Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sex, sloppy writing and the Vulcan salute: moving beyond stereotypes in fan fiction

FAN FICTION is to the literary world what Tasmania is to Australia. It’s a pocket ecosystem hidden ‘down under’ where some people visit and have a marvellous time while others don’t understand why it’s so cold and wet. Not that fan fiction is cold and wet. But it can be an unpleasant place full of soggy, bastardised versions of much-loved classic texts.
Taking a text—be it a film, book, comic, play, musical or television show—and playing with its world and characters to create new stories is hardly new. Fan fiction is part of a grand tradition dating back to the likes of Homer and the Iliad. To a fan fiction writer, the Iliad is Real Person Fiction (or RPF) in the same way Cameron from Oklahoma’s RPF about Molotov taking over the Soviet Union after Stalin died is. Both used real people, places and events as catalysts to tell fictional stories. Epic poem or not.
Fast forward a few millenniums and we have Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a parallel narrative of Jane Eyre; Geraldine Brook’s March, which tells the story of Little Woman from the point of view of an absent character; Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which has, well, zombies in it, and is what readers call Alternative Universe (or AU) by virtue of placing characters in non-canon contexts. Then there’s My Fair Lady, a fix-it musical of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and Pretty Woman, a twisted AU of My Fair Lady.
Popular culture is riddled with fan fiction. Only it isn’t called fan fiction. To the ‘mainstream’, fan fiction is a dirty word interchangeable with soft porn and wannabe writers, a copyright minefield, and supposedly a sub-culture full of social misfits obsessed with make-believe stories. With dull writing on one side and erotica on the other, fan fiction has little space to move to boost its image. And that’s only scratching the surface. Because fan fiction is one of the most prevalent manifestations of fandom, it gets all the whips and lashings attached to notions of ‘the fan’.
In a 1986 Saturday Night Live skit during peak Star Trek mania, William Shatner told a room of geeky fans sporting Spock ears and thick, black-rimmed glasses, “It’s just a TV show! Get a life!” He was only half-joking. Shatner’s notion of ‘the fan’ as someone with “excessive or mistaken enthusiasm” (courtesy of Oxford Dictionary) is prolific in pop culture. Former New York Times columnist Julie Burchill calls it the “fan in the attic” stereotype. In a Bogart-esque thriller, CSI-like cop show or Sherlock-inspired detective novel it’s only a matter of time before the crazy, obsessed fan makes an appearance as one of the “usual suspects” for the commission of crime. All from a word that in its Latin translation means a “devotee” to the temple. Ouch.
Some fans are crazy, but craziness isn’t a derivative of fandom, and the connection is largely overstated. Erotic stories about werewolves, vampires, bodice-busting women and men with washboard abdominals all exist in their varying forms of tastelessness in fan fiction. There’s also badly written stories that somehow find their way from a year nine creative writing project to a “how Romeo feels when he finds Juliet lying in the family crypt” monologue in broken iambic pentameter. But both can be avoided and, realistically, the sex and the semi-illiterateness of some readers get a disproportionate amount of attention. That is if fan fiction gets media attention at all—which it often doesn’t. It’s the bastard child in the corner no one in literary circles likes to talk about.
All hope is not lost, however, and it’s probably only a matter of time before tongues start wagging given the prolific growth of fan fiction communities internationally. Fan fiction had its popular re-birth in the 1990s with the dawn of the Internet, and hasn’t stopped growing since. Communities popped up over the interwebs, making the slow, costly and labour-intensive fanzines that traditionally connected fans, obsolete. Texts with a short shelf life could now live forever in the minds and digital words of fan fiction’s online forums. Two decades later and the community has grown from a few thousand to a few hundred million. alone, one of the largest fan fiction archives, has over half a million Harry Potter stories; some with thousands of individual reader reviews. Considering the number of readers who don’t review or write their own work, monthly site traffic figures regularly hits a cool six million.
Australians make up a significant chunk of that figure. A study of users last year found we have the fourth most member accounts on the site, after the US, UK and Canada. That means chances are your partner, siblings, children, friends or workmates may read fan fiction. They might even write it.
Whether they’ll tell you or not, though, is another matter entirely. It’s common for authors to keep their fan fiction habits on the quiet, despite the growing number who get published. In the fan fiction community, self-publishing is a popular practice. Aspiring novelists use places like Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s CreateSpace and to produce print and online editions of their work. For popular fan fiction writers with large followings it can also turn a profit., for one, offers authors an 80/20 revenue split.
Other fan fiction writers, like Meg Cabot, have hit the big time. Cabot wrote Star Wars fan fiction as a “tween” and later went on to become the author of best-seller-turned-Disney-movie The Princess Diaries.
Before fan fiction-ers get to either of those points, though, fan fiction forums can be a good place to help novelists develop their writing skills. A good chunk of fan fiction writers ‘cut their teeth’ playing with other people’s characters and benefit from the mentorship of the fan fiction community. Older writers often act as ‘betas’ for younger, inexperienced writers by sub-editing their work and helping to brainstorm ideas.
Others find the practice of writing without the pressure of deadlines or the need to be published an effective way to free up creative juices for original works. Dana Jenks, as she is known to the fan fiction community, writes Phantom of the Opera fan fiction between working as a high school music teacher and composing an opera (Disclaimer: I am the beta for her work, “Sunset”). She finds the feedback from readers a helpful motivational boost but also a good testing-ground for ideas. “I’m interested in learning what makes a story work musically and gaining insight into the minds of music-loving fans,” she says. “Fan fiction is a giant playground where it is fun to experiment without much risk… and I can observe readers’ responses to every step of the writing process.”
While some writers use fan fiction to work towards artistic goals, others use it for pure enjoyment. For Albert, reading sci-fi fan fiction is like reading a good book (Albert, due to some of the dubious notions of fan fiction readers, wants to remain semi-anonymous). He says it’s a hobby that “relieves stress, stimulates the mind, and improves professional productivity”. By professional productivity, Albert means working as a classical pianist, recently graduating from Harvard with a degree in biology and currently studying law at Yale. (What was that about fans needing to “get a life,” Shatner?) Albert’s a busy man but fan fiction is what helps him unwind. The appeal of fan fiction lies in its ability “to explore the possibilities and ideas that other authors haven’t explored yet” in his favourite texts. It’s asking the ‘what if’, the ‘why now’, the ‘what next’.
Pondering what lies to the left of the camera or off the page, mentally picking away at gaps in a good book or threads of a story arc abandoned in a television show is what humanity does best. It’s human nature to poke and prod at the poles of human experience. What makes Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead different from Jo Blo’s re-telling of Wuthering Heights through the eyes of Cathy can be whittled down to the quality of ideas and writing. This, admittedly, can be a vast disparity for reader enjoyment. But, the action of the mind, of thinking beyond what audiences are served up in a creative text, is the same. It’s human curiosity. It’s the desire to learn about yourself and others from the texts you read. In a word, it’s storytelling.
“Storytelling is the most basic sapience of humanity. We were storytellers before we were anything else,” says Caitlin Kenny, a performance studies major at the University of Sydney. Caitlin thinks the attraction to tell stories online stems from the liberating nature of the Internet. “The Internet is this happy, faceless world where people can be very open and intimate with people they don’t know, and share opinions and fantasies about characters that by all rights they are embarrassed to be obsessed with,” she says. Obsession seems an odd word when Caitlin says it with such warmth.
In the world of fan fiction, obsession comes from the desire to be accepted, Caitlin says. Writers insert their own values, romantic interests and personalities onto characters and plot scenarios when crafting stories. Caitlin’s poison of choice is Doctor Who fan fiction and the relationship between the Doctor and River Song. Caitlin has battled in many a heated argument on fan forums about why River, and not Rose, is the Doctor’s true love. The reason why hits closer to home. “[River] is beautiful, but she’s a size 12 and sexy, and the Doctor finds her attractive. I like that because it feels like my life is legitimised with my beautiful, English boyfriend,” she says.
When thinking about it that way, they’re not imaginary characters at all. Imaginary characters have always stood-in for real life characters. A good book is not simply so because of the ‘good’ writing. What makes a text appealing is the life lessons, the individual meaning, and relevance people find in stories to their own lives. For Caitlin, reading and writing Doctor/River fan fiction is a legitimising, cathartic process for her own life choices.
There will always be Rose crusaders and River advocates at war with one another, says fan fiction academic, Joseph Brennan, because of the different ways people read and respond to texts. “In the process of reading, you rewrite the text,” he says, so Doctor Who can mean something entirely different to someone else because of the thousands of individual contextual factors shaping their response. Joseph is an academic fan (or aca-fan as coined by seminal US media professor, Henry Jenkins) half-way through his PhD on fan fiction at the University of Sydney. Far from intellectual junk food, Joseph argues that fan fiction is a useful anthropological study that reveals a great deal about society and the way it makes meaning.
One such way society makes meaning, and the focus of Joseph’s research, is what the fan fiction community calls slash. That is, the ‘queering’ of stories to reflect homosexual elements. In the slash community, Joseph says engagement becomes an exercise in asserting power and reclaiming a text to reflect the sexual diversity found in society. “When I consume texts I look for gaps, and by looking for those gaps you find problematic representations,” he says. Dean’s homophobic characterisation in Supernatural is a case point for Joseph. “Dean regularly cracks gay jokes on the show, but, by reclaiming Dean [through fan fiction] I can fix a lot of the negative stereotypes he projects,” he says.
In the process of then sharing these stories with others in the community, fan fiction can act as a support network for those who may not find acceptance in wider society. By allowing characters the happiness that is denies in the canon, writers and readers can share in a semblance of their happiness. “It’s quite personal,” he says.
Much can be learnt from this underground literary genre. Firstly, no text is safe. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable depending on who you’re talking to. Readers love it; the original authors aren’t such big fans. We also know sweeping brush strokes do the subgenre little credit. There’s sex, there’s badly-written poems, but there’s also engaging and insightful work that takes characters on thrilling journeys. And, let’s face it, readers and writers don’t walk around in inter-galactic spacesuits giving the Vulcan salute. They have “a life,” thanks Captain Kirk.
At the end of the day, people ‘get’ different things out of fan fiction. It may not always be ‘good’ by literary standards but there are so many other, arguably equally valid, values other than what the English textbook taught us in high school. For some, it’s the English class they never had, a sex-ed teacher, a stress reliever, a friend, a voice for the disempowered. It’s a community and it’s storytelling. Iliad or not. Published or not. Profitable or not. The value lies in what you make of it. As’s motto says, “unleash your imagination” and make of it what you will.

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