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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Canonising Fan Fiction

Yesterday a writer friend and I considered the relationship of literature and fan fiction, especially how they are dealt with in the Academy. Where literature ends and fan fiction begins has puzzled me for some time. I chose to write about it today because we have been discussing the new Jane Eyre mini series as Fan Fiction, and also I have been reading much on the 18th century stuggle for distinguishing 'literature' as a category. My friend and I came to a few conclusions which were not entirely satisfactory. The main distinction seems to be a legal one: if you may not publish your work for profit it is fan fiction, if you may then it is literature. We considered originality as being the arbitrating principle but that soon failed us: 'But, then Shakespeare and Virgil wrote fan fiction.' No. It seems to rely exclusively on copyright law. If that is so, would fan fiction become literature when copyright expires? (Going against the bias of the day, I do not assume fan fiction is a term of value judgement. It is evident that it is common for fan fiction to be of better quality than the original text).

The question seems relevant to me because in my reading of iterary criticism I often find myself astonished that what seem to me to be crunky fan fiction devices go undetected by academics, and in some cases are praised as strokes of genius. Anyone familiar with fan fiction will recognise the device of the 'Mary Sue' and also the tendency to be 'OOC' (out of character). The Mary Sue is a character blatantly based upon the author. This is not the same as mining autobiographical material- as Charlotte Bronte did. If Charlotte Bronte wrote a book in which a plain woman became the mistress of the Duke of Wellington, that would be a Mary Sue (especially if the woman was from Yorkshire). Imposing yourself on an existing narrative is overwhelmingly common. It gives rise to an ocean of simply bad writing, but my point is that the idea is hardly original.

And here's where I might loose my academic friends. Several novels inspired by the works of the Brontes, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, appear to fall into this category. My copy of the Norton Anthology of British Literature has a short bio of Jean Rhys in which WSS is praised for the 'brilliant imaginative act' by which Rhys turns herself into Bertha Mason. When I read this I asked myself, would I be brilliant if I made Celine Varens Canadian as I am, and gave her a backstory similar to my own experiences- I was a ballet dancer as well. My answer is no. I would be writing bad fan fiction. The work can also be seen as OOC, as neither 'Antoinette Cosway' nor her husband speak, or act in character if we assume they are Bertha Mason and Edward Rochester.

A more blatant example of Bronte fan fiction which is considered literarture is Henry Brocken (available in the sidebar). I described this work in an early post as a Bronte dream-vision. The narrator visits Ferndean during Jane's marriage to Mr Rochester and converses with her. This work lacks the Mary Sue aspect because the narrator is not usurping the role of another character in the novel. It does contain other features common to Fan Fiction: the meta-poetic dialogue. Jane Eyre speaks to the narrator, asking questions about 'what' she is. The effort is made to keep Jane in character in order to consider the impact she has had, in this case, on biotry and prejudice (Jane asks at one point if she is vain, and he says she is vain as a barrier against prejudice).

My friend and I considered why academics do not notice these hallmarks of fan fiction. We considered that fan fiction, as it exists today, can be thought of as being formalised by the 'Fanzine' culture of the 1970s. It seems likely to me that it will take some time for the form to be recognised by academics. Perhaps my generation of scholars will begin the work because 'fan fic' and 'fandom' are found everywhere in popular youth culture today.

It is not a genre, I believe, but it has definite characteristics, terminology, forms, rules, and relationships to canon. For instance, canon is not term of value judgement. Canon refers to incidents and character traits from the source material (ex. Jane leaves Rochester before the fire, Mr Rochester loves nature). A 'fic' can be written 'in canon' by carefully attempting to create an alternate narrative which can co-exist with the original. The opposite form is the 'A/U Fic' which refers to 'Alternative Universe.' In such a form, you could speculate on Jane not leaving Mr Rochester, or Rochester despising anything natural. To violate canon outside of the form of the A/U fic is a fault in style. A/U fics are generally easier to execute because there are few rules, although in the case of fics written while a series of books is being published 'in canon' works inevitable become A/U.

I am very eager to hear my reader's views on these speculations.


mysticgypsy said...

"If that is so, would fan fiction become literature when copyright expires?"

I think this seems plausible, since people are eager to dissect works done in the 'past', since it falls under the category of 'history'.

Gallivant said...

What a great article - very thoughtful, very pertinent too. Online fandom is burgeoning and fascinating in its depth and scope. I too am casting an academic eye over fandom and fan fiction - it's an important study I think, and has been neglected by the Academy. As a sidenote - do you think text-to-screen adaptation shares some characteristics with fan fiction?

Laura said...

My mum (who is also a huge fan of the book) said to me that this adaptation was like an entirely new creature.

I think this one - as others have said - could easily be classed as fan fiction because of the scenes they have added - some perhaps a little unnecessary.

ChrisV said...

This may be of marginal relevance, but I read some opinions on Dame Darcy's illustrated edition of Jane Eyre. One person really didn't like it because of the way Jane was portrayed...big eyes, lipstick,....etc. After I read the opinion, my thoughts came back to this article and how it may very well apply, to a degree, to the illustrated edition. Clearly, her rendition of Jane is her own interpretation filtered through her own drawing style. While her drawings may not be entirely accurate to the text, they do convey Jane's sadness, her innocence... Seeing as Dame Darcy is a graphic novelist, I'm wondering where illustrations might fall in the categorizations you mentioned. Can they enter the realm of fan fiction? I guess this is also a similar question to the one gallivant asks above regarding text to screen adaptations.

I can't contribute much to your discussion as I have not really read much fan fiction. I always associate it with sci fi fans as they seem to have a strong gravitation towards furthering storylines introduced by a particular book or movie. I have, however, expanded upon my initial impressions. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Cordelia-Says said...

Leaving behind the lavish fantasy of Angria - in some ways akin to fan fiction with all its emotional and imaginative ties - led to a new maturity in Charlotte Bronte's writing.

Instead of attempting to recreate elements of the aristocratic or exotic in her fiction with information gleaned from periodicals and fashionable annuals, Bronte was able to create imaginative works entirely her own.

Thank you for a thought-provoking article, Bronteana.

Anonymous said...

My question with fan fiction is more "why does crap like the Austen 'sequels' get published?"

Fan fiction is hard to judge by; i've been a ficcer since I could read and it's often hard to let the quality distinction lie. But then again, I think it suffers what all 'genre fiction' suffers- marginalism due to assumptions of quality.

More than that though, I feel that fan fiction is often a valid process and stepping stone even for professional writers. One has a world to create and an example to follow, as well as a tone or a feel to reproduce. It can do wonders for one's originality (and it can, well, not. But it's the same everywhere, right?)

I'm waiting for the day when a writer of my generation admits to having written and posted fan fiction.

Thanks for this post!

Mags said...

A lot of former fan fiction writers are starting to move into the "published" category; of course Pamela Aidan, who wrote the series about Fitzwilliam Darcy, and another is Cassandra Claire of Harry Potter fanfic fame, though her popularity (and possibly the offers to publish original work) came more from her hilarious "Very Secret Diaries of the Lord of the Rings" bits. And though I haven't formally announced it yet, I have a book (not fiction, but Jane Austen-related) coming out next year. I do think you're right, that some former fan fiction writers will move into published author status and it will become more accepted. I hope so! :-)

You might like the book "The Democratic Genre" by Sheenagh Pugh, which is an examination of fan fiction (including Austen) as a literary genre. Very interesting! Sheenagh is a poet of some renown, and a university lecturer, so the book works well as light lit-crit.

Anonymous said...

I think I shall! Thanks for the reply.

(and that's so great that you're publishing! Yay!)

On that note, I think I've read some of Cassandra Claire's stuff.

hmmm...time to dig out the old links!

Anonymous said...

hey ^) as a literature sholar myself, i agree with most of your speculations.
it also arised one question for me: should we consider all these conan the barbarian novels a funfic?
and, also, all the acclaimed siquels like "mister darcy takes a wife" or ripley's "scarlett" to be funfic as well?