Part One at Henry Jenkins's Blog
Part Two at Henry Jenkins's Blog
Introducing Our Protagonists
Geoffrey: Hi, I'm Geoffrey Long, and I recently completed my Master's degree from the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. Back in 2003 I read this article in the Technology Review about something called transmedia storytelling, written by some guy named Henry Jenkins. The piece really resonated with me, so I sent Henry an email to ask him some more about it -- never imagining that the resulting conversation would last for over four years and culminate in Henry being the advisor for my Master's thesis, which wound up being about, surprise surprise, transmedia storytelling.
For anyone who hasn't read Convergence Culture yet, transmedia storytelling is the crafting of a narrative that spans multiple media types. Chapter one might be told in a book, chapter two might unfold in a film, chapter three might be done as a video game, and so on. Telling a character's adventures in multiple media is nothing new, but until recently most cross-media storytelling was done either as adaptation or as franchising, and most of these extensions weren't considered officially in canon. Contemporary transmedia storytellers like the Wachowski Brothers or Joss Whedon are telling stories that were designed from the start as cross-media narratives, and are deliberately taking advantage of the strengths of each media type to enrich each project. The Enter the Matrix video game, for example, wasn't created just as a cheap grab for more money but as an actual chapter in the larger narrative of The Matrix, and the second and third Matrix films only truly made sense if you'd played the video game.
That's a complex example, but simpler ones can be just as rewarding: earlier this year Joss Whedon resuscitated his extremely popular Buffyverse with a new 'Season Eight' being told in comics. Whedon was excited not only to return to his characters, but to take advantage of the unlimited special effects budget afforded by comics; fans were excited because while there had been Buffy comics before, they hadn't been written by Whedon and weren't considered to be official canon.
Obviously, this distinction between canon and non-canon storytelling is an area rich with potential for academics interested in fan fiction and fan culture, but my thesis focused on how stories designed for transmedia expansion differ structurally from 'stand-alone' narratives. In my thesis I examined a number of narratives that gave rise to transmedia franchises, from the Jim Henson films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to Star Wars, Firefly, Hellboy, Final Fantasy and so on. What I found is that most of these stories made excellent use of what the poet John Keats' called 'negative capability,' which he defined as the capacity for "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". In a narrative context, 'negative capability' can mean the reference to characters, events, or places that exist outside of the story, and rely on the imaginations of the audience to fill in the gaps until the author can return to those 'seeds' for later extensions. Examples of this include the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and the fall of the Jedi in the original Star Wars trilogy: although Lucas only made passing references to these events, they took root in the minds of fans and created a rich mythology for hundreds of comics, books, games, TV shows, toys, and so on to explore until Lucas returned to tell their story in the prequels. In a way, these types of stories are what Roland Barthes might call more 'writerly' texts than more purely 'readerly' texts, which don't leave nearly as much room for fans to flesh out the worlds themselves.
I didn't really get into it in my thesis, but I'm extremely curious about how fans' expectations, contributions, and passions concerning these stories can be embraced, not ignored or, as is all too often the case, largely derided, and I'm also curious about what role, if any, gender plays in how fans engage with this type of text. Do women concentrate on the personal history of characters while men focus on the history of the world? Are men more concerned with canon and authorship, while women have a more fluid attitude towards those factors? That sort of thing.
Catherine: Hi, I'm Catherine Tosenberger. I have an MA in English (folklore) from Ohio State University, and as of this August, a PhD. in English (children's literature and folklore) from the University of Florida; just last month, I defended my dissertation on Harry Potter fanfiction on the Internet. I had always been plagued with the desire to know more, more, more about my favorite characters and texts -- it's the reason I went to grad school in the first place -- but I didn't discover actual fanfic until 1999. I was a terribly vanilla Mulder/Scully shipper in those days, and read primarily as a respite from school. When I started my doctoral work, I initially planned to write my dissertation on fairy tales retold for young adults; I was still reading fanfiction -- I'd since passed through Homicide: Life on the Street and popslash, and had alighted in Harry Potter -- and mentioned this to my dissertation director, who encouraged me to write about fanfic instead.
I'm especially interested in fanfiction's connections to broader literary discourses, both in general and in specific fandoms; for example, how does Harry Potter's status as a text originally published for children affect the types of fanfiction written, and the various responses to that fanfic within the fannish community? I get very excited about the fanfictional idiosyncracies of different fandoms -- how fanfictional trends happen, which genres become mainstreamed or marginalized, and so forth. My current fannish obsession, Supernatural, is particularly interesting in this regard, because its two dominant genres -- incest narratives and gen fic -- are often minority tastes in other fandoms.
The first thing I'd like to address, Geoff, is your concept of "negative capability" as applied to fanfiction. I think it's really interesting that you picked a term with such impeccable Western Literary Canon credentials to apply to the activities of fans, because it suggests that fanfiction is not some kind of freakish, marginal activity that bears no relationship to what we think of as "real" literature. That's something I'm very sympathetic to; while I love and appreciate that fanfic operates out of a specific community context -- as I mentioned above, the micro-level development of fanfictional literature within specific fandoms is a big hobbyhorse of mine -- but I think it's very important to recognize fanfiction as something that does not exist in isolation from literature as a whole.
As Joli Jensen points out, there's a strong tendency to posit texts which acquire fandoms as *lacking* in some way, and the activities of fans as supplements to texts that are fundamentally inadequate, which has a great deal to do not only with the hierarchizing of genre, but also acts as a commentary on the types of people -- fans -- perceived to engage in such activities. Jensen talks about the "aficionado"/"fan" divide, not just in terms of the texts fixated upon -- "aficionados" choose texts of high cultural capital to devote their energies to, while fans scrape the bottom of the barrel -- but also the manner in which each group responds to the chosen text: aficionados respect the authority of the original author, while fans get rowdy and stake their own claims on the text and characters. What Jensen doesn't say is that there is an enormous amount of literary precedent for exactly that kind of claim-staking, for texts both high and low. And that claim-staking isn't just limited to texts that "belong" to everyone, such as the Odyssey or Arthurian legends, but also to texts produced after modern ideas of authorial ownership come into being -- for example, David Brewer talks about the roughly eighty gazillion "unauthorized sequels" produced, in the eighteenth century, to works such as Gulliver's Travelsand The Beggar's Opera, and explicitly links those to modern fanfiction. You can also add all those 19th-century "alternative" Alice in Wonderlands; every Sherlock Holmes pastiche ever produced; Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea; Maguire's Wicked; Naslund's Ahab's Wife; Rawles's My Jim; Randall's The Wind Done Gone; Brooks's Pulitzer-Prize Winning March; and on and on and on.
Anyway, I think that concept of negative capability is an interesting way into some of these issues, since it talks about "gaps" in texts not in terms of *lack* -- with all the value judgments that implies -- but in terms of *possibilities*. It doesn't pathologize fans as deviants interacting in bizarre and unhealthy ways with inadequate texts, but articulates fans as belonging to a tradition of artistic innovation through explorations of pre-existing texts, both high and low. I think the insistence that fandom is an activity marked by its focus upon "inadequate" texts reifies the ghettoization of genre fiction, cuts off fanfiction from broader literary concerns, and renders fannish activities surrounding "highbrow" texts (such as Jane Austen's works) invisible.
Gender plays a *huge* part in these hierarchies, of course; most fanfiction is written by women, and if one paints the fanfictional impulse as somehow divorced from literature as a whole, it plays into misogynistic genre hierarchies; it's no accident that romance, which is written by and for women, is the most vilified of mainstream genres. I think fanfictional writing has enormous liberatory potential, not just for women, but also for queer folk, young people, and any anyone not plugged into the cultural elite; but I also think that exploiting the negative capability of texts needs to be understood as something that isn't *new*, but can be harnessed in new ways.
Geoffrey: I totally agree with you, and I think that you put your finger on something problematic about gender in fandom. If we consider those eighty gazillion unauthorized sequels 'fanfic', then it seems that we can no longer assert that "most fanfiction is written by women". Is that a direction that you think we want to go, as academics?
Unauthorized, Unpublishable, Unauthored?
Catherine: This is why I think it's important to articulate fanfiction's relationship to literature as a whole -- recognizing the fact that this does have a literary pedigree, but not subsuming it under the rubric of general literature without making what is unique about fanfiction clear. I agree with Abigail Derecho's approach: she identifies a category of literature, that she calls "archontic" (a term I find problematic for a number of reasons -- I prefer "recursive," and can elaborate on that if necessary), which consists of any literary text which makes extensive use of identifiable characters and plots from a specific pre-existing source that is meant to be recognized as such. That category includes all those literary works I listed above, and fanfiction. For me, the chief differentiation between fanfic and those texts is not what kinds of source texts they write from, but the *means of distribution*: fanfiction is any literary text which makes extensive use of identifiable characters and plots from a specific pre-existing source that is meant to be recognized as such *that circulates unofficially* -- that is, outside the realm of commercial publication.
Because fanfiction circulates unofficially, it isn't bound by the conventions and limitations of institutionalized publishing. And that's a big deal; it allows people to stake claims over texts that they wouldn't normally be allowed to if they wanted to publish, and frees them to tell the stories they want to tell. You can do things in fanfiction that would be difficult or impossible to do in fiction intended for commercial publication, such as experiments with form and subject matter that don't fit with prevailing tastes. This freedom is especially felt in representations of romantic and sexual relationships -- and this is a major reason, I think, why women, queer folk, and young people have found fanfic so appealing, because these are all groups whose sexual expressions have been heavily policed. It's a way of asserting rights of interpretation over texts that may be patriarchal, heteronormative, and/or contain only adult-approved representations of children and teenagers.
Freedom from standards dictated by particular mediums, and the issue of who has access to each of those mediums, seems to me to be a huge factor in transmedia storytelling; do you see anything like this going on?
Geoffrey: To me, the primary shared issue of transmedia storytelling and fanfic is the idea of canon -- and I don't mean that in the 'literary canon' sense of the term, but in the 'canonical continuity' sense. As I mentioned earlier, what sets Whedon's new Season Eight of Buffy comics apart from earlier Buffy comics is how events in the new S8 comics are very clearly and deliberately declared to be canonical. They are a continuation of the larger story of the Buffyverse -- and if the Scoobies were to return to television or film in the future, the characters would, could and arguably should make reference to events that occurred in this new series of comics. The events depicted in the other comics, such as the Tales of the Slayer and Fray, exist in a kind of 'alternate universe', and may or may not have any real impact on the 'canonical' Buffyverse.
George Lucas handles this in an interesting way with the Star Wars universe. He establishes multiple degrees of canon -- so that anything that happens in his films are de facto "hard and fast" canon. One step beyond that is a second degree of canon, which includes the animated Clone Wars miniseries and the two TV series currently in production. Beyond that is what Lucas calls the "Expanded Universe", which has to go through the Lucas empire for authorization before it can be officially released; this includes things like the Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire trilogy and a number of the comics currently being published by Dark Horse. The events that occur in the Expanded Universe give George the right to 'pick and choose' what he wants to accept into official canon by incorporating it into future films or TV shows -- so it has the potential to become canon, but isn't truly official canon... yet. Beyond that lies further degrees of expansion, which might include things like the Marvel comics that were published in the 1980s, and even further out lies the unauthorized expansions, which simply aren't canon at all. I think this is where fanfic falls in the hierarchy. (Please keep in mind that I'm merely a fan of Star Wars and not a hardcore Star Wars geek, so folks should feel free to post in the comments here about how I'm getting the whole Expanded Universe/Star Wars Holiday Special thing wrong; I promise to take your advice to heart and improve in future articles.)
Do the fans have a right to stake a claim on the Star Wars universe? Do 'women, queer folk and young people' have a right to interpretation of the Star Wars universe, up to and including really kinky S&M slash fiction featuring Luke, Han, Jabba the Hutt and a crowd of cheering Jawas? Probably -- but just as how these degrees of canon are set up to keep the continuity of these stories clear, degrees of authorship and authorization are also required. The unauthorized are, in effect, unauthored -- which, as you noted, requires it to circulate unofficially.
Getting back to transmedia storytelling, I think it's this issue of canon and authorship that determines whether or not something qualifies as a transmedia narrative. I can't make a film sequel to Romeo and Juliet ("The Capulets Strike Back!") and call Romeo and Juliet a transmedia narrative, because I'm not "authorized" to do so. A transmedia narrative isn't a transmedia narrative unless the whole thing is authorized and canonical; that's what makes transmedia narratives new and exciting.
The examples I give here are mostly straight white guys, but I could just as easily create a comic book to serve as a sequel to any given work by Chinua Achebe, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, Nora Ephron, etc., and the same reasoning would apply. The question in my mind concerns this hierarchy of canon and rights to authorship, but I'm uncertain as to whether or not gender enters into this. Some proponents of fanfic seem to declare that anyone has the right to write anything about any character invented by anyone and the results should all be considered equally viable as literature, thus obliterating the hierarchy of authorship and canon, but this seems problematic for all sorts of reasons. What do you think?
Catherine: Well, I do believe that anybody should be able to write about any character and have it considered equally viable as literature. What do you mean by "unauthored"? But I'm in full agreement with you that it needs to have the Official Creator Stamp of Approval for it to become *canon*. And this is where we get into some interesting issues, because creator-approval/authorization is what makes a specific item -- a book, a comic, a film, whatever -- part of the official canon, but when it comes to what, exactly, those agreed-upon-as-canonical texts/comics/games/films are actually saying, especially about nuances of character and relationships... well, that's up in the air. As Mafalda Stasi puts it, "beyond the bare factual minimum, canon constitution and interpretation are a highly debated and controversial critical activity in the fannish milieu." What's canon, what's "fanon," what's a "viable" interpretation? Are House and Wilson/Sam and Dean/Remus and Sirius harboring a Secret Passion for one another? And that issue of canon/fanon isn't confined to fandom, even though the terms are fannish: Is Satan the "real" hero of Paradise Lost? What I find interesting is that, in fandom, the discourse of canon-interpretation and argumentation often includes appeals to authorial intent: the producer says House/Wilson is always a possibility! One of Supernatural's major writers calls the show "The Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean," which means Wincest is (possibly) totally canon! (I am RESISTING making some lame crack about being of the Wincest party without knowing it... damn.) And I think those appeals to creators' authority aren't because those silly fans don't know that we've moved on from the intentional fallacy, but are part of that complex negotiation of claim-staking that happens when you're writing someone else's characters. How do you think transmedia storytelling affects those interpretations? (She says, looking at the Supernatural comics where I know that guy is Dean because Sam keeps calling him that; when did he become a blond?)
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?
Fan Fiction as Literature?
Geoffrey: First, a giant 'mea culpa' regarding some of the things in my last email. For starters, my using 'slash' to describe a hetero hook-up was a big smack-your-head "duh, I knew that" moment. (I have officially revealed my outsider/n00b status in fanfic studies. Curses!) Also, to clarify, by 'devolve into real, true fanboy/fangirl engagement' I only meant shifting into more casual language and analysis instead of the more highfalutin' "academic" language. I share your attitude towards academic writing -- as Henry will certainly attest, the majority of my thesis was written as playfully and as casually as I could get away with...
As for the rest, you're right -- I could have picked better examples, and I could have made my case more clearly. Again, mea culpa! I'm having trouble putting my finger on what exactly it would take to make a piece of fanfic considered 'literature' in the popular sense -- not just to have fanfic as a form be recognized as having the potential to be literature, or to have a piece of already-qualified literature be understood as fanfic (as with March, which has now been added to my to-read pile, thanks for that), but to have a piece of Harry Potter fanfic be declared literature.
I'm wondering if the use of existing characters, especially contemporary characters, might prove problematic in the same way that Warhol's use of a can of soup, or Duchamp's use of a urinal, renders those works problematic to a certain audience. Some audiences completely accept those pieces as art, but others will never consider them to be of the same caliber as the Mona Lisa because of their unorthodox origins. Is that the distinction that makes it problematic? The 'quality' of the source material? Would fanfic about Jesus or the characters from Little Women be more widely accepted as viable literature than fanfic about Draco or the Winchesters?
I'm also struggling to figure out where something like Arkham Asylum fits into this. Arkham Asylum is, after all, "just" a Batman story, but the style and quality of its art and its language seem to make it more viable for consideration as art. It's not fanfic, of course, but it does use existing characters, so that might help us narrow this down a bit. What do you think?
Catherine: Since we're talking language, I have my own mea culpa: I should have clarified that I tend to use "literature" in a very broad "written prose, poetry, and drama" sense (and yes I know that's vague), and not as a term that marks artistic quality (i.e., "This isn't just a romance novel, it's literature!" -- a statement that makes me want to throw things). For me, fanfiction *is* literature -- it's written fiction -- that's not commercially published. I can see why there are those connotations, though; commercial publication lends such an aura of... respectability. It's been vetted by somebody, somewhere, who decided that *this* story was fit to sell. But "possibly commercially successful" and "aesthetically successful" are not the same thing. But the thing is, just because fanfiction hasn't -- and often can't, when we're talking about fanfic for in-copyright texts -- be commercially published, that doesn't mean it somehow isn't literature, and has no chance of being *good* literature, at that. All those recursive/archontic texts we've listed that have been commercially published are recursive to source texts that are a) out of copyright, and b) well-known enough to ensure a sizable clued-in audience. Also, the ones we named were all novels; while there are certainly a number of novel-length fanfics, there's an enormous amount of short stories, novellas, drabbles, even poems -- all of which are even more difficult to sell, even if they could be published.
There's also the fact that fanfiction is often not just responding to the source text, but to the *fandom* -- the conglomeration of fanfic, canon discussion, fanfiction critique, squee, character-bashing, and so on, that makes up the discourse of a fandom. Kristina will love me for this: a lot -- not all, but a lot -- of fanfiction is so deeply embedded within its particular community context that it's difficult or impossible to really understand it without *also* being embedded in that context. Therefore, a lot of fanfic can't be published because it appeals to a far too specific niche audience, sometimes one that only consists of only a few people, to risk commercial publication.
The audience for Supernatural is enough to support, say, a gen tie-in novel, but what about the audience for explicit Wincest? But just because it's "unpublishable" doesn't make it "bad literature," or, to my mind, "not literature at all." And it's not that published literature *doesn't* appeal to highly specific forms of cultural literacy: genre fiction is an obvious example, but so is, say, Joyce, for whom there's an entire cottage industry churning out guides to Ulysses ("first, read the Odyssey"). It's just there are certain forms that publishers are willing and able to gamble on, and a lot of fanfiction isn't it -- but that doesn't make it *bad*.
Geoffrey: Well, yeah, under that definition, sure, fanfic is literature! I'm glad you went into the concept of traditional publishing as a vetting process, since that was something that I really wanted to address. As you noted, all too often the 'traditional publishing process' simply fails to meet the interests of the reading public, for various reasons.
A lot of the time, a written piece of work is declined by a publisher not because it's particularly poorly written, but because the publisher doesn't perceive a market for it -- and, of course, this is in no way restricted to just TV shows. I think fanfic tends to get a bad rap because a casual fan might wander into a fanfic site, read some slash fiction and run screaming, or read a particularly silly piece of fanfic and not take the rest seriously. These are the fanfic sections that explore the more radical ends of the "what ifs", but what about fanfic that deliberately maintains the tone of the 'parent' text and simply fills a narrative void that whatever corporate Powers That Be simply don't view as sufficiently profitable? Obviously building a system to cater to explicit Wincest fans is tricky as hell, but if Supernatural's ratings were too low for the show to be renewed next season, how would you build a system for fanfic to officially serve as a continuation for just such a cancelled series?
Catherine: The thing is, is that I really don't know how much the idea of being "validated," as it were, by the Official Copyright Holders or whomever, is what most fans want -- or, at least, what they're aiming for. There is an enormous amount of pleasure to be had in the concept of *playing* with these characters, with this world, as a perfectly legitimate activity in and of itself; the stamp of canon approval might be nice, but it isn't *necessary*.
Fandom is a free space, in a way that commercial publishing is not, and many fans relish the freedom. This is why there are thriving online fanfic communities even for texts that are out of copyright, and therefore the fanfic *could* be published. Some fans would like to publish their fanfic, but I think it's very important to remember that not everyone in fandom is looking for that kind of "canonical support."
Geoffrey: Despite the object lessons gleaned from the widespread derision of Fanlib.com earlier on this blog, I think such a system could be developed to give fans of a property an official, legal way to share their creations -- and to give newcomers the encouragement they'd need to start. If I ever create a set of characters or a world that gains a strong fan following, after I'd told the story that I wanted to tell I'd be extremely interested in setting up a site where fans could not only write and share their own "further adventures of" stories, but perhaps have the opportunity to vote on what fan-generated stories would become canon moving forward. Can you imagine, as an author, coming back to your own creations one, three, five, ten years later and finding out what happened in your characters' lives? Further, can you imagine then having to qualify to write another story with your own characters? If Lucas had to undergo such a process before the prequels were greenlit, would we have been subjected to Jar-Jar Binks? How long would Jar-Jar survive in a democratically-determined Star Wars canon?
A similar situation actually happened to the Wachowski Brothers when The Matrix MMO went online. During the course of the game, a bunch of players managed to orchestrate the death of Morpheus. Under the "old rules", creators might have rebooted the server, ignored the event, or, as in the case of the assassination of Lord British in Ultima Online, banned the players responsible. The Wachowskis, however, were intrigued by this turn of events and simply made it canon. What would happen if that sort of attitude were more widespread? Would the generation, evaluation, and incorporation of fan contributions into narrative canon in effect become a plausible model for interactive narratives, and would we, as audiences, be willing to subject ourselves to this sort of "WikiFic"?
Catherine: I don't know - while I think, in theory, that that kind of collaborative world-building is cool, I have serious doubts about the way it would work in practice; I think institutionalizing the fanfic, holding the bone out to fans that their stories, if they're *really special*, might become canon is a way of shutting down creativity, because then everyone's competing to be Prom Queen. Not that fandom is all sunshine and daisies until a creator starts meddling, and there's certainly some jockeying for closeness to the creators in some segments of fandom, but. Something like that would really narrow down all that lovely negative capability that gives fanfic writers their space to work. Everyone loves seeing their pet theories/interpretations validated by canon, but not all fans are comfortable with the concept of that much cross-pollination between creators and fandom: some people have very strong views that canon is Their Space, and fandom is Our Space.
I think that's an extreme position to take; especially since, in genres that are known for accruing fandoms, like sci-fi and fantasy, lots of creators were participants in fandom before creating new material. I also think it's ridiculous to pretend that stories posted on the Internet for public consumption are somehow magically invisible to creators - and fandom is way too useful to creators, if they want to gauge how the most dedicated segment of their audience is actually responding to the show/book/etc. However, I do think the Their Space/Our Space people have a good point - things can get ugly in cases where there's lots of creator/fan interaction, especially when the creator objects to certain types of fan stories being told. It all depends on the circumstances, and the individual creators involved; I wouldn't want to posit your setup as some kind of ideal model. Even shoutouts in canon to fans skeeves some folks out. It depends on the fandom, the creators, the individual fans.
Anyway, it can be fun to see those nods, but it isn't necessary. Even if there were no shoutouts, people would still be writing the Harry/Draco or Buffy/Giles or Cuddy/Cameron, because they can and want to. In Harry Potter, people write EPICS about characters whose only appearance is in a list of names at Sorting Time. Fans don't *need* validation from the creators to produce their stuff - again, it's nice when your favorite character or ship or theory plays the way you want it to in canon, but *not* getting what you want from canon has yet to stop fans - that's often a motivating factor for fanfic in the first place!
Isn't that the whole point of negative capability -- that there are possibilities that aren't being explicitly addressed? "Wikific" - great term - could be a fun idea for some people in some circumstances, but I think trying to make that the norm would, essentially, cut fanfic off at the knees by robbing it of its anarchic power. And when you factor in that fanfic is primarily written by women, and companies that distribute creators' material are still dominated by men, even if an individual text isn't male-centered or produced - well, it makes getting co-opted by the Man uncomfortably literal.
Geoffrey: All excellent points, especially the bits about the phantom stories of VC Andrews. When I was a kid I loved the Hardy Boys mysteries, and I was shattered when I discovered that Franklin W. Dixon had not actually written hundreds of stories of Frank and Joe over the better part of a century. (There's a story right there -- the epic tale of an immortal children's adventure-book writer... Hob Gadling maintaining the same pseudonym for 500 years -- ONLY HIS PUBLISHER KNOWS... Hmm...)
I suppose, at the end of the day, what it all boils down to for me is the impossible cat-herding of getting everyone to agree on what degree of validation fanfic needs, or even wants. The camp that feels that any story set to paper (or screen or whatever) is equally valid as literature understandably screams, "Validation? We don't need no steenkin' validation!" These firebrands have a more punk, DIY mentality towards the creation of fanfic, and that's cool. Where I think we run into trouble is when this group gets aggregated with another, more traditional camp that wants to see fanfic considered as not just literature, but valid candidates for Literature, wants to see the integration of fanon into canon, and so on. I still think this latter camp faces the same challenges as Warhol's soup cans due to the popular shift in mindset required; just as the public struggled to accept Pop Art as Art, this camp faces an uphill battle getting fanfic accepted not as derivative literature but as Literature.
Personally, I have a foot in both camps -- I think that, just like comics, fanfic should be considered as literature, but in order for it to transcend literature and achieve Literature, the key is going to be artful execution and style, as is seen in March---- -or The Wind Done Gone. This, of course, teeters on the edge of the same intellectual wankery that's plagued Art and Literature and so on for years... Is fandom as a whole willing to surrender its punk respectability in exchange for consideration as Literature?
I think fandom should abandon this whole attempt to achieve acceptance and let its freak flag fly -- do its own thing, celebrate its independence and free-for-all mentality and focus on creating the greatest, craziest, most imaginative, most fulfilling, and just plain best work that it possibly can, and then force academia to recognize that as undeniably Art or Literature or whatever. That worked for Art Spiegelman and Maus, for Neil Gaiman and Sandman, and video games are trending that way with things like Myst, Shadow of the Colossus and even the Columbine game that got banned from the festivals.
As for negative capability, I think the fun is in filling in the gaps as a reader with your own imagination, and then seeing how closely the author's eventual revelations resemble your guesses. The desire to find that out drives further consumption and exploration of the author's work, which is both entertaining for the audience (minus missteps like midichlorians, of course) and fiscally rewarding for the author. I think the trouble that fanfic poses for this model isn't the sharing of these audience-generated guesses, hypotheses and explorations, but the attempt to obliterate the elevation of the author's position, of canon. If my story about how Draco Malfoy meets his death at Harry's hands is considered of equal value to where J. K. Rowling takes the story, then this 'game' loses its 'win' condition. It's more democratic, perhaps, but personally speaking I'd be really sad to lose that enjoyment -- and, as someone who has always wanted to be a storyteller, I think losing the elevated status of 'authorship' would be a sad thing indeed.
Finally, as for gender... Is my way of thinking about fandom and negative capability inherently colored by the fact that my reproductive organs are on the outside instead of the inside? Is my preference for stories that fill in the gaps about events, characters or places over stories that fill in the gaps about interpersonal relationships and contingencies somehow imprinted on the same strands of my DNA that make my arms and chest furry, or imprinted on my brain by the same social structures that taught me to wear black T-shirts and jeans instead of sundresses and flip-flops on the weekends? I honestly don't know. It's a fascinating, complicated and dangerous area of thought.
What I do know is that I'm a feminist, but I'm also a straight white guy. I'd like to sign off by asking that people remember to consider whether the gender-based assertions flying around the room mightn't be just as sexist as the systems they're railing against. Personally, what I'd like to see is a race- and gender-blind meritocracy, but I'm enough of a realist to realize that may be unattainable. Still, people should never be denied opportunities or respect just because they're female, because they're African- -American, because they're Asian, because they're overweight, because they're underweight, because they're redheads, because they're blonde, because they're Catholic, because they're Wiccan, because they're homosexual, because they're heterosexual, because they're male, because they're Caucasian, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. When we consider gender in fan studies, we all too often run the risk of making grand statements like "fanfic is written by women and the system is dominated by men, so this is clearly a case of The Man keeping womyn down", which makes us straight white guys cringe, no matter whose 'camp' we're in. As is everything everywhere, life is just more complicated than such oversimplifications can accurately represent ? and, at the end of the day, no one likes to feel like they're being reduced to an Other.
Catherine: I am totally punk rock, man. The do-it-your-own-damn-self mentality of fandom is its greatest strength, and the source of its freedom. But the thing is, I *don't* think that's incompatible with capital-l Literature at all; maybe it's because my background is in folklore, but I see absolutely no reason why institutional approval should function as some kind of prerequisite for serious consideration of something as a "legitimate" work of art. And the reason I keep harping on Respectable Literary Precedent for fanfic is to show that hey, using other people's characters is *already* something that capital-L literature does, and has been doing for a long time; therefore, it's disingenuous to try and keep fanfic out of consideration in those aesthetic wankery stakes. Because there is a lot of seriously good fanfic out there, and the writers deserve to be recognized as the artists they are.
And while it's nice to wish for a happy idealistic future where everyone sings "Up With People," I think it's extremely important to pay attention to issues of gender, race, class, sexuality -- all of these have affected who has ACCESS to that institutional approval that we've been tossing around. Fandom is a space where people who have historically been denied access to institutional narrative creation have said, "Well, then, we'll tell this story OUR WAY."
That's not to say that every single instance of fanfic is motivated by sticking it to the Man -- it is FAN fiction, after all. But the collective impact of fandom is forcing us to reassess what we mean when we talk about "authorial ownership," and who gets to benefit from that. The Internet has exacerbated fandom's anarchic tendencies, and all those old cultural hierarchies -- creator/consumer, male/female, straight/queer, art/crap -- are getting shaken up. And they have to be.
In fandom, you don't have to be anointed by the Official Culture Industry to be an artist, to share your work and have it be appreciated. You don't have to passively accept the stories you're being told, but can take them and play with them in your own way. People have been doing that for a long, long time, but the only stuff we ever got to see was that of the cultural elites, who were allowed to distribute their work for reasons not entirely based on aesthetic merit. Now, *you* get to show your stuff, too. And while I think there's nothing wrong with wanting to plug yourself into Officialdom, the point about fandom is that you don't have to, and a lot of the time, you can't. And that can be a position of strength and freedom, and that's something that should be celebrated.