THEIRS FOR THE TELLING
Updated: Jan 15, 2021
Today’s my first anniversary as a qualified proofreader, and in one short year I’ve encountered more subgenres of fiction than in my fifteen years as an English teacher. Early in the lockdown I had the pleasure of proofreading what I only later discovered was called ‘Cosy Crime’, and while I turned down a few examples of alien–human erotica, I seized the opportunity to work on a Regency time-travel romance (which for this confirmed Janeite was an utter delight!). Now that I’ve well and truly gone down the indie rabbit-hole, I’m emerging in a world where cli-fi is a thing and counter-Lovecraft and Bangsian fantasy are established genres. My literary horizons have been well and truly broadened – with no complaints!
During the first lockdown, when I suddenly found myself responsible for homeschooling a 6-year-old, I thought a lot about fiction genres. With long hours to fill, and fighting a losing battle against the lure of the screen, I felt that if I could just figure out what might capture my daughter's imagination, all would be well and she would magically become a bookworm. Fairy stories, My Little Pony spin-offs, classic tales, graphic novels, Goosebumps-style horror, 1950s boarding school stories, 1980s choose-your-own-adventures – we tried the lot, and eventually, having been introduced to Neil Gaiman's Fortunately the Milk, she found her foothold in fantasy. She now declares herself a 'Gaiman fan' and demands daily that we check whether he has written anything new ('as long as it has pictures'). As someone who once spent two hours queueing up to get my copy of Neverwhere signed by the genre master himself, I can identify with that kind of obsessive desire to discover everything and everything produced by an artist we admire – the moment when we move from consumption to fandom.
While my daughter is a little young for it just yet, I WISH I’d known about fanfiction (gay or otherwise!) when I was a teacher and facing the same kinds of struggles with my students. For the uninitiated, fanfiction is any fan-produced writing that uses, interweaves, or subverts existing fictional settings or characters drawn from movies, TV shows or novels to create new and unique stories. These are usually shared online rather than published in the traditional sense, although there have been some mainstream breakthroughs, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Like all fiction writing, it fulfils a need for self-expression, but a key element within fanfiction is arguably wish-fulfilment – how many people do you know who called for a re-write of the ending (or even the entire final season!) of Game of Thrones, for example? Fanfic writers would write it themselves (and probably have!).
For all I know, my students may have been beavering away in secret, writing Buffy–Harry Potter mashups while I was busy banging on about Dickens – and as a result missing a myriad of opportunities to connect with them through the cultural touchstones they were invested in. I used to spend hours obsessively researching the Young Adult bestseller lists so that I could keep the book box ‘current’, but nevertheless there was always that student I couldn’t reach or fully enthuse. I wonder how many of them might have found a way into reading if I’d pointed them in the direction of their laptops instead of the library. And if the most recalcitrant readers couldn’t find anything to interest them on fanfiction.net, they might at least have realised that there was nothing stopping them writing for themselves the stuff they really wanted to read.
Over the past year, working with indie authors developing new angles on traditional genres has been eye-opening, and I’ve revised many of my English teacherish opinions of what ‘qualifies’ as literature. I’ve always thought I was open-minded about this, having written many self-righteous essays as an undergraduate celebrating the ways in which female, black and gay writers subverted the male, pale and stale canon of literature, only to become a conduit of a school curriculum that entrenches that self-same canon. Working in international schools in the IB programme, I had more opportunities to introduce students to 'world literature' but I returned to the UK to find that the GCSE and A-Level set lists had still barely changed since the 1990s. I’m starting to feel that fanfiction has sprung up out of dire necessity, and may be speaking to the same impulses as those postmodern iconoclasts: the urge to re-imagine the world in a way that includes you, and to speak in your own language. There is something genuinely inspiring about gay and trans teenagers, who rarely see themselves reflected in the curriculum, affirming their existence by re-making their beloved fictional universes in their own image. Of course, the controversy (there always seems to be one!) lies in the notion that fanfiction somehow degrades rather than celebrates the exalted original. I think that a lot of the snobbery around fanfiction could stem not just from traditional ideas of the artist as producer and the ‘fan’ as passive consumer, but also from the fact that fanfic is predominantly associated with teenage girls. The mythology of fandom since the 1960s has portrayed teenage girl fans of all media, from pop music to movies, as being emotionally incontinent and, well, just a bit silly. How could a hysterical or obsessive fan produce anything of artistic merit? We're led back to well-worn arguments around 'high' and 'low' art, but in my view, if there is room in our cultural landscape for commercial fiction such as Mills & Boon and Regency time-travel romance, isn't there also a valid place for fanfiction? Being shared on the internet among other appreciative fans, rather than published for monetary gain, could fanfic even be somehow more 'pure' as a form of self-expression, even if we're not prepared to admit it to the category of 'art'?
Perhaps the most damning charge faced by fanfiction writers is that of plagiarism or of stealing intellectual property. I’m reminded of what Neil Gaiman said when he was asked (by a fan) about this:
I think it’s really interesting that Gaiman’s interlocutor says ‘that’s not how stories get told’. From the early 20th century, when Marcel Duchamp's 'L.H.O.O.Q' reproduced the Mona Lisa, through to the sampling of other genres of music by rap and house artists from the 1980s onwards, the discourse of art theory has accepted and even celebrated the tendency of artists to appropriate, borrow or pay homage to the art that has gone before, in the way that Gaiman admits to doing with Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft. Perhaps Zoot is a purist who values originality above all else, and it may be that we need to look to artists of a higher stature than rappers and French Dadaists to demonstrate 'how stories get told' – someone like Shakespeare perhaps? Well, I guess Shakespeare, who famously borrowed the plot of Romeo and Juliet (with several tweaks) from the poet Arthur Brooke, didn’t get that memo. Brooke’s narrative poem, ‘The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet’, was itself a borrowing from a French translation of a tale by the Italian Matteo Bandello. This shapeshifter of a story was remade in terms of language, plot and character at each pass; not only that, it switched its textual form from prose to poetry and then to drama. I’d argue that to find the true precursor to fanfiction we might have to go back even further than this, all the way back to the oral tradition. Stories have always been told as re-tellings. If anything, renowned 20th century borrowers like T.S. Eliot were late to the party!
To wrap up these musings, I personally think anything that opens up debate about the nature of 'high' and 'low' art and the role of literature in our culture can only be A Good Thing – and even if all fanfic has done is to provide a creative outlet to disaffected young people, all power to it. Of course, what hasn’t been explored here is the question of the quality of artistry and execution, or indeed whether individual fanfiction authors actually want their writing to be viewed as a work of literature or simply an expression of fandom – but it's hard to see why Carol Ann Duffy’s reworking of Greek myth through the female voice can be considered a valid creative and imaginative endeavour, if devising a entirely new universe in which Star Wars characters encounter Spock and James T. Kirk is not? I'm still not sure it's 'art', or even 'literature', but I'm looking forward to fighting this out with my daughter when she's old enough to go down that rabbit-hole!
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