Where the Wind Blows: The Matter of Authorship
Geoffrey: Ah, so we’ve arrived at the point in this academic conversation when we both devolve into real, true fanboy/fangirl engagement — what the hell is up with that Supernatural “prequel” comic anyway? The art is horrible and the writing isn’t much better! I swear to God, I was so stoked when I found the first issue at my comic shop, but when I got it home and cracked it open I was so disappointed that I didn’t even bother to finish reading it. Ugh.
A-hem. Back to the topic at hand…
I think this is one area where my own experience as a storyteller colors my attitude towards hierarchies of canon and authorship. When I tell a story, I’m creating a group of characters, a world in which they’ll exist, and the series of events that will happen to them. I am the author of that story, and these are my creations. If someone else wants to tell a story featuring my characters, it feels like it should be up to me to determine whether or not the events they describe are actually ‘canon’ or not. If I accept those events as canon, I’m also granting that person the right to be considered an author of this narrative — literally ‘authorizing’ them. If I don’t, then I have options. I can sue, in an attempt to make sure that no one else plays with my toys, but I personally firmly believe that this is a bad way to go unless someone’s making money off of my work illegally or that they’re passing off what they’re creating as official canon. A better option is to acknowledge the existence of that story as fan fiction, and recognize that it exists in a sort of orbit around the original creation. This is where things get particularly messy — is it “equally viable as literature”, or is it permanently tainted as a ‘lesser’ creation, since that person didn’t invent that story from whole cloth? How much distance from the original creation is required for something to be considered viable as literature?
Bookstores are filled with accepted literature that openly declare themselves to be reinterpretations of a classic, but there’s still a distinct difference between Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 novel Gone with the Wind, Alexandra Ripley’s 1991 Scarlett, Alice Randall’s 1992 The Wind Done Gone, and a piece of fanfic I might post to my blog tonight featuring Scarlett making out with Darth Vader. Interestingly, while both books hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller lists, Wikipedia includes Ripley’s Scarlett, which is a direct continuation of Gone with the Wind, in the ‘fan fiction’ category and Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of the story from the point of view of the slaves, in the ‘parodies’ category. This suggests that the popular perception of both works is as ‘second-tier’ creations, despite the fact that Publisher’s Weekly referred to The Wind Done Gone as “a spirited reimagination of Mitchell’s world, dependent on its predecessor for its context but independent in form and voice”. To my mind, The Wind Done Gone is still lessened somewhat by its not being a wholly independent creation, but it is executed with enough originality and style that it can be considered viable as literature. In other words, it can stand on its own two feet. Scarlett, on the other hand, can’t make the same claim, and therefore suffers from the same drop in perceived validity as most fan fiction.
Were I Margaret Mitchell, I would most likely insist that Scarlett is an unauthorized piece of fanfic and should only be distributed via unofficial channels, but that The Wind Done Gone is different enough that it’s a sort of ‘alternate reality’ spin on my characters. I might still ask for a cut of the profits, since Randall is still using my copyrighted work as a jump-off point, but that it’s a distinct enough creation that it’s unlikely to be confused for my own stuff… Maybe. It’s a fascinating hypothetical. Regarding the Scarlett/Vader slash, I think that such a thing would be hard to take seriously unless it was done very, very, very, very well. (Bonus points to the first reader who posts such a mash-up to YouTube.)
As for how transmedia narratives affect these interpretations, I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I tend to look at transmedia extensions along a primarily timeline-based set of axes, so that negative capability tends to refer to events in characters’ pasts or futures that haven’t been explored by the story yet. To my mind, most slash fiction isn’t meant to be considered in-canon, whereas transmedia narratives use negative capability to hint at events that have happened (or will happen) in-canon. In particular, most slash fiction that I’ve seen doesn’t aim to fill in chronological gaps so much as posit a kind of “What If?” re-interpretation, but I’m not at all comfortable making sweeping claims about this. What do you think?
Catherine: Oh, god, if we’re going to talk about the comics, we’ll be here till next MONTH at least. So I shall wrench myself away and ask, devolve? I’m usually in that headspace of fangirl enthusiasm, only changing my language to reflect the audience and circumstances; or maybe that’s just my excuse for sticking a, well, “discussion” might be overstating it, but a something about “Luscious” Malfoy and his pimp cane into my dissertation. Pimp canes aside, I’m uncomfortable with drawing a strict demarcation between “academic” responses and “fannish” responses, because at least for me, they’re really not all that different — I respond intellectually *and* emotionally *and* libidinally *and* et cetera to things I’m interested in; as I said, the issue is one of language, and the context in which I use that language — I pretty freely mix up stereotypically “academic” and “fannish” modes of discourse in both settings, usually unconsciously. (My academic writing has been criticized for being flippant, but I don’t think that has anything to do with some kind of “inappropriate” leakage of fan discourse; my non-fannish dissertation director has a similar style, which means he doesn’t stop me when I do it.) And I really wonder if we can even talk about fannish discourse as if it’s a coherent thing — there’s the stereotype of pure emotionalism, sure, but intellectual engagement is as much a part of fandom as lustful/geekish squeeing. Fan discourse contains multitudes of acceptable dicourses, and the ratio of analysis to squee (or whatever) is determined by context and the individual fan.
As for issues of authorship and ownership, I am a hardcore reader-response person: if you want interpretive control over something, don’t ever let anyone else see it. I think creators, as creators, get to determine what specific texts count as Official, but beyond that, very little. They create the planet, and get to decide what stuff is officially on the planet, but don’t get to decide what others *think* of that planet, or from imagining all kinds of things about the planet. Once that text goes out into the world, other people get their grubby little minds all over it, and the creator loses interpretive control. As for how much weight I give a creator’s reading of the text — the creator is exceptionally well-informed, but that doesn’t mean that her reading is the only one, or even the “best” one, whatever that means. I’m a storyteller too, and for me, the inevitable ceding of control does cause me anxiety, but it’s also one of the most exciting parts of the whole process.
As for the concept of “lesser” creations, to my mind, you picked some not-very-good examples — never mind Gone With the Wind, there are backs of cereal boxes superior to Scarlett! More seriously, I think it’s interesting that your examples were a sequel and a parody, neither of which are really representative of the bulk of fanfic — fanfic can certainly be a sequel or a parody, but many fans don’t tend to present their work that way.
And you also named them as “interpretations” — what’s fanfic, then? Geraldine Brooks’ March, which just won the Pulitzer, follows the exploits of a minor character in a pre-existing work, which is a classic fanfictional setup. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked is villain-rehabilitation that would do a Draco fan proud. But then, I think “Sirius and Remus should totally be doing it” is an interpretation of the Potter texts — whether the author frames it as a reading of Rowling’s canon or as simply a setup for a story.
Also, Scarlett/Vader ain’t slash unless one of them gets a sex change, through whatever means you desire — slash is homoerotic romance. (I totally want to see that YouTube video, though!)
Whether it fills in chronological gaps depends on the writer, the story, the pairing, the fandom, etc. Slash is a HUGE category, and the only narrative constant is that it features a romance between two characters of the same gender. I know misapprehension of slash as practiced by female fans isn’t, like, a generally or exclusive fanboy thing, but Will Brooker said a few days ago that he thinks of slash as being primarily about the writing — his comment was, “By that logic, maybe someone who reads a lot of novels is a novelist; but OK.” And that is in complete opposition to the way a lot of slashers understand themselves — slash is about writing, but it’s also about reading, of the text and of the slash fanfic. Slash fans who don’t write fic are still “slashers,” because they’re still reading the text in a slashy way, and thinking and talking about it, and reading the fanfic. I think the engagement with fanfictional interpretations of the text is what distinguishes a slashy reading from a plain “queer” reading, though the two readings might look identical on the surface. As it happens, I’m both a writer and reader of slash, but I was a slasher before I wrote my first slash story.
While we’re on the subject of definitions, it’s funny how we’re approaching the category of “literature” — you’re saying, “if it meets these aesthetic criteria, it’s viable literature, even if it isn’t ‘original’” while I’m going, “Originality, of the ‘I made it up all by my lonesome!’ sort, is a seriously problematic criterion for ‘viable literature.’” Forgive me if I’m misreading you, but it sounds like you’re positing “lack of original characters” as a defect that can be compensated for by good writing, yes?
My position is completely different — I think the use of other people’s characters, etc. can be a source of artistic strength, and enables writers to engage in particular artistic moves, and create artistic effects, that are difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish in “original” fiction. For example, recursive/archontic/fanfictional lit lends itself to feats of compression that would be impossible in a non-recursive text: a line in a Harry Potter story as seemingly innocuous as “Ginny was keeping a diary again,” conveys, to a clued-in reader, an entire *world* of ominousness that would take a writer of original fiction a much longer time to set up. I quoted Sheenagh Pugh, earlier, who talks about the possibility for “shorthand, allusion, and irony” in fanfictional texts; it’s not like original fiction doesn’t make use of those, but you can use them *differently* when you know your audience knows the text you’re responding to. It’s the most extreme form of intertextuality — all literature refers to other literature, nothing exists in a vacuum — and fully exploits all the possibilities afforded by a knowledgeable audience. What do you think? Aside from the fact that we both need to stop ending our screeds with that phrase?