Fan Fiction: The Work of Literature in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Fan fic: not for kids anymore, if it ever were.

Fan fic: not for kids anymore, if it ever were.

Even those people who do not write or read fan fiction increasingly feel its presence, especially as Internet 2.0 makes cultural consumption more interactive and less dependent on start-up capital. I sketch a few notions here about how fan fic will increasingly become a model for mainstream publishing and literature.

• Fan fiction is like Jacksonian democracy: it puts (free) work directly in front of the masses via the Internet for their appraisal. Some work sticks, some doesn’t. Publishers and literary agents can eschew untested authors and instead see what cheap/free new work gains notice and then pick up popular stories for publication and promotion (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey). Genre authors, especially, seem to be enjoying new clout. Then again, Virginia Woolf and friends basically self-published. We can all be our own snake oil merchants.

• Fan fiction operates with “community,” not “audience.” Community implies a much more stable, coherent, and interactive (if closed) entity than audience. That change has implications for authors. Some authors self-publish before they can sign a traditional deal, some self-publish after their fame has created a market that no longer requires a traditional publisher. Some authors hybridize. Yet increasingly, authors are in charge of peddling their own work. The cheapest way to do this is the Internet. The easiest reader to recruit for new work is the reader who enjoyed your last piece ten minutes ago and just has to click another link on Amazon. To keep up with the community and keep costs low, authors have to produce new work at a faster pace. Everyone gets less editorial support. Trilogies—or longer—become the norm as momentum and a familiar brand become paramount. Printing is cheap enough that we no longer have to serialize by chapter; we can do it by book.

• Meanwhile, fan fiction doesn’t just organize communities of readers; it produces new work based on reading. Authors can also expand into their own worlds with spin-offs, backstories, encyclopedias, etc. (e.g., Pottermore). I once interviewed a construction CEO who said, “We can make more money by selling more buildings, or by owning more of every building we well.” When authors use their own characters and worlds in side projects, they own more of their own buildings. They, in some sense, cut into or co-opt their own fan fiction production. Like the need for momentum and a brand, this co-option gives us trilogies but also the short story based on the cut scene, the novella based on the minor character, etc. Maybe this is Yoknapatawpha County on a grander scale, perhaps with more consistent characters cast in more multifarious genres.

• With fan fiction, nothing disappears or is left unexplored. Hence, alternate realities rather than the one we inhabit tend to become more popular for communities, as these worlds permit more manipulation and exploration while retaining a stable anchor for the community’s interests. Besides, I suspect it’s politically and socially less risky to argue about vampires or the world 20 years hence or in a different galaxy than it is to argue about what Danzig/Gdansk meant to Grass in his trilogy or what Mississippi meant to Faulkner. However, the alienation effect does not operate much despite unreal or undead aspects. “Relatability,” the fellow traveler of YOLO, seems a dominant litmus test for the reader.

So much for the sketch. Maybe I’ll go look for some crayons.

A Place in the Museum

When I hear about the latest short story or novel built from Facebook and text messages or told in Tweets, I don’t think, “Hurray! The next Sorrows of Young Werther! The next Finnegans Wake!” Instead, I think, “I probably won’t like that.” When I do stumble into things that have text-ese in them, I feel unease, and often disdain. Have I become a curmudgeon? Apparently. But why? Because, egotistically enough, I want to believe my work should belong in a museum in 50 or a 100 years, not now. I don’t want to be obsolete before I’m established.

I appreciate listening to WWOZ and SWR online and I maintain this blog, so why might digital communication and social media threaten me so? I suspect three reasons. First, I can be lazy. I’ve invested in learning about things such as the semi-colon, and I don’t want to lose the value of those skills (as, I’m sure, said many a weaver in industrializing England.) Second, I fret, rightly or wrongly, that the more time people spend on things Internet-y, the less time they spend on literature. I’ve seen this substitution among many students as well as friends, and all those studies that say we read and write more than ever before may be true but never seem to quantify the type of such reading and writing. Indeed, here is my third suspicion: the habits of such media appear to value speed in production and consumption, which would militate against certain stories and styles if no one can get past 500 words. Neil Postman has argued better than I will for the changes in reasoning and epistemology that accompany such changes in technology. Many a college class has already chipped away at the research paper in order to create space for the Internet meme as an assignment.

I want a slower, more reflective, slightly more reserved age—a world of me! It seems not to be the age in which we live. Shocking. So now I mope. When I hear about fiction that responds to the digital reality via incorporating said reality, I feel like the barbarians have gotten through the gates. Not only is literature squeezed from the outside, but it is being altered from the inside. (All those agents reading on Kindles!) Never do I feel greater sympathy for Bouguereau and all the French Academic painters than in such moments of self-pity. It’s like watching Fauvists storm the galleries while photography takes away more commissions–or Eliot slipping record players into his poems.

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Of course, it’s my task to adapt. And I probably will. After all, I do love the Pictorialists. And I’ll survive, and get over myself, and continue to look for people who make what I like, or, failing that, make stuff that I like so that I have it around to preserve in the museum of myself—which, of course, makes me more a product of my era than I may care to admit.

In concluding, I note, fan fiction seems to be emerging as the new dominant paradigm of literary production. But that’s a story for another time.

History as the Imagists’ Dream (or Cuisine of Spam)

Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, reduces the experience of the war largely to petty slights and vendettas played out among individual men, as well as the goals and fears they cling to, sometimes irrationally, often for the sake of keeping some organizing force in their lives. The main drama of the second half underscores this experience of the personally minute amid the massively incomprehensible: a patrol undertakes a mission to prove the cleverness of a general, which also gives a sergeant a chance to prove his tenacity. The patrol needlessly loses several of its members as it scouts a way to surprise the enemy while the main Japanese line simply collapses from starvation.

In Sebald’s Austerlitz, a hideous library is built in Paris atop what was once the depot for goods expropriated from the city’s Jewish population in World War II. The library is ugly, but worse, it impedes people’s access to the books, as well as to the knowledge of what lay in them or below. The eponymous Austerlitz has to fight continually against losing his memory and identity.

I doubt, however, either of these visions of the war will persist, or if they do, they will need to be recuperated by a later era. After all, World War II has become the Last Good War, when Good and Evil were clearly demarcated, when Victory was obvious and American. We consume what reinforces that image more than what challenges it—these days, for most Americans that probably means The Diary of Anne Frank, Band of Brothers, and Saving Private Ryan. Catch-22 and a Randall Jarrell poem may make the list to add another dimension: bombing missions were harrowing (though not much is heard from those on the other end of the bombs.) World War I, meanwhile, has basically settled into a few Wilfred Owens poems in most anthologies and maybe mention of Im Westen Nichts Neues and rarely, and usually in disdainful contrast, In Stahlgewittern. Why these? Because we “all know” World War I was brutal, terrifying, and senseless, a case of alliances and hubris gone awry. History persists most often as metaphor, not fact, or in what Nietzsche called its monumental form.

Meanwhile, the decision to intervene or not in Syria invokes one of two precedents: the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the 1999 bombings of the disintegrated Yugoslavia. Both incidents lose all complexity to become metaphorical shorthand: either a bad intelligence failure/boldfaced lie that should restrain us now or a successful humanitarian intervention that should have happened in 1938 already and should encourage us now.

Yes, history supposedly proceeds from tragedy to farce, but as often, it proceeds from reality to pre-packaged analogy, a sort of intellectual Spam, ready to crack open when needed, the contents already known and not particularly complex, except, perhaps, in the effort to manufacture them.

Is there simply too much to know, so we have to draw a lesson and compress reality, or can we proceed another way?