who informed me that, because this one student had serious problems with what she called “fanfiction,” she forbid any genre writing in future semesters.

That’s where I have a problem. Because fundamentally, I understand what this guy wanted to do. He had joined what USC professor Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture,” a niche that includes not only fan fiction, but fan conventions, cosplaying, RPGs based on popular franchises, and other reciprocal creation. Audiences have never been entirely satisfied simply, passively receiving their favorite stories from the dream factories that create them. They’ve always wanted to join the creation.

In my pre-internet youth, I usually had no idea such participatory culture existed. Sure, I played with action figures, and schoolyard games involved adding to the canon of TV shows. We kids loved recreating Voltron episodes, and sometimes came near blows over who played the Black Lion. Looking back, it’s funny how the kids wearing football jerseys and recreating Monday night’s scrimmage lines were considered school heroes, but students trading hand-drawn Star Wars comics were “losers.”

But dedicated fan culture went much further. Mimeographed fan magazines, including fiction based around popular franchises like Star Trek, were frequently hand-distributed at conventions and circulated among friends. Burgeoning digital technologies made distribution of fan-made works more practical, and formerly narrow fan networks began trading stories globally. Continuing stories like James Cawley’s Star Trek: New Voyages, or Nicholas Briggs’ Doctor Who spinoff Auton received international distribution.

It’s easy for cultural snobs and university professors to dismiss fan creations as “mere” juvenilia. Better writers would naturally create original works, duh. But this hasn’t always been so. Well-respected writers have long attached their creations to existing works. Some have called English Christian mystic Margery Kempe a writer of fanfiction for inserting herself into New Testament narratives. Surely the tradition is older, as many scholars consider certain New Testament epistles later imitations of Saint Paul.

Promo poster from James Cawley's
Star Trek: New Voyages
Only with the rise of affordable print technology and widespread literacy did originality become something desirable in literature. When only limited resources existed for distribution of written material, originality was regarded as theft from the common store. Why bother creating something new, when you could better spend your time hand-copying the important works of bygone masters? Until the Industrial Revolution, works like “innovation” and “newfangledness” were deployed as insults.

Fanfiction writers don’t merely derive from existing works. They attempt to join an ongoing discussion, adding to the experience. And certainly, James Cawley’s episodes will never have the arching influence the original Star Trek had, particularly as his distribution license with Paramount forbids him showing a profit. But for an intimate circle of fans, such new content deepens the experience, particularly because in creating, they more wholly immerse themselves in the act of sharing.

In graduate school, I read research indicating that teachers could broaden students’ subject understanding by having them write new material within the subject. In sciences, this could mean creative writing about a discipline: deepening students’ grasp of sociology, for instance, by having them write from the perspective of someone from another race, sex, and nationality. In literature, writing “continuations” brings students into the process. I didn’t understand A Raisin in the Sun until writing a scene where Beneatha packs her belongings.

I remember telling a Freshman Comp student that art becomes art, not because we appreciate it, but because we have a relationship with it. And when we have a relationship with something, we want to return our feelings. We want that give-and-take with friends, spouses, children. Art is no different. If we passively receive it, and create new work only at right angles, we have missed the opportunity for true reciprocation with what we love.

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