the id of writing 02.01.2008, 10:15 AM
posted by sebastian mary
The intensely homoerotic Buffy and Faith storyline in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was developed partly as a direct response to fanfic writers' interpretations of the show in this light
As an undergraduate I read English Language and Literature at one of the oldest and most traditional universities in the world. Even the non-canonical texts came from a canon of the non-canonical - hence, by definition, whatever our course declared to be literature, ipso facto, was such. Recently, though, in the course of our Arts Council research I've browsed a fair amount of creative writing online - and found myself increasingly unsure about notions of the canonical or literary in the context of the net.
In search of some perspective, I met up with Roz Kaveney, an expert on one type of creative writing both quintessentially internet-based, and also quintessentially non-'literary'. Fanfic - or fan fiction - is any story written using the characters, settings and conventions of a fictional universe - 'fandom' - such as that of Star Trek.
I learned from Roz that fanfic proper appeared with the Trekkies. The internet made it a mass phenomenon, as fans took advantage of low digital barriers to self-publication to evolve this new way of engaging with a fictional world. These days, while keen fanfic writers maintain their own archives, Livejournal is the hub of fan activity. Across the net, fans of particular shows, characters or fandoms gravitate in online communities, share work, commission stories about particular fandoms or pairings in 'ficathons', proof-read and critique one another's stories and collaboratively generate massive archives of often elaborate, imaginative, well-written - and sometimes disturbing - narratives inspired by existing fictional universes.
Fanfic works through peer-to-peer commissioning and editing, and repurposing of others' imaginative works as the springboard for its own 'transformative' endeavors. And this collaborative and (by the standards to which the 'literary' tradition of writing holds itself) 'derivative' nature contrasts intriguingly with the fixation on originality so inseparable from literary fiction. This fixation with originality and identifiable authorship is, in turn, inseparable from the economics that have underpinned the print industry for the last three centuries.
So, predictably, in this world of fanfic money is something of a contested issue. Keen to avoid rocking the copyright boat and alienate the creators of the fandoms they love, fanfic writers self-police strictly: attempting to monetize your work is frowned upon. "Printing out a few copies for friends is one thing," Roz says, "but flogging your work at conventions just isn't done." Rather, it recalls Chris Anderson et al's theories of the internet as a peer-to-peer economy of abundance. Fans write it because they love the fandoms, identify with particular characters, and enjoy exchanging these nuggets of narrative passion with others of the same persuasion. Stories become transactional units in a gift economy driven by the ludic desire to requite a free gift of pleasure with a return in kind.
If the literary is the critical and isolationist superego of writing, then, fanfic is the id: messy, pleasure-driven, reluctant to censor its proclivities. existing fictional universes. It's always been transgressive, genderbending, complicatedly queer. Slashfic (erotic fanfic) appeared at the same time as fanfic, and slash stories often see heterosexual fans penning homoerotic slash; any taboo can be the subject of a slash story.
I've argued elsewhere that the net follows a fairly consistent pattern not of replicating, but of inverting the tradition of the book: boundedness becomes boundlessness, authority becomes unreliable opinion, fixity becomes fluidity, physicality becomes virtuality, the presumption of universality becomes an awareness of the contextual nature of everything written there. So I did a speculative compare and contrast between the mainstream literary world and that of fanfic. And the principle seems to hold for this most popular internet writing form: take the literary world, and turn it inside-out.
Fanfic is 90-95% female, in contrast with the canon of authors I studied at college. It's often collaborative, and engages with an existing fictional universe, while - say - literary fiction is generally written by single individuals and is fixated on the idea of originality "without realising", Roz says, "how overrated this concept has been since the Romantic era". Fanfic is structured socially around a gift economy of stories, and money is frowned upon; literature writers usuall aspire to earning a living from their work. Fanfic is pleasure-oriented; literature intellectual; fanfic is non-hierarchical and networked, while literature tends towards canons.
And last, but not least, fanfic in its current state evolved online, and is impressively well-supported in that space by its communities - a stark contrast to the modest successses of more 'literary' outputs online. Perhaps, with a long tradition of print publishing, the literary world has simply not yet paid much attention to the internet, and this will change as it becomes more familiar and pervasive. Or, perhaps, more of the attributes that constitute what we think of as 'literary' content are more inseparable from meatspace than might be immediately apparent.
I'll write more about all this as our research goes on. But meanwhile this cursory glance at fan fiction invites many questions about the forms natural to the internet and to print, about the social and cultural assumptions that underpin these two, and about the implications of each for the economics and value-systems of cultural production.
Laura on February 1, 2008 2:08 PM:
These days, while keen fanfic writers maintain their own archives, Livejournal is the hub of fan activity.
I thought FanFiction.Net, with over 1 million unique US visitors a month, and Quizilla, with over 1.5 million Unique visitors a month, were the hubs for fan fiction. AdultFanFiction.Net averagers over 150,000 unique US visitors a month. MediaMiner.Org has over 65,000 unique US visitors a month. Do you have any sort of data to back up this assertation that LiveJournal is the hub? The only number I ever saw was for fandom counts, which was around 34,000, way below than the aforementioned sites. The numbers I have suggest otherwise and if you'e premising your argument based on LiveJournal, it seems easy to dismiss if you do a little research into where other parts of fandom are. Can you add clarification?
Michael B on February 6, 2008 5:47 AM:
As you say fanfic and slashfic operate in a gift economy- however I don't think this in and of itself has any ramifications on the economics of publishing. I would say its down to passive and active conceptions of culture. Fanfic is more about the writing and the participating in a community of writers than about actually reading the content. Content is read from the perspective of a practitioner and a hobbiest rather than for entertainment, information etc. Ok, so I have only a limited understanding of the world but that at least is my impression. It would, in this context, where production is key, not make sense for anyone to attempt an intervention in terms of packaging or distributing the material. The ludic element consists not so much in the reading as in writing.
I think that the read/write culture is not an innovation of the web but has existed underground since, well, since culture began. All the web does is foreground it. A few years ago I read a book on the topic- Nasa/Trek- and it described the genesis of the slashfic movement in 1960s America where bored housewives would send each other fantasies about Kirk, Spock etc. What this suggests then is that many elements of fanfic that subvert traditional associations of the book (boundedness and so on) are elements of a culture long obscured beneath mass media glare and now coming into prominence through the democratization of media initiated by the web, as opposed to being a function of the new technology.
Anyway, very much enjoyed the post.
sebastian mary on February 25, 2008 8:07 AM:
There's certainly no sense that fanfic is a threat to more 'mainstream' media - quite the opposite, it's inseparable from the mainstream, and interdependent with it. As Michael says, the pleasure is in the transaction - swapping stories, writing stories, interacting with other writers - rather than in being either the originator or else the end consumer.
@ Laura: One of the joys - and also the terrors - of tackling an area of internet culture with a strong, expert and dedicated interest group, such as fanfic or ARGs, is that when you get something wrong you'll get told.
My interest in writing about fan fiction was particularly in the way in which it appears to be everything that 'mainstream' writing is not, and in the delicate ecology that links fan fiction with the fictional universes that inspire it.
This article was more or less a paraphrase of a wide-ranging chat with Roz Kaveney about fan fiction and reflected her interest in the LiveJournal community. I imagine that, as with most things on the internet, the popularity of different spaces varies over time as users migrate and technologies change. Certainly I understand from Roz that the world of fan fiction is very balkanized, and that the eternal possibility that there could be another rich seam of writing just around every corner is part of the pleasure of being involved. But if data shows that there are more popular spaces for fan fiction then I'll defer to your expertise.
Louie on April 14, 2008 3:55 PM:
Something that strikes me as interesting when it comes to fanfiction and collaboration is that the raw material these fictions are based on are in themselves often collaborative. Buffy, for example, often gets credited entirely to Joss Whedon, but of course, he has a large staff of writer (and no doubt the odd line change from an actor?).
Staff writers on Buffy were working with raw material (basic premise, characters etc) that they did not invent - to that extent, their writing is derivative in a similar manner to fan productions. So the difference between their activities and those of fans are more to do with money and the status conferred on their work rather than the "creative" component of the activity.
After the series was cancelled and before the season 8 comics were commissioned for Buffy, quite a few "virtual seasons" sprung up, many of which operated on the same model as the show itself. There'd be one "show runner" (ie a virtual joss) and a few other writers (or sometimes many). A popular example of this is Jet Wolf's "The Chosen", and there's almost a cult of personality grown up around her.
On the site televisionwithoutpity, their fanfic discussion thread for BtVS is currently largely centred on reviewing her stuff (well, it was last time I looked). In some cases, the people who read her virtual season have started to see it as being closer to "proper" Buffy, the genuine article (in the Barton Finky sense), than season 7 of the show. So, fans sometimes operate their own rebel canon, which includes fan-productions, or excludes official parts of the fictional universe (eg people who don't accept that the comics are "canon").
Louie on April 15, 2008 5:13 AM:
Forgot to add the link to The Chosen, in case you were interested in having a read.