What fanfic means to me: an attempt
Judi starts a series of interviews with writers this week. Today her guest was Hedgeypig, whose Lucas fic, “Love & Anger” (on DF) I’ve read something like three dozen times. I wish she would finish “Just a Kid” (!). I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.
I was thinking last night, before I fell asleep, about the reasons why this incident bugged me so much. I was angry because I saw it as a repeated instance of a particular person putting up obstacles to the creativity of others. But I think the creativity issue is tied up with other stuff that is equally important. Explaining this stuff gets to the issue of why I like fanfic, and I have a hard time writing about that, mostly because it’s potentially revealing of me in all the wrong ways. If writing fanfic can be understood as a way to develop the self, discussing fanfic ends up feeling to me like jeopardizing my identity. I’ll try to get it down here in its basics, though, so I can let go of this issue, at least for the present. And maybe articulating this will let me write more about fanfic than simply saying I like it, or interviewing authors of pieces I particularly like.
Fanfic to me is such a fascinating genre because, at least ideally, nothing stands in the way of an author’s desire for the fictional universe of one’s choice except one’s own skill. You can write whatever you want. The genre doesn’t really have rules; or, to every rule we find a significant exception. Some readers hate OOC characters, some love them; some readers insist on canon fictions, while others love familiar characters in alternate universes; even the much-maligned Mary Sue attracts some fans. (I’m always charmed when a Mary Sue reminds me of someone I know.) Every time I think I’ve plumbed the margins of fanfic and found everything there is to find I run into something new and intriguing. I don’t love it all — but even the stuff I dislike makes me think that a fanciful mind stands behind it with an inventiveness that makes me optimistic, even if stories are sometimes dark or dystopic. What if men could become pregnant? If Ma and Pa Ingalls were visited by Mr. Spock and all three were taken prisoner by Nazis? If Lucas North were Guy of Gisborne’s distant descendant? What if our rules were gone and our world were different? these authors seem to ask. Not every story is executed with equal skill, and poorly executed tales often languish for attention, but it seems that many things eventually finds an audience in a world where people are looking for that story that is going to pique their interest in whichever way is most personally meaningful. Almost every story holds some spark once it finds the right reader(s).
Because of this state of affairs, fanfic really is the literature of wish fulfillment, the place in which the world is as I will it to be, at least temporarily, or for experimental purposes, whether with benevolence or malevolence. And because the rules are so flexible, we assume a relationship with identity, that people put things into fanfiction that they want to see in their worlds. So it’s an interesting site to observe the building blocks of personal creativity as they relate to identity. Like many fandoms, Armitageworld seems to be populated with rather creative people, and these little pieces — the stories Richard Armitage acts out and makes us love despite our rational impulses or our moral scruples — become ingredients in our creative mix, building blocks that we can use not just to while away the hours passively watching, but also to fantasize about interacting with these manifestations of Armitage, which in turn allows us to think actively about alternative worlds, experiences, or fantasies we might construct. Just as I’ve developed and constructed my own identity as a writer, I’ve watched fanfic authors do that. Just as I’ve noticed that my own writing here has improved with time, I’ve really enjoyed following the development of an author’s creativity along with the stories she tells. I find myself cheering for the author as the storytelling and the prose get ever more professional, just as much as I find myself cathected to the fates of the characters she is orchestrating. In writing, we develop a firmer notion of who we are, even as we contest the definitions we create. What we want in fantasy is supposed to say something about us, all of the psychologists agree. In fanfic, we get a close glimpse at that. We see the wishes of the author, and we see the author growing as an artist, and we feel connected to him or her.
But the more intimate relationship between reader and author that derives from the feeling that we see an author more transparently in a fanfic than we might in “real” literature is precisely the attraction and the danger of the genre. Attractive, because it seems to reflect sincerity. If I read your fanfic, I assume things about you in a way that I don’t when I read the novels of William Styron. (This thought process is not any different with expository prose — people who read this blog also come to conclusions about me — but then again, I’m explicitly stating my opinions here. In the case of fanfic, the emotional connection of readers to characters who are well known to them, and to the authors who write those characters, is at least potentially stronger, I suspect, based on the apparent vulnerability of the writer who displays a fantasy she created for all to read.) I didn’t know William Styron and I don’t wish I had, though I adore everything of his I’ve ever read, especially his memoir of depression. And though he had a fantastic gift for creating worlds around Nat Turner and Sophie Zawistowski, I don’t assume that these worlds reflect his own wish fulfillment in a one-to-one relationship. It’s somehow different with fanfiction because the writers are already breaking so many rules. We assume that if they would or they could, they would choose conform to the generic and formal rules of prose, and write an “original” fiction, which stands in both higher artistic and pecuniary esteem, and so if they don’t, they can’t, and so the ways in which they don’t live up to the abstract standard indicate something important about them.
I think this notion is essentially false, but as a reader, I draw those conclusions, too. I’ve never met Angie in real life, but her fanfic makes me think she’s generous. I’ve never met khandy, but her fic makes me think she’s serious but also occasionally irreverent. I’ve never met Hedgeypig, but her fic makes me think she’s practically minded and perhaps, at times, uncomfortably direct. I know that some readers of this blog have concluded that I’m emotionally unstable — since they’ve taken the time to write! (Servetus pauses to wave cheerily at her critics.) All of these conclusions are serious projections that may or may not bear a relationship to reality. They are based on thinking about “what it would mean about me if I did / said that,” which is an inherently faulty reasoning strategy (as the subaltern critics of liberalism and discourse theory have pointed out — we can’t base a politics on the principle that I can make some definite project of what I would do if I thought I were someone else) but one that many of us, including me, engage in regularly. It’s true that in the last years I’ve frequently been close to collapse. But a reading that I, Servetus, am dangerously emotionally unstable, is based on the assumption on the part of the reader that if s/he were so open about her feelings and then poured them out on a page for others to read, it would indicate that s/he were unstable. That reading has nothing to do with the actual circumstances of my own life. Fiction, however, and the intimacy that we feel with the authors we read, make us forget that we lack significant contextual evidence for our interpretations of others’ lives and motives.
The danger comes — and again it’s a double-sided problem, I suppose — when precisely the intimacy that one feels with a fanfic author on the basis of her apparent sincerity gives rise to a reading of her work that becomes overly literal, when we assume too much about an author based on things she says or means metaphorically, when we extrapolate too heavily from our own experiences as we seek to understand. Ann Marie has referred to this problem before in a specific form that troubles me a great deal: the possibility that readers of a fanfic will draw conclusions about one’s own sexual preferences based on the type of sex one writes into a story. If it’s true that AnnieLucas’s fiction frequently takes up religious themes, does that mean she’s religious? If it involves a lot of French kissing, does that mean that she likes to French kiss? The vulnerability of fanfiction gives us the illusion that we can answer questions like this about fanfic authors even when we would rationally concede that we lack sufficient information to make a judgment.
It’s obvious, should we think about it for a second, that just as in “real” fiction, not everything in fan fiction is to be taken literally. It’s an interesting problem, how we decide to read a fiction (or any text) literally versus metaphorically, and I sometimes wonder if we look particularly closely at AU fictions and fixate on the most improbable or striking elements of the story as the clearest expression of wish fulfillment. But readers really struggle to read a few elements of fanfic in any way but the literal. Sex is one of these and violence is another. And we never know who’s reading and whether that reader will track us down when we express our approval. What this means is that really, if an author broaches these topics at all, we should laud her courage, because some readers are going to conclude that whatever the main element of the fiction is for the reader relates to some earnest statement on the part of the writer, and that statement is often interpreted as having to be literal. This is why I don’t publish the fanfic I write anywhere; it includes elements that, if read literally, could lead to what I would consider a frightening misreading of me and my identity. For this reason, as well, I experience great difficulty in giving comments on the fic of others that reveal more than either a technical or analytic approach to a story or a general enthusiastic thumbs up. If I say I love a fic that involves a rape, but don’t take the time to mention in my comment that I don’t condone sexual assault in real life, and someone sees that later, will they assume that I literally love assault? That I want to be assaulted myself? That I want to engage in assault of others? Will they realize that there’s a difference between enjoying reading or thinking about anything and actually doing it? I have read in spellbound fascination almost everything published in the twentieth century that involves a first person account of summiting Mount Everest, for instance, but anyone who knows me in real life would be falling over in paroxysms of laughter at the thought that I had any interest in actually doing it myself. Can a reader, about whom I know nothing when I publish, accept that her fantasies might be different than mine and suspend opprobrium over that at least long enough to close the window of the objectionable text? Or am I going to be subjected to troublesome misreadings that make me regret that I published anything in the first place?
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that what I write says nothing about me, only that the relationship is often much more complicated than a literal reading would suggest, and that insisting on the literal reading misses important aspects of what goes on as I write myself and my identity here. I’m not insisting that I am the only one who knows me or who can understand or define who I am. I’m also not saying that the literal reading of anything is always wrong or that everything is “only” metaphor — only that fictions are often much more complicated than they appear to be upon a first reading, and that whether we choose to read literally or metaphorically or both or neither is largely a contextual affair, while the Internet is a radically context-free place — which is precisely its charm, because I can construct myself as anything as long as I’m anonymous and keep the rules of my identity fairly inchoate. Imposing the context of one genre upon a text that’s clearly in another also involves a frightening misreading. This is the reason, incidentally, that many people don’t especially like to read didactic or propaganda novels: because all of the metaphorical levels of reading end up compressed when written or viewed through a frighteningly intentionalist literal lens. When fiction tells us how we are supposed to feel about or react to something, as readers, we naturally resist. “Show, don’t tell,” is a fundamental maxim of writing instruction. (It’s also a good strategy in academic lectures, incidentally.)
So I worry, if I tell you what I love about a particular fiction — which to me often comes down to something I call “the iconic moment,” a gripping image or narrative element that speaks to me on a deep personal level — I’ll destroy the entire experience of developing myself and writing here. First, because I make myself vulnerable to misreading of my intentions in discussing my love of something that you might find problematic. And second, because the reading that may be most important to me may conflict directly with the intentions of an author and cause strife for that reason. Here, for instance, are some fanfic moments that I find iconic, and that make me read again, and again, and again, sometimes for single paragraphs or sentences or even individual words. This is a non-inclusive list, so don’t be offended if your fic isn’t on here. These are just some that pop into mind immediately that involve either non-sexual or heterosexual themes with only two partners and no significant violence in the narrative itself, i.e., some examples that are relatively harmless for me to admit to liking:
- Angie, “Truce,” part 4: Layla feels Porter’s stubble grazing her shoulder as they sleep next to each other. [Explicit.]
- AnnieLucas, “The Christmas Wish“: Guy prays an intercessory prayer to the Virgin.
- Cat Winchester, “Return to Sparkhouse,” part 1: Lisa tells Kate that John Standring slept downstairs with an orphaned lamb so it wouldn’t feel lonely. [Explicit in later chapters.]
- KiplingKat, “So I Met John Porter,” part 10: John Porter installs bookcases in Kip’s apartment. [Explicit.]
- khandy, “The Gruinard Project,” part 16: Lucas makes love to Kate in his parents’ home and sleeps through the night. [Explicit.]
Now, first, what’s important to me about those specific moments occasionally contradicts the interpretive structure of the stories. My love of fanfic sex is not ever only about sex as a mechanism for arousal; some pwp fanfics arouse me, but others leave me completely cold. Often it’s a detail that gets me and stays in my brain; in khandy’s story, for instance, it’s the chiming of the grandfather clock in the parsonage where Lucas’ parents are living that I hear echoing throughout the remainder of the chapter. Often the detail that fascinates me (in KiplingKat’s story about Porter, for instance) is not something I interpret the way the author does; when Porter installs the bookshelves in her story, she writes of grace and power, whereas I find myself thinking about protection, care, and practicality when I imagine the scene she’s created.
If you consider this problem, you can see why I (and perhaps you?) would be reluctant to comment or intervene in some settings. The reader / writer relationship is a drastically fraught one, with numerous inherent pitfalls. It’s arguable, I think, that we need to keep in mind that all of these stories are fantasies built upon fantasies built upon fantasies. John Porter, for instance, is clearly a sort of Chris Ryan / Mary Sue variant, picked up and rewritten by a team of script writers, sold to Richard Armitage as a role, which he in turn remade into something a fair bit more sophisticated through his own contemplative interiority, and which we in our own turn view and then rewrite through the prisms of our own reception of that role in a variety of contexts that Chris Ryan and Richard Armitage certainly never envisioned. No single one of these version is definitive. There is no definitive John Porter, neither for the writer nor for the reader; there are only manifestations of him, Porters who are more or like different Porters who’ve been envisioned by different people in the process. John Porter, in other words, is a fantasy of a fantasy of a fantasy, with so many potentially metaphorical layers that it seems like a failure to interpret anything in any story involving him in a literal fashion. I’m not saying that nothing in Porter fiction should be read literally, but rather that if we are choosing to read literally something that is quite blatantly not literal and wasn’t, even from the beginning, we need to ask ourselves why those literal elements are so important to us and be a bit self-critical about insisting on the “reality” of an element in a story that is wholly fantasy and, dare I say, itself began as a sort of wet dream of an ex-Special Forces man in the first place. To say a reaction that John Porter has in a fanfic is unrealistic in real life is in my opinion ridiculous, since there’s no real life around any of this stuff. It is all fantasy. It all involves metaphor. It’s just a question of whether and to what extent authors and readers are willing to concede that. And when the metaphor relates to identity development, bullying and destructive criticism do much more harm than simply to our willingness to like a story or appreciate it as more or less realistic.
When I see interpretation based on what I see as misplaced literalism happening to someone else, as it did in the incident I described, I extrapolate back to myself, which may be wrong, but as I’ve outlined above, is a frequent interpretive strategy, and I see how the possibility that the sort of damage that’s being done to someone else’s identity and development would potentially affect me. I write here at least in part because I can say things, include things in my identity that don’t fit in my real life. I can’t tell my students I love fanfic and am obsessed with an actor; I can’t admit to my parents that I love to read explicit fiction about sex; I can’t talk to most of my colleagues about my religious preoccupations; I can’t talk to my Jewish friends about my lingering feelings about Christianity; and my parents literally walk out of the room if I try to discuss Judaism with them. I don’t think I have any friend or family member in real life who sees all of me. That’s a fundamental condition of modernity and it doesn’t make me worse off than anyone else, but that feeling can be lonely. Writing anonymously into the Internet allows me the fantasy that I can be all the things I am in one place, that I don’t have to disguise or hide pieces of myself. But experiences of interpretation on the Internet teach me that that the demands of some readers for consistency according to their own preoccupations will damage that writing of identity just as surely as hiding pieces of myself from the various people in my life sometimes does.
In the end, I suppose, I long desperately for a wholeness of identity that is probably impossible to achieve in the world as we know it. I see fanfic as a venue where authors get to practice or express their demands for a wholeness that reflects their needs for a universe that accounts for all of their desires. Those desires don’t all have to be interpreted literally. When I see the insistence that that the creative wholeness that authors are seeking be destroyed or dinged or rewritten at the behest of people who can’t see beyond the literal, I get angry. The Internet may not be a perfect atmosphere for integrating the self; in fact it may be no different than the real world in its insistence on consistency, standards, and morals, which are important in practice but which de-integrate conceptions of the self in punishing ways that we all experience all the time. Even so, if it has a chance to be a place where we can develop ourselves more fully, I for one seek to support that even if I don’t necessarily know if I will like all the outcomes of the process. What if our rules were gone and the world were different? is a question I want every fic writer to keep on asking. It may not just be personal creativity and identity at stake, but also the possibility for different understandings of the world that challenge our convictions about what we think we know or must be in meaningful and constructive ways.
What if we could be whole? Even if we can’t, I don’t want to lose the fantasy that we might, and that fictions take us an important step in that direction.
Thanks for your attention.